How to see the northern lights in Tromsø, Norway

Girl standing in front of the northern lights in a snowy landscape in Norway, near the border with Finland

“The adventures of seeing the northern lights outdoors is always more enjoyable if you don’t freeze; we don’t need to be Vikings” our guide, Trine, told us, with a humourous ring to her voice, as we bundled out of the minivan, which she’d expertly driven 150 km out of Tromsø in Arctic Norway.

Feeling the harsh frigid air immediately penetrating through my jumper, I quickly pulled my waterproof ski jacket on, and on second thoughts decided to borrow one of the thermal suits from the boot. It didn’t do up properly – in my haste to not miss the lights, I hadn’t even checked the size – but it served as an extra layer.

Resembling the Michelin man, I stiffly walked down the van steps and made my way around the front of the vehicle to where my group stood, some of them with tripods already set up, cameras eagerly scanning the sky.

This northern lights tour had departed Tromsø a couple of hours earlier, and we’d drove to the border, listening to beguiling tales of how the aurora bolearis were discovered.

Here’s what to expect when booking a northern lights tour in Tromsø in February.

Can you see the northern lights in Tromsø?

View of the twinkling city beneath the arched northern lights

Yes, Tromsø is one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights!

Due to its northern location – 220 miles north of the Arctic Circle – and the fact that the surrounding countryside has very little light pollution, conditions are often prime to witness the aurora.

I went on two winter trips with the hope of seeing the northern lights this year – one in Tromsø in February and one in Reykjavik in January. While Tromsø is typically thought of as the better of the two to see the phenomenon, for me they were much stronger in Iceland.

I think this was just chance, but it goes to show that while Tromsø is an excellent northern lights destination, it doesn’t mean that they’re guaranteed.

However, Tromsø remains one of the best places to visit Norway in the winter months, and the chance to see northern lights are a big part of that!

What are the Northern Lights?

Phenomenon on the northern lights near Tromso

The northern lights, or aurora borealis, are a natural light display that occurs when electrical solar wind from the sun collides with the magnetic field of the Earth’s atmosphere.

The result is a colourful display of light that can be seen in the night sky.

The colours of the northern lights can vary, but they often include shades of green, pink, and purple. The intensity of the display can also vary, from a faint glow to a dazzling light show.

You can see the lights on an aurora borealis tour 

How to See the Northern Lights in Tromsø

View of the green glowing northern lights on the horizon in Northern Norway

There are several ways to see the northern lights in Tromsø.

One of the best options is to join a guided tour; boat and bus tours are available. 

Many local tour companies offer northern lights tours that include transportation to and from viewing locations, as well as expert guides who can help you spot the aurora borealis and explain the science behind the phenomenon.

Another option is to rent a car and drive to a viewing location outside of the city. Some popular spots for aurora viewing include Sommarøy Island, Kvaløya Island, and Ersfjord.

If you prefer to stay in the city, there are also several places where you can view the northern lights. The Tromsø Cable Car, which takes visitors up to the top of Mount Storsteinen, offers panoramic views of the city and surrounding landscape. The Arctic Cathedral is another popular spot for aurora viewing, with its large windows and modern design providing an ideal viewing platform.

Booking a tour VS going independently

Glowy lights in the night sky, with the city lights twinkling beneath

Although it’s technically possible to see the northern lights independently, I’d recommend booking a tour for the following reasons:

  • Driving conditions: The Arctic can be a wild place in winter, with high winds, snowstorms and icy roads. If you go on a tour, you’ll have a driver who’s used to these conditions – some even learned to drive here – making exploring the surroundings much safer.
  • Aurora forecast: Of course, it’s possible for anyone to access the aurora forecast, but your guide will get up-to-date information from other people hunting clear skies, increasing your chances of seeing the lights substantially.
  • Late-night driving: Even if the driving conditions are prime, you’ll be driving a few hours out of Tromsø late at night… which means that you need to drive back! Our guide told us that she’d been sleeping all day in preparation for the tour, so I felt in much safer hands with her driving than if someone in our group had attempted it after sightseeing all day.
  • You’ll learn more: All tours come with experienced guides; ours entertained us with interesting stories about Tromsø, along with facts surrounding the northern lights. It was an educational experience that helped me appreciate what we saw of the lights on a whole new level.

