Trip to Norway
I visited Norway with my hubby in May 2019 so that we could visit his great-great grandfather's former homestead in Kasfjord. We spent 2 weeks in Norway, traveling hundreds of miles by car, ferry, train and plane from Oslo in the southeast to Tromsø, which is over 1,700 km (1,000 miles) in the north. We got to see some of Norway's most popular attractions on our trip including Sognefjord, Viking Ship Museum, Bygdoy Peninsula, Bryggen Haneseatic Wharf, Arctic Cathedral, Akershus Fortress and Geirangerfjord. But other popular attractions that we did not get to visit include Svalbard Islands, Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock), Lofoten Islands, Lillehammer and Jotunheimen.
Norway is a country in northern Europe that is located on the western half of the Scandinavian Peninsula (Sweden occupies the eastern half). About two-thirds of Norway is mountainous, with deep glacial fjords that have indented its coastline resulting in roughly 50,000 islands. The first inhabitants of Norway were the Sami people, who arrived in the area of northern Norway, Sweden, Russia and Finland at least 10,000 years ago, probably from Central Asia. Ancestors of modern-day Norwegians arrived in Norway about 6,000 years ago and established a permanent settlement near the current capital, Oslo, which is where more than half of the country’s population still reside. Norway has a comparatively homogenous population of approximately 5.4 million people, with 83% of the population identifying as themselves ethnically as Norwegian.
The country’s official language is Norwegian but Sami is the official language in a small number of municipalities in the north of the country and almost all Norwegians speak English as a second language. More than 80% of Norwegians belong to the Church of Norway, a state-supported Lutheran church, with no-religion and other Christian denominations accounting for most of the remainder of the population. Norway is a constitutional hereditary monarchy with a prime minister and parliament that govern and create laws. Norway was a colony of Denmark for over 400 hundred years and then was in a union with Sweden for 91 years, before becoming a sovereign country in 1905. Norway is among the wealthiest countries in the world and its citizens enjoy some of the highest quality of life in the world.
Things to Know Before You Travel
I am dual national, Jamaican and American, so I have two passports and I use whichever passport allows me visa-free travel to whichever country I visit. For our visit to Norway, I used my U.S. passport because a tourist visa is not required for U.S. passport holders who plan to visit Norway for 90 days or less. Other requirements include having a passport that is valid for at least 3 months beyond your period of stay.
Norway is a member of the Schengen Agreement, which means that if you have a valid visa, residence permit or visa-free travel to any of the countries in the Schengen area, then you can also visit Norway without applying for a new travel document. To check if you need a visa to visit Norway, you can find out here.
Norway is a very safe country with low levels of crime and violent crime is uncommon, so (unsurprisingly) there were no travel advisories when we travelled. However, with the new reality of COVID-19, you may want to check the U.S. State Department’s website for up-to-date travel and quarantine information concerning travel to Norway. As a liberal democracy with a very progressive government, there are no dress codes for women or legal restrictions for LGBTQI+ travelers to Norway, but again, check the State Department’s website if you want the most up to date information on local laws and restrictions.
Because we were spending more than a few days in Norway and would need to use our phones for directions etc, we decided to get new SIM cards with data plans. We went with Telia, the second largest mobile phone operator in Norway, and we were glad we did because we had service everywhere we went, even the sparsely populated rural areas we visited in Western Norway. Norway uses Northern European electrical standards (50hz/220-240 volts) so you should check any small electrical appliances you plan to take with you to determine whether you need a voltage converter. Norway uses standard Euro plug sockets that require adapter types “C” or “F” if you need to charge electronics like laptops, digital cameras, cellphone and tablets that have plug types “A” and “B” used in the U.S./Canada/Mexico.
Nuts and Bolts
We flew from SLC to Oslo Gardermoen Airport (OSL) which is Norway’s largest airport, located 47 kilometers (29 miles) north of Oslo’s city center. Because we transited through Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, we went through immigration in the Netherlands, the first Schengen area country we arrived.
There are a few options to get from OSL to your hotel in Oslo’s city center, we took the Flytoget Airport Express Train from the Gardermoen Train Station, located one level below the airport’s main terminal (you can view a map of Oslo airport here). The express train leaves the airport every 10 minutes and it is a very short, comfortable 20-minute ride from the airport to the Oslo Central Station located in the city’s center. Public transportation in Norway, especially outside of Oslo, is not great and it is not particularly cheap either, so in our two-week trip around the country, we did a combination of rental cars, buses, flights, ferries and one (very expensive) taxi ride from our hotel in downtown Bergen to the Bergen airport to retrieve lost luggage. In short, if you plan to stay in Oslo, you will be fine using public transportation but if you venture outside of Oslo, be prepared to rent a car because public transportation will be unreliable.
