Norway surged onto the family travel radar after the release of Disney’s Frozen, whose fictitious country is based on Norway. The fascination that began with the movie has continued because Norway is a friendly, safe-feeling adventure destination filled with natural wonders. A Norway itinerary for families includes hiking on glaciers, animal adventures like visiting goat and deer farms, and action-packed rib boat rides in the fjords. All of this is set against a backdrop of lush landscapes and fjords dotted with colorful houses and waterfalls.
Most first time visitors with a week to 10 days arrive in Oslo, concentrate the bulk of their time in the fjord region and fly home from Bergen. The trip can also be done in reverse.
The first step in planning a Norway family vacation is to choose how you will travel: by cruise, by car or by well-connected public ferries and trains in packaged tours like the popular Norway in a Nutshell tours. Regardless of the transportation, the key with kids is to avoid “fjordom” — a mix of too many long ferry rides on gorgeous fjords with nothing to do but admire the scenery. What makes the fjords fun with kids are the interesting towns, excursions and activities that complement the natural beauty.
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I worked with Visit Norway and Fjord Norway to create a 10-day road trip with my son that included Oslo, Bergen and several towns in the fjords. Though nervous about navigating solo with my teenage son, it turns out that driving in Norway is easy, especially with Google Maps. Norwegians are helpful and most speak English if there are questions.
Choosing a hotel near the city center and waterfront makes it easy to walk to the harbor on arrival day, when everyone may be feeling sluggish. During summer, street performers pop up to entertain the crowds. We loved the Grand Hotel Oslo for its location and stylish indoor pool.
With only one full day in the city, head to Bygdøy. This picturesque small peninsula near the city center, reached by boat or bus, is home to many of Oslo’s museums, including those that will most appeal to kids. The Oslo Pass is a good value for families who intend to visit multiple museums, and it includes public transport in the city center. Get an early start and head to the open-air Norwegian Folk Museum first, then the Viking Ship Museum. Wrap up with the Kon-Tiki Museum and the Polar Ship Farm, which are next to each other. The folk museum has a sit-down cafe and works well for lunch.
The Norwegian fjords are long, narrow sea inlets between mountains carved by glaciers and ringed by spectacular waterfalls. Green valleys with villages and small towns are nestled along the shore. Water activities, hiking and area excursions are easy to access.
Flam is the first stop on the self-guided Sogneford in a Nutshell tour, which takes guests from Olso to Bergen. The Sogneford is the longest fjord in Norway (and second in the world only to the Scoresby Sund in Greenland), with fingers of smaller fjords stretching in all directions. Flam is a tiny town that is extremely popular in the summer because it sits at the end of the Nærøyfjord, a UNESCO World Heritage site and considered by many the most scenic fjord in Norway. It’s also a busy cruise ship destination. A highlight here with kids is taking a rib boat safari tour, which zooms around the fjord in search of porpoises and seals.
If self-driving, consider visiting Skjolden (pronounced Sholden). It’s a small town with a very local feel on the end of the Lustrafjord, another finger of the Sognefjord and a good half day-plus drive from Oslo. From here, families can take a rib boat ride with Adventure Tours Norway, visit a deer farm and the oldest Stave church in Norway in the tiny hamlet of Urnes, and hike on the Nigardsbreen Glacier (best for older kids).
Surrounded by snow-capped peaks, ringed with hiking trails and boasting a walkabout downtown, Balestrand wins travelers’ hearts. The local church, St. Olaf’s, inspired another famous chapel in Frozen and has a surprisingly challenging puzzle sheet inside for visitors. The compact downtown has the Sognefjord Aquarium, which showcases local fish, as well as a foodie-worthy bakery. There’s also fishing on the fjords, a self-guided walking tour around town with Viking grave mounds, a tiny beach, a cider house for adults, and a famous don’t-miss seafood buffet at the Kviknes Hotel.
Balestrand is a good base for a day trip on the ferry to Fjaerland and the Fjaerland Glacier Museum, which is at the base of the Jostedalsbreen National Park and has engaging hands-on science experiments for kids and adults. After the museum, continue on the tour to the Boyabreen Glacier for glacier viewing (but no hiking), or catch a bus back to town and browse the bookshops that the town is known for.
The drive from Balestrand to Bergen over the Vikafjellet mountains is an otherworldly experience and was a highlight of our trip. The remoteness and winter remnants of ice-covered lakes in June, along with gushing waterfalls and meandering sheep in the middle of the road, caused us to pull over various times in wonder.
Bergen is anchored in maritime history and the outdoors, and for a city that receives more than 200 days of rain a year, it’s impressive to see how exercise and the parks play into daily life. Bergen, like Oslo, has a long list of museums and attractions, and the Bergen Card is a good value for families sightseeing for a couple of days.
Bergen has the perfect mix of sightseeing for families. Pair a morning of museums and hands-on activities with an afternoon in nature via the Fløibanen funicular, which zooms guests up the mountain in six minutes to hiking trails and spectacular views. And for teens who like to shop, there are interesting local stores in Bryggen, the waterfront row of old fish warehouses that once was the heart of fishing economy built by the Hanseatic league. The Norwegian Fisheries Museum and the Hanseatic Museum provide a good overview of the fishing industry and how merchants lived. Staying near the waterfront is the most convenient for walking to sites and restaurants, including the fish market, and an umbrella is essential.
Norway has a reputation for being an expensive country, but is it really? After spending 10 days staying in hotels, participating in activities and eating out, the answer is yes, but with a caveat. Compared to other European countries where Ciao Bambino plans travel, the hotels and activities are not significantly more expensive — it’s the food. There’s no way around it; however, the food is expensive for Norwegians too, so options like gourmet delis, pizzerias and only-in-Norway disposable grills at the groceries (complete with meats and vegetables) help families lower the costs.
Norway is easier than ever to access with the recent addition of Norwegian Air into the U.S. market. There is nonstop service to Oslo from various U.S. destinations on new 787 Dreamliners. Comfortable planes with enough in-seat entertainment to amuse all ages for the entire flight, combined with low fares and a service-focused culture, is opening up Norway for more families. Bergen also has connections to Oslo and around Europe.
Editor’s Note: Ciao Bambino received a media package to review Norway for families. As always, our opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino. Photos by Kristi Marcelle.
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