Diary of a Guidebook Writer: Nature & culture in Norway’s arctic capital

Photo: Svein-Magne Tunli / tunliweb.no / Wikimedia
Tromsø in winter.

David Nikel
Trondheim, Norway

I spent a few days asking around, and it seems that nobody’s entirely sure where Tromsø’s nickname “Paris of the North” comes from.

Never mind; it’s a worthy nickname. Not for the looks, not for the climate, and not for the food nor the wine, but for the cultural importance of this city of just 75,000 people high up in the Norwegian Arctic. Despite the small population, Tromsø is the biggest city for hundreds of miles around. In fact, after the Russian cities of Murmansk and Norilsk, it is the biggest city north of the Arctic Circle anywhere in the world.

A remarkable variety of events
On my first visit to the city, I got to interview Marthe Otte, the American director of the Tromsø International Film Festival. She moved to Tromsø in 1982 and has lived a happy life there ever since. We spent half our conversation talking about what makes the city tick, so much so that I nearly forgot to ask anything about the festival itself!

It’s not just the film festival that puts the city on the map. There’s a surprisingly big program of cultural events throughout the year, from music festivals to a marathon under the midnight sun:

• Tromsø International Film Festival (Jan.)
• Northern Lights Music Festival (Jan.-Feb.)
• Sámi Week (Feb.)
• Midnight Sun Marathon (June)
• Bukta Open Air Festival (July)
• Tromsø Jazz Festival (Aug.)
• SMAK Food Festival (Sept.)

Tromsø is a popular stop on the Hurtigruten coastal express and within easy reach of Oslo thanks to multiple daily direct flights from both SAS and Norwegian. Even if you’re not visiting for one of these events, the city is well worth a visit and there is something for everyone to enjoy.

Photo: CH / Visitnorway.com
An icicle-like chandelier at the Arctic Cathedral, which hosts late night concerts throughout the summer.

The top sights in Tromsø
Despite its striking modern design, the Arctic Cathedral (actually a parish church!) was completed as long ago as 1965. The tall white triangular structure with feature cross and 11 aluminum-coated concrete panels are clearly visible from across the water on Tromsøya island. Take a trip across the bridge to see the church up close or enjoy one of the midnight sun concerts held at 11:30 p.m. most days throughout the summer.

While you’re on Tromsøya, take the Tromsø Cable Car to the Storsteinen mountain ledge to fully appreciate the spectacular setting of the city. An $8,000,000 investment in 2016 saw a new suite of gondolas introduced along with a welcome expansion of the panorama deck.

The station gets especially busy around midnight in the summer, so it’s best to arrive a little early and give yourself some time to fully appreciate the views. In the winter, it’s a popular place for hunting the northern lights.

Ah yes, the northern lights! Did you think I wasn’t going to mention them?

An aurora hunter’s paradise
Tromsø and the surrounding region is one of the best—and most accessible—places on the planet for viewing the northern lights. On some clear nights, it’s possible to see a great display from the city itself, but for the best chance, you should head away from the city lights.

The best time of year to see the lights is September to October and February to March. The winter months tend to be too cloudy, while in the summer it simply doesn’t get dark enough.

Organized trips are available from around $120 per person, but many people prefer the DIY option. To increase your chances, it’s all about your location. Check the aurora forecast a day or so prior to your trip and be flexible if the forecast is low. Just as important is the weather forecast, for although it might seem that you can reach out and touch the lights, cloud cover will make the aurora impossible to see.

Photo: David Nikel
The thought-provoking Perspective Museum offers free entrance.

Some intriguing museums
One of the few attractions in Norway open every day of the year, the Polaria Aquarium is housed within a distinctive building that represents Arctic ice floes pressed up against land. The “Arctic walkway” leads visitors to the aquarium via a series of exhibitions about the fragile nature of the Arctic. Don’t miss feeding time for the intelligent bearded seals, the highlight of a visit for any children in your group.

Chronicling the city’s rich history as a base for polar exploration, the Polar Museum tells the story of the people and vessels behind the long seafaring tradition. The museum opened exactly 50 years to the day after Roald Amundsen left the city on his last expedition north. He never returned, so it seems fitting that a large portion of the museum is dedicated to Amundsen, the first man to reach both the North and South Poles.

A gallery designed primarily to make you think, the Perspective Museum uses photography to tell the stories of different socio-cultural perspectives. The quality of photography is outstanding, but the social debate and thought-provoking themes are what you’ll walk away with.

Last but not least, don’t miss the city’s famed nightlife. While it doesn’t compete with major European cities, live music is commonplace and the bars and pubs of the city are busy all through the week. Locals will be only too pleased to tell you about their lives in the Arctic, and after a few glasses of the local Mack brew, how much better their city is than Oslo or Bergen.

David Nikel is a freelance writer based in Norway. He runs the popular www.lifeinnorway.net blog and is the author of the upcoming MOON Norway guidebook.

This article originally appeared in the June 16, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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David Nikel

David Nikel is a freelance writer based in Norway. He runs the popular www.lifeinnorway.net website and podcast and is the author of the Moon Norway guidebook, available now in all good bookstores.