There are trips, and then there are epic trips! My family trip early last year to Tromsø, the so-called Capital of the Arctic, certainly qualifies as the latter. A picturesque place surrounded by snowcapped peaks and chilly fjords, Tromsø is a lively university city. It is the largest city in Northern Norway and the perfect place to get a taste of the Arctic life. Here’s why you must visit Tromsø, Norway in winter.
Located at 69°N, nearly 400km north of the Arctic Circle, Tromsø is one of the best places in the world to view the Aurora Borealis aka Northern Lights. They are usually visible from mid-September to mid-April, though you have a better chance of sighting them October-March. You can rent a car and go chasing the lights around Tromsø. However, it’s a bit tricky driving on snowy or icy roads with steep inclines. So instead, we signed up for the Aurora Safari Base Stations tour offered by Tromsø Safari.
This is a comfortable coach tour, which takes you to one of their seven private base stations, about 90 minutes from Tromsø. It was -20°C but the base station had a large warm shelter with water, hot chocolate, cookies, and cake, plus toilet facilities and thermal suits (that you can borrow if you’re too cold). They have guides who not only explain the northern lights but also help you set up your tripods and cameras for the best shots.
Of course, viewing the northern lights is a matter of chance and depends on many weather conditions. But we got incredibly lucky. We were at the base station for nearly 3 hours and for the entire time, the sky was positively lit with shimmering green lights. From ribbon-like fingers unfurling heavenwards and alien figures shape-shifting as the wind changed direction to V-shaped forms dancing across the starlit Arctic sky – we saw them all. It’s a surreal spectacle that will make you forget the biting cold, a truly bucket list-worthy experience!
If the auroras are strong and the weather conditions conducive, you can sometimes see the lights from Tromsø city or surroundings itself. Try Telegrafbukta Beach or Prestvannet Lake; before you head out, do check online the probability of seeing the lights.
Tromsø is easy to explore on foot, despite the winter snow and slush on the roads (am I selling this well, lol). Stroll down Storgata, Tromsø’s high street lined with colourful shops, supermarkets, and cafés.
Stop at the Domkirke or Tromsø Cathedral, a simple, 19th-century Gothic Revival-style building, the only Norwegian cathedral made entirely of wood.
Further up is the fully glass-framed Tromsø City Library with a spectacular arched roof.
Amble down to the harbour for a picture-perfect view.
Continue further to the city’s iconic, gracefully arched Tromsø Bridge, which crosses the Tromsøysundet strait and connects the island of Tromsøya (where Tromsø is located) to Tromsdalen on the mainland.
On the mainland stands the Tromsdalen Church, popularly known as the Arctic Cathedral. The soaring triangular, stark-white structure was built in 1965, while the stunning glass mosaic on the eastern side was added in 1972.
A 15-minute walk from the church will bring you to the Fjellheisencable car station. The cable car whisks you up the Storsteinen mountain ledge for a panoramic view of Tromsø and its surrounding mountains, fjords and islands. However, the cable car may be closed due to inclement weather, which is rather common in winter.
Tromsø is surrounded by stunning fjords – Ersfjorden on the western side of Kvaløya Island is easily accessible by public transport. We hopped on bus number 425 from Tromsø’s main bus station and in 30 minutes we were at Ersfjordbotn (the fjord viewing point). And just look at that view!
You can also take a fjord cruise aboard a comfortable catamaran; Tromso Safari offers several options, including whale-spotting ones between late October and end of January (when whales visit the Troms coast to feed on herrings).
Food & Drink
Tromsø offers a smorgasbord of delish Nordic fare, including some adventurous options. Some recommendations on where to eat and drink in Tromsø:
- Coffee and scrumptious cinnamon rolls at the cosy Tromsø Kaffebrenneri
- Or the chic Kafé Globus
- Coffee and cake (or soup and lunch du jour) at Smørtorget Cafe, which is also a quirky secondhand shop
Reservations are a must but you can book online.
- Traditional Norwegian meat and seafood dishes at Mathallen Tromsø; try their reindeer steak
- Fish soup and seafood platter at Fiskekompaniet
- Fine bistro fare at Bardus; don’t miss the Norwegian winter staple – a dish featuring fried cod tongue
- Video game-themed Burgers at Burgr, a fun bar plastered with vintage posters
Tromsø has more pubs per capita than any other city in Norway, so there’s no dearth of options. Apart from excellent craft beers, try akevitt, a distilled spirit flavoured with herbs like caraway or dill.
- Ølhallen Brewpub (reputedly the oldest pub in town, serves local favourite Mack Brewery beer and Norwegian craft beers on tap)
- Huken Pub (a personal favourite with comfy retro-chic décor)
- Hildr Gastrobar
- Blå Rock Café
Where to stay in Tromsø
The city is teeming with hotels across various budgets. However, do remember that everything is super-expensive in Norway so even a budget hotel may seem pricey. That said, you can look at hotels like Scandic Ishavshotel and Clarion Hotel The Edge, both of which have beautiful views of the sea. For budget options, consider Comfort Hotel Xpress Tromsø or Enter Backpack Hotel, both of which are downtown. If you are travelling as a group, I would highly recommend renting an apartment on Airbnb, which is what we did.
I hope this post makes you want to visit Tromsø, Norway. Leave us a comment and let us know what you’re most excited to see or do (other than the Northern Lights, duh!)
Looking for more winter destination options? How about Christmas in Copenhagen or Vienna? Obviously, it’s not possible this year (damn you, covid), but it’s always good to dream or plan trips, right? Until we can travel again…
This article was commissioned by National Geographic Traveller India and a version of it appeared in their print issue of February 2020. Read it here.