Norway’s Stunning Stave Churches in Pictures

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Rural Norway isn't just about fjords and mountains. You'll also find a handful of simply stunning wooden churches. Come take a closer look at some of the best.

Norwegian stave churches, dating back to the Middle Ages, are remarkable architectural treasures representing Norway's rich cultural and religious history.

Aerial summer view of Urnes Stave church in Lustrafjorden in Norway.
Urnes stave church has an almost fairytale setting.

Simply put, stave describes the architectural style whereby the walls were constructed of upright planks, or staves.

They are an instantly recognisable icon of rural Norway, and quite distinct from the other churches and cathedrals in Norway built in later centuries.

These historic wooden churches are true landmarks of Norway, so much so that they inspired some of the settings in the Disney movie Frozen.

Many of Norway's stave churches feature a curious mix of Christian and Norse decor, capturing a moment in time when Norwegians weren't prepared to fully abandon their old gods. Just in case…

Stave churches in Norway

In the Middle Ages, there were probably more than a thousand stave churches across the Norwegian countryside, and in much of northern Europe. But today, just 28 remain standing in Norway, and just a handful elsewhere.

Detail on Lom Stave Church in Norway

Most of the surviving stave churches in Norway were built in the years from 1150 to 1350.

Stave churches older than the 1100s are known only from written sources or from archaeological excavations, but written sources are rare and those that do exist are difficult to interpret.

Let's take a look at some of the best examples around the country.

Urnes, Sogn og Fjordane

This UNESCO World Heritage site was built in the 12th and 13th centuries and is an outstanding example of traditional wooden architecture in Norway. It brings together traces of Celtic art, Viking traditions and Romanesque spatial structures.

Beautiful Urnes Stave Church in Norway
Urnes Stave Church.

So, why is this one of Norway's eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites? I'll let UNESCO explain.

From their website: “The stave churches are representative of the highly developed tradition of wooden buildings that extended through the Western European cultural sphere during the Middle Ages.”

“Urnes is one of the oldest of the Norwegian stave churches and an exceptional example of craftsmanship. It also reveals the development from earlier techniques and therefore contributes to the understanding of the development of this specific tradition.”

Detail on Urnes Stave Church in Sogn og Fjordane
Detail on Urnes Stave Church.

“Urnes Stave Church is an ancient wooden building and is outstanding due to the large-scale reuse of both decorative and constructive elements originating from a stave church built about one century earlier. It is an outstanding example of the use of wood to express the language of Romanesque stone architecture.”

Heddal, Vestfold & Telemark

The largest of all remaining stave churches in Norway, Heddal stave church is an impressive sight:

Norway's largest stave church is Heddal in Notodden, Telemark.
Heddal Stave Church.

Following a 1950s renovation, the original structure and many details have once again become visible. Both medieval decorations and the seventeenth century redecoration can be seen.

You'll also hear the strange legend of the five farmers of Heddal who decided to build the church.

The church is open to visitors from early May to mid-September, but opens late on Sundays (after services) and is sometimes closed on Saturdays due to weddings.

Lamp inside Heddal Stave Church in Norway

Guided tours in Norwegian and English are included in the 80kr entrance fee. It's also worth checking out the nearby Heddal open air museum, open from mid-June to the end of August.

Borgund, Sogn og Fjordane

Norway's most visited and arguably its most authentic stave church, Borgund Stave Church lies between Flåm and Jotunheimen National Park at the heart of the country.

A 19th-century parish church stands immediately next door so the stave church is only open as a museum and not for services. Replicas exist in Germany and in the USA in South Dakota and Connecticut.

Believed to have been built sometime between 1180 and 1250 AD with later additions and restorations, Borgund is built on a basilica plan, with reduced side aisles, and an added chancel and apse.

The remarkable Borgund stave church in the fjords of Norway.
Borgund Stave Church.

It has tiered, overhanging roofs, topped with a tower. The roof is notable for its four dragon heads, reminiscent of those from old Viking longships.

Adjacent you'll find a modern visitor centre with exhibits on the stave church’s influence on everyday medieval life in Norway, along with other stave churches and Viking artefacts. Several interesting walks also start near the church.

Lom, Oppland

Located on route 15 between the E6 highway and Geiranger, Lom stave church is a popular tourist stop for those driving out to the famous Geirangerfjord.

