Visit Norway: Arctic Polar Night

To Norway!

Øverbygd, Norway

We always dreamed of visiting Norway in the winter, and thanks to cashing in airline points and creative budgeting, we had the opportunity to go just before Christmas! The plan was to fly to Oslo, visit with friends for a couple of days, and then fly up to Tromsø for the remainder of the week and experience as much as possible during the Polar Night. Here is what we did, what we learned, and what we recommend!

Sunrise in Oslo

Before visiting Norway it’s important to know a few things. First, this Scandinavian country has just over 5 million people – half of Sweden and about the same as Denmark, which is eight times smaller than Norway. It is comparable to Finland in total land area and population. At 1,100 miles long, Norway stretches longer than the entire western coast of the United States! Also, roads through the country are limited, making land travel fairly slow. It’s important to know this before planning a trip to Norway as a destinations may look close on a map, but as we Mainers say, “you can’t get there from here.” It’s a good idea to focus on one area of Norway on any given trip. There is a huge difference from the north to the south when it comes to daylight in various seasons. In mid December we had about 6 hours of daylight in Oslo and zero hours of actual daylight (only 2 hours of twilight) in Tromsø. Plan accordingly!

Norwegians are not a boastful people, but they have muted pride in their history. The era of the Vikings is well documented and preserved in various museums around Oslo and different locations along the coast. They have an incredible record in arctic/antarctic exploration as well. Norway as we know it today only became a country in 1814 – experiencing periods of turmoil during Nazi occupation in WWII but recovering brilliantly when oil was discovered in the 1960’s. Today Norway is among the richest nations with the highest sovereign wealth funds (for citizen benefits) and is also among the most Earth-conscious, eco-friendly countries on the planet. It is ironic that such a “green” country’s wealth comes from oil, but it is commendable that they work to mitigate the effects of pollution with ambitious public policies.

Money Saving Tips

It’s true, Norway is a very expensive country to visit. They have their own currency (Krone) that is about 1 USD = 8.6 NOK. €1 is approximately 10 NOK, so when shopping in Norway I just divided the price by 10 to estimate the cost in euro. Prices are high – we spent around $100 for a meal for our family of five without drinks (many eateries have free water available) at a cafe. It’s a good idea to bring a water bottle with you wherever you go to save on beverage costs!

Breakfast at the hotel in Tromsø

Of course you will want to sample the local cuisine – there are many fresh and healthy options – but one way to save on food is to opt for lodging that includes meals. Most hotels have nice breakfast buffets included, but some also offer dinner! Since we were there for primarily adventure experiences, we opted to spend our money on tours instead of meals. We selected these all inclusive hotels, and were totally satisfied. In Oslo we stayed at the Clarion Collection Hotel Bastion, and at the Clarion Collection Hotel With in Tromsø. Neither hotel had luxurious amenities, but they both had saunas, cozy lobbies and nice breakfast and dinner buffets – plus an afternoon “tea” with snacks called Fika. With a family of 5 we needed two rooms, but they were not adjoining. Both hotels were approximately €300/night (2 rooms, 5 people) and other hotels would have been closer to €250-€300/night without an evening meal. We figured this saved us around €100/day minimum.

Another way to save is to walk! Downtown Oslo and Tromsø are totally walkable, but also have very nice public transportation. Taxis are VERY expensive in Norway! We made the mistake of using the taxis the first day in Tromsø and ended up spending about €100 on 3 short rides. Yikes! Instead we could’ve spent €5 adult/€2.50 child on single bus tickets OR even better, a 7 day ticket purchased in advance costs only €24 adult/€12 child! We learned our lesson the hard way in Tromsø that you need to tell the taxi dispatch how many people (5) the cab needs to accommodate – or else you’ll be paying for that taxi when it arrives even if you can’t all fit inside (apparently this is a Norwegian law?)! We took the bus after that. The buses in Tromsø are super convenient. You can buy bus tickets with a credit card right at the bus stop kiosk at Fredrik Langes gate.

Raketten Bar & Pølse

We also calculated the cost of a rental car in Tromsø, considering where we wanted to go vs the tours we wanted to take, and it turned out we didn’t need a car after all (being there confirmed it), as all tours included transportation! Plus we stayed right in downtown Tromsø on the waterfront, so everything was within walking distance. The only time we needed the city bus was when we went up on the hill to the sports complex to go climbing, and crossing the bridge to the Arctic Cathedral and cable car. The tours may be pricey, but saving a few hundred dollars by avoiding a rental car helps a lot. In Oslo, you definitely do not need a rental car if you’re staying within city limits.

