25 July 2013 by Maddalena Cardone
The fjords of Western Norway were carved by a massive sheet of ice that smothered Northern Europe over a succession of ice ages. In Norway, many of these glacier-gouged landscapes have been superbly preserved, making them timeless natural attractions.
Norway's western fjords continue all the way to the Russian border but are at their most inspiring and breathtaking around Bergen. There's a huge amount of other attractions and activities in the area as well, making this the best place to discover a very typical Norwegian landscape. For instance, take a 10-day self-drive tour through the western fjords and stay in small, beautiful, romantic retreats in stunning locations on an exploration of the western fjords of Norway with De Historiske.
Explore the gateway towns of Bergen and Ålesund
Bergen is the main gateway to the region; founded in 1070, the city became Norway's first capital in the thirteenth century. A major trading and seafaring port and one of the Hanseatic League of merchants' most important centres, the city thrived until the league disbanded and rival city Oslo came to greater prominence.
These days Bergen trades on its wealth of natural attractions, musical and artistic culture and its self-styled status as the gateway to the fjords, making it an essential stepping-stone for visitors. For more information on where to stay, eat and what to see and do, read our guide to 24 hours in Bergen.
Further north, Ålesund with its amazing Art Nouveau architecture is arguably one of the most attractive towns in Norway. The architectural style came about when the flourishing fishing town was razed to the ground by fire in 1904 and rebuilt over the course of three years in the new style.
These days the city still thrives on fishing and tourism. Stroll the streets to admire the fine facades and climb the 418 steps to Aksla, the peak overlooking the town and indented coastline, for panoramic views. Stay at Clarion Collection Hotel Bryggen, a fashionably converted warehouse on the water or Hotel Brosundet a hip, design-infused property with masses of character and atmosphere; eat at the XL Diner and try the local speciality, bacalao, which uses locally sourced dried salt cod in a wide variety of delicious dishes.
Cruise along the coast with Hurtigruten
A small cruise ship is potentially the most cost effective way of seeing the area, with the option to disembark and explore the destinations you drop anchor in. The Hurtigruten service links the remote communities on the Norwegian coastline and calls at around 30 ports, many of which are never visited by commercial cruise liners.
Sturdy, well-equipped working ships, which began plying the route in 1893, drift through exceptional landscapes including fjords, ice fields and snow-capped summits. Brick-red lighthouses and rust or yellow painted houses contrast with the green and blue all around. The ships deliver freight, post and passengers and each has its own style and character. Take up a position on deck or in the Panorama Lounge and simply watch the scenery slip by.
Sail down a fjord
Geirangerfjord, one of the smallest fjords, is also one of the most spectacular; steep and rugged it's marked by impressive features and is ideal for a fantastic fjord safari - travel down the length of the fjord on a high-powered rib (rigid inflatable boat) and get close to waterfalls such as the Seven Sisters, steepling cliffs and the vertiginous tracks that climb away from the water to fjord farms perched high above on ledges and eyries. Alternatively, cruise to the head of the fjord on a larger ship.
If you don't want to take to the water you can drive too, descending the Ørnevegen or Eagle's Highway on a series of dizzying switchbacks. However you arrive, the approach to the tiny town of Geiranger is spectacular. A series of houses stand scattered on the hillside at the eastern end of the fjord, with plenty of places to stay so that you can enjoy the scenery once the ships have set sail in the evening; ascend the slope and stop at the Hotel Union, which has an outdoor pool and garden boasting great views over the fjord along with a spa.
Elsewhere, Sognefjord, Norway's longest and deepest fjord extends 200km inland to the national parks of Jotunheimen and Jostedalsbreen. Visit here for access to activities such as kayaking - the feeling of gliding silently on the water is unrivalled. Go in a virtually unsinkable double sea kayak with watertight carry bags and you can relax into the stunning scenery. Elsewhere, Hardangerfjord is famous for its flowering fruit trees, which flower from April-May, filling the landscape with blooms of colour whilst the Lysefjord winds past the iconic, sheer-sided 600-metre high Pulpit Rock.
Go glacier hiking on the Nigardsbreen Glacier
Travel to the Nigardsbreen Glacier for a guided glacier walk. Easily accessible, it's an excellent introduction to walking on ice and gives you a flavour of the enormous Jostedalsbreen Glacier, of which this is just a small arm. All technical equipment, including hiking boots, harnesses, crampons and ice axes are provided, meaning that you can concentrate on walking and admiring the view.
Having stepped onto the glacier, roped safely to your guide, you climb slowly and steadily past blue fissures and exposed crags to reach a point where there are exceptional views. There are several hikes graded according to difficulty and groups can opt for anything from a two-hour trek to a much longer and more involved outing on the ice.
Cross Norway's highest road pass
Drive the Sognefjell Mountain Road and cross the highest and most impressive road pass in Northern Europe, topping out at 1,434m. Dramatic landscapes accompany the journey and you'll have the chance to see Norway's highest mountain, Galdhøpiggen, and mainland Norway's largest glacier, Jostedalsbreen, which covers a 500 square kilometre plateau.
Take a classic rail journey aboard the Flåm Railway
Ride the rails aboard the historic Flåmsbana, the Flåm Railway, from Mydal to Flåm, a 20km, 900m plunge down a valley. It took 12 years to carve out the tunnels along the route and a further four years to lay the track, which zigzags down the mountain, passing through 20 tunnels that include one unusual hairpin turn in a tunnel. Construction started in 1924 and the first freight trains were put into operation in 1940, with the first passengers travelling the route a year later. These days more than 600,000 people make the journey every year.
One of the steepest inclined railways anywhere in the world, with much of the track on a 55% gradient (ie a rise of 1 metre per 18), it's worth travelling to see the dramatic scenery, especially the waterfalls that tumble down the mountainsides. Reassuringly there are five sets of brakes, each capable of stopping the train.
If you're feeling athletic, walk down from Myrdal over five hours. Alternatively hop off the train lower down, at Berekvam, and take a two-three hour stroll back to Flåm. At the bottom, enjoy the beautiful Aurlandsfjord, a tributary of the Sognefjord.
Set your pulse racing with adrenaline activities around Voss
Get your pulse racing with a stay in Voss, an inland town with an outdoor mentality, where you can experience a variety of landscapes; a short walk around the lake on the outskirts of Voss for instance brings you to the Bordalsgjelet Gorge, a narrow, river-carved abyss that you can climb down into for views of the potholes and cascades that created them.
Slightly further afield, explore Stølsheimen and other mountain areas on foot, ride the Rallarvegen road on two wheels, take to the water for white water rafting and kayaking or get an aerial view whilst tandem skydiving or paragliding. In the winter the region is transformed into the skiing hub of Western Norway, with two ski centres, 19 lifts and 55 kilometres of alpine runs suitable for all levels of ability. In town, stay at the historic, atmospheric Fleischer's Hotel.
Go birdwatching on Runde
Take the ferry from Ålesund 70km west to the small island of Runde, where hundreds of thousands of seabirds nest during the summer months. Gannets, kittiwakes, fulmers and guillemots are here in droves but the most popular sightings are the puffins that congregate here to breed. Wander the island's walking trails and admire the rugged scenery while watching out for the puffin holes that honeycomb the island.