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Ultimate Norway: The 25 Things You Have to Do Before You Die

Summer fjord visits and winter northern lights excursions are musts, but Norway has other equally fantastic sights and experiences—in town and country and throughout the year.

Although coastal fjords and northern lights are what initially put Norway on many a bucket list, there’s so much more to see and do, from strenuous but rewarding hikes in the countryside to impressive architecture and history in towns and cities. You can’t do it all—on your first trip, anyway—but these 25 essential Norway experiences should help you narrow the list for current and future visits.

Related: We’re so obsessed with Norway, we just published a brand new guide to the country–it’s now available for purchase at Amazon.

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PHOTO: Alex Conu
1 OF 25

Experience the Northern Lights

WHERE: Tromsø, Northern Norway

Since 2008, after 6 million people followed Joanna Lumley’s televised coverage of the northern lights for the BBC, tourism in northern Norway has been at an all-time high, especially in the city of Tromsø, where visitation has doubled. Today, this hub for aurora borealis excursions throughout the north has direct and charter flights from London, Zurich, and Frankfurt.

Two things to keep in mind when planning a visit. First, the lights are only visible from September through March, when the nights aren’t illuminated by the midnight sun. Second, it’s best to get out into the hinterlands (the island of Kvaløya is a great spot, for instance), far from urban light pollution. You can rent a car to explore on your own or join a guided safari that safely takes you to wherever the northern lights are at their best.

INSIDER TIPCamera lenses are much better at picking up and taking in light than the human eye. So the northern lights aren’t always as spectacular in real life as they are in the pictures you’ve seen.

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PHOTO: Asgeir Helgestad/Artic Light AS/visitnorway.com
2 OF 25

Go Whale-Watching in the Fjords

WHERE: Tromsø, Northern Norway

Between November and January, herring schools migrate to the fjords of Troms County. And where there’s herring there are whales: you can readily spot orcas and humpbacks in the area during these months. Many whale-watching safaris operate out of Tromsø, and half-day boat trips from here also give you the chance to see snowy fjords up close. Come sooner rather than later, though: the migrations are a recent phenomenon, and scientists have no idea if or how long they will last.

INSIDER TIPBe sure to select safari operators that respect the environment and the animals. In conjunction with the local university, Visit Tromsø has set up whale-watching guidelines, which will be, without fail, detailed on the websites of ethical operators.

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PHOTO: pawopa3336/iStock
3 OF 25

Experience the Darkness of Polar Night

WHERE: Tromsø, Northern Norway

The counterpoint to a summer of never-ending days is a winter of unending nights. Over a period of four weeks to 4 1/2 months, depending on the specific northerly location, the sun doesn’t rise at all. Although the polar night darkness isn’t total (unless you head to Svalbard), the few hours of twilight cover cities like Tromsø in a blue light that is truly something else.

INSIDER TIPIt’s still bright enough at midday to explore Tromsø or go whale-watching, but February and March have more daylight, allowing you to better see the winter scenery. Don’t worry—the snow usually sticks around until April.

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PHOTO: Diego Fiore/iStock
4 OF 25

Ride the Cable Car in Tromsø

WHERE: Tromsø, Northern Norway

In the land of fjords and mountains, you’re sure to stumble upon a cable car or two—but, in terms of views, few can compete with those from the Fjellheisen in Tromsø. The four-minute trip up Mt. Storsteinen is nothing short of spectacular, and, at the top you can either hike farther up to Mt. Fløya or take a seat in the Fjellstua café to savor coffee, traditional Norwegian waffles, and the Tromsø vistas. The cable car runs year-round, but the best times to ride are in summer, when the midnight sun lights up the sky, and winter, when the northern lights do so.

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PHOTO: CreativeNature_nl/iStock
5 OF 25

Drive Down Trollstigen Road

WHERE: Møre og Romsdal, Western Fjords

The 11 hairpin turns of western Norway’s Trollstigen make a lasting impression—especially if you suffer from motion sickness. The “troll’s footpath,” as the road is called in Norwegian, is part of County Road 63 (also known as the Golden Route) between Åndalsnes and Geiranger. For scenic mountain views and a truly Norwegian road-trip experience, Trollstigen is a must.

