Can you do Tromso in Norway in just three days? Catherine Lawler took the challenge, packed up her family and hit the frozen Arctic Circle. Here’s how she made the magic happen and only stayed up really late once. It was worth it!
Staring up at the departures board at Manchester Airport, I was drawn to the list of flights to warmer climes – Dubai, Lanzarote, Morocco… and I momentarily imagined sipping cocktails by the poolside.
However, I quickly snapped out of it as we were heading due north to Tromso (via Oslo), a small but lively city lying 217 miles above the Arctic Circle.
Refreshing my weather app for only the 30th time that day, I discovered the temperature in Tromso had plummeted and a cool minus ten would greet us on arrival.
But, as I told the rest of the family, cold is vogue these days, particularly in the Wim Hof era, though the notorious Arctic chill was still a shock to the system as we disembarked. We needed every one of our four layers of clothing.
Happy to have snow, but clear skies are cool too
Kids love snow though and were happy to see so much of it. I, however, was still praying to the weather gods for clear skies – my number one goal was to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. Seeing the spectacular Aurora Borealis is never guaranteed, but this was a part of the world with pretty good odds.
Amazingly for a family of four, we managed to pack everything we needed into just one bag: including boxed wine – Norway is well known for being incredibly expensive. But as we stood nervously at the luggage carousel, the bag failed to appear. It seems that quick change in Oslo was a bit too quick for our luggage to make the connection.
We filled in the necessary paperwork and headed to the hotel, which thankfully had robes and toiletries, as well as a wonderful, heated bathroom floor.
Check in to Hotel Aurora by Tromso harbour
Hotel Aurora is situated beside the harbour in Tromso. We chose it due to the fact that breakfast and dinner was included in the price: very important when you’re travelling as a family in a place where eating out can be exorbitant.
It also included ‘Fika’, a term used in parts of Scandinavian for a coffee break: a chance to stop, sit, spend time with people, have a hot drink and some cakes or pastries. I was instantly a big fan of Fika, particularly when I clocked the huge array of cakes on offer.
The hotel was a big hit with the kids, not only because they got to eat their own body weight in pancakes at breakfast, but also due to there being a hot tub on the roof. This could be booked in half hour slots and, once our luggage finally arrived containing swimwear, we sank happily into the hot tub, despite the blizzard around us.
The way to do Tromso on a budget in just three days
Three days is not long to tick a lot of boxes, so we had to be selective.
Dog sledding won the vote over feeding the reindeer, and a cable car ride up Fjellheisen was a clear favourite over the Arctic Cathedral: magnificent as this building looked.
Ride the cable car but keep your gloves on, always!
The weather was on our side for the cable car – which often closes due to high winds or heavy snow – and the views across Tromso and beyond from the top were captivating. It’s another level of cold though – I’d remove gloves to take a quick photo, but hurriedly put them back on before my fingers went numb. We had all the right gear though – snowboots, thermals, many of which were purchased from either eBay or Vinted to keep costs down.
Welcome to the smallest bar in the world. Reindeer hot dogs?
There’s a lovely restaurant at the top of Fjellheisen but our modest budget did not stretch to that, so we headed back into the centre of Tromso to a great little kiosk called ‘Raketten Bar & Pølse’, which claimed to be the smallest bar in the world and also sold the most delicious reindeer hotdogs. I’m very much a ‘when in Rome’ person, so I washed my reindeer hotdog down with mulled wine. The kids didn’t fancy reindeer, particularly following the tasteless Rudolph jokes by my unhelpful husband, so they just opted for pork hotdogs.
Snowy Tromso pulls enough prettiness to convince kids to shop
Wandering along the main high street in Tromso in the snow was beautiful, but there was an abundance of shops that we couldn’t resist… even though there’s a lot of touristy merchandise at highly inflated prices, such as ornamental trolls, reindeer skin and northern lights shot glasses and hip flasks.
Ironically, a visit to the Magic Ice Bar appeared to have the same indoor temperature, but it was fascinating to see the various ice sculptures and drink a delicious Arctic beer out of an ice glass.