Oslo (1 night)
On first night in Norway, we stayed at Comfort Hotel Xpress Central Station, which is just a 3-minute walk from the Oslo Central Station, a walk that was made that much easier by the fact that our luggage was lost in transit and we only had our carry-ons with us (we got our luggage a few days later when we were in Bergen). Our room was small, cozy, clean and very close to the train station, in other words, it was the perfect place to stay when you are bone tired from traveling all day and have to wake up early the following morning.
The following day we headed to Bergen, which is about 463 km (287 miles) from Oslo city center. We took the Sognefjord in a Nutshell tour to Bergen, which is a day-long excursion that includes a bus ride from Oslo to Nesbyen and then two very scenic train rides on the Bergen and Flåm Railway Lines before taking a fjord cruise on the Sognefjord to Bergen. The Bergen Line from Nesbyen to Mydral is one of the most popular Norwegian train journeys as it offers a spectacular cross-section of Norwegian landscapes from beautiful mountain scenery, to lush valleys and picturesque fjords.
Not to be outdone, the much shorter Flåm Railway from Mydral to Flåm is another stunningly beautiful train ride and is one of the most famous train journeys in the world featuring waterfalls, rivers, valleys and mountains. Even more impressive is the train’s steep ascent from sea-level to 867 meters (2,841 feet) above sea-level, making the Flåm Railway one of the steepest standard gauge railway lines in the world.
The last section of the tour is the fjord cruise on the Sognefjord, referred to as the King of the Fjords because it is the longest fjord in Norway and the second-longest fjord in the world. A fjord is a long, deep, narrow body of water, surrounded by steep cliffs that was created by glaciers and because Norway has over 1,000 of them, by the time you leave Norway, you will be well-acquainted with fjords! The tour took us more or less along the entire length of the fjord and it was one of the most beautiful, scenic cruises that I have ever been on.
Bergen (2 nights)
We stayed at the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Bergen in Bergen, the fjord capital and the second largest city in Norway with a population of around 272,000 people. In Bergen, we went on the 2- hour City Walking Tour with Martin’s Bergen Tours and we were fortunate to have Martin to our ourselves that day, so we were able to ask all the questions we wanted and have him take a lot of pics of us. The tour took us around the city’s main downtown area, where we got to visit Bergen’s famous Fish Market, which has existed since the 1200s as an important place of trade between fishermen and the city’s inhabitants. An indoor fish market opened in 2012, where merchants have permanent shops and restaurants and, unlike the outdoor fish market, is open all year. The outdoor fish market opens on the 1st of May every year but when we visited in early May there wasn’t much going on, so we spent most of our time learning about the different types of fish sold at the indoor fish market.
Other attractions that we saw on the tour include Bryggen, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the site of the very first buildings in Bergen. Bryggen is a historic harbor district in Bergen and is one of the oldest port cities on the western coast of Norway. This commercial district was established as a center of trade by the Hanseatic League in 1350. Of the four overseas Hanseatic Offices that were established in the Middle Ages, Bryggen is the only one that is preserved today.
We also saw St. Mary’s Church, one of the oldest existing buildings in Bergen, which was probably built between 1130 and 1170. St. Mary’s Church was badly damaged by two great fires that swept through Bergen in 1198 and 1248, but has remained in continuous use since the early medieval period.
After our tour, we went to Mount Fløyen using the Fløibanen – a funicular railway that takes about 5 minutes from the Fløibanen lower station to the top of Fløyen. I highly recommend taking the railway up to Mount Fløyen because you get the most amazing views on the ride up. At Mount Fløyen, we walked around and enjoyed the views of Bergen below and then we ate lunch at the Fløien Folkerestaurant.
Fjærland (1 night)
In Bergen we rented a car and drove 248 km (154 miles) to Fjærland, a small village of around 300 people, located where the Sognefjord meets the Jostedalsbreen Glacier – the largest glacier in mainland Europe. Aside from being a beautiful glacier village, Fjærland is an international Book Town, with over 10 second-hand bookshops scattered around a variety of abandoned buildings throughout the village.
