Travel Report: 5 Day Photo trip to Tromso (Norway) in Feb 2019 to see the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights)
Day 1: Munich -> Tromsoe (Radisson Blu Tromso)
Day 2: Tromsoe -> Fjellheisen Peak
Day 3: Tromsoe -> Käsivarrentie 11323, 99470 Enontekiö, Finnland
Day 4: Tromsoe -> Tromso Ice Domes, Øverbygd, Norwegen & Fjellheisen Peak
Day 5: Tromsoe -> Copenhagen -> Munich
Finding out where to see Northern Lights, when is the best time to travel and how to get to the most convenient places most easily, reminded me of my studies and cost me a few days of research on the net.
In the end, Tromso was the destination in Norway. It is considered one of the best and safest places to photograph northern lights. Also one of the most expensive and most visited places. Therefore: book early, otherwise you can be unlucky and all hotels are fully booked or at least extremely expensive. Unfortunately, we decided very late (14 days before departure) and paid the appropriate price, as not only the hotels were scarce and then expensive (we got the last room in the SAS Radisson Blue), but also the excursions were partly no longer available. For this reason, we booked the aurora tour by minibus (VIP) from “Chasing Lights” when booking a trip. This is not the cheapest provider, but on YouTube there were very good reports, so we decided for this. The tour price is about 180, – Euro p.P. But there are also providers, the comparable tours already for 150, – Euro p.P. to offer. The easiest way to travel from Germany is by plane. From Munich, depending on the season even non-stop possible and the flight lasts 3.5 hours. Otherwise it is also directly via Frankfurt. Alternatively, you can travel from Germany via Copenhagen, Stockholm or Oslo. Then takes longer. From Tromso airport you can either take the bus or a taxi to the city center. With 2 people the price is about the same for Taxi and bus. Bus is 100 kroner per person and taxi costs about 200 kroner overall, but is much faster and more convenient.
Local currency: NOK (Norwegian krone), but Euros are mostly accepted. For payments or cash withdrawals, you can use your credit card anywhere in the country.
Vaccinations: Coming from Germany, no vaccinations are required. However, the standard vaccinations are recommended, see suggestions Foreign Office.
Luggage: If you arrive by plane, then you should only pay attention to the weight limit of the airline. Otherwise unproblematic, also with regard to the photo luggage.
Helpful: A headlamp, because you’re mostly out in the dark. Handy flashlight does it too hard, but often does not shine far enough and you only have one hand free.
In Norway it is winter (Feb) and cold. Therefore we packed warm clothes, thermo underwear and everything else for the well-known “onion principle” necessary, as well as our meanwhile worldwide proven hiking boots. A total of 2 suitcases and the small photo backpack Lowepro Runner 350. Most people just went with their “ski clothes” through the city, etc. It is important to have a waterproof jacket with you, as there can be rain as well as snow.
This should be packed carefully and according to personal needs. Important in all trips is putting together the first aid kit BEFORE the trip. At least the following should be included:
- Band-aid / dressings,
- Pain and fever remedies
- Anti-inflammatory agents
- Remedy for gastrointestinal
Depending on the travel area additionally:
- Malaria Prophylaxe
- Insect repellents
- Motion sickness tablets
- Remedy for allergy
- Good sunprotection
The big telephoto lenses we have left this time at home. There are white-tailed eagles in Tromso, but they are not the main target and for the trip the wide-angle, the small zooms and the medium telephoto zoom seemed sufficient. Also included: additional replacement batteries (!), Because of the cold.
Day 1: At 8 o’clock the plane takes off. Unfortunately, the weather forecast does not bode well for our trip. For the next 4 days cloudy sky is announced and rain or snowfall. Unfortunately, these are not good conditions for the Polar Lights expedition, because polar lights can only be seen in clear skies. In addition, no good conditions for shooting from the mountain station in Tromsö. The tension increases accordingly. When landing in Tromso (the airport is really cute) you leave the plane by stairs and gets at least in February a good impression what sleet means. The wind whips us in the face and the jacket is quickly drenched. For the last second decided against the ski clothes (which in hindsight was a mistake).
We take a taxi. It costs about 200 NOK (about 20 euros) and is fast and reliable. There is a strict regiment in the hotel and no one is allowed to check in before 3pm. The suitcases can be left in there locker room very easy and so we take off on a first exploration tour at 1:30pm. First to the harbor, then into the pedestrian area and after an hour you have actually seen almost everything.
Since we are hungry we go to an Asian, at the harbor. Eat sushi, which is priced ok and high quality. The restaurant is called Sushi Point “Lotus”. At 3pm we are back at the hotel (German punctuality) and just in time for a group. We had booked a standard room (12sqm) and are overjoyed to be upgraded to a junior suite with at least 29sqm. The Radisson Blu is conveniently located right on the harbor and everything can be explored river. Also recommendable are the Scandic and the Clarion at the harbor.
