It may sound trite, but it’s the first thing that comes to mind when I try to describe Tromsø in the winter. Our time there had a dreamy, otherworldly quality—probably helped along by the fact that the sun never technically rose while we were there and we were keeping vampire hours. But with its cute wooden houses, swaying boats, glass-like fjord, snow-covered…everything, and the pearly light that bathes it all, I was 100% there for Tromsø.
Tromso is 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, right toward the tippy-top of Norway. Nicknamed “the Paris of the North”, Tromsø is the biggest city in northern Norway and offers not only tons of natural wonder—think Northern Lights, midnight sun, polar night, fjords, whale watching, etc.—but also lots of culture. It’s home to an international film festival, several museums, and the northernmost botanical garden in the world.
It’s the natural beauty that we were visiting for, specifically the Northern Lights. And because we were visiting in mid-January, we got to experience the last few days of polar night for the year.
Also, it was cold. This Georgia girl came prepared though.
What is “polar night”?
Polar night occurs in the very northernmost and southernmost areas of the earth, within the Arctic (and Antarctic) Circle. It means that it’s nighttime for more than 24 hours—in Tromso’s case, about 6 weeks every year. The sun never technically rises, though at least during the time we visited, there was usually an hour or two in the middle of the day where the sky lightened up into a gorgeous perpetual sunrise/sunset. Part of the time it’s also a beautiful deep twilight blue that’s characteristic of polar night. The colors were so pretty!
The pics below illustrate what flying into polar night was like. The first is from taking off in Oslo, around 12:30pm. We landed in Tromso around 2:30pm, and you can see that by the time we landed (the iced over window) it was pitch dark. The middle picture is about halfway through the trip (about 1:30pm), as we were flying straight north into the darkness…it was so cool, we felt like we could actually see the curve of the earth, with the way the darkness curved over it!
What to do with 3 days in Tromsø in winter
Here are some of the basics for planning your winter trip to Tromsø. I provide a lot more detail as we go along, and then some deeper info at the bottom of the post.
Because we were doing nighttime Northern Lights tours every night that kept us out until between 2:00 and 4:00 in the morning, and on top of that had Polar Night messing up our schedules, we were basically vampires…no real sense of time the entire 3 days we were there. We often ended up sleeping from about 4:00am to 11:00am, getting out and enjoying a few hours of pretend daylight, and then meeting up with a tour group around 5:00pm and staying out all night.
- When to go: if you’re wanting to experience polar night, Northern Lights, dog sledding, etc., then the dead of winter is what you’ll want (December/January); the rest of winter is good if you’re not looking for polar night
- Where to stay: the Comfort Inn Xpress Tromsø was clean, comfy, & very central; Camp Tamok is a cool experience as well!
- Where to eat & drink: Kaffebonna for coffee & pastries, Huken Pub, O’Hallen, Bardus Bistro, Fjellheisen cafe
- What to do: walk around the main square & the harbor, walk across the bridge, see the Arctic Cathedral, Northern Lights tours, dog sledding, visit Camp Tamok & sleep in a traditional Sami lavvu
- What to bring: the right gear, clothes, fabrics, etc. is critical—I’ve laid out everything I learned here!
- How to get around: Flybüssen to/from the airport, walking for the most part in town, consider a bus up to the cable car, and I recommend tours for Northern Lights vs. self-driving
We took the Flybüssen into the city from the airport, very easy to arrange from the airport though can be a bit tricky to find the right shuttle back in Tromso when you’re ready to return. We’d purchased round-trip tickets for simplicity but ended up having to take a cab back to the airport because we didn’t understand the Flybüssen schedule and lines.
If you’re planning your own Arctic winter adventure, here’s more detailed info on some parts our trip
So without further ado, here are some of my favorite things to do in Tromsø…
Enjoy walking around the town during “daylight”
…a.k.a. the 2-3 hours where it’s kind of like sunset all the time. Tromsø is super cute, so just wandering around the small main town area is a must.
Don’t be fooled by my pictures, because some of them look WAY lighter than it actually was. I was playing around with settings on my camera to get good enough pics, and the HDR setting really pulled in light well so you could see the pearly pinks.
Sample some Scandi bakery faves
Pastries! One of my favorite things about Scandinavian baking is how much cinnamon is used. I made sure to grab a cinnamon bun (kannelbollar), that cinnamon tea cake thing, and much more, every time we could duck into a bakery.
