This is one of two major art galleries in Tromsø (the other is the Tromsø Gallery of Contemporary Art or Tromsø Kunstforening, which we didn’t get round to visiting). As the name suggests, it focuses on art about and from Northern Norway, covering the period from the early 19th century to the present day. It also has temporary exhibitions – when we were there it was one of textiles as art, some of which were really lovely.
The galleries are not large but you get a good overview of the art that this region has inspired, with some beautiful land- and seascapes. I was surprised to see a David Hockney in the collection. Photography is allowed only on the first floor. By this they mean the middle floor, one flight up – we got confused as although this is what we understand as the first floor, elsewhere in Norway we had seen the US system used and assumed they mean the bottom or ground floor, so of course we were pulled up for taking photos there!
Admission is free and there is a small café with “help yourself” teas and coffees – the latter was the cheapest we saw anywhere in Tromsø at 10 KR and was perfectly drinkable! There’s a small shop (mostly selling art books from what I saw, though we didn’t look closely) and lockers where you’re asked to leave any large bags, as well as a cloakroom for your outdoor wear – very useful.
The gallery is open Tuesday – Friday 10.00am-5.00pm, Saturday – Sunday 12.00-5.00pm, and closed all day Monday
Next tip: getting around by bus
We had pre-booked a Northern Lights tour for our first evening in Tromsø, and on the recommendation of Simply Sweden chose one where photography instruction is included. There are many operators running very similar tours, which consist of an evening spent driving around looking for Aurora sightings in the vicinity of Tromsø (or sometimes further afield – we heard of a tour the previous evening that had gone all the way to Finland and not returned to Tromsø until 6.00 the next morning!) A hot meal is usually included, and many provide warm clothing if needed. The difference with the tours offered by Creative Vacations is that you get some guidance on photographing the Aurora before setting out, which seemed to us a good idea.
We had arrived in Tromsø under grey skies and with sleet falling, although this had stopped by mid afternoon. The Aurora forecast was for only low levels of activity, so we set out for the meeting point, the Radisson Blu hotel, with little expectation of seeing the lights. But we were still keen to do the tour as we thought the photography tips would be useful should we have clearer evenings later in our trip – and besides, you never knew ...
Our group of five (two Australians, a guy from Chili and the two of us) were picked up at the Radisson and taken to the studio of the photographer, Vidar, in a small village about half an hour from town. We were welcomed into the cosy room, offered tea or coffee, and shown a short video about the science of the Northern Lights (we were to see the same video twice more, in different Tromsø museums. Then Vidar talked through some general photographic principles (most of which we already knew) and how to apply them to photographing the Aurora (which we didn’t know). As we sat there listening we could see that the skies outside were clearing and I started to get more hopeful, especially as Vidar seemed quietly confident.
We were then issued with a snow suit if we wanted or if we were wearing our own warm clothing (I had my Antarctic-issue parka!), we were asked to wear a reflective vest for safety if in our excitement we wandered into the roads. Then we were off. Vidar had checked the weather and Aurora forecasts just before we left, and decided on the basis of these to stay fairly near to Tromsø rather than head inland.
Our first stop was by a little beach somewhere west of the town and there we saw some faint streaks in the sky. This was enough for Chris and me to think that at least we were going to do better than the previous year in Iceland, when we had seen no sign of the Aurora at all. But after a short while here Vidar suggested that we move on, and at our next stop we were rewarded with a wonderful display – the Aurora arcing over our heads, first brighter on the right, then the left, and then both at once – awesome!
Despite the earlier instruction however we struggled to get good photos. Neither of us had the recommended SLR cameras – ours are bridge cameras, which are fine for most normal situations, but this isn’t normal. Nevertheless I think they would have been OK except that they don’t allow manual focus – my previous camera did and I hadn’t even realised till now that this newer model did not. Chris meanwhile had even more problems, as his batteries went almost immediately and his spares straight after. Camera batteries do not like this intense cold, but fortunately mine seemed to survive it and after a while I got my camera set up in a way that would at least capture the scene sufficiently. The important thing though was to enjoy the lights, so after taking quite a lot of shots and hoping some would work, I joined Chris in simply standing and admiring.
