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Set in a magnificent landscape of dramatic snow-capped mountains with a rocky shoreline, Tromsø is a lively town characterised by unusual old wooden houses, street music, cultural events, and the most pubs per capita in Norway. It is the capital of the north and a bustling metropolis in comparison to the surrounding fishing communities along the northern coast of Norway. It is also a vibrant university town.
Known as the 'Gateway to the Arctic' and situated within the Arctic Circle, Tromsø is an excellent base from which to explore the surrounding area and has some of the most extensive Northern Light activity on earth, making it a sought-after tourist destination from which to experience the spectacular show of the Aurora Borealis.
The Midnight Sun during summer is another strange phenomenon. Continuous daylight makes people forget to go to bed, whereas the winters see only a few hours of bleak twilight during midday. It is these extreme light conditions that hold the greatest fascination for tourists, regardless of the season, and make Tromsø such an intriguing place to visit.
The north of Norway is also the place to get to grips with the fascinating indigenous Sami culture, which can be investigated in Tromsø. There are several museums and other places of interest, a cable car to the top of one of the surrounding hills providing fantastic views, and boat trips into the glorious landscape of the arctic fjords.
The Tromsø Museum is northern Norway's oldest and largest museum with exhibitions devoted to the cultural and natural history of the region. It is located on the university campus, just outside the city, and is run by the university.
There is a comprehensive display relating to the traditional culture and music of the Sami or Lapp people and their nomadic, reindeer-herding way of life, and for many people this is the highlight of the visit. The Tromsø Museum is possibly the best place in Norway to learn about the fascinating Sami culture and history.
There are also daily films about the Northern Lights, particularly good for those visiting outside of the months when the Aurora might be seen. Apart from the Northern Lights display, there are numerous other science and nature exhibits, including things like earthquake sensors, which the kids will enjoy testing.
Most of the exhibits have some information available in English. There is a good cafe for refreshments when you need a break. The bus ride to the museum is scenic and many travellers find it a fun part of the visit, but it is also possible to walk the distance and it is a pleasant stroll if you have the inclination.
The spectacular design of the white and ultramodern Arctic Cathedral is visible from afar, situated on a small hill on an island and linked to the mainland by the spindly Tromsø Bridge. It is an architectural masterpiece, made up of eleven large triangular sections representing the eleven faithful apostles and symbolising northern Norwegian heritage, culture and faith.
It bears an interesting resemblance to the Sydney Opera House in Australia, but its colour and shape can also be likened to an iceberg. The cathedral has one of the largest stained glass windows in Europe, and an interior decorated with grand chandeliers made up of many prisms of colours and lights, representing hanging ice formations.
Built in 1965, the church is not technically a cathedral, despite its commonly used name. The actual Tromsø Cathedral is the only wooden cathedral in Norway and is also worth a visit. Travellers should note that the church is usually only open for two hours in the winter months, in the late afternoon, and opening hours can fluctuate so it is best to check the official website to confirm opening hours before visiting. Look out for the wonderful midnight music concerts in the church.
Polaria is an information and experience centre for the whole family, combining interactive experiences with information about the arctic environment. There is a panoramic film about the arctic wilderness of Svalbard, an Arctic Walkway that creates a snowstorm experience and the Northern Lights spectacle.
As the Northern Lights are famously unpredictable, it is nice to know that you can at least see the effect recreated at Polaria even if the lights elude you in real life. The bearded seal pool is especially exciting at feeding time, and an aquarium provides a close look at arctic sea mammals and life in the freezing waters.
There is a little gift shop for those wanting souvenirs. Polaria is best suited to families and is a good option for those travelling with kids in Tromsø. A visit will only take about one to three hours and ideally should be timed to coincide with seal training and feeding. These usually take place daily at 12.30pm and 3.30pm in the winter months, and at 12.30pm and 3pm in the summer.
Those wanting a more grown-up investigation of arctic history, particularly the explorers and seal hunting tradition, should visit the Polar Museum housed in a converted warehouse by the harbour.
Tromsø has a continental sub-arctic climate with very cold winter weather and short summers. It rains year-round with October generally seeing the highest rainfall. Tromsø usually has a lot of snow in winter (December to April) and cool summers. In February, which is midwinter, the average temperatures range between 20°F (-6.5°C) and 28°F (-2°C), though it can get significantly colder.
In July, the hottest month of summer, average temperatures range between 47°F (9°C) and 59°F (15°C). Occasional summer heat waves can bring temperatures reaching up to 86°F (30°C). Large areas in the Tromsø municipality are located above the treeline and have an alpine tundra climate.
The best time to visit Tromsø depends on desired activities. Although the winters are harsh, many people choose to visit during the cold months to witness the Aurora Borealis and enjoy snow activities. Summer is unpredictable in Tromsø, with plenty of dull, drizzly days interspersed with lovely sunny periods.
The Midnight Sun can be seen between about mid-May and late July, but there is no real darkness between late-April and mid-August. On the other hand, the best time to see the Northern Lights is between late September and late March. Purely from a weather perspective, May is often considered the best month to visit Tromsø, as it receives the least rain and the most sunshine.
First staged in 2004, Bukta is a relatively new event on the music calendar and known as the festival where the sun never sets. Held during summer in the northern part of the country in the city of Tromsø, the festival boasts the natural splendour of snow-capped peaks and the Arctic Ocean as a backdrop to some of the finest in local and international music.
Apart from the best of what Norway has to offer, past international performers include The Hives, The Tallest Man on Earth, Kaiser Chiefs, Juliette Lewis, Iggy Pop & the Stooges, and Supergrass. The festival has steadily grown in size and popularity since it was first held. It currently consists of three main stages, lasts three days, and attracts thousands of people.
Tromsø is usually a peaceful, even sleepy place. But for this one annual weekend, it is flooded with festival-goers keen for a celebration. It is a quirky festival, not yet as mainstream and commercial as some of the big international festivals, which is part of its charm. Those seeking something a little different on the music festival scene will enjoy Bukta. How often do you get to party in the arctic?
The greatest tourist attractions in Tromsø are the stunning arctic fjords and extreme weather and light displays, the mystical Northern Lights in winter, and the Midnight Sun in the summer months. Tromsø is one of the most popular gateways into the Arctic landscape in Scandinavia and cruises along the coastline, or traditional snow activities like dog-sledding, are popularly arranged from the city.
However, there is some worthwhile sightseeing in Tromsø for those who have some time to kill before setting off on outdoor adventures. Great museums in Tromsø include the Tromsø Museum, particularly renowned for its exhibition on the history and culture of the Sami people; the Polar Museum, where travellers can learn about the Arctic expeditions and explorers, among other things; the Perspektivet Museum, which exhibits art in a historic mansion; and the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum, which houses contemporary Norwegian art, including some work by Edvard Munch.
Those travelling with kids in Tromsø should check out Polaria for interactive exhibitions on the Arctic environment. Another must is a visit to the unique Arctic Cathedral, but visitors should note that the church is sometimes only open for two hours a day, so visits should be carefully planned. For a break from sightseeing, or to warm up, investigate the city's many pubs!
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