I have just returned from a fantastisk trip to Norway, incorporating the two biggest cities, majestic fjords and the most beautiful train ride in the world, all within a week. In fact I could have even done the trip in a DAY (if I’d skipped spending time in the cities).
That is because the journey I took was along a well oiled (pun?) route, offered by the Norwegian tourist board as a tour called ‘Norway in a Nutshell’. As the name suggests, you get to experience the best of Norway in a short amount of time, perfect for cruise passengers stopping off in Bergen or Oslo, or anyone else travelling within a limited time frame. It’s also a great way for first time visitors to discover what Norway has to offer, as you will almost certainly want to go back to explore more.
Like many, I’d dreamed of travelling through the world famous Norwegian fjords. Of course Norway has many fjords, but probably the most famous (and scenic) can be seen in Western Norway, many of which are incorporated into this very route. I hadn’t planned to return to Norway so soon (I was only in Oslo a few months prior to this), but desperate for a summer break, the only place I really yearned to visit was Bergen and the wonderful surrounding landscapes.
How I did Norway in Nutshell, on my own
After a little research, the Norway in a Nutshell tour seemed like the easiest and most ideal introduction to the country’s spectacular scenery while keeping to a relatively modest budget.
The thing about this tour is that first and foremost it is not a guided tour. You can book the tour via the official website, but once you’ve received the tickets you essentially do the trip on your own (along with all the other tourists doing the same thing).
For that reason many people choose to go DIY and book the tour themselves, to save money and to gain that little bit extra control over their itinerary. Being the super organised freak that I am, I also went along with this option.
The route I took was Oslo – Myrdal – Flåm – Gudvangen – Voss – Bergen, with stopovers in Flåm and Voss. You can do the trip the other way around, going from Bergen to Oslo, or you can do it as a round trip from either city, getting the train back from Myrdal or Voss instead. The journey involves 3 trains, a boat and a bus.
I started my research using the official Norway in a Nutshell site. The site alone is a great planning resource whether you end up booking through them or not. You can choose your route and whether you want to make overnight stop overs. There is an option to book hotels via the site, although the listings aren’t extensive and you can probably find cheaper alternatives elsewhere.
When I was planning, my route wasn’t available on the tour website (probably because I booked only a few weeks in advance in the peak summer season) so I had no choice but to book the trip myself. One advantage of this was that I could choose my transit times and attempt to avoid the crowds where possible. Though considering everything on this route is timed around the tour, it is pretty inevitable that you will bump into others following the tour (at least in summer).
So after figuring out the route, I was ready to start booking.
Oslo to Myrdal – by train
For the first two (train) legs of my journey, I booked my tickets online through the Norwegian State Railway’s site at nsb.no. The site can be viewed in English and has a straight forward booking process that allows you to print out or download your ticket to the mobile app (warning- you can only download a ticket once to one device, and not if you’ve already opted to print it. So be careful when choosing how you want your ticket). You can also choose your own seat. I chose a window seat on the left side of the train, which fortunately ended up being the side offering the most scenic views.
I booked onto the 8:25am train. It seems this one and the 06:25 train are most popular with Nutshellers, as the first leg of the journey lasts about 4.5 hours.
The first hour or so there isn’t much to see, but at some point lakes and rolling hills suddenly start to appear. My eyes were pretty much glued to the window looking out at the ever changing landscape, from the typical red and yellow wooden houses dotted around green meadows, to deep blue fjords and expanding mountains. At some point I had to get up to take a good look from the other side of the carriage. Thankfully there’s plenty of space to maneuver around in the train, not to mention leave your luggage.
As the journey goes on, the train gradually climbs higher and higher above sea level. Shortly before Myrdal, the train stops at Finse, the highest train station in Norway at 1222 metres above sea level. For the adventurous there are opportunities for hiking, cycling and some skiing here (depending on the time of year) as well as glacier hiking, though this requires a guide. Other than the station and a hotel there is not a lot else for those looking to just jump off the train for a couple of hours. But if you decide you want to do some hiking, you could always inquire in Bergen and take the train from there in about two hours.
Also a fun fact for Star Wars nerds: this is where scenes of Planet Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back were filmed (obviously not in summer).