If you don’t have a hotel with dinner included, you can save money by shopping at grocery stores or eating at food carts. In Tromsø I highly recommend the Raketten Bar & Pølse – the smallest and oldest take-out place in the world! It has the best hot dogs – including reindeer, beef and vegetarian options. The attendant was super nice, the price was reasonable, the wieners are delicious, and the location is adorable! You should be able to find pølse (local hotdogs) in most convenience stores for cheap, too – they’re very popular! In Oslo we had yummy felafel and other street food at the Christmas market – if you happen to be there during the holidays. Another good option is always a bakery. Baker Hansen in Oslo had delicious sandwiches that didn’t break the bank!

Getting There

Depending on where you are flying from (stateside or Europe), flights to Oslo range from $100-$450 per person. To give you an idea of how far Oslo is from Tromsø, it would take over 22 hours to drive all the way up north, one way! Flying is the way to go, and the flight from Oslo to Tromsø is only 2 hours and about $65 per person. Both airports are very nice! We saved over $750 by redeeming airline points to pay for our flights. Expect delays when traveling in the winter due to weather, so plan connecting flights with plenty of layover time. Another option for reaching Oslo is to take the long ferry from Kiel in Germany, Copenhagen in Denmark, Gothenburg in Sweden, or several other locations. This will cost about $45 per person one way, without a car. The airports in Oslo and Tromsø are terrific – I definitely recommend flying.

Oslo

The population of Oslo, the capital of Norway, is around 635k people – so it feels rather relaxed and quaint compared to other major European cities. The Oslo airport is a 35 minute drive from metropolitan Oslo, but instead of driving, take the fast and convenient train (Flytoget) from the airport to downtown Oslo. It’s $40/adult round trip – children ride free with an adult. There are lots of hotel and Air BnB options in the city as well as convenient camper van parking if that’s your jam! Cost will range from $50-$300/night depending on how many people you’re accommodating, if breakfast is included, and how nice the facilities are.

What to do in Oslo

Oslo isn’t my favorite major European city but it has a lot of interesting modern attractions to enjoy. Right on the harbor is the Oslo Opera House, seemingly reaching directly into the sea. It is beautiful, and also tons of fun to walk all the way around it – even up on the roof! Just be careful when it’s icy in the winter – those slopes can be slippery!

Behind the Opera house is the Munch museum, full of incredible works by the famous Edvard Munch, the Norwegian painter who created “The Scream.” Also, if you’re into polar dips, definitely check out the floating saunas on the waterfront. We saw people slipping into the icy water and then warming up in the sauna!

Next to the Opera house is the brand new Deichman Library. This is a multi story community gathering place with comfortable seating, cafe, activities for kids, and of course, floors and floors of books. The kids absolutely loved this place – and my favorite thing was visiting with friends in the cozy seating or cafe with a beautiful view of the harbor! Keep an eye out for the unique art instillation that is currently running for one year called Inmeridiem, that I was so lucky to experience! Only one person per day can do this, and the sign up is long – but if you are in the right place at the right time, you may also get lucky and fill in for a no-show! (see below) The concept of the art is beautiful – an orb with a rock inside that descends from the ceiling at exactly mid-day, then opens up as the artist in your headphones explains concepts of heat, elements, and oneness with music. It is quite moving!

Be sure to walk through downtown Oslo and towards the Oslo Cathedral, Parliament building, National Theater and Royal Palace. This is a lovely place to explore during the holidays – the streets are all lit up and the main Christmas market surrounds the outdoor ice rink.

The Christmas market in 2021 had ice skating, food stalls, a ferris wheel, a huge light tunnel, and outdoor camp fires to warm up with. It was beautiful – and not especially crowded.

A great place to watch the sunset in Oslo is at the Akershus Fortress overlooking the bay. It was originally constructed in the 1200’s but is still used today for military purposes. It’s a nice place to walk around – and if you’re interested in military history, check out the Forsvarsmuseet (military museum) nearby. Other notable museums in Oslo include:

  • The Norwegian Museum of Cultural History (Norsk Folkemuseum)
  • Viking Ship Museum (Vikingskipshuset)
  • Norwegian Resistance Museum (Norwegian activity during Nazi occupation)
  • Fram Museum
  • Kon-Tiki Museum
  • Ibsen Museum
  • Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art
  • The Vigeland Museum
  • Oslo City Museum
  • Culture on Wheels

During the holidays, another small Christmas market pops up in Oslo at Youngstorget plaza. We enjoyed the massive Sami tent market with lots of traditional Sami indigenous cultural gifts and Norwegian treasures inside.

