Norway has always been a place I have dreamt of visiting. Besides its viking culture which in recent years I have become mildly obsessed with, it has majestic mountains, World Heritage registered Fjords, wildlife and world class sustainable cities. That being said I was all too excited when I found out I would have the opportunity to visit Norway, and more importantly in winter. Thanks to a fantastic collaboration with Visit Norway, Norwegian Airlines and the Impact Travel Alliance who invited a handful of creators ( me included to discover polar night.) So channeling my inner John Snow I grabbed my winter gear and a pair of Sorels and set off to explore Oslo, Alta and the Arctic Circle.
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Now personally I’ve lived in Southern California for way too long, and have lost my adaptation to be in the cold. Going into this trip I was worried that I would be miserable in the cold, but I couldn't have been more wrong. Norway’s beauty, charm (and hot chocolate) quickly warmed me up on the inside even on the coldest of days.
If you’re planning to visit Norway, winter is a breathtaking time to visit. See the northern lights over a snow covered mountain, chase reindeer through the arctic tundra, sled, ski and skate under arctic night, stay in an igloo, and so much more. Here is your ultimate guide to experiencing the best of winter in Norway.
From Los Angeles I boarded a non stop flight to Oslo on Norwegian Airlines. They were voted the best low cost long haul airline in the world. They offer more than 60 non stop flights to Europe and the French Caribbean from the US and Canada. They are also the most fuel efficient transatlantic route, so you’re fighting climate change by flying them. Best of all their dreamliners offer lower cabin pressure, which gives you less jet lag, and I can attest that it really does work. I landed in Oslo feeling refreshed and ready for a day of adventure. Check out their Low Fare Finder for the best fares. Once at the Oslo airport getting into the city is super easy on the FlyToGet Airport train (conveniently located in baggage claim) which takes you right into the city center as well as 8 other destinations.
Things to do in Oslo in Winter
A great winter vacation to Norway starts in Oslo where one can experience sledding, skiing, arctic plunges, hot saunas, great shopping and so much more. Voted the green capital of the world, getting around Oslo is also a breeze. You will love exploring the cities car free streets, sustainable neighborhoods and more than 40 museums under a blanket of snow. I wasn’t in Oslo for long so I got right to exploring, starting with a visit to a Fjord Sauna for a refreshing arctic plunge.
The practice of cold plunges and saunas goes back millenium, proven to be great for your heart, circulation and metabolism not to mention your energy. Anyone that frequents spas has probably seen an ice plunge located next to the steam and sauna rooms. While you may not be one to try this icy tradition I have frequented many over the years in places like Whistler, Colorado and even at home in Los Angeles but visiting a sauna in Oslo in Winter is an entirely unique experience. In Oslo these saunas happen to float; built out of recycled materials and locally sourced wood, they are built dockside over the waters of the Fjord. In the winter you can visit not one, but two Saunas on the Oslofjord, I visited the SørengaBadstuflåte located next to the Oslo Opera House. The sauna holds 15 people max and can even be rented out for private parties. Even though I didn’t stay in long, the whole process was a ton of fun, and got me ready to take on the city.
TIP: Avoid the crowds and visit Mid Day.
Another great way to see the Oslofjord is to grab a seat on a fjord cruise. I boarded the boat Visions of the Fjord which is a hybrid boat running on both diesel and electricity. Making for a quiet ride through some of the most beautiful areas of the fjord. The boat takes you past many islands of colorful houses, a few fortresses, town beaches and much more.
If you happen to be visiting in December VisitFlam also runs a Christmas cruise that stops at the surrounding areas Christmas Markets.
Oslo is a great walking city, from the Oslo Central Station it’s a super short walk to the Oslo Opera House, which is both a work of art and a great place for photos. From there I headed up Karl Johans Gate checking out many shops, historical landmarks, the city ice skating rink, national theater and finally the royal palace.
In my opinion it goes without saying that during winter you go sledding, and being on vacation is no exception. Oslo quite possibly has the best city sledding options I have ever heard of. With more than a dozen sledding options, most easily reachable by public transportation the best one is the Korketrekkeren a 2km long toboggan run. You can even take the bus back up to the top!