A stunning stave church in Lom, Norway
Lom Stave Church. Photo: David Nikel.

The approach to the church, sandwiched as it is between the Reinheimen and Breheimen mountains, is truly spectacular.

Originally built in the 12th-century, the Lom church was expanded in the 17th-century but lots of original features remain. It is still in use as a parish church and is one of the largest examples of stave architecture in the country.

Exterior detail of Lom Stave Church in the Norwegian countryside.
Lom Stave Church. Photo: David Nikel.

If you're driving from the E6 out towards Geiranger then you'll pass right by the church, so it's a great place to plan a rest stop.

Lom is also the beginning of the Sognefjellet National Scenic Route, northern Europe’s highest mountain pass with striking views around every twist and turn.

Kaupanger, Sogn og Fjordane

The architecture and interior of Kaupanger's stave church is notably different from other examples in Norway. Its height is its most notable feature, along with the lack of carvings on the wall and in the interior.

Kaupanger stavkirke
Kaupanger Stave Church.

The church has been in continuous use as the local parish church since its construction in the 12th-century. Archeological excavations revealed that the adjacent farm can be traced back to at least 1800 BC.

The church is another great option for those taking a road trip around the Sognefjord area. It is within relatively short driving distance of both Urnes and Borgund, featured above, and close to the Sogn Fjord Museum.

Ringebu, Oppland

Located just off the main E6 highway in the Gudbrandsdalen valley around 50km north of Lillehammer, this large stave church has been in almost constant use since it was built in the 13th century.

Ringebu church in Oppland, north of Oslo, Norway

The building underwent substantial expansion in the 17th-century, when a new transept and tower were added, among other features.

Many original parts do remain however, so this is a must-stop if you're driving from Oslo towards Trondheim, Ålesund, or the Atlantic Road.

Hegge, Valdres

Many of Norway’s remaining stave churches are of simpler designs, such as this one in Valdres. Built in the early 13th century, Hegge Stave Church remains in use today.

Hegge Stave Church. Photo: David Nikel.
Hegge Stave Church. Photo: David Nikel.

Visitors pass through a charming gate from the Middle Ages. There’s also a standalone wooden bell tower.

Fantoft, Bergen

Named after the suburb of Bergen in which it now stands, Fantoft isn't counted among the 28 stave churches in Norway. Not only was it moved from Fortun on the Sognefjord to Bergen in 1881, it was also destroyed by arson in 1992.

Stave Church in Fantoft, a suburb of Bergen, Norway
Fantoft Stave Church. Photo: David Nikel.

The church has been reconstructed exactly as it was using traditional building techniques, so it's still worth a look if you are in Bergen and don't have the chance to make it out into the countryside. Read more about this church.

These are just a few of the stave churches in Norway. Many of the lesser-known ones are still worth a visit, so I hope this article has inspired you to do so.

If you've been blown away by the beauty of Norway's stave church architecture, why not share your love on Pinterest? Hit the Pinterest button for the ideal pin.

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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10 thoughts on “Norway’s Stunning Stave Churches in Pictures”

  1. I love Stave churches! Thanks for sharing. Is there a map to guide one to all of these? I would love to see them all.

  2. Love all the stave churches, but the one in Lom is our favorite. My husband’s grandmother was confirmed there, and his second cousin was married there. We visited the church in 2002 and were so impressed. Some of the graves around the church are my husband’s great grandparents and other family members. Visiting there was very special and memorable.

  3. Are there special efforts made to preserve these churches? I was particularly wondering about wood preservatives to protect the outer structure. I have visited the replica church in Moorhead, Minnesota, and found it very interesting. My great grandparents immigrated from Rollag, Numedal in 1896.

  4. My father was raised in Bagn Valdrus Have visited Reinli stave church many times. The history very interesting Thanks for the tour of others. Bob Bratrud

  5. you have several photos of the roof peak decorations that appear to be dragons or something.
    Do you know what these are called, their origin, etc.?
    Are they related to the decorative/functional prows on Viking ships?

  6. I would very much like to see photos of the interiors of these churches. Seeing their exteriors sparks this interest. Also I would like to know about their progression from Catholic to Protestant or whatever and view pictures of the services.


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