Among travelers, Norway is known primarily as a destination for adventure (or at least active) travel. But for those (like us) who are a little less active or adventurous, there is the Nutshell. This popular route through one of Norway’s most famous fjords, the Sognefjord, was at the top of our Norway bucket list, but we also knew that there was a lot more to see than could be done in the typical nine-hour whirlwind trip. So we rented a car and saw the best of the Nutshell along with plenty more beautiful sights it doesn’t touch, in what may well end up being our favorite trip from our third year living in Europe.
What is Norway in a Nutshell and where does it take you?
Norway in a Nutshell is the nickname given to the popular bus-train-ferry journey between Norway’s two largest cities, Oslo and Bergen. This nine-hour trip across the country takes you through one of Norway’s best-known fjords, the Sognefjord. (You may hear/see reference to Norway in a Nutshell taking you through the Aurlandsfjord and/or Næroyfjord. Don’t worry—I’m not giving you bad information! Both of those are arms of the Sognefjord and thus better describe the specific area you are visiting. But it is all part of the same region.) And there you will experience some of the most iconic views in Norway, which will likely have you walking around saying “Wow. Wow. Wow.” Just like Luca did.
The five legs of the Norway in a Nutshell trip (when embarking from Oslo) are as follows: (1) take the train five hours and approximately halfway across the country to Myrdal; (2) take another train (the Flåmsbana) down the mountain from Myrdal to Flåm; (3) take a ferry 2 hours from Flåm to Gudvangen; (4) take a bus one hour from Gudvangen to Voss; and (5) take the train one more hour from Voss to Bergen. The journey can be completed as a single-day connection between those two cities (or even as a roundtrip if you don’t care to really explore Bergen) or you can do it more slowly, spending the night in the Aurland/Flåm area. You could even spend the night in Balestrand instead, which is connected to Flåm and Bergen by high-speed boat.
Although we’d taken the train from Oslo to Bergen, we’d never actually done the Norway in a Nutshell tour or visited the Sognefjord. But I always recommend the tour to friends and family visiting Norway, and it was on our Norway bucket list from the time we moved here. It is, after all, the easiest way to get a taste of the natural beauty that Norway is known for. Not only is the trip fairly quick, but you do not have to be an outdoor adventurer to enjoy it. Since you mostly experience it from within a vehicle, you just need to like to look.
The Norway in a Nutshell trip can be purchased as a package, you can buy tickets for each leg independently, or you can do what we did and drive. While the latter might not cover the exact same route, if you have a little extra time, it is a great way to see more of the country at a much more enjoyable pace.
Our Version of Norway in a Nutshell
Day 1: Oslo to Aurland via Borgund Stave Church
We left Oslo early-ish on our first day, partially because we were excited and partially because we had a long day of driving ahead of us. Almost six hours, in fact, and that was without the hour-long detour caused by the GPS sending us to the wrong dog hotel.
A couple of hours after we dropped Bella off, the scenery started to change. What was once low, green, rolling hills gradually turned into craggy mountains. (Do they count as mountains? They aren’t actually that tall, but they are taller than hills. So I guess that makes them mountains.) Then, a series of switchbacks as the road dipped down toward the fjord.
At the bottom of the hill, we pulled to the side of the road, just like the dozen or so cars around us. A sign indicated we had come to our first stop, so we started to follow the small crowd.
The first thing I saw was a modern-looking visitor center up ahead. “Wait a second,” I thought. Isn’t this supposed to be a medieval church? Maybe I misunderstood and it’s just ruins. But then, just beyond and to the right, a small, black church appeared in the field, surrounded by gravestones.
The thing about stave churches is how unassuming and peaceful they seem. Even when, as in the case of the Borgund Stave Church, they are (reasonably) large and ornate. Whereas the ornateness of a stone church makes it feel larger than life, overpowering, the ornateness of this wooden stave church brought with it the feeling of calm that simpler wooden churches can’t evoke.
We went to the visitor center to buy tickets and then continued to the church. I was surprised by how small it was. Not from the outside, but once you’d stepped over the threshold. From the outside it seemed like a reasonable size, no different than the more modern church a few hundred meters away. But once inside, I wondered why they would even bother. Surely not more than a couple dozen people could have worshipped in here?
Except, apparently, they did. The English-language brochure didn’t go into numbers, but from the description of gender-segregated mass, it definitely gave that impression.
As we stepped out of the church, it started to rain. Not that heavily, but definitely not a drizzle. “Oh, dear,” I thought. “What was I thinking? Why don’t we have waterproof shoes?” I looked down at my flip-flop-clad feet and felt like a horribly ill-equipped traveler.
