Search “Lofoten, Norway” and you’ll get a sense of it straightaway: an isolated Arctic archipelago of striking natural beauty, an outdoors playground and fishing destination with a proud Viking heritage. Look closer, and you’ll realise the need for superlatives. Lofoten isn’t ‘just’ a collection of fishing villages, it’s a key player in the industry containing the largest cod stock in the world. It offers a myriad of ways to get outdoors, from seriously stunning hiking trails and cycling routes to sea kayaking, surfing, and even cold water scuba diving. Now, it’s emerging as a mecca for landscape photographers.
You would have to try really, really hard to get a bad photo here. In photography circles Lofoten is fondly referred to as “banger island”: a place where a banger of a shot is guaranteed around every corner. Photography was the purpose of my trip, and the reason why tourism in Lofoten has recently exploded. Like Iceland, Lofoten has proliferated through social media. As with everything, no amount of oggling my phone screen could’ve prepared me for just how spectacular my destination really was.
As a total Lord of the Rings nerd, it seemed to me like one of Tolkien’s designs – the kind of place you expect to see on a map of Middle Earth. Mountains meet water everywhere you look; rocky spires towering between picturesque fishing villages and sheltered harbours where red cabins perch on stilts. Surf-swept beaches fringe the coastlines. In winter, sunlight dials down to a soft, silky glow, and the world becomes a pastel dreamscape mirrored in crystal clear waters.
WHEN TO GO & THE WEATHER
Summer is the busiest time of year and the best for hiking. Winter photographers seeking those sublime icy wonderland shots are best off going from the end of January onwards.
I went to Lofoten in the heart of winter, in early December. Most sites tell you to go anytime but December and January, because that’s when there’s little to no sunlight. I personally didn’t mind that (I was too busy with work to have much choice with my dates anyhow) – I just wanted snow and a soft glow. I was lucky to get both for a couple days before the weather turned. Those conditions are certainly possible in Dec/Jan, but increased sunlight on either side of these months means you’re more likely to get better shots and have easier experiences outdoors.
Really, you can go any time of year. It just depends what you want and how much of a chance you’re willing to take on getting it.
Lofoten’s own weather is notoriously susceptible to change. It seems to exist in its own little unpredictable bubble. It might surprise you with constant sunshine, a burst of snowfall or passing rain – or a salad of all three on the same day. You can pick your season and hedge your bets, but you can’t count on what the weather will be like day-to-day.
Unfortunately the stairway to heaven is more like the highway to hell. (Hyperbole, yes, but it’s true that getting to Lofoten requires effort. The best things don’t come easy!)
Bearing in mind that the Lofoten islands connect to the mainland (via bridge) in the north, these are your options:
- Fly into Tromsø, rent a car, drive 7 hours to Lofoten. (This is what I did).
- Fly into Evenes airport (sorta in the middle of nowhere), rent a car, drive 3 hours to Lofoten.
- Fly into Harstard/Narvik airport (also located somewhat in the middle of nowhere), and then it’s a further 2 hour drive or bus ride to reach Svolvær in east Lofoten or 4.5 hours to Reine in west Lofoten.
- Fly into Oslo, then on to Bodø, and either 1. Take another 25-minute flight to Svolvær on the island of Austvågøya or 2. take a “scenic” 4-hour long ferry (Apparently the ferry can be a little rough if you’re prone to seasickness).
FYI: Tromsø is a big city in northern Norway, a major cultural hub with vibrant nightlife, food options, and the chance to see the northern lights (main attraction for tourists) amongst other activities. A lot of people like to spend a couple days here before heading elsewhere.
The long car journeys are very manageable if you drive through the day, making pitstops at picturesque spots along the way and breaking for lunch. By the way – the hotdogs at the gas stations in Norway are really good. I thought my friend was joking when he told me I “had” to get one due to their popularity but I was wrong. Get one, thank me later.
BEING THERE – GETTING AROUND / ACCOMMODATION / OTHER TIPS
- You need a car to get around Lofoten, period. (This is a good rental site) It’s the easiest way to explore. If you don’t want to rent one, but photography is your game, you can book yourself into a photography tour — they’ll not only handle your transport but guide you through all the best photo spots. I suggest Nordic Photo Tours for a knowledgeable local team with all the tips and tricks.
- Lofoten may be drawing more tourists in, but that doesn’t mean it has a whole lot of tourist infrastructure. It is an especially tranquil place. In December it was hard to find many restaurants open at all. For meals we either cooked food ourselves, ate hotdogs at gas stations or pizza at the mall. Clothing shops, pharmacies and grocery stores are all accessible and open (find them at any mall).
- Book accommodation in advance, especially for summer. I personally recommend Hattvika Lodge: it’s clean, cosy, comfortable, well-located and has modern amenities. The view across the harbour is beautiful and you also get access to a sauna. Otherwise, various other lodges are a quick Google away and there are lots of options on Airbnb.
- Do your research and you’ll definitely be able to find accommodation that suits you and your budget. Lofoten offers both the luxury/upscale stuff and cheaper options for budget travellers. They know exactly what kind of crowd is coming here — older folks with money to spare, artists and young outdoorsy travellers — and cater to it.
- If you didn’t know, get to know: Norway is expensive. (It makes Iceland look like a dollar store) So buy your winter gear outside of Norway, not in it!
