Tromsø surprised visitors in the 1800s: they thought it very sophisticated and cultured for being so close to the North Pole—hence its nickname, the Paris of the North. It looks the way a polar town should—with ice-capped mountain ridges and jagged architecture that is an echo of the peaks. The midnight sun shines from May 21 to July 21, and it is said that the northern lights decorate the night skies over Tromsø more than over any other city in Norway. Tromsø is home to only 69,000 people, but it's very spread out—the city's total area, 2,558 square km (987 square miles), is the most expansive in Norway. The downtown area is on a small, hilly island connected to the mainland by a slender bridge. The 13,000 students at the world's northernmost university are one reason the nightlife here is uncommonly busy.
One of Norway's leading regions for handmade arts and crafts, Tromsø is a treasure trove of shops, particularly along the main pedestrian street Storgata, where a market sells regional and international products. Pick up art from the city's many galleries or craft shops (such as glass-blowing and candle-making studios), or score such Arctic delicacies as reindeer sausages.
The several restaurants and bars here mostly emphasize seafood, but there's also a steak house. The menu in this Arctic pantry might include soup of Kamchatka crab, delicious halibut and coalfish, Arctic reindeer, or whale carpaccio. The fish lunch at Skarven is a good value. The pleasant terrace is usually packed in summer.
To get a sense of Tromsø's immensity and solitude, take this cable car from the mainland, just across the bridge and behind the cathedral, up to the island's mountains. Storsteinen (Big Rock), 1,386 feet above sea level, has a great city view. In summer a restaurant is open at the top of the lift.
Housed in a striking modern building by the harbor, the adventure center Polaria examines life in and around the polar and Barents regions. Explore the exhibits on polar travel and arctic research, then check out two panoramic films, Svalbard—Arctic Wilderness and Northern Lights in Arctic Norway. The aquarium has sea mammals, including bearded seals.
Tromsø's signature structure was designed by Jan Inge Hovig to evoke the shape of a Sami tent as well as the iciness of a glacier. Opened in 1964, it represents northern Norwegian nature, culture, and faith. The immense stained-glass window depicts the Second Coming. There are midnight sun concerts in summer, starting at 11:30 pm.
Dating from 1872, northern Norway's oldest scientific institution is dedicated to the nature and culture of the region. Learn about the northern lights, wildlife, fossils and dinosaurs, minerals and rocks, and church art from 1300 to 1800. Outdoors you can visit a Sami gamme (turf hut), and a replica of a Viking longhouse. The pretty Arctic-Alpine botanical garden is the most northern in the world, at roughly the same latitude as Alaska's north coast.
Inside a customs warehouse from 1830, Polarmuseet documents the history of the polar regions. There are exhibitions on wintering in the Arctic, trapping, Arctic seal hunting, and on famous Norwegian polar explorers like Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen. Part of the University of Tromsø, the museum opened in 1978, on the 50th anniversary of Amundsen leaving Tromsø for the last time, in search of his explorer colleague Umberto Nobile.