Located 217 miles above the Arctic circle in northern Norway, Tromsø is a nature lover’s paradise. Not only is it one of Norway’s largest cities, but it’s the third-largest city above the Arctic circle and chock-full of outdoor adventures. I recently had the opportunity to visit this polar paradise, and I’ve got all the best insider scoop regarding things to do in Tromsø.
Since Tromsø is located so far above the Arctic circle, what time of year you visit Tromsø can drastically affect your experience. If you’re planning on visiting Tromso in winter, be prepared for the polar night. Polar night in Tromsø occurs from November 27 until January 15, and during that time the sun never rises above the horizon, which means you won’t be seeing much daylight if any at all.
I arrived in Tromsø on day one of polar night, and it was a surreal experience. Just because the city only experiences an hour or two of sunlight doesn’t mean everything shuts down, though! You’ll still have plenty of opportunities to explore both the unspoiled wilderness and the downtown Tromsø scene. Plus, you’ll have an even better opportunity to see the amazing northern lights, one of the main reasons to visit Tromsø.
On the flip side, if you visit Tromsø during the summer, you’ll experience the Midnight Sun, when the sun never sets! This naturally occurring phenomenon only occurs in areas that are north of the Arctic circle (or south of the Antarctic circle) and gives you nothing but pure daylight to explore endless outdoor activities. You can expect the midnight sun in Tromsø from the end of May until the end of July.
All of that being said, keep that in mind as you’re scrolling through this list. While all of these adventures are epic, they’re not all offered year-round, so my advice to you is to determine what activities are important to you and that will help shape what time of year you should visit Tromsø. Regardless of what time of year you visit, there are plenty of things to do in Tromsø to ensure you have an awesomely Arctic experience.
Are you ready to explore the Gateway to the Arctic? Read on for more!
- Most significant landmark – The Arctic Cathedral
- Best park – Folkeparken
- Best free activity – Watching the northern lights
- Best activity for kids – Polaria
- Best activity for adults – Whale watching
- Best food – Yonas Pizzeria
- Best nightlife – Magic Ice Bar
- Best all-around accommodation – Scandic Ishavshotel
Best & Fun Things to do in Tromsø
1. Witness the Northern Lights
Tromsø is known as the Northern Lights Capital of the World, so if seeing the aurora borealis is on your bucket list, Tromsø is literally one of the best places on the planet to see them. The auroral zone is the belt between 70° and 65° where the most aurora activity occurs. Since Tromsø lies right at 69°, it’s perfect for watching Lady Aurora dance across the sky.
We won’t get into how the aurora borealis occurs, that could take a minute…but there are a few basic things you’ll need to know to hunt for them. First, you’ll need clear skies.
If it’s cloudy, you won’t be able to see them. This is when a Northern Lights tour can come in handy. While I was able to see them for two nights in downtown Tromsø, it was cloudy for the last two nights.
With a northern lights tour, you’ll get the opportunity to drive out of the city, away from the city lights and any light pollution, to hopefully clearer skies. I had no problem viewing the lights from downtown Tromsø, but if you wanted to escape the city lights, leave it to the professionals and book a northern lights tour.
There are several northern lights tours, ranging from bigger busses to more intimate small group tours. Both have their pros and cons, but just be aware that none of the tours will guarantee that you’ll see the northern lights. If only it were that easy!
Second, you’ll want to check the solar activity for the night. This is measured in a KP-index with a scale of 0 (little probability) to 9 (high probability).
Anything above 4 is generally a green light (pun intended), but since you’re in Tromsø, the northern lights capital of the world, you stand a great chance of seeing them even if the KP reads 1. There are plenty of apps you can download on your phone to check this, as well as websites like storm.no.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, you’ll need patience. The aurora is unpredictable and can bust through the skies like the Kool-Aid man or decide to take the night off, and you won’t know until you’re too cold to be outside any longer. My first night in Tromsø, it was cloudy so I wasn’t expecting much, but then a streak shot across the sky so fast, it stopped nearly everyone walking around on the street.
It lasted maybe five minutes, and then the clouds made the curtain call for the night. On my second night, the dancing lights appeared with a fierceness around 6 pm, and then took a break for a couple of hours before giving a grand encore for about an hour or two.
It’s kind of like searching for a rainbow at night. You just never know when the conditions will line up, and that’s part of the thrill!
