A week in NORWAYMay
Norway boasts beautiful and dramatic landscapes, and is an outdoor adventurers dream
Duration: One week
Norway is a stunningly beautiful country with dramatic landscapes formed back in the ice age. The fjords offer opportunities for everyone from serious hikers, to casual kayakers, to observant ferry riders to experience the breathtaking beauty, and to get a sense of the remote isolation of much of the country. You can’t get a real sense of Norway by sticking to the cities, though we would absolutely come back for a quick weekend in Bergen. With it’s charming old buildings and cobbled lanes, and location as a gateway to the fjords, Bergen makes a good base for those trying to get a quick sense of Norway, and a taste of nature, but who don’t have a full week. With a week to explore, we flew into Oslo, made our way slowly to Bergen on the highly recommended ‘Norway in a nutshell’ ticket, and then ventured further into the fjords staying in Balestrand for two nights.
- Sight Seeing 80% 80%
- Food 50% 50%
- Ease of Transportation 80% 80%
- Activities 95% 95%
We wanted to see as much of Norway as possible, hitting cultural and natural highlights, and most importantly getting into the famous fjords, and a week allowed us to do all of this with plenty of time to do nothing but relax and reset in beautiful surroundings.
OSLO we flew into Oslo and spent a day walking around the harbor, past the Nobel Peace Center (we didn’t pay to enter the exibits), and we went to the Edvard Munch museum to see his most famous painting, The Scream. The painting is typically housed at the Oslo National Gallery, so that would have been our one museum in Oslo, but they were temporarily closed in 2019 while they relocate to a new building, so the Scream was back with the rest of Munch’s massive collection of works that he left to the city upon his death. It ended up working out for the best because I loved the Munch museum and don’t think our guidebooks and articles gave it justice. I learned so much more about him as an artist, and you get to see so much range in his work that isn’t well known outside his most famous painting. The Munch museum also has a history of putting on really interesting shows, juxtaposing Munch’s work alongside other artists (for example their show with contemporary artist Marlene Dumas where she curated Munch works in dialogue with her own). They also enlisted literary megastar Karl Ove Knaussgard to curate an exhibition that resulted in his book on Munch which I bought in the gift shop and highly recommend. The museum is located next to beautiful botanical gardens if you feel like going for a stroll after being indoors.
We wanted to get out on the water in Oslo, so rather than opt for an expensive tour boat, we went to the tourist information office near the train station and bought a 24 hour public transportation pass. This allowed us to use the Oslo Metro and the ferries for 24 hours of unlimited use which was perfect for us. As a side note, we had been forewarned that Norway is extremely expensive. Taxis are cost prohibitive and Uber doesn’t exist in Oslo so I highly recommend figuring out your cheap transportation options in advance. The cheap ferry took us to several islands where you could disembark, or stay onboard and ride it roundtrip as it stops at all the islands and returns to Oslo an hour later (which is what we did). The first island, Hovedøya, was recommended by friends as a nice place to hike around and have lunch on the water befoere returning to Oslo.
Food: We had been warned about how expensive Norway can be, and you don’t really come here for the food specifically, so dining took a back seat to our activities on this trip (rare, I know). We mostly relied on groceries at our Airbnb while in Oslo. We went to the local chain W.B. Samson for coffee and pastries in the morning which was good, and for dinner we opted for Thai food as many people recommended ethnic food offers higher value in this city. We stumbled upon Yaya’s which bills itself as a ‘Thai beach bungalow’ located in an underground Tiki-meets-beach setting, it was a world away from the rest of Oslo. But the food was authentic and delicous and I would definitely recommend it.
Next time I’d like to spend more time in Grünerløkka and hit some of the cool restaurants, coffee shops, and stores that are concentrated here. This Vogue Guide mentions a few that look great.
We spent ten hours journeying on a combination of trains, a few buses, and a fjord traversing ferry to get from Oslo to Bergen as part of the Norway in a Nutshell trip and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking to full sense of the country. The ‘tour’ comprises all the connections you’ll need on your journey, and you can take it at your own pace. You may opt to make stops or overnights along the way, but we found doing it all in one go from Oslo to Bergen to be the best for us (though it does make for a tiring 10 hour journey). Rick Steves does a nice detailed description of what to expect here. The highlights for us included the historic Fläm railway which takes you from the high mountain station Myrdal down into the valley floor where Fläm is located on the edge of the Aurlandsfjord. The train itself is old fashioned, passes amazing waterfalls and switchbacks, and was named one of the top train journeys in Europe by National Geographic. From here you connect to a ferry for a 3 hour boat ride through the fjord with waterfalls and unbelievable scenery all around you.
Make sure you pack lunches, snacks, water, and anything else you’ll need for the 10 hour journey. While there are coffee shops and cafes at a few of the transfer points, they are hit and miss, and with tight connections you don’t want to be trying to hunt down food at the same time as making your next train. Pack provisions for a stress free experience.