As we climbed into our car, the rain stopped. “That’s convenient,” I thought. Especially because we wouldn’t actually be exposed to the elements for long anyway. You see, to get to our final destination, we’d have to drive through Norway’s longest tunnel (and the longest car tunnel in Europe).
At just shy of 25 km in length, Lærdalstunnelen feels like it is never going to end. Several times we’d see light up ahead and I’d think that it was coming to an end, but no. It was just some entertainment—simulated Northern Lights—for the vehicles driving through.
Almost immediately upon exiting the tunnel, the voice of the GPS announced that we needed to turn right—onto a bridge that was barely wide enough for a car. On the other side, in the distance, I could see a modern wood building flanked by some more traditional ones.
“That must be it,” I said to no one.
A little detective work by Fernando had led us to book a few nights at 29|2 Aurland, a beautiful little inn with farm-to-table meals, a family-like atmosphere, and a giant trampoline presided over by a stunning waterfall. (The things you come to appreciate when traveling with a toddler…) That night we enjoyed a delicious if pricey dinner with fellow travelers from the United States and Australia before heading to bed.
Day 2: Flåm, Gudvangen, and Undredal
Trying to decide what to do on our first full day in Aurland wasn’t easy. Would Luca prefer the ferry or the train?
I went back and forth, back and forth, trying to figure that one out, but to no avail. It was only when I started reading recommendations to take the Flåmsbana early in the morning that the decision was made—we would start our vacation by sleeping in and taking a leisurely ferry ride in the afternoon.
Since we didn’t have to be anywhere in the morning, we were able to enjoy a leisurely breakfast at the hotel chatting about our plans with the new friends we had made the night before. After that, the kids all went outside to jump on the trampoline for a while before it was time to head out—us for lunch at Marianne Bakeri og Kafe (recommended by the hotel staff) and the ferry, them for a hike and rowing.
Designated by Rick Steves as the highlight of the Norway in a Nutshell tour, a cruise of the Næroyfjord is definitely something you should do if you are in the area. We opted for the 2-hour, one-way passenger ferry between Flåm and Gudvangen. Once there, our plan was to wander around the Viking Village for a bit before taking the bus back to Flåm. But we ended up skipping the tourist trap that is the Viking Village (although some people do like it) and instead just eating at the cafeteria and taking some quick pictures from the dock—because this is where you’ll find the most amazing view in the Sognefjord, the one that you probably saw dozens of times during your planning.
The problem with this plan was that as a result, we didn’t buy bus tickets back to Flåm in advance since we didn’t know what time we’d want to leave. And that almost meant waiting a couple of hours for an available seat. So if we do it again, we will most likely do a roundtrip boat ride on one of the premium boats from The Fjords. But at a minimum, we’ll book a bus ticket since we now know you don’t really need more than a few minutes in Gudvangen.
By the time we got back to our car, it was time to start thinking about dinner. Not because we were particularly hungry yet, but because Luca can go from not hungry to starving in about 10 seconds flat. Never convenient, but particularly problematic when you’re on vacation in a remote area without regular access to snack foods.
Since we’d told the hotel we wouldn’t be joining them for dinner that night, we decided to head over to Undredal. Known primarily for its goat cheeses (brown and white available) this is also the home of the smallest church in Northern Europe. We walked up to the little church but weren’t able to go inside because it was already closed for the day. Instead, we headed back down the hill to the Fjord Café, where Luca and Fernando got pasta Bolognese made with goat meat and I had some reindeer while we made friends with a family visiting from Germany.
Day 3: Flåmsbana and swimming in Aurlandsfjord
One of the wonderful things about our vacation was that each day ended up being a little better than the one before. This was especially true in the Sognefjord, where comparisons could more fairly be made.
On our second full day, we got up early to take the Flåmsbana train from Flåm to Myrdal and back. We took it first thing to avoid the crowds, but that meant that Huldra (a forest nymph from Scandinavian mythology) hadn’t started performing yet. If that matters to you—including if you are just a little curious about this odd tourist attraction like I was—choose a departure after 9 a.m.
After the train deposited us back in Flåm, we went to a playground overlooking the fjord so Luca could climb around while we waited for it to be late enough for lunch. The playground is right across from the Ægir Bryggeripub, which every blog post about the region seemed to mention, so we decided to go there. My expectations were not very high, partially because I was suspicious since it was the only place recommended by bloggers and partially because of the touristy sounding “Viking menu.” As it turns out, though, it is actually quite good. Fernando got the pork neck, Luca had pulled chicken from the children’s menu, and I had an open-faced pulled pork sandwich, which was extra messy but tasty enough to be worth it. Since I knew I wouldn’t be driving, I also tried one of their beers which was nice and smooth.
