Harstad is a friendly, beautiful, welcoming and decidedly untouristy city right under the Northern Lights oval. Come here for Northern everyday life and hunting the Northern Lights in a stress-free way
Directly under the Northern Lights oval, in a sheltered location on a beautiful fjord, surrounded by snowy forests and mountains, you find Harstad. An attractive, colourful little city centre, some important historic attractions, a surprising gourmet scene and a busy cultural calendar all make it a sympathetic new acquaintance. Relatively few visitors come to Harstad in winter. However, for the independent traveller, the city gives a chance to experience local life in the north while looking for the Northern Lights in a hassle-free way.
Aunfjellet is a favourite viewpoint
Aunfjellet is a low ridge that protects Harstad from the ocean. It if found just a few minutes outside Harstad by car. One can easily walk around on small paths and roads if it’s very snowy, and around in the terrain. From the top, there is a cliff wall falling directly into the fjord. If positioned near the edge, you have a wide view all over the fjord area. A weak northern lights eruption, or the beginning of something big, will usually be seen on the northwestern sky.
Go hiking to Aunfjellet on showshoes
The tourist board organises a guided snowshoe hike to Aunfjellet. If you’re snowshoeing, you’re constantly on the move and keep warm. Snowshoeing, unlike skiing, doesn’t require a special technique. You just walk, and anyone in reasonable shape can do it. From your side, the hillside rises gently. Once on the top, you see how the hill drops dramatically into the fjord beneath you. The view on a moonlit night is commanding; you see fjords, mountains and lights from settlements along the water. Then it’s time to light a fire and prepare a light meal while waiting. No guarantee can be given, but you are out under the open sky.
Wait for the Northern Lights on historic Elgsnes
Some places are just enchanting. The old farm of Elgsnes, with a stately main building from 1723, complete with a turf roof. From the beach down below you have a wide view across the Andfjord to Senja straight ahead and to Andøya on your left. When Aurora leaves us waiting, of course her privilege, there is a boathouse where you can warm up. A guide is with you, helping with cameras and photography. Here the tourist board organises a tour on request.
How do you see the Northern Lights on your own?
If you’re in Northern Norway for a winter holiday week, going on an organised tour every night sounds strenuous. Instead, you can explore the area on your own at night. It’s a matter of dressing up warmly, getting some advice from the well-informed tourist board and setting off. A leisurely walk, renting snow shoes, skis or e-bikes or even a car; there are many ways of doing it. Best of all, it’s very safe, as Harstad is a reasonably densely populated area. You’re never lost in the wilderness.
What do you wear and bring?
Remember to always have a reflective with you. You can buy a reflective vest, but there are arm bands and even some with blinking lights. The main thing, though, is to be seen by cars on unlit roads. Headlamps are cheap and easy to find. A flask for coffee is also a good idea, you can often have it filled up in your hotel. Finally, a snack is fine. Bring your favourite, or go for the Norwegian favourite, Kvikk Lunsj. It’s similar to the KitKat chocolate but is invariably connected with hiking in Norway.
The easiest hike goes to Trondenes
The easiest way to do it, is to follow the coastal path from the city centre out to Trondenes on foot. Have some spikes on if it’s slippery. As you wander your way out of town, you leave the city lights behind you. After half an hours’ time, you are at Trondenes, with the 13th c. church. Here you can wander around in the dark, and with some luck, the lights turn up. This is a completely safe trip, as you are always close to houses and people. The church itself is hard to photograph, though. as it is floodlit to be visible from afar. The density of houses thins out as you approach the church, so there are plenty of other dark spots around.
The TV tower offers a wide view
Another easy trip goes up to the tv tower. From here, you see the city centre is down to the southeast. The north west, however, is all dark. Hence, you will see every Northern Lights looming in the northwest. The accessibility of the tower will, however, vary. Ask in the tourist information about the current snow situation. In early winter, it should be no problem, later the snow might be too deep.
Gangsåstoppen allows a full view of Harstad
In the middle of a residential area south of the centre, the Gangsåstoppen hill offers a view over the city centre of Harstad from the south. It’s an easy hike, as the peak is a mere 172 metres high. However, the snow can be deep, or it can be very slippery. Bring your best spikes, or rent snowshoes at the tourist board. Depending on conditions. This hike is of particular interest if you want that ultimate photo motive of the Northern Lights over Harstad. This means you have to be used to deal with a lot of city lights.