Unfortunately, it is raining like hell and together with the snow / ice on the road everything is going in the wrong direction. We go back to the hotel and use first the fitness center. After that, it’s half past 7, we head for Mack’s Beer Halls, also known as “Oelhallen”, Norway’s oldest and northernmost brewery. Arrived there and quite wet, despite the umbrellas from the hotel, we realize that there are over 70 beers, but unfortunately nothing to eat. Since we are hungry, we go back and land again in the restaurant “Lotus”, which is only 5 minutes from the hotel. The food is again excellent, as is the service and above all the price for Norwegian standards.
A small tip for those who forgot: Norway is not a member of the EU. Therefore, for example. Amazon Prime Video is only very limited available (only Originals) and therefore you should download everything at home.
Day 2: It is still cloudy and even if we make the best of it, that depresses the mood. No lights with clouds and no visibility with snowfall. Everything rather suboptimal on this February day. The weather forecast changes almost every minute and you can only very roughly rely on it. It is positive that the snowfall is better than rain. The breakfast at the hotel is good and I recommend anyone to book it directly, as there are not really many options for breakfast in Tromsoe and if so, these are usually a short walk from the hotel. Although Tromsoe itself is a village, which has now adjusted to a rising tourism, with many hotels and restaurants in all price ranges but otherwise rather little to see. Although Tromsoe is quite “cute” as a small town, you have seen the interesting easily in half a day. The highlights are the cable car, the Ice Cathedral including the bridge to get there, the library (especially in the evening) and the pedestrian zone where there is another church at the end of it
At about 11 o’clock it stops snowing and we decide to start running. Shortly before the bridge it storms and snows again so strong that we turn around and go first to a café. We arrive at the Svermeri Café, which is totally cozy and attracts with great cakes, sandwiches, tea and coffee at reasonable prices. Highly recommended. After a good hour, the snowstorm subsides and we walk across the bridge to the cathedral. The way and the views are great and recommended, but annoying the noise of the cars and vice. From the hotel it is about 1.6 km walk to the cathedral. During the day rather unspectacular and 5 Euro entrance fee for the church is rather outrageous. We walk back and enjoy the way, before we stop for lunch in the “Kaffeebonna”. There are fantastic fresh bread sandwiches with tuna, great coffee and a cozy atmosphere, although it is very busy. At 2 pm we are back in the hotel and ready for the afternoon.
We want to get on the Fjellheisen peak by cable car. The taxi from the hotel costs just under 18 euros. It is a bit over 3km, you could possibly run synonymous, but since I take the tripod, but we take the taxi, at least for the way. The ascent and descent on the Fjellheisen costs about 20 euros per person and takes a good 4min. In clear weather, the view from the top is spectacular and a must do in Tromsoe. At the top it is still light and we take the first pictures.
Around 3:40pm is sunset and so we go then still in the mountain restaurant. 3 coffee, a cake and a chocolate bar later it is 4 pm and so slowly the lights of the city come to light.
A really great view, which is best enjoyed from the terrace of the mountain station. From here you can also take the best pictures. Tip: Lean a tripod on the parapet, then you have free “field of fire”, but pay attention to the vibrations of the cable car. It is best to take pictures when the gondola “stops”.
Meanwhile it has -5 degrees and we begin to freeze on the terrace after three quarters of an hour. Therefore, we warm up again briefly, stow the equipment and then take the gondola down. This time we walk all the way back, as we want to see the cathedral in the dark again. From the bridge you can take very nice pictures of Tromsoe at night, but you need a high ISO and short shutter speed because of the constant vibration from the cars. At 6 pm we are back at the hotel and ready for dinner.
We reserved a table in the restaurant Fiskekompaniet. A table reservation Fr-Sun is an absolute must in the good restaurants, at least if you want a nice table. We had reserved in the afternoon and from 8:30pm onwards it was already fully booked. That’s why we went to eat at 7pm, which was fully ok for us.
The table in the restaurant was great, the food also (the fish soup as a starter and cod as a main course and a dream Panna Cota for desert) and the service. However, this restaurant in Tromsoe also belongs to the “upscale”, which makes it not cheap, but worth every euro, if you like good food.
After the meal, the weather has improved significantly. It’s around zero degrees, no wind and clear skies. So I grab my photo equipment again and run for night shots of Tromsoe.
2 hours later I’m back and happy to have made this little tour yet. Unfortunately, there were no polar lights on Tromsoe to see the ambient light is too bright.
Day 3: It’s raining, while in the rest of Europe the sun is shining. There is also a lot of wind. It is uncomfortable. So we stay in bed for a long time and do not go to breakfast until around 9:30am, where we stay until 11 o’clock. Otherwise you can do little with the weather. After that, we rest, read, surf, etc., so things get around the clock. At about 2 pm the weather gets better and we go back to the kaffeebonna for one of the delicious sandwiches. Then it goes back to the hotel and we wait until 5pm. Then it’s time to get ready for the Chasing Lights Tour. Pickup – you get an email in the morning with all the data – is at 5:35pm, just 5min walk from the hotel.
