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

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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.

Alta, Northern Norway

I spent a week one winter 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 ever 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.

Landscape in Northern Norway

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:

1. 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

2. 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.

3. Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel

Every winter, an entire hotel is built in Alta using only 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. (If you're interested in staying, though, you can book a room here.)

Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel in Alta, Norway
Inside the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel (2016)

Things to do in Alta

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

1. 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.

2. 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!

3. 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

4. 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

RELATED: 9 Lies (and One Truth) People Tell You About Seeing the Northern Lights

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!).

It looks cold, but 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. (Read reviews | Book here)

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. (Read reviews | Book 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, Norway
Tromsø looking magical in winter

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:

1. 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
Arctic Cathedral in Tromsø
Arctic Cathedral up close

2. 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.

Things to do in Tromsø

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

1. 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!).

>> Book a dogsledding tour here.

Dogsledding in Norway
Dogsledding in Norway
Sled dogs at Tromsø Villmarkssenter in Norway
Happy sled dogs

2. 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.)

>> Book your cross-country skiing class here.

3. 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.

>> Book a reindeer tour here.

Reindeer at Lyngsfjord Adventures in Northern Norway
Reindeer at Lyngsfjord Adventures

4. 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.

>> Book a small-group Northern Lights tour here.

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. (Read reviews | Book here)

Radisson Blu – The Radisson Blu is the other hotel near the harbor where tours pick up from, and is another nice option in Tromsø. (Read reviews | Book here)

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. (Read reviews | Book here)

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.)

*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.

Traveling from Tromsø to Alta

What's the best way to get from Tromsø to Alta if you decide to visit both cities?

I recommend flying between Tromsø and Alta. Flights take only about 40 minutes, and cost about $150 on average one-way. Airlines serving this route include Norwegian, SAS, and Wideroe, and there are several flights per day.

You could also self-drive from Tromsø to Alta, but driving will take anywhere from 6 to 8 hours – and possibly longer if the roads are snowy/icy and you don't have experience driving in winter weather. (In fact, if you don't have experience driving in this sort of weather, I definitely DO NOT recommend that you drive.)

There's a bus that runs between the two cities, too, but I believe it only runs once per day.

Flying into Tromso, Norway
If you fly, you'll see views like this!

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.


READ NEXT: A Perfect 10-Day Itinerary for Norway in Winter

So which would you choose? Alta or Tromsø?

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"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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44 Comments on “Norway’s Arctic North: Tromso vs. Alta in Winter

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  1. Thank you for this great post, exactly what I was looking for. Quick question, how would this comparison look if i am visiting in October?

      It would be pretty similar, really. You can’t do any of the snow sports in October, but in Alta you can still go hiking, meet sled dogs, and look for the Northern Lights. And there are tons of things to do in Tromso outside of the winter months, too.

    So, where did you see the better Northern Lights?

      I saw more and stronger Lights in Tromso, but I also went out looking for them 3 nights there (as opposed to only going out one night in Alta). You have a good chance of seeing them in both places, though the weather obviously affects your chances a lot.

    Hello Amanda
    I’m fully agree with your explanation
    Its difficult to choose between Tromso or Alta for Winter holiday , which one is better
    My self n my wife went to Tromso in mid February 2017 and enjoy the city n surrounding, spend 5 days , from waiting the Lady Aurora appear in the Base Camp to Aurora chasing by bus.
    Then in mid of November , again we went to Alta , Honningsvag n Nordkapp for 8 days. also watching the Lady Aurora from Holmen Husky Lavvu tent and from the car with GLOD team n tried ATV tour in the evening with Nord 71 degree team.
    If you have time, my suggestion, visit both at one visit.
    Both city has its own interesting point of view.


    I enjoyed your comparison. We are thinking of going to either Tromso or Alta or BOTH in Feb. As I can’t decide and we have about 8 days I think we might do both (although with 2 kids 8 days is not as long as it seems …)

    How did you travel between Alta and Tromso??

    Thank you

      If you have 8 days, that would definitely be enough time to visit both! I flew between the two – they don’t look that far away on a map, but driving actually takes nearly a full day because you have to go around all the fjords. I’d definitely recommend flying.

    Hi great info! How did you get between the two.. fly? Do you know much about Kirkenes too?
    Also are there places to rent warmer clothing?

      Yes, I flew between the two, as driving actually takes a long time because of all the fjords. I have never been to Kirkenes. As for warm clothing, many activity/tour companies will provide a warm suit and sometimes boots for you to wear, but you’ll need your own warm clothing for the rest of the time.

    I definitely think visiting both makes a lot of sense if you have the time. I’d probably lean more towards Tromsø since the town is a bit larger, accessible, and offers more dining options. Either way, Norway remains firmly planted on my short list of places to visit!

      I think I would tend to agree with you, unless Alta just absolutely calls to you. I loved them both, but Tromso would make the most sense for most people who only have time to visit one.

    What a timely post! I leave for Norway this Friday. I’m hoping the Northern Lights make an appearance while I’m there. Fingers crossed! But my trip will be spectacular with or without the heavenly light show.

      Fingers crossed indeed – I hope you have a great time!

    I love this photo of us! It was such a great day out on the lake. I think I liked Tromso’s vibe better, but I liked Alta’s tours better. The groups weren’t as big and it was easier to connect with the infinitely knowledgeable guide. Your post brought back great memories! 🙂

      I think Tromso might be more ideal if you wanted to spend a whole week in one place (because, let’s be honest, eating almost every meal in that pizza place in Alta would have gotten old!), but I liked spending a few days in Alta. The ice hotel and Holmen Husky Lodge were such highlights!

    Ah, the ice hotels look so awesome, and both places are so naturally beautiful. Would probably find myself leaning toward Alta because you said it’s a bit less off a tourist destination. Hope I can do both someday soon! Thanks for the breakdown Amanda!

      I could definitely see you enjoying Alta, Ryan. It’s definitely more off the beaten path, especially in the winter!

    Great article! Thanks for the tips. I’m headed to Tromso in January to chase the lights!

      Awesome! It will still be pretty dark then, but that makes for some good Lights-chasing conditions! I hope you see them!

    Wow, absolutely beautiful! I love all of your photos. I’m usually not a huge fan of the cold, but this looks well worth it!

      Definitely worth it! I would go back in a heartbeat.

    I thought cold destinations were not really my thing, until I visited Iceland a few weeks ago. What a life-changing experience, now the winter doesn’t only have a negative connotation in my mind. I’ll definitely go to both destinations! Choosing would be such a pity!

      I grew up with very cold winters, so the cold doesn’t really dissuade me when it comes to travel. I can totally understand how Iceland could change your mind about cold destinations, though – it’s amazing!

    Good article! Tromsø is clearly my favorite. It’s quite amazing how the Gulf of Finland which is south of Helsinki freezes to some extent each year (some winters even completely), but the northern coast of Norway which is 1000 kilometers north of Helsinki remains almost ice-free for the whole winter!

      I know! The weather in Northern Norway definitely surprised me. But I’m not complaining – it was great to be able to see the Northern Lights in relatively “mild” temperatures!

      I personally can’t decide whether I liked Alta or Tromso better – they both have their charms!

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