It has probably already all been said about experiencing the Northern Lights. Nonetheless… Yes, there is something truly magical about seeing them dancing above your head… It is an experience of a lifetime, something that should be on your Bucket List!
Itinerary & Time Of The Visit
We chose Northern Norway, beginning of February 2018, 400 kilometers north of the Artic Polar Circle, and more precisely the island of Senja & the city of Tromsø,the “Paris of the North”, to go seeing the Northern Lights.
We spent 9 days there, which is significantly more than most people do, but we wanted to take it easy and to enhance our chances to experience the Northern Lights, since weather is extremely unpredictable, and clear skies are absolutely necessary.
Norway is as expensive as it gets, and since we were in the middle of the Artic winter, we decided against roughing it in any way… We chose rather comfortable hotels (especially in Senja), we rented a car in Senja (which actually saved us a lot of money), and last but not least, we went on several local tours (a significant chunk of our budget).
All in all, this led to a horrendous total cost, the highest of all my trips altogether: 217 € per person per day!
Challenges In Organizing The Trip
When organizing our trip, it was quite a challenge to find decent and structured information: since it is a very expensive trip, you have very few blogs that really covers the subject (a few Travel Bloggers were invited on advertising trips), and travel guides do not really answer the key questions.
Here are the main challenges that we faced:
Where To Go?
There are quite a few countries from which you can experience the Northern Lights. I will focus on Europe, as I have no idea about Siberia and Northern America. The most popular destinations are Island, Norway, Sweden & Finland.
The advantage of Norway is that it is easily reachable (several daily flights via Oslo) and that being close to the sea and in fjord landscapes, the temperatures will unlikely be so brutally low as they might be at such latitudes (we had -5 to -10 degrees Celsius at night). Add to this the stunning fjord landscape, and you have an impressive background for a unique natural phenomenon!
Organized Tours Versus Independent Travel
There are now numerous tours on offer to go and see the Northern Lights, and yes, even a seasoned independent traveler must acknowledge: they are not THAT expensive (read our Budget Guide), and might even actually be less expensive than traveling on your own.
On the other hand, independent travel in Northern Norway is extremely easy, driving doesn’t require any specific skills (more and that later) and you have all the advantages of independent travel.
Taking Local Tours Or Not?
This was one of the main questions we asked ourselves: do we need to go on local tours to see the Northern Lights or can we do it on our own? We couldn’t make up our minds, as information is really scarce, so we decided to go on local tours to enhance our chances.
Now coming back, our impression is that it was definitely convenient, but it was not 100% necessary:
- If there are Northern Lights, you will see them anyway. What a tour might offer is a better surrounding for your pictures.
- Photo tips – Taking pictures of the Northern Lights isn’t easy, even for an experienced photographer. A few tips & tricks might tremendously change the outcome!
So all in all, it really depends on your budget. Avoiding tours will save you tremendous amounts of money. But you will need the time to find the perfect background for your pictures, and some time to find out how to shoot pictures of the Northern Lights, if that’s one of your targets.
We did 3 tours:
- Seeing the Northern Lights with Hamn I Senja – 140 € / Pax
It was a good tour as we were shown some nice spots to see the Northern Lights. But we were not very lucky that evening, with a fulminant start (15 to 20 minutes) and a very quiet evening afterwards…
- Seeing the Northern Lights with Green Gold of Norway in Tromsø – 205 € / Pax
Even as an experienced photographer, you might not know all the tricks to make a perfect night / sky photo (I had little experience in that field so far). Francisco gave us lots of insights, and enabled me to significantly enhance my pictures.
I actually had no really good pictures from Hamn I Senja, and LOTS of them from Tromsø (during the tour and afterwards) – To me, it was well invested money! And we were truly lucky that night, with Northern Lights during hours, at times dancing above our heads…
- Going Reindeers Sledging with Villmarkssenter – 190 € / Pax
This is about as touristy as it gets, but it was good fun (an expensive fun, though…). Book ahead that kind of activities, as they are high in demand with tour groups, and those have priority over independent travelers.
We were concerned about road conditions 400 km north of the Artic Polar Circle in the middle of the Artic winter, and expected driving being a significant challenge. How wrong!
Roads are mostly free of snow, and rental cars all have winter tires / studded tires, making driving easy and relaxed, even deep in the night (we arrived at Bardufoss Airport at 22:30 and drove approx. 100 km to Hamn I Senja), and even on ice in more remote places.
