When my friends heard I was thinking about going to Norway for New Year’s, they thought I was crazy. Why head north to colder climates when you could bask in the sun in Greece or Cyprus?
The answer is simple. The Land of the Midnight Sun is magical, even when you just have a few hours of daylight each day. The Norwegian winter light has a mystical, almost translucent quality to it, especially just after dawn when there is a blue glow.
But, for me, the trip to Norway was all about the quest for the Northern Lights. It’s always an adventure when you hunt for the aurora borealis, whether you are lucky enough to capture them dancing in the sky or if you strike out and just have a fun night out with friends. And, of course, with your thermos of hot cocoa or coffee along for the trek. It’s something I enjoyed doing back in Minnesota, and Tromso is a world-renowned destination. It’s one of the best places on Earth to catch the dancing green lights.
On Our Way
There were no direct flights from Brussels to Tromso, so we flew into Oslo. Luckily, we had a day to explore Norway’s capital before we headed north to Tromso the following morning. Despite the cold, Oslo is warm and welcoming,
The city is surprisingly interesting, especially during the holidays. The nights are long and dark, but everything is lit up — brightly. In fact, during our visit, the city was covered with holiday decorations, giving it a festive feel. It was a warm expat welcome!
With our late morning arrival in Oslo, we had time to do some shopping and look around the city before settling in. The city’s Christmas market operates past 25 December. So, we were able to visit on our first evening. What a pleasant surprise! There were vendors, a giant ferris wheel, musicians, small fire pits with small crowds gathered around them to keep warm, and lots of local foods to try. Also, we found many interesting trinkets, souvenirs and gifts to bring back to family and friends.
After our evening adventure, we headed back to the First Millennium Hotel, walking through a cathedral arch with twinkling fairy lights. Even though the night was dark, everything was bathed in bright light making the return trek almost like a walk in daylight. I guess it is the Norwegian way of dealing with the polar nights.
The next day, we had more time in Oslo and a special guided sightseeing tour. Wow, our guide was knowledgeable and interesting. There was so much to learn about this city. We walked through the old streets of the city, explored the harbor, and visited the incredible City Hall. The building, on the harbor facing Oslofjord, was started in 1931. Construction ceased during World War II, but the building finally was finished in 1950. Designed by architects Arnstein Arneberg and Magnus Poulsson, it has an impressive entry door and artwork along the walls toward the entrance. The main hall is decorated with colorful murals. There are paintings and Norwegian art throughout that tell the story of the country’s culture, history and working life. It definitely has the wow factor.
An Architectural Jewel
After our tour, most of us opted to walk down to the Oslo Opera House, home to the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, and the national opera theatre. This is another must-see. The white marble building glistens in the sun and resembles an iceberg resting in the ocean. We watched as visitors walked up the slanted walkway that allows visitors to trek to the roof for nice views over the harbor. A few hearty souls decided to ramble up the stone walk. A few slid back down, thanks to the slippery ice.
When the Opera House was first proposed, it was quite controversial. In fact, when the project was first discussed back in the early 2000s, a survey by Aftenposten, Norway’s largest evening newspaper, showed that 71% of Oslo was against the project. Why? Because the design wasn’t in keeping with the low-rise nature of the city. And the building was not symmetrical. Citizens wanted a nice, orderly structure that felt as if it was part of Oslo. However, over the years, it has gained acceptance.
Another surprise is Oslo is Grünerløkka, a former working-class neighborhood that is now popular with millennials. It’s a great place to check out bohemian shops, cafes and restaurants! Walk over a bridge from central Oslo, past a local brewery and onto streets lined with colorful stone houses and interesting stores.
Heading North to Tromso
Before we knew it, it was time to head north to Tromso, a beautiful harbor city surrounded by majestic mountains. In the early 19th century, Tromso was actually called the “Paris of the North. By the end of the century, the city was a major Arctic trade center and home to a Northern Lights observatory. Today, it’s a popular winter vacation destination. It’s also home to a large population of Sámi, the indigenous people living in northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula.
