Tromsø, Norway, is often referred to as the “Gateway to the Arctic,” due to its location 220 miles (350 kilometers) above The Arctic Circle in Northern Norway. And while Tromsø used to be the jumping-off point for expeditions further north into the Arctic, today it's a worthy destination in and of itself.
Tromsø is a year-round destination that is great to visit in all seasons of the year – you can experience the Midnight Sun here during the summer months, and see the Northern Lights in the dark winter months.
I've visited Tromsø in each of those seasons. And while I did enjoy the city in the brighter summer months, I think I actually prefer Tromsø in the winter! Winter is a great time to visit Tromsø if you want to experience wintertime activities like cross-country skiing, dogsledding, and of course chasing the Northern Lights.
Read on for my ideal 3 days in Tromso itinerary to help you plan your own trip!
(Want to include Tromsø in a longer Norway in winter itinerary? I've got you covered there, too! Check out my 10 days in Norway in winter itinerary, too.)
When to visit Tromsø in winter
You might think that “winter is winter, clearly,” but winter in the northern part of Norway can vary vastly depending on which winter month we're talking about!
Due to its far-north location, Tromsø experiences Polar Night beginning in late November and lasting through mid-January. At this time of year, the sun never fully rises, and Tromsø only experiences a few hours of twilight-like “daylight” each day.
By mid-February, however, the sun is properly rising around 7:30 a.m. and setting around 4:30 p.m., with the days getting longer by about 10 minutes every day.
So, in my opinion, the best time to visit Tromsø in winter is in February or March, when you still have snow and a chance to see the Northern Lights, but when the days are long enough for you to actually get outside and do things.
3 days in Tromso in winter itinerary
Tromsø is located at 69.6492° N latitude above the Arctic Circle. The city of 75,000 people is the “capital” of Northern Norway, and is one of the largest cities found in the Arctic. There's plenty to do here – especially during the winter months.
You could easily spend a whole week in Tromso in winter and still find things to do. But for this itinerary, we'll cover the highlights in just 3 days.
Day 1: Tromso outdoor adventures
I recommend either arriving this morning (both Norwegian and SAS have direct flights to Tromsø from Oslo, and you can get there in just 2 hours), or arriving the evening before so you can fit a full day in today. (Remember, daylight hours are limited in winter, depending on which month you visit in.)
On your first day in Tromsø, I recommend embracing Norway's love of outdoor winter adventure. I would make your first activity either cross-country skiing or dogsledding – get the blood pumping to warm you up a bit!
Cross-country skiing in Tromso
Cross-country skiing isn't just a sport in Norway; it's a national pastime! Kids learn how to ski in school, and it's not unusual to see people out on skis at all times of the day in winter. If you're going to try only one physical outdoor activity in Tromsø, make it cross-country skiing.
Dogsledding in Tromso
Another option is to try out dogsledding, which is another popular winter sport in Norway. And yes, it is most definitely a sport. Sled dogs aren't just any dogs – they are specifically bred to love to RUN, and are considered athletes.
If you want to try the sport out, I can recommend the Tromsø Villmarkssenter for dogsledding tours. They pick you up from Tromsø and take you out to their center on Kvaløya, where you can get up close with the dogs. You see exactly where the dogs live and how they're cared for – when I visited, I saw happy and playful dogs who were excited at the chance to get hooked up to a sled.
The sled ride itself lasts for about an hour, with a stop halfway through to take photos. The scenery is stunning, and afterwards you'll return to the center for a lunch of reindeer stew. (Book this tour here.)
There's an option to drive your own dogsled in Tromsø, too, but I will be perfectly honest and tell you that this is NOT easy work! It's much more than just standing at the back of the sled – you have to push and pull and lean, and sometimes run up snowy hills to help the dogs. I don't recommend the driving unless you're in good physical shape and are ready for a workout!
Northern Lights tour
Tonight, if the weather cooperates and the tours are going out, sign up for your first Northern Lights tour! There are a LOT of Northern Lights tours in Tromsø to choose from, so I recommend looking for one that promises a small group and a guide who can help you take photos.
Small-group Northern Lights tours to check out include this one and this one, both of which are “chase”-style tours, meaning you'll have the best chance of spotting the aurora, even if the weather isn't the best.
My top Tromsø tip: Many of the sidewalks in Tromsø are actually heated in order to shed the snow and ice. But other parts of the city will still be very slippery! Make sure you've got boots with good gripping soles, or invest in some Yaktrax to help give you better traction.
