Boasting one of Norway's 7 UNESCO listed sites, the port city of Bergen is unquestionably the most popular destination in the country. Bryggen, the city's old wharf, is a pleasure to wander around, even if you might need to jostle with the hordes of tourists that show up in the busy summer season. The town is no one-hit wonder in terms of attractions. With a variety of forts, parks and a cool hike (or funicular ride) to an outlook over the city, Bergen has enough to occupy travellers for a few days. But the true life of Bergen is found in the outdoor cafes, pubs and restaurants that overspill into the walkways, almost forcing passersby to sit down, relax and enjoy the people watching.
In days gone by, the west and northern coasts of Norway were all but inaccessible. Before roads, rail or air travel, the only lifeblood for the brave few who called the area home was the Hurtigruten shipping line. Originally charting the waters, then sailing the route on a regular basis, the shipping route is a big part of Norway's history. Today, cruisers have their choice of vessels from new and shiny to old and "authentic". Whether opting to do the 12-day return trip from Bergen to Kirkenes or merely hopping on for a shorter trip, the Hurtigruten is a unique opportunity to experience a bit of Norwegian history, while taking in some of the country's most spectacular scenery.
Certainly not for the faint of heart. One might say that clambering over sheer mountain faces for a strenuous 3-hour hike to reach a tiny boulder wedge between the rocks is fool-hearted enough. But to gain the courage to scoot onto the 5.3 m rock perched over a 984 m drop to the stunning Lysefjord below is a true test of courage. Not to mention it is undoubtably the most memorable photo-op in Norway. Although geographically close to the more famous Preikestolen, this hike is in a league unto itself. Prone to weather variations for sun to rain to snow in a matter of minutes, good preparation is paramount.
The wild and wonderful Lofoten archipelago, off the north-west coast of Norway, is an absolute treat for any hiker wishing to get away from it all. Stunning natural scenery, quaint fishing towns and spectacular bird watching all await the intrepid traveller seeking solace above the Arctic Circle. While 24 hours of daylight greet the summer visitor, winters can be a little extreme when it comes to weather. Getting there could be half the fun. There may just be no other better way to reach the islands than by the iconic Hurtigruten ship - although little ferries and planes make the trip too.
Spitsbergen Island, Svalbard
Longyearbyen is the northernmost real town on the planet with university, supermarket, bank, library, and yes, even night clubs. The town is located so close to The North Pole (1300 km... yes, that's close) that it's in the dark half of the year and enjoys the midnight sun the other half. During autumn and spring, there is a good chance of catching northern lights waving up and down the sky in the most amazing hues of greens and violets. Svalbard has a big population of polar bears, so Longyearbyen is probably the only place on the planet where students are allowed to carry firearms to uni (we kid you not). Polar bear protection (firearms) also need to be carried when venturing into the amazing raw arctic wilderness, which lies unspoiled beyond the settlement. Just grab your ski, snowmobile, dog sled or hiking boots and off you go - just remember your rifle... or better, join a tour.
Svalbard, but all over Norway
Northern lights (aurora borealis) are a natural phenomenon caused by solar eruptions. It is often associated to the far North and winter, but can be seen at any time of year and at almost any place. However, it's best observed during the dark winter months in a belt around the magnetic pole at a distance of about 2,500 km called the auroral zone, which includes parts of Canada, Alaska, Siberia, Greenland, Iceland, and Scandinavia. Svalbard, where the pictures are from, lies in the periphery of this belt, meaning the mainland of Norway actually is a better place to see northern lights. On the southern hemisphere, the similar phenomenon is called aurora australis and happens simultaneously with the northern lights.
About 3000 polar bears live on Svalbard, the highest concentration on the planet. Though the Svalbard archipelago is large, bumping into a polar bear is not that unlikely. Any journey outside the town of Longyearbyen requires you to carry a firearm - and know how to use it. A hunting rifle is preferred, but you should at least have a flare gun and spray. If you encounter a polar bear and it sees you, try to scare it right away. Jump, shout, growl and wave your arms. If that doesn't work, try to shoot the flare gun righ in front of it (not into the air), and in worst case scenario shoot the bear with the rifle you hopefully are carrying. Even inside town you are not totally safe, since curious polar bears have in the past ventured into settlements which can have dire consequences - and not just for the bear. So when come to Svalbard, take the polar bear danger seriously.
Pulpit Rock / Preikestolen
604 m above Lysefjord
This place illustrates well why Norway is the king of fjords. After a couple of hours of scenic hiking, you finally reach the flat slab of rock that hangs dramatically with a 604 m sheer drop to the fjord below. Besides giving you a good dose of vertigo, it also offers a great view over neighbouring peaks and Lysefjord with its vertical walls to all sides. If you're lucky, you will even see the mad BASE jumpers throw themselves over the edge only with a parachute on their back.
Despite being Norway's fourth largest city, Stavanger has more of a small town feel. The quaint, walkable streets abound with cafes and restaurants ensuring that any visit to Stavanger must coincide with a meal or drinks with friends and laughs. With highlights like Norway's oldest (untouched) cathedral (St. Svithun's cathedral), the colourful old centre (Gamle Stavanger) and a lake that is totally windsurf ready, there is plenty to occupy the traveller. Not to mention MaiJazz, Stavanger's international jazz festival in May. But perhaps Stavanger is more famous for being the gateway to the Lysefjord and 2 of Norway's most popular day hikes, Preikestolen and Kjerag.