When the display eventually faded some what we moved on, and this time stopped lower down by the water where we could get some reflections of the lights, which strengthened again here. Photos three and four were taken in this location. In both places we stayed a good long while – Vidar never hurried us on this trip. But again, eventually the lights faded, and we moved on, this time to the top of a small mountain. The Aurora was absent now, but the stars were fantastic, with no light pollution and a sky completely clear of clouds. We were served with cups of hot chunky chicken soup and good crusty bread, followed by coffee and biscuits – all standing around the back of the van and marvelling at the stars between mouthfuls. By now though my feet were frozen (my boots, though warm and work with two pairs of socks, were inadequate for standing around for so long in deep snow) so I got back into the van to warm up. The others though stayed outside and I learned later that they were treated to one further display.
Eventually though it was time to go. We drove back through the silent countryside, passing just the occasional vehicle that had no doubt been out on a similar mission to our own. We finally got back to Tromsø at about 1.45 AM, very ready for bed (we had been up at 4.30 to catch our early flight) but very satisfied with our wonderful evening, during which we had at last seen the Northern Lights! We were to see them twice more on this trip in fact, but neither time as brightly or clearly as we had on the tour with Vidar.
It isn’t necessarily essential to book a Northern Lights tour in advance, unless like us you want to go on a specific tour. But the best tours, from what we heard, are the ones that take the fewest people – a guy on our tour had been on a large group trip the night before and they didn’t move around from place to place because it was too much hassle with so many people. Creative Vacations have a limit of six per tour (there were five when we went) so for this and similar small group tours, booking ahead is best. But we heard people in our hotel making enquiries about a tour the same evening and the staff there were very helpful in finding one with space available and making the booking.
Next tip: starting to explore Tromsø - the harbour
Although popularly known as the “Arctic Cathedral” this is not in fact a cathedral at all, but is the parish church of the Tromsøysund part of Tromsø. It was built in 1965, mainly of concrete, and is designed to look like slabs of ice, although it has also been likened to the Sydney Opera House – perhaps because of its eye-catching location right on the harbour as much as for its appearance.
We had been admiring, and photographing, the cathedral during our time in Tromsø, so on our last day decided to catch the bus across the bridge and see it from closer quarters. It is advertised as being open only from 16.00 – 18.00, to coincide with the time when the Hurtigruten ships are in port, so we timed our arrival for 16.00, only to be told that it was about to close. When we questioned why the times were different from what we had been told we were informed that there was a parish meeting so they had opened early and were now closing to allow the meeting to take place. I asked if we might have a quick look inside as we’d come specially and were leaving Tromsø the next day, and the man at the ticket office agreed – somewhat reluctantly, but at least he didn’t charge us the 40 KR admission. We only had time to look from near the back of the church, and the main feature, a large stained glass window that forms the backdrop to the altar, was lost in the winter darkness, but at least we had seen it! Maybe if the glass had been glowing we would have felt differently, but as it was I concluded that the Arctic Cathedral is better seen from a distance!
Next tip: another striking harbourside building, Polaria
This is another striking modern harbourside building, and indeed another whose design is intended to look like chunks of ice. Maybe the fact that the harbour in Tromsø is ice-free year-round drives them to design and build these substitute icebergs?
It is hard to describe Polaria in a way as it is a bit if a mix of attractions under one roof. When we first paid the fairly steep 120 KR admission (January 2013 price) and went in, I wasn’t certain whether we had made a mistake as there seemed to be little obvious to see, apart from a rather nice gift shop. Beyond this some men were working on what I think is to be a new exhibit, featuring a large polar bear among other things. Nothing else was immediately obvious, so I went back to the ticket desk to check where the other exhibits etc. could be found. The sales woman at that point gave me the helpful explanation that it would have been good to have been given on buying the tickets!
