Our time in Norway was more challenging to plan because it had a different focus than the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden. Our main goal was not to explore one city, but to experience the country’s world-renowned fjords. Therefore, instead of the trip research being confined to one specific area (i.e. Amsterdam or Copenhagen), we were suddenly looking at an entire country and trying to decide the best way to go about accomplishing that goal. And to top it all off, we had just a few short days of travel time.
Time is always the tricky thing – with no shortage of it, trip planning becomes that much easier, as you don’t have to be nearly as efficient or choosy. But, most of us do not have that luxury. (Where is that job with unlimited paid vacation time hiding, anyway…?)
However, if you’re visiting Norway with the hopes of seeing the fjords and time is not on your side, don’t fret! It’s totally doable to go on a brief (but still b-e-a-utiful) foray into these natural phenomena.
My first piece of advice would be to base yourself in Bergen. Bergen is a small city in southwestern Norway and is referred to as “the Gateway to the Fjords” – sounds promising, right? In the interest of time, we flew from Stockholm to Bergen on a $75, 1.5 hour flight. (Driving would have taken somewhere between 12 and 15 hours, and we didn’t have a vehicle at our disposal, anyway.) Here’s a rundown of how we used our time, broken down by exploring Bergen itself and taking two separate day trips into the fjords.
Bryggen: A UNESCO World Heritage site, this historic wharf area boasts colorful wooden buildings and a glimpse into the city’s trading origins.
Fløibanen: A funicular that will take you to the top of Mount Fløyen for incredible views over the city. The entrance to the funicular station is right in downtown Bergen, so getting there is a breeze. In addition to the viewing areas at the top, there are also several walking paths to check out.
United Sardine Factories: This former manufacturing facility, once the largest cannery in Norway, now houses extensive space for live music, art galleries, an artist residency program, dance and music studios and more. With room for 50+ studios and serving as the home to various music, literature, film, interior design and architecture organizations, USF is a veritable mecca of art and culture. Hungry? Get your fish and chips fix at on-site Kafe Kippers, with an array of indoor and outdoor seating right on the water.
Food and Drink: We had a cozy, delicious dinner at Pingvinen and loved the lively, tucked away bar Folk and Røvere.
Norway in a Nutshell
On our second day in Bergen, we were up bright and early for – you guessed it – the fjords! In the interest of seeing as much as possible, we decided to book a day tour with Norway in a Nutshell, a popular tour company offering several customizable, build-your-own itineraries through Norway’s most iconic sights.
While organized tours aren’t always my favorite, Norway in a Nutshell isn’t your typical tour. Though guided aspects can be added on, what they’re really doing for you is selling you, for one bulk price, all of the various bus, train and boat tickets that you’ll need to complete your chosen route. Again, they’re completely customizable, so overnight stays along the route can be arranged at your liking, along with various extra activities, such as kayaking or fjord safaris.
Here’s a quick breakdown of our itinerary:
We departed Bergen’s railway station at 6:51 am. At 9:22 am, we arrived at Myrdal station and had a quick, 20-minute break before we departed for Flåm on the iconic Flåm railway (or Flåmsbana), named by National Geographic as one of the top ten rail journeys in Europe. We arrived in Flåm at 10:35 am and had about an hour and a half to relax and explore before our Heritage fjord safari, scheduled for departure at 12:10.
The fjord safari was an extra that we added on to our itinerary and was definitely a highlight of the day. There were about a dozen people on our small speed boat, so there was plenty of room and everyone was able to have a great seat. Lasting over two hours, the tour took us through the Aurlandsfjord followed by the Nærøyfjord and included narration throughout by our super friendly and informative guide (who happened to look just like Theon from Game of Thrones).
We went as far as Gudvangen, a village at the end of the Nærøyfjord, and then returned to Flåm. For comfort and safety, we were given flotation suits, hats, gloves and goggles. Even though it was May and the weather was beautiful, it was still very cold speeding along the fjords and all of the gear definitely helped. Plus, we looked super cool!
