Life in the Arctic - Expectations vs. Reality

I've been featured in the local newspaper last week and when they asked me about the motivation of this blog, I said that I wanted to give people who plan on visiting or moving to the Norwegian Arctic a more realistic picture of what things here are really like. Obviously I complain about the weather A LOT so you know not to expect sunshine and warmth when you come here. But what else is there about life above the Arctic Circle?

I've done one of these expectations vs. reality posts before, where I talked about moving to Norway in general but that one was pretty ironic and silly.

With this one however, I honestly try to picture a realistic as can be picture of life in the Arctic and can hopefully get one or another stereotype about the North out of the way!

So let's get this started:

Polar Night

Whenever I hear people talk about Tromso having "total darkness" or "no daylight" during winter, I cringe a little. These terms are misleading and not true as it is.

Yes, between the end of November and the end of January, Tromso experiences the polar night.

That does not mean that it's completely dark during these 8 weeks though, nor does it mean that we don't get any daylight.

The truth is that the sun doesn't rise at all during polar night so what we don't have during that period is sunlight.

We do however have daylight between roughly 10am and 1pm and it's a very special time. On rainy or cloudy days, it gets as bright as it would be in the afternoon of a rainy autumn day in Central Europe.

On a clear day however, the skies are pink to orange just before it gets bright outside and when it gets dark again. Inbetween, the skies are mostly blue and the locals call this incidence for "blue hour".

It's definitely a lovely time and not as depressing as it might sound like. Of course, if you're not used to polar night though, it can be difficult to adjust so it's important to keep up your usual sleeping routine and not sleep in till midday just because it's dark anyway.

Most Norwegians also drink fish oil to keep up their vitamin D levels and I personally enjoy going to the solarium to pretend to lie under sunshine...

All in all it's a special time and although it's not my favourite part of the year and I wouldn't necessarily advise you to come here during that time if sightseeing or mountain climbing are on your agenda - simply cause of the limited daylight hours - if you'd like to experience the "blue hour" or radiant skies, definitely book a trip during polar night!

Northern Lights

Oh yes! I get it, you come to Tromso solely with the expectation to see the Northern Lights. Preferably in December cause you think that's the darkest month which must be good to see the lights. And then you only plan on staying for the weekend.

Well I'm sorry to disappoint you but chances are, you probably won't see the Northern Lights.

In order to see them, the skies need to be clear and December (and November for that matter) are known for being rather wet and grey.

But even if you visit in October or March, when the weather is statistically a bit better, you might still not be able to see the lights if you only stay in Tromso for 2 nights.

The Northern Lights are often described as tricky and all you really need in order to see them is patience.

I don't even think that you necessarily need to pay 2000NOK for a Northern Lights safari. If they appear, you can see them in downtown Tromso too.

Of course, if you wish to photograph them, you'd need to stay away from artificial light so downtown Tromso might not be the best location for that perfect Northern Lights shot.

But there are plenty of places on Tromso Island that are easily accessible by bus and dark enough to shoot fantastic pictures! If you're interested in finding out where these places are, you can download my guidebook on Tromso where I dedicated a chapter on just that topic here.

Anyway, I usually advise people to check the weather report and only book a Northern Lights safari if the skies are cloudy. These tour busses will then drive all the way to the Lyngen Alps or the border to Finland in the hope to find clearer skies.

If you then still can't see them, you get a reduced or free trip the day after so that's when the price really pays off. Otherwise just stay in town and keep your eyes open.

Winter in general

Winter in the Arctic. Must be incredibly cold and unbearable.

Well the good news is, everything you've heard about the Arctic during winter might apply to Russia, Canada and Alaska but winter in Northern Norway and Iceland is surprisingly mild!

The coastal regions in Northern Europe benefit from the Gulf Stream so while temperatures easily drop below -20 degrees Celsius in the inland regions of Norway (Finnmark in the North or even Jotunheimen/Hardangervidda in the South), they usually stay between -5 and +5 degrees in Tromso between November and March.

It can however feel much colder when it's windy so come prepared anyway!

We still get a lot of snow though so that one thing is true. However between November and December, the weather is so unstable and goes from minus to plus degrees all the time, that the streets are very icy and the city is not a winter wonderland at all.

