The first scientific observations of the northern lights were made in Alta, and with its dry climate, Alta is one of the best places to see them. Add a unique hotel made of snow, plenty of dogsledding opportunities and the Sami culture, and you have a winter holiday like no other.
When modern research into the northern lights started in the 1830s, Alta was the centre of all the activity. Thanks to a dry and stable climate, the northern lights were observed and measured, and the phenomenon was surveyed. In 1899, the world’s first northern lights observatory was built on Haldde mountain. So it is with good reason that Alta can call itself the City of Northern Lights.
Hunt the northern lights in Alta
Alta is an extremely good base to hunt for the northern lights. Mobile northern lights hunters take you where they believe there is the best chance of clear skies, either into the Altadalen valley, up on the plateau or out along the coast. There are also courses in northern lights photography. You can stay in the igloo hotel in Sorrisniva, or take part in activities like dogsledding, snowmobile trips and fatbike trips in the evening, when there will be nothing between you and the sky if the northern lights should appear.
Sleep in a hotel made of ice and snow
Every January, a new igloo hotel is built in Sorrisniva, with bedrooms, a bar and an ice chapel for weddings. Every year, it is decorated in a different theme, and the uniquely designed snow sculptures and polished ice surfaces seem ethereal and mysterious in the subtle lighting. You won’t be cold in your sleeping bag; in fact some people say they have never slept so well. The Laksestua restaurant next door is lovely and warm, and serves gourmet food made from ingredients from the Finnmarksvidda plateau.
Alta is Norway’s capital for dog sledding
Alta is a major dogsledding centre, and the longest dogsled race in Europe, the Finnmarksløpet, sets off from here in March. It is the occasion of huge festival that is unmissable for city residents. For the rest of the winter, there are plenty of dogsledding activities on offer, with everything from short trips and weekend excursions on the plateau to three-day expeditions. You can also become a dog handler for a day, and help to look after the dogs. An overnight stay in the heated, comfortable ‘lavvo’ tents in the grounds of the lodge is an experience never to be forgotten.
Alta lies within the land of the Sami
Alta has a significant Sami population, and the main Sami areas are just south of the city. In Maze, about 60 kilometres (37 miles) south of Alta, you can pay the Reindeer Sami a visit. Reindeer sleigh rides are a quiet and environmentally-friendly way of getting out into the snow-clad forests. Dinner in a ‘lavvo’ tent consists of Sami specialities like ‘bidos’ stew washed down with ‘buljong’, a hot, meat-flavoured drink.
Fat bikes and snowshoes take you into snowy landscapes
No longer does the cycling season have to end when the snow comes. On a fatbike, which is a mountain bike with huge balloon-like tyres, you can cycle on the forest trails in the Altadalen valley. Some people go out during the short winter day, while others put on head torches and head out in the evenings, when there is a chance of seeing the northern lights. A much easier option is to walk between the snow-clad trees on snowshoes.
Snowmobile out into Alta’s wilderness
Snowmobiles get you further out and higher up into the mountains than any other means of transport. The Alta landscape of plateau and mountains could have been custom-made for entertaining, high-speed excursions. Many people prefer short trips down in the valley to try out the snowmobiles, but you can also choose a full-day trip or even overnight excursions with accommodation in ‘lavvo’ tents.
There is more to Alta than snow and northern lights
Ice fishing is a relaxing activity that really allows you to unwind. If you visit the slate quarry in Pæskatun, you can make your own souvenir out of slate. The Alta Dam hydroelectric power station was built in a storm of controversy, and you can visit it on a guided tour. Finally, Alta is close enough to the North Cape, Europe’s northernmost outpost, to get there and back in one day.
The Northern Lights Cathedral dominates the skyline
Alta has a modern city centre with numerous hotels, excellent restaurants and a modern shopping centre. The Northern Lights Cathedral is striking on the city skyline, a modern church built in elegant lines that was inspired by the spirals of the northern lights. Guided tours are available here.