After returning to Flåm, we had a little more free time before boarding a ferry at 3:00 pm to head back to Gudvangen, where our day would continue. I was worried it would be repetitive taking the same route along the fjords twice, but it wasn’t at all. First of all, the views are so epic and surreal that having more time to enjoy them was fine by me. Also, the slow-moving ferry offered a more peaceful way of observing the fjords’ immense beauty (and allowed for a lot more photo time!).
From Gudvangen, we boarded a bus to take us to the village of Voss, and the bus ride alone held its fair share of epic scenery. The Stalheim Canyon was my favorite part, which we descended into by way of Stalheimskleiva, a road with 13 hairpin bends and two waterfalls to boot.
From Voss, we caught a train back to Bergen. And there you have it! Our 15-hour fjord-gasmic day tour.
While organized tours can easily be great or a huge disappointment, I was very happy with our decision to go with Norway in a Nutshell. We saw so much and it was a ton of fun to experience the fjords at two different paces, not to mention the beauty of our bus and train rides. Like I mentioned above, it’s not your typical organized tour: you aren’t with the same people or guide all day, you’re tailoring the itinerary to perfectly fit your needs, and at the end of the day, it largely comes down to packaging your tickets and activities together in a convenient way.
Feeling like a DIY? I read some travelers’ accounts who used a Norway in a Nutshell itinerary as a guide and then booked all of the separate legs and activities on their own instead of buying them through the company as one packaged deal. While this requires some leg work (you would need to go through separate vendors to get the various tickets, and not all of them can be bought online), it can save you some money.
Road trip to Stegastein
For our very last day in Norway, we rented a car and road tripped to Stegastein, a lookout offering panoramic views over the Aurlandsfjord. Our trip took us by similar scenery from our Norway in a Nutshell tour, but it was so much fun to see everything at our own pace, stop whenever we wanted, and take detours as we saw fit.
Our first stop was at the Fantoft stavkirke, or stave church, a type of Medieval church made of wood. Most of the remaining stave churches in the world are found in Norway. Originally built around 1150, the Fantoft stave church was tragically destroyed by arson in 1992. After it burned down, it was painstakingly rebuilt to perfectly replicate the original structure. Construction on the recreation finished in 1997.
Later on in our drive, we casually happened upon this beauty:
…not the worst pit stop ever!
The Stegastein outlook is located a whopping 650 meters above the Aurlandsfjord. The road leading up to it was similar to, if not worse than, the hairpin-filled road we had taken into the Stalheim Valley two days prior. Abbie drove and was an absolute champ. The narrow roads, super sharp curves and lack of guard rails made it especially daunting – whenever we met a car coming the opposite direction, we basically just hoped for the best. All nail biting aside, it was a beautiful drive, with views like this throughout:
The views from the top were just as amazing, and for being a popular stop along one of Norway’s National Tourist Routes, it wasn’t even that busy.
Even so, after leaving the lookout, we stopped at a pull-off point partway down the road so that we could have the views all to ourselves for a little while.
On the way back to Bergen, we took one last detour to the tiny village of Undredal, which we had seen from the water during our day with Norway in a Nutshell. Undredal is home to about five times more goats than people and is famous for its brown goat cheese. It’s also the home to the smallest stave church still in use in all of Scandinavia.
On our way back to Bergen, we stopped at a gas station to refuel (literally and figuratively) and this was when we had our favorite hot dog of the trip. In part, we were surprised and pleased to be enjoying food from a gas station; in (other) part, we felt like maybe that was an indication that it was time to head home.
We loved: All things fjord-related. Also, our beautiful Airbnb.
We missed: So many things! Norway is a huge, beautiful country and there are countless other fjords, hikes, waterfalls, and villages to explore. And, inevitably, more gas station hot dogs to enjoy.
We also missed: I didn’t remember to grab a picture of our hot dog here, either. I hope that this photo of particularly apt street art will serve as an adequate substitute.
Have you traveled to Norway? How did you narrow down the countless possibilities of places and activities?
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