In Northern Norway, Tromsø is a city that can’t be compared to anywhere else in Europe. High in the Arctic Circle, the city is on the island of Tromsøya, ringed by forbidding mountain peaks like the famous Tromsdalstinden to the east.
In winter Tromsø is the place to come if you want to watch the Northern Lights, and there are guides and tour operators to help you see and photograph the Aurora. At that time of year Tromsø is in the midst of the Polar Night, a far cry from the summer when the city gets two whole months of Midnight Sun. You’ll be tempted to spend all of your time on excursions witnessing these phenomena, traversing fjords and spotting whales. But when you’re in town, Tromsø has a young, fun-loving personality, with bars and nightclubs aplenty in its centre.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Tromsø:
1. Northern Lights
From the start of September to early April is when you’ll have the best chance of seeing this awe-inspiring phenomenon.
Best of all is the period from mid-November to mid-January, known as the Polar Night, when the sun doesn’t make it above the horizon.
Tromsø is in the Northern Lights Oval, the prime location for gazing at the Aurora.
Ideally you should get clear of the city, away from light pollution and if possible you should come during the new moon or waning and waxing crescent when there’s less competing light in the sky.
Countless Northern Lights-oriented activities are available, from dog-sledding and snowmobiling trips to drives and cruises.
The company Chasing Lights organises boat trips and will give you pointers on how to set up your camera to capture the Aurora in all its beauty.
2. Midnight Sun
From 20 May to 22 July Tromsø is bathed in perpetual sunlight, something that is difficult to comprehend until you see it for yourself.
And while the long darkness of the Polar Night is linked to Seasonal Affective Disorder, people say that the Midnight Sun has a noticeable uplifting effect on everyone’s mood.
One of the best places to see the spectacle in Tromsø is the Storsteinen mountain ledge, which we’ll talk about in more detail later.
From here you can watch the sun hovering above the horizon behind the Soltindan peak on Ringvassøy island to the north.
June is time for the Tromsø Midnight Sun Marathon, drawing thousands of visitors to the city for a race that starts at 20:30.
3. Whale Safaris
Between October and February, whale and dolphin species like the harbour porpoise, humpback whale, killer whale and fin whale migrate to Tromsø’s waters to feast on the large stocks of herring.
So if you’ve ever wanted to see whales in the flesh, Tromsø has emerged as the best destination in northern Europe for marine wildlife expeditions.
A trip with a company like Tromsø Safari will take between 3.5 and 7 hours, depending on how quickly you sight these creatures.
On the way out you’ll watch movies about the whales, their migration and feeding habits, while the guide will point out wildlife like sea eagles.
4. Tromsø Fjords
Kaldfjorden, Balsfjorden, Ullsfjorden and Malangen are a few of the fjords close to Tromsø.
You can go on a cruise to see these hauntingly beautiful water bodies, departing from Tromsø’s harbour on the Polar Queen or Fjord Queen.
On your five-hour trip a classic polar scene of snow-capped mountains and slender waterfalls will scroll by, and you may catch sight of seals , reindeer and sea eagles, as well as humpback whales if you come between November and January.
You can see it all from the warmth of the cabin, or go up to the deck in the biting wind for the best shots.
Extra warm clothing is provided and you’ll be served Arctic fish, waffles and hot drinks to tide you over until you return.
Alternatively you can do the fjords on a guided drive to the island of Sommarøy, which has pristine white sandy beaches.
5. Arctic Cathedral
Couched in the Tromsdalen valley, this church is a modern masterpiece, designed by Jan Inge Hovig and consecrated in 1965. The body of the building is 11 rectangular aluminium frames, with a glass facade fronted by a gigantic cross on the west side.
This sharp outline evokes polar boathouses, icebergs and Sami tents, and when it’s dark the strip lights between the frames gives the church a wonderful luminescence.
Behind the altar is a marvellous stained glass window depicting Christ’s second coming, produced by the artist Victor Sparre and mesmerising in the summer during the Midnight Sun.
At this time of year there are special Midnight Sun concerts given by professional musicians.
6. Fjellheisen (Tromsø Cable Car)
Cross the Tromsø Bridge to Tromsdalen and you’ll be at the lower station for an aerial tramway carrying you up to the Storsteinen mountain ledge, 420 metres above sea level.
The journey takes four minutes and at the top you’ll have a view to remember of the strait, Tromsøya island and the Tromsø Bridge.
At the upper station there’s a restaurant and an outdoor viewing platform.
In summer people make the trip up to begin hikes to the 1,238-metre Tromsdalstinden, and come at night to witness the Midnight Sun.
In winter this is also one of the best places see the Northern Lights.
7. Arctic-Alpine Botanical Garden
Run by the Tromsø University Museum, the world’s northernmost botanical garden is on high ground in panoramic location, with mountain views all around.
The garden is open from May to October and has a variety of polar and Alpine flowers, perennials and herbs, with different species in bloom in each month.
