The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Scandinavia and Iceland: Jan Sortland of Norwegian Adventures.
From his home base in Oslo and additional offices Stockholm, Jan specializes in custom-tailored adventures into the lesser-known regions of Norway and beyond. His imaginative itineraries often involve seeing the Northern Lights or sampling the best Nordic cuisine, but he can also arrange activities you may not have known were possible, from sea kayaking in glacial lakes to spending the day with reindeer herders to fishing in the Arctic Ocean to building your own snow cave—and sleeping in it. In Iceland, he can have you join locals on traditional hunting trips, meet with experts in Icelandic Saga literature, and stay in private villas. In Denmark, he can orchestrate a public audience with the queen; and in Sweden he can get travelers onboard the famous 17th-century ship the Vasa—an honor usually reserved for royalty and heads of state. His expert team of drivers and guides go to great lengths to ensure you get a fulfilling and authentic experience.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotels
In Oslo: The Hotel Continental is definitely the best value in town. It has old-world elegance and relatively low room rates—especially for a luxury hotel in northern Europe. The suites are a particularly good deal.
At the fjords: In the charming village of Hafslo, tucked away on a hillside, sits the beautiful BesteBakken hotel. BesteBakken is located at the edge of a valley, surrounded by dizzying mountain heights and with a view overlooking the crystalline waters of Lake Hafslo. From homemade soaps and shampoos to the fruits and vegetables in your three- to six-course dinners, owner Lindis takes special care crafting and growing the produce and products you’ll consume here. Hotel rooms tend to be small in Norway, but the BesteBakken’s are larger than average, and the VIP Double rooms are a particularly good value.
Best hotel with a view
Many hotels in the fjords have wonderful views, but none are more spectacular than those from the Fjord-View rooms at Solstrand Hotel. Considered one of Norway’s best hotels, Solstrand is beautifully located on the shores of the wide Bjørnefjord. Here you won’t find dramatic mile-high cliff faces, but what you will find is peace and serenity, as well as a wonderful wellness area with indoor and outdoor pools, saunas, and a gym.
Restaurant the locals love
Norwegians don’t eat out much, but you’ll find them filling the tables at the Royal Gourmetburger & Gin in Bergen. The raw wood panels, exposed ceilings, and pop art decorating the walls give you an early taste of this place’s unassuming excellence. Their mission is simple: making quality burgers and amazing cocktails using organic, locally sourced meats and a selection of 52 gins. A tip to remember: In Norway, the fries are never included; you have to order them separately.
In addition to Norway’s fantastic fresh seafood, you should try something called brødskive med brunost. It’s an open-face sandwich of freshly baked bread that has been buttered and topped with two big slices of a sweet brown goat cheese that is unique to Norway. It’s an unpretentious dish but tastes wonderful, and although it isn’t normally offered in restaurants, it can be arranged for Jan’s guests. As Scandinavians do not have a tradition of eating out, one of the best things you can do is sit down for a meal with locals in their own home—perhaps even offering a hand in the preparations. What could taste better than homemade reindeer stew with freshly baked bread? Or jam made from foraged berries you helped pick that day?
Meal worth the splurge
Restaurant Maaemo in Oslo. This is Norwegian gastronomy at its best. Maaemo is an old Norse word for Mother Earth, and the name is apt, as Maaemo focuses on local, seasonal ingredients. They offer only a set tasting menu. With dishes like tender squid with caviar in a smoked reindeer broth, or mackerel in gooseberries with black-currant wood, mushrooms, and juniper, you are sure to experience the exquisite Norwegian landscape in every bite. Every little detail is perfect, and each taste is surprising and delightful.
What to See and Do
The Norwegian fjords. Western Norway is the heart of the fjord district. The fjords are not a network, but rather a series of parallel “canals” going deep into the landmass of Norway. The best parts of the fjords are often the innermost parts, so they are ideally seen not by cruise ship, but by car. By ship you are continually sailing in and out from ocean to land, repeating this process over several days, which becomes quite boring. Jan can arrange a tailor-made experience that puts you right at the heart of all of the best locations of the best fjord (not all fjords are equal, or worth seeing).
The train ride from Oslo to Bergen in Norway is certainly very scenic, but at just over seven hours and with no first-class car or dining car, there are far better ways to enjoy the beautiful scenery of Norway.
Hiking in the mountain wilderness. Norway has something called allemannsretten, which means “freedom to roam”: Everyone has the right to go everywhere as long as it isn’t fenced-in private land. So all of Norway’s amazing nature is to be enjoyed free of charge. If you become a member of the Norwegian Trekking Association, you get to stay overnight for free in their small huts that are found all over Norway. The huts are basic but in most cases very charming.