There are a number of bakeries to choose from in Tromsø, and you should explore several (I know, I’m asking a lot of you). The haul below is from Kaffebønna, which I highly recommend. Another we tried (and was good) was Riso Mat & Kaffebar.
But don’t forget the savories! Our first night there we were running short on time and needed to fuel up before our first Northern Lights tour. We popped into a restaurant called Egon and chowed down on onion rings, fries, and this fish soup which was totally amazing. I became obsessed with fish soup in Norway, especially because I could frequently find some with only white fish, no shellfish (which I can’t eat). More to come later on delicious Norwegian food.
Walk across the bridge during “daylight” & enjoy the view
The bridge that traverses the main town area and the side with the cable car and Arctic Cathedral has a really great pedestrian lane for walkers. It won’t say it’s an “easy” walk, only because there’s a slight incline each way and it is WINDY when you’re in the middle, but it’s completely doable. We did it a few times during our visit.
And here’s one of the main reasons you should walk it at least once, and during that midday window when there’s a tiny bit of light…LOOK AT THAT!
The peaceful sunset-y view over the water in the middle of the bridge was one of my favorite things about Tromsø, and if it weren’t so cold I would have lingered longer. But we pressed on and got to the other side of the bridge where the Arctic Cathedral sits. Again, a fairly easy walk and not necessary to take the bus over to see the Arctic Cathedral unless you have mobility issues.
Visit the Arctic Cathedral
This is probably the best-known building in Tromsø, an iconic church built in the 1960s called Tromsdalen Church but better known as Ishavskatedralen (Arctic Cathedral). It is just…stark, and simple, and perfect for its setting. You first catch a glimpse of it as you’re crossing the bridge, and you can see it from most vantage points in the city.
There is a small fee for entering the church (we didn’t), and you can find out about concerts, opening hours, and more here.
Take the Fjellheisen cable car up to Mount Storsteinen
If the weather permits, this is my #1 must-do in Tromso. You can see that lots of other people agree. Mount Storsteinen towers over Tromso, so has the best views of this charming city.
If you’re visiting in polar night, you’ll need to time your visit carefully to get the best views. I recommend getting up there around 11:00am and spending an hour or two watching the light change. The Fjellheisen website provides opening hours, cable car times, prices, and up-to-the-minute info about whether the cable car is running (they close it down in heavy wind, for instance). Make sure to check before you go!
We took bus #26 from the Tromso main town area, which took us across the bridge and up to the cable car station (well, a very short walk from it). It’s a short trip. You can also walk it, though it’s a bit uphill (we walked back from the cable car to see the Arctic Cathedral).
Once we got off the cable car, we went out on the main viewing platform to take like a thousand pictures. That light is just stunning! We also walked behind the building, along the fence that prevents you from falling off the cliff, and basically anywhere we could find to take pictures. It was FREEZING, as evidenced by these pics (I’m about to lose a hand to frostbite in this first one, because I found it impossible to work either of my cameras with my gloves on so had to keep taking a glove off).
We watched the colors change and deepen for a while, and then decided to go inside to warm up. Not only was my exposed hand burning painfully from the cold, but my eyes wouldn’t stop watering.
There’s a lovely little cafe in the cable car station, so we grabbed some lunch and hot beverages and snagged a window seat to thaw out. Surprisingly, the food in the cafe was quite good. I highly recommend the reindeer burger, and I tried their “success cake”, a dense walnut sponge that wasn’t too sweet and was very interesting.
Fortified by food and warmed up a bit, we ventured back outside to watch darkness claim Tromsø again. This view of the city is so beautiful, pictures can’t even really do it justice. Taking the cable car up on a fairly clear day and watching it get dark and the lights glow is an absolute must when visiting Tromsø.
Walk along the harbor
One morning when we woke up (like, at 11am) we walked down to the harbor to look out over the water before finding some food. The reflections on the water, the gently swaying boats, and the view across to the Arctic Cathedral is a great way to spend a half hour.
Have a couple good dinners
While it’s quite expensive, the food we had in Norway was largely pretty good. A couple meals that stood out (besides the delicious fish soup and the traditional lamb soup) was this reindeer barley risotto and fried cod we had at Bardus Bistro. I got to try a Norwegian stout that was SO good too!