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PHOTO: Rixipix/iStock
6 OF 25

Explore the High Arctic in Norway’s Outpost Svalbard

WHERE: Longyearbyen, Svalbard

This Arctic archipelago, midway between the North Pole and mainland Norway, is truly something else! Want to visit a ghost town? Go dog sledding? Hike a glacier? Spot a polar bear? Experience extreme midnight sun in summer or polar night in winter? All such adventures and more are possible here. And you don’t have to rough it: Svalbard’s main settlement, Longyearbyen, might only have 2,000 inhabitants, but it offers a good selection of hotels, restaurants, cafes, and bars.

Although a visit to this unique, beautifully scenic region comes with a relatively steep price tag, at least it doesn’t require a visa. You might, however, need a Schengen visa to get here as there are no international flights to Longyearbyen—only domestic ones from Norway.

INSIDER TIPPolar bears are a real danger here. Note that you’re not allowed to leave the town of Longyearbyen to explore the countryside without an armed guide.

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PHOTO: Pedal-Power-Photos/iStock
7 OF 25

Stay Awake Under the Midnight Sun

WHERE: Longyearbyen, Svalbard

If you’ve ever found yourself wishing that the days of summer would never end, visit northern Norway between April and August. Thanks to the phenomenon of the midnight sun, all areas above the Arctic Circle experience several weeks of unending daylight.

In Longyearbyen on Svalbard, the sun doesn’t set for four months (late April to late August). During this time, you can observe the sun going around the horizon without ever dipping below. Take advantage of the light with midnight mountain hikes, perhaps like one to Tromsø’s Mt. Fløya, which offers stunning city views.

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PHOTO: Bjoern Wylezich/Shutterstock
8 OF 25

Cruise the Norwegian Coast

WHERE: From Bergen in Western Norway to Kirkenes in Northern Norway (or vice versa)

The former post and freight boats of the Hurtigruten line have been transformed into modern cruise vessels that take you on “the world’s most beautiful sea voyage” as Hurtigruten claims. Starting in Bergen in western Norway, the Hurtigruten cruise takes you all the way north to Kirkenes at the Norwegian– Russian border, and back to Bergen, on its 12-day voyage.

As part of the cruise, you’ll experience some of Norway’s most interesting cities (namely Bergen, Trondheim, Ålesund, and Tromsø), as well as some of the country’s most spectacular scenery (the Lofoten Islands and Trollfjord in the north, or Geiranger in the west, for example). Although the summer months provide plenty of daylight to take it all in, the cruises also tend to be at their most crowded then, so try to travel in the shoulder season.

INSIDER TIPYou don’t have to do the entire 12-day journey from Bergen to Kirkenes and back. It’s also possible to only do half of the trip or to simply travel between any of the ports along the way.

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PHOTO: Hallestrandsfoto/iStockphoto
9 OF 25

Visit Geirangerfjord

WHERE: Geiranger, Western Fjords

Situated near Ålesund, Geiranger is Norway’s most famous fjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that attracts close to a million visitors each year—a striking number given that the nearest village has just 200 inhabitants. After it came to light that Disney’s producers used Geiranger as the inspiration for the fictional Arendelle in the movie Frozen, the fjord’s popularity has soared.

INSIDER TIPIf dealing with crowds isn’t your strong suit, avoid visiting between July and August. Then again, you might want to visit as soon as possible: the nearby mountain of Åkerneset is expected to collapse into the fjord, which would cause a huge tsunami—a scenario that would not only wreak havoc with the fjord but would also destroy the little villages alongside it.

