You have decided to visit Northern Norway to experience the Northern Lights or just to escape the tourist crowds of the south and explore the true wilderness of Norway? You’ve done a bit of research and have come to the conclusion that the Lofoten Islands look gorgeous as well, but you’re not quite confident to drive a car abroad - especially not during winter? Or maybe you’d just like to combine a Nordic city trip with exploring Norway’s great outdoors?
Whatever it is that puts you in the position of having to decide between Bodø and Tromsø, I’m going to give you the rundown of both cities and tell you the good, bad and ugly about them, so that hopefully, you’ll be able to make a decision in no time!
Why you should visit Bodø
The area around Bodø is where my boyfriend Simon has grown up and even though I didn’t fall in love with the region right away, I definitely grew very fond of it after spending an entire summer there myself.
Bodø is located approx. 500km south of Tromsø and is very popular as a pitstop for travellers to the Lofoten Islands. You can either take the plane, ferry or Hurtigruten cruise to get from Bodø to Svolvær, Leknes or Moskenes in Lofoten - however, there are plenty reasons to stay and explore Bodø and its surroundings itself.
For once, Bodø has quite an array of impressive street art to offer and even though the city only has about 51.000 inhabitants, there are plenty of cafes, restaurants and accommodation options to choose from. More importantly, though, the region around Bodø is full of natural beauty!
Why you should visit Tromsø
Ohh Tromsø - the city I called home for 3 years and eventually had to leave as I just couldn’t deal with polar night anymore… Tromsø is no doubt one of the hottest tourist destinations at the moment and one can only expect the city to become a lot more crowded over the next few years. I already hear people complaining about the tourist crowds there - fortunately, though, there’s more to the place than the city itself!
Yes, there are lots of sights, cafes and restaurants for you to check out and you don’t have to worry about finding affordable accommodation either. The real reason why Tromsø is such a gem, though, is its natural beauty.
Much like Bodø, Tromsø offers excellent hiking opportunities and gorgeous viewpoints, but also plenty of wildlife (hello whale-watching in winter!) and, due to the city’s location at 69 degrees north, excellent conditions to admire the Northern Lights.
With around 75.000 inhabitants, it definitely feels a lot more like a hustling and bustling city than a town in the Arctic, which is definitely its main charm!
The detailed rundown
I get why it’s so difficult to decide! Both cities certainly have a lot to offer and they’re both equally amazing tourist destinations. To make the choice easier for you, here’s a detailed comparison in all categories that are important when planning a trip:
Tromsø has an international airport with direct flight connections to London, Stockholm, Frankfurt and Copenhagen - meaning that there’s a relatively good chance for you to get a cheap flight deal if you book well in advance.
Nevertheless, the city is located in the Arctic after all, and flying there is the only realistic (as in, fastest) way of getting there. There are no trains leading up to Tromsø and if you choose to visit Tromsø by public transport from Oslo, you can only take the train until Bodø/Fauske, and then have to go another 8 hours by bus.
Tromsø has quite a good network of city and regional busses, though, so that you don’t necessarily need to rent a car in order to have a great time.
Of course, you’ll miss out on quite a few hidden gems that can only be reached by car (the island of Sommarøy, for instance), but that doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to experience some Arctic wilderness at all.
You can always take the bus to Eidkjosen on the island Kvaløya and explore the lovely fjord villages Kaldfjord and Ersfjord from there. Or go for a hike on Tromsø island itself and climb the ski jump to admire the city from above - for free! Then again, the mainland neighbourhoods of the city have gorgeous trails to offer as well and are easily accessible by bus!
Check out tromskortet.no for more info on the local bus network and fares!
Bodø Airport has some charter flights to destinations in Southern Europe, but otherwise, you have to fly via Oslo to get there by plane.
In contrast to Tromsø, Bodø has a train station, though, and if you don’t mind the travel time of 18 hours, you can even take the train from Oslo to Bodø - a train journey that has often been described as one of the most beautiful ones in all of Norway!
Bodø also has a good network of city busses and there are plenty of sights and hiking trails you can visit by bus, for example the Keiservarden trail and viewpoint, Saltstraumen maelstrom or Kjerringøy trading post.
