Our Norway Travel Guide
Whether it’s your first time travelling to Norway or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.
At a glance
"Nature is not only all that is visible to the eye... it also includes the inner pictures of the soul."
Norway holidays offer a spectacular destination of stirring landscapes on a grand scale - from high coastal cliffs and steep-sided fjords to snowy peaks, forested hills and limitless glaciers and Arctic tundra. Its wild interior is approached via the prettily sited capital Oslo and its thriving café scene, the antique cathedral city of Trondheim, the port of Bergen - gateway to the western fjords, the beaches and high rock formations of Stavanger, and subarctic Tromsø, one of the best places to view the northern lights.
Outward-bound activities from summer hikes, cycling, sea kayaking and white-water rafting to winter skiing, dog-sledding and snowmobiling combine with year-round wildlife watching and the heights of Scandinavian sophistication.
The fjordside villages of Balestrand, Lofthus, Loen, Flåm, Ulvik and Mundal each have a splendid network of cairned walks over hills and valleys, while more adventurous trails can be followed in the vast national parks of Hardangervilla, Rondane and Jotunheimen. The gentler terrain and climate of Arendal and Mandal to the south offer welcoming ports and sandy beaches, while winter travellers can enjoy alpine skiing and snowboarding at Gello or Holmenkollen within striking distance from the capital, or venture into the Arctic Circle to Lofoten or Svalbard for glacier and wildlife tours and cruises.
Norway enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world, and can be expensive to visit, but few travellers regret saving the pennies towards repeat trips to one of Europe's finest wilderness areas.
"It's the great north wind that made the Vikings."
The two main seasons for travel to Norway are Summer and Winter - and for radically different reasons.
Summer is wonderful for hiking, sailing, kayaking, white-water rafting and other outdoor pursuits among the breathtaking fjords, glaciers, rivers and mountains. The main season runs from mid-June to mid-August, though many operators open from May to late September. The midnight sun keeps burning over most of the country from late May to mid-July, and from late April to late August in Arctic Svalbard.
Norway's long, dark winters attract cross-country and downhill skiers, and increasing numbers of snow safari aficionados, combining activities like dog-sledding, ice fishing and snowmobiling. February is generally the coldest month, but offers the best opportunities to witness the northern lights.
Easter is the time to catch traditional Sami festivals, and mid-May can offer a colourful glimpse of the brief Norwegian spring. Autumn can be stunning too, but bitterly cold in the far north.
Culture & etiquette
"It's typically Norwegian to be good."
Gro Harlem Brundtland
Norwegians are proud of their reputation as egalitarian people whose culture is based on principles of respect, openness and interdependence. Greetings are casual, with a handshake, direct eye contact and a smile.
Many couples live together and raise families without being bound by marriage. Over 50% of children are born out of wedlock, about a quarter are raised in single-parent households, and neither statistic is generally frowned upon.
Throughout Scandinavia, it is helpful to be versed in the principles of the Law of Jante, as set out by Dano-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in his novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, in which he extols the values of the working class in the fictional town of Jante. The ten rules state:
- Don't think you are anything special.
- Don't think you are as good as us.
- Don't think you are smarter than us.
- Don't convince yourself that you are better than us.
- Don't think you know more than us.
- Don't think you are more important than us.
- Don't think you are good at anything.
- Don't laugh at us.
- Don't think anyone cares about you.
- Don't think you can teach us anything.
An eleventh rule recognised in the novel states: Don't think there aren't a few things we know about you.
Which is worth bearing in mind should you be tempted to criticise local attitudes to whaling or sealing (whereby old traditions are upheld as long as they are sustainable and humane).
Norway has become increasingly multicultural in recent years. There are around half a million immigrants from over 200 countries, including non-Western countries like Pakistan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Bosnia and Kosovo - although immigrants from Poland, Sweden and Germany far outnumber them - and growing numbers are born in Norway to immigrant parents. Over 11% of today's population has immigrant roots, compared to just 1.5% in 1970. While most locals embrace this, a considerable minority struggle with the shock of the new diversity, to the extent that the otherwise moderate anti-immigration Progress Party has become the second-largest political party in Norway.
