When I was invited by Impact Travel Alliance, Visit Norway, and Norwegian Airlines to join a sustainable press trip to Norway in the middle of January, I was delighted. Visions of icy fjords and dogsled rides past herds of frolicking reindeer under the Northern Lights danced in my head as I stuffed my warmest sweaters into my backpack.
But as I boarded my Norwegian Airlines flight to Oslo, I realized that my mental image Norway mostly came from watching Frozen on repeat. What if Norway wasn’t the magical winter wonderland that I imagined it to be? What if it was just like, freezing cold and dark all the time?! After all, I was visiting Norway during something called, rather ominously, Polar Night. What did I get myself into??
But the minute I stepped off of my plane in Oslo, surprisingly refreshed after 10 hours in a comfortable Norwegian Airlines Premium Class seat, I was enthralled.
Norway was every bit the snowy wonderland I’d been dreaming of. Snow fell softly on woodlands and meadows outside the windows of our train as we sped towards downtown Oslo. Perfect pink twilight danced off the glittering surface of the Oslo Fjord as we crunched our way towards the sauna for a traditional Norwegian pastime. And as I plunged into the freezing cold waters of a salty fjord, it hit me (as in, like, literally splashed me in the face): Norway is freaking awesome.
I plan to publish multiple posts from my insanely amazing, utterly unbelievable trip trip to Norway, but first I wanted to share with you the beauty of this incredible place. If visiting Norway in the winter isn’t on your bucket list yet, it will be by the end of this post!
Table of Contents
Oslo, Norway in the Winter
I began and ended my journey in Oslo, Norway’s ultra-cool capital city and the environmentally friendly “Green Capital of Europe.”
Within 3 hours of arriving in Oslo, I found myself voluntarily leaving the cozy confines of a warm sauna and plunging myself into an icy, salty fjord. And you know what? It actually felt amazing, and not just because a whole sauna of incredibly attractive Norwegians applauded me for my heroism (at least, I think that’s why they were applauding).
The Nordic tradition of cycling between hot and cold has solid science to back it up, but that’s a really long scientific paper, so I’ll summarize: the instant your body hits the cold of the Oslo fjord, your brain produces all kinds of feel-good hormones and happy chemicals (not unlike drugs!) so that by the time you’ve hauled yourself out of the fjord you’ve already become a convert and will immediately head back into the sauna and start convincing everyone who hasn’t yet taken the plunge the “it’s SO amazing, you HAVE to try it.”
But seriously … you have to try it. It’s actually SO amazing.
In addition to its fjords and saunas, Oslo is an architect’s dream, filled with stunning and creatively designed buildings that are as beautiful as they are efficient.
There’s the Barcodes, a line of buildings with the most unique display of windows I’ve ever seen, all lined up next to each other looking like an avant-garde barcode – the source of their nickname.
There’s the Oslo Opera House, designed to look like a glacier rising from the fjord.
And then there’s a classic European Old Town, with palaces and parks and old, heavy buildings dripping with charm.
Oslo is also an incredibly artistic city: there are several statue parks, including a moose statue that’s in a feud with a Canadian Moose statue, a viral story which I find incredibly endearing on the part of both Norway and Canada (I love them both).
Oslo is the City of Tigers, so on occasion you’ll find yourself face to face with a giant, snow-covered cat.
By far, my favorite piece of art in Oslo was a stunning stainless steel and glass piece floating in the icy fjord. The piece is meant to look like a pile of icy glacial shards and moves with the tide and wind, so that an ever changing reflection of water and sunlight dances on its many faces.
The piece is actually a 3D interpretation of this painting depicting a wrecked ship on a failed North Pole expedition, which I find fascinating and relevant because I personally consumed a whole bunch of true stories about failed Arctic expeditions in preparation for this trip (psst: if you’re a disaster/history nerd like I am, I recommend this book and also this book).
One of the best ways to see all of the Oslo Fjord and its various stunning buildings and ports is to take an Oslo fjord cruise, available in the winter on a hybrid zero-emissions cruise ship.
The ship took us gently past Akershus Fortress and varius scenic marinas, plus roughly 28672867 tiny, adorable red cabins nestled into patches of Oslo’s rolling woodland hills. We were informed that “everyone in Norway has a cabin in the woods,” and I think my heart up and left my body to go live in Norway forever right then and there.
In addition to fjord flopping and cruising, we spent a day exploring Oslo on foot, because Oslo is a walking, biking, and transit city, even in the dead of winter.
