Ladies and gentlemen,” the pilot’s voice filters in, “the plane needs to be de-iced before take-off.” From my window seat, by default I become privy to the procedure: Seated inside an elevated pod attached to a truck, a staffer is pointedly spraying what looks like fiery bolts (but is actually a chemical mix) at the airplane’s wings. Apart from the runway, all of Oslo seems blanketed in snow. It’s late January and I have just flown in from Paris to travel onward to Tromsø.
Tromsø is the largest city in Northern Norway, spread out over the island of Tromsøya, which is connected to the mainland by a cantilever bridge. It’s only 5 p.m. when I land but it’s already pitch dark. A convenient local bus brings me from the airport to the city centre, and I trudge through the snow to the warmth of my Airbnb apartment. Over the next two days, I chase the Northern Lights but I also sample the city that’s Norway’s gateway to the Arctic. Tromsø is lively, young, full of students. It’s unsurprising then that it has more pubs per capita than any other city in Norway.
Find Your Bearings
Begin your day with a hot coffee and a buttery cinnamon roll at the cosy Tromsø Kaffebrenneri or the chic Kaffebønna Stortorget. Then take a leisurely stroll down Storgata, Tromsø’s high street lined with colourful shops, supermarkets, cafés, and one very retro-looking, teal-fronted barbershop. Stop to gawk at the fully glass-framed Tromsø City Library that is capped with four bow-roofed arches. Further down Storgata is the Domkirke or Tromsø Cathedral, a simple, yellow Gothic Revival-style building that dates to 1861. It’s the only Norwegian cathedral made entirely of wood.
Hungry from all the ambling? Lunch at Mathallen Tromsø, a fine restaurant that serves traditional Norwegian meat and seafood dishes. Do try their reindeer steak (mathallentromso.no). Alternatively, loop back to the picturesque harbour that’s lined with several eateries; Fiskekompaniet is a popular seafood joint along this stretch, known for its fish soup and seafood platter (fiskekompani.no). Reservations are a must in Tromsø and, luckily, many restaurants accept online bookings.
Experience Arctic Delights
Spend the afternoon at Polaria, a family-friendly Arctic experience centre. Apart from several aquariums, Polaria has a museum, an Arctic walkway with displays of stuffed animals and polar exploration equipment, and a panoramic cinema. The highlight is an open pool where the staff feed and exercise a pod of bearded seals at 3.30 p.m., every single day. So do plan your visit accordingly (polaria.no).
Greet The Greens
With its location at 69°N, nearly 400 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, Tromsø is one of the best places in the world to view the aurora borealis. The ideal time to see them is from mid-September to mid-April, though the chances are higher between October and March. You can rent a car and go chasing the lights around Tromsø but driving on snowy, icy roads can get daunting even for the most accomplished drivers.
A better option is to join guided group tours, like the Aurora Safari Base Stations Tour offered by Tromsø Safari (which the writer tried; tromsosafari.no). This is a comfortable coach tour, which takes you to one of their seven private base stations, about 90 minutes from Tromsø. It may be -20°C but the base station has a large warm shelter with water, hot chocolate, cookies, and cake, plus toilet facilities and thermal suits. Ask and the guide will gladly help set up your tripods and cameras. Then it’s all wait and watch, and point-and-shoot. On a good day, the sky is positively lit with shimmering green lights—ribbon-like fingers unfurling heavenwards, alien figures shape-shifting as the wind changes course.
Feast On Fjords
Tromsø is surrounded by a breathtaking landscape of chilly fjords and rugged, snow-crusted peaks. Ersfjorden on the western side of Kvaløya Island is a stunning fjord that is easily accessible by public transport. In 30 minutes, bus number 425 from Tromsø’s main bus station deposits you at Ersfjordbotn, the viewing point that offers spectacular views of the fjord and surrounding peaks. The bus ticket is NOK 50/Rs400 and can be purchased on-board (cash-only) or via Troms Mobillett, Tromsø’s free transportation app.
If you have more time in the city, head out on a fjord cruise aboard a comfortable catamaran (tromsosafari.no). From late October to end of January, there’s also a good chance of spotting whales. This is the time when the world’s biggest mammals visit the Troms coast to feed on herrings. Of course, whale sightings cannot be guaranteed but the scenic cruise around majestic fjords is rewarding nonetheless.
View, From The Top
Grab a soul-satisfying burger at Burgr, a fun bar plastered with vintage video game posters (burgr.no). The city’s iconic, gracefully arched Tromsø Bridge is a mere 200 metres from the bar. The one-kilometre-long bridge crosses the Tromsøysundet strait, connecting Tromsøya to Tromsdalen on the mainland. Walk across the bridge to Tromsdalen Church. Popularly known as the Arctic Cathedral, it’s a stark-white, concrete-and-metal building. The soaring triangular structure may seem ultra-modern but it was built in 1965, while the stunning glass mosaic on the eastern side was added in 1972.
From the church, the Fjellheisen cable car station is a 15-minute stroll. The cable car whisks you up the Storsteinen mountain ledge in under five minutes for a panoramic view of Tromsø and its surrounding mountains, fjords and islands (fjellheisen.no).
Savour Some Staples
For a population of just over 70,000 people, Tromsø has an astonishingly large number of pubs and bars. There’s Ølhallen Brewpub, which opened in 1928 and is reputedly the oldest pub in town. It’s now the brewpub for local favourite Mack Brewery and offers 67 craft beers on tap, including those sourced from various Norwegian microbreweries. Other bars worth checking out are Hildr Gastrobar, Blå Rock Café, and Skarven. But a personal favourite was Huken Pub for its comfy retro-chic décor. Apart from beer, here you can also try akevitt or aquavit, a spirit distilled from grain and potatoes, and flavoured with herbs like caraway or dill.
Follow up with dinner at Bardus, one of the best bistros in town whose highlight is a dish featuring fried cod tongue, a Norwegian winter staple. For the less adventurous, there’s pan-fried cod, mussels, and even vegetarian ramen (bardus.no).
Stroll Under Stars
While the Northern Lights are best viewed far outside the city where there’s minimal light pollution, sometimes the auroras are really strong and you can see them from the outskirts of Tromsø. A couple of good spots are Telegrafbukta Beach (3 kilometres south of the city centre) and Prestvannet Lake (2 kilometres north west). Before you head out, check out the probability of seeing the lights on norway-lights.com.