The northern lights have been off my radar for most of my life. Although I knew they existed, spotting them was not high on my list, mainly because I like being in the tropics and the aurora only shows up where it is really cold. But then I had the chance to go to Norway and Sweden in winter 2016 and 2017 and chasing the northern lights quickly became a priority – after all there is not much else to do outside in the polar night when the sun doesn’t rise at all. After my first glimpse, I was hooked instantly.
There are many websites dedicated to helping you find the best location for seeing the northern lights, but in brief, you will want to be north of the arctic circle in a dark place with no clouds. For timing, winter nights from September to March are generally good and then you just have to be lucky to be there when the show is on. With Tromsø, Andenes and Abisko, we visited three top spots for aurora watching and had an amazing time.
Are you heading north yourself? Then check my photo post for tips on how to capture the northern lights.
Tromsø also happens to be a good town for whale watching, so we hopped on one of the many boats on the first morning in search of free willy and friends. After about 90 min cruising through the fjords, we saw the first blows in the distance. Shortly afterwards two humpback whales were cruising next to our boat, apparently undisturbed on their morning swim looking for herring. We followed them for a bit until a pod of orcas approached us. They too were looking for herring and it was great to see one after the other emerge for a breath as they travelled past us. Especially the large males with their huge dorsal fin are impressive. Time with the whales was up way too quickly, but it is a good call from the operators to give the whales their space too. The second time we went on a speed boat trip hoping to get closer to the orcas. We saw them again, but the weather was not great and we were happy to have the survival suits on for the way home.
Tromsø itself is quite large with many lights, so you have to get away from the city for the best northern lights viewing. We rented a cabin in Lakselvbukt, about 1h drive from Tromsø and reachable with buses if you time it well. The second winter, we stayed somewhere near Andenes, again out in the bush away from the lights. The idea of waiting in a warm cosy cabin for lady aurora to show up seemed like a good option for someone who might not survive more than 2h outside in the polar night.
The strategy was simple: go for a hike while there is a little bit of light (10am-2pm) and then start the fire place, play some board games, read and have one eye on the aurora forecast and one eye on the sky through the window. Sometimes the 30 min forecast was spot on, giving us just enough time to put on all the gazillion layers of clothes and be outside ready for the show. Other times, it predicted a kp1 (low chance) while we had the lights dancing over our heads. The cabin was so good because you could see the aurora from the window and get back to the warmth when she had moved on. The fjord setting was nice for catching the aurora reflection on the ice and the high mountains provided a good background for time-lapse photos.
Abisko in Sweden has a different setting, with more lights around the hostel, but a short walk away it is dark and there are no high mountains constricting the view of the sky. Favourite spots for viewing the northern lights include the lake shore and the heli pad. In addition, there is much more to do in Abisko than in a lonely fjord cabin. We packed in some awesome snow shoe hikes, cross-country skiing excursions and walks in the national park. Abisko was also much colder than the relatively warm fjord, with temperatures around -25°C. That is very cold. My camera even froze at one point.
We went to Andenes mainly because there was a chance to snorkel with orcas, but during our week there the sea was too rough and we could not give it a go. Thankfully, it turned out that Andenes is also really good for northern lights. We stayed in the village for a few nights and had epic aurora dances over the lighthouse. Afterwards, we stayed in a cabin near Dverberg and had more northern light shows. We also spotted some moose thanks to our friendly AirBnB hosts.
We saw the northern lights pretty much every night while up above the arctic circle, with the first night in Tromsø city and a couple of cloudy nights in Abisko and Andenes being the only misses. Sometimes it was a narrow green band emerging from behind the mountains and other times the whole sky was light up and it felt like I could touch the dancing lights. If you enjoy natural spectacles, then make it your mission to head to the far north next winter!
We flew into Tromsø, Norway, and out of Luleå, Sweden.
Cabin near Tromsø: https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/2146522
Cabin near Andenes: https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/11769286?location=Andenes&s=zuVfOZA5
Hostel in Abisko: http://www.abisko.net/accomodation/
Busses Tromsø to Lakselvbukt and to Narvik (for the train): http://www.tromskortet.no/
Train to Abisko and Luleå: http://www.sj.se/start/startpage/index.form?l=en