Other attractions in and around Oslo include:

  • Frogner Park (with 212 sculptures by Gustav Vigeland)
  • Holmenkollen Ski Museum & Tower (ski jumping!)
  • Oslo Winter Park (skiing, snowboard park)
  • Oslo City Hall
  • Tjuvholmen Sculpture Park
  • Mathallen Food Hall
  • Hunt for statues throughout the city: Fist & Rose, Tiger, Grass Roots, Christian IV’s glove, Knus nazismen Statue (hammer honoring those who lost their lives in the Nazi occupation).

I would recommend stopping in Oslo for a day or two if you have time, but if you don’t have time, it’s ok! There is SO MUCH BEAUTY to behold in the rest of sprawling Norway, and it’s smart to save as many days as possible for enjoying the natural wonders along the Norwegian coast! We visited Tromsø way up north, but other popular cities in Norway are Stavanger, Flåm, Lofoten, Bergen, Trondheim, and Kristiansand. We would love to return to Norway in the summer and hike some of the many incredible peaks overlooking the fjords!

Tromsø

LODGING

As mentioned before, there are plentiful hotel options in downtown Tromsø, and most have a nice breakfast included. A few popular ones are Clarion Hotel the Edge, Radisson Blu, Scandic Ishavshotel, and Clarion Collection Hotel Aurora or With (they are next to each other and both include dinner). I recommend hotels because most have food included, sauna, fitness, and proximity to all of Tromsø’s attractions – or at least the bus stops!

FOOD

Don’t go to Norway without trying brown cheese (it’s delicious on bread with jam, or with crackers), reindeer stew or finbiff (recipe). Here are a few popular restaurants in Tromsø. We loved Smørtorget and Raketten Bar & Pølse for light, more affordable fare.

  • Art Café
  • Øhallen
  • Blårock Cafe
  • Raketten Bar & Pølse
  • Magic Ice Bar
  • Størhus
  • Smørtorget
  • Fiskekompaniet
  • Bardus Bistro
  • Casa Inferno Pizza
  • Solid (cozy outside seating year-round, nice atmosphere for hanging out, drinks)

What to do

Northern Lights on the Norwegian Fjords

There is so much to do in Tromsø in the winter but of course most people go to chase the Northern Lights. The best time to go is when there is the most darkness. The Polar Night lasts from late November until mid January – but visiting just before or after that would also be good for aurora chasing. Remember that the most snow will happen later in the season if you’re looking for winter activities, and Ice Domes aren’t usually complete until mid to late December. Here are my top recommendations for things to do with honest reviews, links, prices and tips, as well as other ideas to be mixed and matched to your schedule, budget and interests! Whatever you do, bundle up. Bring long johns and layers, thick wool socks and all the cold weather gear so you can enjoy all Tromsø has to offer. I don’t recommend going to Tromsø in the winter if you struggle with cold weather, or darkness. It can be brutal – but if you are dressed properly and have a good attitude, it is so much fun!

Cable Car

This is one of our favorite things we did in Tromsø. The cable car is located on the east shore, over the bridge, so your best bet is to hop a bus to get there and back. The gondola runs every 30 minutes and you can buy tickets at the kiosk or with the attendant (usually the attendant can give you family discounts). It was about $80 for our family’s round trip up and down the mountain and was worth every penny for those incredible views! We chose a clear night to go up – albeit frigid – and the lights of the city were on full display. Not only the full moon and city lights were shining … we had our first glimpse of the aurora borealis from here! Although they were faint, they were beautiful to see. My fingers froze trying to take pictures and videos but it was so worth it! The kids loved playing in the snow and while they played, we walked along the path that followed the cliffs to get views in all directions of the beautiful Tromsø fjords. At the top of the cable car there is a building with a lookout platform (with plexiglass for little kids to see through) and a nice restaurant that overlooks the city. The meals are expensive here but hey, they have reindeer stew (at about $25/serving), and it comes with quite a view! Whatever you do, make sure you go up when the weather is clear. For that price, you want to be able to enjoy the twinkling vista as much as possible!

Polaria

Open from 10AM-4PM, Polaria is a wonderful little aquarium with lots of fun exhibits and interactive hands-on learning. The kids loved watching the anemones being fed, and the seals had a wonderful “show” (they were explicit it was NOT a show, but feeding, socialization, stimulation and training) where they showed off their skills! There is also a small play area here, as well as a theater where they showed a short film about the arctic region. We loved walking through the tunnel and watching the seals swim overhead, and the fish get excited about feeding time. Check out those nine-armed sea stars! My favorite part was the gift shop, which had many unique items compared to other souvenir shops in town. This is a great place to visit if you have kids, and you can spend 1-3 hours here easily to pass the time.

