The Lofoten Islands
Far into Norway's untamed North lies the famed archipelago of Lofoten. Here, craggy mountains that resemble the back of some amphibious creature reach steeply into the sky as they twist and turn around the turquoise-y, blue waters of this rugged coastline. Linked by roads, bridges, and tunnels the islands are dotted with picturesque, colorful fishing villages, grazing sheep, the mercurial Northern Lights on clear winter nights, and of course the stockfish drying racks (hjell) that provide the bulk of this region's, and once the country's, economy. The stark beauty of Lofoten is truly unparalleled and a must for any visitor.
Getting There / Getting Around
With the growing popularity of Lofoten, flights are becoming more frequent. The main airports on the islands themselves can be found in Leknes & Solvær that are serviced by smaller flights from Bodø with Wideroe. I found it easier to fly to the Harstad/Narvik Airport just at the beginning of the island chain as flights by Norwegian, SAS, and Wideroe operate from there.
To get around, I think it's best to rent a car so you can explore at your leisure and enjoy the uber scenic drives the islands offer. The main E10 route links the entire length of the islands, is in good condition, and is easily navigable.
Buses are also available on the islands, with a particularly useful one being the #300 that links Narvik and Å (the last town at the tip of Lofoten). For timetables and other available buses visit 177nordland.
Where to Stay
Because the island chain is rather long, I recommend breaking up your Lofoten trip into two parts, staying a few nights in either Svolvær or Henningsvær first and then in Reine or nearby Hamnøy (or vice versa).
As always, Airbnb is an excellent option, but book early if possible. For a distinctive Lofoten experience, I highly recommend staying at least once in a rorbuer. A rorbu, a traditional, seasonal Norwegian fisherman's hut, is often painted in bright reds or yellows and is found in small harbors and inlets all over the islands. A collection of rorbus are known as rorbuer and have been turned into charming coastal hotels across the islands, often multi-roomed and outfitted with kitchenettes. Here are a few worth visiting:
What to Eat
Børsen Spiseri - Located at the Svinøya Rorbuer, Børsen Spiseri is housed in an old quayside warehouse filled with authentic tar-coated timber and cozy charm. With a small, fish-centric menu the restaurant is an excellent place to sample some of the local delicacies. It wasn't my particular favorite dish, but the stockfish (dried cod) characteristic of the area is available here. Reservations recommended.
Bakeri Unseld AS - Cozy, German-style bakery in the town of Kabelvag that has a good selection of breads, the famed cinnamon rolls, and other specialties. They are often closed, so perhaps call ahead to avoid disappointment.
Henningsvær Lysstøperi and Cafe - Super charming neighborhood cafe and candle shop in the town of Henningsvær. They have a large selection of baked pastries and cakes, as well as smørrebrød, coffee & teas, plus soups, sandwiches, pizzas, and fish & chips at lunch time.
Gamle Skola - Just off the E10, this is good place to stop for a coffee and cake pick-me-up.
Huset Kafe - Perfect cafe in Leknes that makes you feel as if you've stepped into a grandmother's home. Coffee and tea, a selection of cakes & pastries, various to-go items, and sandwiches are available to be enjoyed inside or outside (if the weather allows).
Bakeri Veronica Olaisen - Family run bakery in the small fishing town of Nusfjord that has an excellent selection of breads and other baked goods.
Maren Anna - Traditional, fresh, and seasonal cuisine served in an ideal location in Sørvagen with lovely views. Both tasting menus and a la carte options are available. This was likely my best meal on the islands. Reservations recommended.
Krambua - Located at the Eliassen Rorbuer, Krambua (meaning general store) is a rustic, no-frills restaurant with friendly service offering Norwegian specialties. Reservations recommended in busier seasons.
Bakeriet på Å - For those that drive the entirety of the E10, a reward in the form of a cinnamon roll is awaiting you at this original bakery. The smells coming from this bakery waft through the entire little town, thus avoiding it is not an option.
As many accommodations on the islands have kitchenettes, cooking for some meals is also a possibility. Do keep in mind that most grocery stores are closed or have very limited hours on Sundays.
What to Do
Visit Nusfjord, one of the best preserved old fishing villages in Lofoten with colorful architecture and dramatic scenery.
Stroll through the idyllic town of Henningsvær. Don't miss the Stadium, basically the most amazing soccer field I've ever seen, or the Engelskmannsbrygga ceramic and glass shop in town.
HIKE. The number of possible hikes on Lofoten is staggering, so do your research and find some that best suit your interests. Because Lofoten is essentially rocks shooting into the sky, most hikes tend to include incline, but I promise the views are worth the effort. Here are 3 highly recommended hikes:
Festvagtind - Located at the entry to Henningsvær, this hike is quite steep but not too long and can be done by anyone with a moderate fitness level. Park along the road either at the building or in the pull out a bit closer to town and find the start of the trail between the trees. The trail isn't totally well marked, but follow the blue or red arrows and eventually you'll find the route. At one point the trail splits, here I recommend following blue arrows to the right for a slightly easier way up. You will first come to an alpine lake with amazing views (where you can swim in warmer months) and then scramble up, up. up the hill to crest the highest peak. From the top you feel as if you're floating in the sky and have panoramic views of the town below and the surrounding coastlines.
Kvalvika Beach / Ryten Mountain - Compared to other hikes on Lofoten, the hike to Kvalvika Beach is fairly easy, but you can make it more difficult by continuing on to Ryten. Take the road through the small town of Fredvang for a few kilometers until you reach a parking lot (room for about 15 cars) after passing a red boat shed on your left. The beginning of the hike is gradual uphill through the saddle of the mountains, but at the crest you will then have to rock scramble descend down to the beach. Good hiking footwear is highly recommended! Spend some time on the beach or opt to continue the hike up to Ryten Mountain to the right of the beach for even more views.
Reinebringen - The most popular hike in Lofoten, Reinebringen provides stunning views of Reine, Hamnøy, & Sakrisøy and the surrounding peaks and inlets. Unfortunately, the trail was closed for yearly maintenance and trail building during my visit to Lofoten in September 2018 so I could not hike it myself - I will get to it one day! For those that wish to hike it, please refer to this post by 68north.
Enjoy the incredible sky show that is the Northern Lights. The Northern Lights are most visible in the winter months but can be seen from September through April on clear nights with high aurora activity. Try to find a spot away from light pollution to view them at their best. A popular spot is from Uttakleiv Beach.
Learn about the industry of the islands, or simply walk through the hjell, fish drying racks that are scattered across the island.
Head into the fjords. For a different perspective, getting on the waterways throughout Lofoten is a must. Boat tours, kayak trips, whale watching expeditions, and more are available depending on seasonality.
Even if you're not staying in one of the rorbuers nearby, a visit to Reine and the surrounding area is a must for its stunning beauty and quiet charm.
Relax with a beach day. This might sound odd, considering Lofoten is north of the Arctic Circle, but Lofoten is home to several spectacular beaches that can be enjoyed in some way year round. Popular beaches include Kvalvika Beach, Unstad Beach, Uttakleiv Beach, Haukland Beach, Ramberg Beach, etc.
What to Pack
Despite its far north location, Lofoten has a milder climate and winter than other northern Norway destinations. Lofoten has the largest positive temperature anomaly in the world relative to its latitude. Regardless the weather is mercurial and layers, waterproof clothing, and boots are essential in any season.