Don't forget to pack spikes!

Summer and Midnight Sun

Ah Midnight Sun, what an incredibly misleading term!

I really pity the thousands of tourists who come by cruise ship to Tromso each summer to see the famous Midnight Sun and all they end up seeing are rain and grey skies.

What Midnight Sun really means is that between the end of May and the end of July, the sun doesn't set at all in Tromso and if you're lucky enough to visit on one of those few days with clear skies, you actually can still see the sun at midnight.

Otherwise you have the pleasure of looking at grey skies for 24 hours a day.

When it comes to temperatures, expect them to be at around 10 degrees. It has been warmer than that lately but chances are that you're used to much warmer summers so bring a fleece jacket and some sweaters anyway. You won't regret it.

Nature

One thing people who plan on moving to Tromso like to say is that they are looking forward to the incredible Norwegian nature. Those people often aim to go hiking or mountain climbing every day and while that's not exactly impossible, it requires a car if you don't want to climb that exact same mountain every day.

Tromso has 70000 inhabitants and most of them live on a tiny island in the middle of the fjord. There are a few really nice hiking trails there but after you've been there a couple of times, you might want to wish to explore somewhere new.

And that's when you're in need of a car.

It can be incredibly frustrating if you've just moved and either you're a student or you're on the job hunt and can't afford a car while all the people around you tell you of their super exciting trip to that wonderful mountain somewhere outside of Tromso.

So I'm not saying that we don't have beautiful nature in Tromso, but some of it is unfortunately only accessible by car.

Culture

If you want to go to the theatre every Sunday, eat at the newest and hippest restaurant in town and go clubbing two nights a week, you might find life in London more pleasant than life in the Arctic.

However Tromso is by no means are boring place!

There are lots of events taking place here all year round and most of them are even free. There's the Midnight Sun Marathon, Tromso International Film Festival, Tromso Snow Festival, Tromso Food Festival, Sami Day, Norwegian Constitution Day and many many more.

In addition, there's lots of museums, restaurants and bars so unless you're in need for entertainment on every day of the week, you probably won't get bored here.

Food

Norwegian cuisine is marketed with pictures of reindeer meat or dried fish by most tourism agencies and while the food culture here in the North definitely offers all of that, Taco Friday is much more popular (and cheaper).

Norwegians absolutely love their tacos and Grandiosa pizza and generally eat much unhealthier as you'd probably think of a country that has such a big fishing industry.

Don't be surprised to find bread containing sugar and pizzas with taco topping. That not every Norwegian suffers from Diabetes is still beyond me.

Work

On that same note, many people say that there are no jobs available in Tromso other than in the fishing industry and tourism. That is not true at all though.

The Norwegian University of the Arctic (my alma mater) is situated in town and attracts thousands of students and researchers each year. Many biologists but also people who are studying law and medicine find that Tromso has excellent opportunities.

And then again look at me, I work in digital marketing which I could do anywhere else in the world.

So no, the job sector in Tromso is not as limited as you might think!

Living Expenses

If you think that life in the Arctic in expensive, you're unfortunately right! Rental prices are insane and the housing market is though (read more about it here).

Also food and other necessities often cost twice as much as in Southern Norway cause most of what's on offer in Tromso has to be shipped from Oslo or other places.

The selection of foods is therefore pretty limited as well and I'm more than glad to be living near an Europris where they sell at least some German chocolate and candy, haha.

One thing that surprised me however was that fruits and vegetables are available all year round. Yes, they might not be as fresh and cheap as anywhere else but at least I can still buy strawberries in July or August while the strawberry season is long over in the rest of Europe.

So I hope that gave you an insight into what life in the Norwegian Arctic really is like. Submit a comment or write me an email if you have any questions!

Has any of the realities surprised you? What did you think life in the Arctic is like?

Ever wondered what life in the Arctic was like? How often can you see the Northern Lights? What is Polar Night? And does Midnight Sun mean that you can see the sun every day at midnight? Click through to read the answers!
Ever wondered what life in the Arctic was like? How often can you see the Northern Lights? What is Polar Night? And does Midnight Sun mean that you can see the sun every day at midnight? Click through to read the answers!

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