The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Tromsø in the Winter
February 6, 2024
If you’re planning a visit to Tromsø in the winter, you’re in the right place! After visiting Tromsø in December 2023, I’m sharing all my top tips, favorite activities and more.
If the name is unfamiliar, Tromsø is a small-ish city in Northern Norway. I say small-ish because it was actually a lot bigger than I expected. It’s the 12th largest city in Norway in population and has over 60,000 residents.
Tromsø is an incredible base for seeing the Northern Lights, experiencing the Polar Night and partaking in snowy adventures in the winter. It’s also a wonderful destination for hiking during the warmer months.
However, it’s also a city that has museums, great restaurants and lots of shops. It even has the nickname “Paris of the North” because of its rich culture.
All of this means that Tromsø is a destination that has something for everyone, whether you're into city activities, outdoor adventure or just want to see the Northern Lights.
Keep reading to discover all of the reasons that Tromsø is worth visiting in the winter, and finalize your Tromsø winter itinerary.
What to Expect in the Winter
Experience the Polar Night
Tromsø gets zero hours of daylight from about November 21st until January 21st, meaning that the sun does not rise at all for this portion of the year.
Based on my experience visiting in December, the amount of darkness depends on the cloud cover. Some days got somewhat bright during the day (about 10AM - 3PM) and it looked like dusk or sunset. On cloudier days, it was darker. But it was still not pitch black in the middle of the day.
The darkness means that it’s a great time of year to see the Northern Lights! It also means that you won’t necessarily have to stay up until the middle of the night to see them, they are often spotted in the evenings. I saw them around 9PM.
How cold is Tromsø in the Winter?
As you might expect, Tromsø can be quite cold in the winter. However, if you’re used to winter weather, it might not be as cold as you imagine.
Tromsø actually has mild weather for its latitude. The city is right on the water and the Gulf Stream (which originates in the Gulf of Mexico) pushes warmer temperatures into the area. In my personal experience, Tromso was much warmer than Helsinki, Finland and Tallinn, Estonia (which I visited on the same trip).
Average December temperatures in Tromso tend to be a high of 30°F to 33°F (about 0°C) and a low of 22°F to 25°F (about -4°C). They rarely fall below 10°F (-12°C).
The coldest time of year is in January, when temperatures range from 21°F to 29°F (-6°C to -1°C).
If you're wondering what to pack for Tromsø in the winter, read my full packing list!
When is the best time to visit Tromsø?
If you want to see the Northern Lights, stay in an ice hotel, go dog sledding and experience other winter activities, winter is the best time to visit!
As far as when to visit in the winter, you’ll get to enjoy more daylight and still have a nice chance to see the Aurora Borealis between October - November and February - April. However, keep in mind that October and November may have little to no snow.
If you visit during December or January, you’ll be able to experience the Polar Night. While it can be dark, it’s a cozy time of year and there is plenty to do.
If you’re interested in hiking and see the midnight sun, you should visit in the summer. The sun does not set between May 20 and July 22.
This guide is based on visiting Tromsø in the winter. I visited at the end of December and thought it was a wonderful time to visit!
A Few More Tips for Visiting Tromsø in the Winter
Make sure to bring plenty of warm clothing and dress in layers! In addition to a warm coat, I recommend a hat, gloves or mittens, base layers and warm socks.
Be aware that Tromsø is quite expensive, especially if you’ll be doing a lot of tours. Make sure to budget ahead of time and choose the things you really want to do.
The Aurora App is a great way to keep track if the Northern Lights may appear nearby!
The Best Things To Do in Tromsø in the Winter
If you enjoy hiking or spending time outdoors, snowshoeing is a great way to see the area! If you don’t have your own snowshoes and/or don’t have a rental car, I recommend going on a tour.
I loved this snowshoeing tour with Arctic Cruise in Norway AS. Typically, they take you out to a mountainous area, but it was very windy during my visit (and that area is quite exposed). As an alternative, we went to a local park, Charlottenlund Recreational Park, which had some peaceful trails through the forest. It’s also a popular place for cross-country skiing and sledding.
