Norway is a once-in-a-lifetime destination and the essence of its appeal is remarkably simple: this is one of the most beautiful countries on Earth. From wildlife watching to dog-sledding, from Oslo to Svalbard, here are the essential things to see and do.
The 20km chug along Geirangerfjord, a Unesco World Heritage Site, must rank as the world’s loveliest ferry journey. Long-abandoned farmsteads still cling to the fjord’s near-sheer cliff s while ice-cold cascades tumble, twist and gush down to emerald-green waters. Take it from Geiranger and enjoy the calm as you leave this small, heaving port or hop aboard at altogether quieter Hellesylt. Prime your camera, grab a top-deck open-air seat and enjoy what’s literally the only way to travel its secluded reaches.
2. Lofoten Islands
Few visitors forget their first sighting of the Lofoten Islands, laid out in summer greens and yellows, their razor-sharp peaks poking dark against a clear, cobalt sky. In the pure, exhilarating air, there’s a constant tang of salt and, in the villages, more than a whiff of cod, that giant of the seas whose annual migration brings wealth. A hiker’s dream and nowadays linked by bridges, the islands are simple to hop between, whether by bus, car or – ideally – bicycle.
3. Hurtigruten coastal ferry
So much more than merely a means of getting around, the iconic Hurtigruten coastal ferry takes you on one of the most spectacular coastal journeys anywhere on earth. On its daily journey between Bergen and Kirkenes, it dips into coastal fjords, docks at isolated villages barely accessible by road, draws near to dramatic headlands and crosses the Arctic Circle. In the process, it achieves in five or six days what would take months on land: it showcases the entire length of Norway’s most glorious coast.
4. Northern lights
There is no more uplifting natural phenomena than the aurora borealis, or northern lights. Visible throughout the long night of the Arctic winter from October to March, they dance across the sky in green or white curtains of light, shifting in intensity and taking on forms that seem to spring from a child’s vivid imagination. While there’s no guarantee that the northern lights will appear at any given time, if you are lucky enough to see them, it’s an experience that will live with you forever.
5. Bryggen, Bergen
Set amid a picturesque and very Norwegian coastal landscape of fjords and mountains, Bergen lays a strong claim to being one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. A celebrated history of seafaring trade down through the centuries has bequeathed to the city the stunning (and Unesco World Heritage–listed) waterfront district of Bryggen, an archaic tangle of wooden buildings. A signpost to a history at once prosperous and tumultuous, the titled and colourful wooden buildings of Bryggen now shelter the chic boutiques and traditional restaurants for which the city is famous.
6. Hiking the Jotunheimen
The high country of central Norway ranks among Europe’s premier summer destinations. Although there are numerous national parks criss-crossed by well-maintained hiking trails, it’s Jotunheimen National Park, whose name translates as ‘Home of the Giants’, that rises above all others. With 60 glaciers and 275 summits over 2000m, Jotunheimen is exceptionally beautiful and home to iconic trails such as Besseggen, Hurrungane and those in the shadow of Galdhøpiggen, Norway’s highest peak. Jotunheimen’s proximity to the fjords further enhances its appeal.
The subpolar archipelago of Svalbard is a true place of the heart. Deliciously remote and yet surprisingly accessible, Svalbard is Europe’s most evocative slice of the polar north and one of the continent’s last great wilderness areas. Shapely peaks, massive icefi elds (60% of Svalbard is covered by glaciers) and heartbreakingly beautiful fjords provide the backdrop for a rich array of Arctic wildlife (including around one-sixth of the world’s polar bears, which outnumber people here), and for summer and winter activities that get you out amid the ringing silence of the snows.
8. Kystriksveien (coastal route)
The lightly-trafficked coastal route through Nordland is for those with leisure to savour its staggering beauty. You might well not have time for the full 650km but a sample is all but mandatory if you’re progressing northwards. It’s not one to be rushed. The frequent ferry hops off er compulsory, built-in breaks and stunning seascapes, while both inland glaciers and accessible off shore islands – such as Vega, famous for its eider ducks, or Lovund, home to 200,000 puffins – are seductive diversions.
