Locals’ best tips to see the northern lights

Where on earth are the top places to see the northern lights? The locals who grew up with the magic, reveal their secret spots and viewpoints.

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Stay safe when you chase the northern lights

When you’re going out to see the northern lights without a guide, follow these simple rules to make sure you get an enjoyable experience.

1. Always wear a reflective vest or reflective bands when walking by all types of streets and roads.

2. Never park at bus stops; it may cause dangerous situations.

3. When going on foot, be sure to stay off the road itself, as locals can drive quite fast. Around corners, they will not expect to find people on or by the road.

4. Roadside parking is prohibited on roads with speed limits of 80 kilometres or more.

5. Be aware that snow clearing is operating at all hours. Avoid to get your car locked in by snow masses.

Check out our packing and clothing tips.

Fed up with the usual travel experts? The ones who are eager to point you in the direction of the northern lights? What happens if you ask local wise Arctic people instead?

Northern Norway counts nearly 500,000 people, and here you’ll meet seven of them: a kayak paddler, a reindeer herder, a local radio employee, a surfer, a cultural coordinator at a hospital, a musician, and a taxi driver.

Experience the aurora borealis with the natives

They may lead different lives, but they have one thing in common: They know the best neighbouring spots to observe the northern lights in peace and quiet. And because the climate is often milder in Norway than in other parts of the world where you can see the northern lights, these locals are likely to be outdoors with you when you want to experience the magic, whether you are in Lofoten, in the Tromsø area, on or near The North Cape, on the mountain plateau of the Sami people in Finnmark, or in Svalbard.

See how Noah (12) from Australia reacted when he finally got to experience the biggest dream of his life: to see the Northern lights in Northern Norway!

The urbanist’s northern lights in Tromsø

“We are lucky to be able to observe the northern lights on an everyday basis, like on our way to school or work in the early morning”, says Aggie Frost, a known musician known for a rather Arctic soundscape, who even made an acoustic piece called Aurora Lily. When she’s not making music herself, she is busy being a communication manager for The Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra.

“My low-key tip to see the northern lights when you are in the city centre of Tromsø with limited time is to head to the street of Parkgata. It’s close to the city park Kongsbakken, which has no streetlights to disturb the experience”, Aggie says.

Here, in the darker street by the park, you sense a huge difference compared to the busy city streets.

A couple of kilometres from Tromsø city centre is the beautiful lake of Prestvannet.

“This nature reserve with no artificial illumination is an evocative spot to see the northern lights in peaceful surroundings a 20-minute walk from the city centre”, she adds.

With her band called Frost, Aggie has often toured many parts of Norway underneath the auroral oval. Like the city of Alta, which has got a new public bath including large, open-air tubs.

“Bathing under the northern lights is quite the fancy Arctic experience”, she says with a laugh.

The taxi driver in Svalbard

Wiggo Antonsen is a busy taxi driver in Longyearbyen, the administrative settlement of the Svalbard Islands which are situated halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. He is not only a local personality but also an international celebrity thanks to his stout participation in the popular BBC documentary series Life on the Edge.

”Some tourists believe they must travel to the end of the world to see the northern lights, but my motto is that there is no reason to go further than necessary. In the encompassing dark of Svalbard, the magic experience will be the same everywhere”, he says with a laugh inside his big, luxuriant beard.

Wiggo Antonsen recommends the northern lights app alert (Aurora Forecast 3D), "to avoid hits and misses.” Whilst you’re at it, he thinks you should prepare well to be able to take decent photographs of the northern lights. He strongly recommends bringing a tripod, “which will make a huge impact on the result. Trying to capture the northern lights is like striving to take a portrait of hyperactive children”, he says.

“But don’t ask me to help you. I am a taxi driver, not a photo specialist”, Wiggo states with another laugh.

"I get funny requests all the time, like when a tourist from India asked me to drive him to see a polar bear”, he tells.

“The profession of taxi driving hasn’t made me rich, but I’m here to stay.”

The reindeer herder in Finnmark

Reindeer herder Jon Mikkel Eira lives nearby the village of Karasjok in the county of Finnmark and runs Ravdol Reindeer Herding with his family near the lake of Nattvatn.

“The main advantage of travelling to Finnmark to observe the northern lights is that the area is far lesser advertised than rivalling northern light destinations. There are also fewer people living here and a lot of undisturbed nature with peaceful observing spots”, Jon Mikkel promises.

The centre of Karasjok is so compact that you only need to take a short stroll off the main street to get an undisturbed view of the northern lights, he says.

“But wherever you go, and regardless of the distance, remember warm clothing”, he advises.

In winter time this mountain plateau in the inland can get really freezing. In 2018, the coldest day was in February with minus 37,8 degrees Celsius. And that’s just perfect, according to Jon Mikkel.

“The colder the better. When the temperatures are low, chances of a cloud-free sky are good”, he states.

Although both cold and compact, Karasjok has three hotels and camping alternatives with modern winter-friendly lodges. Norway’s main road E6 also runs through it.

“A one hour drive towards the city of Lakselv, you will find a signposted viewing point that is also a really good spot for seeing the northern lights”, Jon Mikkel says.

“In the other direction towards Finland, still by the E6 main road, you will stumble across similarly good viewpoints”, he adds, whilst pointing out that the locals never get tired of the northern lights. Although in January, when the sun finally marks the beginning of the end of the polar night, is considered as a greater happening.

The kayak paddler around Lofoten and Kvaløya

In the daytime, Anita Andresen has an ordinary administrative office job. But as soon as she is off duty, she joins a group she simply calls her “paddling friends”.