While you can look round in whatever order you want, there is a logical sequence to follow which ensures that you see everything without retracing your steps. The first element in this sequence is a visit to the “panoramic cinema” where two films are shown on the multiple screens. The first one we saw was a brief introduction to the Aurora, with a scientific explanation and some nice footage – but this was the same film that Vidar had shown us before going out on our Northern Lights tour the previous evening. However, it did help my learning to see it twice!
The film lasted about 10 minutes and is shown at regular intervals, alternating with another that we saw later in our visit. When the film ends, a door on the far side of the cinema opens, giving access to the next part of the “experience” (although you can skip the films and go straight here if you want to). This is the so-called "Arctic Walkway" and is perhaps the least exciting part of the visit, although it is well done and packs quite a lot of information into a small space. You can walk on a simulation of permafrost (very spongy!), poke your head into the den of a sleeping polar bear, and see a mock-up of an Arctic explorer’s tent. At times a winter storm howls above your head, and at others the Northern Lights appear.
Beyond here you enter the aquarium, and it was here that we spent the most time. I’m no fan of animals in close captivity so a part of me was concerned about the seals that are kept here, despite the fairly large size of their tank. But I have to admit being fascinated by them too, and thoroughly enjoyed watching them swimming, which you can do not only from above but also from a glass tunnel that leads under their tank, so that they swim right over your head – see my short video of this. Two of the seals are bearded seals from more northern waters, and are sort-of cute. Despite the hairiness, these are females by the way. The other two seals are harbour seals, and are quite common around Tromsø. The seals are fed and “trained” several times a day, with commentary about them in Norwegian and English. We watched one of these sessions. It was a good photo opportunity as the seals spend more time out of the water, either performing tricks or doing exercise, depending on your viewpoint. The explanation given was that it is essential to do these activities as they are intelligent animals and their brains need to be stimulated while in captivity. Of course you could argue that they could be stimulated by being released ... As I said, I was a little torn between enjoyment and guilt.
Other tanks here contain a wide variety of fish native to these waters. I was very taken by the ugliness of the Atlantic wolf fish (photo two) which occupy a large tank in the centre along with a number of other species. Smaller tanks hold crabs, anemones and much more. After we had been here some time we decided to go to the café for lunch, but we had just placed our order when it was announced that the second of the two films shown regularly throughout the day was about to start. The girl serving offered to keep our food back for us while we went to see it, and I was glad that we did, as it was much better than the northern Lights one had been, and not only because it was new to us. This is "Svalbard - Arctic Wilderness" and the photography is simply stunning. You fly over the landscape and I really felt the need to lean first one way and then the other as the plane banked! The scenery is magnificent and the wildlife beautifully captured – the whole film is a treat.
We then returned to the café for our delayed lunch, and enjoyed some sandwiches (ham and cheese toastie for Chris; parma ham, cheese and salad for me; plus a blueberry smoothie and a coffee – came to 133 KR altogether). After eating this we popped back into the aquarium area to take a few more photos and eventually left after spending several hours here and getting pretty good value for that 120 KR admission. Children will love this place – and we rather enjoyed it too!
Polaria is open 10.00 – 19.00 during the summer (mid May to end August) and 11.00 – 17.00 in winter. It is even open on Christmas Day for a few hours in the afternoon!
Next tip: another Polar experience at the Polar Museum
Situated at the opposite end of the harbour from Polaria, the Polar Museum is an altogether different experience. Much more like a traditional museum, it tells the story of the Arctic region with an emphasis on the lives of early hunters, trappers and explorers. It is located in the former Customs House which dates from 1830, and is worth a visit as much for the chance to go inside this characterful old building as for the exhibits.