When Norway's first reported racially-motivated murder occurred in 2001, as a mixed-race boy was stabbed outside his Oslo home, 40,000 locals took to the streets in protest. Many of the 69 youths gunned down at summer camp by Anders Breivik in 2011 were from ethnic backgrounds, and his claim to have been acting to save Norway and Western Europe from Islamisation was nationally dismissed and ridiculed.
Norway is one of the world's biggest consumers of coffee, and Norwegians love milk and dairy based drinks too - the latter is a significant part of the national industry. Breweries are just as important, with an increasing amount of microbreweries adding excellent alternatives to the mass produced beers. Stronger drinks, particularly spirits, are on the expensive side, with a state monopoly controlling sales. This does nothing to deter the popularity of Norway's national drink, aquavit. A potato-based spirit flavoured with dill, fennel, coriander, caraway seeds and anise, it's the default drink at Christmas, but is actually consumed year round, with lighter variations available in the summer months. The best-known brand is Linie, literally 'the line'. The name arose from the discovery that if barrels crossed the equator twice, the constant movement, the high humidity and the variations in temperature led to the most flavoursome versions, so this is now regular practice before aquavit is bottled and sold.
June - Norwegian Wood, Oslo: three-day open-air rock festival in Frogner Park with international acts and local bands.
June - Extreme Sport Week, Voss: Ekstremsportveko (or 'Veko' to the locals) combines international competitions in paragliding, base jumping, rafting, bungee jumping and other thrill-seeking pursuits with a suitably loud music festival.
June - Midnight Sun Marathon, Tromsø: annual international night run under the Arctic sun.
July - Kongsberg Jazz Festival: four-day festival of mostly Norwegian jazz.
July - Moldejazz: six days of jazz attracting international stars.
July - St Olav Festival, Stiklestad, Trondheim and countrywide: historical pageants, plays and other activities commemorating Norway's first Christian king, killed at the Battle of Stiklestad on 29 July 1030.
July/August - Rauma Rock, Åndalsnes: two-day/two-night international rock festival.
August - International Chamber Music Festival, Stavanger: a statelier-than-average music festival including recitals in Stavanger Cathedral.
August - Oslo Jazz Festival: a six-day event with big-name international performers.
August - Norwegian International Film Festival, Haugesund: 'the Nordic Cannes' with invitation-only industry-focused screenings.
September - Dyrsku'n Festival, Seljord: Norway's largest traditional market and cattle show.
September - Ultima, Oslo: ten-day festival of contemporary classical music featuring Scandinavian and international musicians.
October - UKA, Trondheim: the largest cultural festival in Norway, lasting 25 days, and arranged solely by student volunteers. Biennial (2013, 2015, etc.).
October - Bergen International Film Festival: public-facing film festival established in 2000 when Bergen was a European Capital of Culture, and now the country's biggest.
October - Svalbard Blues, Longyearbyen: scheduled concerts and improvised jam sessions herald the return of the long polar night.
Food & drink
Traditionally Norwegian food was based on whatever could be hunted, fished or grown in an austere northern climate, and could be stored over the long winters, and give enough energy for manual labour in a cold climate. So potatoes, berries, salted and smoked fish and game and preserved meats were key ingredients in the national diet, as were different forms of cheese (Jarlsberg is Norway's number one export, and brunost, a caramelised brown whey cheese, and geitost, a mild and sweet goats cheese are national favourites).
The above ingredients still form the basis of many Norwegian dishes, though are often used in more inventive ways now, with a far wider variety of fresh vegetables and additional herbs and sauces.
Of all the bounteous fish and seafood available, salmon dominates. Smoked salmon is a Norwegian speciality, served everywhere in every way, with scrambled eggs, in sandwiches, in a mustard and dill sauce or in variations on gravadlax. Herring, mackerel and sardines are also popular, as is codfish. The dried version of the latter, traditionally produced on the Lofoten islands where it is hung out to cure over the winter months, is an especial favourite. Rakfisk, fermented trout, a speciality from Valdres in eastern Norway, is also popular, but is certainly on the slightly strong spectrum of fishy flavours.
Game in the form of reindeer, deer and wild fowl stars is the mainstay of many a menu, in the form of meatballs, or steaks, or in stews. Berries and spices - particularly lingonberry jam and juniper berries - are often used alongside to complement the strong flavours.
