How To Road Trip Fjord Norway
You know those people who struggle with names but can always remember a face? I also forget faces. If I’m totally honest with myself, I never could really dunk a basketball. I often only have two examples when three would be better.
Point is, I’m not perfect. But there is one thing I’m better at than almost everyone — well, two if we count Connect Four — and that road tripping through western Norway cheaply. Here’s my accumulated wisdom on how to do that, oh who am I kidding, you’re not reading this, you’ve skipped to the first bolded part already.
Before You Go
Visit Visit Norway
Since they apparently have more oil money than they know what to do with, someone in Norway’s government has set up the greatest tourism website in the world. Also, if you email them, they’ll send you some maps for free! You won’t use them because they’re paper maps and it’s 2017, but everyone likes maps. Put them on your wall or something.
Absorb the Culture
You can learn pretty much everything you need to know about Norway from this Wikipedia page on a concept called “Slow television.” They literally put some cameras on a train for seven hours and 20% of the population of Norway watched it.
However, you can also check out a few of my favorite Norweigan books and movies, to get you in the mood: Buzz Aldrin: What Happened To You In All The Confusion? is a great book about a depressed guy who idolizes Buzz Aldrin, Oslo, August 31 is a great movie about a depressed guy who is battling drug addiction. Though it’s not all doom and gloom — Headhunters is a book by Jo Nesbo which was also a dope action flick starring Jamie Lannister that involves art thievery.
The best guides for getting a feel for the place are The Almost Nearly Perfect People, which gives a broad overview of Scandinavia from a British guy’s perspective and One of Us by Asne Seierstad about the Anders Breivik massacre and its aftermath. It’s terribly sad, but provides a sense of the uniqueness of Norwegian civic society.
Familiarize Yourself with Western Norway
Maybe you’ve made it this far and don’t really know what there is in western Norway. The answer, mostly, is fjords. They’re unlike anything you’ll see in the contiguous United States. Fjords are long, narrow inlets with mountains on either side of them.
Continue doing research about other things you can do on your trip. Check out a stave church! Or decide you’d rather do nature stuff the whole time!TripAdvisor is a great resource for things to do, and Airbnb is terrific for finding places to stay. Just looking at Google Maps and wondering what specific landmarks you see can be useful. But be clear what this trip isn’t: it is not visiting Oslo and it is not seeing the Northern Lights. If you want to do those things, you’ll have to go way out of the way.
Learn to Love Google Flights and Expedia
Assuming you don’t already live in western Norway, you are going to fly there, and assuming you’re going to fly there, keep in mind the good people at Google thought it was worth spending $700 million to buy the company that was good at sorting flights, and you get to use it for free. Neat! You can use it to plan a multi-part trip that goes through various parts of Europe, using almost certainly the best option will be a flight via Norwegian Air.
Look at these prices below! If you’re like me, you will waste an inordinate amount of time considering weird things that you’ll never end up doing (#GoneButNotForgotten, my fake trip to the Faroe Islands), but in general, you can fly to Oslo or Bergen direct from either the east or west coast for pretty good prices. Look at them!
The good news also is that these will be red eyes in all likelihood, so you’ll be arriving during the day. So that’s fun!
As far as renting a car goes… it’s the way to go here. Rather than futzing with train schedules and whatnot, you can just drive! Make sure you get an automatic unless you are confident you can 2 Fast 2 Furious your way around. Also, if you’re tall and/or have back pain, get a suitable car to deal with that. You’re going to be spending a not insignificant amount of time in there. Be comfortable! I’m man enough to admit that we very much enjoyed our Volvo, even if it did beep in a very judgmental way any time we approached a lane (and yes we drove a Swedish car in Norway).
Bring a Bunch Of Food
I enjoyed my visit to Norway for many reasons, but I must admit the food was not one of them.The food in Norway is as expensive (very!) as it is bad (also very!) Not kidding! For some reason one of the top options is eating at 7–11. Like, picture those weird hot dog rolly machines and imagine regularly choosing to eat there. So bring as much stuff on the plane as you can reasonably fit. In general, plan your food in advance. My traveling partner and I, for example, ate a lot of hard-boiled eggs. They were nutritious and inexpensive and easy to eat in the car.
There are also far more sheep than grocery stores, so it’s a good idea to load up when you see one. The food isn’t going to be good, so you might as well just load up at a grocery store and have a bunch of pb&j’s. If you’re feeling really adventurous, the grocery stores all have a distressing amount of tubed foodstuffs. I regret not trying the caviar.
