Norway isn't short of incredible landscapes. This is the country of majestic lakes, lush meadows and snow-covered mountains. Yet one part of Norway continues to hold unique appeal – the wild Arctic north where the mainland fractures into an intricate coastline of twisting fjords and remote archipelagos.
At the heart of the region is one of the country's most delightful small cities, Tromsø, situated 350km north of the Arctic circle. That’s more northerly than all of the Icelandic mainland, Inuvik in Canada and most of Alaska. Yet thanks to the warmth of the Gulf Stream, it’s an appealing, welcoming place home to more than 70,000 people.
This is about as far north as you can travel in Europe, and one of the best places to come if you’re looking for a winter adventure. Pack your mittens and dig out your snow boots: here’s our guide to visiting this compact city and the magical sights that surround it.
Topping most travellers’ winter wish-lists are husky sledding, whale watching and aurora hunting – and there is a bemusing array of operators ready to whisk you out of the city. You’d be wise to do some research before you come. The tourist office website is a great place to start, with a well-curated list of excursions and reliable providers. Unfortunately Tromsø isn’t cheap; expect to pay upwards of 1200NOK for a day-trip.
Arctic Adventure Tours are one of the longest established local companies, offering both whale safaris and dog sledding. This is a family run and considerate outfit, demonstrated by the care they show to their hundred-or-so exuberant huskies. Visitors are invited to meet and play with the dogs before they’re harnessed, and then learn to drive their own two-person sleds through the snow.
Flying along the mountain slopes is an unforgettable experience, with the “musher”, or driver, standing to guide the sled and keep the huskies’ incredible power under control – step off, and they’ll happily speed into the distance.
If you’re hankering for more outdoor adventure, snowshoeing, ice-climbing, skiing and snowmobiling (driving license required) are just a few of the other ways you can get your thrills.
For something different, you’ll need to venture further from the city. One of the most exciting trips is a visit to newly opened Aurora Spirit, the northernmost distillery in the world. The two-hour journey, crossing an incredibly beautiful stretch of Ullsfjord along the way, is almost as memorable as the punchy gin, aquavit and vodka they’re producing while their first whiskies mature in barrel.
While this is one of the best places in the world to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis, remember that you’re dealing with nature – there are no guarantees. Many people spend night after night hopping onto minibuses to continue their chase, but sometimes the weather just doesn’t play ball.
If you want to maximise your chances, consider booking a night with Green Gold of Norway, far from Tromsø’s light pollution on the edge of the Lyngen Alps. Here, inspired by Finland’s famous Kakslauttanen resort, owner Francisco has built six “crystal” lavvus in the garden of his B&B. Adapted from the traditional Sami design, these conical wooden structures have glass roofs – so should the lights show up, you can watch them from beneath your duvet.
This is, however, a back-to-basics experience, with guests sharing a communal living room until the wood-burners in the lavvus are turned on late at night.
While most people use Tromsø as a base, the city merits further exploration. The centre feels more like a small town, at its heart the Domkirke square and a few blocks lined with interesting cafés and boutiques. A few minutes’ walk north, you’ll come to the pretty harbour opening onto the Tromsøysundet strait.
Most of the city actually lies on an island, Tromsøya, with the impressive Tromsø Bridge providing a connection to the mainland. You’ll find little reason to walk over, unless you’re heading to a concert at the strikingly modern Arctic Cathedral or taking the cable car from Solliveien – both well worth the trip.
Alternately, if you’ve been watching too much Nordic Noir, you can get your crime-scene fix at Arctic Escape, the northernmost escape room in the world. There’s a choice of two tricky rooms, both focused on exposing “shady crook” John Winter.
Tromsø is reasonably light on traditional attractions, but there are few interesting museums and galleries. For art, check out the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum, which covers regional work from the early nineteenth century to today. To understand more about the history and geography of the city’s Arctic surrounds, explore the engaging Polarmuseet or Polaria. Although while the emphasis at the latter is heavily on conservation, the daily seal feeding “show” raises some concerns.
The general standard of restaurants in Tromsø is excellent. Emmas Drømmekjøkken, often known as Emmas, is perhaps the most lauded. Its traditional interior belies an inventive menu, with dishes ranging from beer-braised pork cheeks to deep-fried cod tongues with pea-and-mint cream.
More exciting is uncompromisingly modern Mathallen, where you’ll find innovative tasting menus showcasing locally-sourced and seasonal dishes. Expect the likes of halibut with fermented cabbage and cauliflower purée or reindeer sirloin with beets, celeriac and lingonberry sauce.
Tromsø might be small, but it certainly doesn’t go to sleep after dark (especially when there are barely two hours of daylight in mid-winter). Not only do electro-pop duo Röyksopp hail from the city, but Tromsø has a flourishing rock scene. Try the Blå Rock Café for live acts or Maskineriet for a laidback pint of the local Mack pilsner.