From 12 October – 19 October, my wife and I spent a week in Tromsø (Tromso) in Northern Norway. October is definitely not the busiest time of the year, as most tourists gravitate to either the midnight sun season or the polar night season. Moreover, October is Tromsø’s wettest month, and is notorious for its cloud coverage that hide the northern lights behind a white veil. Nonetheless, we had an amazing time visiting the city and the area. Here are our tips for a trip to this area in October.
One of the main attractions for visiting Tromsø year long are the northern lights also known as the aurora borealis.
Situated right in the middle of auroral zone, Tromsø could not be situated better. Even when it’s too cloudy on Tromsøya (the island occupied by the city), it serves as a good base camp for your chase.
When we flew into Tromsø, the weather forecasts were pretty grim. The predictions indicated clouds for the entire week, except for the evening of our arrival. We luckily had a rental car, and drove away from the city to Kvaløysletta in Ersfjordbotn. The view over the fjord is amazing and worth the trip on its own right. Unfortunately, it faces west, while the northern lights are best seen looking north.
We parked the car further down the road and walked to the fjord, in about 10 minutes.
When we looked up around 20:30, a thin white veil appeared in the sky. Because the full moon was rising over a mountain in our back, we first mistook this for high clouds. Pointing our camera up, however, showed this ‘white’ veil as green! On our first night in Tromsø, we were lucky enough to see the northern lights, which were weak, but nothing less impressive. When we were there, the temperature had dropped to about -5 °C with an apparent temperature that was considerably lower. Around 21:00, we gave up and walked back to the parking lot where we had an even better view of the northern lights over Kaldfjorden. If you decide to go chasing the northern lights on your own, make sure to dress warm and to bring something warm to drink to warm up when you get back to the car. And more importantly, make sure to watch first and then take photos, instead of the other way around.
When we returned to our hotel, we decided to also book a guided tour. The reasoning behind this was that a guided tour could bring us to spots they know have a high probability of visibility of the northern lights with little or no light pollution. We ended up booking a trip with Chasing Lights on a ‘big bus’. This means you go in a big group of max 50 people, with 2 guides and a driver. We left on Tuesday at 18:00 and returned to our hotel around 02:00 the next morning. It was an enjoyable excursion, in which we first drove to Tamokdalen and later to Skibotn, where we ended up spending most of our time. We had to wait from 21:00 to around midnight until all of a sudden a strong display of dancing northern lights erupted in the sky which ended up looking greenish and pinkish not only to our cameras, but also to the naked eye. The photos just can’t do it justice.
The city itself
Tromsø is small; the city center is even smaller. You can walk to pretty much any attraction in less than 30 minutes, and if only visiting the city would probably spend no more than three days here.
The polar museum (polarmuseet)
This museum is definitely worth a visit. It’s collection focuses on two main topics: arctic hunting and arctic exploration. Some of the displays are pretty new, while others seem to stem from the 70’s and could use a little update. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting museum, from which you will return with another perspective on seal/polar bear hunting. All captions next to the pieces are in Norwegian, but guide books are available in several languages including English.
We visited polaria, because my wife wanted to see the seals they keep there. The aquarium itself, however, is pretty small and the seal training sessions you can witness are just that, training sessions. After the trainer gives here introduction in Norwegian and then later also in English, she stops talking and goes about her business with the seals until she and her colleagues run out of food for the seals. The other displays are pretty small. If you have time to spare, do pay them a visit, but don’t put it high on your bucket list either.
The arctic cathedral (Tromsdalen kirke, Ishavskatedralen)
This church is a distinctive piece of architecture that is worth your visit. Even if you don’t go inside, it’s a beautiful building to see from a far and up close.
To get to the cathedral you will have to cross the Tromsøbrua bridge to Tromsdalen. Crossing the bridge will take approximately 15 minutes by foot.
Fjellheisen (Tromsø cable car)
From Tromsdalen you can take the cable car up on the mountain. The ride will take about 4 minutes one way, and goes once every half hour. You can also walk up, but we did this in the evening. From the mountain you have a nice view of the entire area. At the cable car station on the mountain you can also have a warm meal or a drink. It’s no fine dining, but they serve nice comfort food at a reasonable price.
This cathedral is located on Storgata, and with its wooden structure an interesting building in its own right. Entrance fees are around 20 NOK (2 EUR) per person, and you will spend roughly 20 minutes inside. The building has been relocated several times, which gives it an interesting history. To attract more visitors, the cathedral now hosts small concerts, which may be worth your time.
This photography museum aims to provide other perspectives on life and has free entrance. We spend about an hour inside when we had some time to spare. The exhibit is nice to see and does indeed make you wander about other perspectives of the world. Worth a visit if you have time to spare.
Magic Ice Bar
One evening we went to the magic ice bar, which has a nice display of ice sculptures. Unfortunately, we didn’t focus on the word “bar” in the title of the venue. Unlike other Magic Ice venues, this bar is really small and definitely overpriced for what it offers. The walls are all carved out into big displays that surround the rooms, but we spend at most 30 minutes inside at 225 NOK per person. It’s a bar with art, not an exhibit with a bar.
