Things to Know About Visiting Tromsø, Norway During Winter

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.

Snow covered street Tromso Norway
Tromsø, Norway during Christmas.

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Getting there

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!

Seat on SAS business class on the A330
SAS business class on the A330.

On our way back we flew British Airways first class on the 747 using award miles and it was also a terrific flight.

British Airways First Class
British Airways First Class.

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.

City view Tromso Norway
The view from Tromsø, Norway
Boats and bridge Tromso Norway

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.

Store fronts Tromso Norway
Tromsø, Norway.
Store front Tromso Norway
Tromsø, Norway.
Winter Christmas decorations Tromso Norway
Tromsø, Norway.
Winter Christmas decorations Tromso Norway
Tromsø, Norway Christmas decorations.
Tree with lights Tromso Norway
Tromsø Norway during a snowy Christmas.

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.

Civil twilight Tromso Norway
Civil twilight in Tromsø.

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.

Christmas time Tromsø Norway
Tromsø, Norway.

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. 

Radisson Blu Hotel Tromso Norway
Radisson Blu Hotel, Tromso.

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.

List of restaurants open Christmas Tromso Norway

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.

Pepperoni Pizza at Yonas Tromso Norway
Pizza at Yona’s.

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.

List of grocery stores open Christmas Tromso Norway

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).

Pizza in case
Pizza at the 7/11.

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!

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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.

Tromsø Norway
Tromsø Gift and Souvenir Shop.

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.

List of attractions open Christmas Tromso Norway

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.

Pool at Polaria Tromso Norway

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.

Northern lights Christmas Tromso Norway
The northern lights on Christmas.

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.

Northern lights Christmas Norway
The northern lights just outside of Tromsø.

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.

Church in Tromso Norway
Church in Tromsø, Norway.

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.

BMW Northern Lights Norway
Our rental car in Tromsø.

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. 

Underground parking cave
Underground parking cave.

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.

Tromso Norway

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.

Chasing Lights: The Best Northern Lights Tour in Tromsø, Norway

This Christmas I fulfilled a bucket-list item of witnessing the northern lights (from the ground). I’d seen the northern lights from a plane before, but that experience could not hold a candle to the encounter I had in Norway of witnessing this amazing light show. We decided to join a tour with Chasing Lights out of Tromsø, Norway, and it was one of the best decisions we ever made. Here’s a review of my experience with Chasing Lights and some photographs from our experience.

See also:

Different tour packages

Chasing Lights offers an array of different tour packages. Some of these packages (which can cover as many as four days) offer lodging and northern light chases along with other activities like dog sledding. However, if you’re just looking to book tours for individual nights, you might consider the following packages:

  • Aurora Safari Bus Tours: 950 NOK
  • Signature Northern Lights Chase: 1,800 NOK for the first night (roughly $200 USD)

We decided to go with the Signature Northern Lights Chase since it seemed to offer us a few things we really wanted.

For one, we liked the idea of having a maximum amount of guests capped at 13. This made it a much more personal experience and also made it easier to have questions answered and get photos taken. On the Signature Tour, Chasing Lights also provides you with thermal suits, a tripod, a campfire experience, and homemade (and delicious) soup and hot chocolate and cookies. (These things are all included in the cost.)

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The tour

The tour begins with getting picked up from your hotel around 6 pm. You’re greeted by name by a cheerful guide and brought into the mini-bus/van. Inside the van, it’s a bit of a tight fit if it’s full of 13 guests. You’ll still be able to get comfortable but you’ll likely have to keep your bag on your lap or if it’s a smaller bag maybe under your seat.

Inside mini-bus Norway
Inside the “mini-bus.”

If you don’t want to keep your baggage on you, then there should be room in the back of the van or up front so you can free up some space on your seat. Also, as you enter the van, you probably want to take off your thick coats and outerwear because they’ll keep you nice and warm inside the van. If at any time you’re hot or cold, just let them know and they’ll just the temperature to help you get comfortable.  

After riding around and scooping up all of the passengers, we buckled up our seat belts and then were ready to take off on our tour right at 6 pm. The guides begin by explaining the basics of a northern lights chase. Things like what you should expect, what they’re looking for, and how long the chase might last, are all covered in detail. 

