Lærdal: A Historic Port on the Sognefjord

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The waterfront of Lærdal village in Norway
Lærdal. Photo: Andres Olivares / Unsplash

A former trading port between east and west Norway, the Lærdal of today is a picturesque part of the fjord Norway tourist trail.

Lærdal is a Norwegian municipality on the south side of the Sognefjord. Known for its historic centre, the Lærdalsøyri village is today a big draw for tourists. But years ago, it was an important trading post.

Welcome to Lærdal

Its location near the head of the Sognefjord meant Lærdal was a short-cut for traders looking to transport goods from west to east. Ships could sail up the fjord and dock at Lærdal.

The goods could continue their journey over the mountains. This was facilitated by the King's Road (Kongevegen), a historic trade route over the mountains and through Valdres to Oslo. Today it's a popular multi-day hiking route.

Old Lærdal painting
Painting of Lærdalsøyri in 1901 by Karl Paul Themistokles von Eckenbrecher.

The centre of Lærdal

Lærdalsøyri village is the historical center of the ripe valley, but sadly, in 2014 many of its well-preserved timber homes from the 18th century were destroyed by fire, spread by the high winds of a winter storm. Even so, the historical centre remains a charming walk as the process of restoration continues.

The village centre of Lærdalsøyri is listed as a national “heritage village”. Tourists come to see the historic centre of wooden houses and trading buildings from the 18th-century. Just over 1,000 people live in the village today, with the same again in the other villages making up Lærdal.

A white house in Lærdal, western Norway

If your time in Lærdal is short, call into the tourist information office on Øyraplassen. Open daily during the summer, the office provides advice on what to see, along with recommended driving routes and a small gift shop.

Staying in Lærdal is a popular choice for those looking to combine a mountain and fjord experience. However, there are no chain hotels here.

Instead, you'll find rooms available at the charming Lærdalsøren Hotel in the heart of the old village. Meanwhile, camping, motel rooms, apartments and cabins are all available at the waterside Lærdal Holiday & Leisure Park.

The village centre of Laerdal in west Norway

The Lærdal fire of 2014

On the night of 18–19 January 2014, Lærdal made global headlines for the wrong reasons. A major fire destroyed at least 30 buildings in the village. The fire began in a residence on Kyrkjegata. Strong winter winds quickly fanned the flames towards other buildings and a nearby forest.

Residents were quickly evacuated but 30 buildings caught fire over the course of four hours. More than 100 firefighters were dispatched from across the region. Firefighters from Florø were brought in by helicopter, and two further helicopters from the Royal Air Force were brought in to assist the efforts.

Aurlandsfjellet: The snow road

Traveling to Lærdal from Aurland is half the fun, with two of Norway’s most breathtaking driving experiences to enjoy.

Cliffs of snow line the Aurlandsfjellet snow road in western Norway

Throughout large parts of the summer, dramatic cliffs of snow line both sides of the 45-kilometer (28-mile) National Scenic Route Aurlandsfjellet between the villages of Aurlandsvangen and Lærdalsøyri, leading to its nickname, the Snow Road (Snøvegen).

Although the Snow Road is closed from October through April, the portion of Route 243 from Aurland to the Stegastein Viewpoint is open year-round.

The elegant viewing platform hovers above the pine tree forest, while its glass front gives a view right down to the fjord below. At the highest point of the mountain pass, the modern Flotane rest stop is powered by solar panels at its rear.

The Lærdal tunnel

The alternative way to reach Lærdal using the E16 highway is much more direct but no less intriguing. At 24.5 kilometers (15.2 miles), the Lærdal Tunnel (Lærdalstunnelen) is the longest road tunnel in the world.

Inside the long Lærdal tunnel in Norway

Because of the mental strain on drivers for the dark 20-minute journey, the tunnel is separated into four sections by large caves lit by blue mood lighting and yellow-lit turnaround points. Security stations count the number of cars entering and exiting to enable a quick response to any accidents. A dedicated air treatment plant removes dust and nitrogen dioxide, leading to surprisingly high air quality.

Borgund stave church

Norway’s best-preserved stave church, built in 1180, also happens to be its most aesthetically stunning. The major pull of Lærdal is the magnificent Borgund stave church, located 27km (16.8 miles) east of Lærdal along the E16, yet another picturesque road in the region.

The designers made the critical decision to build the church on a raised stone foundation to keep the timber frame from coming into contact with the damp ground during a Norwegian winter.

The beautiful setting of Borgund Stave Church in Norway

The very fact the church is still standing proudly over eight centuries later is testament to their incredible foresight. The basilica-plan layout is distinguished by a raised central nave and a shingle-covered roof.

As with many other Norwegian stave churches of the era, Norse mythology is reflected in the interior and exterior carvings, as Norway’s transition to Christianity took many hundreds of years to fully bed down. In the same vein, several runic inscriptions are visible on the western walls.

The construction and conservation techniques at Borgund serve as a model for other stave church restoration projects, and as inspiration for replicas all around the world. The entry fee also gives admission to an exhibition on other stave churches and archaeological finds from the Viking era in a modern building by the parking lot.

About David Nikel

Originally from the UK, David now lives in Trondheim and was the original founder of Life in Norway back in 2011. He now works as a professional writer on all things Scandinavia.

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