Norway’s West: Fjords, Mountains, and Bergen
For Scandinavia's most thrilling sightseeing, we sail under towering fjord cliffs, hike on powerful glaciers, and find surviving traditions in remote farm hamlets. Then we delve into the Hanseatic heritage and enjoy the salty hospitality of Norway's historic capital, Bergen.
Nigard Glacier (Nigardsbreen)
The Nigard Glacier is the most accessible branch of mainland Europe's largest glacier (the Jostedalsbreen, 185 square miles). Visiting a glacier is a quintessential Norwegian experience, bringing you face-to-face with the majesty of nature. The architecturally striking Breheimsenteret Glacier Information Center stands at the entrance to the Nigard Glacier valley and offers guided family-friendly walks that include about one hour on the ice.
This company takes little groups out onto the Nærøyfjord in small, open Zodiac-type boats with an English-speaking guide. Participants wear full-body weather suits, furry hats, and spacey goggles. Their two-hour Flåm–Gudvangen–Flåm tour focuses gets you all the fjord magnificence you can imagine. Their three-hour tour is the same, but adds a stop in Undredal, where you can see goat cheese being made, sample it, and wander that sleepy village.
The hotel, set right on the Lustrafjord (with a garden perfect for relaxing and, if necessary, even convalescing), is open May through September. In the main house, the halls and living rooms are filled with tradition. The 22 rooms are divided into two types: nicely appointed standard rooms in the modern annex, or recently renovated "historic" rooms with all the modern conveniences in two different old buildings: rooms with Old World elegance in the main house, and brightly painted rooms with countryside charm in the Tingstova house next door.
Norway in a Nutshell
The most exciting single-day trip you could make from Oslo or Bergen is this circular train/boat/bus/train jaunt through fjord country. The basic idea is this: Take a train halfway across the mountainous spine of Norway, make your way down to the Sognefjord for a boat cruise, then climb back up out of the fjord and get back on the main train line. Fjord Tours sells the Nutshell package at all Norwegian State Railways stations, including Oslo and Bergen, or through their customer-service line in Norway. If you have a rail pass that covers Norway, skip the package trip, as your pass covers the bulk of the route.
In the village of Borgund is Norway's most-visited and one of its best-preserved stave churches. Dating from around 1180, the interior features only a few later additions, including a 16th-century pulpit, 17th-century stone altar, painted decorations, and crossbeam reinforcements. Borgund's church also comes with one of the country's best stave-church history museums, which beautifully explains these icons of medieval Norway. The church is about a 30-minute drive east of Lærdal, on the road to Oslo. There's also a convenient bus connection from Flåm and Aurland.
This humble but magical cluster of four centuries-old farms is now a ghost village. It's about three miles from Flåm (easy for drivers; a decent walk or bike ride otherwise), up a twisty gravel road midway between Flåm and Aurland. Until 1919 the only road between Aurland and Flåm passed between this huddle of 27 buildings, high above the fjord. First settled in 1522, farmers lived here until the 1990s.
The picturesque wooden hotel — and five generations of the Kvikne family — have welcomed tourists to Balestrand since the late 19th century. The hotel has two parts: a new wing, and the historic wooden section, with 25 older, classic rooms, and no elevator. All rooms come with balconies. The elegant Old World public spaces in the old section make you want to just sit there and sip tea all afternoon. Part of the Kviknes ritual is gorging on the store koldt bord buffet dinner — open to non-guests, and a nice way to soak in the hotel's old-time elegance without splurging on an overnight.
Bergen's popular funicular climbs 1,000 feet in seven minutes to the top of Mount Fløyen for the best view of the town, surrounding islands, and fjords all the way to the west coast. The top is a popular picnic dinner spot, perfect for enjoying the sunset, as well as the starting point for many peaceful hikes.
The tower and hall, sitting boldly out of place on the harbor just beyond Bryggen, are reminders of Bergen's importance as the first permanent capital of Norway. Håkon's Hall was originally built as a banqueting hall in the 13th century. Rosenkrantz Tower, the keep of a 13th-century castle, has a good history exhibit on its top two floors and a commanding view from its rooftop. In the 16th century, the ruling Danish-Norwegian king enlarged the tower and trained its cannon on the German-merchant district to remind the merchants of the importance of paying their taxes.
