Collection of tips and advice for first time visitors to Norway (partly applies to Sweden and Finland). Keep this in mind when planning a trip to Norway.
1. Norway has less than 5 million inhabitants, but it is a large country and sparsly populated. Foreign visitors typically underestimate distances and traveling time. Norway's mainland spans about 15 degrees north-south, same as the distance NY City to Miami. From the southernmost point to the border with Russia there is about 3000 kilometers. Norway is larger than Germany and mainland about 3 times longer, Norway is slightly smaller than California but 3 times longer. Norway's gross coastline is an incredible 25,000 kilometers when fjords are included (longer than the continental US coastline and thus one of the longest in the world), and around 100,000 kilometers when islands are included. Norway is both an eastern and a western country, as the eastern most town on the mainland is further east than for instance St.Petersburg, Kiev and Istanbul. Whereas the city of Bergen is further west than Cologne, Geneva and Milano.
Finnmark, the largest and most northerly county, is larger than countries like Denmark, the Netherlands or Switzerland but there is only 70,000 inhabitants. Kautokeino, the largest administrative district in Finnmark, is about the size of Lebanon or Jamaica.
Topography along the coast, fjords and mountains is complex, and public transport is often limited to one bus a day. It is not possible to "see" Norway in a few days. Visitors coming for a few days need to focus on one or two cities or one region. For instance, driving north-south may take several days (not including sightseeing and detours).Many first time visitors make too tight and detailed schedules months ahead, and do not allow time for the unexpected (in terms of attractions, transport difficulties etc).
Because the country stretches far North, a crucial question is how much to the North? This depends on days, wishes, itinerary. Norway is full of great places to visit, while proceeding to the North you can go to Ålesund, Trondheim, Lofoten Islands, even North Cape at the Northernmost tip. One can even visit Svalbard near North Pole which is a guite demanding trip though.
While Norway is a very modern country with plenty of well-organized tours and transport services, abundance of space and long distances makes it ideal for the self-reliant traveller. Travellers willing to invest the extra effort and venture into the unknown will be rewarded.
Advice: Plan trip according to type of transport available and travel times. Do not make too detailed and tight schedules (particularly in winter). Get a good map to start and sketch some rough initial itineraries.
2. The main attraction in Norway is the country itself, landscapes and nature. Norway has an abundance of fjords, islands, coastline, forest, lakes, mountains and waterfalls. Even the national anthem mentions the "ruggedness" of the country in the first lines: "Rising storm-scarr'd from the ocean, Where the breakers foam. ...." As a tourist, the biggest mistake to do in Norway is to rush from city to city. Norway has a number of nice and interesting cities, some of which has a justified reputation (such as Bergen), but even the most important cultural treasuries are in remote rural districts. Norway cannot be "seen" by visiting two or three major cities. Attractions are not limited points on the map, but include largely everything along the route. And, somewhat confusing perhaps, the greatest landscapes are not necessarily in the national parks.
Advice: Slow down, take time to enjoy areas between the cities. Make flexible and generous schedules.
3. Norway is very far North, but it does not have an arctic climate. The south-west coast (Bergen) has a mild humid climate like Britain and the Netherlands. The east (Oslo and "eastern valleys") has a kind of continental climate, and summers can be quite warm (20-30 dg C). For the typical summer visitor, rain is a the issue rather than cold weather. The nordic sun can burn your skin even if it is not warm, particularly on snow fields, in the high mountains and near water surfaces. Bring sunglasses (UV-filter) and protect your nose and lips in the high mountains. Most visitors come during summer when there is endless daylight and pleasant temperatures, but Norway also has a very long skiing season from November to April (or even May in some places, a handful of ski resorts operate only May to September).
Note however that climate and weather differs substantially from north to south, and from east to west. Even within a couple hours driving there can be a change from deep frost to mild weather. However, most settlements and all major cities are close to the sea and therefore enjoys the warm Gulf stream. Spring is generally in May, in April large parts of the inland and the north is still in deep winter. Driving car in winter conditions (November to March) is only for the experienced. In case of wind and heavy snow fall mountain passes can be closed on short notice or drivers can be instructed to form a line right behind the snow plow.
Note that the hiking season in the higher mountains starts relatively late (July-August is the best time) because of the large amounts of snow in central mountain areas. Along the coast and at lower altitudes hiking season is much longer. Also note that it can be relatively cold in the mountains even in summer, temperatures generally drop 1 degree Celsius for every 100 or 150 meters increased altitude.
Advice: Get specific climate and weather information about the places you plan to visit.
4. Fjords are the perhaps Norway's most famous attraction, and many tourists rush to Geiranger and Flåm where the most famous (and UNESCO-protected) are. Fjords are however found all over the country (fjords is the predominant feature of the landscape in most of Norway), although the typical ones are in West Norway from Stavanger to Kristiansund as well is in North Norway (until about Tromsø).There is actually no need to go to Geiranger, Flåm or Lysefjorden (pulpi rock) to experience the magic of fjords.
Advice: Visit the fjords that best fits into your overall plan rather than making a long detour to the more famous ones.
5. The midnight sun is of course a nice experience, and can be seen anywhere North of Bodø (not only at North Cape) around mid summer. About half of Norway lies above the arctic circle. There is absolutly no need to go to North Cape to experience the midnight sun. The effect of the midnight sun can however be seen further south, notably by the very short nights at midsummer (sometimes called "white nights"). Even as far south as Oslo it is hardly dark at all (one can read outdoor at midnight). This is a crucial aspect of the Norwegian (or Nordic) summer and for some more interesting experience than the midnight sun itself. For this reason, some claim that the midnight sun is somewhat overrated.
Advice: If you are determined to see the midnight sun, include it as a bonus in a visit to the great landscapes of north Norway.
6. Norway is one of the richest countries in the world and many things are accordingly expensive (particularly personal service, such as restaurants and taxis, as well as some food items). Note that service and taxes (VAT) is always included in the price offered, nothing is added to the bill. Air transport is relatively cheap if the traveller are flexible with regard to time and date. However, the most important things are free of charge: everyone has right of access to wilderness (including beaches) even if privatly owned. Some state institutions (such as the national gallery) has no admission fee.
Advice: Adjust type of transport and accommodation as well as activities to prices. For instance, always consider public transport rather than taxi.
7. Health & Safety standards are very high and visitors generally don't have to worry about personal security. For instance, tap water is not only drinkable but usually of very high quality (better than bottled). During summer there is virtually 24 hour daylight everywhere, which adds to safety. Keep a safe distance to glaciers, waterfalls and ocean waves (this is where accidents happen).
Advice: Don't worry, but respect forces of nature.
8. Eating cheaply
Norway's restaurants are expensive particularly for foreign visitors. Supermarkets offer good products for more reasonable prices. Budget supermarkets such as Kiwi, Rema and Prix can be found most places. Many places also have bakeries that offer freshly baked breads, cakes, salty pastries, and sandwiches usually more value for money that at restaurants. Pizzerias are very common, although of varying quality these are often the least expensive place "to fill up" (often 120-150 NOK for a pizza). In comparison to a restaurant where a main course is anywhere between 160 - 290 NOK.
Advice: Shop in supermarkets, bakeries are a great alternative to restaurants