Located at the northern end of the E8 some 260km north of Narvik, TROMSØ has been referred to, rather farcically, as the “Paris of the North”, and while even the tourist office doesn’t make any explicit pretence to such grandiose titles today, the city is without question the de facto social and cultural capital of northern Norway. Easily the region’s most populous town, its street cred harks back to the Middle Ages and beyond, when seafarers made use of its sheltered harbour, and there’s been a church here at least since the thirteenth century. Tromsø received its municipal charter in 1794, when it was primarily a fishing port and trading station, and flourished in the middle of the nineteenth century when its seamen ventured north to Svalbard to reap rich rewards hunting arctic fox, polar bears, reindeer, walrus and, most profitable of all, seal. Subsequently, Tromsø became famous as the jumping-off point for a string of Arctic expeditions, its celebrity status assured when the explorer Roald Amundsen flew from here to his death somewhere on the Arctic icecap in 1928. Since those heady days, Tromsø has grown into an urbane and likeable small city with a population of 68,000 employed in a wide range of industries and at the university. It’s become an important port too, for although the city is some 360km north of the Arctic Circle, its climate is moderated by the Gulf Stream, which sweeps up the Norwegian coast and keeps its harbour ice-free. Give or take the odd museum, the city may fall somewhat short on top-ranking sights, but its amiable atmosphere, fine mountain-and-fjord setting, and clutch of lively restaurants and bars more than compensate. Scenesters here remain extremely proud of locally grown electro-emo heroes Röyksopp, and the Tromsø’s DJ culture is consequently alive and kicking.
The compact centre slopes up from the eastern shores of the hilly island of Tromsøya, connected to the mainland by bridge and tunnel. A five-minute walk from one side to the other, the busiest part of the city centre spreads south from Stortorget, the main square, along Storgata, the main street and north–south axis, as far as Kirkegata and the harbourfront.