Hiking and driving in the area
You definitely don’t go to Tromsø for an entire week just to see the city. We took our rental car and also went to places in the area to hike and enjoy the scenery. When driving in this area in October there are a few things you should know:
- There is often just one road to a village, and this road may be closed when it’s too dangerous to drive on (think thick layers of sleet, for example).
- The roads are often only one lane. You may have to kiss the side of the road to pass oncoming traffic.
- The roads are unlit. Drive carefully.
- The roads can be slippery.
When we were there the temperature varied from -5 °C to +5 °C. These are not just the ultimate lows and highs over the course of a day (this time of the year). The temperature can also vary quickly from place to place. You notice this when driving through the valleys and along the fjords. At some points during our stay the temperature dropped quickly and the roads all of a sudden got slippery over a distance of just a few kilometers. Even with spiked winter tyres on our rental car, the car still slipped in some places. I personally get a bit stressed behind the wheel in these conditions, but my wife had no problems driving here.
We left the city for Sommarøy to hike. The drive there leads you over roads with nice scenic views, especially near the bridge taking you from the island of Kvaløya to the island of Sommarøya.
We parked the car at Anne-Grete Jensen Havfrua Kro, where we had a nice cup of tea (at a very reasonable price for Norwegian standards) before crossing the small bridge to Hillesøya. Continuing down the road there is a T-section. If you go right here, you will see a parking lot adjacent to a red house, where you can park your car. Bring cash though. Parking is 50 NOK that you have to put in cash in a mailbox. There is no one to check if you actually did, but be good and pay for parking.
This parking lot is the starting point of a rather steep hike up the mountain. It turned out that Anne-Grete and we have different definitions of what can be called an easy hike. It probably is a for the more experienced hikers, but at some point it became too steep for me and we had to turn back. The trail is lined with a rope that you can you use for support, but this not enough to pull yourself over the bigger rocks.
The vista from halfway the trail is still very nice though.
The road to Rekvik from Tromsø is long. Although the distance is not even that long, it’s a long and winding road right along the fjords. At some point there is even a stretch of 28 km of just curling through the fjords with amazing scenic views from the road. When we got close to Rekvik, you end up at a T-section where going left will take you to Rekvik, and going right will take you to Tromvik. The road to Rekvik was “paved”, with a very coarse surface and pebble sized grains of pavement lining the entire road for a few kilometers on end. Definitely a place to drive slowly if you are in a rental car as rental cars don’t appreciate a car full of dents and chippings.
Along the road to Rekvik, you will find a small parking lot (if you can call it that) that forms the trail head of Brosmetinden. The trail was is not indicated, and there is no sign indicating where it starts. We just followed other hikers that we could see further up the trail.
It’s an easy hike up, that took us about an hour up, and 45 minutes down. I am of the opinion, however, that good hiking boots are essential, as the rocks can be slippery. Also, near the very top it becomes rather steep, so you will need to take your time. The views are worth the hike up.
We did two hikes on the island of Tromsøya itself. The first time we walked from the city center to Telegrafbukta in about 45 minutes. From there you have a nice view of the island of Kvaløya. From there onwards, we walked through the Folkeparken and followed the trail from the Tromsø museum to Bak-Olsen and Prestvannet. From there we went back to the city.
On our second hike on the island, we took the car to Høydebasseng Tromsø parking lot and followed the trail up Varden. This is a paved trail with little elevation and should be doable for almost anyone.
Other things to do in Tromsø
There are plenty of excursions you can do in Tromsø. Most, however, involve snow or are targeted at the high seasons. For example, whale watching isn’t possible in October, as the whales are typically too far north still for a one-day excursion. As an alternative, we took a RiB boat excursion to Hella. This boat zooms over the water at speeds up to 45 knots and gets you close to shore to spot wild seals and birds. We had perfect weather for this with clear skies and very low wind speeds, making the water in most places very flat. We took this excursion with Green Gold of Norway, who supplied us with a thermal suit to keep us warm. If you decide to go on one of these boats, make sure to bring a scarf or something else to shield your mouth from the wind. Although you are all suited up and packed warmly, it’s the face that can get icy cold when you are out on the water.
Things to definitely bring
There are a few things we didn’t think of that are good to have on you. Here are the things we did not think of, but would definitely bring the next time.
Even though you can pay for almost everything using your debit card or credit card, you will need cash to pay for some of the parking lots.
When you are taking photos of the northern lights, you will need a light to help you set the camera settings in the dark. It might as well be stuck to your head so that you can keep your hands free and gloves on.
Also, we always keep one in the car at home for emergency situations. Given that most of the roads are unlit, it might turn out pretty useful then too.
We relied on travel blogs and websites from locals to point us to some of the trails. A hiking map that indicates the trail head should make it a lot easier to find the trails.