The northern lights have fascinated people for centuries, but only lately have tourist appraisals and marketing campaigns transformed the northern lights into travelers’ bucket list experience.
Tromsø, with a population of ca 70.000, is the biggest city in northern Norway. It is located about 350 km north of the Arctic Circle. Its location within the auroral oval and direct flight connection with Norway’s capital makes Tromsø one of the best places in the world where you can see the majestic northern lights.
Currently, around 100 tour providers have northern lights tours in their portfolio, making it challenging to choose the best northern lights tour in Tromsø. To help you decide which provider is the right one for you, we put together this article to discuss the aspects you should consider before booking a northern lights tour. At the end of the article, you will find our trips for the 6 best northern light tours in Tromsø.
ABOUT US AND TROMSØ
Ivar and I spent six months living in Tromsø in 2022 while working for a travel agency. My job was to help people plan their holidays in Tromsø and Lofoten, which I thoroughly enjoy, even though I do not live in Tromsø anymore.
So in this Guide to Best Northern Lights Tours in Tromsø, I will share my tips on what to expect from northern lights tour, and I hope it will help you to have an experience of a lifetime!
Here are some content shortcuts to help you navigate this “Guide to the Best Northern Lights Tours in Tromsø. “
While booking a guided tour to see the northern lights is not strictly necessary, I highly recommend it.
I understand that some of you are not big fans of organized tours. However, you can easily miss the celestial display if you do not know how to read the weather and aurora forecasts. I have met many people looking at a weak aurora and thinking it is just a clouded sky.
If you join a northern lights excursion, the guides will recognize the aurora and show you what camera settings you need to take a great picture, even if it is not visible to the naked eye.
Nowadays, tourists are flocking to Tromsø to see the northern lights in thousands, and February and March mark the high season in Tromsø. However, it was not always so.
Before 2010, there was almost no winter tourism in Tromsø, and the local companies hoped not to lose too much money over the long winter. Hurtigruten sailed with empty ships, and the hotels tried to stay afloat by adapting to the course and conference market. The Northern Lights were only a bonus to other activities. No one had faith that it could be a product in itself.
However, with the rapid development of digital cameras, phones, and social media, it became easier to photograph the northern lights and share the images. That and a lot of clever advertising caused that the winter tourism to northern Norway took off.
As a result, the season got even extended – instead of November 1, most Tromsø based companies start their northern lights tours already on September 15, or even September 1.
Tromsø is often the first Norwegian city that comes to mind in connection to northern lights. However, Alta used to be the capital of early Northern Lights research. In 1898, Kristian Birkeland established northern lights observatories on mountain peaks outside the center of Alta and researched his way to the current understanding of the northern lights.
The proud history of the early northern lights research made Alta call itself “the city of the northern lights.” While Tromsø has its famous landmark in the Arctic Cathedral, Alta has built the Northern Lights Cathedral, the Northern Lights Hotel, and the Borealis Hotel.
When BBC journalist Joanna Lumley came to Tromsø and made a fantastic Northern Lights documentary, it was pure Tromsø advertising, and Alta lost the battle for the large masses of Northern Lights tourists.
In 2005, five companies sold Northern Lights products in Tromsø. Nowadays, around 100 tour providers have northern lights tours in their portfolio, which does make it challenging to choose the best northern lights tour.
However, there are few significant differences between northern light tours from different providers. For example, they all operate with the same weather and aurora forecast, and the guides from other companies share information with each. Therefore you can not say that this or that company is more successful in finding the northern lights.
Moreover, let me quickly debunk the term “northern lights chasing.”
Since the aurora borealis generally extend from 80 kilometers (50 miles) to 640 kilometers (400 miles) above the Earth’s surface, you will not be chasing the northern lights but rather searching for a clear sky. So, if the weather around Tromsø doesn’t look very promising and only a few places might have a clearance in cloud coverage, you can bump into other tours that went for the same spot.
