This past February my girlfriend Sophie and I took an amazing road trip through the Lofoten Islands in Norway. Along the way we saw brilliant northern lights, dramatic mountains and fjords, otherworldly frozen lakes… all in just a couple hundred kilometers from Svolvær to Reine. The trip was one of the most beautiful experiences of our lives.
In this article I’m going to share our route and twelve awesome stops along the way. Hopefully this helps you plan your own trip, or just live vicariously!
Your options are plane or ferry. We flew to Tromsø and later drove a rental car to Lofoten. This is fantastic option because Tromsø is a beautiful city with plenty to see and do (more about that in a future blog post). The flights and rental car were relatively inexpensive, and the ~6hr drive from Tromsø is scenic and fun. You even have the option to stop at a “Polar Park” (zoo) on the way down (if you do, be sure to book a personal visit with the wolves!). As an alternative, you can shop around for flights right into the Lofoten Islands region (Harstad/Narvik, Svolvær or Leknes), but this will be more expensive.
Your other option is to take a ferry like the Hurtigruten. If you love cruise ships or haven’t really taken a big ferry before, that might be a great option for you. The ship is comfortable and you get to sleep on board so you can partly justify the cost. We took the Hurtigruten back to Tromsø from Svolvær and we found it to be a bit too slow, touristy and expensive for our tastes. The journey is a fine way to get to Lofoten, but it is absolutely no substitute for the road trip. Among other things, you can’t take good aurora photos on the boat because it’s never still enough for a long exposure.
Book a Hotel
The ideal road trip in Lofoten is probably at least three nights, but you could easily spend a week depending on how mesmerized you become by the aurora and scenery. We stayed a night in Svolvær, a night in Reine and a night on the Hurtigruten on the way home. Svolvær is the largest town in Lofoten and a great place to spend your first night while you get acclimated. Unlike the smaller fishing villages in Lofoten, in Svolvær you’ll find a variety of modern hotels.
For our second night, we stayed in Reine. Reine is the jewel in the crown of the Lofoten Islands region. In Reine you’ll spend the night in a historic and beautiful cabin, right off the postcard. Book your stay at the Robuer.
Rent a Car
There is no substitute for renting a car and experiencing Lofoten at your own pace. A rental car lets you explore to find even more remote and scenic locations. There’s a comfortable main highway through the region (E10), and with a rental car you can explore side routes along your journey. That’s how we discovered more than half the photo stops in this article.
A rental car is the best way to see aurora, too. To see northern lights, you ideally need to get yourself to somewhere dark, with nice scenery, and wait. With a rental car, we never felt rushed — there was no schedule and no other people debating how long to stay. On the other hand, aurora can appear suddenly and unexpectedly while you’re driving. With a rental car, you have the flexibility to pull over at your heart’s content when you see something beautiful.
The alternative is to sign up for a tour group, but it wouldn’t be the same. We saw groups pile out of vans at Haukland Beach and Brenna. They’d set up their tripods and enjoy the aurora for 30 minutes and get a few photos and then they’d be on their way. We felt bad for them because it seemed like they weren’t getting enough time and solitude to savor the experience, and often they seemed to miss the brightest aurora because they simply didn’t stay long enough.
If you’re going alone, I can see the appeal of a tour group so you might feel a little safer and less lonely. But if you’re going with a friend, get your courage up, book a rental car and share an adventure.
Here you’ll find an interactive map of our complete journey with accommodations, precise photo stops, attractions and the main driving route. Click in the upper left to pop out a menu and toggle different layers. Click the black camera icons to see precise photo spots with galleries. Click the yellow stars to see a few of the attractions along the route. The rest of the article follows the map from north to south.
In general my advise is to take the map and use it as inspiration, but don’t get too attached to it. The aurora is mysterious and follows its own rules. If you see something beautiful, pull over and enjoy it! You won’t have the same journey we did, but it will be amazing nonetheless.
Lofoten Islands – 12 Great Stops
1. Photo Spot: Kabelvåg
We arrived in Svolvær after the 6+ hour drive from Tromsø, and the sun was beginning to set. Excited, we continued driving looking for a place to enjoy it. We had no real idea where we were going, we simply continued down the road and looked for a place to exit.
