Tromsø is the biggest city in Northern Norway. Learn something new about this popular tourist destination with spectacular Arctic surroundings and a fascinating history.
Far beyond the Arctic circle lies a vibrant island city surrounded by wonderful Arctic nature. In the winter, the northern lights dance overhead. In the summer, the sun doesn’t set. Welcome to Tromsø, Norway’s capital of the north.
I’ve been to Tromsø several times over the years and I’ve experienced the extremes of both the summer and the winter.
On some ocassions I travelled to see the northern lights, once to research a guidebook and once to even watch a football match. It’s a place I love to visit and I always recommend to travellers.
But how much do you know about the city that even many Norwegians haven’t visited? You’re about to learn a lot more! Here are 14 fun facts about Tromsø.
Tromsø is the biggest city in Northern Norway
With a population of 77,738, Tromsø municipality is the largest in Northern Norway. The city is also one of the largest north of the Arctic circle anywhere in the world. Only Murmansk and Norilsk in Russia are bigger.
The population is surprisingly international, with more than 100 nationalities represented. Statistics Norway believes the population will grow to around 80,500 by 2030 and up to 84,000 by 2050.
Tromsø is located mostly on an island
The majority of Tromsø city including the downtown area, university and airport is located on Tromsøya island.
Residential parts of Tromsø are located on the mainland in Tromsdalen, connected to the city centre by the Tromsø bridge and a tunnel. Another suburb, Kvaløysletta on Kvaløya island, is connected to the rest of the city by the Sandnessund bridge.
Tromsø experiences the polar night and midnight sun
From 18 May to 26 July, Tromsø experiences the midnight sun. This is when the sun does not dip below the horizon at night. Although due to the mountains in the north, the sun is actually visible for a few less days on either side of the period.
For a month either side of the midnight sun period, the city is bathed in a long twilight period in which it doesn’t get dark, even though the sun has set.
From 26 November to 15 January, the sun does not rise. This is known as the polar night. Contrary to popular belief, the city doesn’t experience complete darkness during this time. For a few hours during the early afternoon, there is some twilight-like light, often with a beautiful blue or purple tint.
Tromsø is a surprising cultural hub
Because it’s the biggest city for many miles around, the city serves a cultural centre for much of Northern Norway. There are some excellent museums in Tromsø.
Despite its relatively small population, the city hosts many music, cultural and film festivals throughout the year. Torbjørn Brundtland and Svein Berge of Röyksopp and singer-songwriter Lene Marlin grew up and began their musical careers in Tromsø.
The city hosts marathons with a local twist
Long-distance races may not seem like the most obvious event to host in the Norwegian Arctic. But since 1990, Tromsø has played host to the world’s northernmost marathon that is officially certified by the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races.
As you might guess from the name Midnight Sun Marathon, the race is held around the time of the summer solstice when the days are at their longest. The race is held late into the evening and attracts around 6,000 participants.
The organisation also puts on other races throughout the year, including the Polar Night Half Marathon held in the relative darkness of January.
People lived in Tromsø during the Viking Age
In the late 9th century, the Norse chieftain Ohthere is believed to have inhabited the southernmost part of what is today Tromsø municipality. He described himself as living “furthest to the North of all Norwegians” although there were also Sami people living farther north.
Remains have been found on the southern part of Kvaløya island from both Sámi settlements and settlements from the Norse Iron Age. Archeological excavations in Tønsvika outside Tromsø show evidence of settlements estimated to be as old as 10,000 years.
The world’s northernmost brewery opened in 1877
Several breweries have laid claim to the title of world’s northernmost brewery recently. Definitions aside, Mack certainly was the northernmost brewery for more than a century.
Founded in 1877 by the son of a German immigrant, Mack beers have always had German characteristics. Mack pilsner today is commonly drunk at bars and restaurants throughout Tromsø, while their Isbjørn (polar bear) brand is available in supermarkets nationwide.
Tromsø is home to the world’s northernmost university
Opened in 1972, the University of Tromsø (UiT) is also known by its modern name the Arctic University of Norway. Specialising in Arctic sciences, economics and health sciences, the mid-size research university attracts a student base from around the world.
Some engineering topics are taught in Narvik, while there is a strong collaboration with the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS). Some students spend a semester or two conducting practical fieldwork on Svalbard.
There is a Botanical Garden in Tromsø
The world's northernmost botanical garden is a short walk from the university. Unsurprisingly, it is an Arctic–Alpine Botanic Garden with Arctic and alpine plants from across the northern hemisphere.
The walk through the gardens in the summer is very pleasant and gives a view of the mountains that surround the city. There is no entrance fee and the gardens are open year-round, although winter viewing is somewhat limited due to snow cover.
Temperatures in Tromsø are milder than they should be
Tromsø has a subarctic climate, characterised by long, cold winters, and short, warm to cool summers. Snow is common from October to mid-May, with January usually the snowiest month.
