The ‘Gateway to the Arctic’, as the city thrills in billing itself, Tromsø (Romsa in Sámi) is one of the undisputed highlights of Norwegian Lapland. Although geographically well out on a limb, it is worth making a special effort to get there to enjoy some rare urban sophistication, the like of which you won’t find for miles around. Once known, quite ridiculously, as the Paris of the North, Tromsø can nevertheless boast a sophisticated café and restaurant culture, top hotels and several big-name stores; it has a couple of superb museums which will no doubt whet your appetite to learn more about the Arctic and maybe even to go there.
With a population of 73,000, Tromsø is the second-biggest town in Lapland, but if you talk to locals you will soon discover that they don’t consider themselves to live in Lapland (despite the confusing fact that the town uses a reindeer as its emblem). For the record, Tromsø is the capital of Troms, a Norwegian province that is further north than both Sweden’s Lappland and Finland’s Lappi, two administrative regions, which, for people who live there, most definitely are part of Lapland. For most Norwegians living here, Norwegian Lapland doesn’t begin until they cross the provincial border into Finnmark (the region which includes Alta, Karasjok, Kautokeino and all points east to Kirkenes). Most visitors seem happy to let the Norwegians argue among themselves, since as far as they are concerned everything above the Arctic Circle is Lapland – Swedish, Finnish or Norwegian.
What to see and do
In the town centre, the main sight is the domkirke, built in 1861 in Gothic Revival style, which dominates the surrounding streets from its imposing position in Stortorget off Kirkegata; for what it’s worth, this is the northernmost Protestant cathedral in the world and the only one in Norway made of wood. The construction of the handsome timber building was part funded by the town’s merchants who had grown rich on the trapping trade in the Arctic. Sadly, due to a lack of volunteers, the cathedral is usually closed. However, you can see the interior every afternoon and evening when classical music concerts are held here during the summer months.
Enjoying a prime location on the harbour front, Tromsø’s Polarmuseet is housed in a former customs warehouse dating from 1830 and contains some of the most fascinating exhibits you will find in Lapland.
It is fitting that Tromsø has an entire museum dedicated to its links with the Arctic, since the town owes much of its prosperity today to the hunters and trappers who based themselves here during the first half of the 19th century.
From the Polarmuseet it’s a short stroll west along Bispegata to reach one of Tromsø’s best, but often overlooked, museums: Perspektivet. Predominantly a photographic museum, Perspektivet aims to recount the contemporary history of Tromsø and has a collection of 400,000 images to draw on. Exhibitions change frequently, though there is usually a section devoted to what’s known as the ‘Pomor trade’ – commercial dealings between Russian fishermen and businessmen in the north of Norway which gave rise to a pidgin language ‘russenorsk’.
The building the museum occupies is also of interest as it was the teenage home of local writer, Sara Fabricius (1880–1974). After moving here from Oslo at the age of 13, Sara lived in Tromsø for five years – a period which left clear marks on her literary work; her breakthrough came under the pseudonym of Cora Sandel with the publication of her debut novel, Alberte and Jacob, in 1926. A modest exhibition in the museum recounts key moments in Fabricius’s life – today she’s regarded as one of Norway’s most significant authors.