Just north of the Arctic Circle, perfectly situated for a mesmerizing Northern Lights show, Bodø is one of the fastest-growing cities in Norway. It’s a modern town – although it has had township status since 1816, it was largely destroyed during a Luftwaffe attack in 1940 and has subsequently been rebuilt. And the improvements are still afoot. Latest on the list of projects is a new cultural quarter by the yacht marina housing concert halls, art galleries and a library.
Bodø also has a lively restaurant scene with kitchens serving up everything from cured cod to homemade cheese to doner kebabs. Away from the cultural buzz, Bodø is known for its natural attractions: it’s close to two national parks and is home to a number of nature reserves. And just 33 kilometres from town there’s the Saltstraumen, the world’s strongest maelstrom, whose water travels at 20 knots at high tide.
Svolvær is the capital town of the Lofoten archipelago – a bustling tourist mecca in summer due to its much-vaunted natural gorgeousness. The truly wise, however, pack an extra sweater and visit the Lofoten Islands when the days are shorter and the T-shirts-and-sunglasses crowds have fled south. Now the Arctic light becomes softer and its colours shift from pink to purple to pale pastel blue beneath the grey of the sheer granite peaks.
Svolvær isn’t a big place – it has just over 4,000 residents, and its economy was originally built on cod fishing. Recently, though, the artists have moved in, attracted by Lofotens famous light, and they’ve created a lively gallery scene. Now, a new, glass-fronted hotel and cultural centre towers over the rust-painted cabins that huddle along the water’s edge.
Once fishermen’s huts, most of these have been refurbished for visitors. From mid-February to April each year, millions of cod migrate this way to their spawning grounds near Lofoten. The cod fishing world championships take place in late March; visitors are welcome to join in.
Tromsø is the main city of Norway’s Finnmark region. Surrounded by mountain peaks on one side and the ocean on the other, it sits more than 300 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle; its geographical location beneath the auroral oval combined with easy transport links make the city a popular Northern Lights-viewing destination from early September through to mid-April. (This is where Joanna Lumley found the aurora borealis in her TV documentary In the Land of the Northern Lights.)
On a clear winter’s night, you’ll have an excellent chance of seeing the northern lights – but be aware that the city is also famous for its plentiful snowfall, so skies can be overcast. For a place so far north, Tromsø is not actually all that cold, thanks to the Gulf Stream. The lowest the mercury has ever hit here was a measly -18.4°C; the average temperature in January is a toasty -4.4°C. Remember to pack your T-shirts. Leave the sunglasses at home though – in mid-winter, at least. The sun doesn’t rise in Tromsø between 21 November and 21 January, although it’s not completely black: there’s a dusky twilight in the middle of the day.
When you’re not in quest of the northern lights, you can join Tromsø’s 50,000 inhabitants in enjoying a contemporary restaurant scene and lively bars. The city’s glass-fronted Arctic Cathedral is also popular with visitors.
Perched right up in Norway’s northernmost tip, Hammerfest has a long and lively human history. Its importance as a hunting and fishing ground for Arctic people stretched back thousands of years before Hammerfest was declared a market town by Christian VII in 1789.
Half the town was wiped out by fire in 1890, then, a year later, things looked up as it became the first town in northern Europe to install electric street lighting: two of its merchants had seen the invention displayed at a fair in Paris and rigged up water-powered lights at home. You can learn all about it with the Hammerfest Arctic Energy guided tour.