William went to town in Tromsø – read his story

Where should one go in Tromsø? Is the nightlife as good as they say? What is discussed over the pints way up north? We consulted the neutral expertise; southerner and partylover William S. Mørch was sent into the Tromsø night.

New in Tromsø, new in Northern Norway, but even to southerners, Tromsø’s nightlife has a good reputation. After sporadically sampling the odd bar here and there, it was time for a proper night out — it was time I graduated from innocent big city-envoy to local nightlife connoisseur. My mission for the evening: a quest for the essence of Tromsø’s nightlife. What kind of energy do the nothern lights imbue the bars and clubs with?

Rock isn’t dead – it’s blue

The photographer and I are on a mission to taste the essence of Tromsø’s nightlife. What kind of energy do the northern lights imbue the bars and clubs with? Our rumbling stomachs move burgers, beer and bad-ass music to the top of the agenda. The choice is obvious: Blårock. The city’s Bowies, Cobains and PJ Harveys of the city are still asleep when we venture into the shambolic shack of rock around seven o’clock. Nobody seems to have dialled up the rowdiness factor yet. From the band-based burger menu, we each devour a “The Smiths” veggie burger with chili fries before we climb up to explore the many platforms making up the space. Dark walls, tables and ceilings are littered with guitars, concert posters and music-related memorabilia, including a sleek jukebox. The many stairs, railings and platforms make me want to come back for a concert, because I have never seen a venue like this before. Our heads are ready to bang, but with our hunger sated, we are ready to find more cool places. We step outside and move around the corner to Storgata.

Cosy is cool

A bitterly cold wind sweeps the main street of Tromsø this night. We poke our heads in here and there, looking for a place with the right atmosphere and cool vibes. Balthazar Vinbar and Mikrobryggeriet are two different bars, but they share the same space. The giant windows facing the street glow with the kind of cosy ambiance that is virtually impossible to resist. By eight o’clock, most tables are filled with microbrews, well-balanced vintages and creative cocktails, as well as a diverse clientele with an appreciation for good vibes. With jazzy hip-hop, hip-hoppy jazz and smooth indie rock playing and muted colours and Basquiat-esque art on the walls, the mood is casual, inviting and relaxing. Everyone we talk to says the same thing: “We came in because it looked so cosy.” We can’t disagree. We suddenly realize we’re behind schedule. The photographer and I agree it’s no biggie.

Did you hear the one about Rorbua?

We continue our quest and make our way to the legendary Rorbua, where Du skal høre mye – an infamous comedy show on the Norwegian broadcasting channel NRK back in the day – was filmed. A red-painted exterior and a solidly maritime interior, complete with old glass floats, anchors and other maritime equipment, gives this venue an authentic coastal atmosphere. A rorbu is a fisherman’s shack, where fishermen come to get a stiff drink and crumbs in their mustache. A sailor points out that this still holds true, as a guy walks past with stockfish in his mouth and a beer in each hand. Rumour has it dirty jokes are still being told here, and when seafarers congregate, a rousing chorus of sea shanties is not unheard of. Sadly, this was not our lucky night. A heavily bearded celebrity (I shall say no more) says he comes here because the place draws a mature crowd. Unless a troubadour takes the stage, with country music and Norwegian hits – that’s when the young folks come in to dance. More than anything, Rorbua is a down-to-earth place where everyone is welcome.

Reminiscing as we wander

As the night progresses, we poke our head into the tiny basement bar Bastard several times. Normally, this is a favoured hangout for artists, musicians and other scoundrels, but sadly, it seems to be dead tonight. Sadly, because I have stumbled in the door there several times and been met with a delightful hubbub. Bastard is one of the busiest and most intimate concert venues in the country, so if you’re not careful, you may be in for a surprise. Once I joined a polonaise train dancing in and out of the bar and rather unexpectedly caught the tail end of a Mambo Kurt concert. Hidden talents often sneak on stage during the regular jam sessions they have there, like the guy who always plays unique acoustic guitar covers of Britney Spears songs. A trip to the toilets is also quite enjoyable: The walls are full of covers from pornographic books from the 50s and 60s with such titles as The First Time I Saw a Penis”, “The Lump in My Pants Means I Love You”, and “Marriage Can Wait”.

