Tromsø was never an intended destination on our 2019 Summer in Scandinavia road-trip, although when circumstances took an unexpected change, we seized the chance to visit. We do believe that every event has its purpose, however difficult they may be. After all life is never as beautifully laid out as in our visions. I guess the trick is to make sure that you see the positivity in all things and remain flexible.
So when a family bereavement back in UK reshaped our plans, we looked upon it as an opportunity. It was a chance to explore a region that was not on our agenda whilst waiting for a flight back to England. That’s what I love about travel; when you go with the flow, things unfold as they are designed to.
And so Senja, Norway’s second largest island and Tromsø, Norway’s most northern city suddenly made an appearance on the Motoroamers’ road-trip. Come with us as we embark on a mini City-tour Guide.
The Gateway to the Arctic
Tromsø is a vibrant city 210 miles north of the Arctic Circle and over 1100 miles north of Norway’s capital, Oslo. And whilst it may rarely appear on people’s travel itineraries, it surely has something unique to offer. For curious travellers seeking new experiences and cultures, Tromsø has to be on the list for exciting vacation opportunities, throughout the whole year. Keep reading to find out why!
Tromsø, nestled between mountains that, for most of the year support a covering of snow, has more of a town-like feel than a city. This fact alone is enough to have us recommending this northern destination. With its island location, it welcomes you across its arching bridge with a charisma and intimacy that instantly feels safe and warm. This was so unexpected. Cities so often smother me with their enormity and consume my tiny presence in its giant maze of buildings. Yet Tromsø is very different to the archetypal cityscape we are used to.
Tromsø has hit the global stage a number of times in its history. First was for its Arctic position which lent itself to explorers using the city as their main hub before embarking on their often fatal expeditions. Then the fire of 1969 which all but destroyed the whole city. And with their stalwart Nordic spirit, the city resurged against its adversity in 1972, when they built the most northern University – putting Tromsø firmly on Scandinavia’s map.
Thanks to its University, this unassuming city has a youthful feel, which gives it an energy that subtly bounces off the old town’s wharf. And yet in contrast, the Arctic history, stakes its claim in making Tromsø a fascinating place to visit. With its compact and bijou feel, it will delight you with its wintery tales of Arctic explorers and the characterful wooden buildings in the old wharf surely must hold many seafaring secrets.
A Compact and Bijou City Visit
Unlike many more Southern European cities, after a couple of hours, you will have got the measure of Tromsø. Even the cruise ships only dock for a short while. Although there are plenty of highlights to enjoy during this time, so don’t underestimate it appeal.
1. Tromsø’s Bridges – Major City Landmark
Tromsø, built on the eastern edge of the island of Tromsøya, survives thanks to its bridges and tunnels. Now these bridges are not your typical structures – nothing straight and boring here! Oh no, the city of Tromsø has a duo of arching structures that seem to glide high above the fjord as if in some grand gesture to the Sea Gods. Driving these 2km (1.2 mile) bridges is, on its own, an experience as you feel yourself drawn into the city centre with an entrance fit for a king on his chariot.
The Tromsø Bridge (Tromsøbrua in Norwegian) to the east is 3,399ft cantilever construction that back in 1960 when it was opened, was the first of its kind in Norway. It was also regarded as the longest bridge in Northern Europe at the time.
If you park in Tromsdalen to the east, walking across the bridge is a great experience, as you get a real sense of city’s perspective and its fjord position. Although be warned, read the signs carefully – as the north side of the bridge is for cyclists and the south for pedestrians. Mix them up at your peril and be prepared for a Norwegian onslaught of exasperation from the passing two-wheelers.
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2. Tromsø’s Special Roundabouts
Am I mad? Roundabouts, surely these are nothing worthy for your visit! Well when you experience these roundabouts deep beneath the surface of the earth, in tunnels, then you might choose to reconsider. It’s the most bizarre thing to experience and is definitely worth checking out if you can. Check out our short video below.