This little museum offers the best possible look inside the wooden houses that are Bergen's trademark. Its creaky old rooms offer a time-tunnel experience back to Bryggen's glory days. It's located in an atmospheric old merchant house furnished with dried fish, antique ropes, an old oxtail (used for wringing spilled cod-liver oil back into the bucket), sagging steps, and cupboard beds from the early 1700s. The place still feels eerily lived-in; neatly sorted desks with tidy ledgers seem to be waiting for the next workday to begin.
Grieg spent his last 22 summers here, soaking up inspirational fjord beauty and composing many of his greatest works. You can visit his house on your own, but it's more enjoyable if you take the included 20-minute tour. The house and adjacent museum are full of memories and artifacts, including the composer's Steinway. The walls are festooned with photos of the musical and literary superstars of his generation. His little studio hut near the water makes you want to sit down and modulate.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we're traveling in northern Europe, where the mountains meet the sea — it's the best of western Norway. Thanks for joining us.
"Rugged" is putting it mildly when it comes to 80 percent of Norway. Historically, it was a challenging place in which to live. That's why Vikings ventured south, and that's why so many people here chose to leave and settle in America. But today, when you explore the west of Norway — with its majestic mountains and fjords — you'll find plenty of reason not to leave…but to visit.
We start in what's called "Giant's Country" — Jotunheim. High in the mountains, we'll hike on Europe's biggest glacier, then descend into fjord beauty. We'll take scenic cruises, see how medieval peasants lived — and where they worshipped, before enjoying Norway's historic capital with its Hanseatic heritage, a little high Norwegian culture, and its rugged love of life.
Norway is long and skinny. It stretches nearly the length of America's west coast. We'll zero in on the scenic west — along the biggest of the fjords, Sognefjord, with stops in Jotunheim, the Jostedal Glacier, Solvorn, Flåm, Balestrand, and Bergen.
This is Jotunheim, "home of the giants" — a high plateau that feels like the top of the world. These are northern Europe's highest peaks and they're steeped in Norse legends and folklore.
This is the land of Thor and Odin, whose spirits still inhabit the misty peaks.
For centuries villagers trekked across this pass to reach the coast. It was an arduous journey. But today, crossing it's a pleasure. At 4,600 feet, the Sognefjell road is Norway's highest pass. At this latitude, even these modest altitudes take us high above the tree line with snow through the summer.
Norway's lunar-like mountain-scapes and deep fjords were shaped by glaciers that covered most of the continent 10,000 years ago. Europe's largest surviving glacier, Jostedal, is still hard at work. It covers 180 square miles and — though shrinking — is still mighty.
Of the many tongues of the glacier, this one — called Nigardsbreen — offers the best visit. The valley comes with a quintessential glacier view. The approach includes a cruise across the glacial lake. The scale is enormous, and blue cliffs of ancient ice dwarf awestruck visitors. Park guides lash on crampons and rope up adventurous travelers in preparation for an icy hike.
While there are more demanding Nigardsbreen routes, I'm joining a family hike — just an hour, but offering an unforgettable experience and bringing you face to face with the power and majesty of nature.
While tentative at first, hikers soon gain confidence in their crampons as they climb high onto the glacier.
Severnty-five years ago, this glacier filled most of this valley. Guides teach a respect for nature and any visit heightens one's awareness of the impact of climate change.
Rivers of ice like this carved huge valleys creating the defining feature of Norway's landscape — the fjords.
Those glaciers — as much as a mile thick — spent eons carving up western Norway as they worked their way to the sea. Slowly, they gouged u-shaped valleys that later filled with water. The distance from seabed to mountaintop around here is as much as 9,000 feet — nearly two vertical miles. Dramatic waterfalls continue to cut into the mountains.
This viewpoint makes sure car hikers get out and appreciate the view. Sognefjord is Norway's biggest, and that's the one we're exploring. Of its many arms, the most scenic is called Nærøyfjord.
Rain or shine, traditional ferries offer a relaxing yet thrilling fjord experience. These ferries, while popular with tourists, are the lifeline of many fjordside communities. Some remote farms are connected to the outside world only by ferry. Mail is dropped and visitors come and go by request.