Myrdal to Flåm – with the Flåm railway
The train station at Myrdal is literally just a train station. If you’re worried about changing trains here, there really is no need to be. The train departs from the opposite platform (travelling in the same direction the last train was heading in) and it waits for all connecting passengers to board. This is where you start to see just how tourist centered this area is. After all the Flåm railway IS a tourist attraction, but it is also part of the national rail network, therefore tickets can be booked on the NSB website.
Being overly cautious, I originally booked a ticket on the train after the next available one, thinking I could spend some time wandering around Myrdal and avoid the crowds. But I discovered the centre of Myrdal is actually much further away and it ended up being much nicer spending that extra time in Flåm instead.
Since I could cancel and apply for a refund on my original ticket, I decided to re-book using the NSB mobile app. I had a moment of panic when I realised the ticket said ‘inactive’ and would only change to ‘active’ (with a scannable QR code) if it was connected to the internet at the time of boarding the train. Living in Germany I’m not accustomed to relying on free wifi on trains (I’m looking at you Deutsche Bahn), but being in Norway, the station luckily DID have free wifi and my ticket became ‘active’ as I boarded (panic over). Though the QR code never did get scanned. The conductor dashed through the carriage so fast, he only had time for a quick glance and managed to miss the person sat opposite me completely. Oh well.
The Flåm railway (or Flåmsbana) is called the most beautiful train journey in the world and while I haven’t been on every train ride in the world, I can vouch for it’s beauty. The interior of the train is in a classic style, with no pre-allocated seating. A screen displays information along with a voice over guide on the history of the Flåm line, telling you which side of the train to look out of. I managed to get a window seat on the left, but both sides offer good views. The train also made a stop at the Kjosfossen waterfall, where everyone was able to get out for 5 minutes to take photos. We even spotted a Hundra dancing and singing on the cliff side.
Flåm – stopover
The journey along the Flåm line was over all too soon and as I arrived in Flåm I was met by a bustling crowd of tourists waiting to board for the next ride. Many ‘Nutshellers’ continue the route straight onto the boat from here (which is conveniently a stones throw away from where you disembark the train), but I was glad to spend some more time in Flåm.
Being a cruise port the town centre is very tourist centered. One advantage of this is the abundance of on offer such as kayacking and fjord ‘safaris’, as well as shops and restaurants, including a viking inspired pub brewing it’s own craft ales.
If you’d rather not spend too much money and get away from the crowds there are of course beautiful hikes, both short and long. Not to mention regular bus tours up to the Stegastein viewpoint – a must for anyone travelling through the area. You can look forward to a more detailed account of my stay in Flåm later.
Flåm to Gudvangen – with the Nærøyfjord cruise
I booked the next part of my journey via the visit Flåm website. The Nærøyfjord cruise is one of the highlights of NIN, as it travels from Flåm, through the Aurlandsfjord and the UNESCO world heritage area in the Nærøyfjord to Gudvangen.
If you plan to take the bus straight from Gudvangen (as I did), make sure to check when the last bus is (generally around 5 to 6pm). The boats are timed with the buses, so as long as you’re on a boat arriving before the last bus you shouldn’t have any problems.
The other thing you’ll notice when booking is that there are two types of vessels. The traditional vessel takes longer (2.5 hours) while the new hybrid vessel named Vision of the Fjords only takes 1.5 hours. For the sake of timing, I went with the Vision of the Fjords. I can’t compare to the older vessels, but I can highly recommend taking this boat. Not only is it brand spanking new and environmentally friendly, but it is designed to offer superb views where ever you sit or stand, both inside and out. There is also plenty of space on board for luggage.
As there was a separate and almost empty queue for those who had purchased individual tickets, I was one of the first on board the boat (wahoo!). Not that it mattered as I couldn’t stay sat down in one place anyway. It had started raining that morning and although the weather encouraged most people to stay inside, enjoying the views from the comfort of the cabin and with a nice refreshment from the bar, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to go out on the deck. The rain didn’t let up and the wind was intense, but (with my practical waterproofs on) I absolutely LOVED it. I also discovered that my camera is pretty weather resilient
Just before the boat turns into the the Nærøyfjord fjord, be sure to get a nice glimpse down the Sognefjord, the longest and deepest of the Norwegian fjords.
