Just above the Arctic Circle and surrounded by striking mountains and peaceful fjords lies the charming city of Tromsø in northern Norway.
We were so lucky to get the opportunity to visit Tromsø and both came away absolutely awe-struck from the experiences we had. Visiting just at the start of the Polar Night was prime time for not only the northern lights but also to see the wild Orca and Humpback Whales as they migrate into the fjords for feeding.
The landscape was nothing short of a winter wonderland and it truly felt like you were completely immersed inside the most magical snowglobe you’ve ever seen.
The below guide will detail all the activities we did over our 4-day visit, as well as a suggested itinerary. I wouldn’t have changed a single thing about our trip and so all the recommendations that follow are hand-on-heart genuine – be prepared for the adventure of your lifetime!
Seeing Wild Orca and Humpback Whales
From around November until February, the Orca (killer whales) and Humpback Whales can be found in the fjords feeding on the spawning herring. A few years ago, they could be found in the fjords near Tromsø itself, however, they’re migrating further and further north each year to follow the herring.
Currently, they’re found around Skjervøy which takes approximately 3 hours by boat to reach. This meant our day began with a 8am meet so we could head there with plenty of time to take in the atmosphere.
As soon as we were all settled onto the boat with a hot drink in hand, our guides took the opportunity to teach us a little about the two whale species. We then had a little stop en-route to Skjervøy as the most spectacular sunrise peaked above the horizon. Visiting during the polar night means that the sun will never quite make it above the horizon and so around the beginning (and end) of the season, you’re met with breathtaking ‘sunrises’ and ‘sunsets’ that can last for hours.
It’s important to note that, obviously, these are wild creatures and so seeing the whales is never a guarantee on the trip – but wow did we get lucky! As we reached the fjord we essentially found ourselves surrounded by Orca.
The boat kept a sensible distance at all times but we found that they’d occasionally let curiosity have the better of them and come right up to the boat to say hello.
We also managed to spot a couple of humpback whales in the distance, I feel like it’s really difficult to appreciate the sheer scale of them but you certainly get a small sense of it when you see their tail pop above the water!
There are quite a few options of tour guides for these trips and I’d really advise you to do some research before settling on one. For me, it was crucial to go with a guide who had a real passion and care for the animals rather than one who would want to get as close as possible with as many people as possible, therefore disrupting the natural environment around them. We chose to do the tour with Polar Adventures who took a small group of us out on their boat and provided everything you could possibly need for the best day with these wonderful creatures.
The price was 1500NOK per person and included pick up from the hotel, lunch (honestly the best-tasting fish soup I’ve ever had in my entire life), enough snacks to feed an army, hot drinks and thermal suits.
The Northern Lights
I mean honestly, does this even need to go in a guide? If you’re visiting Tromsø during the winter, chances are one of the main reasons is to get a chance to see the northern lights!
While it’s possible to see the northern lights from the city itself, they can be best seen away from any light pollution. You can opt to rent a car and go out nordlys hunting yourself or head out with a tour guide. I’d recommend going with a tour guide for a few reasons:
- They know what they’re doing – seems obvious right? The tour guides in Tromsø know how to read the various forecasts for the aurora and so will be able to interpret the best times and locations for the strongest activity. Pretty much all the guides, regardless of company, are also in a WhatsApp group chat where they’ll communicate throughout the night. They will seriously work as hard as possible and drive as far as needed (even into Finland) to get the best possible conditions for you.
- Often they’ll provide you with thermals and food – winter in Tromsø can be super harsh and unless you’ve done this sort of trip before you likely won’t have the right sort of thermal gear to keep you nice and toasty. Luckily, most tour guides will provide you with a thermal suit and boots so you can concentrate on taking everything in and not on how your feet are turning into tiny icicles. As you’ll be out long into the night most guides will also provide food and hot drinks which is obviously a massive plus.
- Most guides will take professional photos to share with you after the trip – the northern lights are notoriously difficult to photograph and especially so if you don’t have the right camera setup/lenses/tripods etc. The guides are on hand to help with any photography tips, or to just take the photos for you so you can focus on enjoying the show!
Based on the points above we decided to go with a guide and chose the trip with Northern Horizon which cost 1650NOK per person.
It was a cloudy evening and honestly, we were really trying not to get our hopes up too much and expected the worst! But, soon enough we found a spot not too far out of Tromsø where the cloud cover started to clear and we were rewarded with the most spectacular show of a dancing Aurora.
After some time we settled around the campfire and warmed up with some traditional reindeer sausages wrapped in lefse (a Norweigan flatbread), hot drinks and biscuits.
Our guide George took some fantastic photos which I’ve featured in this section and honestly, what else can I really say about the northern lights? I feel like the photos sell themselves!
An Arctic Roadtrip
As you fly into Tromsø airport you can peek out of the window and see that you’re surrounded by snow-capped mountains and frosty fjords. It’s no surprise that one of the things we really wanted to experience during our visit was all the stunning wilderness that surrounded the city, after all, you’re in the arctic!