Lofoten is a giant outdoors playground marketing itself towards adventure-seekers. There are hiking trails galore, sea kayaking and biking and climbing, surfing is popular year-round and of course photography is the all-star attraction. This website is a good place to start for general inspiration.
For hiking specifically, I found http://www.68north.com/outdoors/hiking-introduction/ to be incredibly informative and useful. There are hikes for every level, ranging from easy coastal walks to “steep mountain scrambles”, and many of the trails have far-reaching views of mountains plummeting down to the sea.
I did two hikes that totally exemplified this. The first hike was at Ryten. I have reasonably good baseline fitness and found it fairly straightforward. The hike led to an awesome panoramic view over Kvalvika beach, and the whole thing was a leisurely three-ish hours (there and back). The Reinebringen trail, on the other hand, was no small task. Previously, no clear trail had been established at Reinebringen. Now, they’re in the process of building stairs. You can take these stairs about 3/4 of the way up, but beyond that they haven’t been finished (at the time of writing) and it turns into more of a climb than a hike. We relied heavily on our spikes for grip and had to use our hands to pull us up. It is very steep and not to be underestimated. Only come here in the winter if you know what you’re doing. In fact, I would say only those with local knowledge should come through this way in the winter. Buy a map with marked trails and run your choices past locals as they’ll be able to tell you which routes are safer than others. Overall, summer is best for hiking.
This section deserves its own header because it’s one of the biggest reasons why people want to come here – you can’t blame them, what for all the photos of northern lights dancing above Lofoten (one of which I have also taken).
Seeing the northern lights in Lofoten is one of those blow-you-away beautiful moments that’ll stick with you for the rest of your life. You really couldn’t hope for a better backdrop. But Lofoten isn’t necessarily your best bet for the northern lights. In theory, it should be great for seeing the lights since it lies beneath the Auroral Oval, but it’s the unpredictable weather here that can screw it up. Lofoten gets a lot of rainfall and the sky is often cloudy. You really need clear skies to see the lights properly. Seeing them in Lofoten is absolutely possible, but if seeing the northern lights is the main purpose of your visit to Norway then you’re better off heading somewhere with more stable weather (and therefore clearer skies) like Tromsø.
During & after my trip I realised that there’s a lot of curiosity, as well as misconceptions, surrounding the northern lights. I came home to people asking me: “do they really look like that?”, by which they meant – do the northern lights really look as vibrant as they do in the pictures? The answer: yes and no.
The way the northern lights looks compared to the photos depends on how strong they are. If the lights are weak, they just look like a faint green smudge in the sky. You might be disappointed and think – “is that it!?” But if you take a long exposure shot of that faint green smudge, it comes out looking ten times as strong. The difference between what the camera captures and what you’re actually (hardly) seeing is breathtaking. It’ll show up much brighter on the camera than it looked in real life. In this case, the photographic mechanism doesn’t accurately capture what the human eye really saw and instead creates something better.
On the flip side: if the lights are strong, they look much better in real life than anything your camera could ever hope to capture. A strong northern lights show trumps photos every time. It is explosive, vivid; rippling across the star-studded night sky like a living creature. The scale and movement of it is something you can only properly store in your memory, not your SD card. No doubt the photos will look fantastic, but if the aurora borealis is lighting up the whole sky it might even overwhelm your camera and cause the image to look a little washed out!
Bottom line is: either way, you’ll come away with something good on camera.
The second misconception is that you can ‘track’ them, or hunt them down within a specific area. While it’s true that you can move to areas with less cloud cover, there’s no real correlation between direction and your chances of seeing the lights — unless you’re talking on a much bigger scale, like how far north in the hemisphere you should go. I met one guy on a hike in Lofoten who asked what direction he should go within Lofoten that evening to see the lights. It really doesn’t matter. If they’re there, they’re there.
And obviously, winter is the best time to see them.
PACKING LIST: CLOTHING
You’ll be doing lots of walking and hiking if you come here, so you need to bring all the necessary gear: hiking shoes, waterproof jacket, etc. If you’re thinking about coming in the winter, you’re going to need a lot of layers plus maybe some extra equipment like ice grips / spikes so that you don’t slip over on the icy streets and on steeper hikes. Lofoten gets cold.
- Thermal base layer: tops & leggings – wool, microfiber, fleece
- Sweaters/jumpers. Wool is the most insulating thing to wear. Stock up on woolly jumpers if you can.
- Winter trousers. I wore thin hiking trousers over thermal base layer leggings and it worked for me.
- A good hat – fleece lining
- Winter boots
- Thick wool socks
- Ice grips/spikes – you can slip over on ice anytime. I did it way too often before I bought spikes.
- Pile on your woolly sweaters and wear a windproof jacket over them (one of those thin gore-tex North Face ones, for example), or if you own your own good winter jacket bring that (I brought my ski jacket and a Canada goose jacket).
- This isn’t a clothing item, but it’s worth mentioning: bring portable chargers / power packs for your phone, because batteries have an annoying way of losing all their power very quickly in the cold!
Lofoten looks like something out of a fairytale. It’s a land chiselled by glaciers and the sea, where deep fjords and jagged mountains form a photographers dream. It might not be the easiest place to get to, but its remoteness is what makes it so pristine – paradise for lovers of unspoiled nature and those seeking an active holiday.