When you think of seeing the northern lights, where do you picture yourself? For most people, the answer is Norway! The first major northern lights destination in the world, Norway has warmly welcomed visitors in the cold winter months with the promise of seeing the aurora.
If you’re considering or planning a trip to Norway to see the northern lights, you’ve come to the right place. There are lots of resources out there (Norway is still a popular place to see the aurora!), but we’ve distilled it all down to give you exactly what you need, and no extra fluff.
Read on to learn about when you can see the northern lights in Norway, where you can see them, how to prepare for your trip, and popular tours you can book.
What are the Northern Lights?
If you’re reading this post, you probably understand what the northern lights are, but it never hurts to have a quick refresher.
Briefly, the aurora is caused by particles from our sun striking atoms in earth’s atmosphere. These solar particles (often called “solar wind”) are expelled by the sun all the time, and our atmosphere on earth protects us from them. When the solar wind hits the atmosphere, atoms like oxygen and hydrogen light up, emitting colors like green, red, purple, and white. These colors are the most common aurora colors we see.
There are two names for the aurora: the aurora borealis (the northern lights or “northern winds”) and the aurora australis (the southern lights or “southern winds”). These occur in their respective hemispheres, as their name suggests, but they are caused by the same phenomena described above.
In countries like Norway, where the northern lights are a prominent feature of the night sky, the aurora has heavily influenced indigenous culture and folk heritage. Some of the more common tales include that the Vikings thought the northern lights were the Bifröst a pathway to Valhalla and the afterlife, or the glinting of light on the shields and spears of the Valkyrie warriors.
The Best Time of Year to See the Northern Lights in Norway
As Norway stretches from the 55th to the 80th latitudes, there is quite an amount of variance between when seasons change in northern and southern Norway. Spring starts earlier and summer lasts longer in southern Norway; autumn is shorter and winter lasts longer in northern Norway.
When it comes to seeing the northern lights, the further north you can go to try and view them, the longer window of the calendar each year where you can hope to see them!
Autumn (September to November)
Autumn is the earliest season each year where you might see the northern lights in Norway. As darkness returns in earnest after the autumnal equinox in September, each night holds more possibility that you’ll see the aurora – and you won’t have to stay up until 3 am to do so!
By late autumn in November – especially in northern Norway – you’ll have a good chance of seeing the aurora.
Winter (December to March)
Winter is the ideal season to see the northern lights in Norway (similar to other northern lights destinations). From December through March, the nights are long in northern Norway… in some places, it seems endless as the sun doesn’t even rise above the horizon between November and January!
With dark sky conditions like this, it’s unsurprising that Norway is one of the world’s top aurora destinations. If the northern lights are out, you’ll see them! (Assuming clear skies, of course.)
Spring (April to May)
As the northern hemisphere tips back toward the sun, spring returns to Norway each year – with longer days and shorter nights. As such, you’ll find it tough to see the aurora without staying up until the middle of the night in April. By May, the sun has returned in earnest and there’s not enough darkness to see the aurora most nights.
Summer (June to August)
Similar to winter, parts of Norway see “midnight sun” in the summertime, and the sun never sets entirely. As you can imagine, daylight is a less-than-ideal condition for seeing the northern lights.
The Best Places in Norway to See the Northern Lights
Based on what you’ve read so far, you can probably guess where the best destinations for seeing the northern lights in Norway are located: northern Norway. There are some places you can see the aurora in the south, especially in the dark heart of winter. Read on to see the full list.
Svalbard is a group of islands located between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole. This position gives it uniquely exceptional conditions for viewing the Northern Lights. In fact, it’s the only place in the world where the Northern Lights can be seen in the daytime.
The city of Bodø is an excellent place to find the Northern Lights. It’s only a few miles away from the Rønvikfjellit mountain, which provides a wide open view of the sky at night. The city also offers tours that can take you to prime viewing spots.
Tromsø is the largest city in Northern Norway. Despite this, you don’t have to worry too much about light pollution interfering with your view. Its location on the auroral oval makes it an excellent spot to go hunting for the Northern Lights.