ARCTIC CATHEDRAL

The arctic cathedral is perhaps more of a notable landmark than an attraction, unless of course you’d like to attend a service or concert here. The unique design is especially stunning from a distance. Up close it shrinks a bit in size to the eye but is still elegant and lovely. It was built in the 1960’s and is an iconic part of the Tromsø skyline.

Tromsø Library & Cinema

Scandinavia does the public bibliotek right! This lovely Tromsø library resembles an ice dome and is a glowing, relaxing place to duck into when you have some time to kill to relax for a bit, read, or grab a coffee and a small bite. Attached to the library is the Tromsø cinema, Aurora Kino Focus. Of course double check covid restrictions before you go. At the time we visited, Norway had banned all public sales of alcohol in restaurants, and bars were closed. Additionally, the pool complex was closed but the cinema was still open! Many shows are in English, but double check before you buy tickets to make sure it isn’t dubbed.

Northern Lights Tour

This is a must do! You can, of course, drive around the area yourself or take your chances walking around to more secluded areas of Tromsø in hopes of seeing the northern lights. BUT, when you’re only there for a short time and want to be sure to maximize your chances of a great show, leave it up to the experts! We toured with Chasing Lights* and were so pleased with the ease of booking, professionalism of the guides, and comfort of the bus. *The Chasing Lights people book a variety of tours in the Tromsø area, and I highly recommend them as a tour company! (No affiliation) In order to have the best chance of seeing the aurora, you need several things: darkness, clear skies, time of day, and luck! (Luck means there actually is aurora activity that night.) Even if you have all the cards in your favor, there’s still a chance they won’t emerge. With the Chasing Lights tour, we left at 5:30PM and returned at 1:30AM – a full 8 hours! It didn’t seem that long though, as the kids napped on the bus and we went to three different places to spot the sky dancing activity. Also, we were a little worried about light pollution with the full moon – which we didn’t plan – but it didn’t affect our ability to see the lights at all. In fact, it made it easier to see other things at night, including the snowcapped mountains in the distance! Be sure to dress warm, pack snacks (they provide cookies and hot cocoa but you might want more than that) and don’t forget your tripod if you’re serious about taking photos! The tour cost $385 for our family of 5. It is also recommended to book more than one night to be sure you have a chance of seeing the aurora, and we did that. Since we saw the lights the first night, it was easy to cancel our second reservation 2 days later. Cancellations are free 24 hours in advance, so book your two tours two nights apart and you’ll be in the clear to cancel the second night if you have success the first night! Also, the 2nd night has a discounted price if you book in advance. Worth it as a back up plan!

Whale Watching Tour

Another tour we booked through Chasing Lights was Silent Whale Watching. This all-day boat trip was more than just a hunt for orca and other marine life, it was an educational and entertaining trip through the northern fjords! It appears to be daylight in my photos below, but the truth is, the sun never rose and it was dawn or twilight the whole time! The skies were beautiful and we were so glad to have a tour all through the islands and fjords up to Skjervoy. It took 3 hours to sail in the comfortable, eco-friendly, two-story catamaran before we began seeing killer whales. The orca were always a little ways off, but it was easy to spot their plume of water puff into the sky as they surfaced and their sleek black bodies bobbing up and down in the distance. As cool as this was, the highlight really was just the beauty of the winter fjords that we wouldn’t have otherwise seen. The whale watch was the priciest of our tours at about $700 for our family (not including sandwiches aboard, which were actually quite good), but it was a hit for everyone. We loved the family time playing games inside the boat. The kids were able to nap comfortably on the way home, and only one of us felt a little queazy for a bit. If whale watching and a fjord cruise isn’t your thing, I might recommend switching this tour for a Sami Reindeer Cultural experience (see below) which costs a bit less and your feet stay on land the whole time.