So renting a car will surely be your best bet, especially since car rentals are comparatively not that expensive, and in any way much cheaper than other options: (like taking local tours).
Duration Of Your Stay
Considering the costs, you might want to spend as little time as possible. But… To see the Northern Lights, you need clear skies AND strong solar activities. Everything below one week means that you really take chances having poor conditions or even not seeing the Northern Lights. Yet you might be lucky as we were and see them 4 times in 9 days…
Here you find a few good resources about the Northern Lights:
- Intensity Forecast
- Intensity Forecast for Northern Norway
- And of course you need any website giving weather forecast, as you need clear skies…
Tromsø is very convenient, as there are numerous flights daily from Oslo with several airlines, so your chances of finding cheaper deals are much higher.
Combining Tromsø & Senja offered us two different experiences of Norway: a larger, pleasant city (Tromsø is called “the Paris of the North”), and a remote, almost untouched island with stunning fjord landscapes.
We met an Australian combining Tromsø, Senja & Lotofen Islands. Well, with sufficient time at hand (I would say almost 2 weeks), this must be a really, really nice trip!
Highlights Of The Trip
Chasing The Northern Lights
This is pure magic… It will definitely rank amongst the most impressive moments I had traveling, and amongst the “experiences of a lifetime”.
Here are the GPS Coordinates of the best spots we found (best ones first):
- Beach near Hamn I Senja: 69°24’46” N 17°15’11” E
- Around Tromsø: 69°40’3″ N 18°35’46” E
- Senjahopen: 69°31’18” N 17°25’41” E
- Around Tromsø: 69°42’45” N 18°39’10” E
Top Things To Do In Senja
- Bergsbotn, with a view of Bergsfjord
- Tungeneset, the Devil’s Teeth mountains (best view: 69°28’44” N 17°19’45” E)
- Ersfjord (best view: 69°28’49” N 17°22’49” E)
Top Things To Do In Tromsø
- Stroll the city and enjoy its quiet and pleasant atmosphere
- See the various attractions: the Artic Cathedral, the Cathedral, the Public Library, …
- Visit the various museums: we only visited the Polar Museum, and it is a must!
- Enjoy the view of the city from Storsteinen, up Fjellheisen Cable Car, 410 meters higher up…
- Enjoy a nice coffee break, lunch or diner at Huken, Bardus Bistro, Art Café, Aungarden, Riso Kaffeebar or one oft he many pleasant restaurants you find there
- Sample some Norwegian beer at Mack Pub, the Oldest Pub in Tromsø
How To Go Off The Beaten Track?
If Tromsø is actually touristy (with Hurtigruten Ferries anchoring every day and hence large groups rushing from one “traditional activity” to the other), the whole area is all in all little touristy, at least in the middle of the winter. Everything outside of Tromsø was actually Off The Beaten Track, and more often than not we were the only tourists by and large in Senja…
Best Time For The Northern Lights?
The best time to see the Northern Lights is in the middle of the Artic Winter, from January to the beginning of March. February seems is a very good time!
Photographing The Northern Lights
Photographing the Northern Lights is not easy…
First, you will need some (expensive) equipment
- A DSLR camera, a full frame one making a true difference
- A wide angle lens (bellow 27 mm, ideally 16 mmm), one with a wide aperture (bellow f4.0 in any case, and f2.8 or lower improving significantly the results)
- A good and stable tripod
Then, you must get the settings right
- Take your pictures in RAW, as you will need some post-processing to enhance your pictures
- Set the White Balance on Auto (yes, quite surprising, but the camera got it perfectly right)
- Disable the Auto-Focus & the Image Stabilizer
- Set the focus sharp on a target at 10 meters, and keep it that way (one of the big lessons learned, one that made a true difference)
- Open the Aperture to the max (mode Manual) and increase the ISO (depending on the light, 800 to 3200)
- Set the Shutter Speed on 6 seconds to 30 seconds max., depending on the light
- Check the results to enhance ISO & Shutter Speed
Think about the composition of your picture
- Always include some landscape on your picture, ideally approx. the lower 1/3 of the whole picture.
- Do not hesitate to change to portrait (and not landscape) to show the height of the Lights in the sky.
- If you want to be on the picture, use a flash or better, a flashlight (with the help of someone else) – and freeze as much as you can during the picture taking.
Yes, it was an expensive trip, a heavy toll on the budget… But what an experience! I do not regret any of the Euros I spent…