Fourth, you’ll need the right clothes. While this won’t affect your ability to see the northern lights, it will definitely affect how long you’re willing to stand outside waiting for them to appear. You’re 200+ miles above the Arctic circle during winter–it’s going to be cold.
Expect below-freezing temperatures and dress like it! Fleece-lined pants, lots of layers, a hat, scarf, and most importantly, gloves! Wearing the proper winter gear can make or break your northern lights experience.
When in doubt, put another layer on. I promise you’ll never be hot standing outside in Tromsø in winter.
See Related: The Thrilling Beauty of the Preikestolen, Norway
2. Bask in the Midnight Sun
During the other half of the year, Tromsø experiences the beauty of the Midnight Sun, where the sun never sets! From May 19 to July 26, you can stay up all day (and all night) and never be restrained by a lack of light.
Want to go hiking at 11 pm? Go for it, you’ll have plenty of light. That’s the beauty of the Midnight Sun, you’re not limited by lack of daylight so you can literally do whatever outdoor adventure you want, regardless of the time!
If you’re an outdoor enthusiast that wants to climb every mountain and see every fjord, visiting Tromsø in the summer is perfect. Don’t worry, black-out curtains adorn just about every hotel in Tromsø, so you can still trick your brain into falling asleep even when it’s still light outside. If you’ve ever wanted to test the theory that time is made up, go to a place where the sun never sets–that’ll do it!
3. Whale Watching Safaris
Whale watching is one of the most popular things to do in Tromsø. From November to mid-January, whales follow the herring shoals to feed, and we have the opportunity to witness these animals feed in their natural habitat. Over the years, the herring have migrated further and further north, and for the last five years, they have stayed near Skjervøy, a three-hour boat ride away.
There are several tour companies to choose from, and all of them have one thing in common: whale sightings are not guaranteed. Whale watching is on nature’s terms, and it’s important to note that these charters don’t chum the waters to increase the odds of seeing them. They rely on years of expertise, and many tour companies have special motors to minimize any disturbance.
The boat ride from Tromsø to Skjervøy is about three hours each way, so be prepared to spend about eight hours on a boat, but don’t worry, you’ll never be bored. As you make your way to the feeding grounds, you’ll be blessed with some of the most stunning natural scenery in Norway.
If you prefer to keep your land legs, there are also bus tours that make the drive up to that region. It’s a longer day than the boat safari (around 12 hours) but filled with just as many scenic views, but just remember that the weather and snowfall may affect the drive or be canceled if conditions are bad enough. Safety first!
Since whale watching and polar night overlap, you may be wondering if you’ll actually be able to see anything. Even though the sun never rises above the horizon, it’s not complete darkness. The sky will brighten for a brief bit and you’ll get a magical mix of dawn and dusk–like a permanent blue hour with hints of pink in the sky.
We left the harbor at 8 am and it was completely dark outside, but then within an hour, we were blessed with one of the most vibrant sunrises I’ve ever witnessed. At that moment, I didn’t even care if I saw any whales because it was already such an incredible experience. Luckily, we saw several whales, and then as an added perk the ride back to Tromsø was during sunset, and though not as mesmerizing as the sunrise, it was still one for the books.
See Related: Trolltunga, Norway’s Terrifyingly Beautiful Cliff Edge
4. Arctic Cathedral
Address: Hans Nilsens vei 41, 9020 Tromsdalen, Norway
Also known as the Tromsdalen Church, the Arctic Cathedral is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Tromsø. The Arctic Cathedral was built in 1965, and it might just be one of the most notable churches in Tromsø because of its design. It’s certainly a part of the city’s skyline!
The church is built out of cast-in-place aluminum-coated concrete panels and can seat about 600 people. Additions have been made over the years, including the glass mosaic in 1972 and an organ in 2005.
Despite being called a cathedral, it actually is not a proper cathedral, it’s a parish church. From downtown Tromsø, you can easily walk across the bridge or take the bus to get a close-up view of this unique arctic design.
5. Polar Museum
Address: Søndre Tollbodgate 11B, 9008 Tromsø, Norway
Tromsø was a base for many polar expeditions, and in case you weren’t already aware, the first expedition to reach the Geographic South Pole was led by Norwegian explorers. In fact, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was the first to reach both the north and south poles, respectively, beating his friendly British rivals both times.
The Polar Museum is full of incredible artifacts from these expeditions led by Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen as well as famous trappers Henry Rudi and Wanna Wolstad. Each room takes you on an arctic adventure, learning all about polar expeditions as well as hunting on Svalbard and Greenland.
