Surely one of Europe’s most scenic countries, Norway is a favorite summertime cruising destination. Long, narrow fjords make small towns set deep within the country accessible by large ship, while museums and stave churches open a window onto Viking history and culture.
A lot of comparisons can be made with a cruise to Alaska, a destination familiar to many travelers. But unlike Alaska’s Inside Passage, where three primary ports are visited by the vast majority of ships on seven-day itineraries, cruises to Norway offer a greater variety of ports and itineraries. While the major ports in Alaska are clogged with jewelry merchants, in Norway there’s far less emphasis on shopping, and some of the towns have just a few hundred inhabitants. It’s the ideal confluence of charm and spectacle.
Norway is one of the world’s most expensive countries for travelers. Disembarking in port to have a drink or scratch that shopping itch can be quite a shock. Cruises here are priced somewhat higher than those to Alaska, but a cruise still provides an excellent way to experience Norway’s coastal regions without breaking the bank.
The annual cruise season starts in May with the last sailings departing in early September. Most cruises don’t generally begin or end in Oslo, Norway’s capital. Instead, they launch from England (usually Southampton or Dover), Copenhagen, Amsterdam, or Rotterdam. While the majority of itineraries stick to the fjords of southwest Norway, a few weave their way to Europe’s northernmost point. Others incorporate visits to Baltic ports such as Stockholm and St. Petersburg.
Of the major lines catering to the North American market, Holland America has far and away the greatest presence here, with Cunard, Celebrity, Norwegian, Princess, and Royal Caribbean offering several sailings each summer. Owing to the popularity of the hit movie Frozen, Disney Cruise Line started offering Norway cruises in 2015. Upscale lines Azamara, Oceania, Regent, Seabourn, Silversea, Viking and Windstar all have a presence, and European ships from P&O, Costa and MSC offer plenty of Norway cruises.
Oslo and Bergen
Planted at the end of a 60-mile-long fjord, Oslo is Norway’s economic, political and cultural hub, set against a backdrop of verdant mountains and quiet coves. The capital is home to 600,000 residents—but almost 1.5 million when the greater metropolitan area is included. It is both one of Europe’s smallest capitals as well as one of the fastest growing. Petty crime is an issue in Oslo, and Rick Steves says pickpockets are particularly a problem “in crowds on the streets and in subways and buses.” Correspondingly, Oslo has also earned the dubious distinction of being the world’s most expensive city, according to a 2012 report by UBS.
There’s a fine collection of museums in Oslo, starting with the National Gallery which features more than 50 works by artist Edvard Munch, including a version of his iconic painting “The Scream” (just beyond the city center, the Munch Museum is home to the largest collection of artist’s work). The 75-acre Frogner Park holds a collection of 200 sculptures by Gustav Vigeland—it’s free and beloved by locals and visitors alike. The Norwegian Folk Museum is a display of more than 150 historic buildings from around the country, restored and relocated to a 35-acre park; the reassembled stave church dating to 1212 is a highlight.
Norway’s history also comes to life at the Viking Ship Museum, with two elegant oak Viking ships dating from the 9th and 10th centuries; the Kon-Tiki Museum celebrates the 1947 expedition by Thor Heyerdahl—the original balsa wood raft is on display. Just outside the city center, Hollmenkollen is a ski jump originally built in 1892. No skiing in summer, but you can try a ride that simulates bolting downhill at 81 miles per hour.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, Bergen served as the capital of Scandinavia. Today Bergen is Norway’s second-largest city, nestled between lush mountains, inlets and islands. It’s also a gateway to some of the fjords splintering Norway’s west coast.