Trekking through a winter wonderland on snowshoes was a great way to enjoy the outdoors and explore a different side of Tromsø. Plus, our guide provided warm drinks and chocolate during a break. I highly recommend snowshoeing if you like a hike!
Go Dog Sledding
Dog sledding had been on my bucket list for years, and it was my favorite part of this entire winter trip to Norway.
As with any animal tourism, it’s really important to find a company that treats the animals well. Please do your research. I went dog sledding at the Tromsø Ice Domes and can attest that the dogs are well loved and taken care of.
The practice of dog sledding dates back 1,000’s of years and was used as a mode of transportation for explorers traveling in the arctic. It is typically done with Siberian huskies and other similar dog breeds that can handle the cold very well, and are strong.
During my dog sledding experience, my husband and I took turns driving the dogs and being the passenger. Our guide had his own team of dogs in front of us, and it was only us and one other group with this guide.
I personally didn’t know that dog sledding could be so physically challenging. On the uphills, you’ll need to help your dogs run by pushing the sled. On the flat areas and downhills, you’ll need to make sure the dogs don’t go too fast using the brakes. Your experience may be easier if you go dog sledding on an entirely flat area, but this route had hills.
After going out towards the mountains, we returned and got to cuddle the dogs, give them praise and feed them treats. We also got to see the puppies.
It was amazing to see how much the dogs loved to run, and it was such a special experience overall.
Stay at the Tromsø Ice Domes
Sleep inside of an ice hotel at the Tromsø Ice Domes! This entire experience was a major highlight of my trip.
The Tromsø Ice Domes feature a hotel carved out of ice and snow. The structure is rebuilt each year and the 2023-2024 season is open from December 20th to April 7th.
Each year, artists carve a new theme - the current theme is all about Vikings! They bring in huge blocks of ice from a lake in Finland to actually build the furniture. When you visit, they’ll show you a short movie all about how they’re made!
While I definitely recommend booking a stay inside the domes, there are also options to tour the ice hotel without sleeping there. There are only 8 rooms in the ice hotel, so you’ll need to book early to secure a spot.
The property is much more than just the ice domes. Camp Tamok offers cabins and glamping opportunities, along with dining and activities. A stay at either the ice domes or their cabins, chalets or glamping domes will be bundled with meals and activities such as dog sledding, snowmobiling and more. You’ll get to select which activities you want when you book!
While you’ll be literally sleeping in an ice structure that must be kept below freezing, they provide heavy sleeping bags that will keep you warm. Plus, the food is hearty and delicious. I had an incredible stay and highly recommend a visit to anyone.
A Few Things To Know About Sleeping in the Ice Domes:
- There were 5 heated bathrooms shared among the ice dome guests
- They don’t turn off the lights in the ice domes, but they do provide eye masks
- There are a couple emergency cots inside the warm area in case you can’t make it through the night
Visit a Sámi Family and Reindeer Herd
The Sámi are a Native people of northern Europe (Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia). Their best-known livelihood is semi-nomadic reindeer herding, and many of the Sámi people are still connected to reindeer herding today.
There are several tours that will take you from Tromsø to visit a reindeer herd. The most popular tours also include reindeer sledding, (you’ll be pulled around in a sled by reindeer) which I wasn’t really interested in. However, I found an amazing tour that took us to a nearby reindeer herd and was led by a Sámi family that was new to bringing in tourists.
We fed leftover bread to the reindeer and learned about some of the history and traditions of the Sámi people. The family was so welcoming and kind, and I learned a lot. I highly recommend this experience and the specific tour that I did during your time in Tromsø.
Go Whale Watching
Whale watching is a popular winter activity in Tromsø in the winter, as the best time to see whales is from November to January. This is when the whales pass through during their migration.
As with the dog sledding, there are ethical considerations to research when taking a tour to see the whales. It is best to book a “silent” tour that will minimize the disturbance to the whales and other marine life. (Noise and vibrations from boat engines can be harmful to the whales).
Brim Explorer is one of the best companies to go with, and their whale watching tours last all day. I didn’t book early enough, so make sure to book way ahead of time if this is high on your list!
Take a Northern Lights Cruise
While I missed out on whale watching, I did enjoy a Northern Lights evening cruise with Brim Explorer. They have an option for a dinner cruise or a cruise that includes a welcome drink and a light snack.
