We challenged UK-based travel writer Anna Maria Espsäter to name her favourites in the north of Norway. Here are her all time Arctic favourites.
From the Gladmat food festival in Stavanger and countless visits to capital Oslo, to the ski slopes of Geilo and a long stint researching the Berlitz Pocket Guide to Norway, my travel writing assignments across the country have been many and varied. I have, however, always had a very soft spot for “up north”. Here I’m sharing some of my favourite places and pastimes in Northern Norway.
1. Townscapes and nature escapes – Tromsø and surroundings
When it comes to northern towns, Tromsø is top of the list for me. It’s large enough to be interesting, but small enough to be cosy, with plenty to see and do both in the town centre and the surrounding areas. The main hub, on Tromsøya, manages to squeeze in a good variety of shops, restaurants, bars and culture, and yet the great outdoors is also right on your doorstep – something that’s often lacking in Britain, especially in the built-up southeast, where I’m based. I love spending Tromsø days visiting some of the well-known museums or strolling around the harbour area where modern and more quaint buildings co-exist quite happily. The harbour is a great place to enjoy views of the imposing bridge, Tromsøbrua, as well as the Arctic Cathedral across the waters.
On a clear day, it’s wonderful to venture further afield, hop on the cable car and drink in the splendid views from the top of Fjellheisen on Storsteinen mountain. The café/restaurant at the top whips up a fine hot chocolate (literally – they add great dollops of whipped cream). Colder climes lend themselves to hot chocolates any time of year, in my humble opinion and after a hike on Storsteinen there’s nothing better. After such strenuous pursuits, it’s lovely to relax in the hotel sauna – one place on the harbour has particularly fine sauna-views, although I suspect it’s tricky to sneak in if you’re not a guest – before a night on the tiles checking out the local bars. Time-honoured establishments such as Verdensteatret (Norway’s oldest functioning cinema) and Skarven (on the harbour, with a roaring open fire), are well worth a stop for a pre- or post-dinner drink.
2. Peace and quiet on the beaten track – Balsfjord
Peace and quiet is hardly in short supply in Northern Norway – I’ve even come across both in the heart of town centres, on occasion, usually in winter – but there are a couple of places that stand out for me as glorious havens of blissful peace with beautiful scenery. One of them is just an hour south of main hub Tromsø and can be easily reached by car or bus. Spending a couple of weeks on a working farm near Selnes, right on the shores of Balsfjord, provided a steady “diet” of fjord-side and hilltop hikes (the kind of diet that makes you slim and fit!) in autumn sunshine during the day, while aurora added fantastic northern lights displays every evening. The area is by no means busy and bustling, with only a few farms and the odd holiday home, but of course it’s all relative up here and the further north you go, the quieter it tends to get.
3. Peace and quiet off the beaten track – Syltefjord, Båtsfjord and Kongsfjord
My stay in a tiny community (think: three people) on Syltefjord, near Båtsfjord in the far north, brought new meaning to remote. Here was a peace and quiet bordering on desolation in a scenic area complete with abandoned buildings, standing solitary on the shores. Over the summer months, though, both Båtsfjord and nearby community Kongsfjord, liven up and there are king crab safaris, bird-watching and some rather quirky buildings to view, thanks to one man’s obsession with the West Wild. It’s easy to get here by boat, using the ever-reliable Hurtigruten service that runs all the way to Kirkenes.
4. End of the line – Narvik & Ofotbanen
On the shores of Ofotfjord, at the end of the railway line originally connecting the iron ore mines at Kiruna, Sweden with the sea, lies Narvik, a city that’s reinvented itself after the ravages of the Second World War. It looks so peaceful and friendly these days, it’s hard to imagine it under siege. The new War Museum, opened in 2016, recounts the tales of those dark days in the 1940s when Norway was occupied by Nazi German forces. The railway journey (Ofotbanen) across the border to Riksgränsen is a truly spectacular feat of engineering, well worth a trip if the weather is clear. The first time I took the train across, I spent most of the 50-minute journey dangling out the window (not really recommended), looking down at the fjord far below, while snapping photos and “oh-ing and ah-ing” at the scenery.
5. Superlative isles – Lofoten Islands
Northern Norway is, to me, one of the most stunningly photogenic parts of the world and the Lofoten Islands is the kind of place where you swiftly run out of superlatives. Arriving by boat from Bodø, you’re greeted by the sheer cliffs of the imposing Lofoten Wall straight ahead and it’s an unforgettable sight. My first stay on the islands began in a small rorbu (traditional fishing huts) hotel at Stamsund and involved me trying whale for the first time in the local haunt. These days I probably wouldn’t take “going local” that far for environmental reasons, although my motto has always been to “try anything once”. The pace feels different on islands, I find.
Although there’s no need to rush around, there isn’t any unnecessary idling going on either. I was reminded that these islands were primarily working fishing communities with set times of work and set times of calm, and although much has changed with the arrival of tourism, you can still feel an older vibe here. If I have a favourite place on the islands, it’s probably Henningsvær, a village of only 500-odd people, but with plenty of local initiatives including fun shops, good eateries and the wonderfully named music festival, Codstock. It was also a good place to enjoy some of that rather potent and mind-opening/altering Norwegian tipple akevitt. A slightly hazy and blurry part of an otherwise truly memorable journey through northern Norway.
About Anna Maria
Anna Maria Espsäter is a UK-based, Swedish author of both fiction (as AM Hellberg Moberg) and non-fiction (under her real name). She has visited 96 countries to date and worked on 25+ books, including guidebooks to Norway, Sweden, Mexico, Colombia, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile, three illustrated children’s books and two collections of short stories. Her latest book, Wayward Wanderings, a collection of 25 autobiographical travel tales with over 40 of her images, was published in February 2021. She writes in English, Swedish and Spanish. For further information, to sign up to her newsletter or purchase her books see: www.amhellbergmoberg.co.uk.
Editorial note: The opinions and priorities are all Anna Maria Espsäter’s. Understand them as her personal recommendations. Northern Norway Tourist Board of course loves all of Northern Norway unconditionally.