Far above the Arctic Circle, considered by many to be the northernmost city in the world (being the northernmost city with a population of over 50,000), Tromsø, Norway, may be one of the most surreal and awe-inspiring places I have ever visited.
Disclosure: My visit to Tromsø was partially covered by Smarthotel Tromsø and some tour operators, however, all opinions and viewpoints expressed in this post are, as always, my own. This post does contain some affiliate links, for which I will earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you, of course).
If you are looking for things to do in Tromsø, there are plenty of options, especially as the tourism industry continues to expand in the city. I visited as many museums, went on as many wintertime activities and excursions as I could, and tried out a variety of bars and restaurants (all for you, my loyal readers), and these are the top 12 things to do in Tromsø that I would recommend.
I’ve combined a little of everything, as I think every well-rounded trip should: active excursions, dining, museums, and of course, some local experiences.
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What to Know Before You Visit:
- Currency: NOK (Norwegian Kroner); Exchange Rate – $1 -> 7.7kr
- Population: 74,500
- Local Pronunciation: Sounds like “Trrrom-suh”
- Average Winter Temperatures: Highs: 28-30 F (-1 to -2 C)/Lows: 21-23 F (-5 to -6C) The coastal city has surprisingly mild weather for its latitude.
- Prices: So much money will leave your pocket. Especially on drinks. ($$$$$)
- Tipping: Not compulsory, but many Norwegians give 10-20% if happy with their service.
- Safety: Ridiculously low crime rates; you can walk around alone pretty much anywhere. The real danger is slipping and falling on ice. Get spikes for your shoes to prevent this.
- Walkability: Despite the temperatures, if you are well dressed, you can walk pretty much anywhere. The center of town is pretty condensed, high-traffic sidewalks are regularly cleared, and even a walk to the cable car station on the opposite coast from central Tromsø is around 30 minutes.
- Daylight Hours: In December? Zero! The sun does not rise. However, from around 9:30 AM to 1:30 PM, the sky changes to a twilight blue, with the light amplified by the ubiquitous snow. This gives you better light for getting around and for photography. See below:
- Transportation: If you want to venture outside the areas easily accessible on foot, buses run pretty regularly throughout Tromsø.
Local Tip: Pre-purchase a bus pass for NOK 30 at any local Narvesen – a chain of Norwegian convenience stores. There are plenty in Tromsø, including one right by the main town square.
For a list of gear, clothes, and other essentials you may need in Tromsø, stay tuned for my next post: the ultimate Arctic packing list!
Chase the Aurora – See the Tromsø Northern Lights
If you’re coming this far north in winter, I have to assume your number one priority for things to do in Tromsø is seeing the Northern Lights. Most people I spoke to were in Tromsø to go “aurora chasing”, as Northern Lights sightseeing is called here.
Though the lights can be visible from the city itself, Tromsø frequently has overcast weather thanks to its location on the coast, which prevents great aurora visibility. Your best chance of spotting an aurora is with the tour I took – Tromsø Safari. I compared quite a few options before picking them, and they definitely delivered.
The advantage of Tromsø Safari is that they offer an over 90% chance of seeing the Northern Lights. In order to do this, they have several base stations they can bus you to, and every night they check weather and solar patterns to determine which location offers the best chance of catching the aurora in action. When we arrived at the furthest base station (it was a 1.5-hour bus ride from Tromsø), the aurora started dancing ten minutes after our arrival, as if on cue.
Try the Sami Reindeer Experience
Anyone who grew up hearing about Santa loves reindeer. So why not go to an actual reindeer farm, run by the local indigenous Sami people, and meet some face to face? The experience is completely worth the price, as you will learn a lot about Sami culture and reindeer from actual Sami reindeer farmers, feed the reindeer yourself, and eat a reindeer stew around a roaring fire while listening to stories.
Local Tip to Avoid Death by Antler: As the Sami will tell you, when feeding the reindeer, keep the bucket at a reasonable distance away from your internal organs. Though the reindeer are not aggressive to humans, and for the most part disregard your existence if you’re not carrying food, they do have very strong, pointy antlers that could embed themselves in your liver if you forget about them.
Warm Up At Risø Coffee Shop
One of the first things I look for in any destination is a warm, cozy coffee shop I can relax and people watch in during my downtime; Risø mat & kaffebar was perfect for this. With great coffee, a really friendly staff, and plenty of rustic nooks to set up a laptop in, Risø was a great place to rest my legs and relax, or get a morning jolt before starting my day.
