Scandinavia is, arguably, the best place on earth to observe the northern lights, a fabulous natural phenomenon that attracts more and more visitors every year. And the reasons for that are not limited solely to the geographical location with the region’s long winters, but also include the prime-quality infrastructure and a number of tourist attractions. Besides, tourist companies also provide a large variety of supplemental tours, some of which are pretty extraordinary.
Hopefully, this guide will serve you as a decent assistant in travelling to the Scandinavian north.
Tromsø, which oftentimes is regarded to as the capital of Norway’s north, is a major cultural hub and one of the largest Norwegian cities. Yet, myriads of tourists come to this Norwegian city every winter in order to embark on an aurora borealis safari.
Indeed, Tromsø, a vivid and lively city, is an ideal choice for observing the Northern lights. In winter, locals oftentimes go to their schools and jobs while it is still dark in the morning and they get to observe aurora borealis. While for them is just an ordinary routine, many tourists flock to Tromsø to experience this phenomenon.
On the other hand, Alta is a small Norwegian town, located within a 7-hour drive from Tromsø. Travelling to Alta would be a good option if you would prefer to avoid large crowds of tourists. Yet, this serenity comes at a price: the selection of hotels, restaurants, facilities and tours is much more modest in Alta.
Among all three reviewed alternative destinations, Norway’s north is the most easily accessible region. Keep in mind that if you are going to stay in Alta, you can easily reach it from Tromsø in three ways: by car, bus, and plane. There are at least 3-4 daily flights from Tromsø to Alta.
On the other hand, SAS and Norwegian, two Scandinavian airlines, have at least a dozen of daily direct flights from Oslo to Tromsø in winter. Otherwise, you can fly to Tromsø from other Norwegian cities (daily flights available from Bergen, Stavanger and Trondheim) and other capitals (daily flights available from Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, London).
Alternatively, you may embark on a Hurtigruten cruise and reach Tromsø in that way. Considering that Hurtigruten operates 365 days a year and oftentimes offers discounts during the winter season, this might be quite a good bargain.
Travelers in Tromsø may enjoy a greater comfort than those who travel to Alta or the alternative destinations. First of all, the number of hotels is overwhelming and it’s the best choice you can get in this region. Secondly, there are at least a few dozen of bars, pubs and restaurants in Tromsø, which is another advantage.
And, indeed, there are other tourist facilities available, which may make your stay more enjoyable. For instance, Tromsø is famous for its vulkana spa, which combines sauna, bathing, arctic nature, and excellent food. Staying in one of the fishing villages near Tromsø may be a good idea for avid fishermen. Besides, such attractions like Tromso’s Polar Museum and the Arctic Cathedral shouldn’t be missed.
On the other hand, Alta has only 4-5 hotels and just a dozen restaurants. But your stay in Alta can be made special: Igloo Hotel is a fully ice hotel that is rebuilt (around December) in Alta every year, and it features quite extraordinary ice sculptures. Other noteworthy places include the Norther Lights Cathedral and Alta Museum.
While the tourists will not experience a lack of activities in Alta, the variety of activities is definitely far greater and more diverse in Tromsø. Basically, Tromsø is all about water activities (such as fishing and whale safari tours), but not limited only to them. These are the usual activities you can experience in Norway’s north:
Whale safari. This is a special tour that you can’t find in Finland’s or Sweden’s Lapland, and you can observe the whales near the shore and see how they get fed. December is the month when you are most likely to enjoy a successful whale safari tour in Tromsø. If you want something truly special, this is a tour that beats the alternatives in Tromsø.
Ice fishing. Tromsø is a hotspot for fishermen from all over the Europe – especially those who are interested in fishing in the winter season. While the weather is not that much warm in winter, The Gulf Stream makes the conditions in Norway’s north far more acceptable and winter much milder than in Sweden and Finland. Besides, there are combined aurora borealis and ice fishing tours available.
So, while the variety of activities is not as great in Norway’s north as in Finland’s Lapland, this is a definite place to go for fishing and whale safari enthusiasts.
To sum up, this is what differs a journey to this region from the alternatives:
Rovaniemi, the capital of Finland’s Lapland, is widely known as the official residence of Santa Claus. This, among many other things, makes the aurora borealis safari in this region so special. That results in the generally higher prices on hotels and plane tickets, which must be also booked much in advance.
Ivalo, on the other hand, is a Finnish village, which serves as a gateway to Finland’s southern Lapland. While there are not many tours and facilities available, travelers can rent cabins for observing the northern lights there – there are even glass cabins, which, nevertheless, tend to be quite expensive.
Currently, Finland’s Lapland is far more difficult to reach than Norway’s Finnmark. There are direct flights only from Helsinki, London, and several other Finnish cities to Rovaniemi. Despite that, there are at least 6-7 direct flights from Helsinki to Rovaniemi per day, operated by Finnair and Norwegian. You may also book train tickets from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, but it takes around 9 hours to reach this city.
Likewise, Finnair and Norwegian also fly from Helsinki to Ivalo – you can’t reach Ivalo from Rovaniemi by plane. Yet, there are 3 direct daily flights on the average. Another way to reach Ivalo is to drive there by car.
