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There are some things you just gotta do once in your lifetime. For me, and maybe for you, one of those things is to visit the Arctic Circle in the middle of winter, when the sun never rises above the horizon.
An opportunity came up to visit Tromsø, and I just had to take it. I was so curious. What would it be like to be in darkness for 24 hours a day? How would I handle it? What would I do there by myself?
It turns out, lots.
The Tromsø area has been inhabited since the end of the last ice age. In the 19th century, it was nicknamed the Paris of the North, potentially due to it being unexpectedly sophisticated for its location. The city sits on an island surrounded by glacial mountains, and it’s know to be a good spot for seeing the Northern Lights. Here’s what I was able to get up to in my 3-day stay:
Stay in a Matchbox Hotel Room for $200/Night
If you haven’t been to Norway, be warned: it is expensive. I stayed in a hotel room at SmartHotel with a bed smaller than a twin; it was as if someone had cut a foot of mattress off of either side of a twin bed to save money. The room also had about 2 feet of “sitting space” and a small bathroom. And guess how much that cost? $200 per night! But hey, they did have free tea in the lobby.
If I were to do it again, I’d check Airbnb first to look for housing outside of the city. You’d be more in touch with nature and have a better chance at spotting the Northern Lights without a tour, too.
Free Ass-First Sled Ride Through Town
So right after I had checked into my hotel, I wanted to go down and see the city. Between my hotel and the city center there was this massive hill, slicked over with ice. Unfortunately, I hadn’t given it much thought. In my defense, I had been living in snow-free climates for the past 3 or so years, so I had forgotten the simple fact that snow makes ice, makes… a free ass-first sled ride. So there I go traipsing down the hill, so excited to see this brand new city, when my feet flew out from under me. So there I am sliding down this long hill on my butt, whirring past all these folks just trying to do their daily shopping. When I reached the bottom of the hill and crashed into a pile of street snow, all I could think was:
Man, it would have been cool if I had waved. Why didn’t I wave?
See the City Lights and Visit the Museums
I got my bearings and went to see the city center. Maybe another reason Tromsø could be called the Paris of the North is due to its dazzling city lights; for being such a small town, it’s bright and cheery, especially around the holidays when I visited. You could walk the length of the city core in a matter of 20 minutes or less, but there are some great stops along the way. Try Polaria, the arctic aquarium. Stop at the Arctic Cathedral, the most iconic building on the Tromsø cityscape. Check out the Tromsø University Museum, which explores the history of Northern Norway very well. Plus, just walking around is very fun.
I know what you’re thinking. What have reindeer ever done to us except help Santa bring us presents? Why would we eat them?
But I’m sorry, I just had to. I had been seeing reindeer advertised on menus across Norway for days, and I was just so curious. So I finally helped myself to a plate of reindeer stew, which was basically like reindeer stroganoff:
Reindeer meat has a spicy little kick to it. It has the texture I would imagine horse meat to have, but with a spicier flavor, which makes sense because reindeer are basically just fancy versions of horses.
Drink Beer from the (Second) Northernmost Brewery in the World
I’m a sucker for experiences that are the “best” or “most” of anything. So I was thrilled to try some beer from what I thought was the Northernmost brewery in the world, Macks Brewery. Although it didn’t taste much different than a good-old Guinness, I savored that $12 beer like I had personally accomplished something by drinking a beer brewed in a Northern part of the world. I later learned that Svalbard Bryggeri had taken Macks’ place as the Northernmost brewery 6 years ago. Well, bummer. Still a fun place to hang out.
Skiing and Snowmobiling
I chose not to go skiing because flying through the snow in the dark sounds a little terrifying. I’m a timid skiier, what you might call a “pizza-er”. The snowmobile tours looked great, although it’s much more affordable if you have two people rather than one. There are a variety of trip options to choose from.
See The Northern Lights
It was fate. I had been sitting in my teeny tiny hotel room catching up on some writing, when I got a craving, the kind where your mind keeps wandering back to that thing over and over again until you drop everything and satisfy the craving. My mind was calling: Oreos. Oreos. Oreos.
I just had to go out and get some oreos. Mind you, it was midnight at this point (my sleep cycle had gotten all screwed up from there never being any light). So I put on my warmest winter gear and decided to go out in search of a convenience store that would be open at this hour, trying my bestest not to slip and fall down that crazy hill again.
After a bit of effort, I found them. Whew. And there I was walking back home, stuffing my face with my newly purchased Oreos, when I looked out over the harbor and saw a most unusual green stripe coming out from behind the mountain. I stopped and watched. Were those the Northern Lights? The green stripe suddenly burst forth across the sky, and then back to the mountain, and it saucily danced across the sky. And then a second, glimmering white light arched across the sky too. For about a minute the sky was lit up the most beautiful, bright, vivid colors. My Oreo-filled mouth hung open in awe.
People spend hours and hours driving through the countryside of Norway to try and see the Northern lights, and it doesn’t always happen. I felt pretty blessed to have encountered them right in the city of Tromso, which is apparently rare. If you go, try your best to see the Northern lights. Do take a tour if you need to. And for goodness sakes, learn to photograph the Northern Lights! Or you’ll always regret not having at least one picture.
Encounter with Self
Finally, the highlight of the trip: the Fjellheisen, Tromsø’s Cable Car. I’m not normally a cable car chick, but I swear, you get to the top of this cable car and you feel like you’re at the edge of the world:
Tromso is this glittering town surrounded by a ring of ice and mountains, and then nothing. Can I remind you, though, that these pictures were taken in the middle of the day, around 2 pm?
I decided to hike away from the city lights, towards this amazing blue darkness.
What’s not pictured is this continuous, visceral howling of the wind. The wind ricocheting through a ring of ice produces this loud, low roar unlike anything I’ve ever heard. It sounds almost like… the void.
I got to a place where the city lights were just barely perceptible, enough for me to orient myself back to where I came from. And I sat. And thought.
It’s hard to be completely alone in this day an age. No cell phone, no people around, nothing. Staring into that otherworldly landscape, I had a coming to self where I was able to think and reflect so clearly.
Pay Tromsø a Visit!
Tromsø was special in many ways. You may not need more than 2-3 days to see the majority of tourist sites here, but it’s still worth the effort to fly in and experience this unique place.
Who Wrote This?
I’m Renee Hyde and I’ve been a digital nomad freelance writer since 2012. So far I’ve visited 60+ countries and counting! On this blog I share tips about dreamy travel destinations, travel hacks, ways to work remotely and travel, and advice for living your best nomadic life!