You will meet your guide and driver at the pick-up point, and they will brief you about the current aurora and weather conditions. You will also be offered to wear a warm thermal suit and winter boots unless you have your own.
If you are lucky, you might see the northern lights already in Tromsø or on the way to the chosen location.
If not, you will arrive at the selected area, and your guide will make a campfire and tell you stories and legends about the northern lights while you wait for them to show up.
On nights with challenging weather conditions, the guide will need to check other options and be in touch with other guides to decide if you should stay in the selected location or try to continue your search for better conditions.
In any case, there will be a campfire, stories, and the guides will do anything they can to find a spot where you can spot the northern lights and make sure that you are staying warm and having a good time while you are waiting for them.
However, it would be best if you had the right expectations. It might be cold, there might be a lot of waiting, and it can happen that you will not see the northern lights.
If seeing the northern lights is your biggest dream and once-in-a-lifetime experience, I recommend booking tours on multiple nights.
I recommend looking into these criteria when choosing the best northern light tour. I will discuss each point a bit more in the following paragraphs.
Most people who take northern lights tours from Tromsø go for a (mini)bus tour. However, some may perceive the northern lights hunt as dull since it may involve a lot of driving in search of a clear sky or long hours of sitting by a bonfire waiting for the lights to show up.
If that is your case, you can combine the northern lights hunt with other activities like reindeer sledding & traditional Sami dinner, snowmobiling or sailing.
The downside of these combinations is that you are chained to a specific location regarding dog sledding and reindeer sledding. If that particular spot has a cloudy sky on the night of your tour, you won’t be able to see the aurora.
On sailing trips, the boats cover a more extensive area, but it still can’t be compared with the bus tours, where you can go all the way to Finland if needed.
There is a common misconception about the northern lights tours going to Finland. It is not given that you will go to Finland on your northern lights tour. The first option will always be some location close to Tromsø.
It is a really long drive from Tromsø to Finland (3 hours one way), which means that out of 7 hours long tour, you would spend 6 hours driving! Therefore, Finland is always the last option when the weather forecast in the near and far surroundings of Tromsø does not look promising.
You can choose a private tour, a small group of up to 8 people, tours by minibusses that take up to 15 people, or tours by coaches (big buses) for up to 40 people.
If being in a small group is very important to you, I recommend this Small Group Northern Lights Photography Tour in a custom-built 4×4 tour van that allows you to discover remote scenery and reach more calm and peaceful places.
The advantage of traveling by big bus is, of course, the price and certain comfort. The bus is heated, so you can wait for the northern lights inside the bus. Plus, there is a toilet on board the coaches, which might be handy when nature calls.
On the other hand, it is challenging for those big buses to find parking spaces, so they are limited to resting areas where you often have other cars coming and flashing their lights. Moreover, you will be together with up to 40 other people, so you can´t expect much of a quiet, spiritual experience.
Mind that even though you choose a private tour, you might still end up in the same spot as a tour with two big coaches.
The price of the northern lights tour in Tromsø varies. But, of course, the excursions with big buses are generally cheaper. So, if you are looking for a cheap yet great tour, I recommend this Northern Lights Photography Bus Tour.
I have a couple of friends who are professional photographers and work as guides for this company, so you can be assured of having beautiful pictures of yourself under the northern lights.
However, you should always check what is included in the price of the tour. For example, in the above-mentioned tour, the photos are not included in the price, and you will have to pay extra for each image.
If you are a photographer, I imagine you would like to join a tour with guides who choose the locations with a pleasing composition so that you can get some fantastic shots of aurora.
If you are not into photography, then having a tour guide who is a skillful photographer is even more critical so that you can get a picture of yourself and the northern lights.
All northern lights guides are somewhat trained in photography, but some are better than others.
You can see the northern lights from the beginning of September until the beginning of April. Therefore, being a northern lights guide is a seasonal job, and you will find few locals who would do that for a living. Most of the guides in the big travel agencies in Tromsø are foreigners.
