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The frontier town with no rough edges

City Slicker: Tromso - Norway's most northern city offers a warm, sophisticated welcome. Mark Rowe suggests ideas for new and returning visitors

Why visit?

Anywhere else in the world, a city 1,200 miles south of the North Pole – and 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle – would be a wild-west sort of town, where men wrestle polar bears and reindeer wander into the bars at last orders.

Tromso, on the other hand, is Norwegian, which means it is a sophisticated, university city distinguished by gleaming hotels, snug, classy café-bars and top-notch restaurants; women and men cut devastatingly chic and attractive figures with looks and skin texture that appear to owe everything to a healthy, cultured stress-free environment; and they all seem to live in houses as neat and tidy as Legoland, set by the weightily impressive and serene Tromso fjord.

And this is perhaps the most romantic time of the year to visit. Ancient Norwegians thought the Northern Lights were huge firelit torches shone by Lapp and Sami herdsmen as they made their way across the Arctic tundra with their reindeer. Others believed them to be dancing women wearing white gloves, with which they wove patterns in the sky. Either way, this is one of the best places in the world to marvel at them.

What's more, the sun only recently made its belated return to this part of the world a week or so ago, having left Tromso in the depths of a polar night for two months. Now, the slivers of sunlight contribute to a mesmerising half-light, called tussmorke, a surreal glow either side of total darkness.

Don't miss...

The Polar Museum (polarmuseum .no). A delightfully informative museum set in an old wooden building, oozing character and chock-a-block with Arctic memorabilia such as maps and charts of the men who pioneered expeditions further north.

Polaria (polaria.no/en), a science-based modern museum that throws open the natural world of seals, killer whales, narwhals, and other denizens of the far north. One of the highlights is the IMAX-style video of an aerial trip over the remote Spitsbergen archipelago.

A visit to the Arctic Cathedral (ishavskatedralen.no). Theatrically located on the eastern side of the fjord and reached by the equally striking, arching Tromso Bridge, this cathedral is built to reflect its position. From afar, it resembles an iceberg, made of 11 white triangles – one for each of the good apostles. Once inside, look out for the organ in the shape of a ship.

The world's northernmost brewery (olhallen.no). Norwegian beer isn't the best in the world, which is probably just as well given that a glass of the stuff can set you back as much as £8. The local brew is "Mack", pronounced "muck" to general chortles from tour guides. To get in the swing, have a drink at the "Olhallen" (The Beer Hall), at the heart of the Mack brewery. Only offer to buy a round if you've just won the lottery.

Explore Arctic art at the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum (nnkm.no). This elegant, small museum, just across from the ferry port, often lays on engaging temporary shows related to the artists of the Arctic. Proof there is more to Norwegian art than Munch.

A meal at Fiskekompaniet (fiskekompani.no) offering sumptuous modern fish dishes at tables overlooking the harbour. It's far from cheap for British pockets, but the setting and the food are apt for a special occasion.

What's new?

Amundsen centenary exhibition

Norwegians are too courteous to brag about how Roald Amundsen left Captain Scott trailing, so they are celebrating the centenary of his successful journey to the South Pole in a typically low-key, informed, and tasteful way. The main exhibition, Snowhow, is located in a former hunting boat, MS Polstjerna and focuses on how Amundsen was a wise old boy, eager to learn Arctic survival tips from local Inuit communities. As well as being first to the South Pole, he also made the first complete sailing of the North-west Passage. At that point, most of us would have settled for a life of sipping cocoa and twirling our slippers by an open fire, but Amundsen was unable to let go. Setting more Arctic flying records, he flew from Tromso to his death, somewhere over the North Pole, in 1928. The exhibition also details the life and times of another Norwegian hero and Tromso veteran, Fridtjof Nansen – born 150 years ago this year –who traversed Greenland from east to west.

Details: tinyurl.com/6av2kon

Tromso Sound City

The inaugural Tromso Sound City, mixing entertainment and workshops, takes place next month – 16 and 17 April – the first overseas venture by Liverpool Sound City, the music, arts and culture festival. Apart from Norwegian acts, UK performers will include Miles Kane and Wave Machines. Guest speakers at the conference include award-winning director Dick Carruthers and Monsterism's Pete Fowler.

Details: tromsosoundcity.no

Thon Hotel Tromso

Tromso's newest hotel – like all the others in town – is unlikely to win any architectural prize, but its clean lines and cosy atmosphere are a welcome retreat from the winter winds. Location is its strength – downtown, close to bus and ferry departures and restaurants. Double rooms from £100 per night.

Details: thonhotels.com

Rå Sushi and Bar

This sushi restaurant, above left, is proving popular with locals for both its food and the chance to enjoy a glass of wine. A welcome addition to Tromso's slightly monocultural cuisine.

Details: raasushi.no

Cable car

This is the first winter that the cable car, left, up to Mount Storsteinen, overlooking Tromso, has been opened. The ride is best taken just before nightfall, when the tussmorke, also known as the "blue hours", takes hold. At 1,200ft, there's a café serving much needed hot drinks. Rarely has so little effort been rewarded with such great views.

Details: fjellheisen.no

Compact Facts

How to get there

Norwegian (020-8099 7254; norwegian.no) flies from Gatwick to Tromso for £39 one-way.

Hurtigruten ships (0844 448 7654; hurtigruten.co.uk) stop at Tromso on both north and southbound journeys. The northbound boat arrives at 2.30pm and departs at 6.30pm. From £1,992 per couple.

Further information

Visit Norway (visitnorway.co.uk); Visit Tromso (destinasjontromso.no).