How to travel from Oslo to Norway’s Arctic Circle by train

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This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

The attendant, Tor Helge, potters around the dining car, his whistling presence companionship enough as I look out onto the Gudbrandsdalslågen, one of Norway’s longest rivers, its waters twinkling in the light. Like Christmas trees on stilts, pencil-thin pines fringe its banks and a sandy islet rises up like a backbone between the flow.  

Whispering alongside, the train leans into a turn before we swing wide and I edge towards the window, spotting a handful of people fly-fishing for trout, pike and perch, waders up to their thighs. Hikers appear on a pathway and a group of cyclists glance sideways as we pass. The sky’s a milky blue, sunshine glinting on the peaks of the Dovrefjell mountains — it’s a classic summer scene. Only one thing’s different: I glance down at my watch and it’s 3.50am. 

With a mild ache behind my eyes, I’m urging my body to adjust its circadian rhythms to the natural phenomenon of Norway’s midnight sun. North of the Arctic Circle, from mid-May to mid-July, the sun stays above the horizon, with no distinction between night and day. During this period, Norwegians embrace the gift of time — and light — by hiking, fishing, climbing, sailing, sea kayaking and generally roaming around drinking and partying in the soft orange glow of ‘night’. 

Intrigued by the idea of groundhog daytime, I’m taking the sleeper train from the capital, Oslo, up to Trondheim on the 300-mile Dovre Railway. From Trondheim, I’ll transfer onto the Nordland Railway, which weaves up the country for another 450 miles to Bodø (pronounced boo-der), the final station on the line, just north of the Arctic Circle.

The previous day, I arrived in Oslo expecting to find the city alive with noisy beer gardens and gourmet food trucks, and cyclists weaving between them in floaty dresses — but a ghost town awaited. “Everyone leaves in July,” said Fredrik, a waiter at a bookshop cafe. “Most people go to France or Italy or escape to their summer houses. For two to three weeks in July, it’s dead here.” 

Fortunately, the station had a number of restaurants where I could linger until it was time to board the train. Departing promptly from platform four, the service creaked and groaned out of Oslo Central at 11pm, before it relaxed into the journey, an even thump-thump taking us behind warmly lit apartment blocks, the city’s spread of green spaces dense and frequent. It wasn’t long before we pulled east, where the area’s wealth revealed itself in the form of detached, multi-levelled homes with Teslas parked in the driveways and boutique shops on the high streets. 

By midnight, the clouds had darkened and stretched into indigo ripples, but on the horizon, a belt of orange refused to fade, eventually turning pink. As we passed the edge of the Vorma River, a white mist hovered above it until it widened into Lake Mjøsa, Norway’s largest lake. Still as glass, it appeared silver in the twilight, the outline of fishing boats just visible on its surface. Unable to look away, I sat at the window eyeing the pink glow, determined not to lose it as it flashed in and out between rising mountain peaks until the train barrelled into a wild expanse of darkness and the lake vanished from view. 

On any other night, I’d have taken myself off to bed, but even at 12.30am, the dining car was busy, passengers tuned into the summer vibe. Two young women shared a bottle of rosé, amusing each other with stories of terrible dates, while an elderly couple sipped beer, their matching Merrell sandals suggesting a walking trip ahead. Meanwhile, two dishevelled parents boarded with twin toddlers asleep in buggies, their fat little feet bare in the heat. Just before 1am, I recognised a teen I’d seen in the bookshop cafe in Oslo — he was wrapped in his father’s embrace on the platform at Brumunddal. The warm reunion seemed a fitting moment for me to turn in. Debating whether to pull down the blackout blind in my compartment, I finally left it open, too nervous to risk sleeping through to Trondheim and missing the scenery. Quiet, with barely a jolt, the service was one of the most comfortable sleeper trains I’d ever ridden. Still, at 3.20am, as we passed through Dovre National Park, I sacrificed my slumber to watch peach clouds beginning to warm the tops of mountains and reflect onto the lakes.

Local source

It’s 7am and golden light is flooding dewy meadows, with long shadows stretching over the train and halos of mist swirling in the valleys. I’m joined by Lars and Astrid, who are travelling to Trondheim for a weekend break of eating and walking — “before we have children and they ruin everything,” says Lars, as Astrid pulls a face. “Like Oslo, it’ll be quiet,” she says, “but we like that.”

They tell me it’s a different story in August, when chefs come from all over the country to cook at the Trǿndelag Food Festival, and the crowds follow. The city is known as the food capital of Norway and has three Michelin-starred restaurants — Credo, Fagn and Speilsalen. This is another reason why I’m breaking up my journey with a night here. 

harbour

The picturesque, pastel houses along the Nidelva river with boats docked in front is like a scene from a picture book.

