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Tromsø, Norway is a fantastic winter destination. It’s one of those festive European cities that are big on Christmas and one of the top destinations for prime northern lights viewing. But it’s a bit tricky visiting Tromsø during Christmas because much of the city shuts down and you aren’t left with a ton of options. With that said, you can still find things to do and places to eat, you just need to manage your expectations. So here are several things to know about visiting Tromsø, Norway during winter.
You’ll likely have to connect from a Scandinavian city like Oslo to get to Tromsø, Norway. Flights on budget airlines can be pretty cheap. For example, you can book a roundtrip economy from JFK to OSL on Norwegian for as low as $400. And then you can get roundtrip flights from Olso to Tromsø for as little as $180, so your total out of pocket can be under $600.
I booked our flight to Tromsø as part of an award itinerary with Aeroplan where we flew business class on SAS for 55,000 miles one way and only $12 in fees and it was a great flight!
On our way back we flew British Airways first class on the 747 using award miles and it was also a terrific flight.
Note: Google Flights shows no direct flights operating from Tromsø to Oslo on Christmas, so be aware that flights on Christmas Day could be limited.
Tromsø is gorgeous
Trosmø is actually located on an island called “Tromsøya” and surrounded by spectacular mountainous fjords. It’s easily one of the most breathtaking Arctic cities in the world and it’s a real photographer’s paradise.
In addition to the stunning natural landscape surrounding the city, the entire town is decorated in the Christmas spirit! Even Ebenezer Scrooge himself would struggle not to get into Christmas when walking down these streets lined with wreaths and Christmas lights. And when it’s snowing, it’s almost like being in a real-life fairy tale.
You’ll have a little bit of daylight
Contrary to what many think, you’ll have some daylight even visiting in the middle of the winter. Your daylight window will be limited to “Civil Twilight,” which is the brightest stage of twilight defined as having “enough natural light to carry out most outdoor activities.” This will typically last from around 9:30 to 2pm around Christmas time, so if you want to do any kind of outdoor activity where you’ll want light, try to schedule it within that window.
The photo below shows the amount of light you might get around 12pm, but keep in mind that cloud coverage can significantly alter this.
It’s not at cold as you might think
Despite being located above the Arctic Circle, Tromsø doesn’t have a true Arctic climate but instead has a “humid subarctic continental climate.” Temperatures in December will likely be around 32ºF and only dropping below 19°F only one day in ten. Tromsø gets a lot of precipitation so you can expect to be hit with some rain, sleet, and probably a lot of snow during your visit.
In addition to bringing layers for the cold temperatures, waterproof winter wear and boots for getting around in snow really help out, too.
Up your planning game
If you’re going to visit Tromsø during Christmas then you need to do some serious planning because so many attractions, shops, and restaurants will be closed on certain days or limited during specific hours. Thus, it’s often necessary to plan out each visit to each place by the day in advance so you don’t miss out on doing anything you’d like to experience. This is not a time or a place when you just want to play it by ear.
The shutdowns begin
The shutdowns begin on December 23rd.
On this day, many shops and restaurants will close their doors early and won’t re-open them for several days. Thus, if you want to experience Christmas shopping and try out the different restaurants that Tromsø has to offer, you need to visit at least a couple of days before the 23rd.
Where should I stay in Tromsø?
I highly recommend staying in a hotel in the city center. Tromsø is not a big city by any means, but I think it’s worth being centrally located so you can easily walk to the shops, restaurants, etc., especially if the weather is bad.
We stayed at the Raddison Blu and for Scandinavian standards, it was fine for us and the breakfast each morning was’t bad at all. Other people said good things about the Clarion Collection Hotel Aurora (which has an outdoor hot tub) and if you’re more on a budget check out the Smarthotel Tromsø.
What restaurants are open during Christmas in Tromsø?
After the 23rd, there’s not going to be a lot of eating options in Tromsø but don’t worry, you’re not going to have to starve. Take a look at the screen shot below. It shows the opening hours for restaurants in Tromsø during Christmas of 2016. Note: this could be different for 2017 and beyond but it will give you a general idea of what to expect.
As you can see, the vast majority of the restaurants are closed for the holidays.
You should still be able to find an open restaurant at any of the big hotels in the city like the Raddison Blu, Clarion, etc. Outside of those hotels, your options will be extremely limited. We ended up eating at Yona’s Pizzeria a couple of times, and I highly recommend them because they were open even on Christmas and it was some good pizza.
