Visit the Arctic's Most Cosmopolitan City

Tromso, Norway, experiences 'polar night' for about two months. spacedrone808/Shutterstock

For an increasing number of travelers, the Arctic has changed from a place to avoid into a desirable destination. Several cruise ships will be taking travelers around the Arctic Ocean in the coming years, and eco-resorts have been gaining popularity in places like Scandinavia and Greenland.

Actually, one Norwegian city has already been on the tourism radar for some time. Tromso, which sits at nearly 70 degrees north latitude, has historic wooden houses that date back to the 18th century and a recorded history that stretches for over a millennium. You might be surprised to see that the northernmost major city in Europe outside of Russia isn't a frontier outpost, but a cosmopolitan place defined by gastropubs, a vibrant music scene and an events calendar that includes everything from traditional indigenous festivals to the Arctic's largest pride celebration.

Mild temperatures and a 2-month-long night

This is the Arctic, but Tromso, which has about 70,000 permanent residents, has relatively mild temperatures (considering its location). It benefits from the jet stream, which brings warmer air from the south and from the neighboring Norwegian Sea, which never freezes and therefore doesn't cool the winds as they travel north. Average highs are below freezing in the winter and the mercury only rises into the 50s during the summer. That is hardly balmy, but it's milder than most places north of the Arctic Circle. The relatively pleasant weather might help explain Tromso's long history of human habitation and its current popularity as an Arctic destination.

Like other places in the Arctic, Tromso experiences polar night, during which the sun never rises above the horizon. The sun sets in November and does not rise above the neighboring mountains until Jan. 21. Polar night does have several hours of twilight during the “daytime,” even on the shortest day of the year.

Because of its long nights and location, Tromso is a good place to see the aurora borealis. Unfortunately, a side effect of the nearby sea, which moderates the temperatures, is overcast skies. However, the northern lights are visible from between September and March, so those who remain in the city long enough will eventually catch a glimpse of the geomagnetic show.

A gateway to the Arctic

Tromso Norway
Tromso's weather is relatively mild given its Arctic location. BBA Photography/Shutterstock

Some people come here to cross "the Arctic” off their bucket list. For domestic tourists as well as international visitors, the attractions include the chance to go both Nordic (cross-country) and alpine skiing in the mountains right outside the city. There is even a ski jumping facility right above Tromso (though this is probably more of a spectator sport than an activity option). Snowshoeing, dogsledding and winter hiking are also on the agenda. If you aren't a ski-jumping fan, the city has some of the world's northernmost pro sports franchises, including a soccer team that plays in Norway's top league.

Brave visitors can try taking a quick plunge in the water during a cruise around the fjords that surround the city. The water does get cold here, with a temperature that is just above freezing, but it does not freeze. Boats that offer cruises may have saunas onboard where guests can warm up before and after their swim.

One of Europe's coolest music destinations

Tromso is a great destination for outdoor activities, but it's also a cosmopolitan place that serves as a cultural hub for northern Norway. The city has it's own symphony orchestra and regular traditional music concerts in the Tromso Cathedral. Interestingly, Tromso played an important role in the early techno music movement. One of Europe's most famous electronic music bands, Royksopp, started its career here, and the influence of these early artists is still tangible today. The weekend-long Insomnia Festival takes place here each October. Though it began as (and remains) an electronic music festival, other genres from Norway and Europe are also represented.

Tromso has a lively music scene throughout the year. Some nightclubs host DJs nightly, while restaurants and pubs may turn into music venues after hours. Tromso has an impressive number of chef-driven restaurants for a city of 70,000 (let alone a city of 70,000 north of the Arctic Circle). You will also find specialty eateries (such as sushi bars) and renovated century-old wine bars and restaurants. The city's oldest cafe, Aunegården, hosts pop-up events and DJs (some of whom still favor vinyl records), but the most iconic eatery in town is Raketten, a hot dog stand in a gazebo-like kiosk that was built in 1911.

Wintertime events and festivals

Tromso has become a popular holiday destination, with holiday markets, a lighted Christmas tree in the central square and a New Year's fireworks show. The festivities get people outdoors even during the shortest, darkest time of year.

After the sun returns in' January, Tromso hosts Sami Week, which celebrates the region's indigenous people, who have thrived in the Arctic for centuries as reindeer herders. Films, reindeer racing and other cultural events are part of the festivities. Arctic Pride takes place each November in Tromso. Calling itself the Northernmost Pride Festival in the world, it features lectures, shows, a parade, parties and concerts.

Tromso is warm for its location. Though it is not covered with permafrost, it's considered a gateway to the Arctic. This surprisingly cosmopolitan outpost has the requisite winter destination traits (winter sports, auroras and snow), but it has more personality and a more diverse menu of attractions than you might expect.