All year round, sometimes several times a week, they gather to share their passion for kayaking. It can happen around the island of Kvaløya or in the archipelago of Lofoten.

“But few things beat the sensation of kayaking whilst you see the northern lights above you and at the same time beneath you in the water, the luminous effect of what we in Norwegian call ‘morild’”, Anita explains.

Morild is a so-called milky sea effect, a glowing phosphorescent phenomenon caused by bioluminescent planktons.

Whilst enjoying nature, Anita and her paddling companions have experienced to be really close to whales. Within a distance of ten metres, actually. “As far as I know, there has never been an accident. We also paddle along with seals that are curious to get to know us, as well as many bird species.”

Anita got to learn how to handle a kayak from her friend Lise Haug Halvorsen, who runs the Elements Arctic Camp that specialises in organised kayak trips.

At the end of their evening journey, the group decide if they will return home or if they will simply spend their night outdoors in hammocks in fully insulated sleeping bags.

The surfer on the coast of Andøya island

Anders Stave, a doctor in the city of Andenes in Vesterålen, is a driving force behind the local hub for surfers. The Andøya Surf Club is a friends’ group that is open to both new members and travelling surfers.

“To see waves of light above you whilst you’re surfing on the waves of the sea is a truly special but also rare experience”, Anders tells.

The main challenge is not only the dark season but the fact that the only glimpse of light you get when you’re balancing on your board usually comes from the northern lights.

“The useful rules of the mountain code, about dressing properly for unexpected weather conditions and making sure to stay safe, also applies on the sea”, Anders says. He also remembers one experience when he was accompanied by several orcas, about ten metres long and with fins measuring about two metres. “I admit it was quite scary, and we decided to return to shore before anything happened.”

Anders and his friends occasionally change their outfits from wetsuits to wool clothing, to hike the hill of the most famous site on the island of Andøya: the Andøya Space Centre.

Another hot spot recommended by Anders is the largest breakwater in Northern Europe, located at the harbour of his home city of Andenes. “Here you will find the combination of the sea and the northern lights, and it’s almost like standing on a giant board”, he laughs.

“There are many more ways to see the northern lights, of course”, he adds. “Personally, I have had cool experiences with snowboarding near the coast. You should try that, too.”

How to take pictures of the northern lights

Camera: A camera with interchangeable lenses is best, but in principle, you can use any camera you want. The bigger and more modern the imaging chip, the less grainy the pictures will be.

Remote trigger: A cable release fitting your camera will be invaluable in reducing the vibration. It can be used in addition to or instead of the trigger delay timer built into most cameras today. If you don’t have a remote trigger, use the trigger delay instead.

Sturdy tripod: Avoid blurring of the picture from camera movement. A good head which allows independent adjustment of each axis is best. If your tripod is unstable, try hanging something heavy from the centre column.

Lens: Use a wide-­angle lens, preferably with a focal length between 10 and 24 mm and an aperture of f/1.4 or f/2.8 (but apertures up to f/4 might also work). Manual focus adjustment is a must.

Smartphone: If you only have a phone, download a camera replacement app so that you can change the camera settings.

Read more about how to photograph the northern lights.

The radio employee at the radio of The North Cape

Nature photographer Kjell Bendik Pedersen works at Radio Nordkapp, a radio station full of charming, local stories with a loyal audience in the larger area around the world-famous viewpoint at The North Cape.

The plateau itself is officially closed during winter and only accessible by organised, chauffeured convoys. Kjell Bendik, however, knows many other equally special spots for getting a really good sight of the northern lights and taking that perfect picture. That is, in fact, his speciality.

The bay of Skipsfjorden is amongst his absolute favourites.

“At the beautiful Seibukta bay, there is a parking spot along the E69 road that is cleared of snow during winter. There, you can observe the northern lights in peaceful surroundings”, Kjell Bendik explains.

“I’m also a fan of the fjord of Tufjorden on the coast of the island of Magerøya, a viewpoint on the way to The North Cape, because the undisturbed landscape lets me work with time lapse without interruption”, he says.

Kjell Bendik lives in the area’s far biggest city, Honningsvåg with a population of around 2,000 people. But around The North Cape, you’ll also find small towns and places like Kåfjord, Repvåg, Skarsvåg, Nordvågen, Kjelvik, Valan, Gjesvær, and Kamøyvær.

“In Honningsvåg there is so little electric lighting that a shady corner will be sufficient to fully enjoy the northern lights. And then you can grab a beer afterwards”, Kjell Bendik points out.

Inger Lise’s lights in Troms county

In the vast county of Troms, you’ll find native Inger Lise Ebeltoft, a cultural coordinator at Tromsø’s hospital and former international top model in Milan, Paris, and New York. She has reunited with Tromsø and the northern lights of her childhood and youth.

Inger Lise sees a lot of opportunities to go to the countryside around Tromsø to avoid disturbing her northern light experience with urban lightings.

“For seeing the northern lights right northwest of Tromsø, I recommend driving approximately one hour to the charming, small village of Hansnes, and eventually to jump on the ferry to the large island of Vannøya or to the peaceful, smaller island of Karlsøy”, Inger Lise says.

“In the west of Tromsø you can go by car or bus to the vast island of Kvaløya, which has plenty of good, crowd-free spots, like the small towns of Kvaløyvågen and Skulsfjord, and the outermost beautiful peninsula of Sommarøy”, she continues.

In the opposite direction eastwards, you will find the fjord of Balsfjord, which is reachable within an hour even when you go all the way to its inner end and the village of Nordkjosbotn.

Inger Lise grew up lying on her back in the garden outside of her family’s house by the waterfront staring at the lights. “And for sure, I still find the northern lights mysteriously interesting, because they appear different every time”, she says.

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