Maistua offers a protected dome
Members of the Norwegian Trekking Assocation (DNT) can rent the Maistua cabin for the night. Most visitors, however, would prefer just to walk up the hillside to this viewpoint. There is a dome where you can have your coffee, and you can go for easy hikes in the area. Often, this can be done with good winter shoes all winter, but hired snowshoes are also a good idea.
Go around by e-bike
Incredible as it sounds, you can go around by bike in the midst of winter. The Tourist Board of Harstad hires out sturdy e-bikes with studded tyres. This means you can explore residential areas in Harstad, most notably the villa areas that are the furthest up. You can also explore the Trondenes peninsula, and cycle to beautiful places out of town such as Røkenes. Depending on the snow situation, some wood paths can also be managed. Have the tourist board suggest something for you, depending on your shape and sense of exploration. We’ve tried it, it’s incredibly fun and easy. Have the Touist Board suggest something for you.
Hire skies and go for a long walk
Cross country skis are an obvious option for anyone with a little ski experience. They can be hired – again – in the tourist information. There is a floodlit ski track around the city where you can try your luck, including the Folkeparken forest area in the immediate vicinity of the city. This is also a Northern Lights opportunity. More experienced skiers go to Kvæfjordeidet, a hilly upland area west of Harstad. Here there are marked trails everywhere, and since there is no electric lighting here, it’s dark everywhere. Still, there are plenty of MILs (Men In Lycra) around, so you’re not left completely alone in the wilderness.
Rent a car if the weather is difficult
If the weather is less than cooperative, hiring a car is an option. At least if you have driven on ice and snow before. Snow showers from the northwest or an endlessly wet rain front from the southwest might cover up the Harstad skies, chasing away hopes to see it from town. Locations to look out for are Gullesfjord south west of Harstad, as well as the Gratangen fjord on the mainland. A look at the weather chart of yr can be a good idea.The view north from just south of the Tjeldsundbrua bridge is a favourite for some. Then you get the elegant span of the bridge and the Northern Lights above and behind. Consult Yr for weather updates.
Nupen has Norway’s most romantic view
A Norwegian travelling magazine once made a list of the ten most romantic places in Norway. The winner was Nupen, based on its fabulous Midnight Sun views. In winter, it’s of course dark out there, but provided there is moonlight and stars, you can still make out the outline of the landscape. Nupen is a little drive northwest of Harstad.
Dress well and go out every night
In general, one shouldn’t is the KP index on the Northern Lights apps as an indication. A KP1 or 2 doesn’t mean you get little Northern Lights in Harstad. The city is directly under the Northern Lights oval, and the KP index most of all indicates how far away from the oval you can see the lights. Right under it, it doesn’t mean that much. So don’t let a low KP index stop you. Also, the weather is highly changeable. The sky might open between heavy snow clouds, so don’t give up. Proper clothing, though, is of importance.
Harstad is the historic centre of the North
Even if Harstad was issued its city charter as late as in 1903, it is rich in history. In the Viking age, some of the most powerful chieftains lived around Harstad. The 13h c. church of Trondenes, the lovely 250 year old farmhouse at Røkenes and numerous sites in the area attest to the sense of history in the area.
The church of Trondenes is the world’s northernmost mediaeval church
The Trondenes church was built in the early 13th c, in early gothic style. However, a stop in the building lasted for 200 years, and the church was finally finished around 1440. The inside is richly adorned with three gothic triptychs imported from Germany, a neoclassical organ and some baroque furnishings. Around the church, there are remnants of 12th c. fortifications. These were built to protect an older , 12th C. wooden church.
Trondenes historic centre puts history into context
The Trondenes Historic Centre tells the whole story of the area. The 2500-year-old bronze necklace, the big iron age cauldron and countless other artefacts are put into context in easy-to-follow exhibits. The minute reconstructions of a mediaeval turf house and a stave church can be admired on the hillside above. The darkest chapter is the most recent; Konstantin Seredintsev’s diary. He tells us how he was mistreated and worked to death in 1943. The remnants of his prison camp – “we were brought here to die” – is visible close to the church when the ground is snow free.
The Adolph gun is a WWII giant
Trondenes guards over the waterway leading into Narvik. Here, iron ore from Sweden is shipped out. During the war, Nazi Germany wanted to make sure that no allied ships could come in. Therefore, giant guns were built here with the help of Soviet slave workers, including the “Adolf” gun. Konstantin was one of them. Today, the giant gun that can hit a target 42 km away, is possible to visit on organised visits through the Tourist Board.
Harstad is a small city with a lively centre
Some 25 000 people call Harstad home. The compact centre is an attractive hotchpotch of fine art nouveau buildings, traditional Norwegian wooden houses from around the same age and modernity. At daytime, there are some cosy cafes, some good shopping and a surprisingly good selection of high-quality dining.
