This year, the World Happiness Report listed Norway as the happiest country, and while much of this was down to the benefits for residents, there are plenty of ways this country can add a smile to your face as a visitor too.
Last week I returned from a five-day trip to Western Norway with Fjord Norway. After flying to Bergen, we took a ferry up to Krakhella, followed by a postal boat service to Bulandet. From there, a selection of buses, boats and bikes transported us through Askvoll, Kalvag, Loen and Balestrand in a circular route back to Bergen. There’s plenty to appreciate in Western Norway, but here are my top 10 reasons to visit.
In 1859, the writer Henrik Ibsen used the term ‘friluftsliv’ to describe the ‘open air life’ so popular in Norway. With so much varied and dramatic scenery it’s easy to see why people flock to the fjords for recreation and rejuvenation.
The country has 18 official Norwegian scenic routes, half of which are in the west, and many of them have purpose-built viewpoints complete with uber-trendy viewing platforms and state-of-the art bathrooms.
Striking views are made yet more picturesque by the brightly painted wooden houses characteristic of Norway. It’s a photographer’s dream.
The Norwegian fjords provide the perfect environment for outdoor pursuits, and there are activities to suit everyone. In the Lodalen Valley you can take a trip in a canal boat brought over from the Netherlands, but if you’re looking for something more exciting, RIB tours from Balestrand are a great alternative.
In Loen, you can take the newly opened skylift to the top of Mt Hoven for hikes of varying difficulty or, if you’re feeling brave, there’s a via ferrata, which incorporates the longest suspension bridge in Europe.
Stadlandet has made a name for itself as a surfing hot spot, while the steep cliffs rising from the fjords are perfect for hangliding and basejumping. You can never really claim to have explored the fjords without venturing beneath their surface, and scuba divers can expect to have personal encounters with seals, otters, and sometimes even orcas.
Other activities include snowshoeing, biking, skiing, kayaking, fishing and horse sleighing.
As the saying goes, the only thing that’s certain about the weather in Norway is that it’s always uncertain. While you could see this as a bad thing, the changeable conditions make for much more varied and interesting scenery. In autumn, the mosses on the mountain rocks are strikingly colourful, while winter brings blissful blue hour twilights.
Temperatures in and around Bergen range from just below freezing to around 18ºC (much warmer than the far north of the country, where they can reach –23ºC!). The unsteady climate also facilitates a wide range of outdoor activities. Where a mountain might be perfect for hiking or biking in the summer, it could be a world-class ski resort come the colder months.
While they’re by no means guaranteed, if you head to the northernmost fjords in October or March, you’re in with a decent chance of seeing the Northern Lights. A spectacular show of colours in the night sky, Aurora Borealis (to use its scientific name) is the result of solar winds meeting the Earth’s atmosphere and forming waves of dancing light.
Find a rural spot away from any city lights for the best views, or go about your holiday with no expectations but keep one eye on the sky after dark. (We were lucky enough to see them from Kalvåg in September, but as my photos didn’t do them justice, here’s one by photographer Claudia Regina.)
With such incredible scenery in Norway, it’s hardly surprising that the country has produced a large number of talented artists, sculptors and photographers.
Arguably the most famous, Edvard Munch was a forerunner of expressionistic art. Nikolai Astrup is another well-known painter, whose works are exhibited at the KODE Art Museum in Bergen. While travelling through Western Norway you can visit his childhood home in Kalvåg or stop by at the fascinating Astruptunet Museum, which exhibits the house where he raised his family and the studio where he produced many of his most famous works. Astrup is especially known for wood carving prints containing hidden animals and meanings.
Askvoll is another place in Western Norway where you can walk in the footsteps of a famous painter. Anders Askevold created many of his works based on the buildings and scenery in this town, and you can download an app to provide audio descriptions at each location depicted by him. Listen out for the story of the church fire – a brilliant lesson in avoiding procrastination.
If delays and poorly planned excursions are enough to ruin your holiday, you’ll be positively astonished by the efficiency of Western Norway. Although the lay of the land should make travel a huge pain, there are plenty of public transport options, including taxis, buses, trams, domestic flights, sleek express boats, ships that ferry vehicles and even small postal boat services that take passengers island hopping in the far west.
What’s more, their timetables are meticulously interlinked so you never have to wait around between journeys.
This attention to detail can be seen throughout the region, with care taken to ensure that any public facilities are extremely well maintained. Even the most remote beaches have washrooms, and they’re always unbelievably clean and well stocked.
Suffice it to say, if the Norwegians have identified anything that would be even remotely useful they’ll have built it already.
Western Norway is steeped in history, and who doesn’t love a good Viking story? Medieval stave churches adorn the meadows where towering mountain peaks meet the fjords; in Bergen you can visit protected archeological excavation sites; and Myklebust in Nordfjord is currently reconstructing the largest Viking ship ever discovered.
While some stories date back to folklore, others are only a few hundred years old; for example, that of a female hiking pioneer from Leeds who fell in love with a local hotel owner while exploring the town of Balestrand. She died only a few years after they were married, but her husband kept his promise to construct an English church. Named St Olaf, this was the inspiration for the church in which Princess Elsa is crowned queen in Frozen.
Western Norway continues to make history in other ways too – especially when it comes to engineering: in 2023, it plans to open the world’s first ship tunnel.
Although a growing number of establishments are making efforts to meet the increasing demand for vegetarian and vegan dishes, it’s seafood that dominates the menus of Western Norway.
Norway is the second biggest exporter of seafood in the world, and with access to so much coastline around the fjords, it’s easy to see why.
The market at the end of the wharf in Bergen is a good place to start: the fishmongers at Fjellskål Fisketorget have a restaurant where you can try their daily catches. Duggfrisk is another great centrally located option for dinner.
In the restaurants across Western Norway, creamy fish soups are hugely popular, as are smoked and grilled salmon, scallops, lobster and crab dishes. Also worth a try is the brown goat’s cheese ‘brunost’.
When you sample all these delights while warming your cockles beside a cosy log fire after a day in the wilderness, it’s easy to understand the origins of the popular Nordic practice of ‘hygge’.
Perhaps it has something to do with the small size of most of the settlements or their remote locations, but Norwegians love to stop and chat. Ask one question and they’ll typically regale you with fascinating tales about their lives and the history and traditions of their ancestors.
As an affluent nation with an impressive education system, it’s common to meet people excelling in their vocation, whether that be something traditional like fishing or construction, a more creative path like art or cooking, or a modern endeavour such as banking or insurance.
Many people choose to follow in the path of their parents or inherit the family business, so you might even get to hear stories of famous artists and explorers directly from their descendants.
While it’s no secret that Norway is one of the pricier destinations for tourists, international flights within Europe are surprisingly affordable. You can fly to Bergen from the UK from around £40 each way, leaving you with that little bit extra to splash on activities while you’re there.
If costs seem prohibitive, there are always ways to rein them in. For example, you can camp just about anywhere in Norway as long as you follow the rules set out in the ‘allemannsretten’ – an ancient right to roam that permits access through uncultivated land, including private property.