When you take the flight up to Tromso it’s worth trying to bag a window seat – if you can sit on the left of the plane (seats A) you’ll enjoy stunning views of the Norwegian coastline and its countless islands as the landscape becomes more desolate, more frozen, more beautiful. By the time you step out into the fresh air in Tromso, you’ll need little convincing that you’ve arrived somewhere extra-ordinary – somewhere a long way north of the Arctic Circle.
There are several Arctic municipalities claiming to be the northernmost this or that, some more credible than others. While there are dozens of settlements lying north of Tromso, none are close in size to this attractive city in the northern reaches of Norway. With a population of over 50,000 Tromso is the nearest place to the North Pole where you will find a university, a cathedral, a brewery, a top league football club and even a botanical garden.
But you don’t come up to Tromso for the sake of statistics – especially in the winter months, when the sun bids farewell in late November and only re-appears as January comes to a close. It is the Northern Lights that draw thousands of snuggly-dressed visitors up here, the absence of sunshine more than compensated for by the prospect of seeing one of nature’s most spectacular displays.
There are many winter activities to enjoy from Tromso, but the city itself has plenty to offer and is worthy of a couple of days of gentle exploration (a walk around town in winter will always be punctuated by regular stops for hot drinks). The Polaria museum is worth a visit to see simulations of the aurora borealis and depictions of the Arctic landscape. There is a panoramic cinema show but the most popular attraction when we visited was the aquarium and its resident bearded seals. Once you’ve fallen for their charms you can buy a cuddly seal as you exit through the gift shop.
The Arctic Cathedral is well worth the detour out of the city centre, if purely for its highly distinctive ‘A-frame’ architecture – it looks particularly impressive at night when illuminated in an icy blue light. Not far from here is the base station of the Storsteinen Mountain cable car, offering fabulous views over the city and its many waterways. A good tip is to do what we didn’t do and take note of the weather before you go – it’s a long way up to the top and the cloud can quickly drop to hide the views.
Finally, don’t miss the Polar musuem. Rather more old-fashioned than the modern Polaria, this museum tells the story of the many famous Arctic explorers; their bravery (or recklessness) is hard to believe. The Customs House building in which the museum is housed dates back to the early 19th century.
Tromso is perhaps the ideal destination for Northern Lights viewers. Wherever you go to try and see the aurora borealis there’s always the chance that you won’t get lucky. At least in Tromso there’s plenty to keep you busy while you wait patiently for the show to begin.