For many potential travellers, under-the-radar Norway means little more than fjords, fisherman's sweaters and Edvard Munch's The Scream. But it's this blank-slate unfamiliarity that makes the Scandinavian home of almost five million an exotic lure.
Oslo, of course, is the arrival point for most. But after hitting the capital's surfeit of cultural attractions – including must-sees like the Akershus Fortress, National Gallery, Ibsen Museum and the Munch Museum – it's time to spread your wings.
U.K. expat David Nikel agrees and blogs about his experiences at lifeinnorway.net.
First, he suggests heading south to mountain-ringed Lillehammer, host of the 1994 Winter Olympics. Hub of a popular hiking region, the town's Norwegian Olympic Museum is a highlight. "It makes you wonder how a place so small could have hosted the Games," says Nikel, whose second suggestion is Roros, a celebrated old-town charmer lined with painted wooden homes that's like stepping back in time.
Thirdly, he proposes Tromso. "It's the undisputed cultural capital and party town of northern Norway – try Mack, the locally brewed lager." Consider timing your visit for July's Bukta Festival, an outdoor live music event that takes full advantage of Tromso's midnight-sun season.
But Norway's dramatic, fjord-striped landscapes are at least as enticing as its towns. Nikel suggests heading north to the Lofoten Islands in the Arctic Circle. "The archipelago is home to moose, sea eagles, otters and puffins, all set around a beautiful coastline," he says. Accessible by bridges, boats and buses, the islands are ideal for leisurely hiking and biking.
I'd also add the breathtaking ferry ride along the Geirangerfjord in the west of Norway. Keep in mind, this is a very popular excursion and the boats are often packed during the summer.
If time is tight, Nikel advises flying to your destinations "since the geography makes all other transport slow." He recommends keeping costs down with the summertime-only Explore Norway Ticket from domestic airline Wideroe (wideroe.no), with unlimited flights for two weeks from $502 (2,775 Norwegian krone).
But if you're on a more laid-back timetable, take the train. Handy passes and discounted advance Minipris tickets are available via nsb.no, while the network stretches to many of Norway's main highlights. The scenically spectacular Oslo to Bergen train "is an absolute must," says Nikel.
The bonus is it delivers you to one of Europe's most beautiful cities. Bergen, on the west coast, combines historic architecture – especially the achingly lovely Bryggen area – with a local feel that's more intimate than Oslo. Arsty, charming and quirky, Norway's second city is worth a few days. Don't miss the Bergen Art Museum and consider the eclectic out-of-town Norwegian Knitting Industry Museum, especially for its gift shop.
Communication is rarely a problem for tourists. "You'll find no language issues in Norway, as everyone speaks great English," Nikel says, adding a couple of additional insider observations: "Most shops are closed on Sundays, and opening hours are drastically reduced during July's vacation month."
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