We stayed at Fjærland Fjordstove Hotell a small wooden hotel built in the 1930s as a guest house but was remodeled in the 1980s into a 15-room hotel. I liked the hotel and the room we stayed in had a great view of the fjord (see pictures below). The Fjordstove Hotell is also the first hotel I had ever stayed where the rooms didn’t have televisions! We paid for the hotel’s 3 course dinner because there were so few restaurant options in the village but unfortunately, it turned out to be one of my least favorite meals of the entire trip.
In Fjærland, we visited the Norwegian Glacier Museum where we learnt (almost) everything there is to know about glaciers – from how they are formed to how they can be used to create electricity. Among the museum exhibits is a mammoth tusk from Siberia that is over 30,000 years old and an exhibition on Ötzi, the 5,300-year-old iceman, who was found in a glacier in the European Alps in 1991. Because Ötzi's mummified body was so well-preserved, scientists have been able to learn a lot about his life, his diet and his cause of death.
Geiranger (1 night)
From Fjærland we drove 178 km (111 miles) to Geiranger, another small village in western Norway that is at the head of the Geirangerfjord, one of Norway’s most popular natural attractions and widely considered one of the most beautiful fjords in the world. In Geiranger, we stayed at Hotel Geiranger, which was my least favorite hotel stay in Norway but it was going through a much-needed renovation while we were there in May 2019, so it probably a lot better now!
On the drive to Geiranger, we took the Loen Skylift, a cable car that took us to the top of Mt Hoven (1101m/3612 ft). You will get amazing views on the 5–7-minute trip on the cable car but you may not like the experience if you are scared of heights! We walked down a few hiking trails but spent most of our time at the summit having lunch at the Hoven Restaurant, which has amazing views of the fjord below. Norwegian food is not my favorite, but this restaurant stood out for being one of the few restaurants we ate at in Norway where the food was good.
Ålesund (1 night)
Next, we drove 107 km (66.7 miles) from Geiranger to Ålesund along the Ørnesvingen, a national historic route featuring 11 hairpin bends that ascend a very steep hill outside of Geiranger. I highly recommend driving the Ørnesvingen because at the top there is a great viewing point with its own waterfall.
Ålesund is a beautiful seaside town spread across several islands with the Sunnmøre Mountains in the background. In 1904, a fire destroyed the wooden city (because Norwegian cities and towns are built of wood, most have had a fire at least once in its history) and it was rebuilt in the art nouveau style, making it a standout city in a country where many cities and towns tend to look quite similar.
In Ålesund, we stayed at the Scandic Parken, which is located in the middle of the city. The hotel was okay, nothing fancy, but it was clean and centrally located. We also ate at the Lyst Café in Ålesund, where the hubby and I had another deliciously memorable meal.
Trondheim (2 nights)
Our next destination was Trondheim, a 299 km (186 miles) drive from Ålesund. In Trondheim, we stay at another Scandic hotel, Scandic Nidelven, which we highly recommend for its breakfast, which has been voted was one of the best in Norway. We spent a couple days in Trondheim because as the third most populous municipality in Norway, there was a lot to see in Trondheim.
We did the Trondheim City Walk tour with Trondheim for You - this was definitely the most expensive walking tour we have ever been on but we enjoyed it because we had Wanda, the tour guide to ourselves, and we were able to ask as many questions as we wanted and walk at our own pace. On the tour we visited the Old Town, main square, Royal Residence, Old Town Bridge, the historical wharves and the Nidaros Cathedral.
A few things that struck me on the tour was how close we were able to get to Stiftsgården, or the official royal residence of Trondheim, in fact, we were able to take pictures on a little staircase outside the building! Coming from the US where the White House is outfitted with snipers on the roof and visited other countries where royal residences are heavily guarded even when the monarch is not on the premises, it was so weird to see how accessible and, let’s be honest, completely ordinary, the residence looked. But I guess nothing is a better metaphor of the Scandinavian, specifically Norwegian, egalitarian ethos!
We also visited the Nidaros Cathedral, the world’s northernmost medieval cathedral, which was built over the burial site of King Olav II, or St. Olaf, the patron saint of Norway. Construction of the cathedral began in 1070 and continued until about 1300. The cathedral has been damaged by fire several times and underwent an extensive restoration that started 1869 and lasted a century. The cathedral is the traditional location for the consecration of the kings of Norway. It is a beautiful gothic church and I highly recommend visiting if you are in Trondheim!
