The Nordland Railway: Norway’s Polar Express
Christmas may be over, but winter still has its grip on Europe. There is plenty of time to hop aboard a train and head to The North. In Norway, the Nordland Railway is the real-life Polar Express which will you take you there – 729km from Trondheim to Bodø above the Arctic Circle. It’s a bit late to see Santa and his elves (he doesn’t live in Norway anyway), but you might get to see the Northern Lights, which can appear on clear nights from late September to late March. And you should definitely be able to play in the snow!
What is the Nordland Railway?
The Nordland Railway, or Nordlandsbanen, is Norway’s longest scenic railway and one of the world’s only railways which crosses into the Arctic Circle. If this doesn’t persuade you to take a Nordland ride, then the genuine winter wonderland that it passes through certainly will. I was lucky enough to ride the 10-hour route in December 2019, using a Eurail Pass, both there (by day) and back (by night).
Start in Trondheim
The journey begins in Trondheim, the former Viking capital of Norway. A major attraction is Nidaros Cathedral, the world’s northernmost Gothic cathedral, built in 1070. It is also essential to visit the Old Town Bridge (Gamle Bybro) to snap some pics of the colorful 18th century waterside warehouses. The wharf-side lights, shadows and reflections are perfect on a crisp winter morning – just be careful not to slip on the ice. 😉
Despite its Viking origins and historical attractions, Trondheim feels young and energetic thanks to its university. The Baklandet historical district, across the Old Town Bridge, is full of fashionable, koselig (cozy & warm) cafés; while its Julemarkedet was one of the best on a trip where I visited Christmas markets daily.
There (by day)
…And also sort of night
Winter in Norway has one important implication, other than cold weather… official sunlight of only 2-4 hours. This means that the Nordland Railway day train (leaving daily at 7:38 a.m.), is also a night train. But don’t let this put you off – there is still light in the sky from about 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. That’s plenty for you to enjoy the view from your train window, but don’t be disappointed to leave Trondheim by night and then also arrive in Bodø by night. Just think of it as more chances to see the Northern Lights!
A Genuine Winter Wonderland
There is a real chance to see the Aurora from the Nordland Railway once night arrives. But you should use every moment of the limited sunlight hours to enjoy the view from your carriage window, as you pass frozen lakes, mountains and pine forests covered in snow. Frozen‘s fictional Kingdom of Arendelle becomes very real in northern Norway. You can also try to spot red hytters, the isolated log cabins which reflect Norwegians’ affinity with nature.
First Class is More Koselig
Some say that First Class is a trade-off for increased comfort, without the more sociable aspects of train travel. But the 10-hour Nordland Railway is one journey where it is definitely worth using a 1st class Eurail Pass to ride in Komfort class. The length of journey demands a few extra comforts, such as legroom, but also means it is common for many locals to travel in Komfort. I spent my journey next to a friendly Norwegian mormor, who was busy knitting Christmas presents to take her grandchildren. We both enjoyed endless refills of coffee and hot chocolate, as our cozy carriage rushed north through the snow.
Crossing the Arctic Circle
Don’t expect to take time snapping this moment for your Instagram. The Nordland Railway crosses into the Arctic at the Saltfjellet mountain range. However, the location is only marked by 2 large pyramidal cairns on each side of the tracks, which you pass in the dark in winter-time. Don’t worry though – this moment will soon be eclipsed by your Arctic adventures.
Bodø: End of the Line
Pronounced as “Boo-duh”, the city is the northern-most stop on Norway’s rail-system and one of the most accessible places to watch the Northern Lights. There was no such luck for me, with nothing but a slight green tinge to the sky on my two clear nights – perhaps just an Aurora mirage. Aurora or no Aurora, Bodø in winter is a gateway to adventure, surrounded by dramatic snowy mountains where dog-sledding, snow-shoeing, coastal walks and moose-spotting await. It really is essential to seize the day, making the most of every minute of daylight. The low angle of the sun, gives the light a magical quality in daytime, tingeing the sky with baby blues and pinks.
To conclude the day (at 3 p.m.), head back to the city center, which will be European Capital of Culture in 2024. What the city lacks in architectural finesse, it by far makes up for with its local culture. Regular concerts, open-mic nights and street murals can be found around the city. I recommend Melkebaren, a cute city center café selling a local coffee roast, which was the perfect place to shelter during the dark afternoons. Roast rooftop bar is a great place for dinner, offering 360 degree views so that you know if and where to start your Northern Lights hunt.
Back (by night)
The Nordland Railway night service leaves Bodø at 9:10 p.m., giving you one last chance to see the Aurora before heading south. For a complete night train experience, I opted for a Sove sleeping cabin. Here there is no difference between 1st and 2nd class and you must reserve a whole cabin. I had one bed for myself and one for my huge backpack. However, if you want to share a cabin to reduce costs or have some company, then it is possible to connect with others using a popular Facebook group – “Dele kupé på NSB”.
It’s never too early to start planning your next Christmas holiday. Alternatively you can ride the Nordland Railway in summer to experience the midnight sun.
- A Eurail Norway Pass will give you access to the Nordland Railway, as well as Norway’s other scenic railways.
- Or your adventure could take you even further: use a Eurail Scandinavia Pass to connect to Sweden, Finland and Denmark or a Eurail Global Pass for 29 other European countries.
All photographs and videos in this blog are by ©Theo Stell (Content writer @ Eurail)