The essential Alta travel guide
Whether you’re searching for the magic of the Northern Lights or a slice of paradise in the summer sun, Alta offers year-round adventures in picture-perfect surroundings. Indulge your inner Arctic explorer on a cruise to this spectacular region.
Coordinates: 69.9689° N, 23.2716° E
Alta is the largest town in the newly created county of Troms og Finnmark (formed when two formerly separate regions, Troms and Finnmark, merged in 2020) in Norway’s extreme northeast. It sits well within the Arctic Circle and is one of our most northerly ports of call.
Norwegian. English is widely spoken.
Alta has a subarctic climate, but its sheltered position at the head of the Altafjord means it’s spared the worst of the winter storms. Summer sees average temperatures of 10-15ºC, while in winter they tend to hover between -10 and 0ºC. The sun doesn’t rise from late November to mid-January; from mid-May to late July, it doesn’t set.
When to visit Alta
Year round – in warmer weather to enjoy the long, drawn-out days, and in the colder months to search for the Northern Lights and have fun in the snow.
Which ships visit Alta?
A brief history of Alta
Human activity in Alta dates back to 4200 BC, as evidenced by the thousands of paintings and engravings found in several sites just outside the town. The carvings were discovered in the 1970s and today are an open-air museum and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Some of the first settlers of Alta were the Sámi, Europe’s northernmost indigenous people. Their presence in Northern Europe can be traced back some 5,000 years, and today, they maintain a vibrant culture that can be seen in everything from traditional costumes and handicrafts to contemporary music and design.
Alta was a key strategic location during the Second World War. German forces based the battleship Tirpitz in the Altafjord, and Alta was damaged by Allied raids and fire. It was rebuilt in the following years and so much of its architecture is distinctly modern.
Why visit Alta?
Alta appeals to lovers of the great outdoors. And because it enjoys wildly contrasting seasons, you can have a completely different experience from one month to the next.
Shore experiences manager P.J Gould has visited Alta twice, both times on Aurora in October, and describes the city as ‘friendly, spectacular and memorable’.
‘When we arrived in the harbour, we pulled into a white blanket of land,’ he says. ‘It was dusk, as the sun sets at 1pm in autumn. It had just begun to snow and everything felt surreal.’
He says it’s the people and the environment that make Alta unique. ‘Alta is special as it enables ships to visit the most northern territories of Norway. The people are friendly and willing to show you what they have to offer. Once when we were on the In Search of the Northern Lights tour, the guides were all schoolteachers volunteering to show guests how to set their cameras up to capture the best pictures. They are very in tune with nature and respect the environment that they live in.’
What to see and do
Despite its small size, Alta has lots to offer day-trippers.
Winter is when Alta shines, and nothing shines brighter than the aurora borealis. In fact, Alta is nicknamed ‘The Town of the Northern Lights’ and boasts the world’s first Northern Lights observatory, built in 1899.
‘Sighting the Northern Lights is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,’ says P.J, who saw them on both of his trips. ‘It’s a real “wow” moment, watching them dance around the skies full of colour. It makes you want to pinch yourself. The excitement of the evening when you’re heading out to hunt them creates an amazing atmosphere.’
Seek out the lights with an expert guide to up your chances of spotting them.
Getting around in the winter can be an adventure in itself. Conquer the frozen terrain via snowmobile, soaking up the scenery as you race across the snow, or put your trust in the hands – or rather, paws – of a team of huskies. For the full Alta experience, warm up afterwards around a log fire in a traditional lavvu (Sámi tent).
In the warmer months, the sun stays up late into the night, giving you ample opportunity to explore the great outdoors.
Alta Canyon, also known as Sautso, is Northern Europe’s largest canyon. It’s easily accessible and perfect for day trips on foot, by bike or even canoe. Take in breathtaking views of valleys, plains and the meandering Alta River.
The Rock Art of Alta, or Helleristningene i Hjemmeluft, is the largest collection of its kind in Northern Europe. The carvings and drawings, which were created between 4200 BC and 500 BC and depict a society of hunter-gatherers, can be seen along outdoor pathways with stunning views over the Altafjord.
What to eat and drink
Norway’s extreme geography can pose a challenge to its cuisine, but home cooks and chefs alike have perfected the art of local, seasonal eating.
Thanks to its miles of pristine coastline and waterways, the country is justifiably famous for its incredible seafood. And Alta is no exception: wild salmon swim in the mighty Alta River; trout, Arctic char, pike and burbot are caught during ice fishing season; and shellfish such as scallops, mussels and king crab are as fresh as you’ll find anywhere on Earth.
Meat-eaters are well catered to, with lamb, hare and goat making frequent appearances on menus across the region. Reindeer farming is an important part of Sámi culture, and those who eat it are often surprised to find the meat has a lean texture and mild flavour.
Long days make for fantastic growing conditions in the warmer months, meaning fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables such as birch sap, nettle, sorrel, cloudberries, lingonberries, rhubarb, wild mushrooms, asparagus, beetroot and lots more flourish in abundance.
Must-try shore experiences in Alta
These P&O Cruises shore experiences will introduce you to the wonders of Alta.
- Huskies and History: Combine the interesting sights and history of Alta with Arctic tales and friendly working huskies.
- In Search of the Northern Lights: Experience the anticipation as you search the skies for the vivid colours of the magical Northern Lights with a local guide.
- Sámi Camp and Reindeer Sledding: Discover the history and culture of the Sámi people and enjoy a leisurely ride on a reindeer-pulled sledge.
Alta top three travel tips
P.J Gould’s top three tips for searching for the Northern Lights.
- Wear wool – it’ll help keep you warm. A lot of clothing has plastic properties and won’t give you the same degree of protection from the cold.
- The cold reduces the battery life in things like cameras and phones, so keep them warm!
- Have patience! If you see the lights, you’ll be glad you persevered.