However, the city is warmer than most other places at the same latitude due to the warming effect of the Gulf Stream, the lack of permafrost and the ice-free Norwegian Sea. Over the past 12 months, the temperature in Tromsø varied from -12.1C to 29.9C.
The Arctic cathedral is not actually a cathedral
Since its opening in 1965, the Arctic Cathedral has become an icon of Tromsø and Northern Norway.
It hosts regular church services and midnight sun concerts aimed at tourists during the endless days of the summer. However, the Arctic cathedral is actually a local parish church known as Tromsdalen church.
Tromsø does in fact have a real cathedral. The smart wooden building is located downtown, surrounded by parkland.
The Arctic Council is headquartered in Tromsø
The Arctic Council is a high-level intergovernmental forum that addresses issues faced by the Arctic governments and the indigenous people of the Arctic.
Since 2012, Tromsø has served as the headquarters, although the chair rotates every two years and meetings are held throughout the Arctic region.
States with membership of the Council include Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. However, of the 4 million or so inhabitants of the Arctic region, around half a million are indigenous people.
To better reflect indigenous issues, six organisations are also permanent participants: Aleut International Association, Arctic Athabaskan Council, Gwich'in Council International, Inuit Circumpolar Council, Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, and the Sami Council.
Tromsø is one of the best places to see the northern lights
Tourism in Tromsø outside the summer months is primarily focused around the chance to see the northern lights. Chances are usually high, especially if you’re prepared to travel an hour or more outside the city.
Northern lights tours are big business in and around the region. If you visit in September-November or February-April, you'll find many tour guides competing for your business.
That being said, the lights can often be seen from the city itself. Prestvannet lake at the top of Tromsø island is a popular choice. It's higher than the rest of the city and there's a little less light pollution here.
But seeing a display from the downtown area is also more than possible. I once saw a good display behind Tromsdalen when arriving on the Hurtigruten. Of course, if you're travelling all the way to Tromsø it's a good idea to head out of the city to give yourself the best chance.
Tromsø IL is the northernmost top flight football club in the world
This might be out of date by the time you read this, as Tromsø’s football club has a reputation of yo-yoing between the top two divisions in Norway. But when they do play in the Norwegian Premier League, Tromsø IL is the world’s northernmost top tier football club.
Early and late in the season, matches at the small Alfheim Stadium can often only go ahead after snow clearance.
In fact, snow provided one of the most memorable moments ever seen at the stadium. In 1997, English Premier League side Chelsea played Tromsø in a snowstorm and the locals–more used to the conditions–recorded a famous 3-1 victory.
Footage of the famous game has since gone on to become famous on YouTube. You'll need to watch a few minutes to see the weather deteriorate!
Despite the embarrassing defeat, Chelsea had the last laugh. They won the return let in London 7-1.
Tromsø has another official name
Tromsø is the official name of the city in the Norwegian language, and Tromso is widely used in English. However, the indigenous Sami people have another name for the city.
In the Sami language, the city is known as Romsa, with Tromsa sometimes used informally. In both Finnish and the minority Kven language, the city is known as Tromssa.
So, there we are! I hope you learned something new about Tromsø, and that this article gave you some insight into this fascinating part of northern Scandinavia. If you enjoyed this story, check out our similar articles about Norway and the capital city, Oslo.
4 thoughts on “15 Fascinating Facts About Tromsø”
David does a great job describing the cities and places he visits in Norway. I can always trust his insights and observations. I have decided to visit Tromso on my visit to the north this summer. Thanks!
I am delighted to see Tromso highlighted. I applaud all David has written but have to add a personal remembrance. My husband unexpectedly received a cardiac stent there- a few years ago- at the University Hospital of Northern Norway. The care was outstanding. The doctors and nurses were superb and the hospital was the best run of any I have ever experienced. We still talk about it as an eye-opening adventure.
I , along with my partner thoroughly enjoyed my recent ( end November 2022) visit to Tromso. On the next day of our visit we were lucky enough to see spectacular northern lights for hours till well passed midnight ,a little far from city centre. We enjoyed hot chocolate and cookies inside Gamme and hot reindeer stew inside comfortable Lavvu listening to joik and Sami folklores. Enjoyed Fjellheisen ride and wonderful views of Tromso both in day and night. Spending some good Fika time sipping blueberry tea in kuksa cup sitting by the side of beautiful Fjord ,is something we will cherish for long . Local attractions ( polarmuseet, arctic cathedral and so forth) , we covered as well. A special mention to be made here about enjoying hotdog and dark Ale sitting by side of open fire on reindeer hide at the world ‘s smallest pub in heart of Tromso , is incredible !
I have a great grandmother, Rasmina Bertina Sanne, who was born in Tromsø. Where would I find documents, etc. to help me find out more details about her life?
Are there records in one place…such as a church or historical society where I could get help with my search? Thanks got your help!
I enjoy all your descriptions!