I always recommend checking the tour reviews and sorting them from the lowest to know what people were unhappy about. For example, sometimes people leave a negative review because they did not see the northern lights on the tour – which is irrelevant. However, it is helpful to learn how the company deals with other problems like overbooking the tour, cancellations due to bad weather, etc.
When I worked for a travel agency in Tromsø, many guests asked if the tour would be canceled when it was windy/cloudy/stormy in Tromsø.
Tromsø is such a popular location for northern lights watching because there are different microclimates in the surroundings of the city. It is possible to find a clear sky within a 1-3 hour drive from Tromsø, even though the weather does not look very promising in the city.
Do not give up your hopes when the forecast for Tromsø doesn’t show a clear sky. Our guides had many successful hunts on the days when the guests were doubtful. The tours will get canceled/rescheduled only in the case of extremely bad/hazardous weather.
Greenlander is a family run company that offers tours with adventurous 4×4 vehicles. They specialize in small groups with a maximum of eight people per group. One of their strengths is a strong focus photography, so you’ll get plenty of attention and tips on how to capture the best possible photos of the Aurora Borealis.
“Embark on an adventurous Northern Lights chase aboard a Land Rover Defender. With a professional photographer as a guide and a small group of up to 8 persons, you’ll get plenty of attention and tips on capturing the best possible photos of the Aurora Borealis. Hotel pickup and drop-off in Tromso are included for convenience, as well as all thermal gear and a portion of homemade soup to keep warm.”
Wandering Owl is a small local business that organizes all-year guided tours in the Tromsø area. Their guides are professional photographers and trained nature guides, providing guests with memorable encounters in the wilderness. Wandering Owl’s main aim is for guests to experience the peaceful countryside around the Norwegian city of Tromsø every season of the year.
“Set out from Tromso on a hunting tour of the Northern Lights. Join a small group and a guide traversing the nearby countryside and even into Finland to catch a glimpse of the majestic Aurora Borealis. After finding the right setting, gather around a campfire, warm up with some soup, and await the spectacular light show. Your guide will also offer tips for photographing the Northern Lights and take some photos that they’ll later share as souvenirs.”
Northern Horizon is a company born from a passion for nature and the wilderness. They offer northern tours in medium-sized groups for up to 15 persons in a minibus, as well as all-year-round Arctic Nature Sightseeing Tours to Tromsø´s neighboring island Kvaløya. The guides in Northern Horizon are passionate photographers and professional pictures are included in the price of the tour.
“Take in the dreamy beauty of the northern lights as you sip hot chocolate and enjoy sausages over a cozy bonfire. Your guides lead your small group to the clearest viewing spots and take professional photos to be shared with you by email. They also provide thermal suits, hats, mittens, and heat packs to keep you warm and comfortable.”
Northern Soul Adventures offer authentic nature tours, searching for the Northern Lights by night and road-tripping the Arctic fjords during the day in their custom-built 4WD minivan. They specialize in small groups of up to 8 persons, providing more intimate experiences. The guides are passionate photographers and professional pictures are included in the price of the tour.
“Chase the Northern Lights with this small-group excursion from Tromso. In a group limited to 7 people maximum, set out along lesser-traveled roads to try and see Aurora Borealis. Get advice for capturing the Northern Lights with photographs and learn new photography skills. Hotel drop-off along with hot beverages and thermal clothing are included.”
Northern Shots is a company that offers one of the cheapest northern lights tours in Tromsø. Their tours are conducted by big coaches (buses) with a capacity of up to 48 people.
As one of few companies in Tromsø, Northern Shots offers a 50% discount on the next tour, in case you did not see aurora on your first tour. In addition, the Aurora PASS (from 2.300 NOK) allows you to join the Northern Lights Chase excursions as often as you want during one week.
Northern Shots is known for employing guides with a strong background in photography who will teach you how to set up your camera and take pictures of the northern lights. However, additional fees apply if you want to have a photo of you and the northern lights taken by a guide.
