Tromsø, the self-styled ‘Capital of the Arctic’ is about more than the northern lights – expect humpback whales, epic mountains and lashings of Scandi cool...
Tromsø’s natural gifts can seem almost unfair. Buried deep in the Arctic Circle in northern Norway, it’s surrounded by the soaring, skiable peaks of the Lyngen Alps and fjords that draw pods of humpback whales in the winter. And, most famously, it’s slap-bang in the middle of the so-called Auroral Oval, the band of the Earth (between latitudes 65º and 70º north) in which the northern lights hit hardest and brightest.
But what’s perhaps more surprising is that this city of just 76,000 residents, which lines two sides of a pretty fjord, is so culturally rich. Tromsø is steeped in the history of the area’s Sami reindeer herders, trappers and polar explorers, most notably Roald Amundsen, who took off from the city on his fateful final voyage in 1928. It’s little wonder that it was dubbed ‘the Paris of the North’ in the 19th century.
But it is another nickname that has stuck. The self-styled ‘Capital of the Arctic’ is a cooler, livelier city than you might expect. The hip cafés, microbreweries and shabby-chic bars are aimed at the city’s student population yet are a boon to visitors. The food is fresh, local and heavy on the fish, especially the famously muscular skrei cod that arrives in late winter. The cultural scene counts a philharmonic orchestra and scores of festivals, including a film festival every January, based around a cinema that was built in 1916 and remains one of the oldest still working in Europe.
But the true joy of visiting Tromsø is getting out into the wilderness, and a boom in winter tourism over the past decade has meant more to do than ever before. As well as staples like whale-watching with local experts or reindeer-sledding with Sami herders, new offerings in the past few years include the Tromsø Ice Domes – an ice bar, cinema and hotel out in the wild – as well as the Aurora Spirit distillery, which is also a base for RIB boat trips, axe-throwing and tours of Cold War-era bunkers. It almost sounds blasphemous, but the northern lights streaking across the Arctic sky are merely a spectacular cosmic bonus.
A RIB boat nature tour with Tromsø Friluftsenter offers a great introduction. A five-hour morning trip (including transfers) rewards with sightings of Arctic reindeer, white-tailed eagles and, between November and January, orcas and humpbacks.
Back in town, discover Norway’s epic expedition past at The Polar Museum, part of a larger complex that also includes the world’s most northerly botanical garden.
Next, grab a beer at Olhallen, attached to the city’s famed Mack brewery – now ‘formerly’ the northernmost in the world after Longyearbyen took that title. This authentic pub opened in 1928 and has 67 taps of craft brews.
In the evening, settle in for a slick dinner fjord cruise on the Vulkana, a 1957 whaling vessel that has since been converted into a rustic spa boat, with hot tub, sauna and hammam. Steam it up below decks as fjords drift by, then follow with a locavore three-course meal cooked on board and, hopefully, a perfect view of the northern lights.
Start your day reindeer trekking with Tromsø Arctic Reindeer, led by a Sami herding family. Sled, feed the herd, learn about Sami culture and slurp down bidos (reindeer soup), then travel back to town to ride the Fjellheisen cable car. You’ll get views across the city both as it rises and from Storsteinen mountain ledge at the top, 421m above sea level.
Next, embrace the wild at Green Gold of Norway, in the shadow of the Lyngen Alps. Take an aurora photography class, then head to a glass-roofed lavvu (tent) to stargaze from your bed. Or instead head south of the city to Tromsø Ice Domes for guided snow-shoeing and dinner in the wilderness, before a night in the area’s first ice hotel.
Hire a car and drive the beautiful Lyngenfjord to the Aurora Spirit distillery, right on the fjord, where you can also take RIB boat tours, try axe-throwing or tour a Cold War-era bunker. Its award-winning gin, made from 23 Arctic botanicals, is worth the trip, and the aquavit and vodka are good, too, though make sure you’re not the one driving back.
Return to the city via the little Svensby-Breivikeidet ferry, which takes around two hours. Before you cross the arched Bruvegen bridge, stop to take a look at the triangular Arctic Cathedral, Tromsø’s answer to the Sydney Opera House, built in 1965. Finish with a five-or-six-course meal at the excellent Restaurant Smak, with local fish, berries and in-house cured meats to the fore of the menu, then slip down the road for a cocktail at the elegant Hildr to toast a great trip to the Arctic.
If you’re interested in capturing the northern lights on camera, make sure to bring a tripod. Set your aperture as wide as possible, and use long shutter speeds: usually from 1–20 seconds, depending on the strength of the aurora (weaker means longer shutter speeds).
When to go: It’s worth a visit year round, though from December to early May there’ll be both snow on the ground and northern lights in the sky.
Getting there: Between November and March, Norwegian flies direct from London Gatwick to Tromsø.
Getting around: While the city is walkable, renting a car is recommended. The usual suspects can all be found here.
Where to stay: The plush waterfront Clarion Hotel The Edge is arguably the best large hotel in town. The Comfort Hotel Xpress is its no-frills, albeit well-located, sister.
Where to eat: Emma’s Drommekjokken serves up a famous fish gratin that is popular with locals and visitors alike; the equally excellent Restaurant Smak has set menus that utilise wholly local ingredients.
More info: Tromsø tourist information
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