By Rick Steves
This pleasant fjordside village (pop. 2,000) is away from the Norway in a Nutshell crowd. From here you can side-trip to nearby Fjærland (a.k.a. "Mundal") and the awesome Jostedal glacier. Consider this worthwhile detour to the typical fjord visit — so you can dig deeper into the Sognefjord, just like the glaciers did during the last Ice Age.
Most travelers arrive in Balestrand via the express boat from Bergen or Flåm. The tidy harbor area has a tourist information office, two small grocery stores (Co-op and Spar), a couple of galleries, a town museum, and a small aquarium devoted to marine life found in the fjord. The historic, wooden Kvikne's Hotel and its modern addition dominate Balestrand's waterfront. The town has outdoor activities for everyone, from easy to strenuous mountain hikes and mostly flat bike rides.
Tourist Information: The TI has numerous brochures about the Sognefjord area and detailed information on the more challenging hikes. It offers terminals with Internet access and free Wi-Fi, rents bikes, sells day-trip excursions to the glacier, and more.
Town Walking Tour — Follow the self-guided town walking tour described in the Outdoor Activities in Balestrand brochure (free at the TI or your hotel; 20 minutes to an hour one-way, depending on your pace and how many stops you make). You'll stroll along a lightly traveled paved road punctuated with benches (some with great fjord views) — perfect for a break or picnic. Most sights are signposted in English.
The "old road" — once the main road from the harbor — follows along the fjord's edge, passing numerous "villas" from the late 1800s. These were built in the popular Swiss style of the period by locals attempting to introduce a dose of Romanticism into Norwegian architecture. Look for the dragons' heads (copied from Viking-age stave churches) decorating the gables. Along the walk, you'll see two burial mounds from the Viking age, marked by a ponderous statue of a Viking king. Check out the wooden shelters for the postboxes; some give the elevation (m.o.h. stands for "meters over havet" — the sea — not too high, are they?).
St. Olaf's Church — This distinctive wooden church was built in 1897 by the wife of Knut Kvikne (of the Kvikne's Hotel family). This devout Englishwoman wanted a church in Balestrand where English services were held...and indeed they still are, by British clergy in summer (free, open daily, services in English every Sun late May–Aug).
The Golden House (Det Gylne Hus) — This golden-colored house, at the corner of the waterfront scene (left from the boat dock), houses an array of diversions and a good restaurant. A local watercolorist and historian, Bjørg Bjøberg, and her husband, Arthur Adamson, rescued this fine old building and are turning it into a time capsule of Balestrand's past. On the ground floor, you'll find Bjørg's gallery, with watercolors celebrating the beauty of Norway. Upstairs is a free exhibit of historical artifacts from the town. What began as an informal collection of old general-store items found in the attic was gradually added on to by locals wanting to preserve treasures from their own families' past — making this an organically-grown town heritage museum. While there are no written English explanations, Bjørg is happy to explain things.
Aquarium — The tiny aquarium gives you a good look at marine life in the Sognefjord. There are no English descriptions in the exhibit, but you can borrow an English brochure at the front desk. While not thrilling, the well-explained place is a decent rainy-day option. A 15-minute slideshow starts at the top and bottom of each hour. In the last room, enjoy the wood-carvings depicting traditional everyday life in the fjordside village of Munken. Be sure to check out the tanks on the dock outside, which are sometimes filled with live fish. You can fill your own tank at the aquarium's cheery restaurant.
Biking — You can cycle around town, or go farther by circling the little but extremely scenic Esefjord (north of town, en route to the ferry landing at Dragsvik — about 6 miles each way). The roads here are relatively flat. Bike rentals are available from the TI.
Kayaking - Ask at the TI for local outfits offering tours.
Sights near Balestrand
Hopperstad Stave Church (Hopperstad Stavkyrkje) — The most accessible stave church in the area is located just a 15-minute express-boat ride across the Sognefjord, in the town of Vik. Hopperstad Stave Church boasts an extremely scenic exterior, with several tiers of dragon heads overlooking rolling fields between fjord cliffs. The interior is notable for its emptiness — in a good way. Instead of being crammed full of later additions, the church is blissfully uncluttered, as it was when they built it in the mid-12th century.
The church is located a gradually uphill 20-minute walk from Vik's harbor. From the boat landing, walk up the main street from the harbor about 200 yards (past the TI, a grocery store, and hotel). Take a right at the sign for Hopperstad Stavkyrkje, walk 10 minutes, and you'll see the church perched on a small hill in the distance. To get there, pedestrians can ride the express passenger boat between Balestrand and Vik (15 minutes). Check the schedule carefully to be able to get to the church and back in one day (only possible Mon-Sat). Since cars can't go on this express boat, drivers must go around the small Esefjord to the town of Dragsvik, then catch the ferry across the Sognefjord to Vangsnes (a 20-minute drive from Vik and the church).
Glacier Excursions — Balestrand is a fine jumping-off point for cruising up the Fjærlandsfjord to visit the Norwegian Glacier Museum in Fjærland and the receding tongue of the dramatic Jostedal Glacier (Jostedalbreen) itself. Half-day and full-day boat excursions are sold by Balestrand's TI or onboard.
If you do the full-day excursion, you'll depart Balestrand by boat around 8:00 and take an 80-minute fjord cruise along Fjærlandsfjord. You'll see the Jostedal Glacier in the distance, perched atop the mountains. Once you reach the town of Fjærland (whose boat dock is called "Mundal"), a bus meets the boat and takes you to the informative Norwegian Glacier Museum (Norsk Bremuseum), where you'll have about an hour and a half free. You'll learn how glaciers were formed, experiment with your own hunk of glacier, weigh evidence of the woolly mammoth's existence in Norway, and learn about the effect of global climate change on the fjords. After the museum, a bus takes you to a nearby arm of the glacier, stopping twice at two different places for a closer look; at one stop (Bøyabreen), you'll have about an hour to poke around. Both full- and half-day excursions return around 17:00— in time to allow you to catch the last express boat from Balestrand to Bergen.
Balestrand is connected to the rest of Norway via the Fylkesbaatane express boat (buy tickets on boat or at TI, discounts for students and seniors). From Bergen to Balestrand takes four hours; in summer, the 8:00 boat from Bergen continues to Flåm. From Flåm to Balestrand takes about 1.5 hours.
From Oslo, you can take an early train to Flåm, then catch the express boat to Balestrand. After your visit, you can continue on the express boat to Bergen, or return to the Nutshell route by taking the express boat to Midtfjord, and transferring to the next boat to Gudvangen (June-Aug only, otherwise transfer in Flåm).