Of course, going independently has one benefit: it’s a budget option, much cheaper than booking a tour. However, unless you’re incredibly lucky, I don’t think that you’ll have the same experience seeing them independently – and taking a tour with somebody who knows the area is a lot safer.

Review of our tour: seeing the northern lights in Tromsø in February

“Can we go into Finland?” We asked the guide when she told us our best chance of seeing the enigmatic northern lights was right on the border. “Maybe!” She responded. “We ended up in Finland last night”.

“Can we go even if we don’t have to?” a few of us, who were country counters, responded.

We’d boarded a bus at 7:00 pm and journeyed out of the city, into the Arctic conditions.

Our friendly driver, Trine, was also our guide. “Don’t worry” she told us. “I’m used to these conditions, and I’m a woman! I can definitely multitask!”

She journeyed out of the city and started navigating a valley. “I’ll be a little quiet when I go through this part” she explained. “The valley can be a bit difficult – there have been seven avalanches here just today!”.

After an hour and a half, we stopped at a petrol station, making a beeline for the toilets. I just purchased a Kvikk Lunsj, a Norwegian kit kat, but they also sold vegan burgers, hot dogs and fries for fairly cheap rates.

As we bundled back into the bus, Trine started explaining about the lights. “70% just see a still, green aurora,” she told us. “Don’t expect to see a rainbow of colours, all dancing in the dark sky, but if you lower your expectations you’ll still be impressed”.

As we drove further and further eastwards, away from the coastline, we started to see groups of people standing around their vans, necks craned to the sky. “There are lots of chasers in the valley. We read the same weather forecast!” Trine told us, before slowing to a halt on the side of the road. “Let’s see what we can see here!”.

Seeing the northern lights

Green lights glowing in the sky, near Tromso in Norway

As we clambered out of the van, I eyeballed the overalls in the back of the van. I was already wearing thermals, tracksuit bottoms and a jumper and full ski gear, but standing still on an Arctic night didn’t seem too appealing.

“The adventures of seeing the northern lights outdoor are always more enjoyable if you don’t freeze to death” Trine commented, as people started disembarking.

Hastily, I pulled on an overall, not knowing what size it was but keen to have the extra thermal warmth, and plodded around the bus, feeling like a penguin.

Looking up, there was a smudge of green in the sky. “We’ll see if they do anything” Trine commented, as we all stood quietly.

She’d set up a camera, and we took turns standing in front of it, having our photo taken. While the northern lights weren’t overwhelming, they were certainly there, but they stayed still for the whole time, just a smear on the night sky.

“Let’s see if we can find something better” Trine rallied us up. “there are no northern lights in the sky so we’re going to go to Finland!”

Northern lights in Finland?

Woman and man standing infront of a dim glow of the northern lights near Tromso in Norway

“Here’s the border!” I pointed out to Richard, my partner, as I saw a looming EU sign on the horizon. We both let out a whelp – it was my 62nd country, and Rich’s 84th.

The bus pulled up just after the border, and, bundled up in overalls again, I gingerly stepped off the van.

“There’s not that much aurora activity”, Trine told us. “But let’s make a fire, have a hot drink and snack, and see what happens”.

We took a few photos with the “Welcome to Finland” sign, drunk a cup of hot chocolate and enjoyed a slice of cake. Unfortunately, we didn’t see the lights again, but we enjoyed the atmosphere and chatted about the Arctic, gazing at the sky but to no avail.

However, such is part and parcel of seeing the northern lights in Norway – they’re never guaranteed!

We all fell asleep on the bus on the way back but were dropped back at Thon Hotel Tromsø.

While we didn’t see the northern lights at their brightest, we learned about the lights and a little more about the Arctic life, saw some of the snow-covered countryside (albeit in darkness) and, of course, made it to Finland; so it didn’t feel like a waste of a trip at all!