Other Things to Know:
° There are automated speeding monitors pretty much everywhere, and I found this horrifying website that made it seem like you can go to jail for speeding. Without admitting guilt to any crimes (I’d like to go back someday!), I will not rule out the possibility that I went over the speed limit and did not receive any punishment. Still, be careful.
° There are a lot of tolls. They’ll just happen automatically and be tacked onto your rental at the end. Not a huge deal, these should be well under $50 total.
° Literally everyone speaks English.
° You will basically never need cash, unless you’re doing a bed and breakfast (which can be a good call if they provide breakfast). Make sure you have a no-fee credit card for use overseas.
° You’ll notice that all these pictures are pretty sunny. We were very fortunate to have good weather in a country that gets rain 270 days a year. Nonetheless, we did get some rain, and sometimes, particularly on the ferry rides, the air was just sort of wet. So plan accordingly.
° Norway has the second-highest number of Teslas in the world because 1) they’re rich, 2) they’re concerned about the environment and maybe feel a touch guilty about their massive oil wealth and 3) you get to drive in the carpool lane if you have an electric car. This isn’t really helpful for arranging your trip, but maybe you find it interesting.
° The driving itself actually isn’t so bad. Beyond being unbelievably scenic, Occasional ferry rides mean you don’t have to spend all the time sitting behind the wheel of your car. Also, it’s a pretty difficult country to get lost in, as your car will likely have a GPS (probably insist on that), but there just aren’t a lot of decisions you have to make on the road. For the most part you just go. The one thing that was a bit of a stressor was that the roads can sometimes be narrow, to the point of being one-lane for traffic going in two directions.
Day 1: Arrive in Bergen, Do Bergen Stuff
Bergen is kinda whatever! It’s a fine enough city, but feels mostly like a stop for cruise ships, which indeed it is. It is the natural launching off point for any Fjord trip, and it’s where the airport is, so you’ll have to go here unless you’re coming from Oslo. We enjoyed walking around the hills outside the city, and past the leprosy museum. Go into town, check out the fish market and Bryggen (refers to the historical dock part of Bergen, pictured above. It’s not exactly untouched by time unless there was a Radisson there in 1600), get to bed and prepare for your tomorrow.
We stayed at Kalfarlien Guesthouse, which was a touch outside the city and up the hill, with a great look down into the city. People like the funicular, which does seem fun, but also seems like a convenient excuse to say the word “funicular,” which, fair enough.
Day 2: Fjords! Bergen to Rosendal via Flam
So, once you’ve left Bergen, it’s FJORD TIME, BABY, YEAH! This is the main point of your trip, so pay attention! On the way to your first fjord, hop out and check out the Tvindefossen waterfall. It’s literally off the side of the road. In fact, lots of good things in Norway are literally off the side of the road.
If you’ve never seen the fjords, it’s truly incredible. We went to Flam and did the Fjordsafari, which was the most expensive thing we did on the trip but well worth it. You get out on a little boat and get to go into the fjord, and have a guide who tells you about the landscape and creatures of the fjords. I’m not exactly Ansel Adams over here, but this is pretty incredible:
That’s the Naerøyfjord, which is in fact the narrowest fjord in Norway and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but oddly enough, “Naerøy” does not translate as “narrow,” and per Wikipedia was an inspiration for something called “Arendelle” in the movie Frozen, which I would know more about, but I’m an childless adult.
Along the way, you will see small cheese-producing towns up in the hills along the fjord, and if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll see a porpoise too (we did!).
For what it’s worth, the town of Flam is kinda a touristy nonsense town with cruise ships and whatnot pulling up, so do the Fjordsafari and then hit the road again. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to drive to Stegastein and through the Hardangervidda, and even more unfortunately, shortly thereafter all the reindeer died when lightning exploded them. Nonetheless, the drive is pretty! Look at some random place where we took a bathroom break:
The drive is long and full of sheep (if you see more people than sheep in Norway, you’ve done your trip incorrectly), and includes the possibility to buy roadside plums from random sheds being sold on the honor system because Norway has a very trusting civic character, which is nice.
We considered doing a glacier hike on Folgefonna, but honestly, it looked sort of underwhelming relative to the fjords, and as my travel companion pointed out, glaciers are just big blocks of ice. And we’ve all seen ice.
At night, we stayed in Rosendal at the Baroniet Rosendal, which was fine — the grounds were pretty except the inn was entirely empty and the actual room had the look and feel of a boys’ school that had been closed down after an incident in a horror movie. (Note: it did used to be a boys’ school). On the plus side, the very nice chef made us a bunch of food because Rosendal is a very small town and both of the two restaurants were closed and probably no other options within an hour’s drive. You might be better served by spending the night in Odda, which also leaves you close to the Trolltunga and Pulpit Rock hikes.