We did not see the Northern Lights this evening, but did enjoy seeing the lights of the city from the boat. I also liked that the tour included information on the science behind Aurora Borealis and a discussion about what winter in Tromsø is like for the locals.
We also enjoyed a delicious bowl of tomato soup. It was a nice way to spend an evening, and I’m sure it would be extremely special if the Northern Lights are out during your cruise.
Go on a Northern Lights Bus Chase
Assuming you aren’t renting a car, a Northern Lights bus chase is the best way to see Aurora Borealis! The lights are much easier to see when you leave the city and the guides are knowledgeable on the best spots based on current cloud cover and solar conditions.
My bus tour brought me to a beautiful beach on a Fjord less than an hour from Tromsø. But if it’s cloudy near Tromsø, the buses may drive hours to find the lights in a clear area. They may even bring you to Finland or Sweden.
I went with Northern Horizon and had an amazing experience. We got lucky with the perfect night and got to enjoy the Northern Lights for hours.
Our guide, Harry, was an astro-photographer, and he was really helpful in giving us advice on the correct camera settings. We also made a fire, cooked sausages (including a vegetarian version), and enjoyed hot drinks and cookies.
Seeing the Northern Lights was a huge highlight of my trip!
More Tips and Things To Know about seeing the Northern Lights:
Keep your expectations low to avoid disappointment. Many nights are too cloudy or the conditions are just not right to see the lights. And even if you do see them, the colors and vibrancy can really vary. They often look more off-white to the naked eye than the vibrant green you see in photos.
During my trip, the Northern Lights only appeared in the region 1 out of 5 nights. The longer you can stay, the better your chances will be.
The Aurora app is helpful for finding out if the Northern Lights are nearby!
If you want to photograph the Northern Lights, bring a tripod. A good place to start for camera settings is an f-stop of f/2.8, a 2 second shutter speed and an ISO of 500-2000.
Make sure to dress extra warm and be ready to be patient!
Visit a Sauna
Steaming in a sauna is a very popular activity in Norway, especially in the winter! If you’re interested in visiting one while you’re in Tromsø, you’re in luck. Sauna Pust floats at the end of a dock right on the harbor. It’s a fun and unique activity for your Tromsø winter itinerary!
To visit, you’ll need to make a reservation ahead of time. You’ll be sent a code for the door and enter into a changing room (divided by gender). The sauna is in between the two changing rooms and small (there is a limited capacity per hour).
To have the full experience, you should exit the sauna and jump into the harbor when you get hot! The contrast between the hot and the cold is supposed to be good for your circulation, for flushing out toxins, and more. And I can attest that the plunge will really make you feel alive!
Watch a Midnight Concert
Midnight concerts are a popular experience at the Tromsø Cathedral, which is located in the center of town.
The concert I attended featured a very talented singer, saxophonist and pianist. The concerts feature traditional Norwegian music, indigenous Sámi music, folk tunes and more. It was a Christmas theme when I attended, which was really nice.
The music in the church has an ethereal feel to it. If you enjoy classical music, this is a great experience.
Visit a Museum
Tromsø has several museums that you can enjoy to learn more about the local culture and history. After all, it is known as the “Paris of the North.”
For the most fun and lighthearted museum (which is also great for kids), visit the Troll Museum. The museum tells of the legends of trolls in Norwegian culture. Essentially, the stories are Norwegian fairy tales. Plus, you’ll get to learn about various rock formations named after trolls and get to play around with augmented reality throughout the museum. It’s a small space, but fun for all ages.
If you enjoy art, the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum, or the Northern Norwegian Art Museum, is worth a trip. During my visit, there were two exhibits that showcased art created by women. It was a mix of paintings, furniture, tapestries, sculptures and other media. However, they made a strong statement by only using 28% of their space, because only 28% of their collection was created by women. I thought it was impactful and well showcased.
If you’re interested in history, both the Polar Museum and the Full Steam Museum are worth visiting. The Polar Museum shares a detailed history of early arctic exploration. You will quickly realize how intense it must have been to survive and explore the Arctic region 100’s and 1,000’s of years ago.
