Northern Norway is now on our bucket list! Is it on yours? When David Nikel, author of travel guide Moon Norway, reached out to us with his article Why You Should Visit Northern Norway we were delighted to publish it on our website.
We have been talking about visiting Norway, one of Europe’s top places to see the Northern Lights for ages and now that we have some great insider tips from David it has given us a boost to start planning a visit during our next European adventure.
(Editor Update 2020)
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Why You Should Visit Northern Norway
The West Norwegian fjords might steal the headlines, but they’re also suffering from record numbers of visitors. Good luck squeezing on a fjord sightseeing trip at the height of summer! While the fjords are absolutely well worth visiting, you can see just as much of Norway’s spectacular scenery with a lot less people in the way by looking to the north.
It’s not cheap, but there is value
Let’s deal with the elephant in the room right away. Norway is an expensive country to visit, but that doesn’t mean everything is bad value for money.
If you hire a small car and choose to stay in well-equipped self-catering cabins on campsites, you can explore the best of the country for much less than you might expect. Perhaps more so than any other region, enjoying the north is about experiences. Grazing over a picnic on a secluded hillside with the midnight sun as your backdrop is a memory that will stay with you for a lifetime but cost almost nothing.
A coastal cruise
One option is to take the famous Hurtigruten coastal ferry. Although advertised as a cruise, it serves dual-purpose as a daily liner service for much of the remote Norwegian coastline.
The full route from Bergen to Kirkenes and back takes 12 days, but you could start and finish in Trondheim or Bodø to cut costs and focus on the north. This method covers your food and accommodation costs, with optional excursions if you want to see what lies beyond the beautiful coastline.
But if sleeping on a boat isn’t your thing, hire a car and create your own itinerary from these recommendations.
Tromsø: The Paris of the North
Nobody’s quite sure who first gave Tromsø its nickname, but spend a couple of days in Arctic Norway’s biggest city and you’ll soon find yourself agreeing with it. As a regional capital, it punches way above its weight in cultural attractions.
The Arctic Cathedral (actually a church, but whoever let facts get in the way of marketing) is their Eiffel Tower. If you visit at the height of summer, try to catch one of the Midnight Sun concerts, which start at 11 pm every evening.
A trip up the recently renovated cable car is a must for a spectacular view back across the city’s gorgeous island setting. Stick around to watch the planes land, or see ships come and go. During the summer the service runs until 1 am to allow for midnight sun snaps.
Tromsø also offers northern Norway’s cheapest accommodation thanks to the recent arrival of budget chains. Book up a room at the Comfort Hotel Xpress, Viking Hotel, or Smart Hotel while they’re still available.
An alternative main destination is the eye-watering beautiful Lofoten, which has drawn artists, fishermen and hikers from across Europe for generations.
The best option to reach the archipelago is the ferry from Bodø to either Svolvær or Moskenes. The crossing across the open ocean can be rough, but you’ll be rewarded with the sight of Lofoten’s dramatic granite mountains looming on the horizon.
Once on the islands, head to the westernmost villages Å and Reine for some of Scandinavia’s most iconic views, or pick a side road to find your own slice of paradise on a quiet secluded beach.
Lofoten is increasingly popular during the Norwegian holiday month of July, so book up accommodation well in advance, or plan a trip in May or September when the campsites – and the hiking trails – are much quieter.
Rock carvings in Alta
Although there’s not much to keep the curious traveller occupied in Alta for more than a day or so, the city has one major thing going for it. The UNESCO listed rock art centre is a must see for anyone passing through.
The carvings – many of which have been coloured red to make them easier to see – depict scenes from days long gone, specifically hunting and gathering, fishing, rituals, and social occasions, harking back to a time when people believed nature possessed a soul. A wooden pathway of several miles leads visitors around the otherwise boggy ground and is split into two loops, making a shorter visit possible if time is tight.
Meet the Sami
Alta also serves as a base to explore the fascinating culture of the Sami, Northern Scandinavia’s indigenous people. Within a few hours’ drive are the small communities of Karasjok and Kautokeino.
Here, around four in five people speak Sami as their primary language of everyday life, and throughout Finnmark county, you will find road signs and place names listed in Norwegian, Sami, and possibly a local dialect too. One in three Kautokeino residents works in the reindeer business, which has sustained the Sami people for years and continues to do so today.
The road to Nordkapp
When people ask me if it’s worth the journey to Nordkapp, mainland Europe’s northernmost point, I’m never quite sure how to respond.
For me, the journey there is fascinating. I stayed in remote communities and met all sorts of interesting people who somehow manage to make a living up here. But the North Cape itself is rather underwhelming. It is after all just a very expensive car park. The visitor centre has some items of interest including a giant gift shop, but you absolutely don’t need to go here just to see the midnight sun. That’s available for free across the entire region!
If you have time to spare then sure, go ahead, especially if you plan to stay in Honningsvåg, the closest town to Nordkapp, or one of the remote campsites on the barren Magerøya island. But if you want to spend days driving to Nordkapp and back just to say you’ve been, there are far better things you can do with your time.
Lesser-known stories of World War II
Finnmark, Norway’s north-eastern county, suffered greatly in the latter days of the Second World War. When the Nazis push against Leningrad failed, they retreated and any place that could offer shelter to what the Nazis thought would be the pursuing Red Army was destroyed.
Much of Finnmark was reduced to rubble. Thousands of buildings were burned, Hammerfest was reduced to ashes, bridges and ports were destroyed. The rebuilt Hammerfest is now home to the Museum of Reconstruction, which tells the story of how the community recovered from the tragedy.
Other wartime reminders in the region include the Tirpitz museum outside Alta, where you’ll find one of the largest collections of photos and artefacts from the battleship Tirpitz, which was anchored in the waters of Alta during the war. There’s also a small war museum in Svolvær on Lofoten, which tends to only open for Hurtigruten arrivals.
Chase the northern lights
If you can stand the cold, a visit to northern Norway in the winter is worth it for one truly spectacular reason: a chance to see nature’s own one-of-a-kind light show.
The northern lights come out to play at their strongest from mid-September to mid-November and from mid-January to mid-March. Cloudless, dark skies are required, which means heading as far away from built-up areas as possible.
Even if you don’t catch the lights, there are plenty more activities to keep you busy and make your trip a success. From dog sledding to snow-shoeing and even whale watching, winter in northern Norway is guaranteed to be a memorable experience, whether the tricky lady makes an appearance or not.
Something for everyone
Whether you prefer active experiences, or you’d rather spend your time indoors in galleries and museums, there’s something for you in northern Norway.
You won’t be able to fit all of this into your Arctic adventure without spending several weeks in the region. Distances are vast and you’ll need a big budget. Instead, use this list as a starter for your research and pick the area you’d most like to focus on. Wherever you choose, I guarantee you a good time!
About David Nikel
British writer David Nikel moved to Norway in 2011, and now calls Trondheim his home. He is the author of the Moon Norway guidebook, and runs a popular website all about living and travelling in Norway.
David has written another article for us: How to travel Oslo on a budget – tips from a local
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