Northern Europe in winter is as picture perfect as the postcards suggest, although the further North you go the less time you will have to see it as the sun is in the sky for increasingly short times, or if you are very far North it may not show its face for a good 2 months.
This is what happens in Tromso, the sun sets for the last time on November 27th and the polar night begins, however once you see Tromso you will understand why the locals say this actually happens a week earlier on November 21st, due to the height of the fjords and mountains that surround the city. The sun wont peek above the horizon again until the 15th of January, and eventually shows its face again on January 21st in the city. There is light, in fact i am writing this in what little light there is while waiting for my group to get ready. The long nights definitely slow everyone down, so i find my self with a little time to write due to the after effects of Jet Lag and the lethargy that kicks in after a day of dog sledding. the temperature being minus 5 outside and a large Christmas meal.
From about 10.30 to maybe 2.30 you will have some light in the town to be able to go to the harbour and see those mountains that extend from the sea straight up. It is like a 4 hours long golden hour if you are a photographer.
This is the second time we have been to Tromso at Christmas, and we rarely go to the same place twice if that is any use as a recommendation, so we were a little more prepared for how shut it is for the three days over Christmas. I thought it might be useful If you are planning to be here over those three days to know what options are on offer for you . Most restaurants and shops, not all, but enough to make it challenging, close early on the 24th of December and don’t open again till the 26th of December, this also applies to most public transport etc. So you will have to think about what things you want to do in that time, maybe chill in the room, go Lights chasing, or whale watching whatever it is it isn’t going to be shopping so be prepared for that.
Hotels, tour operators etc are open so you can book activities or grab (somewhat pricey) food options. There are also some restaurants / takeaways that will stay open and i will put just a few of these in a list below. I will also include a link to a opening hours PDF ( though it is for this year, 2019, they will update it for next year and in the future, i will try to as well) I will also technical skills allowing, but a map on where a 711 type shop is open during this period. It is a REALLY useful find as it sells snacks, hot pastries and sandwiches drinks etc, and opens about 6.30 to 7 in the morning so if you need a hot breakfast or to grab a hot sandwich for lunch before you go off dog sledding or whale watching it is a lifesaver.
Which brings me on what to do on those three days where the city is empty of locals and full of tourists wandering around wondering what to do. This time, as last time, we booked our main daytime tours on these days. I strongly advise you do this as well and to book whale watching, reindeer or dog sledding well in advance. By that i mean before you arrive, it is a very busy time and there are always limited numbers.
My personal favourite is Dog Sledding through the valleys. There is something quite special about being in the Norwegian wilderness with nothing but the sound of your sled and the padding of the dogs as you shoot along at 15 to 20 km an hour. We used, twice now, a company called Active Tromso who offer small group tours both day and night and some longer ones if you have a more adventurous spirit. They pick up outside the Blu Raddison Hotel near the harbour in a small minibus (not the huge coach that turns up about 10 minutes before them) We chose Active Tromso the first time because of the reviews, and the second time because the reviews were right. It is a smallish Outdoor centre run by Tore Albrightsen who offer a more adventurous experience. you are out for over 2 hours with 5 dogs and up to 6 other sleds. They offer all the instruction and warm weather gear though food is not provided they do have a lovely fire and tea and coffee when you get back. It is challenging so a reasonable level of fitness is needed, unless you are the passenger then you need to be on photo duty.
You depart into the wilderness and learn quickly how to move and control the sled, across frozen lakes, through Arctic forests, past Christmas skiers. It is simply wonderful. Once you have completed the trip you are returned to help put the dogs back to their homes and have some time to play and pet with them, they are massively friendly. Then, after some hot drinks and stories you return to Tromso for about mid afternoon. All the guides we have met are friendly, professional and very skilled. The owner Tore is somewhat of a local legend having taken part in numerous 1000 mile dog sled races and half way through the 7 peak challenge! He knows his stuff. Before going into formal teaching i was an outdoor pursuits instructor for 10 years and i can only dream of having some of the experiences this guy has had.
