Everything you need to know to plan a memorable visit to the world's northernmost medieval cathedral in Trondheim, Norway.
A real icon of the city and the country as a whole, Nidaros Cathedral draws huge numbers of people from all over the world.
Regardless of your religious beliefs, there's plenty to see and do in and around the cathedral. Let's take a closer look…
Where is Nidaros Cathedral?
Nidaros Cathedral is located in the compact city centre of Trondheim, Norway. It is named after the former name of Trondheim, Nidaros, which served as the capital of Norway during much of the Viking era.
It holds a special place in the history of Norway, beginning its life as a simple wooden chapel built to stand over the tomb of Saint Olav, the Viking king who played a big role in the introduction of Christianity, and would go on to become the patron saint of Norway.
In the picture below you can clearly see the cathedral and the river, and if you look closely you can follow the river all the way to the fjord, past the old colourful wharves of Kjøpmannsgata and Bakklandet:
The picture above is also useful for pointing out the main features. The cathedral itself is clearly visible, as is the carving-packed west front, which I'll talk about shortly. You can also see the Archbishop's Palace in the bottom right corner.
If only every day in Trondheim was this lovely!
The West Front
Without doubt the most eye-catching part of the cathedral is the western facade, not just for the numerous intricate carvings but also for the large public square with benches that offers a great view.
Yet despite its appearance, the iconic face is not as old as you might expect. Only five statues from the Middle Ages have survived, with many of the deteriorated remains on display in the museum.
The west front was entirely restored by a large team of sculptors 1905 to 1983 to bring it to the spectacular condition of today. It was the largest art project in the history of Norway.
The sculptures, which depict both historic and religious figures, are based on historical records, a print from the 17th-century, and also on guesswork and pure fantasy.
There are many stories behind the people and creatures immortalised in stone. Perhaps the best known is actually one of the most difficult to see. At the very top of the north tower, the winged archangel Michael is depicted fighting evil in the form of a dragon.
According to the sculptor, the archangel's face is modelled on Bob Dylan, who at the time was a leading voice in the movement against nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War.
Also present are masks, angels, gargoyles, and a large collection of animal life, said to represent the divine work of God's creation.
The church is also known for its stained-glass windows, in particular the rose window on the western facade. This was designed in the early part of the 20th-century along with other new windows during the extensive renovations.
However, when part of the Archbishop's Palace was excavated in the 1990s, fragments of coloured glass were discovered that archaeologists say proves the cathedral did in fact have stained-glass windows in the Middle Ages.
Inside the Cathedral
Many visitors don't set foot inside the building itself. If your time in Trondheim is limited or you are just interested in churches for their architectural merit, then that's fine. But if you're more interested in the religious aspect of the cathedral, grab a ticket and step inside.
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Although the interior is kept fairly dark, you can still admire the Romanesque and Gothic architecture. Features to look out for include the octagonal shrine, two altars, and the medieval chapter house.
One of the more intriguing elements of the cathedral's interior is the crypt, now home to a collection of marble gravestones. The vault is accessible via a narrow, steep staircase and is definitely not a recommended experience for claustraphobics!
During high season (June to August), you can also climb the 172 steps up the main tower for an additional fee. The views over Trondheim's centre are said to be unbeatable, but despite having lived in Trondheim since 2013, I still haven't gotten around to it!
The Archbishop's Palace
The adjacent Archbishop's Palace was built in the 12th-century and was expanded several times over the years. Today, it is one of the best preserved buildings of its type in all of Europe.
Throughout its long life it as acted as the residence of some of Norway's most powerful men and a military site, but today houses a museum telling the story of Nidaros through the ages.
Sculptures saved from the original building and archeological discoveries from the site throughout the years are among the highlights. In actual fact, I find the museum more interesting than the church itself!
One terrific example is the excavated mint, which the museum was built around because of its importance. Traces of wear on the floor show where people moved between the hearth and the work benches, where individual coins were struck. The entire workshop is kept moist and closely monitored to conserve its condition.
Another highlight that many people miss: Norway's crown regalia is on display in another small museum on site. The collection includes the coronation crowns of the King and Queen and other ceremonial items.
Made in Stockholm in 1818, the current King's crown is made of gold with amethysts, pearls and tourmaline, lined with a red velvet cap. Children have the opportunity to dress up as royalty – or a viking – and have their picture taken.
Hiking to Nidaros
It might be lesser known than Spain's Camino de Santiago, but the Pilgrim Way of Norway still attracts pilgrims (and keen hikers!) from all over the world.
As they did throughout the Middle Ages, pilgrims make the journey over the Norwegian mountains on one of several routes from within Norway, but also from Denmark and Sweden.
The journey is a lot more comfortable today, with lodgings and clearly marked trails provided. During the summer, Nidaros Cathedral welcomes pilgrims with a special daily service every evening, while travellers can receive the St. Olav’s letter, proof of their journey.
St. Olav's Festival
The cult of Olav was so strong that it survived the reformation and the anniversary of his death remained the most important national day throughout the Middle Ages, and up to the 19th-century.
Even after Norway's constitution day became the country's prime celebration, the day remembering St Olav (known in Norwegian as Olsok) remains important.
In and around Nidaros Cathedral, St Olav's Festival takes place every year attracting people from all over the world to Trondheim. A medieval market, concerts, reenactments and guided tours are just some of the many varied activities on the calendar.
Olsok celebrations are also held at Stiklestad, where Olav was said to have fallen. Budget has been set aside by the government to mark the 1,000th anniversary of the Battle of Stiklestad in 2030. Watch this space!
Practical information about visiting
Nidaros Cathedral is open all year round, although opening hours are extended during the summer season. Outside those months, the cathedral can close to visitors as early as 3pm.
Unlike many other tourist attractions, the mornings can often be the busiest time, but not because of church services.
The two Hurtigruten ships that call daily at Trondheim (northbound and southbound) both arrive in the morning. That said, if there's another cruise ship docked in the city, you can expect the cathedral to be busy all day.
Entrance to any one of the cathedral's three attractions (the cathedral itself, the museum, the crown regalia) costs 100kr, and a combination ticket is available for 180kr. Discounts are available for children under 16, students with valid ID, and families (two adults and up to three children).
Tickets should be bought from the visitor centre, which is in the modern building to the left of the west front, as you're looking at it. Here you'll also find an interesting gift shop and a cafe.
However, I would recommend you head to the nearby Ni Muser (it's just behind Trondheim Art Museum) for your coffee instead, especially if you also want a bite to eat.
Where to stay
Any city centre hotel is well-suited for a visit here, although the closest is the Comfort Hotel Park. Also close by, the riverside Nidaros Pilegrimsgård offers hostel accommodation and other services for hiking pilgrims, but also regular bed and breakfast rooms for other travellers.
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