Norway’s Arctic North: Tromso vs. Alta in Winter

Northern Lights Cathedral in Alta, Norway

You may say that you don’t like the cold. You may say that you can’t imagine visiting a part of the world that literally doesn’t see the sun for months at a time.

But before you say you wouldn’t visit Northern Norway in the winter months, read this post.

Because Norway’s Arctic North is actually a GREAT place to visit when the temperatures fall.

Last winter, I spent a week in Northern Norway, split between Tromsø (the “Gateway to the Arctic”) and Alta (the “Town of the Northern Lights”). I spent a lot of my time outdoors – and often at night – and can say with certainty that it was one of the best winter trips I’ve taken.

You definitely should go to Northern Norway in winter. But I realize that most people aren’t looking to experience everything twice in two different places – they want one destination where they can find it all.

Which begs the question: Tromsø or Alta?

The two Arctic towns are similar in some ways, but very different in others. Hopefully this comparison will help you decide which Northern Norway town is right for you for your next winter getaway.

Alta: Town of the Northern Lights

My first stop in Northern Norway was in the tiny town of Alta, located in Norway’s Finnmark county more than 375 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. The fjord town has a population of just under 15,000, and yet is actually known for quite a few things.

For example, Alta is the starting point for the annual Finnmarksløpet, the longest sled dog race in Europe. It is also known for its slate production, and some ancient rock carvings that are recognized by UNESCO.

Frozen waterfall in Northern Norway

(Of course, not many rocks are visible in Alta in the winter.)

And, of course, Alta is know for its Northern Lights.

Due to its location on the inner part of the Altafjorden and the fact that Norway’s coast gets a taste of the Gulf Stream, Alta doesn’t actually get bitterly cold during the winter months. Add to this a fairly low level of annual precipitation, and you get some great aurora conditions. This is probably why the world’s first observatory dedicated to studying the Northern Lights was built in Alta in 1899 (and also where Alta got its nickname as the “Town of the Northern Lights”).

What to see in Alta

Alta may be quite small, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to see. My top picks include:

The Northern Lights Cathedral – You can’t possibly miss this huge modern church in the center of town (it’s the top image in this post). Finished in 2013, the cathedral is supposed to represent the falling sheets of the Northern Lights. It’s cool to look at outside, and the inside is also worth taking a peek at.

Inside the Northern Lights Church

Inside the Northern Lights Cathedral

Alta Museum – Want to learn more about that World Heritage rock art that I mentioned? Then a visit to Alta Museum is a must. You probably won’t be able to see the actual art during the winter months (it will be under a couple feet of snow), but you can still see all the exhibits inside.

Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel – Every winter, an entire hotel is built in Alta made entirely of ice and snow. You CAN stay overnight here, though I also think a visit to see the various rooms and ice sculptures is probably enough for most people.

Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel in Alta, Norway

Inside the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel (2016)

Must-dos in Alta

And what about all those outdoor activities? Here are the must-dos in Alta:

Snowmobile safari – I personally don’t love snowmobiles (they kind of terrify me), but if you enjoy them, you’ll definitely want to book a snowmobiling trip into the wilds of Finnmark.

Snowshoeing / ice fishing – My friend Marie and I did a snowshoeing and ice fishing trip with GLØD Explorer. I like snowshoeing but wasn’t all too excited about ice fishing. But guess what? It ended up being really cool! We snowshoed to a quiet lake surrounded by snowy mountains, drilled holes, and sat down on reindeer hides with teeny tiny fishing rods to try and catch lunch. We caught nothing, of course, but still had a delicious fire-roasted lunch of fish and veggies. This is a great half-day outing, even suitable for kids.

Ice fishing in Alta, Norway

Having a lot more fun ice fishing than I expected to!

Stay overnight at the Holmen Husky Lodge – One of my favorite things we did in Alta was stay overnight at the Holmen Husky Lodge in cozy modernized lavvu (traditional Sami tents). This included a nighttime dogsled ride through the forest, a delicious dinner, and the the lavvu glamping. We even saw the Northern Lights! Read about the entire experience here.

Holmen Husky Lodge in Alta, Norway

Lavvu at the Holmen Husky Lodge

Northern Lights chasing – And, of course, you wouldn’t visit the Town of the Northern Lights without trying to see the elusive aurora! I went chasing with Paeskatun, and even though the “show” we saw was quite weak (darn you, fickle scientific phenomena!), it was still a fun and exciting night up in the mountains above Alta.

Northern Lights at Paeskatun

Northern Lights at Paeskatun

The positives of visiting Alta

Alta is for you if you want a more intimate experience in Northern Norway. You’ll find less tourists overall and smaller tour groups (the exception being on days when a cruise ship is in port in Alta), and some incredibly passionate and friendly tour guides.

The mild winter weather is also a huge plus – if you were to go do the same things in neighboring Finnish Lapland, it would be a LOT colder (thanks Gulf Stream!).

Boat in a snowstorm in Alta, Norway

It looks cold, but it actually wasn’t too bad!

The negatives of visiting Alta

Being a smaller settlement does, of course, have its drawbacks. There are fewer options when it comes to tours in Alta, and it can be tricky to book certain things if you hit a day when a cruise ship is in town (though this is not a frequent occurrence in Alta).

And there’s less choice when it comes to hotels and restaurants, too. In fact, we ate at our hotel’s pizza restaurant two days in a row because hardly anything else was open on a Sunday night!

Alta, Norway

“Downtown” Alta on a Sunday morning

Where to stay in Alta

There aren’t *that* many hotels to choose from in Alta, but the top two I would suggest are:

Thon Hotel Alta – Located in central Alta, the Thon is a good choice both budget-wise and because Peppes Pizza Restaurant downstairs is open even on Sunday nights.  😉   The rooms include free wifi, and some even overlook the Northern Lights Cathedral.

