If you’re looking for a winter adventure, you’ll find it in Alta, the largest town in Norway’s northernmost county, Finnmark. Alta offers a whole range of arctic adventures, aesthetic, actionfilled and unique. White snowdrifts, fresh air and a dark, magical sky will frame your experience. The main attraction of Alta during the winter is the Aurora Borealis, the famous Northern Lights. Very few places offer better odds of seeing the lights. Alta is located below the aurora oval, the area of the atmosphere where the Northern Lights occur. A stable climate ensures a high number of cold, cloudless days that offers a clear view of the heavens.
On top of that, Alta boasts excellent conditions for a broad range of outdoor activities, a luxury hotel made of snow and ice, and petroglyphs that made the UNESCO World Heritage List. All this, and more, will make your adventure complete.
Alta is a municipality and town centre of about 20,000 people in the county of Finnmark in northern Norway. Since Alta officially was given town status in 2000, it has been nicknamed “The Town of the Northern Lights.”
The world’s first Northern Lights observatory was built here at the end of the 1800s, and the city has a very important role developing knowledge about the phenomenon. Alta has an excellent climate, with low rainfall and relatively mild winters.
Hitch a ride with a dog-sled team over the white landscape.
CHASING THE LIGHT
Many have seen pictures and heard stories of the spectacular lights that glide like a veil across the Arctic sky on dark winter nights, but where does this display actually come from?
The Aurora Borealis is a natural light display in the sky that occurs when solar winds are stronger than normal and charged particles are hurled from the Sun toward Earth. Electrons and protons in those winds collide with the gasses in the upper polar atmosphere, between 80 and 640 kilometres above the Earth, and lose their energy. As a result, elements of the atmosphere are ionized and excited, emitting light that varies depending on the gasses hit and the altitude of the collision. When the particles hit oxygen at an altitude of 120-180 kilometres, the light is green, while it turns blue and violet when they hit nitrogen at an altitude under 120 kilometers.
You don’t have to lace up your winter boots and head out alone to chase the lights, since several tour operators in Alta arrange a variety of Northern Lights excursions. If you prefer minibus travel, one can pick you up at the hotel for a four- to six-hour tour that includes warm clothing, snacks and and cocoa. The guides will give you tips on taking the best pictures of the Northern Lights, and offer their own professional images afterwards. You could also choose to combine the Northern Lights hunt with a dog-sled trek, in which you sit or stand on a sled pulled by a pack of sled dogs. You can head out for an evening trek with operator GLØD Explorer for a fast-paced adventure through the snowy pine forests or embark on a three-day expedition across Norway’s largest plateau, Finnmarksvidda, which includes two nights in a lodge. If you are interested in the culture of the indigenous Sami reindeer herders, you can combine Northern Lights tours with a taste of their ancient lifestyle, including driving your own reindeer sleigh, listening to stories and joik songs and spending the evening in a Sami lavvo tent with coffee and snacks.
Three fine dining spots
Restaurant Laksestua: A restaurant affiliated with Ice Hotel Sorrisniva that serves delicious food made from local ingredients from Finnmark. Only open when booked in advance. sorrisniva.no
Restaurant Alta: Modern restaurant at Scandic Alta hotel in the town centre, serving both lunch and dinner. scandichotels.no
Restaurant Haldde: Restaurant at Thon Hotel Vica offering good food from the à la carte menu. thonhotels.com
Nothing compares to snuggling by the campfire after a long day outdoors.
SNOWSHOE OR SLED TREKS
As mentioned, there are plenty of other reasons to visit Alta than the Northern Lights, and one of them is the great outdoors. Alta is innermost in the Altafjord and consists of forest, plains, coastal and mountain scenery, making it a perfect spot for outdoor activities. There are plenty of options when it comes to treks. Offerings include Sami “reindeer raids,” dog-sled treks without the Northern Lights focus, whether you want sled dogs to take you through the white terrain for a few hours or a few days. For families with children, a combined dog-sled trek and sledding outing might be the thing. A pack of elated Alaskan huskies pulls you through the countryside to one of Alta’s best sledding hills, where the kids can sled and play before lunch around the campfire. Older children can drive their own child’s sled, if they wish.