We turned down a relatively commonplace seeming road with a few vacation homes along it. This was no tourist destination or landmark — just a little road in Kabelvåg where people had vacation homes. After driving perhaps 0.5km, we parked and hiked about 50 meters up to a little hill. The spot marked on the map is where we happened to land. We spent about a half hour sitting out in the snow, taking photos, and beginning to understand the incredibly beautiful journey we were on.
2. Photo Spot: Skulpturlandskap – Vågan kommune
After the sunset, we went back to our hotel and had dinner. As it got dark, we were excited to go look for a place to watch aurora. We asked the hotel receptionist where to go and she told us generally to head northwest towards Brenna.
Along the way, we found an amazing photo spot – the “Skulpturlandskap – Vågan kommune.” The sculpture is just about 22km from Svolvær continuing down the main E10 freeway. There you’ll find a little turnout to park your car. When we arrived, there were a few other people stopping to enjoy the spectacular aurora.
I set up my tripod and got a couple great shots, but this little box in my photos was bothering me. It turns out the “box” was the sculpture and the reason for the little parking area. I walked up to get in front of the sculpture and it worked as a perfect windshield. With my tripod perfectly still, brilliant aurora overhead, and a clean unobstructed view of the water, I got some of my favorite photos of the whole journey.
3. Photo Spot: Sydalen
Continuing up the road another 5km, we pulled over near Sydalen. There we found a nice flat empty area looking out over a channel between the two islands. The island across the way juts straight out of the water, framing a dramatic view to both right and left (visible in the ultra-wide panorama). The place was so beautiful we actually stopped again on the way back two days later without even knowing it. That’s how dizzying the Lofoten Islands are — amazing scenes can blur together one into the next.
4. Photo Spot: Brenna
As we continued up the road, we landed at this great photo spot near Brenna. The place is especially dark, which seems to be why so many photographers made a point of going there for aurora. Here you look out over open sea, but you can see the mountains across both sides of the channel in the super wide shot. We were thrilled by the aurora which filled up the whole sky — just be ready to pull out your super wide lens or stitch together photos when you get home.
5. Photo Spot: Gimsøymyrene
Later in our journey we decided to explore north of the E10 highway to the little area labeled “Gimsøymyrene.” This was one of the most desolate areas we visited, with very few homes and large swaths of open plains. I don’t think a single car drove by for the 30minutes or so we stayed there. We parked the car and hiked off the road a couple hundred meters. It was eerily quiet and at one point we heard some kind of strange animal noise! We got some nice photos at dusk but didn’t stay long enough to catch the aurora.
6. Attraction: Lofotr Viking Museum
Continuing down the E10, you’ll pass by one of the most popular tourist stops is the Lofoten Islands — the Lofotr Viking Museum. The historic “Chieftans longhouse” stands out with it’s unique architecture and good signage along the road. Just keep your eyes peeled for Jabba’s cruiser and you won’t miss it. Check the schedule and see if a visit makes sense. (They were closed when we passed, unfortunately). They even offer programs with a traditional “viking feast!”
7. Photo Spot: Haukland Beach
Continuing down the road another few kilometers past the Viking Museum, turn-off towards Haukland Beach, listed as the #1 “Thing to do” in Lofoten on Trip Advisor. Haukland is definitely remarkable, with a deep sandy beach and even a volleyball court. Looking at the photos, ignoring the big jackets and snow, you might even think it was California!
Haukland was one of the most crowded stops along our journey, but there were still at most ten or fifteen people there (including a couple tour vans). We caught Haukland in full sun on the way down, and we enjoyed the sunset on the way back.
8. Attraction: Glasshytta
Another 20 km down the road from Haukland Beach be sure to pull off to check out the Glasshytta. There you’ll find a magical glassblowing space and an architectural marvel. The beautiful space was open when we arrived and two artisans were working on their pieces in the workshop. The studio is filled with beautiful glasswork for sale of all kinds — plates, vases, etc.