3. Tromso’s Arctic Cathedral – Ishavskatedralen
Cathedrals are often a tourist magnet in any city because of their grandeur and history. Tromsø may, once again surprise you. Whilst there is the official Cathedral in the old town square, which was rebuilt after the fire of 1969, it is the magnificent structure across the water that draws your eye. The iconic Tromsdalen church, known lovingly as the Arctic Cathedral is a pinnacle of engineering mastery. This triangular construction is something to behold and interestingly, despite its nickname, is not officially a cathedral. Built in 1965, the Arctic Cathedral is seen as the Sydney Opera House of Norway, such is the magnificence of its design.
4. Tromso’s Old Harbour Wharf
Tromsø superficially, looks a bit commercial with its ports, ships and fish factories. Yet once you enter the sentrum, you immediately get a feel for its historical dominance of 19th century Arctic explorations. A memorial to Roald Amundsen, the man most famous for beating Scott to the North Pole, signals the gateway to understanding Tromsø’s Polar significance.
The Polar Museum explains how its northerly position became so central to expeditions heading north to conquer the icy kingdom of the Pole. And how the sea played, and still does even today, a vital role in their survival in this extreme part of the world.
And then you turn the corner to the inner harbour. Along the wharf, you find an array of seafaring vessels standing on parade, gleaming in the mid-summer sun. And it begins to dawn on you what life must be like in the grip of winter’s hold. Whilst a visit in June/July proffers 24hours of daylight, winter brings a different personality. -4° and darkness for most of the day. Knee deep snow and perhaps just a faint blue hew as the sun’s rays barely reach the horizon. And in a blink of an eye, a community’s lifestyle shifts from flourishing to survival amidst the extreme conditions.
The wooden harbour buildings still stand firm with more than a few tales of sailors’ woes hidden inside their walls. Now bars and restaurants, throbbing with cruise-liner visitors, sell a range of food, some of which is way beyond our western palette tolerances.
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5. Tromso’s Cable Car – Fjellheisen
Although we didn’t take the Cable Car on this visit, it is said to be one of the best ways to view the city, especially during either the Northern Light display or the Midnight Sun. What a spectacle either of these would be from such a lofty position. Built in 1961, the two cable cars, named Polar Bear and Seal will lift you 421m into the sky to give you an exhilarating view.
You can find it by walking over the eastern bridge towards the Arctic Cathedral. The ride is just 4 minutes, is open from 1000 to 2300 (and until 0100 during the Midnight sun period) and runs every 30 minutes. It costs 250Nok per person or if you feel energetic, walk down and only pay 150Nok. Find out more details and schedules by clicking here.
6. Tromsø’s Old Town
Tromsø is so much more than a winter retreat. Albeit the winter activities give this Arctic destination supremacy, there’s something about Tromsø’s charm that needs to be appreciated by daylight.
The old town took its early steps back in 1800s and was seriously influenced by its rich sea merchants who graced the town with their wealth. With bountiful pockets, Tromsø’s style took an international twist, modelled on the Empire architectural design of their Southern European cousins in Greece and Italy. Grand columns and doorway designs have a definite Romanesque flavour to them.
Alongside this, there’s an eclectic mix of colonial-style buildings that give Tromsø such a lovely atmosphere, where you half expect elegant couples dressed in their finery to promenade along the dockside. And yet paradoxically these charming wooden buildings have had to yield to the modern constructions that shadow their beauty. Yet somehow this city of contrasts works. That blend of commerciality and old era heritage living side by side, making their collective identity fuse seamlessly.
The high street, if that’s what you call it, softly travels through the old town with classy boutiques and shops selling reindeer hide and winter attire. There’s no high end marketing taking centre stage in this city, unlike its Lofoten cousin not too many miles away. Just a timeless trundle into the present day.
In the main square you will see the world’s smallest bar and a statue to honour the old Norwegian King. It is here that the old Town Hall stands in the shadow of its contemporary replacement, the wood clearly giving way to the more robust fortified glass that reflects a whole new lifeblood for this throbbing northern community.
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What to do around Tromsø
Tromsø is most certainly a winter hub, more at home with huskies and the Northern Lights. Although don’t let a summer visit pass you by. These addition activities will turn your visit into a real adventure;
- Just 15 minutes drive away you have the mountains of Skrolkets with great hiking. Keep your eyes open for moose and eagles.
- Take a Rib on a Sea Safari see the whales and puffins.
