Surprisingly not that well known outside of Norway, the Bergensbanen is nevertheless acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful train trips in Europe, if not the world. Train enthusiasts globally are well aware of this train and the route it takes. People who love to travel by train to enjoy seeing so much more than you can from the air also have this trip on their radar. Here you do not simply buy a train ticket but an amazing travel experience.
Traveling just short of 7 hours from the capital of Oslo, this train crosses virtually all of the breath of the country to reach Bergen on Norway’s west coast. It is also the highest mainline railway in Europe.
By taking this legendary trip during the day, you will see some magnificent natural scenery of forests, mountains, rivers, canyons, fjords, snow and ice, spotting glaciers and lakes not to mention some very pretty homes, mountain cabins and villages along the way.
Such is the reputation of the Bergensbanen of being the best rail journey in Norway, my fiancé and I travelled especially to Oslo to experience this for ourselves. We were in Stavanger, Norway and had previously planned a road trip along Norway’s Atlantic coast. Rather than drive directly to Bergen, we decided to fly to Oslo so we could catch and experience this journey.
The best train journey in Norway and possibly Europe?
Well, Lonely Planet certainly regards it very highly, including it in its book Amazing Train Journeys, a fascinating book that reviews what they identify as the best train trips in the world.
The Oslo to Bergen Railway is some 496 km or 308 miles long, traveling for the most part at around 80 km/h or 50 mph – a pace that allows you to really take in the beauty surrounding you. The 6 hours and 48 minutes scheduled travel time on the day we took the best train journey in Norway went by so quickly. Such was the enjoyment of this experience.
This railway is quite a marvel of engineering, climbing to 1,237 metres (4058 feet) and including some 182 tunnels, some of them extremely lengthy (with 1 over 6 miles or 10 km in length) along with a total of 22 brief stops at stations along the way. The railway itself has some interesting history to it, beginning construction in 1875, but not being completed until 1909. It was not the easiest project by any means, working around fjords, mountains, lakes, valleys, glaciers and gorges as well as the massive mountain plateau of Hardangervidda which stays snow-covered for most of the time.
Preparing for our journey
Flying from Stavanger on the southwest coast to Oslo, we arrived a day ahead of our scheduled departure. This allowed us time to visit the two main attractions in Oslo that were of interest to us and which are mentioned in more detail later.
The Bergensbanen departs from Oslo’s Central Station (Oslo Sentralstasjon). This is Norway’s largest and busiest rail station and is world-class in terms of its design, space, efficiency, and cleanliness. Signage is very good and it is easy to work out which platform you need to be on.
The train caters well to tourists and their needs. We brought all the luggage that we had packed for the entire European and North Africa trip we were taking and this was no problem at all. Everything is this regard was included in the ticket and there was plenty of space for all our bags on the train.
We purchased our tickets online long before we arrived in Norway and printed these up to have with us. The booking process online was very straight forward and the process was the same as you would book any other train trip in Europe. There were no marketing messages or mention of this being the best train journey in Norway or the like. Our seats were allocated on the tickets in line with what we had selected and staff were on hand to help if we had any questions.
The train itself
Aside from being on time, the train itself was very nice and modern. Comfortable seats, plenty of personal and luggage storage space and again very clean.
As was the case inside Oslo Grand Central Station, all announcements on the train were made in Norwegian as well as English and everyone we came across spoke English very well. Indeed, all the railway staff were extremely friendly, informative and helpful.
The train also has a dining car and kiosk where you can purchase hot and cold meals and a variety of snacks and drinks you can enjoy as you sit back and take in the scenery.
Enjoying this wonderful trip
Once the train departs Oslo Central and you are clear of the city and suburbs, you emerge into the beautiful lush green Norwegian countryside. Here is where you start to see the beginning of the pine forests, numerous rivers and other natural features that change as you move from one landscape and elevation to the next.
As the train moves beyond the town of Nesbyn, it really starts to gain some altitude. On reaching the high Hardangervidda Plateau, this becomes much like an arctic landscape, being blanketed with snow for most of the year. The section on the plateau between the stations of Geilo and Finse many say is the most memorable part of the best train journey in Norway. It is here that Captain Scott’s last expedition trained before setting off for Antarctica. It is also not far from Finse station that the filming location was for the Ice Planet ‘Hoth’ in George Lucas Star Wars film ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. The Finse tunnel close by is the highest point of the journey at 1,237 m (4,058 ft).
Over the plateau, the train descends down the mountain ranges as it heads towards Norway’s western fjords. The views on this side of the mountain plateau are no less gorgeous and each turn continually brings a new vista resulting in cameras being used all over each of the railway carriages. You would just kick yourself if you were on this journey and your camera didn’t work!