Displays are spread through a series of mostly quite small rooms and spread over two floors. The first one has a series of mocked-up scenes of trappers, one set in a genuine, reconstructed wooden hut dating back to 1910 and originally located on Svarlbard where it housed five trappers.
The following rooms have old photos, trappers’ tools and many other items. Most of the labelling is in Norwegian but we were given a leaflet (which has to be returned on departure) with information about each room’s displays in English. This tended to focus on an explanation of the overall theme, however, rather than descriptions of individual items. It was rather defensive on the subject of seal hunting and we learned, among other things, that there’s a stash of seal furs somewhere awaiting a time when the market might recover from current anti-trapping attitudes (personally I’m not convinced that it will).
More interesting were the displays on some of the hardy individuals who braved the tough conditions to make their living here, including Wanny Woldstad, the first woman to winter in the Arctic. She seems to have been quite a character, spending several winters in Svarlbard with her hunting partner, working with him on equal terms. She had also previously been Tromsø’s first ever taxi driver, and seems to have thought nothing of spending the winters far from her two teenage sons, shooting polar bears and beluga whales as well as smaller animals. She later wrote a book about her exploits and became well known as a lecturer. Another character was trapper Henry Rudi, who killed 713 polar bears – not a feat we would admire today. He spent 25 winters in the Arctic, and in his later years spent his time in a Tromsø beer cellar, where he would regale anyone who would listen with tales of his adventures there.
The final rooms are devoted to Arctic exploration. Tromsø was often the final departure port for voyages north so the links to the town are obvious. Most space is devoted to the expeditions of Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen, and you can see remnants of air ships used to reach the Pole, including the mysteriously damaged fuel tank recovered from the airship in which Amundsen flew to search for missing explorer Umberto Nobile – and never returned. I found this section a lot more interesting than the displays of stuffed seals downstairs, and learned a lot that I didn’t previously know.
Admission was 60 KR (January 2013 prices). You can get a discount if you pay for this and the Tromsø Museum (both are run by the university) in one package, but we didn’t know when we came here that we would end up going to both!
Winter opening hours are 11.00 – 17.00, but check the website below for other times of year as it’s complicated. I recommend that you go early if possible to avoid tour groups as the rooms are small – when a party of Japanese tourists arrived halfway through our visit it became much harder to see the exhibits, and I imagine it gets busier still at the end of the afternoon when the Hurtigruten ship docks.
Next tip: lunch at Tante Ingers Tehus
Although the church across the water in Tromsdalen is often referred to as the Arctic Cathedral, Tromsø’s only true cathedral is here in the centre of town, and is made not of concrete but of wood – the only wooden cathedral in Norway. It was built in 1861 on a site where there is thought to have been a church since the 13th century. According to Wikipedia:
The cathedral interior is dominated by the altar with a copy of the painting Resurrection by the noted artist Adolph Tidemand. Under the picture is a quote from the Gospel of John. Stained glass windows in the front of the church, designed by Gustav Vigeland, were installed in 1960.
We were unable to see any of this however as unfortunately the building is not generally open to the public. Apparently it can be opened by special request, and also hosts concerts in the summer.
Nevertheless we were able to enjoy walking around the exterior and I found it a great subject for photography. It is set back from Storgata in a small square with some interesting statues and sculptures (see photo five), and you will probably, like us, find yourself passing here several times during your time in Tromsø.
Next tip: the Perspekitivet Museum
The Perspekitivet Museum is unusual for a couple of reasons. Firstly, admission is free – a rare thing indeed here! Secondly, it is an odd mix of fairly traditional city museum (lots of old photos of Tromsø for instance) and adventurous gallery showing modern, even provocative, works. It is located in a lovely old wooden building, a listed neoclassical house built by merchant Daniel Mack in 1838. We were attracted inside by the building itself and by the offer of a lunch deal in its café, but stayed to explore both the temporary art photography exhibition on the ground floor and the historical ones above.