And the visual highlight of this ride, Nærøyfjord, is 10 miles long and breathtakingly narrow — as little as 800 feet wide.
Guide: So we ready to go?
Rick: Let's go!
For an exhilarating alternative, we're suiting up for a much speedier tour with the Fjord Safari company.
Survival suits keep everyone cozy and comfortable at thrillingly high speeds. Our guide, Rune, knows all the interesting stops.
Man: Long way down.
Rick: Long way down!
Guide: So this is what makes this fjords in Norway so special, cause it's steep, steep walls down in the fjord everywhere. And this glacier's a very big glacier. And this is only a little part of the glacier so it continues 100 meters down. So it's very deep there.
This western region is important to the people of Norway. After four centuries of Danish rule, the soul of the country was nearly lost. Then with independence and a constitution in the early 1800s, there was a national resurgence, and people from the cities celebrated their Norwegian-ness by coming here to fjord country.
Along with those first tourists came artists. Romantic painters and writers were inspired by the mountains plunging into the fjords and by the dramatic light. Paintings romanticized both the nature and the traditional folk life it fostered.
For a present day taste of this Romanticism, I like the mellow town of Solvorn with its dramatic fjordside setting. This sleepy village, with colorful boathouses lining its waterfront, seems contentedly trapped in the past.
Solvorn's charming Walaker Hotel harkens back to the early days of tourism. A former inn and coach station, it's been in the family since 1690. And nine generations later, Ole Henrik keeps the tradition alive. A charming ambiance pervades the place. Relaxing before dinner, guests feel right at home in the salon.
Dinner, served in this genteel elegance, caps a beautiful day. The menu is modern Norwegian. It's based on local ingredients — many of them pulled right out of the fjord. We're starting with scallops from just off shore. On a summer evening the twilight lingers, causing people to do the same. Our main course is arctic char from the north of Norway. To enjoy the full effect of this fjordside setting, I take my coffee and dessert out to the porch. The berries, picked right out of their garden, go perfectly with the view.
The most scenic train ride in all of northern Europe connects visitors from Oslo and Bergen to all this wonder by climbing over the mountainous spine of Norway.
The Trans-Norway line, an engineering marvel when completed in 1909, was important because it laced together the nation. Today tourists follow the same route with a series of efficient connections enjoying a quick and easy dose of Norway's best scenery.
Along with a scenic boat ride up Nærøyfjord, a highlight is this little train, which takes travelers from the main line in the mountains steeply down to the fjords. This popular day trip is nicknamed "Norway in a Nutshell."
Passengers savor every scenic moment. Scenes glide by like a movie. The train stops at a misty waterfall. The surprise appearance of mythic Nordic water maidens titillates tourists. As we descend into the fertile valley, farms appear. Finally, the train hits the fjord, where passengers catch a ferry for the next leg of Norway in a Nutshell.
Travelers with their own wheels can dig deeper into fjord country — just like those glaciers did in the last Ice Age. For me, driving in Norway can be treacherous — not because of the speed or traffic — but because of the scenery...it's simply hard to keep your eyes on the road. In this rugged terrain, tunnels and fjord crossings provide valuable shortcuts. Little car ferries make strategic crossings, allowing even the driver to fully enjoy the views.
And tunnels — this is one of the world's longest for cars, at 15 miles — save lots of time. To help drivers stay awake, there are rest chambers with colored lights mid-tunnel. Norwegians are making massive infrastructure investments to link their people and industries.
While breathtaking scenery is everywhere you look, the history is harder to see. For most of its past, Norway was extremely humble. While wealthier parts of Europe were building grand churches and castles of stone, most of Norway's architecture was made of wood. Fires were almost routine, and little survives from centuries past.
This is the wet and wild homeland of the Vikings — whose culture lasted about three centuries, from roughly 800 to 1100. Setting sail from here, in their tough boats, they settled Iceland, Greenland, and even made it to America. And Viking raiders terrorized much of Europe for generations.
This mound marks the grave of one of those Viking rulers. Like the Egyptians, the Vikings believed in a life after death. And they believed you could take it with you. That's why when graves are excavated, archeologists find everything from jewelry and weapons to cooking pots and even boats.
