Located over 200 miles from the Arctic circle, Tromso is a surprisingly vibrant city for such a remote location. The tiny city is known for its food, festivals, buzzing nightlife and spectacular scenic location. This is arguably the most comfortable place to see the Northern lights or Aurora Borealis. It is also a popular starting point for most polar expeditions. We spent five days in Tromso during Thanksgiving, chasing Northern lights and soaking in the arctic splendour.
For two months, between November and January, the sun remains below the horizon and the daylight is well... little. This time is also called morkitiden, "the dark time". The idea of travelling with two small children to a place with darkness and sub-zero weather may seem unexciting initially but it worked well for us. There is, however, something magical about a place where the sun never rises and the lights dance in the sky! All houses and shops are lit up with tons of candles and it feels like a forever sunset time. It is not as cold as you may think.
The mild waters of the Gulf Stream give northern Norway the mildest climate on earth at this latitude. There are multiple activities to engage the children and even though mine are very young, aged six and three, they would love to go back. November also marks the beginning of the party season in Tromso. Most places are alive and bustling after 10 pm in the night. The main street is called Storgata and is lined with quaint shops and many salons.
Tromso is famous for Northern Lights and since they can be elusive, we decided to start our trip with it. Northern Lights occur throughout the year and at all times of the day. However, they are visible only when it is really dark and clear. So, you have to plan a visit in the darkest time of the year. One has to think of the Aurora Borealis as a bashful child. She may show up with all her energy or may decide to hide. We decided to sign up for multiple activities and plan for at least two Northern lights chases. The tours can be booked through the hotel or Tromso Villmarkssenter. The decision served us well as on our first chase, the wind was so strong that it was pushing buses off the road, and the tour had to be cancelled.
Most tour operators have an English speaking guide on board the bus that takes you on the Northern Lights chase. The tours typically begin around 8pm and last for 2-3 hours, so be sure to sleep in that day and be ready for the night. The tours take you to the outskirts where there are vast open areas and unrestricted views of the sky. On our second chase, we got lucky and saw a spectacular show that lasted 30-35 minutes where the whole sky lit up. It felt like a symphony at the hands of the master. At most times, clear dark green streaks were easily visible. The lights can pick up colours from green to pink or purple depending on the atmospheric gases. While the whole world around you seems to be scrambling to take pictures of this wondrous phenomenon, my suggestion would be to soak in the magic for a bit and then take snaps.
The lights are also visible at Fjellheisen. It is a short 10-minute ride away on the local bus and takes you to the Tromso Gondola point. Apart from offering the best views of the city, the summit also offers an occasional view of the Northern Lights. We were concerned the children may not hold up well at night so we ensured they got enough rest. Surprisingly, they were quite happy and active! The natural phenomenon was quite wondrous for the little minds. My daughter recalled seeing them in the film Frozen! The key was to remember warm kids are happy kids . We layered up heavily and even carried hand and foot warmers.
Another popular and unique activity in Tromso is the Husky Dog Sled ride . It is debatable who enjoys the ride more-the musher, passengers or the dogs. Each sled has 5-7 huskies pulling it and two people riding. One can sense the palpable excitement in the air when you arrive at the sled. Once the huskies start running, the air goes silent. I could see how much the dogs were enjoying the run. The children loved it. The snowsuits and the blankets for the ride are provided by the operator. The husky ride centers are generally outside the town; so the Aurora could be visible during the ride if one takes them late in the evening.You could also choose to drive the sled. The dogs know the route and follow each other, so driving the sled is really quite simple. Most of the mushers are young college grads having moved in from different parts of the world to experience Norway and its beauty.
After almost an hour of dog-sledding, we got a chance to meet the husky puppies. My children were absolutely thrilled to be able to play with and hold the puppies. We gathered around the fire in the Gamme - a traditional Sami hut - and were served warm drinks, hot chocolate and a traditional Sami meal. The meal had Bacalao (local stock fish prepared in red sauce), reindeer meat and delicious brownies for dessert. Yes, there were vegetarian options available too!
The next activity on our list was our visit to The Polar Park. It is three hours away from Tromso, in Bardu. They even have parking dedicated to campers and caravans. The moment you head inland, it gets really cold as there is no gulf stream to lend the warmth. We got lucky because it was snowing when we went and not freezing. This park has animals in their natural habitat. We saw Norway’s large predators - wolves, brown bears, lynx and their preys. The park has 12 enclosures over 112 hectares. The most memorable part for me was meeting the wolves inside their enclosure. Bear in mind that even though the wolves are socialised they are still predators. This experience isn't for the fainthearted! When the wolf comes up and puts its paws on your outstretched hands and its amber eyes make contact with yours - your breath stops! While children aren't allowed inside the wolf enclosure, if you want to visit it, make sure to book in advance. My children really enjoyed themselves at the park. They loved seeing the animals and even though it was snowing, they ran around, built a gazillion snowmen and frolicked in the snow.
On a rest day, we took the two young ones to Polaria. The exhibits are designed to be educative and informational. There is a panoramic five-screen cinema that shows documentaries on Northern Lights as well as Svalbard. The most sought-after attraction is the bearded seal show. The bearded seal is an arctic species and is found in Svalbard. The two were enthralled by the show and got to interact with the seals up close.
Where to Stay
The centrally located Clarion Hotel The Edge is the largest conference hotel in Tromso. The hotel has a combination of rooms and suites but they tend to go fast so one must book well in advance (NOK 2270 per room onwards; nordicchoicehotels.com/tromso). The breakfast buffet spread is huge and is part of the stay. Do not miss out on the Vitamin D booster shot. The Radisson Blu (NOK 1700 onwards per room;radissonblu.com/hotel/tromso) and Thon Hotel Polar (NOK 974 per room onwards; thonhotels.com) are also popular.
Where and What to eat
Tromso is a Salmon lovers delight. For an outstanding gourmet meal with excellent pre-set vegetarian and non-vegetarian options as well as a la-carte; head to Mathallen (+47 77 680100). If you are staying at Clarion Hotel The Edge, you will love Masterchef Marcus Samuelsson’s Kitchen & Table restaurant. To get the pizza, pasta fix for the kids, head over to Yonas Pizzeria . The cafes and coffee houses are plentiful should you want to huddle in.
As one of my Nordic friends says "There is nothing called bad weather, there is just bad clothing" .The key to being warm and having fun is to wear layers. It will make all the difference between a good experience and a bad one. Tromso in winters can get windy too. We used merino base layers, ski jackets, ski pants and gloves whenever we stepped out. Snow boots and woollen socks seal the deal. Balaclava, pashmina stoles comes in handy during snow play and windy times. There are also shops that rent out Thermal Suits and other snow gear should one need them. Most activities like whale watching, husky sledding provide snowsuits and boots as a part of the trip/package. But it is always better to be prepared for weather changes in the Arctic. For thermal suit rentals (book in advance), look up Tromso Outdoor (tromsooutdoor.no). They do delivery as well.
Northern Lights photography
The Northern Lights need professional cameras to be captured properly. I am told that there are multiple iOS and Android apps too that help you capture this, but DSLR is really the king here. Be sure to carry a tripod so that you can set it up well else the pictures may be hazy. Our guide was also the tour's professional photographer and was able to click one photo per family. He advised us to use wide angle lens, manual mode, ISO CA 800-1600 and exposure time of 8-30 seconds for the best results.
The writer is a former Googler and is currently enjoying her time tending to her flock and basking in the Californian sun. She loves to travel, dance and cook though not always in that order.