The cultural hub of Tromsø lies more than 215 miles north of the Arctic Circle and is the largest urban area in northern Norway. It is also one of the most magical places on Earth to view the northern lights, otherwise known as the aurora borealis. In fact, according to Travel + Leisure, Tromsø is “firmly in the middle of the aurora zone” and is “peak northern lights viewing territory.”
However, Tromsø isn’t just about the northern lights, as it, as well as Norway, aka the “Land of the Midnight Sun,” is one of the most popular places on Earth to experience the midnight sun, which is visible here from mid-May through mid-July. During this time of year, also known as Polar Day season, the sun neither rises nor sets, offering visitors perpetual daylight and an excuse to stay up all night, or day, whichever way you look at it. This is the perfect time of year in Tromsø to get outside and mountain bike, hike, cruise the fjords or hoist a few pints at one of the city’s all-night pubs. If the latter is more to your liking, you’ll be happy to know that Tromsø has more pubs per resident than any other city in Norway.
Due to its far northern latitude, Tromsø gets very cold, especially in winter, but has a cornucopia of indoor attractions that will keep you warm, entertained and educated. These include Polaria, a remarkable Arctic experience centre; the Polar Museum, which features scientific, cultural and archaeological exhibits pertaining to the Tromsø area; the Perspective Museum, which displays photographs depicting the diversity of Tromsø; and many more venues to make your trip to Tromsø memorable, such as Norway’s only wooden cathedral. Whatever you choose to do, you will be doing it in Tromsø, No. 3 in Best Destinations in the World for Travel Experiences, as rated by Tripadvisor, which might turn out to be No. 1 for you.
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See the Northern Lights
March is the advent of spring and is one of the best times of year to visit Tromsø and see the northern lights, as they tend to intensify around this equinox month. In fact, Tromsø is one of the best places in the entire country to witness this spectacle of nature.
However, the northern lights don’t just shine in March, and you can typically see them in Tromsø, and other parts of northern Norway, from September through March, but November through March is the peak season. If you are visiting Tromsø in late January or early February, you won’t want to miss the annual Northern Lights Festival, which is a musical extravaganza that features artists and symphonic orchestras from across Scandinavia.
Polaria and the Polar Museum
Tromsø’s Arctic museums help visitors better understand this unique part of the world. Before or after viewing the northern lights, educate yourself about the aurora borealis via exhibits at the Polaria museum. Here you can also learn about the effects of climate change on Arctic ecosystems and the region’s wildlife. This Arctic experience centre for the whole family is one of the best things to do in Norway, and one of only two places in Europe where you can see the bearded seal up close. Can’t get enough of all things Arctic? Further your education at the Polar Museum where you can learn about Arctic expeditions. One of its most popular exhibits focuses on Roald Amundsen, the famed Norwegian explorer of the polar regions who led the first expedition proven to have reached the North Pole in a dirigible, or airship.
Tromsø University Museum
Founded in 1872, this is the oldest scientific institution in northern Norway. The Tromsø University Museum is also one of the most-visited museums in the city. It has an interactive northern lights exhibit where you can try to create your own aurora borealis. Here you can also learn about northern Norway geology and wildlife and discover the Sami culture of these indigenous people of the north.
Tromsø Arctic-Alpine Botanic Garden
Do you love all things flora? If so, you can truly admire some of the world’s most unique flora at the Tromsø Arctic-Alpine Botanic Garden, which is divided into 28 collections, each of which showcases a different Arctic species from alpine and cold regions around the world. Here you will find flora from northern Norway, the Himalayas, southernmost South America and elsewhere. The garden, part of the Norwegian Arctic University Museum along with the Polar Museum and the MS Polstjerna, can be visited for free at any hour.
Tromsø War Museum
For WWII buffs, the Tromsø War Museum can’t be and shouldn’t be missed. At the museum, you will find the authentic cannons of a German coastal artillery battery and a restored command bunker. The Tromsø War Museum also features an exhibit that educates visitors on the German battleship Tirpitz, which was sunk near Tromsø in 1944. The exhibit includes original material from the Tirpitz as well as text and images about how the Nazi’s largest battleship functioned and then sank, killing more than 950 crew members.
The Perspective Museum’s collection of photographs is quite extensive, approximately 500,000 images. These cultural and historical images provide unparalleled insight into Tromsø’s past and present, from the 19th century to today. Its vision is to “be courageous, curious and relevant, and to treat human beings as the central focus” of the museum’s attention. Since its inception, the Perspective Museum has aimed to develop and share knowledge as the basis for understanding connections in life and create tolerance of cultural diversity.
This free art museum has a priceless collection. The Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum has a permanent collection of more than 2,000 works of art from prominent artists, such as renowned Norway native Edvard Munch. The Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum, which in 2017 was named Norway’s Museum of the Year, also has an entire floor solely dedicated to revolving art exhibitions that have themes related to life in the far north, such as the effects of climate change.