The more conventional lamb and mutton are also widely consumed, with farikal, a mutton or lamb stew with cabbage, practically the national dish. It falls into the category of husmannskost, synonymous with traditional Norwegian home cooking. Lapskaus - a country soup dish is part of this repertoire, as is the Norwegian version of rice pudding (risgrøt). It's one of the heartier puddings, as are Norwegian waffles, though these are softer and fluffier than their American counterparts. Lighter and possibly more delectable dessert options are those berries only found in Scandinavia, the ethereally named cloudberries, and the more prosaically named multer, which are also delicious.
"Did you ever go to a place... I think it was called Norway?"
"No," said Arthur, "no, I didn't."
"Pity," said Slartibartfast, "that was one of mine. Won an award you know. Lovely crinkly edges."
Douglas Adams, Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy
Norway occupies the western half of the Scandinavian peninsula, stretching 1,770km from the North Sea in the south along the Norwegian Sea to 300 miles above the Arctic Circle, with a further coastal strip curving eastwards towards Russia. It thus has the distinction of being the Scandinavia's westernmost, northernmost and easternmost country. Norway's neighbour along the eastern border is Sweden, with Finland and Russia to the northeast. Nearly 70% of Norway's 323,877 sq km is uninhabitable, covered by mountains, glaciers, moors, rivers and deep fjords cut into the 19,312km coastline. Along the western coast, nearly 50,000 islands form a breakwater and safe coastal shipping channel.
The Svalbard archipelago, lying halfway to the North Pole in the Arctic Ocean, is the world's northernmost inhabited area, with a population of 3,000. The country's highest point (and the tallest mountain in northern Europe) is Galdhøpiggen at 2,469 metres in the aptly named Oppland region. But the country's most breathtaking geological and geographical feature is undoubtedly the fjords.
Norway has an excellent public transport system, and its trains, buses and ferries are usually timed to connect with each other. Railway lines reach as far north as Bodø, while the Hurtigruten coastal ferry calls at all major ports Between Bergen and Kirkenes. Due to some of the distances between destinations, you may consider a segment of travel by air.
Main highways like the E16 from Bergen to Oslo and the E6 from Oslo to Kirkenes are open year-round. More scenic mountain roads are normally open from June to September only, and innumerable car ferries criss-cross the fjords. Expect delays in high summer, though the ferries run long into the night. Road tolls can be prepaid via the AutoPASS payment system, and topped up online.
The Telemark region of southern Norway has an extensive network of canals, rivers and lakes that can be navigated by ferry or private boat charter. The canals can also be enjoyed by bike or kayak.
"All things work out. Though sometimes they work out sideways."
Knut Hamsun, The Ring is Closed
Present-day Norway became independent in 1905, but it's difficult to imagine its vast primeval terrain as a young country. The first human settlements date back to about 11,000 years ago as glacial ice retreated at the end of the last ice age and the Komsa, forebears of the Sami, first arrived in the Arctic north. As the climate warmed in subsequent millennia, migrations from central Europe began populating the Atlantic coast, attracted by opportunities for fishing, hunting and sealing. Reindeer also roamed to the edges of the still ice-bound interior, closely followed by human hunters.
During the later years of the Roman Empire, iron implements were introduced, enabling the establishment of permanent dwellings of stone and turf, forest clearance and boat building. By the middle of the 8th century, Norway and wider Scandinavia were ruled by isolated kingships, and clan unrest and the lure of overseas plunder and commerce gave rise to the age of the Vikings.
The Vikings took to their longships to explore and settle wide areas of Europe, Asia and the North Atlantic from the late 8th to the mid-11th centuries. They attacked in large fleets, terrorising, enslaving, assimilating or displacing local populations from Britain and Ireland to France, Moorish Spain, Russia and the Middle East. In around 1000, five centuries before Columbus, Leif Eriksson explored the North American coast, creating a settlement called Vinland (land of vines) at present-day L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.
In 1024, King Olav II founded the Church of Norway, and a widespread adoption of Christianity soon chipped away at the pantheon of Norse gods. The Vikings' last hurrah came in 1066 when Harald III was killed during an ill-conceived raid on England, and their air of invincibility was broken.