An optional detour
At the Myrdal station (roughly 70% into the journey) many tourists get off here to take a detour rail trip down to Flåm. Flåm is a gorgeous village nestled deep in Aurlandsfjord (a fjord that is off the larger Sognefjord) and surrounded by steep mountains. Flåm is predominately a tourism center with a hotel and a cruise ship port.
The Flåm railway line is also a very beautiful one. Having only a total distance to travel of 20 kms, it is one of the steepest standard gauge railway lines in the world, with 80% of the journey running on a gradient of 5.5%. It runs through 20 tunnels, over 1 bridge and has 8 stops during the course of the descent, passing by some spectacular sights, including the Kjosfossen waterfall which is a mandatory stop for photos. Indeed, many would argue that the Flåm Railway is the best train journey in Norway, rather than the main Bergensbanen line.
If you were to take this detour as a tourist, you would have two choices once you arrive at Flåm. You would either take a cruise to Bergen (or cruise/drive combination known as the ‘Norway in a Nutshell‘ tour option for those with limited time) or catch the same train back to Myrdal so you could then complete the Bergensbanen trip to Bergen.
While the ‘Norway in a Nutshell’ tour shows you some gorgeous scenery, if you have more time it would be much better to visit these points within your own drive itinerary if you can. Both options are pretty costly compared to other tourism destinations but it’s a matter of what your time and budget will allow as to what would be best suited to you.
Completing the journey
Moving past Myrdal, the train definitely enters fjord country as it makes its way toward the town of Voss (the name known for its pure water, bottled and exported around the world). Aside from all the fantastic natural wonders, you also see many farms and small settlements dotted against the landscape. From there we make our way toward the coastal city of Bergen and the end of the line.
The Bergensbanen: Things to see and do at either end
Oslo and Bergen are of course destinations in their own right. The following is what we saw and enjoyed at both places.
The two places we wanted to see when in Oslo were both included in Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist.
This is one of my favorite travel books listing the 500 best places on the planet… ranked.
The two Oslo places that were featured in the book were the Oslo Opera House and Vigelandsparken.
Oslo Opera House
Similar to the Sydney Opera House in Australia, the Oslo Opera House is likewise famous for its architectural design.
This building resembles the natural beauty that inspired its design: a shimmering glacier carving into the Oslofjord. This effect is achieved by huge slabs of Italian marble that slide (ice-like) into the waters of the bay that this structure sits in front of.
All the way up the structure, including its roof, was specifically designed to be a public living space. Locals and tourists alike visit to walk all over the structure and admire views out to the Oslo harbor and areas of the city itself.
We certainly enjoyed walking all around and over the Opera House, taking in the views and appreciating this impressive structure.
Vigelandsparken (or The Vigeland Park) celebrates the work of famous Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland. It is a beautifully maintained park filled with flowers, fountains, and his sculptures of people in many different poses and interactions of sculptured people, all of which are naked.
These sculptures are many, imaginative and controversial. The park leads you through to the ultimate and most famous of the statues – the monolith. This is a 14 m-tall carved column consisting of 121 people connected together. Certainly, a talking point.
Irrespective of differing views of the sculptures themselves, the park itself is a very beautiful place.
Bergen is Norway’s second-largest city after Oslo and the country’s former capital. It is situated on a lovely harbor in the southwestern fjordlands, surrounded by 7 mountains. This city is set in a simply stunning location and is a popular cruise ship port and magnet for tourists that visit the country. It’s close proximity to many fjords and places of natural beauty make it an ideal base for exploring the western coast.
Bryggen is a very picturesque and small section of the harbourside in Bergen that houses museums, shops, restaurants and pubs, where the buildings were previously and traditionally used for sorting and selling fish and other commodities brought in by sea.
Today Bryggen is a colorful, vibrant centre that also happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This colorful part of the Bergen Port/Harbour is most identified with Bergen’s promotional image and is something I also found to be quite reminiscent of my memories of the lovely buildings along Stavanger Harbour, some 210 km to the south.
So, there was our Scandinavian adventure involving the best train journey in Norway. We loved every minute of it.
We took this trip during summer as we were also doing a road trip from Bergen and many roads north would have been closed during winter. Although we found this journey so beautiful during the summer, there is no doubt that a winter trip on the Bergensbanen would present yet another level of beauty. Which is better? That really depends on your own point of view.
As this article covers the Bergensbanen, I should also mention that you can of course take this journey going the other way and that the line also offers an overnight service with sleeping compartments. Not something I would do by choice, simply as you miss all the scenic natural beauty this line is renowned for.
I’m the first to admit James and I are not the best photographers that ever lived but I hope some of these images I have included with this story convey how special this train journey really is and that this may convince you that such a trip might be worthwhile for you.
What are your impressions of the best train journey in Norway: the Bergensbanen? Do let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
This article is part of the Natural Beauty Travel Series authored by travel writer Nicole Anderson.