The building itself is even historic! It’s an 1830s warehouse right on the water, which is ironic because the building is actually older than the polar expeditions!
6. Fjord Cruise
Tromsø’s surrounding landscape is just overflowing with outdoor adventure, and these excursions make for a memorable day trip. The stunning fjords surrounding Tromsø are an incredible sight to see, and a guided tour is one of the best ways to see it. Balsfjord and Malangen are two of the more popular fjords located just south of Tromsø.
There are several available fjord tours in terms of both boat tours and bus tours, making things very easy for anyone who prefers to stay on land. These trips are offered year-round, but just make sure if you’re visiting Tromsø in the winter and you go on a fjord cruise, you dress appropriately! It will be bitterly cold on the water, and although many of these boats have indoor, heated seating areas, you’ll want to be outside on the deck to snap some photos and maybe even spot some wildlife in their natural habitat.
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7. Fjellheisen Cable Car
Address: Sollivegen 12, 9020 Tromsdalen, Norway
What’s the best way to see all of Tromsø? If you really want to get a lay of the land, take the Fjellheisen Cable Car to Storsteinen, a mountain ledge that’s 400+ feet above sea level. You’ll have an incredible view of the entirety of Tromsø City, and in the winter months, you might even catch the northern lights!
The cable car is only a four-minute ride, and you’re welcome to stay up at the top for however long you’d like. The cable car makes multiple trips up and down per hour, so when you’re ready to leave, you can just jump in the next car.
There’s a restaurant at the top where you can fuel up on pastries, sandwiches, and coffee, and a large indoor area with floor-to-ceiling windows to enjoy the view from. There is a walking path that will get you to the top of the mountain, but if you’re visiting Tromsø in the winter, it’s not advised you take this route without some crampons and more heavy-duty winter gear. Since I went in the winter and lacked any proper winter hiking gear, I opted for the four-minute cable car ride and thoroughly enjoyed the ride.
The cable car is easy to get to by bus, just make sure you check the schedule because the buses stop at a certain time and you wouldn’t want to be stranded! It’s about a 45-minute walk from the cable car to the city center, which isn’t terrible, but not an ideal situation if you had planned to take the bus.
8. Sami Culture
The Sami people are indigenous to Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Of the roughly 80,000 Sami people, about half live in Norway. Many still make their living from herding reindeer, especially those in Northern Norway.
There are many Sami experiences and tours offered that allow you to learn more about the region’s history as well as the Sami culture where you’ll get to visit the camp and enjoy reindeer feeding and reindeer sledding before heading into an authentic Lavvu (traditional Sami tent) for an authentic meal, storytelling, and even a Joik performance, a traditional Sami folk song performed by members of the Sami culture.
This day trip will really give you a glimpse into what living in the Arctic is like, how harsh the conditions can be, and how they’ve adapted to work with the land. Plus, reindeer sledding is just such a unique experience, how could you turn down that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? Just one more reason to visit Tromsø in winter!
See Related: Best & Most Beautiful Cities in Europe to Visit
9. Tromsø Troll Museum
Address: Kaigata 3, 9008 Tromsø, Norway
Located right in the Tromsø city center, the Troll Museum is Norway’s first museum entirely dedicated to trolls and fairies. The tiny but mighty museum explores all your favorite Norwegian fairy tales and legends while using advanced Augmented Reality for a hands-on approach to Norse folklore.
Kids will certainly enjoy the museum, but this is for adults, too! And who could resist stepping up to the screen and discovering what type of troll you’d be?
After you’ve gone through the museum, you’ll have the opportunity to find out what you’d look like as a troll, which is always fun for the whole family. I no longer have to wonder, and I wasn’t using that self-esteem anyway.
10. Dog Sledding
Dog sledding has been a mode of transportation through Northern Europe’s wintry landscape for nearly 9,000 years, and getting the chance to experience this arctic wilderness is a memory you won’t soon forget.
Since it requires snow, dog sledding is only offered during the winter, but what a magical way to travel through a winter wonderland! This small group dog sledding tour will take you to a husky camp where you’ll learn all about the history of dog sledding before getting the opportunity to take a thrilling ride for yourself.
See Related: Travel Tips for Visiting Europe in Winter
11. Tromsø Ice Domes
Address: Tamokveien1386, 9334 Øverbygd, Norway
This one is another winter-only activity, and a bit more specific. The Tromsø ice domes are open from December until March, which is just another reason to visit Tromsø in the winter! These unique ice structures are built every autumn and then melt away every spring.