On time at 5:45pm we get started. We are in the first bus. Marius our guide gives a short introduction and explains that we will drive towards Finland due to the weather. Long 3.5h are now in front of us, for a distance that is normally just under 3h (according to Google). Good that we did not know that. We are driving through a blizzard that is unparalleled and as hard as I have ever experienced. Partly we do not see 20m far. Then finally, about 20min behind the Finnish border it stops snowing and the sky is clear. You can see the stars, which is the essential prerequisite for seeing Northern Lights. Unfortunately, the wind has not stopped.
We pull the thick thermo overalls over our clothes and swap the hiking boots for snow boots. The face is covered over the nose with fleece to withstand the freezing wind. I set up the tripod and protect the camera with a plastic bag, which was blown away in 2 seconds and I have to run after. New attempt, this time I knot it. Tripod and camera bring a lot of weight and yet there are the strong wind with speeds up to 20km/h again and again vibrations, which make themselves visible in the long exposure unfortunately.
No matter what I try, large or small aperture, high or low ISO, long and short exposure, auto and manual, no matter, there are no sharp pictures, it is just too much wind and here and there too much snow in the air being whirled up by the wind. In the end, a few satisfactory shots succeed, but I am not really satisfied. But the most important thing was not the pictures, but to see and experience this unique phenomenon once in our lives and that’s what we have.
If possible, choose shutter speeds below 10 seconds and go up with the ISO. Another prerequisite for good pictures is a bright wide-angle lens.
We stay about 2 hours on site, make a campfire, eat our dinner and drink hot chocolate. You could almost call it romantic if the icy wind did not always whistle you in the face. It’s definitely a little adventure. Around midnight, we pack together and drive again.
The return journey lasts 4 hours and we feel the storm is going to get much worse. Every few kilometers, the Mini Van has to stop to free the disc and windscreen wipers from the ice. Then finally, shortly before 4, we are back in Tromsoe and fall a short time later fatigued to bed.
Day 4: The alarm clock is set to 10 o’clock and I stand upright in bed when it rings. Anyway, a great day, sunshine, clear skies, let’s go. Then my wife asks why I get up at 9 o’clock (?) … Shit, the phone has not returned from the Finnish time (+1). This unfortunately makes the night shorter. We go have breakfast and decide to take the trip to the ICE Dome Hotel in Tromsoe. We wonder if it will be worth the 90 euros per person. At 1pm it starts. Pick up with a bus at the neighboring hotel and then 1.5 hour drive. In Tromsoe it was -2 degrees at the hotel it has -14 degrees. A little difference. The hotel is inconspicuous from the outside, but from the inside really impressive and yes, the price for the trip is justified, if you take Norwegian standards.
There are 2 “ice halls” and while the first shows a movie about the construction, the 2nd is the restaurant and the bar. Next are the guest rooms that you can visit during the day. Each has a different motto and they look very cozy.
The hotel is warm -5 degrees and after just over an hour, it is then too cold and we go to the cabin, where we enjoy a hot tomato soup at a fire. After 2 hours it goes back and next to a great trip with many fjords and mountains, there is also a nice return journey in the dusk until we arrive in the dark in Tromsö. Since we did not eat much, we go directly. We land for the third time in Lotus Sushi Point, which is really recommendable. Different sushi’s and dumplings as well as 2 main dishes later we go to the hotel.
Somehow I feel like doing something and also hope that the sky clears up again. So I grab my camera and tripod and take a taxi (this time for 22,- Euros ??) to Fjellheisen mountain railway and up there on the mountain. This time it is very different. Few people and most are photo fans. All equipped with tripod and good cameras. It is cold, but hardly any wind. I walk first to the viewpoint and here my headlamp pays off again, because it is already very dark. The view of Tromsoe is great and offers the opportunity for some very nice night shots.
After a good hour I go back and drink a hot chocolate first. Also here are few people and a nice quiet mood, very different from the hustle and bustle 2 days ago. The 2 visits were definitely worth it. At 10:00 pm I take the cable car down and walk through the fresh night back to the hotel. That’s just under 3km and easy to do.
Day 5: Departure. We enjoy the good breakfast one last time, pack up and drive to the airport. The journey takes only 15min and so we have enough time at the airport. The check-in is as fast as the security check and in the end we had time for a coffee and a last view of the mountains before we board our plane to Copenhagen and then on to Munich.
CONCLUSION: A really nice short trip with great photo opportunities, in which only unfortunately the weather did not play quite as we would have wished. In better weather you could also do a boat tour (in winter as whale watching and in the summer – from 10 February – as a fjord tour offered, but is the same tour and the same boats.
A few tips to conclude: We have prepared ourselves so well in the shortness of time. The only mistake was the warm ski clothes not to take, so it would have been “warmer” and pleasant. Unfortunately, you have no influence on the weather and it changes constantly on the coast. However, if the forecast shows “clear” nights, it is best to book the Northern Lights Tour in advance. Whether it is worth to book the VIP tour vs. the normal “coach”? Hard to say. The routes are similar, but you get more on the VIP tour for the money (thermal suit, food, camp fire romance, etc.). I would book the VIP tour at least once. Tromsoe itself is a small town and everything is feasible. Nevertheless, we found it nice to have a hotel as central as possible, also we would recommend it. We think about revisiting Tromsoe in the summer, possibly as a stopover on the way to Spitsbergen.