The garden has plants you may not have encountered before, like slipper flowers from the Falkland Isles and Himalayan blue poppies from Tibet, which bloom in late June and have metre-high stems.
The rhododendron valley has 60 different species that also burst into flower in June, in a kaleidoscope of yellows, whites, purples and reds.
8. Polar Museum
Established in 1978, exactly 50 years after the death of the fabled explorer Roald Amundsen, this museum is all about the lives of polar pioneers, from animal trappers to explorers.
You’ll meet famous figures like the Dutch navigator Willem Barentsz who discovered the Svalbard archipelago in the 16th century and opened up the way for a generation of Dutch whalers.
You’ll also learn about the trappers of the early 20th century, who would spend full winters at Svalbard catching polar bears, reindeer and seals.
An authentic trapper’s cabin from 1900 has been moved to the museum.
There’s a separate exhibition all about Roald Amundsen, who was the first man to reach the south pole in 1926 and became the first to sail through the Northwest Passage from 1903 to 1906.
9. Tromsø Museum
At the southern end of Tromsøya is an engaging museum about the city and region, also maintained by the University of Tromsø.
The museum approaches life in northern Norway from a many different angles, exploring the Sami culture, the facts behind the Northern Lights, the history of polar exploration, the geology and natural life of the region, as well as religious art and archaeology.
You’ll get to see whale skeletons, traditional skis and canoes, models of Sami dwellings, altarpieces, altarpieces, artefacts from daring expeditions and prehistoric spearheads.
Many of the exhibits are child-friendly, with interactive elements.
In 2016 it was announced that the museum would be moving up to the centre of Tromsø in the next few years.
10. Science Centre of Northern Norway
At the campus of the University of Tromsø is a hands-on science museum tackling subjects like the human body and brain, energy and the environment, weather and climate and the science behind the sky.
The museum also goes into the realities of life above the Arctic Circle, documenting the natural habitat and revealing scientific research being conducted in this region.
But the marquee attraction is the 360° digital planetarium, the largest in Norway, putting on a Northern Lights show and explaining the science behind this magical natural phenomenon.
11. Art Museum of Northern Norway
Norway’s northernmost art museum has assembled more than 2,000 paintings from the Romantic period to the present day.
The landscapes of northern Norway are ever-present, appearing in the works of the 19th-century painters Peder Balke, Gunnar Berg and François-Auguste Biard.
But there are also pieces by Edvard Munch, David Hockney and the Abstract Expressionist Anna-Eva Bergman.
The temporary shows are always worthwhile, dealing with regional topics like indigenous communities and climate change.
In 2017 the attraction was named Norway Museum of the Year.
12. Tromsøbrua (Tromsø Bridge)
A permanent part of the cityscape, the Tromsø Bridge crosses the Tromsøysundet on the east side of the island, and was no small feat when it was built at the end of the 1950s.
It was Norway’s first cantilever bridge and for a time was the longest bridge in Northern Europe, at just over one kilometre.
Climbing to 38 metres above the water, the bridge has 58 spans, the longest, at the centre, extending to 80 metres.
If you’re on foot, take the pedestrian path for one of the best views of Tromsdalstinden with the magisterial Arctic Cathedral in the foreground.
13. Cross-country Skiing
North of the Arctic Circle it makes sense to have a go at Norway’s national sport in Tromsø.
Once you have the skis and poles, this is something you can do by yourself on prepared and illuminated trails through silent spruce and birch forest.
There’s a tangle of trails on the northern end of Tromsøya Island, as well as a coastal trail across the water at Kvaløysletta.
Norway’s Skisporet website has precise information about the quality of each route and when it was last groomed.
You may need some help getting started, and a few active sports companies like Tromsø Outdoor provide guided trips showing you the basic techniques.
The most northerly aquarium in the world, Polaria is in a distinctive building designed to mimic ice floes pressed against the land by rough seas.
The attraction has dozens of tanks and habitats for local marine life.
The stars of the show are the bearded seals, which can be observed in an open pool.
You’ll be able to see them swimming from below, in the underwater glass tunnel.
You can also traverse the “Artic Walkway”, which recreates Arctic permafrost and has equipment from polar expeditions.
Polaria screens the eye-popping movies “Spitsbergen – Arctic Wilderness” and “In the Land of the Northern Lights” at its five-screen panoramic cinema.
15. Macks Ølbryggeri
Stand at any bar in Tromsø and you’re sure to see this brand on the taps.
Founded by Ludwig Markus Mack, the son of a German immigrant in 1877, this treasured brand has stayed independent all this time.
Until recently Macks was the northernmost brewery in the world before being usurped by Svalbard Bryggeri in 2015. Monday to Friday you can come for an hour-long tour, watching a video, seeing the stainless steel fermentation tanks, while learning about the process and the history of the brand.
You’ll end up in the pub in the basement, which has over 100 taps.
If you want deeper insights on the art of beer-making there’s a pricier in-depth experience answering any questions you could have about beer and how it’s made, tasting five different brews as you go.