Things to see
Norway has plenty of rural attractions - mountains, fjords, islands, glaciers, waterfalls, forests and small villages. Norway's natural and cultural sights often coincide, such as an impressive mountain road within a great scenery or the ancient stave churches located in the most serene landscape.
Norway has an abundance of waterfalls, in any size and shape. Norway is home to a notable number of the world's tallest waterfalls, particularly in the central mountains and western Norway. Many waterfalls are surprisingly accessible as they are often found close to main roads or railways, some plunge directly into the great fjords. Other attractions worth a visit are the northernmost point of Europe at Nordkapp, the island of Lofoten, the glacier of Jostedalsbreen and the mountains of Jotunheimen.
Norway's famous fjords are found throughout the country and are not limited to a particular region or location. All major cities sit on the shores of a fjord. While the most picturesque fjords are less populated, most are easily accessible by road. The fjords increases Norway's coastline from a modest 3000km to 30,000km, islands add another 70,000km - in total creating the most complex coastline in the world. Norwegian fjords have twice been rated the best destination in the world by National Geographic Traveler.
There are well over 1,000 distinct (named) fjords in Norway. The vast Sognefjord is some 200km to the far end and includes a number of arms each about the size of the famous Milford Sound in New Zealand. Some fjords are very narrow, such as Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord, others are wide like bays or enclosed oceans, such as Boknafjord or Trondheimsfjord. In most parts of Norway fjords are the dominant landscape features, traditional districts are often identified by proximity to a major fjord and the district or region often have the same name as the dominant fjord. For instance Sogn is the area surrounding Sognefjord. Fjords are often so deep and/or wide (particularly in western Norway) that they can only be crossed by ferry (a few daring bridges or tunnels have been built). Today fjords remain as obstacles for roads and railways, only cruise passengers experience travel along these vast corridors.
In large parts of Norway there is in fact very little continuous land, instead a wide tangle of islands and peninsulas. These peninsulas are often connected to the actual mainland by (narrow) isthmuses. Such isthmuses are shortcuts between fjords and have always been important transport corridors. Still today main roads often run across these such isthmuses. In many cases such isthmuses sits between a saltwater fjord and a freshwater lake (in effect an extension of the lake), for instance at Nordfjordeid ("Nordfjord isthmus") sits between Nordfjord and Hornindal lake.
- Fjord regions
- Western Fjords: The most dramatic and famous fjords are largely in West Norway, approximately from Stavanger to Molde. Although the western fjords vary slightly in appearance they are generally relatively narrow, surrounded by steep rock faces, tall mountains and extremely deep (particularly the middle and innermost parts). These typical features of western fjords are most pronounced at the easternmost part where fjords intersect with the highest mountains (such as Jotunheimen). Melt water from glaciers flow into major fjords such as Sognefjorden. The fjords of western Norway (represented by fjords of Geiranger and Nærøy) is a UNESCO world heritage site
- Nordland and Troms: These counties are also home to wild landscapes with alpine summits, islands and impressive fjords. The narrow strait into Skjerstadfjorden at Bodøcreates the world's strongest tidal current, the Saltstraumen.
- Middle Norway: The fjords of Trøndelag, notably the large Trondheimsfjord, are less dramatic but still dominates the landscape. The Trondheimsfjord runs from the large Hitra island to the interior town of Steinkjer. The central part of this fjord is like a small enclosed ocean.
- East Norway: The fjords in the wider Oslo region, primarily Oslofjord, are also key to the geography of these lowlands and flatlands, similar to the Trondheimsfjord. The Drammensfjord is an important arm of the great Oslofjord. There are no saltwater fjords in the interior of East Norway, but there are countless lakes many of which resemble western fjords and are in fact called "fjord", for instance the long narrow Randsfjorden is a lake.
- South Norway has some scattered fjords, but smallish compared to the wild fjords of the west and the wide Trondheimsfjord.
- The fjords of eastern Finnmark are far less dramatic but these long and wide fjords dominate the landscape.
Many freshwater lakes in the interior are called fjords, for instance Randsfjorden and Tyrifjorden, even lake Mjøsa is called "the fjord" by locals. These lakes are very similar to saltwater fjords with a typical elongated shape and also mostly deep. Mjøsa for instance is 450 meters deep such that most of the lake is in fact below sea level even if water surface is 120 meters. Several lakes in Western Norway are in fact extensions of the main fjord and some were in the geological prehistory part of the saltwater fjord itself. For instance the surface of the very deep Hornindal lake is only 50m above sea-level and separated from Nordfjord by a low isthmus. These western lakes are often so similar to the fjord that only the lack of salt reveals that it is indeed a lake.