Eat a Fantastic Norwegian Dinner at Mathallen
With an emphasis on fish and reindeer meat, northern Norwegian cuisine may not be for everyone, but Mathallen puts a wonderful gourmet twist on these Arctic flavors that will satisfy almost everyone. The delicious wine pairings don’t hurt either. Alternatively, you can also try out Emma’s Drømmekjøkken, or preferably check out both.
Visit the Polaria Museum
Of all the museums I visited in Tromsø, this was my favorite. Polaria focuses on Arctic nature, especially the flora and fauna of the area. They have bearded seals and other marine animals within the museum, as well as events and presentations throughout the day, including seal feeding and presentations on Svalbard island. Admission: NOK 130 ($17).
Take the Cable Car Up Fjellheisen
I’ve seldom seen a city look so spectacular from above. Tromsø, Norway is called the “Paris of the North” for a reason, after all. I would recommend taking the Fjellheisen cable car up in the last hour of twilight (around 1-2 PM, depending on when you go), and staying until the sky turns completely black. This way, you can see the city in two completely different kinds of light. There is an indoor area where you can sit and rest at the top of the hill while waiting for the light to change.
Explore Hungeren & Tromsdalen on Foot
Local Tip: If you want to get away from the city center and take a quiet walk through some cozy, residential Nord Norge (northern Norway) neighborhoods, explore Hungeren and Tromsdalen on foot. Simply cross the main arched bridge – Bruvegen – and pass the Arctic Cathedral. You will find yourself walking through rows of picturesque, tranquil residential streets with classic Scandinavian houses partially hidden behind snow banks. It’s a great change of pace from central Tromsø.
Learn to Drive a Dog Sled
Of all the things to do in Tromsø, driving a dog sled is what changed the trip from “incredibly surreal” to “I am officially in some sort of Disney tale”. I vividly remember the wind reddening my cheeks as I was pulled surprisingly fast by five energetic huskies downhill over fresh, untouched snow; hearing the soft, consistent, swish of the sled over the powder, and only silence beyond that.
Local Tip: DEFINITELY sign up for the self-driving tour at Tromsø Villmarkssenter; it may seem intimidating, but it’s surprisingly simple and easy to drive the sled since these dogs know the route and what they’re doing (much better than you do, of course). Take one of the later morning tours so there will be some light for you to see the landscape.
Bar Hop Down Storgata
If you’re in Tromsø during December, take advantage of the extra booze-induced holiday cheeriness of the season to go barhopping down the main street of Storgata and meet some local Norwegians. The holiday season in Norway means a lot of parties, a lot of food, a lot of alcohol, and a lot of staying out until last call. Join the festivities.
Local Tip: Maskineriet Bar has a cozy downstairs drinking area, and an upstairs bar and dance room with some of the most enthusiastic dancers I’ve ever seen – after a few drinks, Norwegians really let go. Right across the street, Gründer Cafe & Bar is one of the most popular places in Tromsø on a Saturday, and you will find plenty of the local “trendy” crowd here.
Explore the Tromsø Area by Snowmobile
Though this was the one Tromsø activity I was not able to partake in due to rainy weather on my last day, a snowmobile safari is the best way to see the Arctic wilderness surrounding the city. If you want to venture into the true untouched nature of the area, the mountains and lakes around Tromsø, Norway, book a snowmobile safari and get outside the city. Though the tours are pricey, I heard the best comments about them from both travelers and locals.
See a Concert in the Arctic Cathedral
Most visitors to Tromsø take a photo or two of the Arctic Cathedral (known as Ishavskatedralen), or even a quick peek inside it, but the church offers so much more than just its beautiful architecture.
Local Tip: To really experience the beauty (and acoustics) of the Arctic Cathedral, attend one of the many nighttime concerts here. Check the cathedral calendar to see if there are any concerts during your stay in Tromsø.
Hike to Prestvannet to See the Northern Lights
If you want to get away from the lights of the city center in Tromsø and try to see the Northern Lights yourself, without a tour guide, try hiking to Prestvannet Lake. The walk is about 30 minutes from Tromsø city center.
Local Tip: You have the best chance of seeing the lights around 10 to midnight. Check the forecast, and if there are clear skies and good aurora activity, try your luck at Prestvannet!
Want to Visit Tromsø Yourself?
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