I highly recommend printing or saving your full Norway in a Nutshell itinerary where you can refer to it at every leg of your journey. It spells out exactly which train/bus/ferry at what time you are meant to take, but once you’re on the journey, signage and information can be lacking, so we were constantly referring back to our printouts, or showing them to station conductors to ensure we were on the right train. Surprisingly (to us), not everyone knows what the Norway in a Nutshell tour is, so you can sometimes receive bad information. On our first train leg, the conductor advised us that we could just stay on that train all the way to Bergen and we would arrive in just 3 hours…well this would have defeated the entire point of the tour, seeing various fjords, taking detours on the historic Fläm railway, riding a boat, so we stuck to the printed agenda we had and got off at the stop it told us to get off at.
BERGEN is beautiful, scenic, charming, and perfectly situated for exploring the fjords. If I only had a weekend in Norway, I would choose to spend that time in Bergen as opposed to Oslo. The streets are narrow and charming, the city is hilly and water facing (in some ways it reminded us of a smaller San Francisco in this respect), and you have a wealth of options for day and overnight excursions from here. We stayed in a phenomenoal Airbnb with a rooftop terrace overlooking the city and the commercial harbor. I would absolutely stay here again.
We walked around the harbor and fishmarket (stop and stare at the enormous Norweigan king crabs), and through the narrow alleys in Byrggen (the oldest section of Burgen dating back 900 years).
For classical music fans, and architecture enthusiasts, a visit to composer Edvard Grieg’s home offers a unique 1/2 day excursion out of central Bergen where you tour his home (located in an absolutely stunning setting on a lake, surrounded by nature), and enjoy the popular midday piano concert they host, before heading back to Bergen. The short 30 minute concert was easily the most stunning music venue I’ve ever been to, set in a specially constructed concert hall that blends into the surrounding landscape. For more on the architecture, read here. From the outside, the living roof camouflages withe modern structure within its natural environment, while inside, the space is all air and light with floor to ceiling window views of the composer’s hut and Lake Nordås framed just behind the concert piano. The entire excursion including bus transfers can be purchased at the Bergen Tourist Information booth on the harbor.
Food & Coffee:
Again sensitive to the prices in Norway, the fact that we weren’t terribly keen on trying reindeer meat, and the fact that there’s only so much smoked fish a person can take, we relied on grocery stores for the most part. There were a few coffee callouts worth mentioning, and our new favorite Italian oasis in the city.
Kaffemisjonen serves fantastic coffee, croissants, and a standout yogurt and granola parfait in a cool setting. When we went, the scene was half very local (moms catching up, students and freelancers working on laptops), and half Northern California tourists (seriously, we met three different people who overheard us talking and came over to talk about all being from Northern California). There was a Karl Ove Knausgård lookalike writing from his seat in the window which lent an artistic genius vibe to the midweek coffee scene as well
Det Lille Kaffe Kompaniet is the other best coffee option in town (I think I marginally prefer it). They also served the best carrot cake we had anywhere in Norway (for some reason we kept ordering this everywhere we went), and the staff are lovely. They have outdoor benches and seating if you happen to be in Bergen on a rare sunny day. This a very small, very quaint, but very legit spot.
Da Stefano is a great option when you want a taste of home in the form of a reasonably priced, freshly made pizza in a nice setting. The chef is Italian so the pizzas hit the spot, as did their gelato. We came back twice in three days.
FJORD EXPLORING: BALESTRAND
Bergen is referred to as the ‘gateway to the fjords’ for good reason; from here you can choose a ton of different options. We decided to spend two nights in Balestrand, an idyllic village on the tip of one of the most well known fjords, Sognefjord. It’s a scenic three hour ferry from Bergen harbor to Balestrand with comfortable seats, and a viewing deck to take in the scenery if you can brave the icy air. Balestrand is tiny, but a perfect base for day excursions to neighbouring fjords and glaciers. The fanciest hotel in town is the Kviknes, and while we didn’t stay here, we did splurge on their infamous all you can eat buffet smorgasbord as our one go big or go home Norwegian meal. We stayed at the low key Balestrand Hotell with a fjord-facing room.
In terms of activities, we did the Balestrand Adventure outing on the high speed rigid inflatable boat and loved it. Picture the high speed, inflatable banana boats you ride in Mexico or Thailand, and you have the idea. This trip starts by getting suited up in a ski onesie complete with goggles and gloves (it gets coooooold zipping along the fjord). The ride itself was bumpy and exhilarating, and you see waterfalls and inlets up close and experience them in a completely different manner than on a large ferry boat. Lars the guide was friendly and knowledgeable and stopped to give us history and point out interesting features along the way. I would highly recommend this trip. They also have a range of other outings including kayaks or guided hikes that are worth looking in to.
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