Our home base in Oslo was the the Scandic Vulkan, located in the ultra-cool Vulkan neighborhood. Yes, it’s called Vulkan, and I bit my tongue trying not to subject my poor travel companions to a zillion lame Star Trek jokes. #thestruggle
Within minutes of the hotel on foot we found Oslo’s most picturesque alley and a hip food hall. We also managed to gorge ourselves on a 7-course meal at Hitchhiker, Oslo’s best street food restaurant. And since the way to my heart is through my stomach, I easily fell head over heels with Oslo.
I could have stayed in Oslo for a whole week exploring, but northern Norway beckoned – our next adventure was calling!
Alta, Norway in the Winter
Venture far enough north and you’ll cross the Arctic Circle and land in Alta, Norway, located along the Altafjord. We ventured northwards by plane, on a convenient and quick Norwegian Airlines flight.
Ringed with mountains and bordering the arctic tundra in Norway’s Finnmark region, Alta is best known for its stunning views of the Northern Lights. It’s this claim to fame that inspired another of its most famous attractions, the Cathedral of the Northern Lights, designed to look like its otherworldly namesake.
Dog Sledding in Alta
Another one of Alta’s claim to fame is Finnmarksløpet. You may not have heard of Finnmarksløpet (I sure hadn’t) but the rest of Norway definitely has: it’s the longest sled-dog race in Europe! Even if you’re not a professional Musher, dog-sledding is a must-do activity in Alta. I tried it for the first time ever at Trasti og Trine, a beautiful lodge run by a local couple. We ran at sunset through snowy woods and past icy streams and mountains, but you can also take a ride after dark – possibly even while the northern lights dance overhead.
I was nervous about the treatment of the dogs, but Trasti og Trine’s dogs seemed very happy and healthy. Visitors are encouraged to harness up the dogs themselves, and as I got my four dogs ready to pull the sled, I could tell how excited they were to go on a run in the snow. Absolutely no incentives to make the dogs run faster or harder was used, and the dogs did not seem overly tired at the end of their run. The teams were well trained (our Musher only needed to utter a single word to change course) and the husky teams seemed happy, healthy, well fed, and well taken care of. I definitely feel comfortable recommending this as an ethical, animal-friendly activity in Norway!
Surprisingly, Alta isn’t actually that cold during the winter, thanks to some sciencey things. This means that you’ll enjoy a pleasantly warm temperature of at least 15 degrees above zero, even in the coldest months of the year. Look: compared to the Arctic Tundra, that’s like a tropical vacation.
Staying at an Igloo Hotel in Alta
After our dog-sledding adventure, we headed to our second bucket-list-worthy activity of the day: sleeping in an igloo hotel! Sorrisniva is the world’s northernmost ice hotel, and has been built from scratch every winter for the past 20 years, with each year featuring a different theme for its cozy snow rooms and sparkling ice sculptures.
The hotel is deeply integrated into the local community: all of its ice sculptures are hand-crafted by locals residents, and the exquisite food in its cozy restaurant is all locally sourced – right down to the hand-picked cloudberries. (yes: cloudberries are actually a real thing and not just an imaginary Norwegian-sounding fruit that I just made up.)
I’ve never slept in an igloo in my life and I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but to my surprise, my Aladdin themed room was cozy and – once I snuggled into two goose down sleeping bags on top of a pile of reindeer pelts – plenty warm enough for a deep sleep!
The Igloo Hotel is a once in a lifetime splurge, but you don’t have to stay overnight to experience it. Come for dinner, take a drink at the ice bar and admire the ice sculptures.
I slept like a hibernating bear (cuz … winter? Get it?) and woke up just in time for a delicious breakfast. After stuffing my face with Vaflers – adorable heart-shaped waffles, a traditional Norwegian treat that I wish would catch on everywhere else – I bid goodbye to comforts like WiFi and running water and embarked on the next chapter of my Norwegian winter adventure…
The Norwegian Arctic Tundra
This was the kind of trip where I woke up in an igloo and then, a few hours later, hopped on a snowmobile to head deep into the Arctic tundra to herd reindeer.
Like, did I just write that?! Norway is a dream – and if I didn’t have photographic proof that I’d actually been there and done all of these amazing things, I might just chalk it up to one too many late nights spent watching Frozen and singing into a glass of red wine (because #adulthood).
Anyway, after I woke up in the igloo (lol what is my life) we took a beautiful 2-hour drive past frozen waterfalls and gently rolling hills deep into Finnmark, where we would embark on one of the most incredible, unique things I’ve ever done on a trip full of incredible, unique things.
You see, for the next three days, I would be sleeping in a cabin deep in the arctic tundra, surrounded by nothing but snow and reindeer, with no running water and a 2-hour snowmobile ride through -30 degree weather between me and civilization.