Curious what else you can do while visiting Tromsøf for the northern lights? Here are 14 (other) things to do in Tromsø in the winter.
The town of Narvik is a great place to go searching for the Northern Lights thanks to the many mountains and fjords surrounding it. It offers a number of different tours that can help you see the Aurora Borealis. One of these will take you to the top of the Narvikfjellet mountain in a gondola.
Trondheim is the third largest city in Norway and is an excellent place to stay when you’re trying to catch the Northern Lights. Generally speaking, you’ll have to go a little ways from the city and its light pollution to get a really good view. Still, it’s possible to see them within the city itself two or three times a year.
Lyngenfjord is a 50-mile (80km) long fjord that happens to be a great spot to find the Northern Lights. It’s also an incredibly beautiful region in the daytime as well. You can go dog sledding or snowshoeing in the day and wait for the Northern Lights to appear at night.
Senja is Norway’s second largest island. It’s very well isolated from the light pollution of major cities and has plenty of natural areas that offer a wide open view of the sky. Along with seeing the Northern Lights, you also have a great chance of seeing wildlife such as moose, seals, and eagles.
Vesteralen is an archipelago just north of the Lofoten Islands. It is far removed from the rest of civilization, and you have a good chance of seeing whales while you’re there. There are safaris available that can show you the best spots for viewing the Northern Lights.
The Lofoten Islands
The Lofoten Islands are an island group with a surprisingly mild climate. Its position under the auroral oval also makes it an excellent spot to view the Northern Lights. There is a three-night package available where you can watch this amazing phenomenon from the comfort of a cabin.
Nordkapp (The North Cape)
The North Cape, which is located in the municipality of Nordkapp, is the northernmost point in Europe that can be reached by car. It’s a very popular tourist destination and is a beautiful place to watch the Northern Lights. There are tours available that can take you there by snowmobile.
Alta is the most heavily populated city in the county of Finnmark. There are many things to see and do here including dog sledding, snowmobile riding, and of course, watching the Northern Lights. In fact, Alta happens to be the location of the first Northern Lights observatory.
Hammerfest is a large, northern city that’s surrounded by nature. There’s not another town for sixty miles, so it’s very easy to find isolated spots for viewing the Northern Lights. It’s perfect if you’re looking for a mix of modern comforts and natural solitude.
Can You See the Northern Lights in Oslo or Bergen?
It is geographically possible to see the northern lights in popular destinations like Oslo and Bergen. Under the right sky conditions in the winter, the aurora is visible from these latitudes.
However, as is the case in most major cities, light pollution is the number one reason you most likely won’t see the aurora from the Norwegian capital. Especially in the winter months where snow covers the ground and amplifies light pollution, you’ll find it very difficult to get dark enough skies to see the northern lights.
However, if you’re open to exploring beyond Oslo, you can get far enough from the city lights in a 1-2 hour drive that you will have a much better chance to see them. In Bergen, a city on the shores of a fjord, the light pollution isn’t as bad as in Oslo, so you may have a good chance of seeing the northern lights if they’re strong enough.
If seeing the northern lights is your #1 goal in visiting Norway, plan to visit one of the other more northernly destinations on this list.
How to See the Aurora in Norway
There are some common mistakes you can make when planning your trip to see the northern lights in Norway. We’ve already covered one: not heading far enough north to see the aurora. Here are some other tips to help you increase the chances you’ll have a great aurora experience.
1. Plan Your Trip at the Right Time of Year
As mentioned in the section on when to see the northern lights in Norway, your best chances are in the winter months of December to March. It is possible to see them in shoulder months like October, November, and April too.
If you plan to visit Norway in the summer, you will unfortunately not be able to see the aurora at all. Thus, if it’s your goal to see them, plan a winter trip!
2. Check the Forecast – But Be Flexible
There are three good online tools for checking the aurora forecast in Norway before you bundle up and head out to see the show:
- Aurora Service is a European website that pulls data from NASA’s ACE spacecraft – a satellite that studies the solar wind. On the website, you can see predictions and graphics for seeing the northern lights throughout Norway.