Just a stone’s throw away from the cathedral is the Archbishop’s Palace Museum, where we viewed original sculptures from the Nidaros Cathedral as well as the King’s Crown and other coronation objects that represent the royal regalia of Norway.
Harstad (1 night)
To get to our next destination Harstad, which is 909 km (565 miles) from Trondheim, we first flew to Narvik, then rented a car at the airport and drove 100 km (62 miles) to Harstad. We stayed at Thon Hotel Harstad located near the quay in the center of Harstad. We visited Kasfjord, a village 12 km (7.5 miles) from the center of Harstad, where my hubby’s great-great-grandfather's homestead was located. After seeing the beautiful mountains surrounding the village, it made perfect sense that his great-great-grandfather would settle in Utah!
Next, we went to the Trondenes Historical Center. The first exhibition we saw recounts the history of the Harstad region from the Stone Age to the present day, with an emphasis on the Viking and Middle Ages.
The second exhibition was of the Nazi-operated Trondenes camp for Soviet prisoners of war, which starts inside the museum but continues outside the museum with markers demarcating guard towers and graves etc.
We also visited Trondenes Church, the world`s northernmost stone church, dating back to the late Middle Ages. This was another highlight of the trip because at Trondenes Church, we were able to visit the graves of some of my hubby's Norwegian ancestors.
Tromsø (1 night)
We flew to our final stop in northern Norway, Tromsø, the largest Norwegian city above the Arctic Circle, with a population of about 65,000 people. We stayed at the Scandic Ishavshotel, which has beautiful views of the water and a tasty breakfast. Tromsø is an excellent place to view the northern lights and also the midnight sun, which we experienced although we were visiting in May.
In Tromsø we visited the Artic Cathedral, which was dedicated in 1965 and is one of the city’s landmarks, visible from Tromsø Sound, the Tromsø Bridge and when approaching the city by aircraft.
In Tromsø we had the pleasure of watching the Constitution Day Parade (May 17th), which celebrates the signing of the Constitution in 1814 that declared Norway an independent nation. When Norway was under Swedish rule celebrating Constitution Day was seen as a direct provocation to Sweden and was banned. Undeterred, Norwegians changed tactics and during the 1860s decided to celebrate Constitution Day by turning it into a children’s parade, because who can oppose a children’s parade? Of course, the way Constitution Day is celebrated changed after Norway received independence in 1905, but the parade’s the focus on children carrying flags, marching together with bands has remained.
Another feature of Constitution Day parades is that adults wear their bunads, or national costumes. Norway has several national costumes, each differing by region, so you can tell which region someone’s family is from based on their bunad. Bunads are worn primarily by women, the dresses are elaborately designed and are worn with special shoes and accessories for the hair in many cases. In contrast, men mostly wear suits in the Constitution Day parade, so there isn’t really a way to tell where the men are from based on how they are dressed. I saw a few of these national costumes being sold in store windows and I was absolutely shocked by the price! They cost upwards of $3,000 USD (!) because bunads are handmade and time-consuming to make in a country where labor is very expensive. Apparently, bunads are usually passed down by the women in the family.
Oslo (2 nights)
We flew from Tromsø to Oslo for the last couple days of our trip. We stayed at Scandic St. Olavs Plass, which (unfortunately) was a 15-minute walk with our luggage from Oslo Central Station. On our first full day in Oslo, we did the Free Walking Tour, a 90-minute walking tour of Oslo in English, where we learnt the history and the stories behind Oslo’s most famous landmarks like the tiger outside the Oslo Central Station, Oslo Opera House, Christiania Torv, Aker Brygge, Oslo City Hall, National Theatre, Karl Johans Gate, etc.
Later that day, we visited the grounds of The Royal Palace and watched the changing of the guard.
The next day we took the train to the Bygdøy Peninsula, where we visited the following museums that are all within walking distance to each other: Viking Ship Museum, Kon-Tiki Museum, The Fram Museum and the Norwegian Folk Museum. At the Viking Ship Museum, we saw the world’s best preserved Viking ships as well as objects that Vikings would bury their dead with for the next life. This museum doesn’t have a very good layout, so it can be difficult to take good pictures of the ships because the viewing platforms have only one exit/entrance that frequently experience bottle necks and overcrowding.