My hosts would be a family of indigenous Sami reindeer herders who host visitors in partnership with the amazing Visit Natives program. The homestay directly benefits the Sami people, which helps them to preserve their culture while educating and connecting with folks like me.
Homestay with Sami Reindeer Herders
The Sami people have been living in the arctic of modern-day Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia for thousands of years, practicing reindeer husbandry and herding. Although there are a few different types of Sami, the Sami reindeer herders’ entire livelihood depends on their herds. They spend all winter keeping their herds fed and safe in the Arctic tundra, and then help the reindeer migrate safely during the summer months.
The Sami herders protect their reindeer from predators and also from the looming threat of climate change, which gets worse each year – threatening both the lives of the reindeer herds and the Sami people, who rely on them.
It is a challenging life. In addition to climate change, the Sami – like many of the world’s indigenous populations – face persecution from their neighbors and government, including official assimilation policies and laws banning their traditional languages and cultural practices.
Thankfully, in recent decades, much has changed: Norway has apologized and extended reparations for their prior treatment of the Sami people, and there is an official Sami parliament which protects and represents Sami interests.
Still, today only about 2,800 Sami reindeer herders remain, working together to keep their traditions (and their herds) alive. Immersing myself in the lives of my host family was an incredible opportunity to learn about the Sami people and about the difficult choices that modern Sami make every day to preserve and protect their heritage and culture.
I have a LOT to say about this experience – and I have a post coming out shortly that will expand on it – but this is a photo post, and this portion of the trip was by far and away the most beautiful, scenic, stunning, jaw-dropping, amazingly beautiful bit.
By some miracle of timing, we arrived in the Arctic tundra on the same day that the sun popped about an inch above the horizon for all of 10 minutes before sinking quickly back down again: the official end of Polar Night, an Arctic phenomenon where the sun doesn’t rise for a full 24 hours … for 2 months straight.
It sounds bleak, I know. And I was kind of expecting darkness at all hours of the day with about 15 minutes of brief, blessed sunshine. But my expectations could not have been more inaccurate.
Instead of 24-hour night, what we got was a beautiful “blue light” reflecting off of the snow beginning at around 8am, and then a solid 4 hours of sunrise-sunset. Like, there was a stunning sunrise for a few hours, and then a stunning sunset for a few hours, with no interruption to the beauty.
During these hours, the filtered sunlight painted the sky in shades of cotton candy pinks, Tiffany blues, and Easter-egg lavenders :t he sky looked like a pastel layer cake. For a solid 4 hours.
The views I experienced in the Arctic were unlike anything I have ever seen before in my life.
Before this trip, I thought to myself “I can’t imagine living somewhere without sunlight.” After this trip, I’d give anything to see that arctic sky again. It was, absolutely without exaggeration, the most beautiful sky I have ever seen in my entire life.
I would have been happy to sit outside and gawk at the sky, but our Sami hosts put us to work! Our immersive experience included smoking reindeer meat in a traditional Lavvu tent, chopping wood, fetching water from a stream, hopping on a snowmobile to check on herds of galloping reindeer, and feeding and walking two reindeers in the process of becoming domesticated. Plus playing with 3 sweet children and 1 adorable dog.
By the way: I know I said “hopping on a snowmobile” like it ain’t no thing, but it WAS A WHOLE THING. The temperature outside hovered around -20 degrees, which on a snowmobile whizzing through the tundra with Arctic windchill is frostbite-is-all-but-guaranteed levels of cold. We practiced perfecting the art of bundling up every single inch of our exposed skin.
Snowmobile Crash in the Arctic Tundra
One day I made the mistake of forgetting to wear a Balaclava to cover my face, and instead attempting to rely on a wool buff and scarf. They both froze solid. I literally had a block of solid wool doing absolutely nothing to keep my face warm.
It was also on this day that our snowmobile crashed, sending us all tumbling into a snowbank in a heap of frozen camera equipment and panic.
By complete chance, I happened to be filming on my phone at the exact moment we crashed. You can see our crash in the video below, plus footage of a reindeer herd galloping past us underneath a cotton-candy pink sky.
And still: I would do it again in a heartbeat. While our hosts repaired our snowmobile, we were treated to views like this all around us.
One evening, after a meal of smoked reindeer meat with lingonberry sauce, we sat around a crackling fire listening to our host Nils joik. Joiking is Sami traditional singing, and each joik is meant to reflect or evoke a person, animal, or place through song (sometimes with words, sometimes without).
Joiks can be hundreds of years old, passed down from generation to generation through memorization. Some are made up on the spot, and others are gifted to loved ones throughout their lives. Our host sang joiks he’d known his whole life. He sang a sweet joik he’d written for his wife. And he even sang one not-so-pleasant joik that he composed on the spot for the current President of the United States *ahem*.
