The meaning of the name “Norway” is quite literal: “the way north.” And that’s the way we suggest you proceed in order to enjoy the best experiences the nation has to offer. Start in the south, in the sleek capital of Oslo, and work your way north.
Along the way, you’ll encounter notable art museums, some of the earth’s most scenic vistas, Viking gorge-fests and a few adventures that will get your heart racing.
Observe Polar Bears in Svalbard
Midway between Europe and the North Pole is a chain of islands called Svalbard. Considered a part of Norway, the archipelago is home to around 3,000 polar bears, plus walruses, seals, reindeer and other animals. Cruising around Svalbard during the summer is the best way to see polar bears in this Arctic realm.
More than 60 percent of Svalbard is a glacier, and there’s little infrastructure outside the main settlement of Longyearbyen, so it’s not possible to visit on your own. Hurtigruten and Silversea are two large cruise lines that offer trips there; several expedition tour companies such as Quark and Lindblad also offer voyages.
Drive or Bike the Atlanterhavsveien
Norway has 18 scenic roadways, locally called “National Tourist Routes.” The most spectacular of them is a 5.2-mile stretch of County Road 64 called the Atlanterhavsveien, or Atlantic Road. Built on small islands and skerries between the villages of Kristiansund and Molde, it’s like a roller coaster for cars, with swooping bridges and sleekly designed viaducts. The road is such a stunner that many auto companies film new car commercials on it, and it’s constantly ranked among the world’s best road trips. It’s not a bad bike ride either.
There are four scenic rest stops along the way, where you can get out to snap photos, scramble across rocks or drop a fishing line in the water. One of the most thrilling times of year to visit is during the fall, when autumn storms stir the sea, provoking larger-than-usual waves to crash beside — and sometimes across — the road. The route can be combined with a longer drive through the countryside around the 18th-century town of Molde, which is known for its big jazz festival each July as well as numerous small museums.
Gorge at a Viking Feast
Vikings periodically would feast like there was no tomorrow, preparing a big family meal and lingering over it for hours. Often the feast would coincide with an offering to the gods. It was typical to dine on roast horse meat, lamb, salted fish and pork, hunks of buttered bread, and fruit, all washed down with beer and mead.
The Lofotr Viking Museum commemorates the tradition with Viking feasts in its banquet hall inside a replica longhouse. It’s less hokey than dinner at the Medieval Times because the setting is so authentic. The meal features lamb and accompaniments, costumed attendants singing and dancing, and, yes, homemade mead too. Feasts are held April through September. If you visit Lofotr in August, you can partake in its annual Viking Festival, which also includes a feast.
Climb a Mountain for a Sky-High View
The mountain Preikestolen is said to lord over the Lysefjord like a massive pulpit, and having the opportunity to see the vista from the top of the 1,980-foot plateau is a near-religious experience. Norway has many similar stunning places, but we like this trek because it’s not too long or steep. Starting at the Preikestolen Mountain Lodge, the trek to the top and back takes four hours or so. The walk is along a well-maintained trail.
If you’re up for a more challenging trek, hike Besseggen near Jotunheimen National Park. It’s considered one of the planet’s best hikes, with views of a blue lake to one side and a green lake to the other. It’s a steep climb up, however — one that will take seven to eight hours roundtrip.
Need more ideas? VisitNorway.com lists other other iconic hikes on its website.
Check Out the Rock Art at Alta
It’s amazing to think that prehistoric cultures lived and thrived in the coldest, most northerly section of Norway. Thousands of painted and carved petroglyphs in the Altafjord tell the stories of the hunter-gatherers who lived in Alta, which researchers now know was an important meeting point above the Arctic Circle from 5000 B.C. until the year 0. The images reveal scenes from everyday life, show the animals people hunted and even depict ancient peoples skiing!
The UNESCO World Heritage Site has a museum, cafe and souvenir shop, plus guided tours or self-guided audio tours in English. More details on planning a visit can be found on the official website, Alta.Museum.no.
Go Birding at Gjesvaerstappan
Millions of birds congregate in the cliffs and on the islands just west of Mageorya on the North Cape, making the Gjesvaerstappan Nature Reserve one of the planet’s most accessible spots for bird watching. Why here? Warm and cold ocean currents meet in these waters, creating a bountiful, nutrient-rich feast for seabirds.
The islands are home to Northern Europe’s largest population of puffins — the lovable bird that looks more like a decoy than an avian species. More than a million of them live on the grassy islands. Other birds to see: kittiwakes, cormorants, common guillemots, sea eagles, razorbills and Arctic skuas.
Birding boats depart the tiny fishing village of Gjesvaer daily from May through August. Bird Safari (BirdSafari.com) and Barents Cabin Cruise (BarentsCabinCruise.com) are two outfitters offering day tours.