However, the regional busses to the latter two destinations only go a limited amount of times per day, so you should plan your arrival and departure when exploring Bodø’s surroundings in advance. Otherwise, you might be stuck in freezing temperatures, having to wait an hour or two for the next bus.
That’s why I personally prefer exploring the Bodø region by means of a car. If you can’t or don’t want to drive, though, there’s luckily plenty of excursions that you can book via the local tourist office.
For more info on the local bus network and fares, check out 117nordland.no!
As Tromsø is a slightly bigger city and has experienced a boom in tourism for around 10 years now, you might find it easier to find the perfect accommodation for your needs here.
You have a pick between luxury hotels like Malangen Resort and Sommarøy Arctic Hotel out in the wilderness, or The Edge and Scandic Ishavshotell in the city centre. Travellers on a budget can book a cabin at Tromso Lodge & Camping, a room at Tromsø Bed and Books, or an entire apartment via Airbnb.
Bodø might be the smaller city but that doesn’t mean that you can’t find accommodation that fits your needs!
If you’re looking for the little bit of extra, Scandic Havet is going to blow your mind - especially if you ask for a room with a view of the ocean! Then again, if you’re looking for something a little less fancy and more affordable, Skagen Hotel has dinner included in the room fare (making you save a ton of money!) and you can find lovely cabins at Vestvatn, an hour away from the city.
Of course, Airbnb is also an option in Bodø and if you book in advance, you might be able to make a real bargain. Use this link to sign up and receive 350 NOK in travel credit from me.
Sights and Experiences
As I said, tourism in Tromsø has really picked up around 10 years ago and nowadays, there are countless of excursions and experiences to choose from: Northern Lights safaris, whale-watching, fjord cruises, dog-sledding, Sami experiences and reindeer-sledding… the list goes on and on!
Personally, I find most of these experiences a bit too touristic and simply not authentic anymore, but I’m pretty sure that’s just because I’m biased by being a former local of the city, as life in the Arctic is certainly not all dog-sledding and magical if you know what I mean! I can totally understand the appeal of these tours, though, if you’re visiting the Arctic for the very first time - it is a magical place after all!
When it comes to sights that you can explore on your own, besides everything the Arctic wilderness has to offer in terms of hiking, skiing and viewpoints (Fjellheisen cable car is a must!), you have your pick between plenty of museums (Tromsø Museum, Polaria Aquarium, Polar Museum, Perspektivet Photography Museum, Northern Norway’s Art Museum…), as well as architectural sights (the Arctic Cathedral, the old houses at Skansen, the local library).
In short: Tromsø definitely offers something for everyone and that’s part of the reason why the city is so popular these days. Whether you’re interested in the local outdoors or the local culture, chances are you’ll learn a lot of new things during your visit!
Bodø has definitely less traditional sights to offer than Tromsø but that doesn’t mean that you’ll be bored during your stay! Go for a walk around the pier at the harbour, go on a hunt to discover all the amazing street art in town, visit the Norwegian Aviation Museum or Nordland Museum, or taste local chocolate (and participate in a chocolate-making course) at Craig Alibone’s.
Most importantly, however, make sure to explore the surrounding area of Bodø. Whether you’d like to learn more about the olden times at Kjerringøy Trading Post, visit the famous Saltstraumen maelstrom, discover a purple beach at Mjelle, go for a hike in one of two national parks, or meet some moose - Salten (as the surrounding region of Bodø is called) has an incredible amount of natural beauty and wilderness to offer, that won’t leave you disappointed.
Even if you don’t rent a car, you can book excursions to visit many of these places - or to go on an Arctic adventure of your own. Similar to Tromsø, you can also book Northern Lights safaris, fjord cruises, fishing trips, climbing adventures and kayaking excursions in Bodø. There are also plenty of guided hikes to go on, if you don’t feel comfortable hiking on your own.
And if being out and about a lot becomes too much at one point, you can always hit the spa at Spektrum velvære. In short: Bodø is much more of a hidden gem compared to Tromsø but can pretty much offer the same experiences like it’s “big brother”.
Culture and Cuisine
Back in the day, people visiting Tromsø for the very first time from Southern Europe, called the city “the Paris of the North”. To their surprise, Tromsø wasn’t some remote and boring place with uncultivated people, quite the opposite actually - and this is still the case today!
