Ten best things to do in Tromsø
The Norwegian city of Tromsø sits several hundred kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, in the midst of fabulous fjord and mountain scenery. Its seasonal attractions include Northern Lights watching from autumn to spring and whale watching in winter. At any time of the year it serves as a comfortable base for exciting outdoor adventures, and is home to a variety of great hotels, museums and restaurants.
Text and images: Tim Bird
Aurora tourism has boomed in recent years, as social media images of this entrancing natural phenomenon have proliferated, and Tromsø couldn’t be better positioned in terms of Northern Lights viewing probability. The Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, the spectacular display of shifting curtains and columns of colour across the night sky, is visible in the Arctic north from September through to April, and it leaves an unforgettable impression on anyone who witnesses it. For photographers, Tromsø provides dramatic fjord and mountain backdrops for their shots and local tour operators know the best viewing locations and advice for getting that once-in-a-lifetime image.
Whale watching and sea safaris
Nature follows its own schedules and doesn’t put on its shows for the benefit of tourists, but the chances are good of experiencing some of its most exciting phenomena in and around Tromsø. In addition to the celestial tricks of the aurora, whale watching along the coast and in the fjords of Norway is high on the list. In fact, the chances of seeing humpback whales in these waters is almost guaranteed from October to March, while orca whales and porpoises might make an appearance through the summer months. There is also the bonus of viewing all sorts of other wildlife, including seals and the majestic white-tailed or sea eagle.
Fjellheisen cable car for panoramic views
The heart of Tromsø is on an island and it’s necessary to cross the bridge across the fjord to the mainland to take a ride on the Fjellheisen cable car. At a height of 420 metres, the view of the city and surrounding mountains and fjords from the cafe at the top is sweeping and spectacular. The lift operates until 11 pm, so it’s possible to head to the top in time to view the Midnight Sun in summer before descending by means of the steep stone staircase constructed by Nepalese Sherpas - the ‘Sherpatrappa’. Of course, it’s possible to follow the staircase up as well as down, but neither direction is an option so long as the steps are coated in snow and ice.
Tromsø by bike
It’s surrounded by mountains but that’s no reason to cross off cycling from your list of Tromsø activities. There are mostly level cycle paths leading around the coastline of the island and mainland suburbs, and ebikes are an option if you feel inclined to negotiate some of the steeper slopes. Head out past the airport, across the swooping bridge leading to Kvaløysletta, to the island of Håkøya and admire the mirror-like reflections of the mountains, breathing in Europe’s freshest air. On the way back, enjoy a picnic and even a dip in the ice-clear water at the Telegraph Bay beach, which is also a popular aurora viewing venue. Visit the friendly Outdoor Tromsø shop in the town centre to choose from a range of cycles and guided and unguided cycling tours.
One of the city’s quirkier and more recent attractions, and a great option for families, the Troll Museum celebrates Norway’s mythical characters. No, not the kind of troll that sends rude comments to your Instagram account. These original trolls are to Norway what the tonttu elf or gnome is to Finland, imaginary inhabitants of the forests, fjords and mountains. Or are they imaginary? In its exhibits the museum relates an abundance of troll folklore tales, bringing to visual life some of the characters by means of tablet-platform AR (augmented reality). More serious and in-depth troll folklore literature can be studied in a small library.
Harbour cruise on Hermes II
“I’ve lived here all my life and I still love it here,” says Truls Iversen, who along with Captain Frøde Rønneberg crews the Hermes II, a lovingly restored wooden cutter that hosts leisurely sightseeing fishing and fjord cruises in and around Tromsø. “This was my playground as a child, and it still is!” Truls gives an enthusiastic narrative as the boat sails out to each end of the island, pointing out scenic highlights, sea eagles and other wildlife and sharing historical anecdotes. The company that runs Hermes II also offers thrilling, faster RIB excursions that take you further into the fjords and islands, and closer to possible wildlife viewings.
Housed in a wooden harbourside building on the edge of the town, the absorbing Polar Museum is an outlier of the Arctic University Museum of Norway, the Tromsø Arctic-Alpine Botanic Garden being another. The city originally evolved as a base for Arctic hunters and explorers, including the pioneering Roald Amundsen who was there first to sail through the Northwest Passage and led the first expedition to reach the South Pole in 1912. The museum includes fascinating exhibits about discovery, hunting and wildlife in Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago territory located halfway between the European mainland and the North Pole.
Mack Beer Hall
The Mack Brewery, founded by Ludwig Markus Mack in 1877, makes a credible claim to be the World’s Northernmost Brewery - it part-owns a microbrewery even further north in Svalbard - and management and ownership continue in the family five generations later. The Mack Brewpub - Mack Ølhallen - remains in the centre of Tromsø in its original location, although the main brewery has moved out of town. A microbrewery producing craft beers is next door and is the highlight of tours starting from the also adjacent beer shop. The Brewpub boasts no fewer than 72 beers on tap, including all Mack’s own beers and many other guest varieties of varying potency. Don’t be alarmed by the enormous taxidermy polar bear in the corner!
Hurtigruten coastal cruise
Tromsø is an important northern harbour town and a familiar port of call for the Hurtigruten coastal ferries that ply the route from Bergen in the south to Kirkenes in the far northeast, passing through some of the world’s most beautiful and spectacular coastal scenery. Tromsø is a popular boarding and disembarking point for passengers heading in either direction, arriving in and departing from the city by air.
Where to eat, where to stay
For such an agreeably compact city, Tromsø has a surprising variety of cafes, bars and restaurants, many of them clustered around the main harbour quays. For dining in an authentically maritime setting on the harbourside, try Full Steam’s menu featuring fish and lamb dishes or the gourmet menu of locally-caught seafood at Fiskekompaniet. The wonderful breakfast spread and Roast restaurant at the Scandic Ishavshotell are hard to beat; likewise the central location and views from the quiet and elegant harbour-facing rooms of the same hotel.