The Chasing Lights guides are extremely enthusiastic, passionate, and also very personable, so all around it’s a great vibe in the van. They keep you informed on everything that’s going on around you and are great about including everyone. For example, at one point a couple of guests left the group to warm up in the van and our guide, Meda, dropped everything she was doing to get their attention because she saw that a brilliant light display was coming (and she was right).  

The route on the chase

You never know what route the tour might end up taking. Sometimes you’ll head west toward the coast and other times you might head inland, sometimes even going as far as Finland or maybe even Sweden. You can see maps of the two vastly different routes we took on our two tours below:

Route of chasing lights tour Norway
Route on the first night.
Route of chasing lights tour
Route on the second night.

The guides make clear that you’re not actually “chasing” the northern lights themselves since they will appear regardless of where you are in the region.

Instead, you’re chasing two things.

The first thing is you’re trying to get away from the light pollution that can interfere with your ability to see the lights. While you can see the northern lights from Tromsø on a clear night, there’s still a fair amount of light pollution that will hinder your ability to see them and will make it difficult to photograph them.

The second thing you are chasing is a clear sky. You don’t actually need a 100% clear sky to see the lights. For one, you can often see the lights through clouds that are very high in the sky. And second, the clouds move so often and so quickly that all you need is for them to open up for a while to see and capture the lights. So don’t fret if the forecast is showing cloudy skies in the area because you never know when the sky might open up. 

Once you’re in an area where you can see the night sky, then it’s just up to the northern lights to show up.

Long nights

Because you’re dealing with nature, it’s possible that your tour could last all they way into the the early morning… I’m talking 4 to 5am! Our tours only lasted until about 1 to 2am, but just be prepared for a potentially long night. The good news is that the vans come equipped with wifi and it actually works pretty well! Still, you might want to bring some snacks and maybe even a small pillow to keep you comfortable in the event that you’re out on the road for a while and you get tired or hungry. 


The areas surrounding Tromsø are made up of many different “micro-climates” due to the topography created by the mountains, fjords, and islands. If you’re not familiar, micro-climates are geographical pockets where vastly different weather conditions can exist right next to each other. For example, it might be completely cloudy and snowing in Tromsø but completely clear in another region only about 30 minutes to an hour away. (This is why you shouldn’t obsess over the weather forecast for Tromsø.)

Inside mini-bus
Driving through the Arctic chasing the northern lights at 1:38am.

The varying weather conditions are one reason why it’s a great decision to go with a tour company like Chasing Lights. The guides are familiar with the areas that are drier and that can be clearer, so they know where to search for clear skies  Also, they often have multiple vehicles out all surveying different routes to scout out the clear skies. They communicate with each other in real-time, so it’s a lot easier to find open skies than if you were just searching for them by yourself with no knowledge of the local climate and weather patterns.

Another reason to go with a tour is that you may not be comfortable driving through the Arctic in the dark when roads can be covered in ice and visibility can be limited due to heavy snow and sleet. By going on a tour with Chasing Lights, you effectively have a team of locals working on your behalf to help you find clear skies, all while making sure you’re safe. To me, that makes the price tag worth it for many. 

The “chasing” routes

So your tour route will definitely depend on the weather conditions. On our first tour we drove out until we got past the snow and sleet coming down and arrived at an area where there were some breaks in the clouds. And that’s when we caught our first official glimpse of the northern lights!

Northern lights tour Tromso Norway
Our first view of the northern lights!

It was just a single, faint green streak,  but we stopped for some photos just in case the sky didn’t open up more and that was going to be as good as it would get — thankfully, it got much better than that!

The guides really do a great job of stopping the van (in a safe and viewable spot) as soon as possible when the lights are spotted. And you can help them out with spotting the lights by peeking through the windows. You’ll probably only be able to see a faint whitish-grey streak through the dark tinted windows, but when the lights strong you’ll be able to see them clearly with the naked eye.

After a few minutes, we ventured to another area where the clouds seemed to be breaking. Once there, we caught a better view of the lights but the clouds were still somewhat heavy.

Northern lights tour Tromso Norway
The lights coming out a bit more.

This is when it really pays to be patient. There are plenty of times when the cloud coverage can change dramatically in a matter of minutes. At one point, we had about 95% cloud coverage and within 10 minutes the sky opened up big time, with thousands of stars coming into view with the northern lights following. It took a few minutes of waiting, but we soon caught these amazing displays of the lights.