The end of the Viking age, with its pagan Norse gods, is marked by the coming of Christianity to Norway in the 12th century. Those medieval Norwegians, now tamed, took their boat-building skills and rather than sleek ships to raid in, they built fine wooden churches to pray in.
These traditional Norwegian churches are called stave churches. While there were over a thousand such churches in Norway back in the 1300s, today, only a couple dozen survive. The Borgund Stave Church is one of the best.
Stave churches were supported by stout pine poles — or "staves" — and slathered with a protective coat of black tar. Wood was plentiful and cheap. While the basic design reflects the simple technology of the age, more elaborate examples like this one stand as proud testaments to the culture.
Remarkable carvings survive — evoking the pagan roots of these early Norwegian Christians. Stylized dragons — reminiscent of those that once adorned Viking ships — probably functioned like gargoyles: to keep evil spirits at bay.
This building has changed little since it was built in 1180. Interiors were stark and dark, with tiny windows and simple X-shaped crosses of St. Andrew. The architecture guides your gaze upwards, towards heaven. The people who filled these churches often walked hours to worship.
Many hiked from tiny hamlets formed by several farms joining together. Otternes is one such farm village perched high above a fjord.
Today, Otternes welcomes visitors with a rare look at Norway of old. It's an evocative huddle of a couple dozen weathered farm buildings — many of which date from the 1700s. The farmstead's population dwindled a century ago, when — like so many Norwegians — its residents emigrated to America in hopes of a better life. Still, a handful of farmers remained, eking out a living here until just a generation ago.
Laila Kvellestad works hard to make the story of Otternes a living history.
Rick: So I'm curious about how this community was organized.
Laila: Yeah and this was four farms, four families, who lived here.
Rick: So why not one family here and one family there? Why four families together:
Laila: You know, to live in this area it was very hard life. So they learned to work together and learned to share the reserves so they could survive.
Rick: So…so this was an active farm actually until the last generation?
Laila: Yes and Eilert he lived here till 1980.
Rick: So there was a man named Eilert?
Laila: Yeah. So he was the last one.
Rick: Now this looks like he left it yesterday.
Laila: Yes. And his last wish was we should try to take care of this house almost like it was when he died.
Rick: And you're doing exactly that.
Laila: We try to do it, yes.
Today the action's down at sea level. Ferries are a lifeline of the economy — helping both locals go about their lives and visitors efficiently explore these fjords. Just across Sognefjord lies Balestrand.
Little Balestrand is dwarfed by the mountainous scenery. With its functional harborfront and inviting marina, it serves as a springboard for local adventures. It flourished in the 19th century, as a resort when romantic "Grand Tour" visitors came from far and wide to enjoy its dramatic setting.
As a matter of fact, these simple steps were built for the German emperor. Back before World War I brought the Romantic age to a halt, Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm spent five summers communing with nature right here.
Those glory days of early tourism still echo in the venerable Kviknes Hotel, which remains the grande dame of Balestrand.
In its fine old dining room, the Kviknes offers a classic Norwegian smörgåsbord.
For locals, this all-you-can-eat extravaganza is traditionally a feast enjoyed on holidays. But for travelers it's an any-day-of-the-week opportunity to over-indulge in Norwegian cuisine. Pace yourself with small plates through many courses. Begin with an enticing variety of seafood — mackerel, eel, smoked salmon, pickled herring, and more. And the selection ranges from rutabagas to reindeer. It all culminates with a rich spread of local cheeses and berries.
Guests enjoy their coffee in the same rustic elegance that kept those first aristocratic visitors coming back.
While the beauty of these fjords has changed little in the last century, today, getting around is a different story. From the heart of fjord country, the fast boat has us in the biggest city in the west of Norway in just a couple hours.
Bergen is Norway's second city after Oslo. Situated just one sheltering island from the open sea, it's long provided ships a safe port of call. It's a busy working port. It's popular with cruise ships, and an essential refuge when heavy winds drive in the boats that serve the North Sea oil rigs. Much of Norway's current affluence is fueled by the oil it drills just off shore.
Visitors enjoy charming cobbled streets, which surround the harbor and climb the encircling hills. Bergen's popular funicular rises high above the city offering commanding views. Surveying the surrounding islands and fjords, it's clear why this city is known as the "Gateway to Fjord Country."