Ice Domes Tour

For $375 our family took a 5 hour tour to the Tromsø Ice Domes, about 1 hour outside of the city. The bus picked us up at 10AM and we took a beautiful drive to Øverbygd, where they were just finishing up building the ice domes and the sculpting artists were hard at work. First, we sat down to watch a short film about the making of the ice domes. We were then able to tour all the rooms and watch the artists at work. Finally, we had a quick shot of juice from ice glasses and ended the tour by viewing the small herd of reindeer and having a delicious lunch in the hut of delicious reindeer soup, tea and flatbread! The kids just loved playing in the snow and seeing the different rooms you could stay in (“Mom! those beds are made of ice!”) but I loved learning about the long process of making these domes by hand. We were at the domes for about 3 hours total, and returned to Tromsø on the cozy coach bus. For a longer and pricier experience at the Ice Domes, you can stay overnight, do a snowmobile or dogsled tour, snowshoe or tent out under the stars in hopes of seeing the northern lights! It is also possible to drive here on your own instead of paying for a full bus tour.

Fishing Tour

The highlight for my daughter was fulfilling her sea fishing dreams on a fjord fishing tour with daddy! They left at 11 and returned by 3, caught tons of fish and were even able to eat what they caught thanks to the hosts who cooked up a big, delicious meal. There were only 2 other people on the tour, and they didn’t need to ride very far to the spot where they fished, so there was plenty of time to reel in the cod! It is also possible to catch halibut. The cost of this tour was about $100 per person – a great deal! They provide all the equipment, and although you don’t get to take the fish home with you, it is a wonderful experience. Just show up in the right gear! For more info, click here.

Sami Culture Tour/Reindeer visit

Something I really wish we would have done but ran out of time (and budget!) was the Sami Culture Tour and Reindeer Farm visit. For our family, if I had to do it all over again I would trade out the ice domes tour for this Sami experience, at about $525. We did enjoy the ice domes, but when we left Norway I felt a little pang of sadness we didn’t give our kids the experience of learning about the indigenous population of Scandinavia (plus feeding reindeer!) in favor of saving a couple hundred bucks. I would’ve done it all if we could! The Sami farm is nearby – only a 25 minute drive – and the experience is 4 hours, from 10AM-2PM. According to the site, “Once we’ve arrived at the camp you will meet the Sami family and get a short introduction into their lives with the reindeer. Following that you’ll get the possibility of feeding the reindeer, practice lasso throwing and go on a short reindeer-sledding ride (optional). You’ll be offered warm lunch and hot drinks, followed by a gathering inside the lavvu, where you’ll enjoy storytelling and a joik performance, the traditional song of the Sami.” It sounds wonderful and from friends who did this, it sounds like a must-do in Tromsø!

SPORTS

Tromsø has one of the coolest sports complexes we have ever seen, including the best climbing complex we’ve ever used! Klatresenter is the new climbing center (that can be reached by bus) and right in the same building is the swimming pool complex (Tromsøbadet) that wasn’t open when we were there due to Covid. The climbing gym is great for families and has all the equipment right there to rent. The best part is that they have several automatic lines so all three kids could climb at once without a spotter! We went twice we loved it so much. For more info, click here.

MUSEUMS

If you are a museum lover, there are many wonderful options in Tromsø. If we had time we would’ve liked to check out the Polarmuseet and Folksmuseum, although the kids were begging to go into the Troll Museum! Here are the most popular ones:

  • Polarmuseet
  • Perspective Museum
  • Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum
  • Folksmuseum
  • Troll Museum
  • Blue Vision (salmon farming)
  • Universitetsmuseet (established in 1872)
  • Northern Norwegian Science Center
  • Telemuseet

OTHER FUN!

Here are a few more options for fun things to do in and around Tromsø!

  • Walk to Prestvannet Lake: this was a nice place to walk – we reached the paths by bus. If you can’t get outside the city to see northern lights, you can watch them here if they’re out as there is less light pollution. Otherwise I don’t recommend this frozen lake; when we went, it was unclear if the lake was frozen enough to walk on, so we just played in the snow.
  • Walk the Main Street (Storgata) and shop: there are so many sweet little shops and souvenir places, as well as eateries and specialty stores downtown to explore.
  • Walk or bus to Telegrafbukta beach: this southern beach is a nice place to sit and see the mountains along the fjords, or if you’re lucky, catch the northern lights!
  • Ski at Tromsø Alpinpark: this small ski slope is just enough to satisfy – or rent XC skis, snow shoes, or ice skates!
  • Book a sail to chase the northern lights by sea: sailing tour with sauna/jacuzzi on board – more info is available here.

We look forward to returning to Norway someday in the summer – but until then, this trip ranked up there as one of the most memorable for our family! We love you Tromsø!

One comment

  1. It is 1st time to read your experience,, thx a lot helped me much really appreciated

    Keep sharing your travel detailed experience 😍

    Liked by 1 person

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