A weekend in the Arctic Circle may not be everyone’s idea of fun especially in winter but if you are a nature lover who doesn’t say no to an adventure then you must strive to visit Tromsø at least once in your life. Located 350 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle and with a population of 75,000, Tromsø is the largest city in Northern Norway. The town stretches along the east coast of the island of Tromsøya, linked to the mainland by bridges and tunnels. Yet once you are there, you don’t get the feeling of a big crowded city but a rather compact town with a friendly vibe and easily explored on foot.
The Polar Circle offers an amazing experience whether you visit in winter or summer, but most people choose to visit Tromsø in Winter to see the Northern lights. Tromsø experiences Polar nights in Winter, during which the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon for more than 24 hours. This phenomena takes place between November and mid-January then the days progressively get longer. February sees around 5 to 6 hours daylight. This is a great time to visit as you can witness some extreme light variations such as the intense and unique arctic blue hour which attracts many visitors.
Most international flights to Tromsø go via Oslo although some airlines fly directly from major European cities. If you are only visiting for a weekend then aim to arrive on the Friday afternoon or early evening so you can make the most of your time.
Just because the sun sets very early (or doesn’t make an appearance at all) doesn’t mean the city is dead in the evening. Tromsø has a great night life and a strong café culture. If you have just arrived in town and need to eat you will be spoiled for choice. Restaurants can be expensive but there are budget options so do your research before you travel or check our recommendations below.
Once your hunger is satisfied go for a stroll in town, continue to the harbour and Tromsø bridge before heading to your hotel for a good night’s sleep.
However if you are up for a night adventure…
Go on a northern lights chase in Tromsø:
Most people who choose to travel to Tromsø in winter do so because they want to see the northern lights. Tromsø’s unique location and relatively “mild” weather make it an ideal location to spot the aurora. However keep in mind that this is a natural phenomenon and cannot be guaranteed.
The Aurora Borealis occurs all year around but is mostly visible in winter. There are several websites and apps that offer real time aurora activity and forecast so you can refer to them before setting off on your chase. You can hire your own vehicle and drive but I don’t recommend this option in winter for safety reasons. It snows a lot in Tromsø and driving at night can be challenging as you would need to leave the city lights and head for the suburbs in order to find clear skies and complete darkness.
The best way to increase your chances of seeing the lights in the safest and most comfortable way is via Tour companies. Tours run from mid-November until mid-April. Most start at 6 or 7pm and last between 3 to 7 hours so be prepared to spend a long night out in sub-zero temperatures and dress appropriately.
Most companies will not refund you if you don’t see the lights but some offer a discount of 50% if you book another tour the following day such as NorthernShots Tour and Arctic Guide Service. You can book directly with tour companies however I recommend booking through getyourguide. The prices are the same but they offer the option to cancel up to 24 hours before the tour if the forecast wasn’t promising and you decided to cancel your trip.
I always recommend doing a city walk when visiting a new place. There are several tour companies that offer this option. It’s a great way to discover landmarks and attractions and get some local insight on the best non-touristy things to do.
Visit the Polar Museum of Tromsø:
Located in the centre of Tromsø a short walk from the office of tourism, the museum is one of the four exhibition venues that constitute the Arctic University Museum of Norway and is a great place to learn about famous trappers, expeditions and Tromsø’s history as the capital of sealing .
Admire the architecture of Tromsø Cathedral:
Tromsdalen cathedral is one of Tromsø’s main landmarks. It sits at the end of Tromsø bridge and can be seen from the centre of town. This beautiful church was built in 1965 and has quickly gained its name “The Arctic Cathedral” thanks to its iceberg shaped dome and large glass façade. As well as being a church it’s also used as a venue for music festivals and concerts thanks to its fantastic acoustics.
Treat yourself to a Nordic spa experience
Tromsø looks beautiful covered in a white velvety blanket of snow but there is no denying it’s cold. One way of enjoying the scenery without compromising on comfort is by booking a sauna on an arctic spa boat. The Vulkana vessel is a fishing boat that goes back to the 1950s. It was later rescued and restored by two friends who have turned it into a modern looking boat which offers a true Nordic experience. You can spend the afternoon hopping from the sauna to the hot tub and if you feel the need to cool down you also have the luxury of jumping right into the arctic sea for a quick dip.
Take the funicular to the mountain
The Fjellheisen Cable Car runs from Solliveien in Tromsdalen up to the mountain ledge Storsteinen (421m above sea level) and offers spectacular views over the city, the mountains and fjords. The night views are great and on a clear evening you might even be lucky to see a northern lights show.
You can still fit in one last activity on your last day if your return flight is scheduled in the afternoon or evening. My favourite two are:
Norwegian fjords offer the most spectacular sights and exploring them aboard a boat is the best way to get a closer look and feel in complete unison with nature. The boat ride offers the chance to discover fishing villages, crystalline waterfalls and a variety of arctic wildlife. And if you visit between October and early January you can go whale watching as well.
Dog sledding is the second most popular activity after the northern lights, but this one is guaranteed at least! There are several companies that offer dog sledding tours in Tromsø. You can visit a husky camp, have lunch in an ice dome or feed cute reindeers. All the animals live in a safe environment and are very well looked after.
Where to stay in Tromsø:
Tromsø doesn’t have a huge number of hotels so budget options are rather limited. Airbnb can be a more affordable option and you don’t have to worry about staying far from the centre as the city is well served by public transport. However if you prefer the proximity and the comfort of a hotel then the Clarion Hotel The Edge ticks all the boxes. It’s a little pricier than other hotels but the service and facilities are top notch and you get to enjoy wonderful views over the harbour and the Arctic cathedral.
For a more budget option choose Entner hotel Amalie. A modern, centrally located hotel which offers an excellent breakfast.
Where to eat:
Norwegian cuisine is absolutely delicious. From the richly cooked breakfasts to the fish specialties and meat delicacies. Reindeer is the most popular red meat, so popular they put it everywhere even on pizzas!
My top 3 recommendations for eating out:
This is a lovely place with a warm atmosphere, cosy seating and some really cool decorations. It is popular with both locals and tourists so tend to fill quickly but the service is quick and the food delicious. Their menu include a large selection from traditional comfort food to Pizzas and burgers. Try the seafood soup for starter and the caramel drizzle apple pie for dessert!
Bistro type restaurant that offers an authentic Nordic experience. They pride themselves on using local and seasonal produce only. They also consistently get good ratings and reviews so you most likely won’t be disappointed.
Norway’s smallest bar. This cute little kiosk of 4sqm is located in the heart of the city opposite the harbour so it’s impossible to miss it. It’s actually a bar and fast food very popular with the locals who come to enjoy its signature dish “the reindeer hotdog”. Although it has few spaces inside for sitting, most people tend to stand outside and enjoy a cold or hot drink, to emulate the espresso bars culture in Italy and Portugal.
For a more sophisticated atmosphere, head to the Sky Bar rooftop in The Edge Hotel for great cocktails and stunning views over the fjord.