Many travelers understandably want to go to Norway in the summer to enjoy the pleasantly cool summer climate, hike through the magnificent fjords, and have a poetically introspective stay in a picturesque cottage on the coast. And, yes, Norway in the summer is absolutely gorgeous—but Norway in winter? Somehow even more so. Those cozy cottages become lit by candlelight and heated by woodstove, locals look straight out of a storybook as they ski or kick-sled their way to the charming Christmas market, sparkly white snow blankets evergreen boreal forest, and topping it all off is the opportunity to see the winter sky dancing with the green and violet colors of the northern lights.
There’s something about the colder weather and long winter nights that makes a winter Norway trip even more magical. It definitely wouldn’t be the same to visit a reindeer farm or meet a dog sledding team on a bright, sunny summer day. Listening to stories from indigenous Sami elders bundled up around a fire and with a steaming cup of hot cocoa in hand seems somehow more fitting than at a picnic table. But exactly how cold is considered “cold” in Norway in winter? That depends on where you are planning on exploring—but maybe not as cold as you would think.
The long Norwegian coastline is blessed with ocean currents throughout the year, which actually have a warming effect in the winter. Heading farther north does not always mean colder in Norway. The average temperature in the northern Lofoten Islands, for example, rarely drops below freezing, even though it has the same latitude as northern Canada. Coastal places will always be warmer than locations inland—the most frigid winter wonderlands are in the Norwegian mountains. Early winter can often mean slushy cold rain—it’s usually sometime after Christmas when fluffy snow is more likely to make a lasting appearance. Good waterproof boots, a decent snow coat, wool underlayers, a cozy hat and gloves will get you through even the most wintry activities just fine.
Winter nights are notoriously long throughout Norway. From mid-November until the end of January, the sun just briefly peaks out over the horizon in most parts of northern Norway. That is not to say that it is pitch-black all the time. The bright snow lightens the landscape more than expected. The winter sky in the northern region is a deep midnight blue—and on a clear night, the amount of stars to see in the sky is downright humbling.
While there are many tourism activities perfectly suited for winter in Norway and Finnish Lapland, here are our top 7:
Search for the northern lights
The colorful phenomenon known as aurora borealis is named for the Roman goddess of the dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas. They are most commonly seen in the northern region of Scandanavia—the capital city of Oslo, for example, is too far south of the Arctic Circle to see the aurora borealis. The city of Tromso is firmly in the middle of the aurora zone, making it prime northern lights viewing territory. October to March are the best months to try to happen upon this surreal light show, with March usually offering the best chance of clear skies.
Dog sledding on a frozen fjord
There may be no better way to explore the unspoiled Arctic landscape than on a traditional husky sled ride. Kirkenes, Norway, is a hub for this adventure activity. Here, guests can experience an exhilarating dog sled ride on a frozen fjord. No previous experience is needed, and the outfitter will supply the appropriate clothing gear and right equipment. The musher teaches the basics of handling a team of huskies, and before you know it, you will be cruising across frozen lakes and through snowy forests, enjoying these natural wonders in near silence.
Snowshoe to see wildlife
The border region between Russia and Finland called Pasvikdalen is an ideal place for nature lovers to throw on some snowshoes. This is a part of Pasvik–Inari Trilateral Park, a continuously protected wilderness area. The Pasvik Valley is known for being home to Norway’s largest bear population (don’t worry, they are too busy hibernating to be a safety concern in winter). You’re more likely to spot herds of elk on on a snow shoe trek. Pasvikdalen also has the biggest remaining tract of primeval pine forest in Norway. It’s where the eastern Siberian taiga meets western Boreal forest and Arctic tundra marshlands. The diverse habitats help make this an important birding area, with many species found here that are rare elsewhere in Norway and Western Europe. Make sure to pack a good pair of binoculars!
Spend the night in a hotel made entirely of snow and ice
Elsa from Frozen was onto something—sometimes running off to a winter haven made of ice and snow is the best decision one can make. Adventure seekers looking for a memorable Arctic stay can spend the night at Snowhotel in Kirkenes, sleeping in warm thermal bags in a room carved entirely of ice. The hotel even has an ice bar where drinks are served in glasses made of ice (try anything made with yummy local cloudberry). There are also reindeer that live on the property, completing the perfect winter backdrop.
Learn about Finland’s indigenous Sami culture
While Norway is also home to Europe’s oldest culture and only indigenous people, Sami, right across the border in Finnish Lapland is the municipality of Inari, the hub of traditional Sami culture. “Lapland” is often referred to as the northern area of Finland, but it in fact occupies the northern part of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and even Russia. The isolated village of Inari is 160 miles north of the Arctic Circle and nestled on the shores of Lake Inari, just one of thousands of lakes in the region. A perfect place to start educating yourself on Sami culture is at the Siida Museum and Nature Center. Permanent exhibits and photographic displays teach about the rich history of the Sami people and how they have adapted to modern-day life. The Sami are best known for reindeer herding, but they are also skilled fishermen and sheep herders. Sami hold being in touch with nature as one of the highest values possible, and an authentic encounter with the Sami people will have visitors looking at their own relationship with nature through new eyes.
Visit a reindeer farm
The importance of reindeer in Sami culture can not be underestimated. Reindeer meat is used for cooking, leather and fur are used to make shoes and clothing, and antlers and bones make useful tools and decorative objects. Visiting a local reindeer farm is one of the best places to learn about the key role of this animal in Sami culture. Guests will get a chance to meet a local herder and can even take a memorable ride in a sled pulled by a reindeer.
Watch the northern lights from bed in a glass-topped cabin
Hunting down the northern lights by snowmobile or on skis is one thing, but watching them put on what feels like a personal light show as you lay snuggled cozy warm in bed is another. Wilderness Hotel Inari, just five minutes from the Sami village Inari, has private accommodations with a laser-heated glass roof directly above the bed so guests can enjoy the sky view even during the lowest temperatures. How can one not have sweet dreams when they are lulled to sleep so directly by nature?