One of the highlights of our trip was a visit to a Sámi village. We started with a bus ride into the wilderness. Our destination: a reindeer farm. We were going on a sled ride! Sámi workers tucked us into wooden sleds with warm blankets and led the reindeer. Lanterns lit the way as we rode in a single file through the snow-covered fields.
After our journey, we hand-fed reindeer in the park! Ah, but the adventure had not yet ended. We shuffled into a tent warmed by an open fire. Hot drinks were waiting for us — and very much appreciated after our trek in the frigid temperatures. While we dined, we learned about the Sámi history and culture from members of the indigenous tribe. And we even got to sample traditional reindeer stew! High in protein, low in calories!
From November 21 to January 21, there are a just few hours of daylight with a warm, blue light. However, there is no sun! That’s because it stays below the horizon during the polar night, which ends in mid-January. The city certainly knows how to deal with it, though. Houses are lit with bright lights to stave off the darkness of winter.
Downtown Tromso is especially interesting with its large concentration of wooden homes dating from 1789 to 1904. We walked through town and enjoyed local cuisine at some of the small restaurants lining the street.
Tromso Cathedral is just steps from our hotel. It’s a rare wooden church built in 1861. Designed in 1861 by architect Christian Heinrich Grosch, it’s definitely worth a visit. Did you know this may be the northernmost Protestant church on the planet? The 600-seat Gothic-style church used to seat nearly 1,000 people, but seats and benches were removed over the years to accommodate more room for tables in the rear of the church. It still seems very spacious.
Even more impressive is Tromsdalen Church, also known as Ishavskatedralen, or the Arctic Cathedral. The church towers high over Tromso Sound and Tromso Bridge. We walked from our hotel across the bridge and up the hill to this architectural gem. The church, which opened in 1965, is very simple with clean lines and a Scandinavian design feel.
Two highlights of the Arctic Cathedral are the breathtaking eastern mosaic glass wall and an organ. The mosaic, added in 1972, has been called one of Victor Sparre’s most prominent artistic creations and shows God’s hand with three rays of light. It is probably even more impressive in the summer when light streams through the glass into the church.
The church organ is built in French Romance style. Woodwork is mostly solid pine, and the design is in keeping with the Cathedral’s modern feeling. The organ’s 2,940 pipes range in size from 5mm to 9.6 meters, and its bellows are made from reindeer hide.
Some Expat Club travelers had a special treat. They attended an evening holiday concert and had a chance to hear this magnificent instrument in action.
There’s much more to see and do in Tromso, thought. We visited the Polar Museum, which is located in a wharf house dating back to 1837. It pays homage to Tromso’s history as a center for Arctic expeditions and hunting. A few us even went to the Magic Ice Bar for a true Nordic experience. It’s like a visit into an ornately designed refrigerator. Cold, but interesting. There were impressive ice carvings and seating covered in animal pelts to keep us warm. We donned heavy down parkas and sipped on cold beverages served in glasses made of ice! Wow! It was fun — and not that chilly if you’ve spent years living in Minnesota or Siberia.
There were so many memorable moments on our amazing trip to Tromso, like the journey up Tromsdalstinden Mountain by Fjellheisen cable car. We scampered into the car and watched the world go by as we traveled to the top of the mountain. The views of the city below and the mountains around us were breathtaking!
Happy New Year
New Year’s Eve was extra special. Everyone put on their posh attire and headed out to a local hotel for a night filled with music and dancing. For us, the piece de resistance was the visit to the rooftop bar area where we saw New Year’s fireworks in every direction. And did we mention the champagne? What a way to ring in the New Year! Walking back to our hotel, we were able to catch a glimpse of even more fireworks, reflected in the waters of the harbor below.
The whole point of our trip was to chase the Northern Lights. The aurora borealis is never guaranteed. You have to have a lot of patience and even more luck. We weren’t successful on our first night out. Sigh. The second night we traveled further north toward Finland and got to see the faint green lights in the distance. It was a long bus ride, but definitely worth the trek, even with only a minor glimpse of the dancing lights.
So, would I recommend a trip to Norway for New Year’s? Yes, without a minute of hesitation. What makes it even more special is the opportunity to spend it with fellow expats. Don’t miss the opportunity to join in the adventure!
Experience the trip of a lifetime!