Land of the midnight sun and the wizard’s wand spectacle of the aurora borealis, Northern Norway is where the wild things are – in more ways than one.
Foreign visitors per year: 520,000
Main town: Tromso
Languages: Norwegian, Sami
Major industries: oil and gas, aquaculture, minerals, tourism
Unit of currency: Norwegian krone (Nkr)
Cost index: glass of Arctic Beer Nkr60 (US$10), hotel double per night Nkr750-1400 (US$125-233), Sami reindeer hide Nkr500 (US$83), dog-sledding excursion Nkr1250 (US$208).
Why go ASAP?
Hey, who turned out the lights? Land of the midnight sun and the wizard’s wand spectacle of the aurora borealis, Northern Norway is always light fantastic, but in 2015 all light disappeared totally for a couple of minutes when the moon blocks out the sun. Put 20 March in your diary and book your ticket to this epic blackout. The best place to witness one of the most stunning celestial events of the century? The frozen wilderness of Svalbard, an archipelago midway between Norway and the North Pole, where polar bears outnumber people. If you missed the total solar eclipse, you’ve got a long wait – the next one in Europe will be in 2026.
Not only the weather is cool north of the Arctic Circle in Norway. Base yourself in party-loving Tromso, home to the world’s northernmost university, to hit some of its happening jazz bars after a day spent reindeer sledding. Bodo, too, is both gorgeously remote and surprisingly hip, with new-wave Scandi restaurants like Smak reinventing the culinary scene, clubs like Dama Di ramping up the nightlife and London-based street artist Phlegm making a splash on the city streets. Northern Norway is where the wild things are in more ways than one.
Festivals & Events:
The Sami host a week of traditional festivities in early February — the highlight is the reindeer-racing championships.
Spandex-clad runners hit the streets of Tromso at 70°N for the Midnight Sun Marathon in late June.
Bodo swings into summer at the Nordland Music Festival in August, a 10-day bash of classical, jazz, rock and folk music.
You’ll need to slip into a dry-suit and dive into the frozen sea to catch king crab in Kirkenes from December to April, but it might just be the best crab you’ve ever tasted.
Northern Norway is going to blow your mind with its heartbreakingly beautiful landscapes of glaciers and fjord-riven mountains, all bathed in crystal-clear light. Welcome to one of Europe’s last great wildernesses. Experiences like crossing the Arctic Circle as the aurora borealis comes out to play, spotting polar bears – not too close, mind – on the icy tundra of Spitsbergen and eating reindeer stew in a fire-warmed Sami lavoo tent will be etched on your memory for ever more. Spend a while lapping up the gentle island pace in Kjerringoy, watching sea eagles wheel and whales splash around in the ocean in the Tolkienesque Lofoten Islands, and hiking in the glacial grandeur of the Saltfjellet-Svartisen National Park and you may never want to leave, we swear.
Where the northern lights shine so too does Sami culture. The indigenous Sami have been in Northern Norway longer than anyone, their lives shaped by the seasons and the migratory patterns of reindeer herding. Technological advances (snowmobiles and helicopters to track reindeer, for instance) aside, the Sami way of life remains rooted in tradition. They have their own language, parliament, dress and dwellings – the tepee-like, reindeer-skin-clad lavoo. If you’re lucky enough to be invited into one, you’ll probably be treated to a joik or two. Sung from the heart, these soulful, enigmatic poems are often odes to friends and family, defined more by rhythm than rhyme.
Reindeer, stewed Sami-style with juniper berries, wild mushrooms, sour cream and thyme (finnbff), or roast (reinsdyrstek), is a red-meat treat, as are elk burgers and steaks. An oddity on the Norwegian breakfast table, brunost is a cheese that is, well, not actually cheese but sweetish, brownish, fudgy whey. Yum, huh? Simply slice and layer onto dense rye bread. The fish from icy Arctic waters are top quality, and just-caught cod and salmon never taste better than simply grilled on an open fire and served by a fjord. Cloudberries (moltebcer) are the one thing that is worth braving mosquito-infested swamps for, locals say. These golden berries make wickedly tangy mousses and ice creams. Polish off a meal with aquavit, a caraway-flavoured potato liqueur.
Most bizarre sight:
As natural phenomena go, Saltstraumen plays in the premier league. Like the whirlpool of Nordic giants, this soul-stirring wonder is the world’s strongest tidal current, with 400 million cu metres of water rushing through a sound that links two fjords at speeds of up to 20 knots (37km/h). For a thrill, notch up the speed bouncing past it at close range in a RIB (rigid inflatable boat), with the silver-grey ripple of mountains a beautiful blur on the horizon.