travel diary

5 Unmissable Experiences In Tromsø, Northern Norway

8th June 2018
Whale watching in Tromso

Tromsø is one of the most magical places I’ve been to. A bustling city tucked amongst the fjords, 190 miles North of the Arctic circle. Parts of Tromsø feel so otherworldly, but at the same time so entirely familiar. There’s a busy road network, international airport and the World’s most Northerly university. If you wander the streets after dark (which during Winter is … Almost all of the day) you’re equally as likely to stumble across the Northern lights as a pub playing Norwegian death metal.

Having been to Svalbard and more remote parts of the Arctic since, I have a new appreciation for that aspect of Tromsø. It’s culturally such a cool city, steeped in history and with vibrant local eateries, bars and hangouts. It’s easily accessible with loads to see and do, yet positioned at such a latitude you can see wildlife and landscapes I had previously only dreamed of.

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The juxtaposition of a thriving city with such wild nature is what makes Tromsø an unrivaled holiday location for me.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Northern lights properly. It wasn’t in the Arctic wilderness, or nestled within a dark fjord, but instead above a busy high street in Tromsø. So close it looked as though the Aurora were dancing just above the buildings and such a vivid green, even my camera phone could pick them up. I was transfixed, stuck to the spot, barely able to believe what I was seeing. But all around us, locals went about their daily lives. Weaving between us, getting from A to B as though it were the most normal thing imaginable.

Whilst driving from the city center to a nearby beach, we pulled over the car to watch a pod of wild Orca whale swimming along the fjord. The juxtaposition of a thriving city with such wild nature is what makes Tromsø an unrivaled holiday location for me. You don’t have to be a seasoned hiker or Polar explorer to get there and experience things you’ll never forget. Although if you are wanting to see more of Northern Norway’s incredible nature, it’s an ideal base or stopover location.

If traveling from the UK, you can fly direct to Tromsø from the major London airports. Or fly to Oslo and transfer. The airport is really close, just a 10 – 15 minute drive to the city centre, with lots of car hire options or airport transfers available. I’ve flown with SAS and Norwegian, both of which have been fantastic.

Only experiencing daylight for a few hours a day isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I can assure you the Arctic magic more than makes up for it.

Tromsø’s major caveat if coming from the UK is the cost of living. Flights are reasonable and there are accomodation options for every budget, but wow are some of the food and drink prices eye watering. If you’re looking for a foodie trip, I understand there’s incredible food on offer (especially the locally caught fish like Arctic chard), although being a vegetarian on a budget I stuck to slightly less upmarket establishments. After paying £100 for a very bulk standard Indian meal (without any alcohol) I planned ahead and avoided eating out. If you’re looking to save your funds for adventure activities, convenience stores like the Euro Spar are your friend.

Being within the Arctic circle, Tromsø is naturally cold. However it may not be as cold as you would expect. In fact it’s quite mild, in comparison to other places at a similar latitude. The temperature stayed between -10°C and 2°C when I was there during Winter.

Tromsø experiences the Polar Night and Midnight Sun periods, where the sun either stays above the horizon or below for long periods at a time. Only experiencing daylight for a few hours a day isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I can assure you the Arctic magic more than makes up for it. I’ve written previously about why I love the Polar Night, incase you need convincing.

The northern lights in Tromso.

Northern Lights

It’s true to say that spotting the Northern lights is never guaranteed. And there’s no real ‘best place’ to see them. However, I would argue Tromsø comes close. It’s latitude means they often have a high forecast when the Aurora is going to be visible. And the weather is a lot more predictable than places like Iceland. In addition it’s very dark and a short trip outside the city will give you plenty of places with little to no light pollution.

Besides our quick glimpse in the city centre I mentioned earlier, we were lucky enough to see them on two further occasions. We drove away from the city, towards the Finnish border and after only a short drive had to pull over. The Northern lights were beaming across the light, poking out from behind the trees. We sat in a lay-by besides a busy road, staring up for hours. It was one of the most incredible things I’ve experienced. Something I had wanted to do since I was a child, which we ended up naming our daughter Aurora after. It doesn’t get more magical than that.