Hours later, after the fire died down, we all crunched back up to the cabin.
The Northern Lights
To the naked eye, it looked like a clear, cloudless night – with the exception of one wispy little curl of cloud off in the distance. That wispy cloud was acting a little strangely. It was moving around more than you’d expect a cloud to move. Doing suspiciously un-cloud-like things.
And then, by chance, one of us took a picture of the sky. Our camera captured what our eyes could not: a bright green streak in the sky, dancing and moving from picture to picture, side to side, refusing to stay still even as we all scrambled to capture it in our frozen cameras. The Northern Lights, the final item on my Norway bucket-list, had come out to play!
I’m not going to lie, you guys: I freaked the f**k out. I took like 9k photos of this one tiny streak of green light, and the fact that I couldn’t see it with my own eyes only made the whole thing more incredibly exciting.
Even though I only saw the tiniest preview of the Northern Lights, it was the most magical thing I’d ever seen (even without actually seeing them with my own eyes). As if there was any doubt in my mind, I now knew for certain: I have to go back. I HAVE to see them again.
On the 2-hour snowmobile ride back to civilization, I bundled up – balaclava and all – and left the tiniest slit for my eyes. We were supposed to wear goggles too, but mine were iced over (because #arctic) so I removed them and, through my teeny tiny eye-hole and the fur of my borrowed reindeer hat, I took in the views all around me, drinking them in one last time.
I think I’ll be dreaming about them forever.
The End of My Norway Winter Trip
By the time we returned to our hotel in Alta, it had been 3 days since I’d had a proper shower (or used a real toilet, for that matter. TMI? That was probably TMI). Our hotel was a welcome site for sore eyes.
Also sore back, sore legs, and sore arms. I’m not sure if it was the actual crash or my post-crash terror, but riding the bumpy snowmobile took a toll on my body. Think like, horseback riding, except also you can’t really move because you’re wearing a million layers of clothing, and also everything is frozen, and also you’re scared of horses so all of your muscles are tensed up.
Thankfully, after a shower, an incredible meal artfully composed of organic, locally sourced ingredients at Ett Bord – and a glass or 3 of wine – I was back to my old self.
Except just as I was feeling up for more adventure, it was time to leave – my week of exploring Norway in the winter had come to an end. Cue sobs.
The only thing that helped mitigate my sadness – er, other than looking forward to seeing poor Jeremy, who was still at home sadly waiting for me to upload my Instagram stories so he could see what I was up to – was the cozy AF Norwegian Airlines seat that awaited me.
We were flying back on the fuel efficient 787 Dreamliner in Premium Class, which meant I got to spend 10 happy hours in a roomy seat with my feet propped up, watching movies on my private screen and inhaling 3-course dinners and wine.
Plus, Norwegian Airlines does magical things with air pressure and lighting that make you feel more awake – and in my case, keep you awake, so you can spend 10 straight hours editing photos from your trip and wishing you were still in Norway.
My trip to Norway in the winter was, without a doubt, one of the most incredible adventures of my life. I owe a huge thanks to my trip sponsors, Impact Travel Alliance, Visit Norway, Visit Natives, and Norwegian Airlines, as well as all of the sponsors who hosted and welcomed us during our stay.
While I’m busy working on more posts that will help you plan your own epic winter trip to Norway, you can see more of my Norway adventures on my Instagram, where I’ve created a Story highlight full of photos and videos that I took during my trip. You can also check out some of the content that the other participants on my trip have created: Kelley @kelleytravels, Jen @coleman_concierge, Annette @bucketlistjourney, and Alice @alicesadventuresonearth.
If you’re interested in more photos from the Europe Arctic Circle, check out this photo guide to the region.
Is Norway dreamier than you ever imagined? Did you sing “Let It Go” in your head the entire time you read this post? Drop your comments and questions about visiting Norway in the winter in the comments below!
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Disclaimer: My incredible trip to Norway was part of a press trip sponsored by Impact Travel Alliance, Visit Norway, and Norwegian Airlines,. All opinions, bad jokes, Frozen references and repetitive uses of descriptors like “jaw-dropping” are 100% my own and absolutely not their fault. I am so honored and grateful to everyone who hosted us along the way, including the Sara family, Visit Oslo, North Adventure Alta, and Trasti og Trine.
Printable Europe in Winter Packing List
This FREE printable packing list will help make sure you don't forget anything for your trip to Europe this winter. Enter your email & we'll send you the PDF, plus our favorite travel tips for visiting Europe in the winter.
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