The museum focused on Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen’s first attempt to reach the North Pole in the late 1800’s. They spent an entire winter out on the ice, survived polar bear attacks and came the closest to the North Pole that anyone had been at the time. It was fascinating to learn about and I found that Nansen’s name continued to come up as I visited museums in Oslo, too.
The Full Steam Museum is another great place to learn about the history and culture of the area. It includes an exhibit on the Sámi people and touches on the harsh policies that the Sámi people endured as they were forced to assimilate into Norwegian culture in the early 20th century.
The Full Steam Museum also has an exhibit of Northern Lights photography and a Seafarers Museum that tells of the lives of fishermen and sailors and their boats.
One more museum that you may want to visit is the Perspektivet Museum, which showcases photography and other historic objects meant to teach about cultural diversity, new perspectives and connections.
Ride the Cable Car
Fjellheisen is a Cable Car that begins in Tromsdalen, a suburb located across the water from Tromsø. After a short ride to the top of the mountain, you’ll have incredible views of the surrounding area.
At the peak, there is a cafe. They also offer daytime snowshoe hikes of the mountains and nighttime snowshoe experiences where you may get to see the Northern Lights.
It’s a beautiful place to see the mountains and water from above.
Visit the Ice Bar
The Magic Ice Bar is a fun way to get a taste of the icy conditions the area is famous for. Admire the ice sculptures as you sip their signature cocktail in a glass made of ice. This is a fun experience if you haven’t seen an Ice Bar before or if you won't be visiting the Tromsø Ice Domes!
Where to Eat in Tromsø
Casa Inferno serves wood-fired pizzas in a steampunk atmosphere. True to the name, they even have a pizza that comes to your table on fire. I loved the Regina pizza with pesto, sun dried tomatoes and more. They also have a selection of wines, cocktails and beer. It’s best to make a reservation.
Full Steam is an eclectic restaurant full of interesting artifacts inspired by the fishing history of the area. It’s a small menu, and they originally told me they were unable to accommodate a vegetarian. However, they ended up serving me a vegetarian version of their popular fish cakes dish, which was quite delicious. I also enjoyed the mulled wine. The restaurant is attached to the Full Steam Museum and a reservation is strongly recommended.
Risø mat og kaffebar
Risø is a small and cozy cafe that is wonderful to stop in for breakfast or lunch. I enjoyed a sourdough sandwich with goat cheese, vegetables and honey, while my husband savored an omelet. It was crowded, but the food was quite delicious. They are also known for their latte art and cinnamon buns.
Koseverden & Koselig Cafe
Koseverden & Koselig Cafe is another cozy spot that is great for lunch. I enjoyed a grilled croissant sandwich, while my husband had waffles that came with the famous Norwegian soft, brown cheese - brunost. They are also known for their cakes, cinnamon buns and soups.
Where to Stay in Tromsø
I stayed in two different hotels in Tromsø, along with a night at the Tromsø Ice Domes. It’s very helpful to stay within walking distance of the city center, and it’s easy to do with the many hotel options.
If you’re looking for a more luxurious stay, Scandic Ishavshotel or Clarion Hotel The Edge are great options. They are both located right on the water and offer breakfast, stunning views and nice rooms.
I opted for two more budget-friendly hotels that were still only a short walk from all of the action: Comfort Inn Xpress and the Smart Hotel. They both had small rooms and breakfast was not included at the lowest rate. But they were in great locations and had what we needed.
How to Get Around Tromsø
Getting around Tromsø is easy! There is a nice system of public transportation via buses. From the airport to the city center, you can take the 42, 40 or 24 bus. We used the Troms Billett app to buy tickets online. When you exit the airport, walk through the underground level of the parking garage to reach the bus stop.
You can also use Uber or a taxi to get around. Renting a car is also an option if you don’t mind driving in the snow. However, I don’t think it’s necessary if you’ll be mostly booking tours and staying in the city center.
Visiting Tromsø in the winter is certainly a bucket list trip! Whether you’re chasing the Northern Lights or want to experience a winter wonderland, this trip is sure to stick with you for a lifetime. I hope this guide helps you plan an epic winter vacation and cross Northern Norway off of your bucket list.
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