Northern lights tour Tromso Norway

Although clear skies are ideal, having clouds in your photos adds drama to the composition.

Northern lights tour Tromso Norway

Once we got a sense of the cloud patterns and saw that openings were becoming more common, our guide decided to set up our little camp right there. The guide and driver put together a small fire and spread out reindeer fur hides for us to sit or rest on while warming up right next to the fire. They also came around with some hot chocolate and cookies to hold us over until dinner. And after dinner, we got to roast some marshmallows. 

Northern lights tour Tromso Norway
Making a fire under the northern lights. Photo via Chasing Lights.

One great thing about this area is that you’re allowed to set up fires on the side of the road pretty much anywhere. Also, there are tons of areas with spectacular views looking out to a fjord with snow-capped mountains, meaning that your chances are very high of having stunning compositions to work with when shooting your photos.

Northern lights tour Tromso Norway

After camp was set up and we admired the ever-changing light show, we were served our soup, which was a meaty soup similar to a beef stew. It was delicious and hit the spot. If you have special dietary needs, just let them know and they should be able to accommodate you.

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Dancing lights

Just after dinner, the northern lights started to intensify. The green became brighter and the long stretches of lights filled up more of the sky. And then, the dancing started. The lights started moving fast with bright flashes of white and even pink and purple. It was the most stunning natural display of anything I’ve ever witnessed and it was happening right above our heads.

Northern lights tour Tromso Norway

Luckily, our guide, Noora, was able to catch the action on the video below.

On our second tour the next night, we saw a similar display of brilliance but with even more pink glowing in the clouds.

Northern lights tour Tromso Norway

Intense green bands also lit up the night sky. Even with the clouds moving in and out the second night, it was a spectacular display.

Northern lights tour Tromso Norway
Northern lights tour Tromso Norway
Northern lights tour Tromso Norway

Photos and video

I’ll write more tips later on photographing the northern lights but one great thing about this tour is that the guides are experts at photographing the northern lights so even if you don’t have the best camera for photographing the lights, you can rest assured that memories will be captured by your tour guide (and sent to you the next day).

And if you do have a good camera, the guides know the best settings for capturing the lights so they can provide you with some solid advice. And finally, they are great at taking snapshots of you under the northern lights so you can go home with plenty photos of yourself with the northern lights shining behind you.

Man with Northern lights
Photo by Chasing Lights.
Northern lights tour Tromso Norway
Photo by Chasing Lights.

What to wear on a northern lights tour?

Tromsø and the surrounding area doesn’t seem to get as cold as some other true Arctic locations, so that’s another reason I recommend for people to venture to Norway to see the northern lights — it likely won’t be as cold as places like Alaska!

With that said, when the wind picks up and it’s in the 20s (Fº), the wind chill can bring down the temperature significantly. And when you’re outside for hours at a time, it can be difficult to stay warm.

So what do I recommend?

I recommend wearing a good pair of wool socks along with a layer of thermals under your clothes and then layer a couple of items of clothing under your coat. Gloves and a beanie are obviously an essential as well. One thing that we really benefited from were these thin ski-masks we bought off Amazon. They’re very thin but did a great job of keeping our face and neck warm without the hassle of dealing with a scarf. Also, bring along “hot hands” to insert into your pockets and possibly even your shoes since it’s common for your toes to get really cold. 

The good thing is that if you go with the Signature Tour, you’ll have the thermal suits and boots to help protect you from the elements (along with heat packs). I actually never changed into one of those thermal suits but we had several people on our tour who did use them and they remarked that the suits worked wonders to keep them warm. If the wind proves to be even a little bit strong, I suggest you opt for the thermal suits to keep yourself warm.

Final word

My two northern lights tours with Chasing Lights were two of the most amazing and inspiring tours I’ve ever signed up for when traveling. Having a whole team working together to find the best places to watch for the northern lights helps your odds immensely when chasing the northern lights, especially when the weather is showing unclear skies (which is most of the time near Tromsø). Also, not having to deal with driving through the elements yourself and having access to thermal gear, warm meals and drinks, and a nice little fire makes the entire experience for more enjoyable. Chasing Lights is definitely worth the expense if you’re looking for a northern lights tour company in Norway!