Why Norway’s Tromsø Tops Our 2024 Bucket List

norway tromso
Why Norway’s Tromsø Tops Our 2024 Bucket ListVW Pics - Getty Images

It’s 10am in the countryside just outside Tromsø, and the day is just starting to break. Though the sky gradually takes on a soft, candyfloss hue, the sun hasn’t yet risen – in fact, it won’t for several more days. In its place, a silvery half-moon hovers over the mountains. The overwhelming stillness is punctuated only by the howls of dozens of Alaskan huskies, eager to embark on the first of several sprints across the snow-carpeted fields beyond.

I would pinch myself, but I can’t. It’s 35 degrees below zero and, like my fellow adventurers, I’m clad in an XXL snowsuit, worn Michelin Man-style over a puffer jacket, and too many layers of ‘sensible’ wool thermals to count.

I’m in Norway to chase the Northern Lights – but as the morning slowly begins, it’s time to make the most of the scant daylight with an hour of dog-sledding. Our huskies launch themselves into the snow at top speed, seemingly unencumbered by the sleds or the bemused tourists driving them, leaving us breathless both from adrenaline and the experience of watching the dawn break over a starkly beautiful and bare landscape.

a snowy landscape with mountains in the background
Dina Nagapetyants

It was a suitably dreamlike start to a trip that felt, most of the time, simply too magical to pass for reality. Tromsø, a city of just under 65,000, is as story-book Scandinavian as they come: arranged over several islands, it has the highest number of traditional wooden houses in the north of Norway, while its geographic position – 69° north and 350 kilometres above the Arctic Circle – makes it the perfect base for spotting the aurora borealis (otherwise known as the Northern Lights). With the season lasting from late August to April, there’s really no better time to tick this extraordinary sight off your bucket list, especially if you missed the chance to see them in the UK and Ireland in February.


If you’re determined to seek out the Northern Lights from Norway, it’s a good idea to get comfortable with darkness, which, in these parts, begins to fall pretty much after lunch. Luckily, I caught the Fjellheisen cable car just in time for dusk, that brief but breathtaking period that envelops the city and the surrounding fjords in a startling blue glow. After admiring Tromsø at its twinkling best, I receive an informative workshop from local photographer Tor-Ivar Næss on how best to capture the ethereal display that will – if all goes to plan – light up the sky tonight. (FYI: in lieu of professional equipment, an iPhone with the exposure turned all the way up will work just fine.)

a city next to a body of water with snow on the mountains
Dina Nagapetyants

The winter months are generally considered the best time of year to spot the Northern Lights and, as luck would have it, my first night was especially clear. I enjoyed a hearty dinner of grilled halibut, pumpkin and hazelnut soup and spiced toffee pudding at Mathallen – an atmospheric, industrial-style restaurant specialising in local, seasonal produce that’s packed with Tromsø residents and visitors alike – before driving deep into the countryside, filled with anticipation. Fortunately, we didn’t have long to wait, as the sky – as if by request – was almost immediately aglow with undulating, pale-green swathes of light that danced above us.

After much gasping and oohing, and many freezing but fantastical photo sessions, my elated group retired to the lávvu (a traditional, tent-like structure used by the Sámi, the indigenous people of Norway, Sweden, Finland and parts of Russia) for a fortifying dose of hot chocolate before turning in, still awestruck from the night’s spectacular show.

a green aurora in the sky
Dina Nagapetyants

As the world’s only non-earthbound natural wonder, the Northern Lights are the subject of numerous myths and legends. From Norse mythology – wherein they were taken to be manifestations of the gods – to the beliefs of the Sámi, for whom the lights represent the souls of the dead (it’s considered bad luck to have an argument standing under them), the spirituality and mysticism surrounding the aurora borealis suddenly seem all the more plausible when you take in their eerie beauty in person.

A start like this might have overshadowed the rest of the trip, but northern Norway isn’t short on once-in-a-lifetime adventures. The next day was spent learning about Samí culture and customs, particularly reindeer-herding, a feature of the traditional Samí lifestyle since the 17th century. The reindeer themselves – smaller and shyer than you might imagine – obliged to pull us across the fields at a gentle clip, leaving us free to watch another breathtaking pastel dawn unfold around us.

a reindeer with a harness on a snowy mountain
Dina Nagapetyants

Back in the city, there was just enough time for an excellent coffee at hipster spot Kaffebønna before I boarded the MS Quest, an expedition ship that would take me through the fjords for a chance to spot more of the country’s extraordinary wildlife. Though the night was cloudy, with no chance of another Northern Lights sighting from the ship’s glass-covered observation deck, the morning proved clear and bright – ideal conditions in which to look out for swooping sea eagles and the tell-tale sprays of water that signalled we were in the company of whales.

Once again, luck was on our side: it didn’t take long to notice the large, dark shapes in the water below, and the ship’s resident marine biologist, Victoria Melluish, quickly identified them as sperm whales making their way to the open sea beyond. Watching the whales’ tails emerge before they plunged back into the depths was a pinch-me moment that no amount of Blue Planet reruns could have prepared me for; the spectacle was all the more remarkable when, during Victoria’s subsequent lecture, we learned that sperm whales rarely venture so far inland. If anyone on board was ambivalent about the creatures before, they were hard-core whale enthusiasts by the time we docked in Tromsø harbour that evening.

a whale jumping out of the water
Carlo Alberto Cacopardo

Our adventure was brief, but the action-packed itinerary and staggering beauty of the scenery made those memories indelible. Faced with another grey London morning and the prospect of many more to come, I need only think back to those days before finding myself once more in that sparkling Arctic landscape or under the otherworldly glow of the lights – surely among the most astonishing experiences one can hope to have on this earth.

Prices for a guided Northern Lights tour start at £45 and the Ice Domes overnight stay and activities package starts at £1,206.

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