Historical and old photos of Tromsø, Troms og Finnmark
The area has been inhabited since the end of the ice age. Archeological excavations in Tønsvika, just outside the city limits, have turned up artifacts and remains of buildings estimated to be 9,000 to 10,000 years old.
Middle Ages: a fortress on the frontier
The area's rich Norse and Sámi heritage is well documented. The Norse chieftain Ohthere, who lived during the 890s, is assumed to have inhabited the southernmost reaches of today's Tromsø municipality. He described himself as living "furthest to the North of all Norwegians" with areas north of this being populated by Sámi. An Icelandic source (Rimbegla) from the 12th century also describes the fjord Malangen in the south of today's Tromsø municipality as a border between Norse and Sámi coastal settlements during that part of the Middle Ages. There has also been extensive Sámi settlement on the coast south of this 'border' as well as scattered Norse settlements north of Malangen—for example, both Sámi and Norse Iron Age (0–1050 AD) remains have been found on southern Kvaløya.
The first church on the island of Tromsøya was erected in 1252. Ecclesia Sanctae Mariae de Trums juxta paganos ("The Church of Saint Mary in Troms near the Heathens"—the nominal "heathens" being the Sámi), was built during the reign of King Hákon Hákonarson. At the time, it was the northernmost church in the world. Around the same time a turf rampart was built to protect the area against raids from Karelia and Russia.
Tromsø was not just a Norwegian outpost in an area mainly populated by the Sámi, but also a frontier city towards Russia; the Novgorod state had the right to tax the Sámi along the coast to Lyngstuva and inland to the Skibotn River or possibly the Målselv River, whereas Norway was allowed to tax areas east to - and including - the Kola Peninsula. During the next five hundred years Norway's border with Russia and the limits of Norwegian settlement would be pushed eastwards to Sør-Varanger, making Tromsø lose its character as a "frontier town".
1700s and 1800s: the "Paris of the north"
During the 17th century, while Denmark–Norway was solidifying its claim to the northern coast of Scandinavia and during this period a redoubt, Skansen, was built. Despite only being home to around 80 people, Tromsø was issued its city charter in 1794 by King Christian VII. This coincided with, and was a direct consequence of, the abolition of the city of Bergen's centuries-old monopoly on the trade in cod. Tromsø quickly rose in importance. The Diocese of Hålogaland was created in 1804, with the first bishop being Mathias Bonsak Krogh. The city was established as a municipality 1 January 1838 (see formannskapsdistrikt).
Arctic hunting, from Novaya Zemlya to Canada, started up around 1820. By 1850, Tromsø was the major centre of Arctic hunting, overtaking the former centre of Hammerfest, and the city was trading from Arkhangelsk to Bordeaux.
In 1848, the teacher training college was also moved from Trondenes (near current-day Harstad) to Tromsø, with part of its mission being to educate Sámi scholars - there was a quota ensuring that Sámi gained access. The teacher college was followed by the Tromsø Museum in 1872, and the Mack Brewery in 1877.
During the 19th century, Tromsø became known as the "Paris of the North". How this nickname came into being is uncertain, but the reason is generally assumed to be that people in Tromsø appeared far more sophisticated than visitors from the south typically expected.
Early 1900s: exploration and war
By the end of the 19th century, Tromsø had become a major Arctic trade centre from which many Arctic expeditions originated. Explorers like Roald Amundsen, Umberto Nobile and Fridtjof Nansen made use of the know-how in Tromsø on the conditions in the Arctic, and often recruited their crews in the city. The Northern lights observatory was founded in 1927.
When Germany invaded Norway in 1940, Tromsø served briefly as the seat of the Norwegian government. General Carl Gustav Fleischer arrived in Tromsø on 10 April 1940 after flying in terrible conditions. From Tromsø he issued orders for total civilian and military mobilisation and declared Northern Norway a theatre of war. Fleischer's strategic plan was to first wipe out the German forces at Narvik and then transfer his division to Nordland to meet a German advance from Trøndelag. The Germans eventually captured all of Norway, after allied support had been withdrawn, although they encountered fierce resistance from the Finnmark-based Alta Battalion at Narvik. Tromsø escaped the war unscathed, although the German battleship Tirpitz was sunk by RAF Avro Lancaster bombers during Operation Catechism off the Tromsøy island on 12 November 1944, killing close to 1,000 German sailors.
At the end of the war, the city received thousands of refugees from Finnmark county and the North Troms area - which had been devastated by German forces using scorched earth tactics in expectation of the Red Army offensive.
Late 1900s – today: rapid expansion
Expansion after World War II has been rapid. The rural municipalities of Tromsøysund and Ullsfjord, and most of Hillesøy, were merged with Tromsø on 1 January 1964, creating today's Tromsø municipality and almost tripling Tromsø's population - from 12,430 to 32,664. In addition, the population growth has been strong, with at times more than 1,000 new Tromsøværinger (residents of Tromsø) annually. The population of Tromsø municipality today is 68,239, and the urban area, Norway's ninth most populous, is home to 58,486 people. This excludes most of the city's students, however, who often do not change their address when moving to Tromsø.
A major development was the opening of Tromsø Airport in 1964, situated on the main island, and in 1972 the University of Tromsø was opened, at the time one of four universities in Norway and the only one serving the northern half of the country. A local teacher's college and museum were eventually incorporated into the university. The Norwegian Polar Institute was moved to Tromsø from Oslo in 1998. More recently, the university has expanded further through two mergers, first with University College Tromsø in 2009 and then with University College Finnmark in 2013.
The city of Tromsø was established as an independent municipality on 1 January 1838 (see formannskapsdistrikt). The city was completely surrounded by the Tromsøe landdistrikt (the rural municipality of Tromsø / later renamed Tromsøysund), but they were governed separately. As the city grew in size, areas were added to the city from the rural district.
On 1 January 1861, an area of Tromsøysund (population: 110) was transferred to the city of Tromsø. On 1 January 1873, an unpopulated area of Tromsøysund was transferred to the city. On 1 July 1915, another area of Tromsøysund (population: 512) was merged into the city of Tromsø. On 1 January 1955, the Bjerkaker area on Tromsøya (population: 1,583) was transferred from Tromsøysund to the city of Tromsø.
During the 1960s, there were many municipal mergers across Norway due to the work of the Schei Committee. On 1 January 1964, the city of Tromsø (population: 12,602), the municipality of Tromsøysund (population: 16,727), most of the municipality of Ullsfjord except for the Svendsby area (population: 2,019), and most of the municipality of Hillesøy except for the parts on the island of Senja (population: 1,316) were all merged to form a new, larger Tromsø Municipality.
On 1 January 2020, the municipality became a part of the newly created Troms og Finnmark county, which replaced the old Troms county.