The city of Tromso is located in northern Norway’s winter wilderness. Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever thought I’d make it to this part of the world. Honestly, I’ve never even heard of this city until I did my research of the northern lights, and the best places to see them… and when it comes to the Aurora Borealis, this city comes up a whole lot.
However, apart from being one of the best places to see the lights, Tromso itself is a beautiful city with so much to offer; scenery, art, history, food– even when its dark for most parts of the day in winter. And gloomy. And freezing cold.
The City of Tromso
Tromso, written in Norwegian as Tromsø with the slashed o; is Norway’s largest urban city north of the Arctic Circle, and the third most populous one in that area. It is located about 2,200 kilometers south of the North Pole and 350 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle; mainly occupying the island of Tromsoya and parts of Norway’s mainland.
The city has a huge student population, being the location of the world’s most northernmost university– the University of Tromso, the Arctic University of Norway. It is also home to the Sami (indigenous people to the north) people and culture.
Just imagine, people have lived in this place since the end of the ice age!
The Polar Night
In winter, mainly from the end of November till January– the sun in Tromso remains under the horizon for about 24 hours a day. And that means there’s no sunlight! This phenomenon is called the Polar Night. The opposite of it is the Midnight Sun.
It was polar nights during my visit, so most of my time in Tromso was spent in the dark. It can get pretty gloomy, but being a visitor, it was more of a unique experience to me. I don’t know how the locals do it! Luckily there were twilight hours though, so for about 2 to 3 hours in the late morning, there were some sort of bluish daylight. My family and I usually use this time of the day to take as many pictures as we can.
As for the weather, it was freezing cold with strong winds. It snowed for a while, then rained for a while– and that caused the streets in the city to be extremely icy and slippery. I think a lot of my attention was spent being cautious of where I stepped, and controlling my balance. It did create a lot of hilarious moments!
Getting to Tromso
The best way to get into Tromso is by plane– the city has its very own international airport, the Langnes Airport. I took the low-cost Norwegian Air Shuttle from Oslo, and arrived in Tromso in the late evening. I was traveling from Manchester, and going through Oslo was the cheapest way of getting in. Another option was to go through London.
From the airport, it is a short taxi ride into the city. Almost everything is relatively close to each other in Tromso, and you can get around either by taxi, or by the city bus. Walking is possible too (if you are willing to brave the cold).
Accommodations at Tromso Camping
My family and I chose to stay at Tromso Camping (Book with AGODA). It is situated on the mainland, a little further away from the city center. The place is slightly remote; but we had peace and quiet, and (I was hoping) the isolation meant more opportunities to spot the northern lights from the cabin. We didn’t though, because during our visit, the weather around Tromso was less than ideal to see the lights.
We booked into 2 Comfort+ cabins, and it was perfect for the 7 of us. We had a large space to move around; a living area, 2 rooms, a patio, and a kitchenette to cook our breakfasts every morning. Tromso Camping also provides smaller cabins with a communal kitchen and toilets, as well as a camping ground.
Though we had a good time, my choice of an isolated accommodation became a disadvantage too. It was too cold to walk anywhere (I tried once and gave up halfway), so we always had to take a taxi to the city center. In hindsight, staying where the action is would have been a better choice. There are tons of hotels to choose from in the city center.
On the day of my arrival, it was late by the time I checked-in at Tromso Camping. My siblings and I did a little shopping at a nearby grocery store, cooked dinner and I retired early for the night.
The next morning, I woke up early to do a little exploration around the camping grounds. There is a little river running through the place; and since it snowed the night before, I had a wide open space to play around in the thick snow. The sky brightened up a little at about 10am, so I could see the white mountains in the distance, as well as the snow-covered bare trees surrounding me. A little later in the morning, my family and I took a taxi to the first stop of the day, which was at:-
The architecture of the Polaria is unmistakable, it looks like a fallen stack of white books. It serves as an aquarium, and though it only has a small collection of sea animals in it– it has an interesting seal feeding session twice a day, with 2 bearded seals and 2 harbor seals. However, seeing these wild creatures being confined to a badly painted indoor pool was really sad. I much preferred the short movies about the Arctic wildlife and the northern lights.
12.30pm: MV Polstjerna
Right next to the Polaria is the final resting place of the MV Polstjerna, a 1949 seal-hunting vessel. Of course, seal hunting is mostly banned nowadays, and this boat made its last voyage in 1981. It wasn’t opened for viewing during my visit, but I could still admire it from outside its glass house.
1pm: Riso Mat and Kaffebar
We then walked towards the city center (the Polaria is located south of it), and dropped by the Riso Mat and Kaffebar for a quick cuppa. The small cafe provided me some warmth from the freezing cold outside, and they made me a perfect blend of my favorite latte. They’ve got good cakes too.