Starting on the ground floor, we saw a very good photography exhibition about body image around the world called “Love me”, by Zed Nelson, an English photographer. The exhibition “reflects on the cultural and commercial forces that drive a global obsession with youth and beauty”.
Upstairs there were more temporary exhibitions, more closely linked to Tromsø’s history. One was of photos of Russian trawlermen and their ships, who visit the harbour here, and their relationship with the town and its people – the ”Russian Current”. This seems to be a long-running exhibition, on until the end of 2013. I also enjoyed the photos in ”Click – Tromsø Poses” which displays “images from Tromsø ranging from portraits of citizens in the mid-1800s to today’s busy crowded centre”. It was interesting especially to see the old photos taken in places that we half-recognised from our own explorations of the town.
There was also a small exhibition about Sara Fabricius, also known as author Cora Sandel, who grew up in Tromsø and lived in this house in the early years of the 20th century. I hadn’t heard of her, but her books sound interesting so I plan to check them out.
When we had finished looking round we had that lunch in the little café on the ground floor – carrot and coriander soup, excellent bread to accompany it, and coffee afterwards, at the special price of 80 KR. As well as the café there is also a small but interesting shop selling art books and high-quality gifts. If you have any interest in art photography and/or in the history of Tromsø you are sure to enjoy a visit to this very well-run museum.
The museum is open Tuesday – Sunday 11.00 – 17.00 (closed all day Monday) and is as I mentioned free of charge.
Next tip: more about Tromsø’s old wooden houses
I had picked up a leaflet about this museum when we visited the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum, and as we had a few hours on the morning of our last day before needing to travel to the airport, we decided to check it out. We caught bus 37 from the stop on Federik Langes Gata and the journey took about ten minutes. Note that the bus back to town leaves from the same stop as where you alight, because this is a loop route.
From the stop it’s a couple of minutes’ walk uphill to the museum – watch out, it’s slippery here in winter. The museum has a mixed collection and was smaller than I expected, so for each area of focus there are relatively few exhibits. But there’s plenty here to occupy you for a couple of hours – more if you’re the sort of person who likes to read every label and less if you’re selective about what you see. We spent about an hour looking round, which allowed us to see most of what interested us while skimming some sections. The displays are well set-out and some of the labelling is in English, as are some of the interactive exhibits (such as a “weather forecast” that covers the period from the Ice Age to the present day).
The main sections we visited were:
“Aurora all year long” which explains the science behind the Northern Lights and was the main reason we decided to visit – unfortunately it explains it with the same film we’d already seen twice before (on our Northern Lights photography tour and at Polaria), and the “create your own Aurora”
installation was less exciting and interesting than we had expected. So the section we’d mainly come to see proved to be one of the least interesting for us!
“Sami culture” which was much more interesting, covering Sami life from around 200 AD to the present day. There was a traditional Sami tent, known as a lavvo, and a more modern wooden house; lots of colourful costumes; musical instruments and displays about traditional beliefs. Another section explained a lot about Sami culture today and the steps that have been taken in recent years to recognise their rights, including the creation of a Sami parliament.
“UNaturally” which focuses on natural and man-made changes in nature, including the impact of man on his environment. There were some interesting photos taken fifty years apart in the same place showing how recent changes in farming techniques and systems have had the result of returning some land to the wild. There were also a lot of stuffed animals here, showing the wildlife of the Arctic region. I’m not normally a fan of these but I have to say the way they are displayed here, in well-staged scenes, was effective and did interest me.
We also had a quick look (because we were running out of time) at the Viking section, mainly to see the reconstruction of a longhouse which was well done.
The sections we didn’t spend so much time in included one about fossils and dinosaurs (although the fossil of the largest Ichthyosaur ever found in Norway did catch our attention), and another with examples of medieval church art, including a triptych and sculptures from churches in Northern Norway.