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PHOTO: Samuel Taipale/visitnorway.com
10 OF 25

Discover Art Nouveau in Ålesund

WHERE: Ålesund, Western Norway

Many think that Ålesund is Norway’s most beautiful city, and, upon strolling past its Art Nouveau buildings, it’s easy to see why. After a 1904 fire destroyed most of the city center, residents decided to design the new buildings according to the style of the day, rather than in more traditional Norwegian styles. Ålesund’s abundance of Art Nouveau buildings continues to charm Norwegian locals and visitors alike.

INSIDER TIPThe best vistas are from above. Climb the 418 steps up to Mt. Aksla for postcard-perfect views of not only Ålesund but also the Sunnmøre Alps.

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PHOTO: SiriGronskar/iStock
11 OF 25

Spend a Night in a Cabin

WHERE: Geiranger, Western Fjords

Staying in a vacation cabin is as authentic a Norwegian experience as you’re likely to have. Most Norwegians have a cabin (generally in the mountains) that’s shared by all members of the extended family and passed on from generation to generation. Standards range from small mansions to structures rustic enough to still have an outhouse—with those rented to visitors generally falling somewhere in between. Arguably the most scenic locations for such stays are the Lofoten Islands, with its rorbuer (former fishermen’s cabins), and along the Golden Route, between Geiranger and Ålesund.

INSIDER TIPAlthough there’s a good selection of cabins throughout the country, those offered by the Turistforeningen (Norwegian Trekking Association) are among the most affordable.

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PHOTO: joaquinaristii/Foap/Visitnorway.com
12 OF 25

Visit Bryggen

WHERE: Bergen

The colorful wooden buildings of the old Hanseatic wharf in Bergen are a UNESCO Heritage Site, with a history that makes them much more than popular postcard motifs. The place where stockfish was stored and Hanseatic merchants haggled in the late Middle Ages has been reconstructed several times owing to fire damage, but the oldest structures here still date from the 12th century. Today, most of the buildings house shops or hotels, but, if you’re keen to learn more about Bergen’s medieval (and beyond) history, the Bryggens Museum and the Hanseatic Museum are both in the area.

INSIDER TIPIf you can’t make it to northern Norway on your trip, while in Bergen try to stop by Juhls’ Silver Gallery, where you can find authentic jewelry and handicrafts made by the Sami (Norway’s indigenous people).

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PHOTO: lenanarvik/Foap/Visitnorway.com
13 OF 25

Try Cross-Country Skiing

WHERE: Lillehammer, Central Norway

Norwegians are said to be born on cross-country (Nordic) skis. Indeed, they’re taught the sport at an early age, and many love to spend their winter weekends gliding through the woods. One of the best places to learn cross-country skiing is Lillehammer—a 2.5-hour drive from Oslo. This resort town, famous as the site of the 1994 Winter Olympics, is also where the renowned Birkebeiner cross-country ski race finishes every third Saturday in March.

INSIDER TIPCross-country skiing isn’t the easiest sport to learn, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll find that it’s one of the best (and most peaceful) ways to explore the Norwegian wilderness.

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PHOTO: R7's Photo/Shutterstock
14 OF 25

Go for a Road Trip in the Lofoten Islands

WHERE: Lofoten, Trondheim to the Lofoten Islands

With mountains, fjords, rugged coastlines, sandy beaches, and lots of farmland, the landscapes of this Arctic archipelago seem the embodiment of Norway. Still, each of the five main islands—Austvågøy, Vestvågøy, Gimsøy, Flakstadøy, and Moskenesøy—is different in its own way, and, as the distances and travel times here are relatively short, you can easily explore them on a weeklong road trip. Highlights include the pretty fishing villages of Henningsvær, Reine, and Nusfjord; Unstad Beach, an unexpected surfing location; and the Lofotr Viking Museum in Bøstad.

INSIDER TIPAlthough it’s easy to reach the Lofoten Islands by plane (from Oslo, Tromsø, or Bodø) or ferry (from Bodø), consider visiting them on the scenic Hurtigruten cruise from Tromsø, so you can take in more of northern Norway, including the majestic Trollfjord.