Photograph by Marc Sethi

“You should visit Sellanraa Bok & Bar,” says Astrid. “It’s very seasonal and everything is from the surrounding region, so you’ll get a taste of the local flavours.” She sketches directions to it in my notebook before spotting the convergence of railway tracks. “We’re here,” she says, sliding out from the table and wishing me a happy onward journey.

The coastal freshness slaps me awake as I cross the bridge over the Nidelva River into town, pausing to take in the promenade — a strip of six-storey buildings stretched out like a Dulux colour palette, sailboats tethered in the foreground. From here, it’s a 10-minute walk to the Britannia Hotel, and I’m hoping my room is ready. As much as sleeper trains fulfil the fantasy of romance, they do come with a downside: for passengers returning home, it’s no bother to arrive in the small hours and head straight off for a hot shower and breakfast. But for those of us who are strangers to a destination, perhaps waking less than refreshed, it can often mean mooching around with bags, killing time in coffee shops until check-in. Fortunately, my room is available and I sleep for a couple of hours before experiencing one of the greatest breakfasts of my life.

There are also comically large rounds of local cheeses on cake stands alongside rumpled bries and crumbly blues. There’s cheese that’s speckled, seeded, hard, soft, made from ewe’s milk, cow’s milk and goat’s milk, then on the side, dollops of preserve, quince and jam. It’s almost overwhelming.

I sit down with Olav Svarliaunet, a junior sous-chef who takes part in August’s three-day food festival. “We only use local produce here and everything is labelled to show where it’s from,” he says. The hotel has its own farm, Braattan Gaard, about half an hour’s drive away. It has more than 5,000 apple trees, which provide the cold-press juice for breakfast. “We get a lot of produce from the mountain village of Røros, two hours south of here, including eggs, cream, milk, butter and all our cured meats and fish,” Olav says. With the exception of perhaps a few tropical fruits like pineapple, everything is Norwegian.

Trondheim has switched to summer mode and many of its restaurants are closed, but this gives me the chance to see more of the place. I amble along cobbled streets filled with walkers, wet retrievers trotting at their heels. It’s unusually warm as I embark upon the Midtbyrunden, a 3.7-mile trail that meanders around the city centre following the Trondheim Fjord and Nidelva River. A beautiful route, it takes me over bridges and around docks, where swimmers yelp in the chilly waters. I linger in the wharf neighbourhood of Bakklandet, sipping an iced chilli chocolate milk from Dromedar Kaffebar before browsing a range of shops selling everything from artisan soap to cashmere blankets. Painted in soft pinks and sage greens, some of the timber houses look empty, their walls covered by trailing blooms of roses and their ledges lined with boxes of buttery yellow flowers. 

By the end of the walk, I’ve worked off breakfast and decide to take Astrid’s advice and seek out Sellanraa Bok & Bar. The menu is mostly vegetarian, featuring colourful plates of sliced hasselback carrots with baked shallots and turnips, most of which is sourced from nearby Grindal Farm. Inside, it’s a cross between a bookshop and a pantry — the top shelves are lined with jars of oranges and chanterelles brewing in murky yellow brines, sitting alongside hardbacks of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot and Albert Camus’ The Plague. Over a plate of fresh shrimp and shaved fennel, I reflect how easy it’s been to while away the day, grazing on small dishes between bursts of windy walks along the coast.

The journey north

The following evening, I’m on the platform just before 11pm to board the sleeper train to Bodø. On the horizon, the sun threatens to sink, but instead spreads outwards in a pool of mellow yellow, throwing a healthy glow onto passengers’ cheeks. At this time of year, the trains are at capacity and I’d been unsuccessful in trying to book a sleeper carriage. I’d secured a ticket in what’s called ‘Premium Pluss’, where wide seats recline up to 45 degrees and you’re provided with blankets, pillows, a hot breakfast and unlimited hot drinks. 

interior of train

The train from Oslo to Trondheim includes pull-down seats outside the sleeper compartments.

