Chasing the midnight sun

The sun never sets on this summer road trip across Norway.

The midnight sun has fascinated humanity for thousands of years. Greek explorer Pytheas of Massalia first described the phenomena in 325BC as “where the night no longer exists”.

You have to travel to the north of Norway in the Arctic Circle to experience 24 hours of sunlight like Pytheas described, but the entire country benefits from the ‘polar day’. Southern cities, including Oslo, experience 19 hours of daylight in summer.  

The light of the midnight sun isn’t the same as during the day – it’s closer to twilight – but it’s not uncommon to see Norwegians working on their houses or riding their bikes in the small hours of the morning, making the most of their few months of protracted sunlight before the days shorten to 18 hours or more of darkness.

We took advantage of the long days and warm weather to spend two weeks on a road trip through some of Norway’s most spectacular landscapes and scenery.

Gjøvik 

Our road trip began in the eastern Norwegian town of Gjøvik that, for a town of less with a population of less than 30,000, is home to a surprising number of global and national records.

One of Gjøvik’s major attractions is Fjellhallen, the world’s only Olympic venue built in to the mountainside.

Also known at the Gjøvik Olympic Mountain Hall, Fjelhallen is a nine-storey ice hockey area built more than 120m below ground-level. The arena was home to the hockey tournament during the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics and is home to the Gjøvik Mammuts hockey team. Even if you’re not a fan of hockey, Fjellhallen is worth a visit for the incorporation of Scandinavian folklore and modern Norwegian culture in to the architecture. 

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Enjoy a voyage on Mjøsa, Norway’s largest lake, aboard the world’s oldest paddle steamer, Skibladner, which has been operating for more than 160 years. Locals hid Skibladner from destruction by German forces during World War II and it was painstakingly restored to its former glory after the war. Take in the sights of the lake district and neighbouring farms and mountains while enjoying a glass of wine on the sun deck. 

End the day with a Norwegian beer at the Saray Beer Garden and take advantage of the sun setting at 10.30pm with a stroll through the parks and town centre.

Gjøvik to Lillehammer (45km, 40-minute drive)

The ski resort town of Lillehammer, most famous as the location of the 1994 Winter Olympics, comes alive during summer.

Visit the Lysgårdsbakkene Ski Jumping Arena which hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1994 Olympics. Drive or take the chairlift from the bottom of the hill up to the top and enjoy panoramic views over Lillehammer from the top of the Ski Jump Tower. You may see athletes practicing even in summer – the ski hill is covered in a plastic coating allowing use all year round.

Lillehammer is the only place in the world that tourists can live out their Cool Runnings fantasy on an Olympic bobsled run. Strap on a full-face helmet, duck under the roll cage and hold on for dear life as professional bobsled drivers guide your four-person wheeled sled down the narrow twists and banks of the Olympic run. Bobsled is not for the fainthearted with the gravity-driven sleds experiencing five G-force and reaching speeds of up to 128kph on the 1.7km track.

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Once your heartrate has gone back to normal, drive 45 minutes north to the 750-year-old Ringebu Stave Church, one of 30 remaining stave churches in the world. Stave churches were made of wood and no nails were used during construction – all joints are dovetailed – and many were destroyed by anti-Christian arsonists in the 1990s. Archaeological surveys of the church found it was built on top of an older post-style church dating back 1000 years to when Christianity first came to Norway. The church contains Viking runes and other relics from the Iron and Viking Ages.

Lillehammer to Geiranger via Trollstigen (336km, 5.5-hour drive)

While there are more direct routes from Lillehammer to Geiranger, no Norwegian road trip would be complete without tackling the 11 hair-pin bends of the Trollstigen Mountains Pass.

Translating to ‘The Troll’s ladder’, Trollstigen is a drive you’ll never forget. The 80-year-old road is an engineering marvel designed to blend in with its surroundings. Some parts are carved in to the mountainside while other parts are built on stone walls painstakingly constructed by hand. The road is a steep 10% gradient and barely one lane wide, but there are dedicated areas to allow oncoming traffic pass safely. Don’t be surprised to see tourist busses navigating the hair-pin bends – be patient though, as they will need to make three-point turns at each turn.

Take the Eidals-Linge ferry across the river before continuing to Geiranger.