Where to Eat in Oslo
After quite an exciting first day in Oslo it was time for some much needed food. The Mathallen Food Hall can be found in the Vulkan neighborhood of Oslo (the most sustainable neighborhood in Oslo) An indoor food market it’s a real foodie’s paradise with over 30 shops, cafes and restaurants that offer high quality dishes and products from Norway and abroad. Here you will find items that you can’t find elsewhere in the city. We ate dinner at Hitchhiker, which was voted best street food in Oslo for the last 3 years. A restaurant focused on sustainable, fresh food, with worldly flavors the tasting menu changes often and literally takes you on a trip around the world. When I dined here seafood was on the menu and we were offered 7 different delicious courses. Handmade udon, black pepper crab, a halibut sashimi bowl, shrimp and scallop dumplings and a handmade vanilla and mandarin ice cream with graham cracker pop rock crust! My favorites were the udon, taco and the desert of course.
If you like Farm to Table dining experiences as much as I do you will also love Ett Bord which translates to one table in Norwegian. The restaurant centers around a giant table made out of local Norwegian pine and the owner truly believes in the spirit of togetherness. They work exclusively with local and organic farms serving a 95% organic menu that changes constantly with the weekly purchases. The chef’s tasting menu gives you a smattering of delicious and simple dishes, all served in shareable portions.
Where to Stay In Oslo
Also located in the Vulkan neighborhood is the Scandic Hotel Vulkan which offers exceptional accommodations in a self-sustaining building. The vibe is both eclectic and hip with a welcoming and colorful lobby, fit with seating area, bar and snack shop. The rooms are well appointed with all the creature comforts you may be looking for, and the food is far superior to many hotels I have stayed in in the past. So you definitely won’t want to miss the breakfast buffet.
The hotel also has their own rooftop beehive (they even sell the honey) and a few of their rooms raise money for a local children's charity in Oslo.
TIP: Head across the street to Damestreet for some great photos in this small historic zone with colorful houses.
Visiting Alta in Winter
Hopping on another Norwegian Airlines Flight I left Oslo and headed to Alta. Alta is the most northerly town in Norway, located in the Arctic Circle it has a young and thriving population. It is a great place to see the Northern lights as well as try out many different winter activities. It’s also in the process of becoming a certified sustainable destination. As a history lover I was excited to find out about Rock art carvings in Alta that date back to more than 4200 BC and are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the winter Alta is framed in a brilliant blue light that is so distinctive of Finnmark. The blue season in Alta lasts from November to January, in which daylight ceases and polar night rules. During winter nights you can often see the aurora borealis dancing across the skies. The world’s first northern light observatory was actually built here at the end of the 19th century. To learn more about the Northern Lights and what they are I headed straight to the Northern Lights Cathedral. Free to enter and open to all this cathedral has a basement exhibit all about the Aurora Borealis, with scientific and historical facts and games. They also have a waffle and coffee cafe (something I think American churches should adopt). Waffles are a Norwegian tradition and after a cold day the warm sweet bread dolloped with jam and cream were just what I needed.
Things to do in Alta
Norway checked off so many life long #bucketlist moments for myself and my traveling companions. One of those was dog sledding. Arriving at the most perfect winter cabin we met Trine Lyrek. Her and her husband run a bed and breakfast adventure outfitter called Trasti and Trine. Where you can dogsled, hike with huskies, search for the northern lights and eat delicious farm to table food cooked up by her husband Johnny Trasti. Who was once the executive chef at Sorrisniva. He cooks up local specialties like moose, reindeer, tarmagan, bear and lots of fish.
I am normally very leary about animal experiences and like to do my research to make sure the animals are raised ethically and treated with love. Which was the case at Trasti and Trine. Trine spent 7 years in Alaska racing in the iditarod and other long distance dog sled races before returning to Alta with Johnny, and the love she has for the dogs shows loudly with how happy and friendly they all are. A unique part about dog sledding with Trasti and Trine is that we got to actually harness up our dogs to our sleds. After getting dressed in some provided snow suits, we were handed a list. The list had a few names on it and sizes. These would be our dogs for the trip and we were to find them, and harness them up to our sleds.
My sled companion and I had 4 dogs and we started with our biggest dog who would anchor the pack. His name was Bacon and he was sweeter than I ever could imagine. After a few minutes of tangling and untangling the dogs we were off. Full MUSH ahead. The sleds operate with two foot brakes, and we were told whatever you do make sure you brake going down hill, I think we all know what happens if you don’t. With the dogs eagerly running as fast as they could we sped through the woods in the polar night. Taking turns as both passenger as musher I got a real taste of what long distance travel by sled would be like.
INFO: Staying at Trasti and Trine starts at just $75 per night.
More great experiences in Alta can be booked through North Adventure Alta, some of my favorites are Skiing under the arctic night and ice fishing for salmon and Arctic Char.
