Ok, I admit it. I pictured getting off the plane 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Norway, looking up and seeing the Northern Lights dancing above me. So when that did not happen, and we were packed into a small van, riding through a snow blizzard across Finland, I started to wonder if I would ever see the lights.
We learned quite quickly that the aurora borealis is a natural phenomenon that has no timetable and is not visible every night. You can waste a lot of money and time going out on tours with little or no chance on seeing them and the tour operators are happy to take your money. They do actually try to see the lights even if that means driving a long way.
We were very excited and filled with anticipation when we booked our trip to Tromso, Norway, basically for only one reason. To see the Northern Lights.
Sure, we had camped out in the snow with the Sami people, had taken the obligatory reindeer ride and ate salmon for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and those were all great. But that was not the reason we were here. We were here to see the Northern Lights and Tromso was supposed to be one of the best places to experience them in the world.
So what were we doing wrong?
Arriving in Tromso
We flew from Miami to Tromso on Norwegian Air and actually fell in love with Norwegian Air as it was inexpensive and provided a great service. Utilizing the cheap fare calendar, we booked our flights for early February and after a non-eventful flight (the kind we like), we landed in Tromso. Tromso is almost 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, but because of the jet stream is actually warmer than most areas at that latitude.
Tromso is a thriving, vibrant city of almost 65,000 people. But be aware, though it is milder than most places at that latitude, it still is cold, windy and snowy. But it is a charming town and the vibe is very up-scale Norwegian.
Another caution here is that it is relatively expensive and it takes some planning to lower the cost to be more reasonable. We had booked into the Clarion Collection Hotel Aurora for 6 nights which is located along the harbor and it included breakfast and dinner. We recommend in Tromso to always book into a hotel that includes at least dinner, otherwise you can spend more on food than all of the other costs of the trip combined. The hotel also had a hot tub on the roof you could use which was much needed after a long day hiking, snow shoeing and exploring the surroundings.
What to do in Tromso besides seeing the Northern Lights
Besides seeing the northern lights, there is much more to see and experience in Tromso:
The city center has a large concentration of wooden houses that date back to 1789. These are a charming addition to the city and harks back to the time of the great arctic explorers that would come to Tromso and recruit their crews.
The Polar Museum, or in Norwegian the Polarmuseet is definitely worth an afternoon. The museum was really interesting and nicely set up, and is dedicated to the lives and men that made Tromso the seal hunting capital and gateway to the arctic.
The Polaria aquarium is a short walk from the city center and if you have the time is a nice addition to the your trip. Though we drove by it, the Arctic Cathedral is nice but something we skipped.
Tromso is known as the Paris of the Arctic and is sophisticated, vibrant combination of old and new. We actually spent a lot of time walking through town, visiting the different shops and just enjoying being in the snow. But beware, a coffee and a bagel can set you back over $15.
Driving across Finland in a blizzard and standing in 4 feet of snow
After a good night’s sleep and a day exploring the town, we had set up a small-group tour to see the Northern Lights. We knew that we needed to get out of the city to where there is less light pollution so we hired a small van tour, crammed in with all of our parkas and camera gear and set off.
The guides told us the best place to see the lights that night was somewhere in Finland, so we took off to Finland, packed in the van like the salmon we saw in the shop windows. It was almost blizzard conditions, driving on small, not well maintained two-lane roads, and fast with no time to spare, we bounced our way out of Norway and into Finland.
Finally, after a couple of hours of driving and after midnight, we pulled over onto a dirt spot. We parked and finally were able to get out of the van. But being cold and uncomfortable was still a small price to pay, after all, we were going to experience the northern lights.
After starting a fire to warm us up, the guides made us hot chocolate and reindeer goulash. I was just happy to be out of the van.
The plan was to hike across the road, into a field where there was about 4 feet of snow and set up our cameras. Which we did. And wait. Which we also did. And nothing. No lights. Just a cold night in the middle of Finland in the middle of a snow-covered field.
At 4AM, disappointed and deflated, not to mention cold, pissed off, and uncomfortable we headed back to Tromso.
Did we ever see the Northern Lights?
We are happy to say we saw the Northern Lights and they were as spectacular as we imagined. But there is a trick to knowing when to go out.
Here is a link for the Aurora Service. This site forecasts the Aurora on a scale from low to extreme. On the next to the last day in Tromso, we looked up the forecast and it was going to be a high chance of seeing them.
We quickly booked a tour and went out. This was an inexpensive tour as it was on a large bus, and there must have been about 400 people at the location. There were people there to help with your camera and settings, and they had huts to get warm and served hot chocolate.
Then about 11:30pm, dancing overhead, the Northern Lights came out and stayed out for a couple of hours. A spectacular display of the aurora and both Kati and I were overwhelmed. This is why we traveled 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
We were so happy and excited and this made our trip spectacular, and we were going to be able to go home satisfied.
We love Norway and Tromso quickly became one of our favorite places. We are never disappointed with Norway’s beauty and Tromso did not disappoint. If you ever get a chance to travel to Tromso, you will love it as well.
The Top 5 things to do in Tromso
- See the Northern Lights – But beware, check the forecast before you book a tour.
- Explore the City – Tromso is a vibrant, eclectic town with cool shops and restaurants. Watch out because it can be expensive.
- Stay overnight with the Sami – We actually camped in the snow with the Sami and Reindeer.
- Take an afternoon and see the Polar Museum. – This is well worth the time and gives you an historical view of the area.
- Play in the snow – Snowshoeing, sled riding and all winter sports are big in Tromso. Try some out. There are many businesses that will rent you equipment.
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