The original 900-year-old wharf Bryggen is a World Heritage site, marked by 62 colorful buildings leaning this way and that, now filled with shops and fronted by cafés. The Hanseatic Museum tells the fascinating story of the German merchants that inhabited and traded in Bryggen—a visit to this restored home is a trip back in time. Much of Bergen can be explored on foot, but spring for the funicular ride to the top of Mt. Fløyen where sweeping views of the gently buzzing city are revealed from more than 1000 feet above. Slightly out of town but also worth visiting is the home of Edvard Grieg, Norway’s most noteworthy composer, who spent his last summers in Bergen, composing from a little cottage overlooking the water.
Norway is Scandinavia’s most mountainous region and it also has the world’s highest concentration of fjords, deep channels that represent the retreating tracks of the last ice age. The fjords are primarily found along Norway’s west coast. The first major port, starting in the south, is Stavanger. It’s set near the entrance to Lysefjord, home of Pulpit Rock, the spectacular perch 1800 feet above the fjord. Cosmopolitan Stavanger is worth exploring, especially for the surprisingly engaging Norwegian Petroleum Museum (Norway being one of the world’s top oil producers) and an Emigration Center, for those who wish to explore their Viking roots.
Continuing up the coast from Bergen, the next major inlet is Sognefjord, the world’s third longest fjord—3,000-foot mountains rise alongside the 127-mile-long channel. There are several ports within Sognefjord. At the village of Flåm, a spectacular 12-mile train journey leads up to Myrdal, an hour away, or one can explore the majestic Nærøyfjord nearby—check into water safaris by Zodiac. Along with Geirangerfjord, 75 miles north, Nærøyfjord is cited by UNESCO as a World Heritage site for its exceptional natural beauty. Another arm of Sognefjord leads to tiny Skjolden, the innermost port in Norway. From here, cruisers can visit the largest glacier in continental Europe or tour Norway’s oldest stave church.
The port of Ålesund was razed by a terrible fire in 1904, but the silver lining was that much of the rebuilding was done in the popular Art Nouveau style of the time, lending a charming, fairy-tale quality to the town center, through buildings capped by turrets and spires, and peering gargoyles. The Atlantic Ocean Park features a 1.1-million-gallon aquarium that showcases cold-water denizens of the deep. The journey inland along Geirangerfjord is spellbinding, with long-abandoned farms precariously clutching the steep, seemingly inaccessible slopes above. Backed by thundering waterfalls, Geiranger itself is a postcard-perfect settlement at the head of the fjord; the town’s year-round population is just 250, but 300,000 visitors arrived by cruise ship in 2012. Coach tours make up the bulk of shore excursions here, but excellent opportunities for independent hiking and kayaking are available.
The Far North
More ambitious cruisers might enjoy heading to the distant northern reaches of Norway. Situated 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the bracing mountain scenery of the Lofoton Islands is both idyllic and imposing. Serving as the commercial hub of the seven-island archipelago, Leknes is also the main cruise port of call, and those seeking recreational pursuits such as fishing, birdwatching, rafting, hiking and cycling may be richly rewarded, bathed as they are by the midnight sun each summer.
Tromsø is wrapped by snow-laden peaks. The panoramic view is best-appreciated from Storsteinen Mountain, reached by cable car. Tromsø is home to the indigenous Sami people, who have their own language and culture, along with herds of reindeer. Some 1500 miles north of Bergen, the last village before the North Cape is Honningsvag, a fishing settlement where visitors can embark on a king crab safari or try dog-sledding. From here’s it’s a 22-mile drive to the North Cape, a striking, 1,007-foot-high perch offering views to the Barents Sea. Although commonly referred to as Europe’s most northerly point, a quick look at a map reveals that neighboring Knivskjellodden point is slightly farther north—but who’s quibbling?
The truly adventurous can check out cruises that head even further north, to the Svalbard Archipelago, halfway between Norway and the North Pole. About 2,500 people live here, but they’re outnumbered by polar bears. Svalbard offers nature at its extremes, with jagged mountain ramparts sliced by fjords and robed in ice, and polar foxes, arctic birds, seals and walruses—truly the back of beyond.
Updated February 13, 2016 to include ships for the 2016 season.