- Norway Lights is another website that provides graphics to help you forecast if the aurora will be visible. The tool works in close to real time, so it doesn’t show anything in the summer months.
- The Norwegian Centre for Space Weather at the Arctic University of Norway has several maps that help you forecast the aurora – including regional maps for areas like Svalbard, Bergen, Oslo, Trondheim, and Tromsø. Bookmark this page for sure!
With these three sights plus some local knowledge (always ask the hotel concierge or your Airbnb host about recent aurora sightings!), you’re well set to see the northern lights if they’re happening.
Another important point: be as flexible as possible in your itinerary, to give yourself better chances to see the aurora. If you only have one night and it happens to be cloudy, you’ll be disappointed! Instead, plan 2-3 nights to increase the odds of clear skies and good solar activity.
3. Bring the Right Gear
You’re heading to northern Norway in the wintertime: you need to pack the right gear!
Average monthly temperatures in Norway range from 27°F-36°F (-3°C-2°C) between November and March. If the daytime high is above freezing, it’s considered a warm day. Since you’ll be trying to see the northern lights in the evenings or at night, expect the temperature to be even colder, and bundle up!
Be sure to bring a hat, gloves, and scarf, as well as good winter boots. Keeping your extremities (head, hands, and feet) warm is important to have an enjoyable night of aurora chasing. A cold face or freezing toes will distract you and make the experience considerably more miserable.
4. Be Patient
You might get lucky: the moment you step out the door, the aurora may be dancing overhead. It’s equally likely, however, that you’ll have to spend some time waiting for the aurora to appear. As such, you need to be patient whenever you plan to try and see the northern lights (in Norway, or anywhere!).
Consider familiarizing yourself with some constellations so you can do some stargazing while you wait!
5. Experience Awe
When you do see the northern lights, be prepared to feel speechless. The aurora has captivated humankind for millennia, and you’re lucky to be among them!
Popular Day Trips & Tours to See the Northern Lights
It’s an understatement to say you have plenty of tour options for seeing the northern lights in Norway. There are hundreds of operators with tours ranging from overnight trips to 7-day excursions (or longer!). Here are some to inspire you to start planning your trip:
- We’ve mentioned The Aurora Zone in several of our aurora guides because they specialize in aurora tours around the world (and have loads of good resources about the aurora to read if you’re interested in learning more!). They offer 10 itineraries in Norway, including a 3-night autumn trip from Tromsø, a 5-night glamping experience, and a 9-day trip to celebrate the new year with northern lights.
- Visit Norway – the official tourism board for Norway – endorses Fjord Travel Norway as their operator-of-choice for northern lights tours. Some of their most interesting itineraries include a 3-night Aurora Safari, a 4-night aurora trip including a stay at an ice hotel, and an 8-night aurora cruise through the waters around northern Norway.
There are plenty of other choices too, so if you don’t see a tour that sounds interesting to you here, you can find loads of other options online.
Tips on Photographing the Aurora in Norway
If you want pictures like the ones in this post from your own trip to Norway, here are some tips:
- Set your camera in manual mode. You’ll need to control the technical aspects of your camera to get the right exposure in your photo.
- Set your ISO to 1600-3200. You’ll need a high sensitivity (high ISO) to be able to capture the colors of the aurora.
- Set your aperture to 1.8-3.0. A low F-stop will ensure you capture enough light in your photo.
- Set your shutter speed at 15-20 seconds. If you set your shutter to be open between 15 and 20 seconds, you’ll be able to see the stars and northern lights in your photo, but still see clear stars in the night sky without star trails.
- Use a tripod, remote, and have extra batteries on hand. Similar to our tips for astrophotography, you’ll need to bring some extra gear to ensure your camera is stable and has enough power in the cold winter air.
Other questions? We are happy to answer questions about seeing the northern lights in Norway in the comments.
Featured photo by Davide Gabino via Flickr