Admission is 50 KR. Had we known earlier in the week, when visiting the Polarmuseet, that we would come here too we could have bought a ticket covering both museums at a discounted price. Photography is allowed throughout. There is a gift shop (which looked good although we had no time to browse) and a café, which again we didn’t visit through lack of time. A large downstairs cloakroom means you can hang those thick outdoor coats and jackets while you look round.
Next tip: dinner at a local restaurant, Egon
Tromsø is a prime spot to watch the Northern Lights aka Auroa Borealis. It is the light phenomenon that takes place at the magentic north and south poles when particles from the sun hit the magnetic field of the earth, are drawn towards the mangetic poles and then burn, very high up. It is a myseterious and completely silent phenomenon, and what prevents you seeing it is the location (you have to be near the Northern Light belts), background light from cities and traffic, and of course cloud cover. You may see it when flying in the Arctic as well. It is always there in some form or the other, and with some intensity or the other, but to see it properly, you have to be at the right spot, at the right time of year and day/night - and away from cities and traffic.
Tromsø is an easy spot to look for the Northern Lights, however, the weather/cloud cover is the trouble. There are areas with much less cloud cover, but it is not always easy to get to those places. In Tromsø, the company Arctic Guide Service has a daily program to "chase" the Northern Lights, with some variations. It's easy to join: book in your hotel, by phone, internet, and show up at the departure point at Rica Ishavshotel downtown Tromsø every evening 18:30. Takes from five to seven hours, and the Northern Lights chases are on from mid-October to the end of March.
Cost: depends on the chosen program, but from NOK 850 per person up.
For a bird's eye view of the island, the city, and the impressive surroundings take the Mountain Cable Car to Storsteinen which is 421 metres above sea level.
At the top there is a restaurant and a kiosk. You can buy souvenirs and also use the postal service which is available.
The mountain cable car operates every day in summer...weather permitting and takes only 4 minutes.
Apparently there are hiking tracks and the advice is always to take food and water
Photo from the website.
The cablecar is over the bridge on the cathedral side. About 350m from cathedral by foot. Bus 26 goes near. The cablecar runs all the year and is about 420m above sea level at the top. Cafe at top. Fare was 170 nor return. In good weather you can climb to the top.
TROMSO: Northern lights: There are many excursion companies, but DO NOT book with Arctic Pathfinder. The woman who runs it is very unprofessional. First of all you have to send her many emails and reminders before she replies, then she sends you the wrong invoice. Also she charges 130 NOK (about 20 euros) just for paying with Paypal. On top of that her tours suck. There are many other excursion companies that are much better such as "Arctic guide service". Please don't get ripped off by Arctic Pathfinder, like I did.
You do not really expect to find a botanical garden when you look around Tromsø, but there it is, on the premises of the Tromsø University Museum. Like everything i Tromsø, this one is also labelled the northernmost in the world. You will find planmts from all continents.
You'll be surprised at the flora diversity and interesting plants here during the right season, anyhow. Forget it during winter. Self-exlanatory via boards and signs. Open 24 hours, no admission fee.
There is an old and defunct Planetarium nearby (at least defunct when I was there) which you aim at, then walk through some shrubs and hit a Geology Walkway and you'll be there.
Polarmuseet i Tromsø - The Tromsø polar museum - is a little gem of a museum, and contains a lot of interesting and unique historical materials. This is the place to go to track the explorations of the Arctic (and to a lesser extent the Antarctica). The museum is housed in a longish old harbour warehouse, and outside is the little park-like fortress ruin Skansen, some lined up whale guns. You can spend a lot of time in this little museum, well worth it.
There is a small gift shop with some souvenir stuff and pedagogical materials as well as clothing items for sale.
Tromsø is in a perfect location to view the Northern Lights. You can come here and expect with a degree of uncertainty to experience this incredible phenomenon. Try to get away from the city lights, either by your own or join some kind or tour arrangement into the wilderness. I was in Tromsø now in early march and the lights were splendid.