Once you return to Tromso you are early enough to get a quite bite to eat before a northern lights trip, however you will be tired and as they can go on till 3 in the morning you might want to take the rest of the day/night to relax. We chose to do this on Christmas day and take the day to cook at the Airbnb and pop on a christmas movie. It was a wise move!
Another must do day time activity in the area is the Whale watching excursions. there are a number of these on offer as well. We chose the Aurora Explorer. with the small rib trip to get closer. (if this article continues from this point you know if is safe to do that!)
Luckily it is! But only just,
I will write a fuller review later but have a think if the following description is for you before you go for the Rib side of the tour, i have linked the reviews here from TripAdvisor so you can make your own mind up. We didn’t enjoy it at all, the driving was to my mind more for the guides enjoyment that the guests, one of our group was given a survival suit that didn’t zip up, which is dangerous if the boat does flip or if the passenger fell out. They also didn’t have enough of each size for everyone, so the suits were over sized for some customers, the specialist more maneuverable RIB managed to find 3 orcas, this was cool, however the large heated boat managed to find pods of orcas and breaching and feeding Humpbacks. This is mainly because, to my mind, the driver wanted to play with his boat rather than find whales for everyone. I actually have a powerboat qualification and have never or would never decide surfing the stern wave of a 80 or so feet Catamaran going at 20 Knots with one customer in a half closed survival suit and 11 others not expecting this to be a good idea. At one point i estimate we were 10 to 15 metres behind the boat travelling at that speed. I submitted a complaint but not overly hopeful they will do anything or take it seriously. If they do i will update this with their response.
As for the boat the Aurora Explorer which is pretty good and the crew on board are attentive and patient, with the exception of letting a broken survival suit on to the rib, but this was an accident I’m sure. The rest, with hot drinks, good guides and warm tea and interior is recommended. I was pretty disappointed as last time we were here it was one of the highlights of the trip., this time it was the low point. However the experience can be great. My advice would be to stay on the larger boat.
Starting at 8.45 at the harbour the trip takes you in the search for Humpback and orcas who come to the fjords to feed on herring. Although with everything in nature you have to take your chance but the chances are high you will find them. The boat is large and has hot drinks on board as it does get COLD!, bitingly cold so make sure to wear many layers and go back to the cabin from time to time to warm up .
The boat can be out for up to 7 hours if they need to travel further to find the whales but you should be back mid afternoon again. As with lots of activities you are restricted by the light hours at this time.
You are very likely to find the whales and to watch them feed on the cast shoals of herring that come into the fjords. It is a stunning sight to see. the boat also has videos and information on the wildlife you are likely to see. it leaves from the harbour.
It is nigh on impossible and almost a travesty to not go on a Northern Lights chase, With the Chasing Lights company on the main street. I was a little worried as its one of the biggest and they only had space on the Big Bus tour which can be a little manic with so many people if there are a lot of stops, If there is just a couple of stops it is better.
The good news is it is almost half the price of the smaller mini bus tours and although doesn’t have food it does have cookies and drinks, we were lucky to have a good day for solar activity (indulge me with the photos we managed to get.) The two guides were great, they were Marios and Alex, if you decide to book through this company. They were more than willing to take photos for people, share information about the lights and to help with setting up a camera. I imagine all companies are pretty good, but just a recommendation if its needed.
One thing i think they should mention, especially for people who live in large cities is the sky you will see is incredible, i have been to Africa and thought i had seen stars but Northern Europe on a clear day is the best i have ever seen. I live in Hong Kong so we usually get excited if there are more than 4 stars visible to the naked eye, away from the city of Tromso it is incredible. It is almost guaranteed you will also see shooting stars as well. The snow covered mountains frame both the lights and this sky so very well it will create memories that stay with you for a very long time.
for those of you who want some food that isn’t European, or North European there are options in town, and i will point to them here just as food options can be sparse at this time of year ( or booked up as we found out) so we got a takeaway curry for our Xmas dinner! from elephant, they have a few Pizza places open during the period and a pretty good Kebab place.
Those should keep you full until the rest of the food options open on the 27th. However i said i would try to link the 7-11 type shop in case you find yourself stranded and is desperate need of a coke and a hot sandwich so here it is. It is called Narvesen Stortorget, near the main square.