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Trollstigen’s twists and turns won’t be last section of road to put your driving skills to the test. As you approach the Geiranger fjord, stop for a break at Ørnesvingen Viewpoint, directly across from the first hairpin turn of the 130-year-old Ørnevegen, The Eagle’s Road. Take in the panoramic view of Geirangerfjord, the village of Geiranger and De Sju Søstre (Seven Sisters) waterfall before navigating 11 hair-pin bends down to the fjord.

No visit to Geiranger would be complete without a ferry ride on the UNESCO World Heritage-listed fjord surrounded by 1700m high mountains. 

Geiranger to Voss (345km, 6-hour drive)

On your way to Voss, stop for a break at the Bøyabreen, a part of Jostedalsbreen, the largest glacier in continental Europe. Bøyabreen is covered in ice all-year-round and you can walk down to the waters edge and dip your feet in the cold, fresh water of Brevatnet Lake while looking out over the glacier.

Visit Sognefjord, Norway’s longest and deepest fjord, rated as the world’s number one natural heritage site by the National Geographic Society, before continuing to the 110m tall Tvindefossen Waterfall just outside of Voss.

Known as the adventure capital of Norway, Voss is a must-visit for extreme sports enthusiasts and with more than 18 hours of daylight there’s plenty of time to indulge in an adrenaline rush.

We spent two hours white water rafting in the Stranda River with Voss Active. The 8km stretch features nine intermediate to advanced (grade 3 - 4+) rapids with large waves, rocky outcrops, and large drops. We managed to make it through the majority of the course unscathed, so our guide purposefully capsized our raft on the last rapid. The water is around 6oC in summer so take some extra towels and warm clothes in case you end up in the river.

Voss white water rafting

Take a day trip to Bergen, Norway’s second largest city, to sample traditional Norwegian delicacies including lutefisk (cod preserved in lye), smalahove (salted and smoked whole sheep head), rakfisk (raw fermented trout), hvalkjøtt (whale steak) and syltelabb (boiled salt-cured pig trotter).

Voss to Oslo (360 km, 5.5-hour drive)

Norway’s capital city is a treasure trove of artefacts from the Viking Age (800-1050AD). The Vikingskipshuset museum (The Viking Ship House) at Bygdøy is home to three original Viking ships. The most famous ship, known as Oseberg and considered the most important archaeological find in Norway, was discovered in 1903 and took 21 years to prepare and restore. 

Visit the world’s largest sculpture park featuring more than 200 bronze, granite and wrought iron sculptures by Norwegian artist Gustav Vigeland. Sculptures are larger-than-life renderings of humans in every phase of life, including an 18m high monolith carved with 121 human figures and the infamous statue of a man appearing to fight off a hoard of angry babies.

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Vigeland’s rival Edvard Munch is also a prominent figure in Oslo’s history. The Munch Museum and the National Gallery feature more than 1150 painting and 18,000 prints by the Modernist artist including The Scream and Madonna. Non-art lovers will appreciate the tale of how both famous paintings were stolen in 2004 from the National Gallery in broad daylight before being recovered two years later.

Spend the evening wandering around Oslo Harbour Promenade and grab a few after-dinner beers in the trendy Aker Brygge precinct to watch the 10:30pm sunset over the marina and Oslo fjord.

Oslo to Honninsvag (via 3.6-hour flight)

While not technically part of a road trip, the easiest way to reach Honningsvag, Norway’s northernmost city, is by plane. 

Located within the Arctic Circle, Honningsvag is home to the midnight sun and experiences more than 1820 consecutive hours of sunlight each May to July. For the ultimate midnight sun experience visit the Nordkapp cliffs, the very edge of continental Europe overlooking the Arctic Ocean. It can be very and cold, even in mid-summer, so ensure you pack a windproof jacket.

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Honningsvag’s main industry is fishing so join an expedition to catch King Crabs. The crabs are an invasive species from Russia that grow to a leg span of two metres and weigh more than 12kg. King Crabs are considered a delicacy and can cost up to $100/kg in Australia. Learn how to cook crab the traditional Sámi (indigenous Nordic) way before sampling your catch of the day.

Tips for driving in Norway

  • Drive on the right-hand side.
  • The blood alcohol limit is 0.02%.
  • Dipped headlights must be on at all times
  • Petrol stations are few and far between in the mountains and remote areas.
  • Weather conditions can cause mountain passes to close, even in summer.
  • Always bring warm clothing as 9oC is considered a warm summer day in the north of Norway and temperatures can drop to 5oC.
  • Electric vehicles enjoy privileges such as subsidised recharge stations and dedicated car parks.