After lunch, it was time for Luca’s nap so we headed back to Aurland. When he woke up, he insisted we go swimming, so the lovely hotel staff recommended we go to a swimming hole cut into the fjord in the center of town. The water was ice cold so after a quick dip of the toes, Fernando and I stayed on the shore. But the view was out of this world. The families who get to come here regularly are so lucky!
Once again, we had told the hotel that we wouldn’t be there for dinner, and as a result, we were left scrambling. There aren’t many restaurants in the area, so after a rather frustrating search, we headed back to Flåm to the Flåmstova Restaurant. We were almost turned away because we didn’t have a reservation but they were *somehow* able to squeeze us in at the near-empty restaurant. Run by the same people who operate the Ægir Brewery Pub, this is a slightly more sophisticated place (though you can still dress very casually) where we were able to find Luca’s protein of choice—octopus—in a country that isn’t exactly known for it.
A couple notes about Flåmsbanen
First, the side of the train you sit on really doesn’t matter. Although I’d read that the view was better if you sat on the right when leaving Flåm, I really didn’t think there was a significant difference, and if you sit on the right, you will miss some things. Of course, one way to avoid this problem is to ride the Flåmsbana round-trip, which is what we did. Second, buy your tickets direct from NSB. When I initially tried to buy tickets through the Visit Flåm website, it said they were sold out, but there were still tickets available through the state railway. Friends have reported the same problem.
Day 4: Stegastein Viewpoint, the Norwegian Glacier Museum, and Balestrand
The next morning we were off to our next stop on the Sognefjord—Balestrand. In some ways it was good timing as our friends from the first night at 29|2 Aurland had checked out and the new guests were…not as nice. (The downside of staying in a little place like this is that your experience depends at least in part on the other guests.)
First stop of the day was Stegastein Viewpoint. Since it was (in theory) only about a 20-minute drive away, we’d originally planned on stopping by the evening before, but our German friends in Undredal had warned us that the sun would be in our eyes, destroying the view. So morning it was.
The only problem was that between packing, eating breakfast, etc., “morning” ended up being closer to noon. And while we got up there okay (although it took more like 30 minutes) the drive down was kind of a disaster. The viewpoint is accessible only by a one-lane road and it is very apparent that the vast majority of the tourists making the drive have never been on one before as they had no idea who had the right-of-way or where to place their cars. (As someone who failed the Norwegian driving test, I was very bothered that these people were allowed to drive here but I am not.) Add to that the large number of tour buses and people dragging trailers behind their vehicles and it’s no surprise that it took more than an hour for us to get back down to the main road. But that some random guy that lives in the neighborhood had to come out and direct traffic (and even drive someone’s car around a bend!) not once but twice because of the standstill is.
So be warned, and if you can, go really early in the morning But don’t skip Stegastein. The view really is amazing. And as a bonus, the public toilet has a window overlooking the fjord so you can get a slightly different angle.
After that, we were off to Balestrand, by way of the Glacier Museum. We didn’t actually go into the latter and instead just took pictures with the mammoth sculptures and looked at the glacier through the telescope. I was quite disappointed when we found out that all of the easy glacier walks were several hours away by car—in the opposite direction of where we needed to go. I was pretty disappointed that I didn’t realize this during planning because a glacier walk was on a neighbor’s “top two list.” So I made sure to grab a map showing the various walks so I could plan our route better if we make it out here again.
What About the Rest of the Nutshell?
Although we saw them much more in-depth than you could during a nine-hour race, this only actually covers two of the five legs of the Norway in a Nutshell trip. Of the remaining three, we had already experienced two of them when we took the train from Oslo to Bergen last October. And there’s a reason why it is considered one of the most beautiful train rides in Europe. You travel high into the mountains where it is covered in snow even in (almost) summer.
The only part of the Norway in a Nutshell tour that we haven’t done is the Gudvangen-Voss bus. Overall it is supposed to be one of the least scenic parts of the journey, although the view of the fjord from Stalheim Hotel might be worth it. (But then again, we saw some pretty spectacular views from the swimming hole, Balestrand, and later near Geirangerfjord, so maybe not.) That the route includes the steepest road in Norway featuring a series of switchbacks and a pair of waterfalls is somewhat appealing, though after our Stegastein experience, I’m not sure.
What else might road trippers want to see?
There is so much to see and do in the Sognefjord, I’m sure that you could spend weeks and just barely scratch the surface. And I suspect that part of the reason that the Nutshell is so popular (other than that it is quick) is that it doesn’t even hint at many of those things, and so you don’t regret missing them.
But if you have a car and more time, consider visiting Balestrand, the Nigard Glacier, and/or the Urnes Stave Church. The first of those was a highlight of our trip, and the other two are the two places that I’m thinking about going back to visit.
Have you been to the Sognefjord? Did you drive or take the train/bus?