For all the attention Norway gets as an icy paradise, some balk at the idea of actually visiting in the winter. In fact, while winter tourism is on the rise, visits tend to dip during the colder months and peak in the summer, when the fjords take on hues of brilliant green and the days are extra long (on the northern island of Svalbard, the sun doesn’t set at all between April and late August).
But what all those summer visitors don’t know is that the winter season is Norway’s best-kept secret. Especially with vistas that are even more spectacular under an icing of snow and a deep devotion to cultivating koselig — an atmosphere of warmth and coziness that’s being embraced around the globe.
Here’s why you might want to visit Norway in the wintertime:
1. It’s not as cold as you think.
Though roughly one-third of Norway lies north of the Arctic Circle, the country has surprisingly mild and hospitable winters – even compared to Canada. While January temperatures in Inuvik, Canada’s largest Arctic city, average a frosty -28.8°C, the biggest city in Norway, Tromso, averages highs that are relatively balmy at -2°C. And thanks to the warm Gulf Stream, many Norwegian cities rarely dip below zero at all.
2. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t offer stunning winter vistas.
Miles upon miles of untouched snow, waterfalls frozen mid-splash and glittering fjords all make Norway a unique destination come winter. While Norway’s beautiful in the summer, it’s absolutely magical when frozen.
3. Exhibit A:
4. And B:
5. Best of all, you don’t have to fight the crowds to enjoy it.
Take a fjord cruise during the summer, and we bet your photos will also include the top of some tourist’s head, given the number of people trying to get the same shot. So not only are those views perhaps even more lovely in the winter, but the slow season means you can have all that scenery to yourself, too. Sure, it’s a little colder out on deck than in August, but A. the Norwegians make some gorgeous wool sweaters and B. have you seen those views?
6. Of course, there are warmer ways to explore.
Repeatedly named one of the best train journeys in the world by travel authorities such as National Geographic and Lonely Planet, the spectacular Flam railway runs year-round (and again, you’ll find less competition for a window seat during the winter). Running 867 metres down to sea level from Myrdal mountain station, the train is one of the steepest lines in the world on standard gauge lines and traverses mountains, frozen waterfalls and 20 tunnels.
7. Winter here is so picturesque it inspired a Disney movie.
That’s right, Disney’s Frozen is basically a love letter to winter in Norway. Want to see the sites that inspired the magical animation? Start with a visit to Akershus Fortress, a medieval castle in Oslo that was the model for Anna and Elsa’s palace, take a ferry along Aurlandsfjord and cruise past the tiny village of Undredal, which inspired Arendelle (stop into the town’s stave church – the oldest in Scandinavia – where you might recognize the pattern of the starry motif on the ceiling), and stroll the Bryggen, a UNESCO World Heritage site with colourful wooden buildings that will also look very familiar to fans. The country is full of sites that will have you ready to belt out Let It Go.
8. Ice, ice baby.
Frozen isn’t the only thing that makes Norway’s entertainment scene super, um, cool. If you’re a fan of cool ice sculptures, put the Ice Music Festival in Geilo on your list. Held annually under the first full moon of the year, this three-night festival is the only one in the world where all of the instruments – from chimes to bass and saxophone – are made entirely of ice.
9. Northern Lights.
Hands up if watching the sky light up with dancing streaks of green and purple is on your bucket list? One of Norway’s claims to fame is that its climate makes it one of the most comfortable places to see the aurora borealis, and with long winter nights and such accessible northern cities, there are ample ways to experience them. Although they’re not always visible, the lights do put in an appearance on most clear winter nights (Svalbard is considered one of the best places in all of Europe to spot them, though you don’t have to go that far north). If you’re going light chasing, experts recommend wearing warm layers and shooting with a tripod.
10. There’s another light trick you probably don’t know about.
The Northern Lights aren’t the only cool light show you can catch during winter in Norway. On the polar night, when the sun barely climbs above the horizon, the fjords and snow take on a deep blue hue, a phenomenon known as the “Blue Hour.”
11. There’s a lot of fun to be had in the cold.
From fat biking to riding shotgun in a dog sled, there are countless ways to get out there and enjoy the cold (and even work up a sweat) beyond the usual skating and skiing. Of course, there’s that too, and you can do all of it in Geilo. Easily accessible via the main Oslo-Bergen rail line, Geilo is an adorable ski town with an especially good cross-country offering – more than 500 kilometres of trails (there are even cross-country ski bridges) and cabins, where you can warm up with home-style Norwegian cooking.
12. It’s patio season. (It’s always patio season.)
Here in Canada, we might consider ourselves to be among the world’s biggest patio aficionados, hitting the outdoor seating the second the mercury climbs into the low teens. In Oslo, outdoor seating is available all year round and restaurant patios come stocked with heaters and warm blankets to help fend off the winter chill. If you’d rather stay inside, even the breweries are cozy: at Aegir, one of the country’s best craft breweries, the décor is all stone fireplaces and warm animal-skin throws so that anyone is sure to feel surprisingly koselig.
13. Carb-loading here is delightful.
While cod and herring are the first foods that probably come to mind when you think of Norwegian cuisine, Norwegians love their desserts. From spiced Christmas cookies to rich cakes topped with cream, baked sweets here lean towards the classic style and tend to taste like someone’s grandma made them. Don’t miss the vafler, heart-shaped waffles served with sour cream and jam or mildly sweet brown cheese, another Norwegian staple. Enjoy your sugar coma!