If your hotel room has a refrigerator you can stop at one of the grocery stores and store away some food. They should be open up until the afternoon on Christmas Eve. Picking up some groceries might be able to help you get by, but ultimately, I’d just count on eating out at the hotels or one of the few places open, since I doubt many hotels would even have mini-fridges with enough room for you to store your groceries.
If you’re just looking for snack food the 7-11 should be open most of the time. They’ve got hot food items like hot dogs and even pizzas (which to be honest didn’t look that bad).
Just be warned to stay away from the candy “Salt Skum” if you find it in the 7/11 or anywhere else in Norway or it will ruin you!
What shopping is open during Christmas in Tromsø?
As stated, you should try to fit in your shopping before the 24th. While some shops will likely be open on the 23rd and 24th, they’ll be shutting it down early, so I recommend you try to arrive a few days before the 23rd to maximize shopping opportunities.
When I visited, I noticed that some shops, such as the Tromsø Gift and Souvenir Shop closed even earlier than their stated closing time. So it’s a good idea to get your shopping done as early as possible.
What attractions are open during Christmas in Tromsø?
Many of the attractions will close after the 23rd. Only a couple of the staple attractions stay open on Christmas Eve, Christmas, and Boxing Day and these include Polaria and the Polar Museum. Note that the popular cable car attraction closes on the 24th and 25th, so if you want to catch those great views of the city (that I unfortunately missed) you need to do that earlier.
We checked out Polaria on Christmas and it’s an interesting museum with an Arctic aquarium, knowledge-based exhibits, and a panoramic theater, which is one of the highlights where you can see stunning visuals of Norway and how the northern lights actually come about.
Do they offer northern lights and dog-sledding tours on Christmas?
Some of the tour operators still offer activities like northern lights tours, dog-sledding tours, and other activities during Christmas Eve and Christmas, so you can still find things to do on those days. In fact, I recommend planning tours for those activities on those days, since you probably won’t have much else to do.
We had three superb nights of watching the northern lights in Tromsø during our visit. If you’re looking for a northern lights tour, I suggest going with Chasing Lights. Also, I suggest reading my tips on viewing the northern lights for some background information that will help you be prepared for your visit.
Tromsø church services on Christmas
If you’re in the mood for attending a church service for Christmas, there’s a number of them to choose from in Tromsø, including one at the famous Arctic Cathedral. We didn’t attend any of these, so I’m not sure how they are or what the crowds or like but you can probably do some research and find that out.
Should I rent a car during the winter?
You do not need to rent a car to explore Tromsø. Even in snow and sleet, we walked around the city and to places like Polaria without an issue.
We did choose to rent a car to explore the surrounding area of Tromsø in search of the northern lights. If you want to explore the fjords or do your own search of the northern lights (I can’t recommend enough), then I highly suggest renting a car. The rental cars have nails in the tread that seemed to work wonders when driving on some of the streets that were frozen over. Brad and I have pretty much zero experience in driving in frozen conditions but got around just fine. So I think it’s all about your comfort level with venturing out on your own.
Parking is a struggle in Tromsø, however, and many of the hotels will not have valet parking or even parking lots to accommodate your car. Luckily, there is an underground parking garage (that looks like the Bat Cave) in the center of the city that often has plenty of spots. It will cost around $22 USD per day to leave your car there.
One last thing to know, when you leave the airport on your way to the city center, you’ll likely be driving through long tunnels. I didn’t know this and when we entered the tunnels the GPS cut off. This was a problem because there are round-a-bouts and such in the tunnels and you could potentially get turned around. So I recommend trying to plot out or memorize the route to get where you need to go. It will likely only involve one or two turns through the tunnels but it’s something to be aware of.
Do I recommend visiting Tromsø during Christmas?
Even though there are some limitations to visiting Tromsø during Christmas, it’s still a magical place to experience the northern lights, get introduced to the Arctic, and soak in the Christmas spirit.
I would recommend arriving on the 22nd at the absolute latest, so you can at least explore the full array of restaurants and shops that the city has to offer for a day and half. It will still be a cozy town to enjoy after that when things shut down and you’ll be able to stay occupied with things like northern lights tours and dog sledding tours, so Trosmø can definitely still work out to be an ideal Christmas destination.
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Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time credit card rewards/travel expert and has earned and redeemed millions of miles to travel the globe. His content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.