Day 3: Rosendal to Lysebotn
Why are we going to Lysebotn? Because that’s the most convenient place to stay in order to hike Kjerag. Rather than have to take a long ferry from Stavanger or Bergen, you can beat the crowds and get on the mountain early this way.
This drive is very different than the previous day’s fare. Though there is a good mix of fjords at the beginning, eventually you go above the tree line and if you’re lucky, you can catch a rainbow. Additionally, you pretty much stop seeing any other cars or people or houses at a certain point.
There are a few ferries with precise schedules along this trip, so plan your time accordingly. The most important one to account for the ferry from Songesand to Lysebotn, which you should reserve ahead of time because if you miss that, it’s a sad deal where you’re trapped on the wrong side of the fjord until the next day, which is bad. Here’s the schedule, which, helpfully is only available in Norwegian.
Because of we didn’t want to risk missing the ferry, we decided to skip hiking either Vidfoss or Latefoss, but if you’re up bright’n’ early, maybe you can make that work. Instead, we we came across some big ol’ pigs who were very friendly and happy to see us.
We stayed at the Hauane Bed & Breakfast for its close proximity to Kjerag, and arrived in time to walk around the grounds, which were pretty nifty. I particularly enjoyed Kaldahala, or “Cold Cave,” which was just a little opening to a cave that for some science-based reason is unseasonably cold.
Day 3: To Kjerag! And then Stavanger and Skudeneshavn
The most important things to know about the Kjerag hike: It takes 5–6 hours, probably on the lower end if you’re able-bodied, but not like a regular hiker, i.e. the kind of person who has weird shoes and harnesses and walking sticks and whatnot. You can do the hike in a pair of running shoes. If you’re a Norwegian, it seemingly takes like two hours, so if any Norwegians have opinions on how long things take, don’t listen to them, they are wrong — they are simply too good at hiking. Try to stifle your humiliation as you watch elderly people cruise past you.
We were both pretty much ready to quit about five minutes in because I was certain I had made a horrible mistake and this whole thing was going to be slowly inching forward on slippery ground, tugging myself along via chains. Fortunately, I hadn’t made a horrible mistake! The first forty minutes are the most difficult, but after that, it is much more manageable. So don’t quit! Or do! But it seems like a long way to go to quit is all I’m saying!
You can refill your water supply wherever you come across running water, so take advantage of that.
Other than that, it’s somewhat frustrating that the hike is effectively three hills, so you go up, up, up, then undo all your good efforts by going down, only to go back up again. In the end, though, you have to take the scary Kjeragbolten pic:
Supposedly nobody has ever died from falling off Kjeragbolten, which is either true or yet another cover-up by the all-powerful Norwegian Hiking-Industrial Complex. Either way, it’s still scary! You sort of shimmy yourself along, then work your way onto the rock (People with better shoes/balance/courage did this a bit more aggressively than I did). Then you wave and have someone snap your pic.
The hike itself is fun and full of beautiful scenery, sheep who will make you envious of the ease with which they move up the mountain, and generally speaking, not that crowded, which is a plus.
Then, it was on to Stavanger for a meal. The drive out is nothing special, compared to the staggering scenery of the previous few days. We hadn’t heard much to recommend Stavanger (the oil capital of Norway! Complete with a surprisingly aesthetically pleasing petroleum museum) but actually found it to be quite charming and worth a short walk around. A few cobblestones go a long way. In any case, it’s less of a tourist spot than Bergen. The food was perfectly fine — just accept that you’re going to pay $20 or so for a burger and be okay with that.
We decided we wanted to spend our last night somewhere out of the way, so we ended up renting an Airbnb in Skudeneshavn on Karmøy. This was a great choice! Skudeneshavn is a charming little fishing village that seems to be a place where Norwegians vacation to.
This route involves several ferries, but they all run pretty regularly during normal hours.
Day 4: Go home!
If you have time, spend the morning in Skudeneshavn, walking the town and grabbing breakfast. If you’re in a rush and need food, you should stop in Haugesand because there’s not much after that. There a few other minor attractions if you’re like, a huge Edvard Grieg fan or something (shouts to Peer Gynt!), but otherwise, this is it! Four days and you’ve done a good chunk of Fjord Norway. You’ve learned magical Norwegian words like “kong” (king), “tusen takk” (thank you very much) and “fart” (speed). Happy travels!