Sorrisniva Ice & Igloo Hotel
Located in Alta is the Sorrisniva Ice and Igloo Hotel. Created by nature, spending the night here is truly a bucketlist experience. The most northerly ice hotel in the world it is built every year out of ice and snow. Created by local artisans from the surrounding countryside it is absolutely incredible. I was lucky to be visiting on the 20th anniversary, which meant an evening of fireworks and celebration. I had never slept in an igloo let alone one that literally had a chapel, ice bar and sculpture garden within it. Every year the hotel has a different theme and this year it was International Fairy Tales. There are more than 20 themed and non themed rooms in the hotel with beds made completely out of ice and snow. Covered with a few layers of animal hides they are surprisingly comfortable. To stay warm in the frozen castle I was given two sleeping bags and warned of morning rosy cheeks and noses. The hotel also has a huge main building with lockers, showers, sauna, hot tubs for private rental and restaurant and bar. The restaurant which is in a beautiful post and beam dome serves fantastic local food like arctic char, reindeer and king salmon. Not to mention you may even be rubbing elbows with some hifalutin guests like Jeff Bezos or the King of Norway who visit from time to time. The hotel focuses on nature based tourism, and I loved how seamlessly it blended into the snow covered landscape.
Surprisingly I slept in more than I would have imagined in the cold confines of my Beauty and The Beast themed room inside Sorrisniva. After a breakfast of waffles and cloudberries I hurried to get ready, so I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to take photos in the two hours of light we would have that day. But before I knew it it was time to depart for the next leg of this adventure. Our van speeded over the icy roads, chasing the setting sun as the short hours of daylight quickly faded away.
Cloudberries are a native berry in Northern Norway and picking them is illegal to non residents of the north. A delicious and unique fruit they have a taste that reminded me of lingonberry and raspberry.
Reindeer Herding with Visit Natives
At just 2pm the day turned to polar night as we pulled into a cabin to meet our Sàmi guide. Much like American Native Americans the Sàmi are an indigenous group that have been living in the arctic regions of Norway, Finland, Sweden and parts of Russia for hundreds of years. Known to make livings in a variety of land based activities, they are most well known for the practice of reindeer herding. About 2800 of them remain in modern day Norway and my next few days would be spent experiencing their traditions as part of a homestay with Visit Natives.
After a brief introduction with Nils Sara and a hot cup of coffee a large bag of clothing was thrown on the floor. Snow suits, hats, mittens and gloves galore we were told to dress in as many layers as possible for the next leg of our journey. Already wearing long underwear, fleece pants and snow pants I pulled on a snow suit, reindeer fur hat, and wool poncho over my jacket. Then we loaded our bags onto a sled, and wobbled our way into several rows of seats on a slay that would be pulled by Nils and his snowmobile. With thigh deep snow our slay now weighed down by six snowwomen didn’t even budge. But a few heaves and hoes later we were off into the dark winter landscape of Finnmark for quite possibly the coldest ride of my life. For 90 minutes we traveled through the tundra, leaving the roads of civilization far behind us. I’d love to tell you here about what the landscape looked like, but I had my eyes closed for most of the journey. Iced over by my breath my goggles were useless, and I was so cold..to get through I meditated and imagined the warm sun hitting my body as I lay on a beach. One imaginary sun tan later we finally sped through some wire gates that meant we were entering Nils land, and the cabin we would be staying in for the next few days. Nils cabin is rustic, and completely off grid.
Arriving to the cabin I was quickly elected to help Nils chop some wood for the wood fired stove that sits in the cabin, the sole source for heat in his 3 bedroom house.
Our first order of business was meeting two of his young reindeer, whom were a few hundred feet from the cabin tied to a tree. These two reindeer one white and one brown were going to be domesticated, so Nils could have them help around the property. Still unsure of people we offered them pellets and walked them on their leads. Nils said it would take them just 2 weeks to become accustomed to people and able to walk like a dog on a leash.
The Sàmi have lived in the arctic region for hundreds of years, subsiding off the land their diet consists of reindeer, fish, berries and other game meats. That first evening we headed into the Lavoo which is a structure much like a teepee, that traditionally the Sàmi have lived in while herding. Inside the lavoo we started a small fire and strung up some large sections of reindeer meat, which Nils had cured earlier in the year. The meat would be smoked for 6 or so hours over the low burning fire and prepared for our dinner the following night.