9. Oslo-Bergen Railway
Often cited as one of the world’s most beautiful rail journeys, the Oslo-Bergen rail line is an opportunity to sample some of Norway’s best scenery. After passing through the forests of southern Norway, it climbs up onto the horizonless beauty of the Hardangervidda Plateau and then continues down through the pretty country around Voss and on into Bergen. En route it passes within touching distance of the fjords and connects with the incredibly steep branch line down to the fjord country that fans out from Flåm.
10. Pulpit Rock
As lookouts go, Preikestolen has few peers. Perched atop an almost perfectly sheer cliff that juts out more than 600m above the waters of gorgeous Lysefjord, Pulpit Rock is one of Norway’s signature images and most eye-catching areas. It’s the sort of place where you’ll barely be able to look as travellers dangle far more than seems advisable over the precipice, even as you fi nd yourself drawn inexorably towards the edge. The hike to reach it takes two hours and involves a full-day trip from Stavanger.
11. Stave Churches
All over southern and central Norway you’ll come across wooden stave churches. They come in all forms, from the monumental to the pocket-sized and cute, but no matter what form they take there’s something about them that will stir up hazy memories of childhood. For the stave churches of Norway, many of which come surrounded in stories of trolls, are without doubt the very definition of fairy-tale churches, and none more so than the spectacular Heddal Stave Church.
There’s no finer way to explore the Arctic wilderness than on a sled pulled by a team of huskies. Blissfully free from engine noise and the din of modern life, accompanied by a soundtrack of yelping dogs and the scrape of the sled across the snow, dog-sledding (from half-day excursions to multiday expeditions) takes you out into the trackless world of Norway’s far north and allows you to immerse yourself in the eerily beautiful light of the Arctic winter.
Norway is the last refuge for some of Europe’s most intriguing wildlife. While you may stumble upon polar bears (in Svalbard only), Arctic foxes, reindeer and other species during your explorations of the Norwegian wild, dedicated safaris in the Norwegian interior will take you within sight of the otherworldly musk ox, as well as the rather loveable elk (moose). Along the coast, Norway’s bird life is abundant and filled with interest, while whalewatching outings are a staple of the Nordland coast, especially around Lofoten and Vesterålen.
Snug, tidy Ålesund owes much of its charm to a devastating fire that ripped through its wooden structures a century ago, destroying everything except the jail and a church. From its ashes rose a brand-new town, mostly of stone and mostly designed by young Norwegian architects who had trained in Germany. Strongly influenced by the Jugendstil (art nouveau) movement of the time, they designed buildings rich in ornamentation, with turrets, spires, gargoyles and other fanciful elements based on local motifs.
15. Sami culture
Snowmobiles have ousted sleds and nowadays only a minority of Sami live from their reindeer herds or coastal fishing. But the Sami culture, transcending the frontiers of Norway, Sweden and Finland, lives on and strong. The affairs of the Norwegian Sami are regulated by the Sami Parliament, its building a masterpiece of design in mellow wood. And Sami identity lies secure in the language and its dialects, traditions such as the joik (a sustained, droned rhythmic poem), and handicrafts such as silversmithing and knife making.
Tromsø, a cool 400km north of the Arctic Circle, is northern Norway’s most significant city with, among other superlatives, the world’s northernmost cathedral, brewery and botanic garden. Its busy clubs and pubs – more per capita than in any other Norwegian town – owe much to the university (another northernmost) and its students. In summer, Tromsø’s a base for round-the-clock, 24-hour daylight activity. Once the first snows fall, the locals slip on their skis or snowshoes, head out of town and gaze skywards for a glimpse of the northern lights.
Oslo is reinventing itself. This is a city aiming to become nothing less than a worldrenowned centre of culture. It’s already bursting at the seams with museums and top-notch art galleries, but now it’s got itself a brand-new, glacier-white opera house that could make even Sydney envious. This is only the start of a project that will transform the city’s waterfront over the next decade and in the process make Oslo one of the most happening cities in Scandinavia.
Last updated in August 2017.