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PHOTO: Anibal Trejo/Shutterstock
15 OF 25

Head to the North Cape

WHERE: Nordkap, Northern Norway

Although mainland Europe’s northernmost point is Cape Nordkinn, close to the village of Mehamn, the continent’s true northernmost point (by almost 4 miles) is North Cape, on the island of Magerøya, about 43 miles to the west. Despite its offshore location, North Cape is more accessible by car, making it popular with both road trippers and cruise-ship visitors.

There’s something eerily magnificent about standing on the cape’s 984-foot-high mountain plateau, looking out on the Barents Sea knowing that there’s nothing but ocean from here to the North Pole. The feeling and the photo ops are particularly striking in the evening light of summer’s midnight sun.

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PHOTO: typo-graphics/iStock
16 OF 25

Try Brown Cheese

WHERE: Gudbrandsdal Valley, Central Norway

As weird as it might sound, brown cheese is a Norwegian culinary specialty that every visitor should sample at least once. It’s made from whey, cream, and both cow and goat milk, and it has the color and flavor of caramel (with a sugar and fat content to match). The cheese is named for the little valley of Gudbrandsdal, which is where it originated in the 19th century.

INSIDER TIPAlthough it’s nice to sample things at the source, you’ll find brown cheese in supermarkets throughout the country. Try it in a sandwich, on a crispbread, or with Norwegian waffles.

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PHOTO: HildaWeges/iStock
17 OF 25

Go for a Train Ride with Flåmsbanen

WHERE: Flåm, Western Fjords

To experience views that stretch for days as well as miles, book a trip on the rail line that connects Oslo in the East with Bergen in the West. The separate, 20-km branch known as the Flåm Railway is particularly scenic, connecting the village of Flåm with the even smaller hamlet of Myrdal in the Aurland Mountains of Sogn og Fjordane County. This journey combined with a fjord cruise in the nearby Aurlandsfjord and Nærøyfjord, is promoted as the “Norway in a Nutshell” route.

INSIDER TIPBook tickets for the official tour well in advance for summer visits, or avoid crowds altogether with a shoulder season trip. Also note that the official tour might be more expensive than traveling independently, so price things out—starting in either Bergen or Oslo—before booking.

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PHOTO: AngelaBuserPhoto/iStockphoto
18 OF 25

Go for a Hike to Trolltunga

WHERE: Odda, Western Fjords

Hiking the so-called Troll’s Tongue is not for the faint-hearted. But those who can handle heights and have the skills necessary for the challenging 13.5-mile (round-trip) trek will be rewarded with one of Norway’s most impressive mountain views from 3,600 feet (with a drop of 2,300 feet) above sea level. Despite the difficulty of the trek, this mountain plateau attracts approximately 90,000 visitors from all over the world each summer, which, for safety reasons, is the only time this hike should be made.

INSIDER TIPThis trip, which is best done with a guide, can take up to 12 hours. Plan to start early in the morning to accommodate delays that might be caused by changing weather up in the mountains.

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PHOTO: VISITOSLO/Tord Baklund
19 OF 25

Discover Norway’s Stave Churches

WHERE: Western Fjords and Central Norway

These impressive, early medieval churches demonstrate the fantastic wood-carving skills handed down from the Vikings. Although once common throughout northern Europe, they’re now few and far between—only 28 stave churches still exist in Norway, most of them in the country’s western and eastern reaches. The most accessible are Fantoft Stave Church, just outside of Bergen, and Gol Stave Church at the Norwegian Folk Museum in Oslo.

To see the country’s largest such structure, take a road trip to Telemark County, where Heddal Stave Church has an impressive height of 85 feet. Urnes Stave Church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Sogn og Fjordane County, is Norway’s oldest, dating from 1130. Nearby Borgund Stave Church is one of the best-preserved in the nation.