Finland’s Lapland can definitely be praised for its second-to-none tourism infrastructure. Start with Rovaniemi. There are more than 15 hotels that can accommodate tourists in this city. But if you want a top experience, you may rent either a wooden cottage or a glass cabin – an ideal way to observe the Northern lights. Although, while the price of one night in ordinary hotels is around 70 Euro, the rental price of wooden cottages and glass cabins may be up to 300 Euro per night and above that.
There are also at least a few dozen restaurants in the city – most of them serve the traditional Finnish meals. But what attracts travelers to this city is, actually, the Santa Village – the “official” residence of Santa Klaus. That is the reason why so many families come exactly to this Finnish region on their winter vacations.
Ivalo, on the other hand, is a small Finnish village with a few hotels and around 10 restaurants. Travelers come here in order to stay in the wooden cottages and glass cabins, which are situated far from the civilization, and this gives you serenity and tranquility. And while there are many activities available, there is basically almost nothing to see in Ivalo (perhaps, except the Wild Spirit Park).
Finland’s Lapland is a region that offers the greatest variety of activities. While it does not offer while safari, there are plenty of other exciting tours and activities. Besides, dog sledding, snowmobiling, reindeer sledding, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing are all available in this region, too.
On the other hand, here you can pre-order activity packages, which typically include an activity (or several activities) and 3 meals per day. This makes it much easier and simpler to enjoy your vacation. As you can see, the list of other activities (apart from the ones listed above) is pretty impressive here:
Icebreaker tours. Step on an icebreaker ship and head to the Arctic waters to see how the powerful vessel deals with the ice that lies on its way. During this tour, you will get down to the engine rooms of the ship, as well as you will step on the Captain’s bridge.
Ice climbing. Feel what the alpinists usually experience when they have to overcome fragile, yet threatening glaciers. Learn the basics of ice climbing with an experienced local guide.
Floating. Get dressed in a floating suit and relish in the floating experience in the frozen waters. Don’t worry, the suit will keep you warm and your clothes dry.
These are the specialties of staying in Finland’s Lapland:
Kiruna, which was previously known as the coal capital of Sweden, tends to attract more and more tourists nowadays. Today, this is a great place to observe the northern lights in Sweden. The city is pretty large and has enough accommodation options, yet reaching it is much more troublesome than reaching Tromsø or Finland’s Lappland.
Abisko, on the other hand, is a train station, located around 95 kilometers away from Kiruna. Some travelers prefer to enjoy the northern lights in this place, whereas it has fewer tourists. There are only a few accommodation options available, but budget travelers tend to embark on the aurora borealis safari in this settlement. The proximity of wild nature is, perhaps, one of the reasons for this.
And while these are the best places for the northern lights safari in Sweden’s Lapland, this region wouldn’t be suitable to everyone. If you expect to combine your aurora borealis experience with a variety of other winter tours, the other two destinations (Finland’s Lapland and Norway’s Finnmark) might be more suitable for that. But if you are ready to stand a bit of a hassle (Sweden’s Lapland is most difficult to reach), this region, indeed, may surprise you!
Between these three alternatives, getting to Sweden’s Lapland is the most troublesome process. The easiest way to get to Kiruna is to take a train from Stockholm. Also, you can take a train either from Oslo or from Stockholm to Abisko. There are also around 4 daily direct flights from Stockholm to Kiruna.
If you are in Kiruna and would like to go to Abisko, you may reach it by train, taxi, or car. Keep in mind to check the schedule of trains when you fly by plane to Kiruna – you might not succeed to get on the train in time.
Kiruna is a relatively large city, and you can expect to find there at least a few dozen hotels and three dozen restaurants. Particularly, this city is known for the Kiruna Ice Hotel, which is a special experience yet must be booked well in advance. The room prices typically start from 150 Euro per night.
Abisko, on the other hand, has only very few accommodation options and no hotels, which is not surprising. Likewise, there are only a few places where you can eat something. And obviously, there are no tourist attractions in this settlement.
And while there are not so many activities in comparison to the alternative destinations, there is likely to be an activity that you may like. Just like the previous destinations, this region can offer dog sledding, reindeer sledding, snowmobiling, ice fishing, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing tours. What’s unusual, though, is that you can try ice climbing in Abisko.
Additionally, this region offers the following activities to the visitors:
And even though there are not many special tours and activities, there is still something different this region can offer. If you are going to embark on a northern lights safari tour in this region, it is worth to consider combining it with other activities.
Northern Lights Phototour. An experienced local guide and photographer will take you to the best spot for shooting aurora borealis photos in Kiruna. During this tour, you will learn the basics of the northern light/night photography, but be sure to bring up warm clothes and gloves.
Moose safari. Do you imagine yourself on an Icelanding horse hunting for the pictures of moose in the woods? That’s something that this unusual tour has to offer to you – there are no similar tours in Norway’s north and Finland’s Lapland. At the end of the tour, you will have a lunch at a farm.
Cave adventure. Find your way through one of the longest cave system in Sweden, called Kåppasjåkka.
These are the region’s specialties:
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