Nobody comes to Tromsø expecting a city, but it’s likely that few people are prepared for just how vast and varied the area of northern Norway is.
With a population of 70,000, the capital of the Arctic is a shining jewel of a town that shimmers when the aurora borealis weaves its way through the skies in winter, and glows with radiant 24-hour sunshine during summer.
There is no need for a red hop-on hop-off tourist bus to get around when Tromsø’s attractions are all located in the town centre and within easy walking distance of each other. However, being surrounded by jaw-dropping mountains and fjords will be enough to send most travellers heading in one direction: over Tromsø Bridge, a cantilever road bridge which links the town to Tromsøysundet fjord where a cable car takes passengers to Mount Storsteinen, (Big Rock Mountain), 421 metres above sea in just four minutes.
Visiting Mount Storsteinen by day is a beautiful way to walk around the numerous vantage points and see the town below, or enjoy the views from the restaurant over a traditional Norwegian lunch. On summer nights when the cable car runs until 1 a.m. it is worth staying up late to witness a light show that really must be seen to be believed. Watching the sun burn with a ferocious strength during the early hours while much of the town remain in their homes, undisturbed is one of the most serene experiences anyone could ever hope to be a part of.
This doesn’t mean, however, that the town itself should be easily discarded. Indeed, when the weather turns, resembling something as beautifully bleak as a Bergman film and just breathing feels like inhaling sheets of ice, travellers will be grateful for the numerous attractions that occupy such a small area.
Highly recommended is Polaria, the world’s most northerly aquarium, which deserves and commands the attention of visitors for its architecture alone. Shaped like ice floes that have reached the shore fresh from the Arctic Sea, Polaria is home to bearded seals and fish, with a panoramic cinema to take visitors on a journey to places which only the bravest of hearts would ever dare voyage to.
Art lovers will find much to steal their time in the streets of Tromsø. The Art Museum of Northern Norway (free admission) contains work from the 19th century to the present, while Tromsø Centre of Contemporary Art, also free, showcases the work of modern artists.
Compared to most countries, eating out anywhere in Norway can quickly become an expensive venture, though Tromsø’s dining scene is also full of surprises. Despite being in a region where meat is a staple part of the Norwegian diet, Sivertsens Kafe is a cosy vegetarian café with hearty meals that could even warm the stomachs of those who normally see vegetables as a mere side dish.
Inevitably, anyone visiting Tromsø will soon feel the irresistible pull of its mountains and surrounding islands (there are hundreds) and quickly find themselves itching to hit the road and explore pocket-sized villages where dried fish hang from huts, locals drink in jacuzzis by the beach no matter what the weather and a simpler way of life seems not only more appealing, but more sensible.
Without a car, trying to get amongst nature can be a real headache. Public transport is scant and often inaccessible, though the private tour company, Tromsø Individuell, run by Edeltraud Lamla, who moved to Norway from Germany to start a new life, offers plenty of tours at all times of day and year, taking in everything from the picturesque island of Sommarøy through to the Lyngen Alps or rock carvings at Tennes, some of which date back to 2600 BCE.
Aside from some of the most secluded scenery in the world, any trip outside of Tromsø’s town centre brings with it the likelihood of encountering Arctic wildlife, including foxes, reindeer and elk. To the untrained eye, such animals can easily be missed; though these sightings are a reminder of the beauty that can, and does, exist in the places few of us journey to.
Interview with Edeltraud Lamla:
Good guides can be hard to come by. When I contacted Edel, a Tromsø tour guide, she was enthusiastic and helpful from the start. When we met, she went above and beyond the call of duty, even loaning me her thermal jacket which prevented me from freezing to death. (Note to self: Norway is not Australia in any way). Post-trip, Edel took the time to answer some questions for anyone thinking about visiting Tromsø.
As a local, what are your favourite places in Tromsø?
EL: Tromsø is surrounded by stunning nature. It is easy to be out at an exciting place in 10- 30 minutes.
I have different places according to the season. In summer there is a moor and wood area on Kvaløya, called Finnheia, located between steep mountains with great view towards a sound. There are lots of berries, quietness and a river that makes its way down to the sea.
I also enjoy the Lyngen Alps with its glaciers, and being able to walk to a small light house. It is not my favourite place; it’s more about moving in nature, which is always different because of the weather, the sea level and what nature offers on a specific day.
In the winter I like to go by skis or snowshoe over all the frozen water sinks, moor, rivers and lakes, which is not possible in summer. It’s a triumphant feeling.
When is the best time for people to visit Tromsø?
EL: We have no season where we can promise good weather or free skies. Every year is different, and every season is special. Autumn is good for hiking, and from the end of August it’s dark enough at night to see Northern Lights.
From 21 May, the Midnight Sun is out so in June and July there is no darkness until the end of August. Then you can do summer activities like hiking, kayaking and fishing. If you like to hike, come in July. It’s not so muddy any more at some places (because of the melted snow) and the Botanical Garden is at its best.
What is the most amazing thing you have ever seen while you were exploring Tromsø?
EL: To see in the eyes of a Humpback calf five metres from the shore.