Norway's role as a world power was fading, and was confirmed when Håkon V's grandson Magnus became King of Sweden and united Norway with Sweden in 1319. In 1349 the Black Death arrived (via a British ship) and within a year wiped out a third of the population. Towns were ruined, trade faltered, and a decimated workforce meant the survivors had to return to the land. This shift in the powerbase planted the seeds of an egalitarianism that typifies the Norwegian outlook to this day.
In 1380 Norway came under Danish rule, and when Erik of Pomerania reached 21 in 1397 he was crowned King of the Kalmar Union of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The union was characterised by dynastic conflict, but lasted till 1523 when Sweden seceded, leaving a weakened Norway again in thrall to Denmark.
Over 400 years of Danish union were ended at a stroke in 1814 when the post-Napoleonic Treaty of Kiel arbitrarily transferred Norwegian rule to Sweden - an act that reinforced Norwegian demands for independence, and the 19th century played out against a backdrop of rising nationalism. Re-adoption of the Norwegian language and its folklore helped restore the country's cultural self-respect. Writers, musicians and artists Knut Hamsun, Edvard Greig and Edvard Munch completed their major works towards the end of the century, and Henrik Ibsen returned to Oslo after a long self-imposed exile.
Norway's 1905 independence came at a time of social reform and economic advance, underpinned by a burgeoning merchant navy and the introduction of hydroelectric power. At the outbreak of World War I, Norway declared itself neutral, and its merchants made large sums trading with both Britain and Germany until German U-boats took to sinking neutral ships along with those of the enemy. After suffering a prolonged economic downturn in the 1920s, the 1930s saw a reformist Labour government implement plans for a centrally planned economy that boosted employment and industrial production and improved social welfare. Only an adequate defence was lacking - and on 9 April 1940, Nazi Germany invaded, and the government and the royal family fled into exile. The remaining population offered spirited resistance, but Finnmark in particular suffered heavy destruction and casualties. In 1945, in an attempt to delay the Russian advance, German forces adopted a scorched-earth policy that devastated northern Norway, burning fields, forests, towns and villages.
Norway was in a desperate state in the post-World War II years, but all was to change with the discovery of North Sea oil in the 1960s. Transformed from one of Europe's poorest countries to one of the richest on the world stage, oil revenues have since been carefully marshalled to provide the basis for a generous social welfare system and a major commitment to foreign aid and development. Sidestepping occasional stumbles, successive Labour (and occasionally conservative) governments have overseen a vast and rapidly rising oil fund for future generations that underpins 'the most egalitarian social democracy in Western Europe'.
Key words & phrases
It is extremely rare to find a Norwegian without impeccable English, but it's good to reciprocate with a word or two in the local tongue, if only to say god morgen or takk. Restaurant menus and hotel signage are typically bilingual.
Department stores and international chains abound in Norway's cities. Popular local products include the hand-knitted sweaters of Dale of Norway, Devold, Nordstrikk and Skjæveland, the woollen and linen fabrics of Røros Tweed, some excellent cheeses, and a wide variety of smoked and (more of an acquired taste) dried fish.
Every city has boutiques selling high-end Norwegian designer gear and household items, while gift shops sell reproductions of Sami handicrafts and traditional clothing of varying quality, along with troll dolls in all shapes and sizes. Freia milk chocolate offers "a small piece of Norway" - courtesy of Kraft Foods since 1993.
You can try glassblowing and buy gifts at factory prices in the beautiful lakeside setting of Hadeland Glassworks, an hour north of Oslo, or lose yourself among the artists' studios and workshops of Old Stavanger.
Shopping is expensive compared to most of Europe, but since Norway is not an EU country, you can take advantage of tax-free shopping at some 3,000 outlets. Claim your refund (ranging from 12 to 19%) on any unused/unopened items on departure at airports, ferry terminals or frontier crossings.
Waiters are not badly paid, and most restaurants add a 10% to 15% service charge to your bill, but tipping is not unusual in mid- to high-end eateries. If you do tip, 10% is about right. Tipping cab drivers is normal on journeys costing over 200 kr, but you would cause no offence should you choose not to.