Photograph by Marc Sethi

Within minutes, the sweaty fear of not being able to lie flat at any point of this leg of the journey has evaporated, and I’m snuggled up in what feels like the cosiest carriage on the train, my fellow passengers pulling on hoodies and watching films on their phones. Tor, the attendant from the previous leg, is back on board and only too pleased to demonstrate the nifty foot rests, side tables and reading lights. He takes my order for breakfast and directs me to the tail end of the train to see the tracks snake off into what’s almost a sunset. From the back window, I watch as we curl around the edge of the Trondheim Fjord, its waters orange and pink. There’s a sense of magic as the light deepens and intensifies, before simmering to a softness I’ve never witnessed before. A feeling of in-betweenness gets under my skin as I stand with one foot on either side of two carriages, watching the day not turn into night as our train crosses the joints and hinges of the land, waterways flowing in from all sides. 

This Nordland line crosses 293 bridges and runs through 154 tunnels, much of which I miss as I doze off at 1am, waking five hours later as sunlight pours across the Ranfjorden, a wide-mouthed body of water that swings around the base of forested mountains, its green depths bubbling with life. 

Once again, I take myself off to the dining car, the beating heart of every sleeper train, and over a hot salami sandwich, I get chatting to Ludwig Herder, who’s been sleeping in the play area of the family carriage. A sailor for the coastguard, living in Tromsø, Ludwig has adamantly refused to fly for the past 15 years. When I ask about his choice of sleeping compartment, he looks sheepish and laughs, retying his pony tail as he gathers his thoughts. “Everyone has the time to travel in summer, so it gets very booked up. And it’s impossible to get a sleeper compartment because you can’t just buy a single bed, you have to buy both the berths.” He pulls out his phone and shows me a Norwegian Facebook group where passengers share their travelling dates to see if they can buddy up in compartments. “Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get one,” he says. 

Located 220 miles inside the Arctic Circle, Tromsø is at the top of the country. Here, both the midnight sun and the Northern Lights are at their finest. “My girlfriend likes to hike and I enjoy going skiing,” Ludwig says. “In June, there was still more than six feet of powder to ski on at night.” He gets off at Fauske station, from where it’s a six-hour bus ride to Narvik and then a four-hour ride to Tromsø. With that journey ahead of him, I can’t help but marvel at his dedication to being flight-free. 

From my window seat, I try to breathe in the final sights of the trip — of deer bounding across fields, and fjords rushing past below. As towns flit by, I’m reminded again that it’s the particular privilege of the train traveller to witness the intricate details of other people’s lives: the workman repainting a church spire, the couple kissing on a platform, the patterns on kitchen curtains. 

And then it’s over. Just before 9am, we terminate at Bodø, and my train family and I disembark — fishing gear and bikes are unloaded and dogs happily stretch their legs. 

Within an hour, it’s clear this is a junction town that most travellers pass through for its easy access to the outdoors: taking a ferry to the Lofoten Islands, hiking the glacier at Svartisen or fishing and scuba diving at Saltstraumen, home to the world’s strongest maelstrom, or whirlpool. Feeling the cumulative lack of sleep, and having centred the majority of my trip on food, my own plans involve little more than a walk along the marina with an ice cream from the local van. I follow this up with a search for presents for my children, who’ll have to make do with a compass and a stuffed toy moose. That is until I realise I’m travelling home by train and can take them a bag of baked kanelboller (plump knots of sticky cinnamon bread, dusted with sugar) from PåPir BibliotekBar, the cafe at Bodø’s library.

After a walk around the town’s parks, I’m geared up for dinner at Lystpå, a fine-dining restaurant, but a particularly relaxed one with throws and cushions. Served on slate plates are starters such as pan-fried scallops fizzing in mussel bisque and truffle croquettes followed by mains like perfectly seared reindeer. By the time I’m cracking into creme brulee and homemade doughnuts, that deep orange glow I’m getting so used to here catches my eye; enriching and invigorating, it brings a sense of calm and joy. No wonder Norwegians stay out all night basking in its goodness. Michał Młynarczyk, who runs the restaurant, tells me now’s the time to visit Keiservarden, one of the area’s most popular hiking destinations. I’m ready to walk off the meal, but at 11pm? “There’s no better time — everyone does it,” he says. 

And so I set off, crossing paths with runners and families as I begin the ascent of Veten hill, the skies burning as though the horizon’s set alight. Young children carrying sticks and leaves from their hikes skip past me, hopping over tree roots, and in just under an hour, I’ve reached the top of Keiservarden mountain plateau, where dogs run around in the wind and climbers stare out at the soft outline of the Lofoten and Steigen islands. There’s a smell of salt in the air and nothing but the sound of the wind whipping as I turn slowly, taking in the view of hazy mountains that descend into waters of pure gold. Here, in the far north, the midnight sun turns dark red and I stare at it dipping behind the clouds for a few moments. I turn and make my way back down the track at 1am, just as the sun begins to rise again. 

Published in the April 2024 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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