Northern Norway's beautiful fjords, the northern lights and Scandinavian architecture make Tromsø a must see destination. However, it's no secret that Norway is an expensive country to visit. Tromsø, deep in the arctic circle is even more so than the rest of the country, and thus, it might be seen as a place to avoid by frugal travelers. We found that despite it's reputation, it is possible to visit this arctic city without breaking the bank, here's how:
Make sure to plan your trip as far in advance as possible and book your flight through a comparison website such as Skyscanner or FlyGrn. We usually sign up for Skyscanner price alerts and receive emails when the price goes down. We flew on Scandinavian budget airline Norwegian Air. For our trip to Tromsø, we decided we would only spend two nights because there were no Airbnb's in our price range available for a third night. We might have saved ourselves $20 on the flights but would have spent another $50 on accommodation, sometimes less is more!
Be sure to take out your Norwegian Krone before you travel. This is always true with foreign currency but even more so with a less common currency like the krone as opposed to USD or EUR as its harder to find. Compare the market a little too, shop around online or call some high street currency converters online to save yourself a few dollars. Do not leave this to the last minute as many places simply don't stock Krone and you will be forced to buy at the airport for a diabolical rate!
Norway's high cost of living is also true in the accommodation sector which means Airbnb is simply a must! As ever, check a long time before you have to leave to get the best availability. Prices for an Airbnb can be as low as $30 a night while hotels through booking are often TEN TIMES that amount. Not only do you save a great deal of money, locals always give insights into the city that you simply wont get staying at a hotel. In order to save as much money as possible on the trip, pick an Airbnb with kitchen facilities!
Eating out in Norway, especially in the arctic circle, can be expensive! Restaurant pricing is roughly double the cost to eat out in the UK and can be three or four times the cost to eat out in the US. In fact, we would not have been able to travel to Tromsø if we hadn't found an Airbnb with kitchen access. We picked up some groceries at local supermarket REMA 1000 and ate mainly cereal and sandwiches.
Although generally speaking when we travel we don't use tour operators or activities that you can't do yourself, in Tromsø we decided to break from the norm and book a dog sledding experience to enjoy while we were in the arctic. We booked well in advance and went with a company called 'Lyngsfjord Adventure' and had an amazing time. As we were not driving, and most of these activities are outside of the city by some distance, it made sense on this occasion to let a company do the hard work for us. Furthermore, the museums in Tromsø offer combination tickets that saved us money.
How we spent our 48 hours
We arrived into Tromsø in the evening and quickly got the airport shuttle bus to our apartment. As it was too late to do any exploring at this time, we visited the local grocery store to buy ourselves some dinner, as well as food for breakfast and lunch the following day. Although we toyed with the idea of going to a restaurant or ordering a takeout, the prices were extortionate and we felt that it was better spent exploring in the coming few days. After we had got back and made dinner, we spoke about the main thing that brought us, and many others, to Tromsø: The Northern Lights. He gave us a link to a website that tracks the probability of the Northern Lights being visible in your location. Something we kept open and checking throughout our time in the city.
Waking up nice and early to take advantage of our only full day in the city, we had breakfast at our Airbnb and left on foot for the Polar Museum of Tromsø. The museum focused largely on the Norwegian expeditions that have taken place over the last 200 years and detailed how harsh lives in the arctic could be. While many of the explorers names meant nothing to us, Amundsen who famously beat the British to the south pole is spoken about in great detail in several of the exhibits. Some of the exhibits were a little difficult to read from beginning to end as they detailed the, at times, ruthless whaling and fur industries. The museum as a whole provided a great opportunity to learn about how a settlement deep in the arctic managed to survive and eventually flourish through time.
After leaving the museum and enjoying our packed lunch that we had made the night before and carried with us in our backpacks, we decided to check out the city center in the remaining few hours of daylight remaining. One of the main attractions of the city is the beautiful 'Tromsø Cathedral' standing proud in a beautiful little courtyard and quaint blue-beige colouring. Not far away down the central street is the city's library, which happened to be hosting the annual gingerbread house competition, and was lucky enough to see many structures build entirely from gingerbread (not something we had expected on our visit!). We then headed down to the harbour and crossed at the Tromsø Bridge, which offered beautiful picture opportunities of the city, to see another cathedral this time with a very different look to it, the Arctic Cathedral. We then hurried back to the Airbnb to change into warmer clothing in preparation for our dog sledding adventure outside of the city.