The Northern Lights are right up there with the fjords as Norway’s prime attractions. There are a few required conditions to see them: (1) clear skies, (2) total darkness, and (3) being within the auroral oval. Many companies sell Northern Lights trips all over Scandinavia, but the truth is that Sweden, Finland, and most places in Norway are not actually located under the auroral oval—and many of the locations in Norway and Iceland that are in the auroral oval often have very cloudy weather. Over the last 17 years Jan has sent his travelers to a small, charming village in northern Norway in the auroral oval. Its location at the edge of three different climate zones affords it uniquely ideal weather conditions, and 100% of his travelers who go there have seen the lights.
Art and architecture fans are excited about Oslo, thanks to the unveiling of three eye-popping additions to the city’s skyline. In 2021, the new Munch Museum will be unveiled. Designed by innovative Spanish architecture firm Estudio Herreros, the building is made from recyclable concrete and steel and will finally give The Scream a permanent home where it can always be on view. The National Museum is also moving into larger digs this year. In addition to providing expanded gallery space (conservators will be moving in more than 100,000 pieces before the opening), the sleek gray expanse is focused on creating open and inviting public spaces, including a rooftop terrace, an airy library, and several cultural and performance venues. Oslo’s new National Library opened in the spring of 2020, opposite the waterfront Opera House. The building is almost lacy and translucent, with a façade that glows different colors at night, depending on what activities and events are going on inside. Visitors can of course browse the extensive book collections, but can also take advantage of a movie theater, media workshops, gaming zones, lounges, and a restaurant.
How to spend a Sunday
Most shops are closed on Sundays throughout Scandinavia. Norwegians typically spend the day hiking, but in Oslo, many locals will enjoy a lazy day at the harbor side Aker Brygge, with a pint of beer and some open-face sandwiches, chatting with their friends and enjoying the view of the Oslo Fjord.
The end of May through September is arguably the most pleasant time to visit Norway, especially if you’re hoping to see the fjords. The beginning of May can be quite chilly, but the end of the month is normally nice and sunny. You’ll see a lot of flowers and waterfalls, which get very large and impressive this time of year, and fewer tourists than in the summer months. June through August is the busiest season in Scandinavia, but for good reason—mid-June to mid-August usually has the best weather. The days are endless, with almost no night, the nature is at its peak, the waterfalls are still large, and you still have some snowcapped mountains in the fjord area.
December through March are the best months to experience all of Norway’s great winter activities—skiing, of course, but also dogsledding, snowmobiling, reindeer sledding, snowshoeing, and so on. Christmas is charming throughout the winter wonderland of Scandinavia, and the climate in Norway is surprisingly mild—around 30 degrees F.
Statistically, March is the best month to see the Northern Lights.
April and November are transition times, neither summer nor winter. November is especially bleak: foggy, gray, dark, and not much snow. But sometimes the last part of April can be really nice and warm and with some greenery and flowers, especially in southern Norway.
Thinking you can travel to Scandinavia and just book everything on-site. Norway and many other places in Scandinavia have limited infrastructure for tourism. Hotels, activities, guides, cars, cruises, restaurants, and the like all book up early. You need to plan ahead to make sure you get the most out of your trip.
My Table, the European version of Open Table, is indispensable for restaurant reservations.
YR is an outstanding weather-forecast app for Norway and all of Scandinavia. Because weather is normally unstable and changeable, it is good to be prepared for anything.
In Oslo Jan can arrange for VIP service: His representative will meet you at the aircraft door and drive you in a private limo on the runway to a special lounge. Here you will relax, drink in hand, while the staff takes care of all of your immigration and customs requirements, then brings your bags to your private chauffeur, who will drive you to your hotel.
Sturdy walking shoes for the cities and short hikes, but real hiking boots if you want to truly enjoy the country’s outdoor life. Norway is more rustic than most places in Europe or the United States. And even in summer, you’ll need a warm sweater for the chilly nights.
A shot from inside a fjord makes for a great profile pic, but what about from above one? Just outside the village of Aurland is the Stegastein viewpoint. This 100-foot-long structure towers an impressive 2,100 feet over a fjord, with a view that is sure to get you some likes.
Knitting is huge in Norway. Buying a hand-knit wool sweater in one of the traditional patterns is a sure-fire way to fit in. The sweaters are easily found in most cities in Norway; look for a design specified by the Norwegian Folk Art and Craft Association. You could also bring home an ornate leather bracelet made by the Sami people, a semi-nomadic tribe in the northern regions of Norway, Sweden, and Finland. With their handsome textures and woven patterns, these bracelets are sure to be a sharp addition to your wardrobe.