With a population of just over four million, Norway is one of the most sparsely inhabited countries in Europe, and its people live mostly in small towns and villages. Almost inevitably, the country's five largest cities are the obvious initial targets for a visit. Urbane, vivacious Oslo, one of the world's most prettily sited capitals, has a flourishing caf scene and a clutch of outstanding museums. Beyond Oslo, in roughly descending order of interest, are Trondheim, with its superb cathedral and charming, antique centre; the beguiling port of Bergen, gateway to the western fjords; gritty, bustling Stavanger in the southwest; and northern Troms. All are likeable, walkable cities worthy of your time in themselves, as well as being within comfortable reach of some startlingly handsome scenery. Indeed, each can serve as either a base or a starting point for further explorations: the trains, buses and ferries of Norway's finely tuned public transport system will take you almost anywhere you want to go, although services are curtailed in winter.
Outside of the cities, the perennial draw remains the western fjords - a must, and every bit as scenically stunning as their publicity suggests. Dip into the region from Bergen, ndalsnes or even Stavanger, all accessible direct by train from Oslo, or take more time to appreciate the subtle charms of the tiny, fjordside villages, among which Balestrand and Fjrland are especially appealing. This is great hiking country too, with a network of cairned trails and lodges (maintained by the nationwide hiking association DNT) threading along the valleys and over the hills. However, many of the country's finest hikes are to be had further inland, within the confines of a trio of marvellous national parks: the Hardangervidda, a vast mountain plateau of lunar-like appearance; the Rondane, with its bulging mountains; and the Jotunheimen, famous for its jagged peaks. Of these three, the first is most easily approached from Finse or Rjukan, the others from the comely town of Otta. Nudging the Skagerrak, the south coast is different again. This island-shredded shoreline is best appreciated from the sea, though its pretty, old whitewashed ports are popular with holidaying Norwegians; the pick of these towns is Mandal, proud possessor of the country's finest sandy beach.
Away to the north, beyond Trondheim, Norway grows increasingly wild and inhospitable across the Arctic Circle and on the way to the workaday port of Bod. From here, ferries shuttle over to the rugged Lofoten Islands, which hold some of the most ravishing scenery in the whole of Europe - tiny fishing villages of ochre- and red-painted houses tucked in between the swell of the deep blue sea and the severest of grey-green mountains. Back on the mainland, it's a long haul north from Bod to the iron-ore town of Narvik, and on to Troms. These towns are mere urban pinpricks in a vast wilderness that extends up to Nordkapp, or North Cape. The northernmost accessible point of mainland Europe, the Cape is the natural end of this long trek, and it's here that the tourist trail peters out. But Norway continues east for several hundred kilometres, right the way round to remote Kirkenes near the Russian border, while inland stretches an immense and hostile upland plateau, the Finnmarksvidda, one of the last haunts of the Sami (Lapp) reindeer-herders.
When to go
Choosing when to go to Norway is more complicated than you might expect. The summer season - when the midnight sun is visible north of the Arctic Circle - is relatively short, stretching roughly from the beginning of June to the end of August. Visit out of season, and you'll find that tourist offices, museums and other sights have reduced hours, hotels withdraw their generous summer discounts, and buses, ferries and trains run on less frequent schedules. Nevertheless, late May does have its attractions, especially if your visit coincides with the brief Norwegian spring, though this is difficult to gauge. Springtime is especially beguiling in the fjords, with myriad cascading waterfalls fed by the melting snow, and wildflowers in abundance. Come before that - from late March to early May - and you're likely to encounter the unprepossessing residue of winter, when the last snow and ice lies soiled on the ground, asphalt dust from studded tyres pollutes city air and the landscape is blankly colourless. Autumn is a much better bet, with September often bathed in the soft sunshine of an Indian summer. There are also advantages to travelling during the winter, providing you steer well clear of the winter solstice, when the lack of light depresses even the Norwegians, and aim instead for early February up to mid-March. The big incentive to visit at this time of year is the range of winter sports - from ice-fishing to dog-sledging and, most popular of all, cross-country and alpine skiing. There are skiing packages to Norway from abroad, but perhaps more appealing - and certainly cheaper - is the ease with which you can arrange a few days' skiing wherever you happen to be. Furthermore, if you are equipped and hardy enough to reach the far north, between November and February there's an above average chance of seeing the phenomenal northern lights (Aurora Borealis) beyond the Arctic Circle, and a possibility of glimpsing them as far south as Oslo, too.