On Tromsø & the Northern Lights

Dec 10, 2012 | 6 minutes read

Tags: blog

[![](http://res.cloudinary.com/cianclarke/image/upload/h_200,w_300/v1382804159/IMG_1895_rgkhm4.jpg "IMG_1895")](http://res.cloudinary.com/cianclarke/image/upload/v1382804159/IMG_1895_rgkhm4.jpg) In December 2012 myself & a friend decided to visit Tromso, Norway to try and see the Northern Lights. The flights were pricey – some €400 with SAS, via Oslo on the way out and via Trondheim and Copenhagen on the way back, but it’s such a remote destination, it’s almost to be expected.

Tromso is reputed to be the best location in the world to see northern lights, and it’s situated within the Arctic Circle. During winter, there’s no ‘day time’ – only a few hours of faint dusk between roughly 10am and 1.30pm. Aside from this, it’s dark all the time.

On arriving, the first noticeable trait of Tromso is the cold. In the past, the coldest I’d seen has been a constant 0°c  on a few trips to Germany. In Tromso, It’s a constant -4°c, and rarely higher.

[![](http://res.cloudinary.com/cianclarke/image/upload/h_166,w_300/v1382804158/IMG_2013_obtzb4.jpg "IMG_2013")](http://res.cloudinary.com/cianclarke/image/upload/v1382804158/IMG_2013_obtzb4.jpg) The roads are a mixture of mostly snow and compacted ice, but the rental was a front wheel drive Mazda 3 with studded winter tyres, so driving was a breeze. Speaking of the rental (and I’ve driven a lot of rentals) the Mazda 3 is an utterly joy-less car. It has no niche, and does nothing particularly well. It’s not cheap enough to compete with the Toyotas and Fords of the same genre, and it’s not even particularly economical. Its only minor saving grace is audio over bluetooth. Still – never buy one. Since it was 8pm Friday on arriving, we grabbed some food (Burger King Medium Meal, ~€14) and headed for the hills.

Most of the roads in & around Tromso follow the curvature of the coast. The first location was over a valley past a frozen lake, following the route of the 862. Once we were beyond the tungsten glow of Tromso, the sky revealed a slight tint of green barely visible to the naked eye. With the aid of a 30 second exposure, this was verified as the elusive northern lights! We stayed out until 2.30am, and had plenty more sightings of this feint tint, but it was never particularly spectacular to the naked eye, just by camera.

The following day, Saturday, for the few hours of sunlight we revisited the same route to see the scenery that we couldn’t see the previous night! The islands around Tromso are incredible, over the mountain pass on the (X) toward (X). On returning to Tromso, we went in search of an affordable (<€25 main course) non-Burger King meal. There was none – back to Burger King so.
That night, four fruitless hours were spent searching for the lights, to no avail. At 1am, we called it a night.

The following & final day, Sunday, we drove toward the Finnish border along the E8 and E6 toward Skibotn. Here, I saw for the first time completely frozen seawater. I’ve seen plenty of frozen lakes before, but seeing the sea iced over, with ripples of waves on the sheet ice is really bizzare. On returning to the hotel, it was time for beers in the rooftop hot tub. Chatting to some English tourists revealed they also had no success thus far in their quest for northern lights – and they’d been paying a tour operator €120 each night. We decided to search our non-Burger King food, and found a thai well recommended on Trip Advisor. The portions were obnoxiously large, poor, and with no fresh ingredients – everything frozen. I’ve had better Thai at 3am in Dublin’s infamous Charlies – hardly renowned for their oriental authenticity.

Sunday night was our last chance to see Northern Lights, and thankfully Norway didn’t disappoint. On route out of Tromso City, a glow was already visible in the sky. Some 18 miles outside Tromso, and the lights were clearly visible with the naked eye.

[![](http://res.cloudinary.com/cianclarke/image/upload/h_200,w_300/v1382804155/IMG_2403_lqnn38.jpg "IMG_2403")](http://res.cloudinary.com/cianclarke/image/upload/v1382804155/IMG_2403_lqnn38.jpg) I was never quite sure to what degree the lights are visible with the naked eye – the last time I’d seen Northern Light was in rural Ireland, and it was a barely visible glow to the naked eye, and even with a 10 minute camera exposure wasn’t the most impressive. So are the lights visible to the naked eye? Yes, absolutely. As impressive as in photos? Absolutely, but let me qualify that. The intensity of the glow is always enhanced by a camera’s long exposure – the naked eye can’t see as many stars, or even the same range of colours. But what a camera, or even time lapse video, can’t quite capture is the subtle flickering nature of the light. It flares, expands and contracts a bit like smoke caught in wind. It’s absolutely, staggeringly spectacular. So – looking to see Northern Lights? Tromso is a reasonably accessible option, with a very high success rate during winter months. The cold isn’t unbearable, but do bring ski pants, jacket, gloves and a hat or balaclava. Booked Northern Lights tours are expensive, and often in big coach tour buses – one night’s tour is the same price as car rental. I’d recommend Sixt, who guarantee studded winter tyres.

If you’re renting a car, there’s two very good locations for Northern Lights with minimal light pollution. The first is the 862 toward the islands west of Tromso itself. One road goes through a valley alongside a lake, and another follows the coast along some spectacular scenery.
862 Northern lights Route Map: http://goo.gl/maps/nYhP5

The other is what’s termed the ‘Northern Lights Route’. This route follows the A8 and A6 towards Skiboten, and toward the Finnish border. The light pollution starts out quite bad, and it takes ~30mins from Tromso to get away from street lights.
We didn’t even make it to Skiboten (~2 hours from Tromso) on the last night – the lights were spectacular enough far as we got.
‘Northern Lights Route’ map:  http://goo.gl/maps/Q0KFe


  • Flights with SAS Dublin -> Oslo -> Tromso -> Trondheim -> Copenhagen -> Dublin
  • Hotel: Clarion Bryggen (much cheaper options available, but hot tub on the roof here!)
    €177 / night
  • Burger King Meal
  • Restaurant main course
    **€30 **(avg)
  • Car Rental: Sixt Mazda 3
  • Fuel fill:

And what about Tromso? Top of my list of destinations? Well, not really. I’ve no doubt there’s few better places in the world to see Northern Lights, but there’s not a huge pile else to note. I’m sure the scenery is more impressive when there’s daylight, and less snow, and more greenery, but I’ve seen more impressive scenery in the alps, or even in parts of Ireland. Food, drink, and excursions are outrageously, unbelievably expensive. The people aren’t particularly friendly.
Still – Tromso seems one of Europe’s most accesible northern lights destinations. Flights are affordable and frequent, and accommodation and car hire is all very reasonably priced. Overall, still a trip to be recommended!