There’s plenty going on in town: the Polar Night Marathon & the Midnight Sun Marathon, Smak Food Festival, Tromsø International Film Festival, Sami National Day… chances are, there will be some or other event taking place when you’re visiting and if not, you can at least be sure that the local market square is hustling and bustling on the weekend!
Tromsø also has two cinemas and a theater to provide entertainment, and you can even attend a midnight concert at the Arctic Cathedral, if you want.
And when it comes to cuisine, the options are endless! Whether you’d like to try reindeer or whale meat for the first time, king crab or Norwegian fish soup, or maybe you just want to have a good burger in style? There are more restaurants (and cafes!) to choose from than you need if you’re only staying for a couple of days!
And if you can afford Norway’s alcohol prices, you won’t be disappointed either! Tromsø has the highest amount of bars per capita in Norway and I can only recommend you to visit the rooftop terrace of The Edge if you fancy a cocktail, or Huken Pub if you’re up for a beer.
I guess there can only be one city in Norway with the highest amount of bars per capita and Bodø isn’t the one. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have plenty of choices when it comes to food and drinks, though.
Definitely head to Kaptein Larsen for a beer in a gorgeous maritime atmosphere or Dama Di to hang out where the cool kids are. Cocktails with a view at the sky bar Top13 of Radisson Blu Hotel should also be on your list. If you fancy some coffe and cake, head to Bodø Bakeri for yummy marzipan cakes, or Craig Alibone for absolutely exquisite chocolate!
And for lunch or dinner, try Hundholmen or Bryggerikaia for traditional Northern Norwegian cuisine, or Egon for simple but tasty burgers and pizza.
When it comes to culture, Bodø has plenty to offer as well! You can enjoy a concert at the still relatively new concert hall Stormen, down by the harbour, or attend one of the many music festivals in town. For instance, Bodø Jazz Open in May or Parkenfestivalen in August. The town also really comes alive at Bodøfestivalen in July where you can enjoy concerts, street art, street food and local hikes with a twist - all to celebrate the city underneath the Midnight Sun!
Urgh, this is a tricky one! To be honest, I think that a visit to either one of the two cities is equally expensive. You are visiting the Arctic after all and that’s just not a very cheap undertaking to begin with.
Of course, you can save quite a lot of money by exploring the place on your own, rather than booking excursions - which is a category that is clearly won by Tromsø, simply because the bus connections are better there, and the city in general is more compact.
As for flights, you’ll probably be more likely to find a good deal for flights to Tromsø but then again, you can visit Bodø by train from Oslo and might save a few kroners this way as well (plus, you’ll get to see quite a bit of scenery along the way).
When it comes to food, accommodation, rental cars/busses and excursions in general, I’m fairly certain that it’s pretty much all the same in Bodø and Tromsø. Most excursions in Northern Norway cost around $100, while a meal at a restaurant is served from $20-$25 upwards, and a night in a hotel will cost you around $100 as well. A single bus ticket (bought on the bus) costs ca. $6 in Tromsø and ca. $5 in Bodø - not too much of a difference I’d say.
The bottom line
To sum up, Bodø and Tromsø are both amazing cities to spend a holiday - no matter whether you choose to visit in summer or winter! While Tromsø is the bigger of the two and thus, has more options of pretty much everything, I find Bodø more peaceful and authentic.
In my opinion, Bodø is the perfect place to explore the Arctic more like a local and away from the crowds. Plus, I absolutely love that the city combines the coastline (with all its rugged islands) with gorgeous forests and scenic mountaintops, just a few kilometers further inland. While having to rent a car or book an excursion to explore the surrounding area might not make it the best destination for budget travellers, it’s certainly a fantastic choice if you’re looking to explore the outdoors and go hiking a lot.
Then again, if you’re looking for a place that has it all - convenient package holidays or being able to explore a lot on your own and on a budget - Tromsø definitely offers more possibilities, and combines culture and nature in a really great way. The only downside I see to the city are the increasing crowds, and the fact that Tromsø more and more resembles a tourist hotspot as a result.
Where would you go if you had to choose between the two?
Tell me in a comment below and share your travel advice to the region by using the #nordicinsider on Instagram!