Modern and ancient history in Alta

Those with an interest in history should add Alta to their northern Norway itinerary

Northern Lights Cathedral, Alta, Norway

Photo: David Nikel
The Northern Lights Cathedral was built to resemble the curves of the aurora borealis.

David Nikel
Trondheim, Norway

Alta is the gateway to the vast Finnmarksvidda, which at 8,500 square miles is Norway’s largest mountain plateau. A functional town made up of several communities strung together along the E6 highway, you could easily pass through Alta without a moment’s thought. So, is it worth a second look?

There’s not a great deal here to keep you occupied beyond a one-day stay, unless you’re a history buff. If you are, then this region of Norway holds a lot of interest. Beyond history, the town also serves as an obvious starting point to explore not only the vast Finnmarksvidda but also the Sámi communities of Kautokeino and Karasjok.

War history
During the occupation of Norway during World War II, Alta was a key strategic location for German forces. The battleship Tirpitz was based in the Altafjord for two years and served as one of the main threats against convoys delivering supplies from Western Allies to the Soviet Union. A little awkward to find, maybe, but the Tirpitz Museum ( is worth seeking out.

Battleship Tirpitz

Photo: David Nikel
A model of the Tirpitz, a German warship that was sunk in Norwegian waters.

Many photographs are displayed along with original uniforms and personal effects from the crew. A collection of model ships and more general artifacts from the war are also on display, while a short movie in English about the ship’s history can be viewed upon request.

On your return to Alta, pull over into the parking area on the left-hand side immediately after the impressive Gorsa Bridge. Take a short stroll along the hill and you’ll find the substantial crater left when a Tall Boy bomb missed its target during the battles.

The world-famous rock carvings
The other main historical attraction is the UNESCO-listed World Heritage Rock Art Center (, a 2.5-mile drive along the E6 southwest from downtown Alta. Made between 2,000 and 7,000 years ago, the thousands of carvings indicate that Alta functioned as a religious meeting place in the Stone Age. The artwork depicts scenes from days long gone, specifically hunting and gathering, fishing, rituals, and social occasions.

Rock carvings, Alta, Norway

Photo: David Nikel
Some of the famous Stone Age rock carvings, which were painted red for visibility in the 1970s.

A wooden pathway several miles long has been constructed to lead visitors around the otherwise boggy ground where the rock carvings are located. Many of the older carvings were painted red in the 1970s to make them more visible, which was normal practice at the time. However, this process is now being reversed to preserve the authenticity of the art, even though some of the carvings will be harder to see. The outdoor carvings are accessible during the snow-free season (typically May through October), but the indoor exhibitions are open year-round.

A detour into Sámi culture
Immediately adjacent to Alta River Camping, Boazo Sami Siida is a Sámi reindeer farm, café, pub, and museum all rolled into one. Open only during the summer months because its owners return to Kautokeino with their reindeer during the winter, the traditional lavvu tent is filled with various items of clothing, tools, and reindeer skins from Sámi life. Your charismatic host Nils Henrik will answer all your questions about the nomadic Sámi lifestyle, reindeer herding, and the Sámi culture, which makes the NOK 50 entrance fee a bargain. The indigenous Sámi populations are spread over the north of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Many visitors are spellbound by the vivid costumes, outdoor lifestyle, and folk songs known as joik, compared by some to the traditional chanting of Native American cultures.

Sámi village, Alta, Norway

Photo: David Nikel
The indigenous Sámi populations are spread over the north of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Many visitors are spellbound by the vivid costumes, outdoor lifestyle, and folk songs known as joik.

Although visible in Alta, the Sámi culture really comes to the forefront in Kautokeino, a small town of just a few thousand people 80 miles to the south. Here, around four in five people speak Sámi as their primary language of everyday life.

Located 80 miles to the northeast of Kautokeino is the similarly sized village of Karasjok, home to the Sámi Parliament. Opened in 1989, the Parliament acts as an institution of cultural autonomy for the Sámi people through 39 representatives elected every four years.

Downtown Alta
The Northern Lights Cathedral ( opened its doors to the public in 2013 after more than 40 years of struggle to get a new church for the parish. The unusual architecture (a curved titanium exterior and coiled 150-foot spire) is designed to reflect the delicate ribbon-like movement of the aurora borealis. The simple interior is complemented with beautiful lighting inspired by the northern lights.

With little else of interest, downtown Alta is nevertheless a good place to stay, with a couple of chain hotels, good parking options, and shops and restaurants on your doorstep. If that doesn’t excite you, the Holmen Husky Lodge ( to the south of the city offers husky-pulled sled rides by day and accommodation in purpose-built glamping teepees by night.

David Nikel is a freelance writer based in Norway. He runs the popular website and podcast and is the author of the Moon Norway guidebook, available now in all good bookstores.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 12, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.


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