Northern lights tours from Tromsø

There are lots of options for northern lights tours that you can take from Tromsø.

Some include an activity like husky sledding, whereas others just head straight to where the aurora borealis is strongest. Or, you can sail away from Tromsø harbour and view the lights from a boat!

Here are some of the best tours to see the amazing lights: 

All-Inclusive Northern Lights Chase Minibus Tour

On this tour, you’ll the lights with an expert, enjoying local stories and scientific explanations while searching for the lights in the beautiful Arctic north.

While waiting for the tour, you’ll savour warm food and roast marshmallows by a bonfire.

As you gaze at the lights, you’ll have the chance to take some stunning photos – even if you’re a beginner photographer – and return to Tromsø after an unforgettable night.

Northern Lights Chase with Free Photos

This wonderful Tromsø northern lights tour has the extra bonus of including awesome photos on its aurora tours. 

You’ll head out into the dark nights around Tromsø, experiencing the awe-inspiring natural wonder of the lights on this intimate small-group tour led by an expert guide.

Follow the chase as your guide navigates the Arctic weather, to maximising your chances of spotting the dazzling display.

After you find the perfect spot, you can capture the Northern Lights with your camera, with the help of your knowledgeable guide.

As you wait for the lights to appear, you can stay warm with hot drinks and cookies. 

This personalized tour is limited to 16 guests, allowing your guide to provide individual attention and answer any questions.

A wide selection of high-resolution photos taken by your guide will be shared with the group after the tour.

Northern Lights Chase by Boat

While Tromsø’s countryside is a magnificent location to enjoy the lights, some of the best tours at night are on the water!

On this tour, you’ll MS Polar Adventure at the Tromsø dock for a magical arctic night experience.

The boat departs at 8pm nightly in search of the northern lights. Help yourself to unlimited warm and cold drinks and don a thermal suit for warmth.

The crew will assist with your camera settings, enabling you to take fabulous photos. 

The boat will stay with the Northern Lights as long as possible, returning at 11:30 pm. 

A free new tour is available if you don’t see the lights on your first night, and bad weather may result in rescheduling, so I’d recommend booking as early as possible during your time in Tromsø.

Reindeer Sled, Dinner, and Northern Lights Day Trip

Embark on a nighttime reindeer sledding adventure from Tromsø to learn about Sami culture on this tour.

Feed wild reindeer, ride in a sled, and savor a traditional Sami meal of stew (meat and vegetarian options available) in a candlelit gamme.

Hear Sami stories and songs inside a cozy Sami lavvu (comfortable lavvus are temporary structures used by Sami people) and keep an eye out for the northern lights on the horizon above the hut. 

Along with the northern lights, it’s one of the best ways to see reindeer in Tromsø.

When to See the Northern Lights in Tromsø

You’ve got a chance of seeing the northern lights in Tromsø if you visit any time from late September to early April.

During this time, there’s enough darkness to see the auroras; and the closer you are to December (particularly the winter equinox on 21st December), the higher a chance you have of seeing them!

In particular, visit Tromsø during Polar Night season, which runs from November 21st until about January 21st, when the city is dark for pretty much 24 hours per day. You might notice some light on the horizon in the daytime, but the sun never actually rises.

We (kind of) saw the northern lights in Tromsø in February, which is one of the best months to see them – although we could have had more of a chance of seeing them in November, December or January.

Bright lights lighting up the sky, with a snowy landscape underneath

Tips for Viewing the Northern Lights in Tromsø

Here are my best tips for aurora hunting! 

  • Check the weather forecast: Clear skies are essential for aurora viewing, so be sure to check the weather forecast before you head out. Of course, if you’re on a tour, they should do this for you!
  • Dress warmly: Tromsø can be very cold in the winter months – when the aurora is at its brightest – so dress in warm layers, including a hat and gloves.
  • Bring a camera and use the right settings: Often, the northern lights are much brighter through a camera! If you have an iPhone, there’s an app called northern lights photo taker that has prime settings for capturing the phenomenon.
  • Lower your expectations: Like most natural phenomena, the lights are unpredictable! You might need to spend some time waiting for them to show up – and don’t be disappointed if they don’t!
  • Respect the environment: The Arctic’s a fragile environment, so respect it and leave no trace when you’re aurora viewing. Take all rubbish with you and stay on designated paths and areas.