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PHOTO: Fjord Norway, Paul Edmundson
20 OF 25

Hike Pulpit Rock

WHERE: Stavanger, Southern Norway

By far the most popular hike in Norway is the one to Pulpit Rock, which attracts about 300,000 people each summer. The narrow, 60×60-foot plateau set at almost 1,970 feet above Lysefjord affords stunning views—if you dare to look down, that is. The trail is only about 2.5 miles each way, but it’s rocky, steep, and slippery when wet, and each year sees people in need of rescue by helicopter. Booking a guided hike is the safest, most sensible choice, especially outside of summer.

INSIDER TIPIf you visit in summer and don’t want to hike up at a snail’s pace, embark on the trek after 4 pm. The cruise ship crowds will have left by then, and the season’s long days will give you plenty of time to make it up and down the mountain before sunset.

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PHOTO: NicoElNino/Shutterstock
21 OF 25

Stroll Through Stavanger’s Old Town

WHERE: Stavanger, Southern Norway

A stroll through Old Stavanger, made up of 173 wooden buildings dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, is a half an hour well spent. Originally the homes of local merchants, sailors, and craftsmen, the white wooden buildings that line the narrow alleyways on the hill above the harbor let you travel back in time—and possibly dream of buying property to live here yourself. Stop by the Canning Museum for more insight into the history of Stavanger and a taste of Norwegian sardines straight from the smoker.

INSIDER TIPOld Town gets quite crowded in the summer, especially on cruise ship days, so for a more peaceful experience, visit early in the morning or later in the day.

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PHOTO: kotangens/iStock
22 OF 25

Climb the Kjerag Boulder

WHERE: Stavanger, Southern Norway

Seasoned hikers who really want to get their heart rates up should consider tackling the extremely challenging, 12.5-mile (round-trip) trek to the boulder at Kjerag, where there’s nothing to prevent you from falling, so watch out! The boulder is wedged between two mountain sides almost 3,300 feet above Lysefjord, and the trail has several steep segments that require climbing skills. If reading this makes you even slightly nervous, don’t go. Those with the fitness level and experience required to make the journey, however, will be rewarded with surreal fjord views—not to mention fantastic photo ops and some serious bragging rights!

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PHOTO: Nanisimova/iStock
23 OF 25

Relax on the Rooftop of the Opera House

WHERE: Oslo

Oslo has plenty of popular hangouts, but few have the fantastic views afforded by the rooftop of the Opera House. Although it’s open year-round, the best time to visit is summer, when the sun barely drops below the horizon, making this aerie perfect for a late evening picnic. What’s more, walking up to the top of the Opera House is not only allowed but also encouraged!

INSIDER TIPAlthough the rooftop of the Opera House is a great spot to indulge in bread and cheese, you better drop the wine: in Norway, public drinking is illegal.

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PHOTO: Nancy Bundt/Visitnorway.com
24 OF 25

Experience Norway’s Constitution Day

WHERE: Oslo

Constitution Day is Norway’s biggest cultural event of the year, and visitors are more than welcome to join the celebrations on May 17. People dress in bunad (traditional folk costumes)—of which there are as many versions as there are regions in the country—and then line the streets of villages, towns, and cities to watch parades featuring schoolchildren and members of local clubs and organizations. Before and/or after these festivities, friends and families gather for a Champagne breakfast or a nice dinner.

INSIDER TIPOslo not only offers the longest National Day parades but also the chance to glimpse the royal family, who wave at processions of schoolchildren from the palace balcony.

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PHOTO: vladacanon/iStock
25 OF 25

Get a Glimpse of the Norwegian Royals

WHERE: Oslo

Norway is a constitutional monarchy whose current royals are merely national figureheads. Nonetheless, they make official public appearances at many events and celebrations throughout Norway each year. They’re also known to be quite down-to-earth, with Queen Sonja often spotted walking in the (public) garden of the Royal Palace, and King Harald V, an avid sailor, often seen aboard his boat in the Oslofjord.

INSIDER TIPTo ensure a glimpse of the monarchs, time your visit to Oslo for May 17th, when the royal family spends the country’s national holiday on the palace balcony, waving for hours at the parades of schoolchildren that pass below.

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