The drive to the ice domes in Tamok Valley is full of breathtaking fjords, snow-covered mountains, and picture-perfect arctic wilderness that’ll make you feel like you’re a million miles away from it all (and you are). Enjoy drinks at the bar, and a delicious meal at the restaurant, and then take a small group tour through the domes and ice sculpture exhibits. Just be sure to wrap up, because it’s still flipping freezing inside.
12. Cross Country Skiing
There is a saying that “every Norwegian is born with skis on his/her feet,” and cross-country skiing is one of Norway’s favorite pastimes. Some of the cross-country skiing tours available will help you learn the basics, so even if you’ve never clicked into skis before, you can go cross-country skiing.
Your small group tour will lead you through Tromsø’s wild side, enjoying scenic fjords and mountain views with every step. You might even catch a glimpse of some arctic wildlife! Sea eagles, wild reindeer, ptarmigans, and hares are just a few of the arctic wildlife you might be lucky enough to see.
Just know that cross-country skiing is a really tough sport and not for the faint of heart. Be prepared for a real workout!
See Related: What You Need To Know About Flying With Skis Or A Snowboard
13. Downtown Tromsø
Downtown Tromsø is where you’ll find everything you need. The city is very walkable, and the Tromsø bus system is very easy to navigate just in case you wanted to give your legs a rest. Walking around the town center, you’ll find many local restaurants, art galleries, historic sights, gift shops, tour companies, and so much more.
For such a small city, there really is a lot to see, and the city is very walkable. There are plenty of hotels in downtown Tromsø, and if you’re looking for a hotel in Tromsø with a stunning view, you can’t beat the Scandic Ishavshotel.
It’s located right on the water with incredible panoramic views of the harbor, and it’s right next door to Yonas Pizzeria, one of the best pizza joints in Tromsø. You could easily spend an entire day just walking around the city center and eating delicious food.
If you want to get a great view of downtown Tromsø, take a walk across the Tromsø Bridge which connects the mainland to the island of Tromsøya. You’ll have a grand view of the city, and while you’re on that side of the bridge, it’s the perfect time to see the Arctic Cathedral as well as take the cable car up for a bird’s eye view.
14. Tromsø’s Nightlife Scene
Tromsø has a very active nightlight scene, so you can expect your Friday and Saturday nights to be just as vibrant as any other city. While it’s not necessarily a “college town” keep in mind that Tromsø is home to The Arctic University of Norway which has a student body of about 15,000 people.
There are plenty of bars in the downtown area, and my recommendation is the Magic Ice Bar. Magic Ice has a few locations around northern Europe, and you’re in for an unforgettable experience. You’ll be given a winter poncho and gloves to wear as you walk around the Magic Ice art gallery before taking a seat at the ice bar and enjoying the signature cocktails from an actual ice glass! Afterward, set off to do a little bar hopping around the charming city center.
Address: Hjalmar Johansens gate 12, 9296 Tromsø, Norway
Not only is Polaria the world’s most northern aquarium, but it’s also specifically designed to be an educational experience, especially for kids. The design of the building is unique too. It’s designed to resemble ice flows that have been forced onto land, which is just a really unique design you certainly don’t come across every day!
Polaria is only one of two places in Europe where you can see harbor seals, and the feeding show is one of the aquarium’s most popular events. There are four seals here, and each one has its own quirky personality and bag of tricks they’re just waiting to show you.
If your kids enjoy Polaria, consider taking a day trip to PolarPark, the northernmost animal park in the world. Located in the heart of Salangsdalen Valley in Bardu, it’s about a two-hour drive from Tromsø and gives you the opportunity to see wolves, brown bears, lynx, arctic foxes, elks, reindeer, and many other Arctic critters. You can even take a guided predators tour, where you’ll have a front-row seat to view these incredible animals.
See Related: Best Places to See the Northern Lights
16. Arctic–Alpine Botanic Garden
Address: Universitet i Tromsø Post Box 6050 Langnes, 9037 Tromsø, Norway
Ready to stop and smell the flowers? The Arctic-Alpine Botanic Garden is the world’s most northern botanical garden, and if you’re visiting Tromsø in the warmer months, you’re in for a treat. The garden is free to enter and boasts Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine plants from all continents.