Alta Canyon “Northern Europe’s largest canyon” is also worth a visit. Here you can study the 10-km-long canyon, also called Sautso, which has a depth of 300-420 metres. You can only go up to the dam and power plant if you have a guide, which Alta Tourist Information will be happy to organize.
Several tour operators, including GLØD Explorer, also organize snowshoe hikes. Snowshoes – footwear that allows you to walk on top of the snow – makes it possible to hike in deep powder, something that opens up great opportunities during the winter in Alta. For example, you can join a three-hour tour allowing you to experience Arctic nature up close, scouting for moose tracks and gathering around the campfire for a warm drink. GLØD also organizes a slightly longer trip, where you can also try your hand at ice fishing and have lunch in a Sami lavvo.
If fast-paced adventure is what gets your blood pumping, then snowmobile safaris might be the thing. You can be out for several days, and spend the nights in lavvo camps and lodges. Racing across the plateau, surrounded by rolling white terrain with fresh air tearing at your nose, is truly an unforgettable experience!
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Nature is not the only thing that will guarantee good memories from Alta. There are also things to look at under a roof, including a visit to the Northern Lights Cathedral, which is a must! The cathedral opened in the centre of Alta in 2013, and has become a landmark, a tourist attraction and cultural arena. The architects of Link Arkitektur in the west coast port of Stavanger were behind the idea, and were inspired by the Northern Lights when they designed a spiral tower that rises 47 metres into the sky. The cathedral’s interior was decorated by the Danish artist Peter Brandes, and includes a 4.5-tonne shrine figure and liturgical furnishings. In addition to being a fascinating sight, the Northern Lights Cathedral is also a cultural arena for concerts and events, and in the spring of 2017 an Aurora Borealis attraction will open on the lower floor. The World Heritage List rock art of Alta Museum is also worth a visit by cultural history enthusiasts. The museum is located amidst thousands of carvings in northern Europe's largest and richest rock-art field, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. You can tour the rock-art fields on maintained trails, and study rock art that is up to 7,000 years old, while enjoying spectacular views of the Altafjord. Inside the museum are permanent exhibitions on such topics as the Northern Lights, Finnmark’s nature, fishing in the Alta River and local hero Bjørn Wirkola, a world champion ski jumper in the 1960s.
Visit Alta in the summer, when the sun is up 24 hours a day and you’ll be captivated by the light of the Midnight Sun.
Sorrisniva is Norway’s largest and the world’s northernmost ice hotel, located in an idyllic setting on the banks of the Alta River.
SLEEP LIKE A SNOW QUEEN
So, where should you seek shelter for the night when visiting Alta? If you want to make the Arctic adventure complete, check Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel – a luxury hotel that opens every January and melts away in the spring. Practically everything here is made of ice: the exterior, the rooms, the beds – even the glasses in the bar! The hotel has 30 guestrooms, an ice bar and ice chapel, and is decorated with ice sculptures, which work together with the white snow to create a fairytale atmosphere. The temperature inside the igloo is between -4 and -7 degrees Celsius, but thanks to mattresses covered in reindeer skins and thermal sleeping bags rated to -30 degrees C, you don’t have to worry about freezing. The fresh air also ensures that you sleep like a log for many, many hours! (Next to the Ice Hotel is a modern service building with restaurant, cloakroom, toilet, shower and sauna, so you can always head there if your toes get cold.) The hotel is a guaranteed exotic adventure in white!
If you prefer more traditional accommodation for your night’s sleep, there are plenty of other options. At the cosy Altafjord Gjestegaard & Spa, you stay in lovely rooms and have access to great dining, a pub with a charming atmosphere and a warming massage bath. Everything is set up for you to find peace and simply enjoy! For an elegant and peaceful atmosphere, you can also visit Stengelsgården – one of three fishing lodges along the Alta River, and the only one you can reach by road. The farm has 10 rooms, with a spacious shared dining room, a fireplace and a sauna.
Visitalta.no and Visitnorway.no are useful sites for planning a trip to Alta.