Scandic Alta – Located just around the corner from Thon, Scandic Alta would be my second pick. It also has an in-house restaurant (though it’s a little more upscale than Peppes), and many of the tours you book around Alta will offer free pickup from here.

Tromsø: Gateway to the Arctic

Tromsø, found south of Alta along Norway’s fjord-filled coast, is the largest town in Northern Norway with a population of just over 70,000. I know it’s difficult to think of 70,000 people as “big,” but after visiting Alta it sure does seem that way!

Tromsø is one of the more popular Norwegian cities for people to visit in the winter, mostly because it’s fairly easy to reach via budget flights from tons of large European cities.

And Tromsø IS a very cool (and very visually pretty) town.

What to see in Tromsø

The top sights in Tromsø (apart from just wandering around town) are:

Arctic Cathedral – The white church (officially Tromsdalen Church) across the sound from the main part of Tromsø is easily the city’s most famous landmark. You’ll find it on postcards and in guidebooks, and it’s worth crossing the big sloping bridge to go and see it up close.

Tromsø, Norway

The Arctic Cathedral across Tromsø Sound

The Polar Museum – If the sight of lots of taxidermied animals makes you feel uncomfortable, the the Polar Museum might not be for you. But if you’re okay with this, then the museum is a fascinating look into Arctic trapping and hunting and early polar explorers.

Must-dos in Tromsø

There are a lot of activities to choose from in and around Tromsø. The ones I can personally recommend are:

Dogsledding – I know dogsledding doesn’t appeal to everyone, but if you want to see a real dogsledding operation and see how much these specially-bred dogs really do LOVE to RUN, book a trip with Tromsø Villmarkssenter. You can even see what it’s like to be a musher and “drive” your own sled (beware, though – it’s a LOT harder than it looks!).

Learn to cross-country ski – If there’s only one physical outdoor activity you try in Tromsø, make it cross-country skiing. This is basically the national pasttime in Norway, and Tromsø Outdoor offers a great 3-hour course for beginners. (They also offer fun showshoeing tours if that’s more your speed.)

Go reindeer sledding – Northern Norway is home to the indigenous Sami people, who are known for herding reindeer. If you want to learn more about this culture AND get up close with some fuzzy-antlered deer, you can go reindeer sledding in the beautiful Lyngen Alps with Lynsfjord Adventure.

Reindeer at Lyngsfjord Adventures in Northern Norway

Reindeer at Lyngsfjord Adventures

Chase the Northern Lights – And, of course, Tromsø has PLENTY of options for those who want to chase the Northern Lights. One guide told me there are literally dozens of companies in the city that offer aurora-chasing tours. There’s of course never a guarantee that you’ll see the Northern Lights, but in order to have the best chance I recommend booking with a company that offers small group sizes and a true “chasing” experience (i.e. you won’t just go to one place and sit). My top picks are Tromsø Friluftsenter and Guide Gunnar.

Northern Lights in Tromsø, Norway

Northern Lights chasing with Tromsø Friluftsenter

RELATED: Chasing the Northern Lights in Arctic Norway

The positives of visiting Tromsø

The upside of visiting Tromsø is that you have a lot more choices when it comes to… well, everything in comparison with Alta. More hotels, more restaurants, more tour companies, more shopping. There are even lots of cute coffee shops to enjoy.

Tromso coffee shop

Smørtorget Cafe

And Tromsø is easier to get to, too, since many airlines fly there from various European cities.

The negatives of visiting Tromsø

The downside to Tromsø being quite a bit more popular is that it’s also more crowded and more touristy. More cruise ships call into port here, and you’ll find bigger tour groups and more tour buses. We’re not talking like Venice-levels of tourists, of course, but you definitely notice the difference if you compare it to Alta.

Where to stay in Tromsø

Scandic Ishavshotel – This hotel right on the Tromsø Sound offers some great views, free wifi, and an on-site restaurant. And it’s also one of two main hotels where most of the tour companies do free pickups from.

Radisson Blu – The Radisson Blu is the other hotel near the harbor where tours pick up from, and is another nice option in Tromsø.

Thon Hotel Polar – This is where I stayed in Tromsø. It’s further up from the harbor, but close to the city’s main shopping street. I loved the sleek and well-designed rooms, and the Egon Restaurant downstairs was nice, too.

Thon Hotel Polar in Tromso

Thon Hotel Polar

So, Tromsø or Alta?

As you can see, these northern towns both have a lot in common. You can do all the same things (from dogsledding to snowshoeing to Northern Lights chasing), and stay in similar hotels. Both even have a notable cathedral worth seeing.

The biggest differences come down to size and the variety of choice. If you prefer more choice and a slightly bigger town to explore, then Tromsø is for you. If, on the other hand, you want a more intimate experience and don’t mind a lack of choice when it comes to what you eat, then you probably want to go to Alta.

Or you could do what I did and just visit both!

(You’ll also find the igloo hotel in Alta.)

When to go to Northern Norway

Ready to book your trip to Northern Norway? I hope so! So one more tip for you.

Both Alta and Tromsø experience the “polar night” during the winter, when the sun basically never rises above the horizon. This period is generally from late November to mid-January.

You probably want at least a handful of hours of daylight, though. So I recommend going to Northern Norway in February or March. By mid- or late February, you’ll have 7-9 hours of light each day (and the days will get progressively longer quite quickly), but still plenty of wintry weather and landscapes to enjoy.

So which would you choose? Alta or Tromsø?

 

Alta vs. Tromso in Northern Norway

 

*Note: I was a guest of Innovation Norway, Northern Norway, and North Adventures on this trip, and also have to thank all the local tour operators we worked with. As always, though, all opinions are 100% my own.

 

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