Northern lights and midnight sun
If you want to see the northern lights, CNN has Tromsø on top of its list of best places to see it. Tromsø should also be visited during summer to see the midnight sun. Of course both can be enjoyed anywhere in the northern parts of the country. Northern lights is most frequent roughly north of arctic circle (from Bodø and further north). Because the midnight sun occurs in the same area, these phenomena can not be experienced at the same time. As northern lights otherwise is not restricted to a specific location, a dark night and clear sky are the only prerequisites. Clear sky correlates with cold weather, so visitors should be well dressed, particularly November to March. Midnight sun and, more importantly, 24 hour daylight occur around midsummer north of the arctic circle - the further north, the longer the midnight sun season. At midwinter there is a corresponding period when sun is below the horizon and there is no real daylight (so called polar night).
While most people don't pick Norway because they'd like to walk around in cities with museums, monuments, parks streetside cafés or luxurious restaurants, in Oslo and some other cities that's also an option. Just getting around in Norway by car, boat, train, bike or foot usually rewards you with great views. Speaking of transportation... Norway is also where you should head to if you literally want to take a train ride to Hell!
UNESCO world heritage sites of the country are:
- The rock paintings of Alta
- The Vega archipelago
- Urnes stave church in Luster
- The mining town of Røros
- Bergen's waterfront, Bryggen
While Norway's cultural heritage is most pronounced in rural areas, Norway's cities also offer interesting cultural sights, old or new. Cities like Bergen, Ålesund, Kongsberg, Røros, Trondheim and others are interesting because of architecture and history. Norway's cities also offer fascinating modern architecture, most notable in the capital Oslo with landmark buildings such as the new Opera house and the University library, as well as the new controversial skyline downtown.
Outside main cities there are few if any monumental buildings except the local church. Norway hardly had any aristocracy that built palaces or imposing manors. Rural areas is dominated by wooden buildings, including most churches. From the middle ages about 30 idiosyncratic stave churches survived (from perhaps 1000), and some 100 stone churches. Most churches built after the protestant reformation are basic wooden "long" churches (rectangular shape), but there is also a number of other shapes such as the characterisic cruciform (cross shape) design with a central tower. The rare Y-shape exists in a small number of churches. The octagonal shape was used for a larger number of churches and several landmark churches with this largly endemic style can be seen around Trøndelag, Møre og Romsdal, and Nordland as well as other areas. Many church interiors are in a barren protestant style, but there is a large number of churches with elaborate interios such as tolepainted walls, impressive wood cut altar pieces and pulpit designs. A large number of church are log buildings and logs are usually visible on the inside. In stave churches the elaborate construction is largely visible.
Oslo burned down in 1624 and was rebuilt in stone and brick only (in a grid pattern), and the rapid expansion in the 1800s makes Oslo different from most other towns. Trondheim and Kristiansand were both laid in a strict "military" grid pattern, while Bergen and many other wooden towns further south grew organically into a charming labyrinths. Ålesund burned down in 1904 and was rebuilt in a unique variant of art noveau (Jugendstil). Towns destroyed during the second world war (Molde, Kristiansund, Åndalsnes, Steinkjer, Namsos, Bodø, Narvik, Hammerfest, Kirkenes) were largely rebuilt in a less charming post-war style, although Kristiansund is an interesting example of bold urban planning. These WW2 "burned towns" are also home to the first daring, untraditional church architecture.
Typical for Norway is the widespread use of wood as building materials, even in centres of main cities like Bergen, Stavanger and Trondheim, and the friendly atmosphere created by the many modest buildings. Some wooden cities have been lost to fire, for instance Ålesund (fire in 1904, rebuilt in local Jugend-style) and Steinkjer (bombing second world war). Molde, Kristiansund, Bodø, Narvik and all of Finnmark were destroyed during the war. Levanger and Trondheim were not harmed by the bombings and their wooden charm is largely retained. The wooden town of Røros is on the UNESCO world heritage list. A number of other towns has notable wooden architecture, for instance Lillehammer, Skudeneshavn, Risør, Arendal, Tvedestrand, Kristiansand, Farsund, Flekkefjord, Lærdal, Brevik and Son village. The wooden towns of the south/south-west coast is Norway's version of "pueblos blancos". The capital Oslo is in fact not very typical as the inner city is dominated by concrete and masonry structures, only small pockets of wooden houses exist in central parts of Oslo. Fire is a constant threat to these traditional towns and neighborhoods, and every year some parts if this heritage is lost.