The bloom season generally starts in early May and runs until the first snow, usually sometime in October. During the summer months, there’s even a small cafe where you can grab a drink and a quick bite to eat as you stroll through the garden. With over 25 collections and thousands of blooms, this is one spot that’s sure to brighten your day.
But what about during the winter? Well, you won’t see any blooms, but the garden does have some lovely rock landscapes and evergreen shrubs that are equally beautiful, just don’t expect the kaleidoscope of color you’d see during the summer.
Address: Lars Thørings veg 24, 9006 Tromsø, Norway
Visiting one of the many scenic parks is one of the best things to do in Tromsø, and Folkeparken was one of my favorites. The waterfront park on the southern tip of Tromsø has some stunning views of the surrounding mountains, fishing opportunities, skiing areas, a beach, and hiking trails. There are playgrounds for the youngsters and plenty of picnic benches to sit on and enjoy some snacks while admiring the view.
There’s also an open-air museum where you can walk through old boathouses and buildings and learn about the history of fishing, trapping, and life in the Arctic. It’s easy to get here by bus, and it’s also a fantastic spot to set up for the night to see the northern lights.
18. Raketten Bar & Pølse
Address: Storgata 94B, 9008 Tromsø, Norway
While you’re walking around downtown Tromsø, you’re eventually going to come across this tiny building that stands out from every other building. This extremely tiny but mighty storefront is home to some of the best hotdogs in Northern Norway.
Not only can you grab a bite to eat, but it’s also known as the smallest bar in the world (or universe, depending on who you ask). The reindeer dog is a must-try, and one of the many iconic foods to try while you’re in this part of the world.
Although there is no indoor seating, there are plenty of spots nearby to sit and enjoy your dog. During the winter there’s a little firepit area next to the building where you can warm up by the fire and enjoy a nice cup of hot chocolate or maybe something a little stronger (it is a bar, after all). Do yourself a favor while you’re here and swing by and give a reindeer hotdog a try!
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19. The Arctic University Museum of Norway
Address: Lars Thørings veg 10, 9006 Tromsø, Norway
While you’re visiting Tromsø, you’ll want to learn everything you can about this fascinating part of the world. From fossils to wildlife, this museum covers a little bit of everything, as it relates back to northern Norway and Nordic life.
You’ll learn about the difficult decisions made by the Norwegians during WWII, marvel at beautiful collections of Medieval art, the Sami people, and more. There’s even an immersive northern lights exhibit where you can interact with it and meet with northern lights scientists to have all your questions answered about this unique natural phenomenon.
20. Coastal Boat Tours
Because Norway has such a long coastline, exploring it by boat is a no-brainer. No matter what time of year you visit, there are plenty of boat tours for you to enjoy. Going on a kayak trip under the Midnight sun is an unforgettable experience, but if you want to trade the calm waters for a more exciting adventure, take a RIB boat tour around the surrounding islands where you might even see some wildlife! RIB boats are smaller vessels that zip through the waves pretty quickly. If you’re one to get seasick, you may want to opt for a bigger vessel, like a catamaran or a bigger sailboat.
You can even take it a step further and embark on a fishing excursion. Halibut, haddock, and mackerel are just some of the fish that live in these waters, and there are many tours that will take you and teach you everything they know about fishing in the Arctic.
For a romantic evening, book an Aurora dinner cruise where you’ll head out, away from the city and any light pollution, and enjoy some Arctic tapas on a hybrid-electric catamaran. If you’re visiting during the summer, a Midnight Sun or sunset sailing tour will really make for a memorable date night.
What are the best tourist attractions in Tromsø?
From November to January, whale-watching tours are very popular. These tours leave from Tromsø and travel over to where orcas and humpback whales feed on herring. Although whale sightings are never guaranteed, the raw and rugged landscape you’ll see during the tour will still have you feeling like it’s a win, even if you don’t see any whales.
What are some things to do in Tromsø when it’s raining?
Tromsø has plenty of museums and art galleries to keep you entertained when the weather is bad. The Polar Museum is a fascinating museum that highlights the many polar expeditions of famous Norwegian explorers Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen. Another must-see museum is the Troll Museum, where you can learn all about the mythological side of northern Norway through interactive exhibits. Of course, there’s always the Tromsø public library where you can curl up with a good book.
What is the best thing to do with kids in Tromsø?
Polaria, the world’s most northern aquarium, is always a win with kids, regardless of their age. The aquarium is home to a couple of harbor seals, and it’s only one of two places in northern Europe where you can see them.