- For an extended tour, you are not far from the beauty of Senja and its Norway in Miniature status. With WW2 museums, trolls and one of Norway’s 18 most scenic routes, you could easily while away three or four days.
- The world’s most northerly Botanical Gardens, just south of Tromsø.
- Watch the Midnight Sun from mid-May to mid-July.
- And why not consider an extended trip to the Lofoten Islands? With its easy access by road within a 6 hour journey, or a short flight from Tromsø domestic airport, seeing these iconic islands is a doable option. For more information on visiting the Lofotens, click here.
- Why not take a City Walking Tour that will give you an intimate insight to an intimate city? For 3 hours be taken on a journey through the historical pathways of Tromsø and feel the spirit of the city.
Practicalities for visiting Tromsø
With its northerly location, you could be forgiven for ignoring the draw of this Nordic beauty. Although with an airport, excellent cruising options and solid road infrastructure, Tromsø is a very real destination these days. Here are some options for getting to, staying in and getting around Tromsø and its neighbourhood.
With the main arterial E6 route that connects the northerly and southerly points in Norway, visiting the upper reaches of Norway is so much easier. Granted it will take you a while and the road is not a motorway as we know them in UK/EU although it is doable – if you have the time. Equally if you have made the epic journey to Nordkapp and Alta, then the E6 south will bring you to Tromsø in 6 hours. All too often we hear of people by-passing Tromsø for the lure of the Lofotens, so we would really encourage you staying around this beautiful Troms region for a while before heading south.
We arrived in Norway from Sweden via the E10 at Abisko, so getting to Tromsø was actually quite an easy drive, albeit we took the scenic route through the fjords.
Alternatively you could take one of over 100 direct flights a week from Norway’s Oslo, Gardermoen Airport to Tromsø. I can certainly vouch for this flight. I took an SAS flight and arrived in Oslo in less than 2 hours.
The Hurtigruten Cruise is arguably the most scenic route to take, although you need to have time on your side. This historical cargo vessel that would steam along the Norwegian coastline is, these days more of a travel experience than a cargo route. From Bergen to Kirkenes, the Hurtigruten Cruise is not the cheapest way to visit Tromsø, although will certainly give your Norwegian bucket list a great big fat tick!
Once there, getting around
The beauty of Tromsø’s compact nature is that you can walk around it easily. It is only if you want to explore further afield that you need to consider another mode of transport.
We found driving to and through Tromsø in our 7.5m van caused no issues at all. We found free parking on Tromsdalen, across the Tromsø Bridge which was perfectly fine for visiting the city. (69.650268 18.993843). We didn’t stay overnight although we suspect it wouldn’t be a problem.
If you are reliant on your feet for transport, then download the Troms Mobillett App, which gives you access and discounts to the buses and ferries in the area.
We stayed at two locations with our van. The first was an amazing wild spot up in the mountains to the north west of the city. With fabulous hiking, great views and generally peace and quiet, it was nice not to be too close to the city. (69.759121 18.855957). The second spot, I readiness for my flight back to UK was at the Tromsø Lodge Campsite (69.648636 19.016156). This is a great site close to the Cable Car and cycling distance to the city, although not cheap at 400NOK per night in July. It is an ACSI site, out of season. They had one the best showers we’ve experienced in Scandinavia and great washing machine facilities.
For other accommodation, you have so many options from Hotels, Guest Houses, Cabins and AirB&B. Check out the official Tromsø Visitors website here.
Tromsø, with its mountains, Midnight Sun, Northern Lights, Winter Expeditions and general all-year round appeal, makes a visit to this northern Nordic city worthy of your time. Without the crowds of other southern European destinations, Tromsø gives you a uniquely comfortable and adventurous experience. As a centrepiece to so much more exploration in the Troms region, we highly recommend this jewel in Norway’s northern crown. Come and experience the vibe for yourself and see what you think!
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What a lovely recommendation for visiting a city – though sad about the reason you had to visit.
Tis true Annie, although a gift from sadness it was. Kx
Sometimes the best destinations and experiences come from happy accidents, or in your case, the waiting game.
I think I’d want to check out the botanical gardens there.
Absolutely Kathryn totally agree. Kx