One restaurant that I’d really wanted to try, and got a chance in our last few hours in Tromso, was Huken Pub. I’d heard a lot of great things about it when doing trip research, and it did not disappoint! It has crepes and other things, but the burgers and beer are where it’s at. It’s quite a small room, nice and cozy, so pull up a squashy chair and enjoy the cozy ambiance with a LEGIT burger and a local Mack brew.
And another well-known place in Tromso is O’Hallen, a great brewpub that serves their own local Mack beers as well as a bunch of others. It has a really cool atmosphere, tons of seating (though still gets super crowded…it’s a popular spot!). They typically have over 60 beers on tap, so you won’t get bored.
I made friends with this guy as well.
Take a Northern Lights tour (or three!)
This was the main reason that we booked this trip in the first place—@farewhispers and I had been talking about doing a Northern Lights trip for like a year. And since there’s no guarantee that the Green Lady will show on any given night, in any specific place, or that the weather will cooperate, we wanted to maximize our chances to see the Lights. So we booked Northern Lights tours all three nights we were there (kind of…two mainly, and ended up catching a third).
And we did have some success! It was a lot of hours of cold and waiting for a short period of Lights (and my eyes couldn’t see them well), but it was totally AMAZING. I’ve written an ode to this experience, specifically the second tour we took, with Marianne and George. You can read a more detailed account of our Night Chasing the Northern Lights with all the booking details and tons more pics for inspiration.
We also took a tour with Guide Gunnar, and it was okay and he was an enjoyable guide, though we didn’t have any luck with the Lights and we didn’t chase them as long that night.
Consider a stay out at Camp Tamok in the lavvu
As I was researching unique experiences in the Arctic Circle, something that came up quite a bit was the chance to sleep in a traditional Sami lavvu (which is kind of like a cross between a hut and a teepee in my head). I loved this idea and started looking into options, and found one that combined lavvu housing with dogsledding and got great reviews—I knew that if we were going to do dogsledding it would have to be with the right kind of company, the dogs treated super well, etc.
Enter Camp Tamok…
We were picked up in Tromso and driven about 75 minutes outside the city to Camp Tamok, where we spent our last night of the trip. We slept on reindeer skins in the lavvu—a cool experience though not terribly comfortable, and if you’re going the glamping route it’s probably not the right place for you, there are others that specialize more in that.
We ate delicious hot lamb step and fish soup, bread, and tynnlefse (kind of like a crepe or tortilla rolled with butter, sugar, and cinnamon) in the large communal lavvu, did a short and not terribly good Northern Lights tour (we had to be back for dinner, so it wasn’t really that useful), and enjoyed a quiet, magical breakfast in a cabin looking at the snow-covered mountains, devouring fresh hot bread with jam and downing coffee in preparation for our dogsledding morning. I wish we could have spent a couple days here, including some downtime to just enjoy the area. I’ve done a separate post on our whole stay at Camp Tamok, if you’d like to see more.
Try your hand at dog sledding
Puppehs! This was such a cool experience! The dogs were full of energy and super playful, and @farewhispers and I took turns driving and riding in the sled. Again, this was pure magic…the hush of the morning, only the muffled sound of the sleds on the thick snow and occasional barks, but so still and beautiful.
So basically I hated the whole trip 🙂 But for serious, this trip has to be up there in my favorites from a unique experience standpoint as well as a completely stunning location. If you’re not already planning a visit, it should be toward the top of the list!
Other info that may be helpful for your Tromsø trip:
- As a warm weather person, I did a TON of research on clothing and gear for our Arctic trip, and was incredibly happy with most of the things I brought. Here’s the perfect packing list for an Arctic trip in the winter!
- Northern Lights tours
- Our first night we went with Guide Gunnar
- The second night we booked with Marianne and George’s Heaven on Earth Aurora Chaser Tours; it cost about $157 USD per person. You can find more info on our tour in this post.
- Staying at Camp Tamok and the dog sledding
- There are a couple of companies that offer dog sledding in Tromsø, but we booked with Lyngsfjord Adventures and were super happy with the overall experience at Camp Tamok. Villmarkssenter and Active Tromso are two others that offer it.
- The sledding is available roughly mid-October til the end of March.
- The route is about 10-12 km, and you’ll ride for half and drive for half. It takes around 1.5-2 hours.
- If you just did the dog sledding, it would be about $220 per person. We did an overnight package that included an evening activity (we did Northern Lights tour), overnight stay, dog sledding, and three meals (dinner, breakfast, & lunch), and it was around $465 per person.
Other northern places to explore:
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