As mentioned before, we seldom ever take part in any organized activities as they are usually expensive and too often not half as fun as exploring on your own, however thanks to being without a vehicle and in pretty much the middle of nowhere we decided it was best to book the dog-sledding and transport through one company. We got to the harbor in the late afternoon and was picked up by our friendly bus driver who then took us an hour and 15 minutes outside of the city to a beautiful arctic cabin where we were given gear (a snow suit, hat and boots) and taken to meet our dogs for the evening. After a very brief demonstration on how to start and stop our canine guides from running, we set off into the beautiful moonlit frozen fjords. Each sled was comprised of two people, one sitting as a passenger and the other guiding and aiding the dogs as a driver. Although there were 4 other people ahead of us on two other sleds, the gap between us was such that it felt like just the two of us and our huskies were the only things around in such a peaceful landscape. Being miles away from civilization, the snow on top of the ice was like a single undisturbed white blanket and being able to see for miles in the moonlight alone was a surreal experience.
After dog sledding for two hours (an hour for each person to be the passenger) we arrived at a traditional Sámi winter tent and enjoyed their fish stew. The dinner gave us a chance to chat with the guides as well as some of the other travelers on the tour, which is always a good chance to get new ideas about what to do while in the area or maybe where you might want to visit next. Luckily, as we were finishing our dinner, the Northern Lights lit up the sky with their serene green display. We all stood gawping up at the sky for several minutes without saying a word before they disappeared into black nothingness again. At the time we were still getting to grips with how to take good night photos and without a tripod we struggled to get a good picture of them while in the fjords. If you take the dog sledding experience while in Tromsø, make sure to bring a collapsible tripod for your phone or camera to avoid disappointment. We then headed back to the cabin, said goodbye to our hard working canines (don't be afraid to indulge them with affection at every chance!) and gave back the gear and got on the coach back to the city.
Once we arrived back into the city and had got off of the coach, again the northern lights showed itself and this time we were able to get a picture. Many places online will tell you its impossible to see the lights from in the city thanks to the light pollution, but the opinion of the locals as well as from our experience told us its possible to see them anywhere (if they show!) and those saying otherwise are looking to make money from you.
Again waking up early, we had breakfast and asked our Airbnb host if it would be possible if we left our bag at his place until we had to leave later in the day, which fortunately he allowed. We then set out into the city once more, this time for the Tromsø University Museum. As the University was a little further away on the edge of the city, we decided it was worth paying for the bus to take us there. The University Museum focused on the natural history of area, including its unique array of animals and plant life. A great deal of the exhibits also paid homage to the more distant human history of the area, namely the interactions between the Sámi people and the Vikings in the early medieval period. As lovers of both history and nature, this museum did not disappoint and we thoroughly enjoyed our time in it.
We then headed to another museum, the Polaria Museum, which justified its entry fee immediately as we watched from close up many bearded seals frolicking in their large aquatic enclosure. The seals seemed to thoroughly enjoy playing with one another, taking it in turns to chase one another both in the water and on the land, after a trip of a lot of walking, it was a great time to sit down and watch them have fun. The museum also had exhibits on the Svalbard islands even further into the arctic circle as well as many other aquarium like exhibits. This museum/aquarium, and its modern approach to human-animal interaction was refreshing and contrasted the polar museum from the day before. After heading back to the Airbnb to quickly pick up our luggage and say goodbye to our fantastic host, we then got to the airport and boarded our flight to Oslo. As we took off as if to bid farewell, the sky lit up one last time with a beautiful green wave.
Tromsø is a beautiful city to visit, the people are so friendly and generally speak a level of English comparable to that of a native speaker. The city itself has a typically Scandinavian feel to it, especially in its architectural style and as most of the city inhabits an island, most things are easily within walking distance. The costs are high here, so eating at home and not taking public transport frequently really saves you a lot of money which in turn allows you to experience more of the area.
What we learned:
When we visited in late December, there were only 4 hours of daylight (from roughly 10am - 2pm). You'll have to be quite comfortable exploring in the dark and it's a good idea to have a downloaded map of the city from Google Maps to find your accommodation when you arrive.
On the way back to London we decided to stay in Oslo airport overnight (8 hours) to save paying for another place to stay and the subsequent transportation that would accompany it. While it served its purpose, the next time we go to Tromsø we will pay a little extra in order to have flights that have a more reasonable layover period. Oslo airport isn't huge, and its stores aren't 24 hours leaving us with very little do do bar attempt unsuccessfully to sleep.
As the city is in the arctic circle and temperatures can be incredibly low, roads and pavements can be very slippery thanks to a buildup of ice. The city being relatively small also meant that ploughs only cleared major roads and many sidewalks were ignored all together. Fortunately our footwear had good grip, although we didn't specifically plan this. If you decide to visit in the winter, make sure you wear boots with good grip or bring crampons for your shoes. It sounds like an obvious point to make but its something trivial that can often be overlooked.