We are happy to wait for the train, even though it never comes

It could be an elaborate prank. Someone may have gotten their hands on old train car furnishings. It could be Northern Norwegian defiance. I don’t know. But Tromsø has its own railway station, even though no trains go there. After three stops I am forced to seek out the urinals, and I start talking to a Red Party politician: “This is a place for regular folk.” The station has a dark and cozy pub atmosphere. The interior looks like an old train car and the patrons are of the typical pub variety, but with enough variety to reflect an average train car: fresh-faced youths, pensioners and everything in between. Of course, any respectable train station would offer some form of entertainment: in addition to the fun that naturally follows from imbibing, there are various quizzes laid out on every table. We were at the bar and had to steal one. Our trivia knowledge turned out to be abysmal, but it was a good excuse to strike up a conversation with other patrons. So while we may have failed our quiz, we gained a rather interesting conversation about fishing, motorcycles and politics. If we had stayed, we would likely have raised a glass or two with representatives from the Centre Party, the Progress Party or some other dubious gang.

Let’s dance!

“Alors on danse,” by Stromae calls me, but I have broken the seal and have to go find the toilets. Four guys in suits are arguing about how to turn the hand dryer on. I feel a little smug, but have to eat my words when I, too, struggle to get a response. What is turned on, however, is the dance floor: Rolling hips and popping booties threaten to blow the roof off the place. As everywhere else in Tromsø, I am confronted with my own prejudices: This place is not all men in suits and women in skimpy dresses. While the sound system plays it safe with the very danceable Top 40s, I see representatives of one subculture after the other scattered around the dark, yet vibrant space. “Everyone between 20 and 25 come here to dance,” a local informs me. “This is where it’s happening, everyone comes here.” Gründer may not stand out in a crowd, but if a familiar, bustling dance floor is on your list of priorities, this is the place to be. 

Refined cowboy searching for films, deep conversations and dance floors

The city’s cinematheque not only shows films on actual reels, but also plays music from a carefully curated and diverse selection of records in the popular bar. Cheeky notes from black vinyl fill the air, while my conversations skip from performance art to substance abuse care to why it is better to read Immanuel Kant in German. Suddenly, King DJ takes the throne above the dance floor, and the projector casts acid graphics across the wall and pulsing beats draw us onto the dancefloor. The air is thick with sweat, smiles and good vibes as the techno beat pulses through our bodies and the tiny venue. A black cowboy hat pops out of the crowd and moves from head to head. It belongs to us all tonight, and the faces take on the features of the people we have met through the night. The hat finally lands on my head, until I spot someone who’s definitely new in town come through the door. The hat is placed firmly on the newcomer’s head and he is invited to dance: “Welcome to Tromsø!” I say.

To town in Tromsø

Far from it! We just had a chat with William over a cup of coffee, and asked him to explore Tromsø’s nightlife on his own. He then chose to go varied places with different people and vibes. This is the story of how he enjoyed Tromsø’s nightlife on that particular Thursday in December. When you put on dancing shoes (you know, the ones with spikes…), it all might feel different.

This is definitely up for discussion. Tromsø is one of those places where bars are populated all week. Of course, not every place is full every day of the week, but you’ll definitely find people out even on a Monday. Some places, like BlåRock, might be mellow with burger-eating small-talkers on a Monday, and then hell breaks lose on a Friday. We recommend a tour around the compact downtown area, go in where you see others.

There is defintitely a different vibe in Summer. A high pressure from the east means will invariably fill up beer gardens and terrasses across town. Then, a dark, intimate bar feels all wrong. When evenings turn dark in autumn, candles are lit at every bar table and the mood changes. Student life, having received the student grant in August and January to be panicking ahead of exams in November and May, are felt in Tromsø’s nightlife.

The origin of Tromsø’s nickname “The Paris of the North” has little to do with nightlife. Early visitors to Tromsø were surprised by the level of education and style in the city’s gentry. So far away from everything, the guests were greeted in French, German and English, and the ladies were dressed in the latest (or second latest…) fashion. Everybody also seemed well-informed about the world. Possibly, the aforementioned visitors had low expectations? As Tromsø’s nightlife became a thing nationally in the 70’ies and 80’ies, the old nickname was redefined to be about the nightlife.

Visit Tromsø is the city’s visitor’s centre and promotion organisation. It maintains a well-stocked and updated homepage with sights, activities, a cultural calendar and restaurant tips.

William S. Mørch studies creative writing at the University of Tromsø. Previously having studied litterature and German, he has had innumerable jobs doing this and that. He has also published texts in most genres.