2pm: The Polar Museum
The next stop of the day was at the Polar Museum, or the Polarmuseet in Norwegian. Housed in an old customs house from the 1830’s, the museum tells the story of Tromso (and the Arctic)’s past. It was an interesting wander through the two floors– I learned about the hunting of seals and other Arctic animals, and the hunters who hunted them; as well as the polar expeditions of famous explorers like Nansen and Amundsen. It is a small and concise museum; and thankfully, I was given a guide book in English to guide me through.
3pm: Bardus Bistro
Everyone was famished by the time we were done at the museum. The plan was to have a late lunch/early dinner, and be ready for the northern lights tour in the evening. We had our meal at Bardus Bistro, a lovely little restaurant with a cozy interior. I ordered the baked cod, and the portion was huge and delicious. My family had a variety of other dishes like the burger and the soup of the day, and they were all satisfied. Good food, great service, affordable prices– definitely recommendable.
5pm: Arctic Explorers Northern Lights Tour
After the meal, it was time to head to the pickup point for the much awaited trip to see the northern lights. You can read all about it here:- Chasing the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights).
We arrived back in the wee hours of the morning after a whole night of chasing the northern lights, but everyone was up and ready to go early the next day. It was a given, considering that the morning’s activity involved a husky sledding tour!
9am: Tromso Villmarkssenter Husky Sledding Tour
Husky sledding was an exhilarating ride, and I had the time of my life. You can read about my adventure here: My Husky Sledding Experience.
3pm: A Walk around Tromso
Arriving back to the city center after the husky tour, I used the rest of the afternoon to get to know Tromso a little better. I walked along Storgata (the main street), admiring the lights from the small shops and restaurants lining it. I also dropped by the Tromso Bibliotek, which is the local library, to see its Christmas display of small gingerbread houses. Other places of note in the city are the Tromso Cathedral (Norway’s only wooden church); and the Tromso Souvenir Shop (best place to get your local souvenirs).
Later in the evening, when the cold winds got a little too chilly to bear, I stopped by Kaffebonna for a cup of hot chocolate. It is another popular local cafe in the middle of the city, and they also serve good coffee and cakes. Oh, and croissants!
5.30pm: Arctic Cathedral
It was a quick taxi ride from the city center to the mainland, where the Arctic Cathedral is located. The church is one of the most famous landmarks in Tromso– it’s hard not to notice it as it stands out with its pure white triangular structure and glass facade. It was built in 1965.
6pm: Christmas Concert
I timed my visit to the Arctic Cathedral to catch the Christmas Concert. Concerts are held here periodically, and since my visit to the city coincided with one, I thought it’d be great to check it out. The church was packed to the brim with visitors– I had to wait in line outside in the cold for nearly half an hour. The concert itself was lovely, the church was filled with Christmas music from the beautiful operatic voices of the 6 choirs that performed. I had a good (and sometimes slightly sleepy) time.
8.30pm: Emmas Drommekjokken
After the concert, it was another taxi ride back to the city center for dinner at Emmas. No visit to Tromso is complete without having a meal at this popular fine dining restaurant. I quite enjoyed my three-course meal; smoked salmon for starters, lamb for mains, and a cheese plate for dessert. Though I thought it was a little too costly, I was glad to end my trip to Tromso with a hearty Norwegian Arctic meal.
I took the early morning flight out of the city the next day; bringing a whole lot of unique experiences and unforgettable memories home with me. I had a fantastic time in this cold, cold city on top of the world; and I’m glad I made the long journey.
More Things to do in Tromso
With only a couple of days in Tromso during winter, there were a few attractions that I missed doing/seeing (and I wish I did)! Here are a few of them– don’t miss it if you have a longer time in the city:-
With the many mountains surrounding Tromso, just pick one to climb and you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful panoramic view of the city and surrounding areas. However, for the non-hikers, Mount Floya is the only one with a cable car ride to the top. Unfortunately, during my visit (winter of 2015), the cable car was under construction, so I missed my bird’s eye view of Tromso.
The fjord landscapes in Tromso are one of the most beautiful in the world– and there are many tour companies in the city that offer trips and cruises to see them. With whale watching and northern lights in the mix, I’m sure it’ll be another wonderful experience from this part of the world.
Arctic-Alpine Botanic Garden
Opened in 1994, you can only visit the world’s northernmost garden in summer. For the nature and flower lovers, you’ll appreciate the arctic and alpine plants from the northern hemisphere that are found here. I would love to see them, if I ever make my way back to Tromso again… perhaps to experience the Midnight Sun?