Gudvangen to Voss – by bus
Alighting from the boat in Gudvangen for the next step of the journey, all you really need to do is follow the crowds! Buses to Voss are run by the local transport network Skyss. If you are booking the trip yourself, tickets cannot be purchased in advance. You have to do this onboard the bus. It costs 112 NOK (as of summer 2016) and the driver only accepts card. Also be aware that the boats continue running after the last buses of the day. So if you want to travel straight onto Voss, make sure to check the buses are still running on the Skyss website.
When running, the buses are timed with the boats and enough buses came to ensure everybody had a place on board. I took the third bus which arrived just after the first two were filling up. Due to this it ended up setting off 15 minutes late, but I was just happy to be on it. Also the buses are more like coaches, with sufficient luggage space (basically, they’ve got this whole thing under control!).
The journey takes around one hour and 15 minutes. After braving the wind and rain on the boat I felt exhausted, so I appreciated the warm ride. The scenery is still beautiful, but at this point you’ve probably seen the best of it so you can just relax. The driver kindly slowed down at some waterfalls, noting ‘you’ve probably all seen enough of these today’, before making a very slow, cautious descent down Stalheimskleiva, Northern Europe’s steepest road.
Voss to Bergen – by train
Getting off the bus at Voss train station, I was the only passenger NOT to head straight to the platform. Of course you can do this as Bergen is not far away and there are regular trains there, but I’d decided to spend the night in the awesome Voss Vandrarheim hostel.
Voss is a town situated on a lake surrounded by mountains and is popular for extreme sports. For the less extreme, there are nice walks and hiking trails you can do, or simply hang around the town. I wouldn’t say it’s a must for stopping over, but it is a nice place to visit if you have time, even as a day trip from Bergen.
One of the advantages of catching the train the next day, was not only that I got to see the beauty of Voss in the sun, but I was able to catch a quiet local train. I bought my ticket in the station on the day, as only certain journey’s were available for booking on NSB and they weren’t any cheaper (199 NOK). Although I’d seen so much beautiful scenery already, I still spent the entire journey gazing out of the window as it stopped at tiny little villages, where I can only imagine what it must be like to live there. Around an hour and 10 minutes later the driver announced we were arriving in Bergen.
My journey ended with a four night stay in Bergen before flying back home. There was the option of going back to Oslo with a direct train or sleeper train, or of course doing the whole journey again backwards!
Is Norway in a Nutshell worth booking yourself?
There are some advantages to doing a DIY Norway in a Nutshell trip. If you book far enough ahead in advance you can take advantage of ‘minipris’ tickets on the train, which are cheaper than the standard fare. Since I booked the trip less than a month in advance for a journey in August (peak season), I only really saved a very small amount (20 euros or so – Through the official operator this route cost 2070 NOK, approx. 224 euros). However having the flexibility to choose my times of travel and take control over the journey, made it personally a much more satisfying adventure.
If you prefer convenience with the booking process and would rather just have one ticket, go for booking via the website. The journey itself will not be much different and the route is so well organised that you can enjoy a stress free journey no matter which way you do it. The only ‘regret’ I have read from other accounts is that they didn’t spend more time in certain places and felt it was too rushed. So if I have any advice, it’s focus on how you’re going to make the most of the journey with the time you have, stopping off overnight if you can.
However you do it, it will be worth every penny!
- Train Oslo to Myrdal (approx 4.5 hours)
- Flam railway (Myrdal – Flam, approx. 1 hour)
- Nærøyfjord Cruise (Flam – Gudvangen, 1.5 – 2.5 hours depending on the vessel)
- Bus to Voss (from Gudvangen, approx. 1 hour 15 mins)
- Train to Bergen
A return train can be included back to Oslo. Journey can also be done backwards (Bergen to Oslo) or as a roundtrip from Bergen or Oslo, taking the train back to your starting destination from Myrdal or Voss.
- Norway in a Nutshell official site – norwaynutshell.com
- Trains –nsb.no
- Nærøyfjord Cruise boat – visitflam.com
- Bus – skyss.no