That evening we cooked up some arctic char that Nils had caught in the nearby stream before the land was covered in snow. That evening we also met Nils’ wife Oddbjorg and 3 of their 4 children, whom came in late in the evening after finishing school in their village a few hours away. His wife and children spend the week in town where Oddbjorg works as a teacher in the reindeer husbandry school.
Waking in the morning, I stalked the fire with wood and headed outside for a bathroom break. Did I mention the outhouses are located about 100 meters from the house, which means bundling up in snow pants and mittens for any trips to the john. With Nils out with the herd and family still asleep we were on our own for breakfast, heat and power. A kettle sits on the stove around the clock offering hot water for tea, cocoa and coffee at any time of day. Cowboy coffee on the stove I headed back outside to start the generator since I was the only one who knew how to start one.. Fifteen minutes, and dozens of cranks later I finally got the lights on in the cabin, and was greeted with a selection of breakfast items, my favorite being Norwegian pancakes which are much like crepes and some homemade cinnamon bread.
Nils had already checked the herd that morning and now it was our turn to meet his more than 700 reindeer. Speeding through knee deep snow I sat on the back of a snowmobile as we drove through the tundra. It was one of the first days the sun had come out in months. Now seeing the tundra for the first time in light, the deep snow covered everything in a blanket of white. The monotone colors of the snow where backdropped by a pink and orange sky for in the few hours of light the sun just barely crossing the horizon is stuck in a mixing of rising and setting. One of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed. We drove on for some 40 minutes, my hands ungloved to fly my drone had already lost feeling in the far below zero temperatures of the arctic circle. [Shooting video in the arctic is a whole other level of skill, which I will talk more about in another post.]
Coming around a bend I at first saw just tiny specks on my monitor, that on a summer day would have blended in well with the landscape. And then they were all there; hundreds of them, sometimes in perfect lines following in each others footsteps, other times leaping and bounding out of the way of our sled. Nils tends to his herd almost every day of the year. In snow or rain, sunlight or night it is a tradition that has been passed down by his father, and from his father’s father and so on for as long as they know.
Drone still in the air and camera in hand we sped through the trees, herding the reindeer back into one group. The deep snow was a bit much for our sled and we soon found ourselves face first into a soft pile of snow. Thanks to Lia from Practical Wanderlust our sled crash can be watched again. The sled was bruised but not broken and after some slight modifications we were back in motion. Capturing photos of the reindeer was not easy. Between the 6 of us we were down to just two cameras, most of us having frozen lenses, fogged glass or both. Iphone working fine and backup lense on my camera I happened to get a handful of shots before the herd scurried off.
Later in the evening I sat down and showed Nils and his family some of the footage I shot on my drone and the pride and happiness in their faces to see their lifeblood from a new perspective was truly priceless.
After the dying of the light we headed to the cabin to cook the reindeer meat we had smoked the night before. Chopped and boiled with butter the lean meat was served up with potatoes, Nils favorite. The evening ended with stories and joiks in the Goatee, a yurt like structure that has been a traditional home for the Sàmi, made out of branches and animal skins and warmed with a WWII era stove. Nils and Oddbjorg, told us much about their traditions that night as we sat around the fire. They also told us how climate change has changed their ways of life as the planet warms. Endangering their way of life and the culture and traditions that they have protected for so long.
Joiks pronounced like yoik are traditional chants that the Sàmi have been using for hundreds of years. Originating years before as a way to calm the reindeer and scare off predators.
Just before turning in for the evening that night the last check on my Norway bucket list was filled in. With a random snap of a camera lens we saw the dancing light of the Aurora Borealis. Almost invisible to the naked eye, it shines with a glowing green brilliance from the monitor of my camera. For 30 minutes I stood in the freezing night clicking and adjusting the settings on my camera, hoping to get just one photo of this natural phenomenon, before it danced away. Truth be told I have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to night photography, but I did manage to get that one photo afterall.
The next day we returned to civilization and along our journey back by sled happened upon a neighboring reindeer herd. The days now getting slightly longer with each one passing had become even prettier than the day before. The sky was like an eruption of cotton candy for as far as I could see. The herd ran alongside us for what seemed like miles, dancing and prancing in the whitest of snow with the pink and purple horizon seemed like something out of a fantasy and far from real life.
Want to herd reindeer in Norway? VisitNatives has several trips throughout the year with Nils and his family where you can learn about the traditions, culture and practice of the Sàmi. Visit Natives works to help us better understand indigenous cultures and respect the fragile ecosystems that they protect. You can join Nils throughout the year at his winter or summer cabin or during one of the reindeer migrations. Visit Natives also offers home stays with the Masaai in Tanzania.
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