Back down at the harbor, the bustling fish market has become a food circus of eateries selling fishy treats to tourists. Eager merchants provide tasty samples, and they'll happily assemble a plate to order.
This fine harbor has a long history. Seven hundred years ago, local kings established Bergen as Norway's first capital. The 13th-century Håkon's Hall was part of the royal residence. In a city built of wood, stone buildings represented power. As in many Norwegian sights, the included tour here brings meaning to an otherwise hard-to-appreciate attraction.
Guide: Welcome to the Håkon's Hall, which is today one of the more important secular buildings we actually have here in Norway from the Middle Ages. You're now standing up, as you can see, in the main hall, and I think this is also the best location where you're able to appreciate actually how large this building is. And today it is by far the largest secular stone building in Norway from the Middle Ages.
The adjacent tower dates back to the same period. Its simple design favored security over comfort. It was basically four stout rooms stacked atop each other. This was the chapel.
From the roof we enjoy a royal view.
Guide: For centuries this actually happened to be the tallest building in Bergen. What I think the building is trying to represent today is the attempt the Norwegian kings made in the 1200s to make this a political center.
Colorful wooden warehouses mark Bergen's touristy historic quarter. Since the 1300s, this was its old German trading center — called Bryggen, or the “wharf." Along with being home of Norway's king, Bergen was a member of the mighty Hanseatic League, and therefore a trading power.
The Hanseatic League was an alliance of cities stretching across northern Europe from London to Russia. They worked together for freer, safer, and more profitable trade in an age before modern states could provide a reliable environment for business. German merchants basically ran Bergen's trade for 400 years. In the 1500s, Bergen was essentially a Germanic community of 2,000 workaholic merchants surrounded and supported by 5,000 Norwegians.
The Hanseatic Museum stands on the edge of the wharf. With creaky wooden interiors and maritime hardware, it helps you envision the economy that made Bergen.
It was all about this fish: cod — a form of protein that could be dried, preserved, and shipped anywhere. Bergen is the place where cod from the north met traders from the rest of Europe. The Norwegians were the good fishermen. The Germans were the good merchants. They needed each other, and Bergen is where they met.
Rooms upstairs — with hundred-year-old cod hanging from the ceilings — take you back to the 1700s. It was an all-male society with strict rules and a focus on business. Because of the ever-present danger of fire, it was generally cold and dark. People slept cozy as they could in cramped cupboard beds. While there was hardly room for company, this bunk came with a pinup girl.
Bryggen's wooden core is made of long rows of planky warehouses leaning haphazardly across narrow alleys. It's burned down and been rebuilt several times, and it's now touristy and full of shops and galleries. Still, strolling here, you can appreciate the heritage.
For a modern contrast to all this history, head for the urban heart of Bergen — which has a thriving personality all its own. The main square, originally created as a fire break in this fire-plagued city, is lined by big department stores. And locals come to life when the sun peeks through, here in Norway's rainiest city.
A park-like esplanade leads to the national theater. Fountains celebrating cultural icons provide popular meeting places. In the late 19th century, Norway's greatest artists and musicians called Bergen home. This fountain is dedicated to the beloved violinist Ole Bull.
And just outside of town is Troldhaugen, the home of Norway's greatest composer, Edvard Grieg.
Touring his home takes you back to the Romantic Age, when Grieg was a major player among European composers. Guides explain how Grieg and his wife entertained cultural big shots who traveled from all corners to visit this Norwegian musical genius.
And when the composer wanted to work, he had his escape — a peaceful cabin complete with fjordside inspiration. Composing at the turn of the 20th century, Grieg fused simple Norwegian folk tunes with the flamboyance of Europe's Romantic style.
Today, in the one-with-nature concert hall, visitors drop in to midday performances by local musicians. With a setting like this, Grieg fans become tuned into nature and nature lovers become tuned in to Grieg.
And Grieg's music captures that rich and poignant mix of nature and culture that's so uniquely Norwegian.
I hope you've enjoyed our journey through western Norway. In this rugged corner of Europe, the challenges presented by nature have met the tough and creative spirit of the Norwegian people. The result: a fascinating land well worth visiting. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time…keep on travelin'.
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