From certain angles, the modern Arctic Cathedral in Tromsdalen might look like a giant iceberg, as it was inspired by ice and snow, but is in fact one of the most architecturally stunning churches in Norway. This iconic landmark is so big it can be seen from Tromsø Sound, all over town and when landing at the airport, and serves as a spiritual beacon. The cathedral is formed by 11 aluminium-coated concrete panels on either side of the roof. The wall behind its altar is decorated with one of the largest stained-glass mosaics in Europe. Due to its outstanding acoustics, the Arctic Cathedral also hosts numerous concerts, including Midnight Sun concerts.
If the Arctic Cathedral is too modern for you and your tastes tend to be more historic, plan a visit to the Tromsø Cathedral, which dates back to 1861. This neo-Gothic structure is one of Norway’s largest wooden churches and is the only cathedral in the country made of wood. The cathedral, located in the centre of the city, is hard to miss, not only because of its size but its distinct yellow colour.
Mount Fløya watches over Tromsø in all kinds of weather, and so can you. The best way to get to the top is by the iconic Tromsø cable car, Fjellheisen, which has been ferrying tourists and locals alike to Mount Fløya since 1961. Once you reach the top, you are rewarded with commanding views of the city, surrounding mountains, fjords and Kvaløya, one of the largest islands in Norway. Mount Fløya is also the perfect place to watch the northern lights dance over Tromsø, the “Gateway to the Arctic,” if you're here during the aurora borealis. The mountain is also home to the Fjellstua restaurant. The more adventurous mountaineers can also hike to the top of Fløya, which takes about three hours.
Northern Lights Planetarium
Northern Lights, located at the Arctic University of Norway, is the largest planetarium in Norway, and the first in the country open to the public. Northern Lights daily screens “Extreme Auroras,” a documentary that addresses the northern lights in art, history and science, which is said to be almost as good as seeing the real thing and a “visual feast.”
Other films the planetarium shows include “Polaris,” a scientific adventure where a penguin and polar bear use research to learn about the Earth and the other planets; “Back to the Moon for Good,” which takes the viewer from the first lunar landings to the present; “Origins of Life,” an incredible story of how life began on Earth; “Our Living Climate,” which depicts how life has affected the Earth’s climate and how the climate has affected life; and other educational films, geared for people of all ages.
Day Trip to Kvaløya
Kvaløya, Norway’s fifth-largest island, is a mere 15 minutes from Tromsø, but this bucolic wonderland might as well be lightyears away and is a perfect day trip from the city. Despite being an island, Kvaløya boasts three beautiful fjords: Kaldfjord, Ersfjord and Kattfjord. Kvaløya, or Whale Island, is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise all year long.
In warmer weather, this island is perfect for biking and hiking one of its towering mountains, especially on, around or up Store Blåmann, Kvaløya’s highest peak, which stands in the middle of the island; and kayaking or relaxing on one of its many white-sand beaches, such as Grøtfjord which was voted Tromsø’s best beach, keeping in mind that the island’s west coast is the warmest part of Tromsø municipality.
During the colder months, Kvaløya is a great place to catch the northern lights and view Arctic wildlife, such as eagles, otters, moose and reindeer, as well as enjoy the snow via snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or dog sledging with a team of huskies. Anglers will be naturally drawn to Kvaløya’s popular Hella area, which is widely considered the best place for fishing on the island. And because it is called Whale Island, it is the ideal place for whale-watching in northern Norway, particularly from November to January when the humpback whales are passing its shores in droves.
Prehistoric Rock Carvings
During your day trip to Kvaløya, don’t miss the ancient rock carvings at Skavberget, near the village of Hella, which dates back to 7,000 BC. The rock carvings can be found right next to the road, so keep your eyes peeled.
During the months of the midnight sun when the sun never sets or during the darkest days of winter when the sun never shines, a great way to kill time in Tromsø is to go shopping. Fortunately, Tromsø has a variety of viable shopping outlets, whether it be for souvenirs or the latest in high fashion.
If it’s warm and dry, the best place to shop is along Tromsø’s main street, Storgata. Here you will find a number of souvenir and gift shops, and everything to cover you from head to toe. If visiting during winter, it’s time to head inside and shop at Jekta, the biggest shopping mall in northern Norway.
Jekta, which is located near the airport, is home to Beauty Bar, Change Lingerie, Clas Ohlson, Dressmann, G-Max, H&M Home, Kicks, Levi’s, Normal, Sports Outlet, The Body Shop, Urban, Vero Moda and many other quality stores.
Another popular shopping centre in Tromsø is Nerstranda, centrally located downtown. It is often referred to as the “centre for fashion” in Tromsø. Nerstranda shops include Glitter, H&M, Nikita, Princess and a plethora of others.