Every winter, thousands of British visitors cross the North Sea to Norway in search of the dazzling celestial displays of the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, one of the most spectacular natural phenomena the world has to offer. At the height of summer, the ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’ entices more to cross the Arctic Circle for the disorienting yet thrilling experience of twenty-four hour daylight, where the summertime sun never sets. And throughout the year, there’s so much more to see and do in this enchanting country, from its beautiful fjord-indented coastline, picturesque seaside villages and remarkable wildlife to thriving, cosmopolitan cities with a vigour and charm all of their own.
The nation’s capital, Oslo, has all the big-city energy and amenities you would expect, but with most of the sights packed into a relatively compact and walkable area; there are even plans to make the city centre a car-free zone in the next few years. It’s a rewarding year-round destination, but especially inviting in summer, when warmer temperatures and longer days mean you can make the most of its outdoor attractions, pavement cafes and extensive green spaces; the sun doesn’t set until around 10.30pm in June. Oslo is home to world-famous museums and galleries, some striking and innovative contemporary architecture and superb restaurants – including four bearing Michelin stars. At the National Gallery you’ll come face-to-face with one of the world’s most reproduced, and most parodied, images, The Scream, created by the Expressionist artist Edvard Munch in 1893, while the collection also includes works by Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh and Picasso. If one Scream isn’t enough, you can see another version at the Munch Museum, along with hundreds more of his paintings and prints.
For a glimpse into Norway’s proud Viking past, head to the Viking Ship Museum, which houses three wooden ships dating back to the 9th century, including the exceptionally well-preserved Oseberg Ship, adorned with archetypal Nors imagery of entwined fantastical beasts. It was discovered in a burial mound in 1904, with the remains of two women aboard, alongside the bones of 15 horses, four dogs and an ox, as well as four sleighs and other goods, indicating that these women were of very high status, possibly royalty. Also worth exploring is the fascinating Norwegian Folk Museum nearby, one of the largest outdoor museums in Europe, with more than 150 traditional houses brought here from across the country and an 800-year old timber church. Also on show is a collection of folk arts, crafts and costumes. And while you’re in the capital, don’t miss Akershus Castle, built in 1299 as a royal residence and still used for offi cial state occasions. Inside, you can visit several impressive halls and reception rooms, as well as the church which houses the tombs of Norwegian kings.
Oslo is also a very modern city and is home to a fine collection of award-winning contemporary architecture; the harbour-front Norwegian National Opera and Ballet building, opened in 2008, is a highly distinctive and highly prized city landmark, with an inclined roof reaching down to ground level, inviting passers-by to climb up and enjoy panoramic views of the city and of course, it’s a wonderful venue for a wide range of musical and dance performances throughout the year. You could also take a look at what has been described as ‘Europe’s most beautiful pedestrian bridge’, the 206-metre long steel and glass Akrobaten Bridge, which spans the tracks of Oslo’s central railway station. Again, it offers great city views and has become a popular spot for photo shoots.
Norway’s second city, Bergen, is known as the ‘gateway to the fjords’ and is surrounded by the majestic mountains and spectacular coastallandscapes for which the country is renowned. It’s much more than just a stopping-off place for sailing the fjords, though. Bergen is a cultured city, filled with sights and attractions that will tempt you to linger. May and June are good times to visit; Norway’s National Day, known as Constitution Day, takes place on 17 May, and is celebrated with colourful parades, concerts and lots of traditional food and drink, while the Bergen International Festival, held over two weeks in late May and early June is Scandinavia’s largest festival of music, dance and literature.
Take a wander around Bryggen, the UNESCO listed Hanseatic wharf, with its colourful timbered houses, restaurants, boutiques and artists’ studios and be sure to visit the medieval Haakon’s Hall, built by King Haakon Haakonson as a royal residence and banqueting hall 750 years ago. Perhaps take time out to view the collections at some of the city’s many museums and galleries; the Hanseatic Museum, located in a splendid early 18th-century building, provides a fascinating insight into Bergen’s trading history and the daily lives of the Hanseatic merchants while fans of classical music will enjoy a trip to the Edvard Grieg Museum, in what was once the composer’s summertime home, set in pretty gardens. There are regular piano concerts here, too. And to experience magnificent views of the city and the dramatic coastline beyond, hop aboard the Fløibanen funicular for an exhilarating ride up to the top of Mount Fløien, which, at 320m above sea level, is the tallest of the many mountains surrounding the city. There’s a restaurant at the top, and plenty of walking opportunities. Alternatively, you could take a steam train to visit one of the seven fjords around Bergen.
Inland from Bergen, the tiny village of Flåm is the place to go if you really enjoy exhilarating rail journeys, and spring is the ideal time of year to step aboard. Set on the banks of Aurlandsfjord and surrounded by orchards, farmland and magnificent mountain scenery, Flåm is known for its 20km-long railway, the Flamsbana, one of the steepest train lines in the world, with a gradient of 5.5% on most of the route. The line passes through 20 tunnels on its way to Myrdal, 865 metres up, running through some of Norway’s wildest and most beautiful countryside, offering views of waterfalls, rivers and farms clinging to the sides of the mountains.
Further south, Stavanger is another attractive city, occupying a picturesque setting at the entrance to Gandsfjord. Today, it’s the centre of the Norwegian oil industry, but there’s a real sense of history here as well. The charming Old Town, with its wooden houses, narrow cobbled lanes and market, which has been operating here for a thousand years, is a delight to stroll around, while if you’re interested in the more modern side of the city, you could learn about Stavanger’s main industry at the Norwegian Petroleum Museum. Stavanger also makes a good base for exploring the nearby fjords and mountains; a popular excursion is a boat trip to the stunning Lysefjord, where you’ll see stunning natural attractions such as Kjerag Mountain and the Preikestolen, or Pulpit Rock, a flat mountain plateau jutting out over the fjord, more than 600 metres below.
Take time to discover our Nordic neighbour, from its energetic urban centres to its mountainous, untamed heart. See the sun shine on a summer night, watch the northern lights dance and flash across the winter skies and you’ll soon be planning your next visit, perhaps to experience another season in the magical land of Norway.