It felt so strange walking into this modern studio space in the remote arctic setting. Seeing the studio out on the fjord was like seeing it on the moon. And when we walked in, I half expected them to say, “Thank God you found us!” But, far from a miracle, it seems lots of people find the Glasshytta, and we can definitely see why 🙂
9. Photo Spot: Flakstad
Carrying on south past the Glasshytta, in just a few kilometers you’ll find yourself driving along an incredibly beautiful little fjord. When we arrived, part of the fjord was covered in deep ice, and the rest was filled with still water. This was a great place to get one of those iconic “reflecting mountain” photos.
10. Photo Spot: Ytresand
Carrying on south and sneaking over some really unusual bridges, we found ourselves at Ytresand beach. This place was absolutely stunning. Like Haukland, here you’ll find a sandy beach and rugged mountains, but to our eyes the views were even more majestic. Unlike Haukland, we were strangely all alone at Ytresand — maybe because it’s shockingly nowhere to be found on TripAdviser!?
11. Attraction: Blacksmith of Sund
Carrying on south, you’ll pass the fishing village of Sund. Sund is one of the most interesting historic villages to visit with an active fishing community, a convenience store, a “Fishing Museum” and a working blacksmith famous for his handmade cormorants. Everything was closed when we came, so be sure to check schedules before you get too excited about taking home your very own metal bird… Even still, we enjoyed Sund just to see the fishermen at work and peek into the museum and blacksmith shop. There were also tons of baby seagulls squawking for food deliveries from their parents 🙂
12a. Photo Spot: Reine 1 – From the Cottage
As you turn hundreds of corners to stunning vistas, you think it can’t get any more beautiful — then you arrive in Reine. Reine is one of the most awe-inspiring locations on Earth. Just arriving in our little “fishing hut” cabin and walking out on the back porch, this was the view. The geography puts water and sheer granite cliffs around you on all sides.
12b. Photo Spot: Reine 2 – from the West Side
Be sure to explore different parts of Reine and find your own favorite photo spots. Sophie and I enjoyed exploring a little patch of snow just on the western side of the fjord. From here we got a nice set of panoramas at dusk.
12c. Photo Spot: Reine 3 – From the Bridge
After a rest we headed out to find a spot to watch northern lights. One of the best places is on the land bridge connecting Reine to the larger island. It’s an easy walk and you’ll probably see other photographers setting up nearby. Anywhere along the bridge is great, with stunning views of Reine’s most iconic mountain peak. If you’re feeling brave you can even find a route to hike down to the water (as visible in one of the photos). Just be careful!
One of the best parts of Lofoten is that everyone’s journey will be different. Everyone gets to follow their own inspiration to different little nooks and crannies, all of them beautiful and awe-inspiring. Meanwhile, the aurora is its own master, and your northern lights are a one-time-only performance. Sophie and I are so happy to have shared the journey together, and we hope you get to experience it for yourself!
Some Final Tips:
- Driving in Snow: Read an article or two about winter driving. We weren’t used to it, so I wanted to be sure I was safe. The main highway is well-maintained, but many of the side roads will have a layer of snow. Your rental car will have metal studs in the tires (no chains) and they of course expect you to be driving in snowy conditions in the arctic. However, there was one time we got briefly stuck in some deeper snow in a remote area.
- Don’t Get Locked Out: Some of the places you park might be really remote, and it might be the middle of the night, and there may not be many cars coming by. In Gimsøymyrene we stayed for about a half-hour without seeing a single car. Double and triple check that you have your car keys whenever you leave your vehicle. You do not want to get stranded outside your car in the arctic.
- Take Naps: You’re going to want to be out at night, but you still need to sleep. Be sure to listen when you’re tired and get some rest. You need to be alert on the roads.
- Be Careful!: In general, the culture in Norway seems a little less protectionist than we’re used to here in California. For example, there are no road signs telling you how far until the next gas… (side-note: yes there’s gas in Reine, thank God!). There are also few signs warning you about the dangers of trying to hike the most famous mountain trails in the winter. Please note, Lofoten is a very different place in summer and winter — and the most famous hikes in Lofoten are not viable activities in winter… Do your homework before planning a hike.
- Pack for Success: Sophie and I put together and in-depth packing list in another article covering clothes, photography gear and other things. Take a look and make sure you have the right stuff for your adventure.