Towards the end of our trip, we wanted another glimpse of the Northern lights. But the weather wasn’t on our side. We wandered down into the city center and into one of the Northern Lights tour offices. They check the forecast and offer a realistic view on the chances. On this particular evening it wasn’t looking good. We had low cloud cover and rain, but as the tour was running and we had nothing to lose, we went for it.

Our driver used his knowledge of the area to give us the best chance. Taking us away from Tromsø and to nearby island Kvaløya (which translates as whale island). We waited in his cabin, eating Pepperkaker -Norwegian Christmas biscuits- for the cloud to pass. Before going outside and seeing the most amazing display, showing between the clouds. Pinks, purples and greens, illuminating the sky as we watched from the cliff tops.

Going out and hunting for the Aurora ourselves was a lot of fun. But I can really recommend an organised tour too, as the guide’s local knowledge is invaluable. I’ve shared my tips for seeing the Northern lights in a previous post.

Fjords And Arctic Beaches

When we first arrived in Tromsø, it was under the cover of darkness. And initially I was unaware of the jaw-dropping scenery that surrounded us. Snow topped mountains, everywhere you turned.

We would put a random destination into Google maps and just drive, pulling over to look at anything which took our interest. Norway is seriously beautiful and unbelievable under the polar night sky, which was either bright blue or illuminated with colour during sunset and sunrise.

In some spots at the edge of the water we found Arctic beaches. At first glance of the crystal clear sea water lapping up against the white sands, you would be forgiven for thinking you were in some tropical location. Only everything is frozen. The sand glistens with ice and the sea weed washed up on the beach is frozen solid. It was such a surreal place, but beautiful.

Taking in the fjords and Arctic beaches which surround Tromsø is a must if you hire a car.

A humpback whale breaching the water whilst bubblenet feeding in Tromsø

Whale Watching

During the Winter months, Tromsø is an amazing place to spot Arctic wildlife. The large amount of herring attracts humpback and orca whales, who migrate throughout the year.

We went on a whale watching trip on a RIB boat, which took us into the fjords near Tromsø. I hoped desperately we would be lucky enough to see whales, but knew seeing the fjords from the water would be amazing either way.

Our skipper was a local Norwegian builder who did this in the cold months. He was very careful to not scare the whales and would turn the engine off and drift at the first suggestion of whales. It’s really important to pick an ethical tour operator, as ex-whalers will use their hunting tactics to get close to the whales.

We were lucky enough to see a pod of wild orca, swimming along with their babies. And several humpback whales bubble net feeding, which I feel truly lucky to have witnessed.

After seeing the Northern lights, I didn’t think anything could come close. But being so close to those amazing animals felt so special. If you’re in Tromsø, it may be the ideal place to see whales in the wild.

Baby reindeer Tromsø

Sami Culture

On our last day in Tromsø we were taken inland -where the temperature plummeted- to a Sami reindeer farmer’s Winter land. Home to his many reindeer until the warmer months, when they will all be moved.

We got to speak with him about his life, Sami culture and surviving in such a cold climate, whilst using very traditional methods for farming. We even fed the reindeers by hand.

The local museums in and around Tromsø are also a brilliant place to find out more about the Sami people.

Tromso cable car

Tromsø City & Cable Car

You’re likely going to want to escape the city lights to have the best chances of spotting wildlife or the illusive Northern lights. However Tromsø is well worth exploring too! The best place to start is the cable car, which will take you up above the city and provide you with panoramic views.

There are lots of museums worth checking out, I especially enjoyed Polaria which is also the World’s most Northerly aquarium (you’ll see a lot of these ‘most Northerly’ claims to faim) and home to various seals. And the Polar museum, which has lots of expedition history.

Most of the buildings in Tromsø are traditional and there are beautiful churches and examples of Norwegian architecture dotted about. For a different view, you can take a ferry or boat trip down the fjord.

I’ve wanted to return to Tromsø since we boarded the plane home. And have recommended it to anyone who will listen. These are the 5 experiences which stayed with me the most, but there is so much to see and do, it’s hard to get across in one post how magical a place Tromsø is.

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