The world’s most northernmost brewery – Ølhallen – is also in Tromso, but it’s worth noting that many pubs in Norway don’t allow children in, something we probably take for granted at home, so that will be a visit for next time.
Dog sledding isn’t cheap, but it’s so, so worth it
The highlight for the kids on this holiday was dog sledding. Their excitement was matched only by the huskies themselves who started barking and bouncing around in the snow as soon as they saw people getting off the coach.
We were put in pairs, with one driving the sled and the other sitting on reindeer skin in the sleigh. After a quick safety talk, we were off! In our case, I sat in comfort while my 13-year-old drove – a weird and slightly nerve-wracking experience at first, but he did very well.
Dog sledding is exhilarating. The dogs clearly enjoy themselves and once I was confident I wasn’t going to fall off, I thoroughly enjoyed travelling across the snowy Arctic plains. It’s proper bucket list stuff! It comes with a hefty price tag though – just over £600 for the four of us, so probably something we’ll only ever do once but so memorable for us all.
You are not ready for après-sledding ‘cuddle time’ and…puppies
After the sled ride, there was plenty of ‘cuddle time’ with the dogs and we even got to see the puppies, who will be trained before taking over on the sleds once the older dogs retire at around nine or ten years.
Apparently, you can apply to adopt a husky once they retire, though you must commit to walking them 20km a day! A big commitment, but a necessity for these dogs who are accustomed to running miles each day. Despite repeated requests from the kids, it was a firm no to taking a dog home with us.
Tromso delivers the Northern Light show
Back to the hotel in time for Fika, and there was a message from our tour guide.
The weather was bad and there was only a ‘30% chance’ of seeing the Northern Lights. My heart sank, but knowing this was our last night, we decided to take a chance.
There were four other people on our tour who were also trying their luck, including a couple from Saudi Arabia who were on honeymoon. They had only landed in Tromso the previous night and were lucky enough to have witnessed the Aurora from the plane! We decided this was a lucky omen.
Pick a guide who knows the skies and then start hoping
Daniel, our guide, was in touch with other guides as we travelled north through thick snow towards the Finnish border. They are all in constant contact and tip each other off if they come across a location with clear skies and accurate geomagnetic forecast which offers a better chance of experiencing the magic.
On our first stop, skies were beginning to clear and one of Daniel’s many aurora apps showed there was a high chance of success within the next hour. Then a fellow guide contacted Daniel and advised him to drive us over the border to Finland where there was more activity.
A few minutes later, we crossed the border and stopped the minibus. The snow was deeper, the air seemed even colder BUT suddenly, the northern lights appeared above us in all their glory.
Nothing prepares you for the spectacular Northern Lights
It was even more magical than I could have imagined. I said to Daniel he must have seen these light displays thousands of times. But he said every single night was different, and he never ever got bored of it. Determined to capture photos of everyone beneath this new light show, he had all the best equipment to make it happen.
The incredible lights continued to dance across the night sky, while Daniel lit a campfire and made egg toast for us all along with the best hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted. We arrived back at the hotel soon after 2am with two very tired, but happy children.
On our return to the UK the following day, there were reports of Northern Lights sightings all over the country. Had they followed us home? Or had I spent thousands unnecessarily when I could have seen them from Blackpool beach?!
But nothing could detract from our superb Scandinavian holiday chasing the lights in the beautiful thick snow and witnessing the most incredible natural show on earth.
How to plan a trip to Tromso
How to get there
Manchester to Tromso, via Oslo, SAS Scandinavian Airlines, from 6 hours, 20 minutes.
Norwegian Air Shuttle, London Gatwick to Tromso, from 3 hours, 32 minutes.
Where to stay
Good to know
Husky Sledding Adventure, Tromso – VIATOR
Arctic Northern Lights Tour, 6-9 hours – FLEXITOUR Tromso
Images: Catherine Lawler Instagram @catherine_lawler_
This article contains affiliate links. We may earn commission when you click on them. This does not influence our editorial standards. We only recommend products and services we believe will enhance your family travel experience.