Day 2: Get to know Tromso city
Today I recommend taking some time to explore Tromsø itself. So many people come to this city for the Northern Lights, but then spend all their time booking activities outside of the city. The city itself, though, is pretty cool, and definitely worth exploring.
Some things you can do include:
- Visit the Arctic Cathedral (officially Tromsdalen Church) across the sound from the main part of Tromsø. It's an iconic building in Northern Norway, and sometimes you can hear concerts inside the church.
- Ride the Fjellheisen aerial tramway up above Tromsø for the best view in the city. The cars run from 10 a.m. to midnight throughout the winter months, and the views are seriously great day or night.
- Check out the Polar Museum, which offers a fascinating look into Arctic trapping and hunting and the early polar explorers.
- Visit the Polaria aquarium, which is housed in a building that resembles an ice floe and has exhibits about Arctic sea life.
- Cozy up in a coffee shop. Tromsø has a very large number of coffee shops, considering how small (relatively) the city center is. There are two Risø locations (one a coffee bar, the other a full cafe) that I like.
If you're looking for something unique to do in the afternoon, consider a Tromsø Beer Safari, which includes tasting some local beers and snacks.
More Northern Lights
Tonight, if conditions are good (or if conditions were bad on Day 1), consider another Northern Lights tour! (I promise, you'll never get tired of seeing them.)
Day 3: Adventure from Tromso
On your last day in Tromsø, let's have a “choose your own adventure” kind of day! There are a lot of cool adventures you can have from the city, including:
- A snowmobile safari up in the Lyngen Alps
- An Arctic fishing adventure (mostly offered in February and March)
- A Sami culture and reindeer experience, where you can learn about Norway's native reindeer herders
Personally, I would choose the Sami culture/reindeer sledding experience, as it's something unique to this part of the world.
Another last chance at Northern Lights
And, lastly, tonight you'll have one more chance to go on a Northern Lights tour in Tromsø. If you've already done one or two small-group chases, you might consider a Northern Lights boat tour tonight.
But note: You won't be able to get the same kind of Northern Lights photos from a boat as you can on land, because long exposure photos will be blurry because of the movement of the boat! So this would be more for the unique experience rather than for photos.
A note on tours in Tromsø: For most of the tours recommended in this itinerary (including dogsledding, snowmobiling, and most Northern Lights tours), the tour companies will supply warm thermal jumpsuits, and sometimes thermal boots, as well! So don't worry about putting 17 layers of clothing on.
Where to Stay in Tromso
I recommend the Scandic Ishavshotel, which is located right on the Tromsø Sound. Many rooms have great views, and they all come with free wifi and included breakfast. The on-site restaurant here is also quite good.
To top it off, the Scandic Ishavshotel is one of two main hotels in town where most of the tour companies do free pickups from. (Read reviews on TripAdvisor | Book a room at the Scandic Ishavshotel here!)
If you're looking for another option, Thon Hotel Polar is another good hotel in Tromso. 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.
If you have more time…
If you have more time to spend in Northern Norway in winter, you have some great options. You could add a few nights in Alta, which is even further north than Tromsø, and regarded as the “Town of the Northern Lights.”
Or you could head slightly south to the famous Lofoten Islands, which are popular in winter with photographers. Just note that you WILL need a rental car in the Lofoten Islands in winter, as there's not really public transport available to help you get around. (And I do NOT recommend driving in Norway in winter unless you have experience driving in snow/on ice.)
Weather in Tromsø in winter
As you might guess, winter is cold in Tromsø. But as Norwegians love to say, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” As long as you come prepared with proper clothing and gear, you'll do just fine in Tromsø during winter.
- The coldest months are January and February, where the mean temperature hovers around 26° F and the average high is around 31° F.
- December is slightly warmer, with a mean temperature of 29° F and an average high of 34° F, but as mentioned above, there's very little daylight at this time of year.
- The “warmest” month of winter to visit Tromsø is March, when the mean temperature is 29° F and the average high is 34° F.
Regardless, you're going to need a good winter coat, warm snow boots, a cozy hat and gloves, and perhaps some hand/toe warmers to tackle Tromso in winter.
Check out my full Northern Norway in winter packing list for exact suggestions.
Who's ready to plan a winter trip to Tromsø?
Amanda Williams is the award-winning blogger behind A Dangerous Business Travel Blog. She has traveled to more than 60 countries on 6 continents from her home base in Ohio, specializing in experiential and thoughtful travel through the US, Europe, and rest of the world. Amanda only shares tips based on her personal experiences and places she's actually traveled!