Photo Courtesy of Ivan Bertona
The name conjures images of icy fjords, Viking longboats, and trolls. But these icons of Norway tell only part of the story. While the landscape is still largely dominated by a long, snowy winter, Norway's northern climate is moderated greatly by a wealthy society placing a heavy premium on convenie…nce, beauty, and accessibility for all. Yesteryear's marauding Vikings are today's well-mannered hydroelectric engineers, so the nation has the intellectual know-how to make theirs not merely a highly desirable nation in which to live but a great year-round destination for travelers. From art, culture, and history to the world's best hiking, biking and skiing, Norway has much to offer.
What to know before you go to Norway
Summer's warm weather and long days are perfect for hiking, cycling, or making the most of a 72-hour Oslo stopover (about 58 of which will be spent in broad daylight in mid-June). Winter, though dark (with long nights down south and endless nights up north), is the best time to visit for cold-weather activities like skiing, snowboarding, and ice-climbing—all pursuits either invented by Norwegians or perfected by them. Visitors to Norway's far northern city of Tromsø can experience 24 hours of sunlight for much of the summer, and perpetual and near-perpetual darkness, with a good chance of witnessing the spectacular northern lights, during much of the winter.
Oslo International is the usual gateway for most visitors entering the country, though many visitors from Sweden enter by train, bus, or car. There are also car and passenger ferries from Denmark, Germany, and Belgium.
Norway is a big country and—outside the cities—best explored by vehicle. Buses are plentiful, clean, and well-regulated, though travelers looking to explore outside major towns may wish to rent their own cars. Many chose to visit the country's famously beautiful fjord-laced coast by boat, and even if you chose to drive, you'll find car ferries an integral part of your journey. Norwegians heading for more remote communities often do so either by plane or boat. Train travel is also an option, with Norway's passenger train service running as far north as the town of Bodø.
Cold climes breed hearty eaters, so it's no surprise that Norwegian cuisine packs in the calorie. A typical hotel buffet breakfast paints a pretty clear picture: In addition to eggs, ham, and bacon, expect to see several varieties of cheese (including rich and flavorful Norwegian favorite gjetost), several types of bread, smoked and fresh salmon, reindeer or elk sausage, and a tube of "KAVIAR," a spread made from fish eggs that's as ubiquitous as ketchup. Though dishes like lutefisk are traditional, they tend to be something you'll need to go out of your way to find, except during holidays. Norwegians love their coffee, and they drink more of it than almost any nation in Europe outside Finland.
Norway's rich cultural tapestry is on display in the capital city of Oslo, where you'll find museums dedicated to such famous Norwegians as the founder of the Nobel Prize, Alfred Nobel (actually a Swede), and playwright Henrik Ibsen and artist Edvard Munch (whose ghosts are said to sometimes meet for celestial high tea at the Grand Hotel). The city also has one of Europe's most intriguing sculpture parks.
Aside from obvious festivals like Christmas (a big deal in Santa's home country), Norway is home to celebrations ranging from unsurprising to downright quirky. People flock to the far northern city of Tromsø for the Northern Lights Festival, January 26–Feb 2, while Bergen holds a summer music festival called Bergenfest, June 21–24. On the quirky end, you can watch musicians play instruments made of ice during the month of February at Lillehammer's Frozen Waterfall Festival, and facial hair aficionados (and those who love them) won't want to miss the World Beard and Mustache Championship in Trondheim (usually held in May).
Norway is among the world's most expensive countries—a difficult place to travel on a budget. While hotel prices are comparable to other destinations in Europe, everything else is more expensive. Booking train, bus, and plane tickets in advance can help save on transportation costs. While eating out in Oslo is famously expensive, many cafés offer all-inclusive and quite affordable lunch specials.
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Joshua Samuel Brown Norway Local Expert Writer, storyteller, and tour guide Joshua Samuel Brown has led a largely nomadic life, living at various points in China, Taiwan, Belize, Newfoundland, and places even more obscure. He's authored or co-authored thirteen travel guides for Lonely Planet and is a regular contributor to their website and "Best in Travel" series. Now settled down in Portland, he does radio comedy and writes compulsively. Check out his recent book of illustrated short stories, How Not To Avoid Jet Lag & other tales of travel madness. He promises you'll like it. Find Josambro on Twitter, Facebook, and pretty much everywhere else through the handle @josambro.