Sleep in a Haunted Hotel
If you’re lying on your bed at the Hotel Union Oye and you happen to hear a woman sobbing, don’t worry about it. She’s been doing that since 1891.
According to local legend, a hotel maid drowned at the wooden hotel near Geiranger. She was distraught after the suicide of her married boyfriend, whose wife wouldn’t grant him a divorce so that he could be with the woman he truly loved. Her ghost is said to hang out in the Blue Room, which is so popular among visitors that it’s often booked solid a year in advance.
Ghost stories aside, the pretty 27-room hotel sits among mountain-edged countryside and has a fine dining restaurant that serves five-course dinners daily.
Go Winter Scuba Diving or Snorkeling
It’s an adrenaline-pumping proposition that’s not for the weak of heart: slipping into the chilly ocean around Norway to go scuba diving or snorkeling in the winter. Why winter? The flow of the Gulf Stream reaches Norway during the colder months, bringing water warmer than you’d expect this far north. (“Warm” is still a relative term; you’ll need a dry suit.)
You can explore the huge kelp forests around the Loftoten Islands and Naeroy and see neon-colored corals at the Trondheimfjord. Several sites, including Narvik, Gulen and Sorlandet, have shipwrecks from World War II. And a truly unusual scuba diving site resides at Lake Lygnstoylsvatnet, where you can see the remnants of a small village flooded out by a mudslide in 1908. You can also safely snorkel with killer whales in January and February.
Dive outfitters include Lofoten Diving (Lofoten-Diving.com), One Ocean Dive Center (OneOcean.no) and Aqua Lofoten Coast Adventure (AquaLofoten.no).
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Norwegian Coastal Voyage by Ray Lewis
“We left Bodo and went to Stamsund in the Lofoten Islands. These are extremely rugged, hard rock islands in the North Sea and very picturesque. Many of the houses there are built on stilts to keep them out of the water. There were the picturesque wooden slatted A frames used for drying Cod and it looked like a picture book.” Read more!
Tour the Homes of Famous Norwegians
Edvard Munch’s house in Asgardstrand is such a surprisingly pleasant little place, you have to wonder why he painted such dark and spooky artwork. A quick guide-led tour of the fisherman’s cottage gives you a glimpse into the life of Norway’s most famous artist. All of his original possessions remain intact in the simple wooden structure: a basic twin bed, photographs, ornate wallpaper. Munch’s art studio was in a separate building that unfortunately was torn down; however, the guides will direct you to spots where he painted alfresco.
Other homes once occupied by Norway’s most creative minds can be toured too. Painter Nikolai Astrup grew up in a small cottage in Jolster. Composer Edvard Grieg’s house, Troldhaugen, in Bergen, is now a museum; lunchtime performances are held in the on-site concert hall from June through September.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Double Home Exchange in Norway and Sweden by LSKahn
“I left the U.S. on July 3rd and arrived in Bergen on July 4th in time to celebrate the Queen’s birthday over there (a low-key affair as no one mentioned it). I spent two nights at the Augustin Hotel in Bergen visiting the old Hanseatic wharf area known as Bryggen, the fish market and the cable car view point.” Read more!
View Children’s Art from Across the Globe
The International Museum of Children’s Art in Oslo is one of a kind: It’s the only full-scale museum in the world solely comprising artwork produced by children. The collection represents 150 different cultures from more than 180 countries, prompting Smithsonian Magazine to dub it “the Louvre of children’s art.”
In addition to its regular collection, the museum offers art workshops for children on Sundays and has special exhibitions throughout the year.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Surprising Oslo by Tim Campbell
“The most northern of the three Scandinavian capitals, this 1,000-year-old city is filled with museums, shops, cafes, bars and parks. Buildings are colorful and bright. … Landmarks are within range of the efficient transportation system, and if you get tired of walking, there are numerous cafes to soothe those aching feet and enjoy a Norwegian’s favorite pastime: afternoon coffee and cake.” Read more!
Best Time to Go to Norway
Pleasant temperatures and nearly endless hours of daylight make summer the most appealing time to explore Norway’s mountains and fjords. This is also when airfares and hotel rates will be highest. You’ll see fewer crowds in the spring and fall, but note that these seasons are fleeting — this far north, winters are long. The snowy season is less than ideal for sightseeing due to frigid temperatures and scant hours of daylight — but it’s the time to come for skiers and for those looking to spot the aurora borealis (northern lights) in the night sky.
Norway on a Budget
“Norway” and “budget” aren’t normally used in the same sentence; this is one of the world’s most expensive destinations. If you’re planning extensive travel around the country, consider a rail pass to help trim transportation costs. Because restaurant meals are pricey, this is one destination where it really pays to cook for yourself; look for hostels, vacation rentals or guesthouses that offer kitchens. Grocery and convenience stores can also offer quick and inexpensive meals. Campgrounds and homestays are two other budget-friendly lodging options. Travel during the spring or fall to avoid high-season airfares.