The Kon-Tiki Museum tells the story of Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl who crossed the Pacific Ocean on the balsawood raft Kon-Tiki, in an attempt to test Heyerdahl’s belief that people from South America could have reached Polynesia during Pre-Columbian times using only materials and technologies available to them back then. The museum not only has the original Kon-Tiki on display but also the papyrus boat Ra II that was used to attempt a trans-Atlantic crossing from Morocco to South America.
The Fram Museum has on display the wooden ship called the Fram (“Forward”) that was used in polar expeditions by Norwegian explorers between 1893 to 1912. The museum also has displays of the medical and navigation equipment that the explorers used as well as a general history of Arctic exploration.
But I think my favorite museum was the Norwegian Folk Museum, which is an open-air museum that had exhibitions of farms and buildings from different parts of rural Norway as well as wooden buildings that were in Oslo from 1879 to 2002. There are also exhibitions on what life was like on a farmstead in the 1730s and the 1950s. But my favorite exhibition at the Folk Museum was the Stave Church from Gol, an old wooden church from Gol in eastern Norway, dating back to the 1200s. It is a beautiful church and has been very well preserved and restored and was definitely a highlight of the day!
I would definitely recommend taking a day to visit all four museums but if you are short on time, I would prioritize seeing the Folk Museum first and then the Viking Ship Museum if you have some extra time.
Travelling While Black and/or Female
I didn’t have any negative experiences traveling as a Black woman in Norway and although I was traveling with my husband, who is of Norwegian descent, the few times I found myself alone in the hotel lobby, or some other public place, I never felt like I was being stared at and I didn’t have anyone coming up to me asking if I was lost or needed help, which is code for “you don't belong here”. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that Norwegians are notorious for keeping to themselves and not engaging in small talk. Some mistake this as rude but I enjoyed it, I didn’t have to answer questions about where I am from, what am I doing in Norway etc. everyone just left me alone!
Norwegians are very egalitarian, which extends to gender relations, making Norway one of the most gender equitable countries on earth. This means that you won’t have to worry about street harassment or be overly concerned for your safety, especially as a female traveler. In fact, of all the countries I have visited so far, I would rank Norway as number 1 in terms of places I would feel 100% comfortable travelling solo.
Overall, I liked my visit to Norway, it is one of the most naturally beautiful countries I have ever visited. A few of the highlights of the trip was the train ride from Oslo to Bergen on the Bergen Line and Fram Line and the drive along the Ørnesvingen with the amazing views of Geirangerfjord.
Aside from the breath-taking vistas, another thing I liked about Norway was it showed that it is possible to be a wealthy progressive country and still maintain traditions and a unique way of life – nothing is more striking than driving through a rural village and seeing a traditionally built home with a sod roof and a Tesla SUV in the driveway and yes, you actually do see this combination a lot in rural Norway.
One of the things that I did not like in Norway was the food. We quickly learnt that Norwegian food was not for us and so after the first couple days, we started eating at restaurants that served Thai or Indian food, for example, we ate at Rungfa Thai Food in Harstad, Jaipur an Indian restaurant in Oslo, Kaia Indian Kaffe in Kristiansund and Siam Ratree a Thai restaurant in Bergen. Another thing I disliked was how expensive everything was in Norway – food, lodging and transportation. Relatedly, I disliked the fact that there wasn’t much public transportation infrastructure once you left Oslo. In fact, to get to northern Norway, you have few, if any, options other than renting a car and driving there or taking a domestic flight.
If I travelled to Norway again, I would visit the National Gallery in Oslo, where the painting The Scream by Norwegian Expressionist artist Edvard Munch is located. Unfortunately, the National Gallery is closed until 2022 to facilitate a move to another location. I would have also tried to visit the Svalbard Islands located in the Artic Ocean halfway between Norway and the North Pole. You can see wildlife like polar bears and walruses, see ice caves or go dog sledding to name a few of the activities available there.
Norway is perfect for those who love nature photography, outdoor activities like hiking and skiing or viewing natural wonders like the aurora borealis, or the northern lights. For those like me, who like natural wonders but who prefer visiting museums with famous works of art or visiting grand palaces or castles, or who love tropical weather, then Norway is not among my top recommendations of places to visit.
We spent two weeks in Norway, but I easily would have been happy with a one-week trip - 2 days in Oslo, 2 days in Bergen, 2 days in Tromsø and 1 day to travel (via plane and/or train) between the different locations. But my hubby who loves the outdoors and being in nature, had the opposite view, he would have loved to have an extra week and in fact, he wants to return to Norway in the future to do an Arctic cruise.