Now, this was difficult as we didn’t hire our own car, but luckily we managed to find the loveliest little trip run by Northern Soul Adventures for 1050NOK per person.
This is a really intimate trip with a maximum group size of 8 people (when we went it was just us and one other couple). We were picked up from right by our hotel and driven out to Kvaløya or ‘Whale Island’ and Sommarøy (or ‘Summer Island’). These two islands fall just to the west of Tromsø (which if you didn’t know, is also an island) and are about an hours drive from the city.
Our tour guide Hannah was absolutely bursting with knowledge and passion for the area and it really felt like she genuinely just wanted to share her favourite places with us. We made a few stops to gaze in wonder at mountainous valleys, dramatic fjords, quaint fishing villages, wild reindeer and even an arctic beach where we stopped for lunch (the most delicious vegan sandwich you’ll ever eat, trust me).
These guys have a real focus on ensuring everything they do is as sustainable and environmentally friendly as possible which really comes across when you’re out on the road learning about all of the wildlife that surrounds Tromsø – think reindeer, seals, eagles and maybe the occasional moose!
The trip lasted around 5 hours in total which meant we really made the most of the ‘daylight’ and returned back to Tromsø as it got dark. Hannah even took all the wonderful photos you see in this section which she sent to us after we arrived back at our hotel, this was such a nice touch as it meant we could focus on the wilderness and not have to worry about capturing memories on camera.
Exploring the City
Tromsø is probably the coldest, and most scenic, city I’ve ever seen in my entire existence. The city itself falls into two halves which are connected by a bridge, we decided to cross this bridge on foot a couple of times and WOW I thought my face was going to fall off by the end of it, it was that cold.
It’s easy to book onto all the northern lights and whale watching trips under the sun but I’d really recommend taking a day to see Tromsø itself, it’s beautiful!
Here are the things we got up to while exploring the city:
The Arctic Cathedral – Otherwise known as Ishavkatedralen in Norweigen, the Arctic Cathedral is the most iconic building in Tromsø by far. The design was inspired by an iceberg (some say it was actually inspired by the island Håja just outside of Tromsø) and features a glorious stained glass window that sparkles brilliantly against the contrast of the white around it.
Polaria – A combination of museum, experience centre and aquarium, Polaria has a focus on species found in the arctic and contains the most northern aquarium in the world.
They also have a cinema and show a few films throughout the day which is included in your ticket. We watched their film all about the science behind the northern lights which was super interesting and got us both very hyped for our northern lights tour that evening.
The highlight of our visit to Polaria was most definitely watching the seal feeding and training, you could tell the focus was on enriching the lives of the animals rather than putting on a show, it was lovely to see!
Tromsø Library – This place has won my well sought after award of ‘the most beautiful library I have ever been to in my entire life’.
You’re very welcome to walk in and have a wander around and, while the vast collection of books is impressive, the highlight has to be the views. The entire front of the building is covered in glass and gives you far-reaching views across the surrounding mountain scenery.
We visited just as the remnants of daylight were fading and the sky was a display of pastel candy floss tones.
Fjellheisen – Towering above Tromsø is mount Floya which is an excellent spot to visit either day or night, we visited it at night as it’s also a place you can get a glimpse of the northern lights when activity is strong enough – definitely worth taking the chance is my opinion!
You can walk up the mountain if you really want to, but in winter it’s probably not advisable unless you have the right equipment. Instead, you can take the cable car (or Fjellheisen) up to the viewpoint.
Here you’ll also find Fjellstua Cafe, while the food isn’t amazing it’s a perfect place to sit and look out onto the city with a little bit of warmth while you’re waiting to see if the green lady makes an appearance.
Telegrafbukta – Southern beach, yes that’s right you heard me I’m recommending a beach in winter, is another spot where you can potentially see the northern lights.
Around a 40 minute walk from the city centre brings you to a peaceful sandy beach with views out onto the horizon as far as the eye can see. There’s minimal light pollution here which makes it another great spot to catch some aurora activity without having to leave the city.
Polarmuseet – Admittedly, we only went to the Polar Museum because we had some time to spare and thought ‘hey why not’, but we were so pleasantly surprised!
The museum gives a real insight into Tromsø’s history as the ‘gateway to the arctic’ through a range of interesting exhibits which detail famous pioneering expeditions and delve into the hard lives of trappers who had to face the winters on Svalbard with no supplies or contact with the outside world.
We spent roughly 4 days in Tromsø and I figured a breakdown of what we did each day might be useful to use as a rough idea for planning your own trip:
Day 1 – Land in the afternoon, walk around Tromsø to get a feel for the city.
Day 2 – Wake up early for the whale watching trip, followed by the northern lights tour in the evening .
Day 3 – Spend the day on an arctic road trip, then take the cable car up to Fjellheisen viewpoint in the evening.
Day 4 – Explore the parts of the city you haven’t yet seen before flying home in the evening.
I hope you enjoy this little guide to Tromsø, it really was one of my most favourite places I’ve ever been to and so I’m sure that no matter what you do, you’ll have the best time!
The Chaos Diaries
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