“Hunt for Northern Lights on a guided trip from Tromso. On board a comfortable bus, you can listen to your guides’ detailed explanations about the scientific phenomenon of the Aurora Borealis and all the stories surrounding it. You will also benefit from a photo workshop on the way, where you will be provided with the information needed to capture stunning shots of the Northern Lights. If you choose to, you can have a professional Aurora portrait taken by the photographer for a lasting memory before you return to Tromso.”
Pukka Travels is a Tromsø based travel agency focusing on sustainable winter tourism in Tromsø and summer tourism in Lofoten. Pukka is very nature-oriented, and the core of their activities is catamaran sailing tours (see their Northern Lights Sailing Excursion on a Catamaran.) However, they also offer northern lights chasing on land, either by minibus or private tours by Tesla X.
“Tromsø is one of the top places in the world to witness the northern lights. We make this experience optimal for you during our comfortable Northern Lights Minibus Chase, departing from our base camp in central Tromsø. You will be with one of our dedicated guides, who has the passion to help show you the northern lights dance in the sky above. We are here to ensure that this is a memorable night to remember for a lifetime.”
Polar lights (aurora polaris) are a natural phenomenon caused by high-speed electrically charged particles bombarding Earth’s atmosphere. It occurs in both the northern and southern hemispheres. In the northern hemisphere, they are sometimes referred to as aurora borealis, while in the southern hemisphere, they are called aurora australis. Auroras result from disturbances in the Earth’s magnetosphere caused by solar wind particles.
To see the northern lights, you need the sky to be dark enough, so the aurora becomes visible, which only happens between the beginning of September and the beginning of April. However, most travel agencies run their tours from mid-September until the end of March. The peak season is February and March, when the weather is slightly more stable than in the other winter months. Moreover, the days become bright enough to enjoy lots of different activities during the day and hunt the northern lights during the night.
The Aurora Borealis manifests itself in a vast ring above the Earth’s Geomagnetic North Pole, referred to as the Auroral Oval. The auroral oval expands southwards with increasing geomagnetic activity, which allows seeing the northern lights even further south.
Tromsø’s unique location over 300 km North of the Arctic Circle and its stable mild weather enables us to observe the northern lights even on nights when the geomagnetic activity is low. Moreover, the region around Tromsø has many microclimates, meaning that the neighboring valleys or fjords can have significantly different weather conditions.
That means that even on very cloudy nights, it is often possible to drive to a place with clear skies within a 2 – 3 hr drive.
You do not need to book a tour with a travel agency to see the northern lights. If the sky is clear and the northern lights activity is good, you can see northern lights even from the city center of Tromsø.
However, booking a tour with an experienced guide is always better if you want to increase your chance of seeing them.
On cloudy days, the guides are excellent at reading the local weather forecast and choosing the spot with the most significant chance of a hole in the cloud cover. If the weather forecast looks dim, they might drive you all the way to Finland and back if that is the spot that promises the best chances for the night.
On top of that, you will learn a lot about the region, local legends, and the northern lights itself. The guides will also take pictures of you and the lights, which requires a bit of practice and give tips on taking great pictures with your own camera.
One of the best spots to watch the northern lights is from the top of the cable car that goes to Mt Fløyen. Other good locations are lake Prestvannet and Telegrafbukta beach.
Yes! On days with clear skies and good aurora activity, you can easily spot the northern lights from downtown Tromsø. However, finding a place with minimal light pollution is always better.
Good luck on your trip to Tromsø; we are crossing our fingers for you to see some spectacular northern lights. Let us know in the comments which company you went for and how your experience was!
To write this article, we combed through dozens of tour operators in Tromsø to determine the best northern lights tours. We evaluated factors like price, group size, and mode of transportation, and we read through guest reviews of each tour to ensure each tour operator delivers on its promises. Moreover, we have several friends who work/had worked as northern lights guides in Tromsø, so we talked with them about their job and the companies they work/worked for.