Other things to do in Tromsø

The arctic cathedral, covered in snow, close to Tromso

While some people base an entire trip on seeing the lights – they are a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many, there are so many other things to do in Tromsø in winter. In fact, it’s an excellent winter city break location.

Here are some of my favourites: 

  • experience Sami week in February, complete with reindeer racing
  • see the city’s landmarks, like the Arctic Cathedral
  • explore Tromsø’s museums, including the Polar Museum and Troll Museum
  • go on a fjord cruise boat tour
  • have a night time Sami experience 

Tromsø northern lights FAQs

Beautiful lights in the sky near Tromso

How often are the Northern Lights visible in Tromsø?

Also known as aurora borealis, the northern lights are visible in Tromsø every year from late September to early April. However, they aren’t visible every night – they depend on various factors such as solar activity, weather conditions, and darkness. On average, they are visible 2-3 times per week in Tromsø during the peak season.

How much does it cost to see the northern lights in Tromsø?

The cost of seeing the northern lights in Tromsø varies depending on the type of tour; generally they’re around $100 USD but more extensive tours cost more. Of course, you’ll need to pay for flights and accommodation too, which varies hugely depending on the time you’re in town and where you’re travelling from. 

What is the best month to see Northern Lights in Norway?

The northern lights viewing season is September to early April, when you’ll experience the longest and darkest nights – the other half of the year, you probably won’t see dark sloes at all! But weather and solar activity can also impact visibility, so it’s important to keep an eye on the forecast.

What is the cheapest way to see the northern lights?

The cheapest way to see the northern lights is to see them by luck! You can spot them if you’re driving independently around places like Iceland or Northern Norway. However, you have less of a chance of seeing them on your own. You can use budget airlines to visit places like Iceland or Norway, and stay at cheap accommodation. 

Do the northern lights come out every night?

The northern lights, also known as aurora borealis, are a natural phenomenon which aren’t visible every night. They happen when charged solar wind from the sun interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field. Their appearance depends on various factors such as solar activity, weather conditions, and the time of year.

Is it always night in Tromso?

Tromsø encounters polar nights during winter when the sun remains below the horizon for an extended period, resulting in 24-hour darkness and just a little dusk light. However, during summer, the city experiences midnight sun, where the sun does not set below the horizon, and it’s bright throughout the night.

Can I see northern lights on my own?

It’s possible to see the northern lights independently if you’re in a location with a clear view of the northern horizon and little light pollution. It’s recommended to join a guided tour with experienced guides who know the best places to view the lights and can provide information about the science behind them.

Do I need to book a tour for the northern lights?

It isn’t necessary to book a tour to see the northern lights, but it’s highly recommended. Professional tour companies have experienced guides who know the road conditions and best locations and times to see the lights. They’ll also provide warm clothing, equipment, and transportation and know what to do in an emergency. Without a tour, you may miss the lights or face safety concerns.

Is Sweden or Norway better for northern lights?

Both Sweden and Norway are great destinations for viewing the Northern Lights. However, Norway has better chances of seeing them as more of its cities and towns are situated further north. But you could visit Sweden’s northernmost region, Lapland; though ultimately, it depends on factors such as location, weather conditions, and luck.

Are you ready for your northern lights Tromsø tour? 

Due to its location in northern Norway, Tromsø is the perfect place to see the northern lights.

While they were different from the dancing lights I experienced in Iceland, we got a good glimpse of some green on the horizon, and made it across the border into Finland!

You’re never guaranteed to see the aurora anywhere in the north; in fact, many people who plan a northern lights trip dedicate more than one night to finding them, but they still provide an amazing experience for anyone who wants to gaze over the horizon.

With all of the activities and other fun things to do in Tromsø, it’s the perfect location to wait for them to come out to play! 

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