One of the world's most beautiful countries, Norway has long been a popular cruising destination, famed for its stunning fjords. Formed during the last ice age's meltdown when the inland valleys carved by huge glaciers filled with seawater, fjords are undoubtedly Norway's top attractions—they shape the country's unique landscape and never fail to take your breath away.
But while the fjords are Norway's most striking and dramatic scenic features, there is much else to see, from the vast expanses of rugged tundra in the north to the huge evergreen forests along the Swedish border, from fertile coastal plains in the southwest to the snow-covered peaks and glaciers of the center.
One of the least densely populated countries in Europe, Norway is also one of the richest (thanks to the discovery of oil and gas in the North Sea in the late 1960s), and this wealth has changed the country significantly in the past decades, transforming cities like Stavanger into global players and boosting both the economy and the self-confidence of the Norwegian people.
Norway also regularly tops surveys as the country with the highest quality of life in the world, owing a great deal to the well-developed welfare system. The country's social democratic political system is to a large extent based on compromise, cooperation, and tolerance. These qualities are also at the heart of the country's reputation as a diplomatic mediator in world affairs.
It wasn't always like this. In the Middle Ages, the Vikings, accomplished seamen, crossed over to continental Europe and the British Isles on their famed longships (you can see a few well-preserved examples at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo). In their attempt to establish new trade links and settlements, they waged a campaign of violence that lasted for 200 years. The Vikings' tough nature, coupled with their excellent skills as navigators, live on in their descendants, and it's no coincidence that some of the foremost explorers of modern times (Fridtjof Nansen, Thor Heyerdahl, and Roald Amundsen among them) hail from Norway.
So do many professional skiers and ice skaters; Norwegians have always excelled at winter sports, as they proved during the Lillehammer Winter Olympics in 1994, and keep reminding the rest of the world at every major international competition.
From 1537 to 1814, Norway was under Danish rule. In 1814, the country was forced into a union with Sweden until 1905, during which time the rise of the Norwegian romantic nationalism cultural movement took root. The composer Edvard Grieg, the playwright Henrik Ibsen, and the artist Edvard Munch were among those who put Norway on the international cultural map. Today Oslo, Bergen, and Stavanger are all vibrant cities with rich culture, including many festivals and world-class artists (homegrown and imported) performing regularly to discerning audiences.
But it's nature tourists come to see, and the Norwegians themselves have a strong attachment to the natural beauty of their homeland. In almost any kind of weather, blasting or balmy, large numbers of Norwegians are outdoors, fishing, biking, skiing, hiking, or sailing. Everybody—from cherubic children to hardy, knapsack-toting seniors—bundles up for just one more ski trip or hike in the mountains.
When discussing the size of their country, Norwegians like to say that if Oslo remained fixed and the northern part of the country were swung south, it would reach all the way to Rome. Perched at the very top of the globe, this northern land is long and rangy, stretching 2,750 km (1,705 miles) from north to south with vast expanses of unspoiled terrain—a fantastic playground for nature lovers, wildlife enthusiasts, and sporty types.