Where to eat
The most exclusive and most formal restaurants, particularly in Oslo, tend to concentrate on evening trade - ladies who lunch and expense account midday meals not being prolific enough to keep the fine dining options busy over lunch. However, there are enough mid-range restaurants to keep diners happy at both lunch and supper time, serving tasty but robust rather than refined meals, and there are plenty of snack, pizza and coffee bars to choose from. Although vegetarian restaurants and options are still scarce, most places will provide meat-free dishes if asked. There are cafés and bistros aplenty to choose from in the bigger cities, as well as grills where pølse sausage or hot dogs are served in a roll (brød) or wrapped in flat potato bread (lompe). And all over the country there are farmers markets, but also restaurants and inns bearing the Norwegian Food Prints symbol, which indicates home made food made with locally sourced ingredients.
"It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living."
Summer and winter wildlife safaris offer fantastic opportunities to see Norway's majestic wildlife including reindeer, musk oxen, elk, eagles, seabirds, polar bears, seals and king crabs in their natural habitat.
Reindeer are native to Norway and were domesticated long before horses arrived. Wild reindeer exist in large herds across central Norway. Europe's largest herd, numbering around 7,000, exists on the Hardangervidda Plateau, and smaller herds can be seen in the region's national parks. In the north, domesticated reindeer are herded by the Sami. A smaller species, the svalbardrein, is native only to Svalbard.
Musk oxen were hunted to extinction two thousand years ago, but reintroduced from Greenland in the 1940s. The first herd was established in Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park, and their range now extends to Femundsmarka National Park near Røros. The two Norwegian herds together number fewer than 100.
Elk, the largest of Europe's deer species, remains a popular meat for many Norwegians, but are quite common in the forests of the far south and in southern Finnmark.
The Arctic fox is Norway's most endangered land mammal. A twenty-year decline in the mainland population has been reversed in recent years via a successful captive-breeding programme, but a collapse in the population of lemmings and other prey, plus competition from the red fox, keep them on the critical list. They are occasionally spotted on the sea ice, feasting on the scraps of polar bear kills.
Norway's only permanent population of brown bears is in eastern Finnmark's Øvre Pasvik National Park. Other land mammal species that are trickier to spot include wolves, beavers, lynx, badgers, otters, weasels, stoats and pine martens.
Norway's polar bears are found only in Svalbard. Of a total population of 20-25,000 across the Arctic, around 3,000-3,500 are found there. A summer cruise around the archipelago (June to September) gives the best chance to view polar bears in the wild.
Norway's seas are the summer feeding grounds of the major whale species, including the acrobatic and vocal humpbacks, killer whales (orcas), sperm whales, the giant blue whales and minke, one of the few non-endangered species. The Arctic waters are also the year-round home of the long-tusked narwhal.
Six species of seal are commonly seen in Norway's coastal waters and inland fjords, and four types of dolphin venture close to shore. Walruses can be spotted on the ice floes of Svalbard.
Millions of seabirds nest in Norway's dramatic coastal cliffs, including large numbers of terns, gannets, razorbills, puffins and guillemots.
Waders and freshwater birds Norway's national bird the dippers (fossekall), which dive for food in mountain streams, as well as red-throated divers (loons), grebes and corncrakes.
There are upwards of 500 pairs of white-tailed eagles along the Nordland coast, in Troms and Finnmark, and a similar number of golden eagles in the mountains, while Norway's forests are home to four species of owl.
There are three types of snake in Norway, and the one to avoid is the venomous common viper, though bites are rarely fatal. It is only found south of Tysfjorden in Nordland. The others are the smooth snake and the grass snake (or water snake) that thrives in marshlands.
In spite of intensive commercial fishing, Norway's seas and inland waters are home to large numbers of fish species. Haddock, cod, halibut and mackerel are at the core of the seafood industry, while rivers, lakes and fjords support wild sea trout, salmon, brown trout and Arctic char.
Trees and plants
The Norwegian landscape is dominated by spruce forests, though two thousand years ago the land was dominated by pine, birch and oak. A rich variety of deciduous trees - oak, ash, rowan, lime, elm, maple and hazel - flourishes along the south coast and through the fjord regions to Trondheim.
Berries grow wild across Norway, including the much prized cloudberries, as well as blueberries and cranberries.
Spring brings a brilliant array of wildflowers on the west coast, including many alpine and Canadian species that historically drifted in on the winds. Lichens dominate drier regions and mountain plateaux, attracting reindeer, and most forest regions are carpeted with a wide variety of mosses and heather.