Look for a bit of original shopping
Is there any fun to shop anymore, now that everything is available online? Harstad actually has a few addresses you could stop by. “Prøvetrykk” – “test print” – can make you an original poster, a postcard or some coasters with your own original design. “Vakre vene” dresses the grown-up lady. Bakerinnen – the bakeress – is known for her original take on classical cakes. Eat there, or take home. Skafferiet is a delicatessen with local specialities, including good gifts to bring home.
Kvæfjordkaka is a sweet temptation
Norway’s national cake – we tend to nominate a lot of national things – is called the Kvæfjordkaka. It consists of layers of rhum, vanilla and merengue. It was created by two sisters from the neigbouring municipality of Kvæfjord, operating a patisserie in Harstad. This is now a favourite throughout Norway, and served in weddings, baptisms and confirmation. The tourist board recommends the original kvæfjordkake at the coffee shop of Trondenes Historical Centre. For the more inventive variety, try Bakerinnen. Or, as we would, try both.
Harstad is the gourmet capital of the north
Some people go to Harstad to eat. The young chefs at Umami are known for their perfectly tuned menus of local produce. Make sure to reserve here as early as possible. More informal, but with a menu combining world cuisine and local traditions is Bark. Alo (dialect for “fuss” or “noise”) is eqully cosy and a local favourite. Gois brings in the tastes of Asia. If you just want to hang out and listen to local gossip, the delicatessen and coffee shop Mat av Vahl, is a good place. Røkenes farm with its historic ambience is worth venturing out of town for. Tapp bar draws microbrews from all over Northern Norway, and is thus nutritious in a different way. The coffee bar Esencia offers good coffee and croissants in a fun Paris-meets-Norwegian-hut interior.
Harstad enjoys a mild, snowy winter climate
Despite being some 300 km north of the Arctic Circle, Harstad’s climate is in no way extreme. In the coldest winter months, the average temperature hovers around -3C. The archipelago of Vesterålen takes the brunt off the ocean storms, so Harstad enjoys a sheltered position. Expect a variety of weather, from cold down to -10-15C over snow showers to the odd rain system. Snow is more or less guaranteed from sometimes in December to mid or late April.
Harstad has comfortable hotels
In the centre of Harstad, there are several hotels of good medium to first class. Over week-ends and in quiet periods in winter, one can often get favourable rates here. There are also a couple of budget options. Do also study the website of the local tourist board for some nice places out of town. They are good observation points for the Northern lights.
Getting to Harstad and around is easy
Harstad/Narvik Airport is found some 40 minutes from Harstad. Here there are direct connections to Oslo with several airlines. An airport express bus goes into Harstad. One can also go by train from Oslo through Trondheim to Fauske. From there, there is a bus connection to Harstad. However, this will take around 24 hours. Check public transport by bus and train on the EnTur website. There is also the option to take the train from Stockholm through Kiruna til Narvik. From there, it’s a two hour bus to Harstad. Finally, the legendary Hurtigruten shipping line, these days sharing the service with Havila, sails for 3 and a half days from Bergen, calling at Harstad in the early morning.
Combine Harstad with other destinations in the north
Many winter travellers, however, visit Harstad as a stop on the way between various other destinations in the north. From Tromsø there is a 3 hour catamaran ride to Harstad, with 2-4 departures a day. Narvik and the railhead of the Ofotbanen railway into Sweden is reached by bus in a good 2 hours. The bus to Sortland in the Vesterålen Islands is a short affair including a little ferry crossing. From there, there is an onward connection to Svolvær in the Lofoten Islands.
Facts about Winter in Harstad
Harstad is a city about 300 km/200 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Northern Norway. It is found between Bodø, the Lofoten Islands and Tromsø.
Harstad/Narvik Airport is found a good hour east of Harstad. From there, there are several connections a day to Oslo with several airlines. One can take a 24 hours combo of train and bus from Oslo. The EnTur app/website has prices and hours.
There is a comfortable catamaran connection between the cities every day, with from 2 to 4 departures. Check out the EnTur app for more information.
There are several connections. One goes south to the Tjeldsundbrua bridge, where you join the Narvik-Svolvær bus. A scenic alternative is to go from Harstad to Sortland, change bus there and go to Svolvær. This involves two short ferry crossings. EnTur has hours and prices.
Harstad has several good standard hotels. There are also budget options. Look at Visit Harstad’s website for a full overview.
Visit Harstad runs an excellent website with helpful informaton for the traveller.