From ancient petroglyphs to mighty fjord landscapes and early industrial sites: Eight Norwegian landmarks and areas are included in the UNESCO World Heritage List of the world's most important natural and cultural sites.
What is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
World Heritage is the designation for places on Earth that are of outstanding universal value to humanity and as such, have been inscribed on the World Heritage List to be protected for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.
An important function of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is the conservation of nature and constructions that are not only significant to human history but are considered irreplaceable as well.
The selection is based on ten criteria that range from innovation and historical importance to unique nature.
These World Heritage Sites are found all over the world. Right now, there are more than 1000, covering everything from iconic man-made constructions such as The Great Wall of China, the Sydney Opera House, and the pyramids of Egypt to gigantic national parks, historical settlements, and different cultural and natural landscapes.
In 1979, Bryggen in Bergen was listed as the first Norwegian World Heritage Sites. The Rjukan–Notodden Industrial Heritage Site was added to UNESCO’s list in 2015.
Here are the eight natural and cultural wonders that have made it to the list so far.
Bryggen in Bergen
The beautiful wooden buildings that overlook the bay Vågen remains one of Bergen’s central meeting points to this day. The area dates back to 1070 when the city was founded by King Olaf III, known as Olav Kyrre. Around 1200, Bergen became an economical and administrative hub in Norway, with Bryggen as an increasing centre of commerce.
From the mid-1300s to the mid-1700s, Bryggen was the headquarter for the Hanseatic League, a trade confederation where Germany and Norway (among others) exchanged goods such as stockfish, salt, beer, jewellery, and grains. This was a fertile period for cultural exchange as well, and several German words and expressions have been internalised by the western city’s residents because of it.
The area has had its shares of great fires throughout history – the last one in 1955 – but Bryggen has been protected locally since 1927, and it is still possible to sense the historical vibe as you pass along the slightly leaning buildings. Bryggen in Bergen was the first Norwegian site to be listed by UNESCO, in 1979.
Urnes Stave Church
Among the world’s oldest wooden constructions still intact are the stave churches, most of which are located in Norway. In medieval times, there were between 1,000 and 2,000 of them all over the country. Today, only 28 are left standing. Oldest of them all is probably Urnes Stave Church in the Sognefjord area, which experts believe to be the fourth church building erected at this particular place in 1140.
The church, built in Romanesque style, doesn’t just stand out because of its old age, but for its stately carvings and good condition as well. The staves that carry the structure is lavishly decorated and the carvings depict motifs such as crucifixes, mythological creatures, and plant-shaped ornaments.
Urnes Stave Church is open to the public every day, and it is possible for groups to order a guided tour. The church has been owned by the National Trust of Norway since 1881 and was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1980.
West Norwegian Fjords – Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord
The only Norwegian UNESCO sites based on solely natural criteria are the Geirangerfjord and the Nærøyfjord in Fjord Norway, both highlighted as prime examples of the unique fjord landscape and described by the organization as “exceptional natural beauty”.
In addition to the breathtaking nature where glaciers and waterfalls meet glimmering fjords and dramatic mountains, the cultural landscape – often characterized by old farmhouses and outhouses – adds an extra dimension to the area. At Norwegian Fjordsenter in Geiranger, you can dive deeper into the universe of fjords, at exhibitions that cover geology, history, biology, and environment.
The fjords were listed by UNESCO in 2005.
The Røros Mining Town
In 1980, the mining town of Røros was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. 333 years of mining and urban agriculture had created a totally unique city on the mountain plains.
The mining town has preserved much of its original character, through its street layout from the 1600s and the wooden houses from the 1700s and 1800s. The area’s nature is beautiful and secluded, with old log flumes providing a paddling route between the lakes.
In 2010, the World Heritage Site was expanded to include the surrounding area, which is called the Circumference. The basis for doing so was the important testimony that the Circumference provides us about how mining operations transpired as well as how the inhabitants have adapted to the mountain terrain, local nature, and cold climate.
Rock Art of Alta
Among the man-made World Heritage Sites in Norway, the oldest one by far can be found in the northernmost part of the country. Their exact age is a subject of discussion among scholars, but the petroglyphs and rock paintings in Alta in Finnmark are an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 years old – which make them the most important artefact of the early hunter-gatherer life in the high north discovered thus far.
The rock art includes more than 6,000 carvings and 50 rock paintings, and the motifs range from animal figures and humans to religious images and geometrical shapes. The largest occurrence of petroglyphs is found in Hjemmeluft, where walking paths and guides make it easy to immerse oneself in this unique era of northern life.
The real extent of the petroglyphs was not discovered until 1973, and they were included on UNESCO’s list – described as “an exceptional testimony” of “high artistic quality” – twelve years later, in 1985.
Vegaøyan – The Vega Archipelago
6,500 islands, islets, and reefs by the Helgeland coast make up the Vega islands, which was inducted into UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2004. In this area, the foundation for the modern sea nation was laid as the first settlements were established more than 10,000 years ago. In order to survive, the people here had to be resourceful.
When this fishing community in Northern Norway was announced as a heritage site, UNESCO stated: “The islands bear testimony to a distinctive frugal way of life based on fishing and the harvesting of the down of eider ducks, in an inhospitable environment. The Vega archipelago reflects the way fishermen/farmers have, over the past 1,500 years, maintained a sustainable living and the contribution of women to eiderdown harvesting.”
In modern times, the archipelago has been awarded the Sustainable Destination label, and the British newspaper The Guardian has ranked Vega among the world’s 20 undiscovered island gems. The teeming animal life includes more than 230 different bird species.
Struve Geodetic Arc
An international project initiated by German astronomer Friedrich Georg Willhelm von Struve in 1845, the Struve Geodetic Arc aimed to map Earth’s shape and size by measuring the distance from Hammerfest in Norway to the Black Sea. A large number of measuring points were placed along almost 3,000 kilometres through Norway, Sweden and Russia.
In Norway, Struves geodetic points can be found at four places: Meridianstøtten at Fuglenes in Hammerfest and the mountain tops Lille-Raipas/Unna Ráipásaš in Alta, Luvddiidčohkka (Lodiken) in Kautokeino and Bealjášvárri/Muvravárri in Kautokeino. The former is a particularly popular and unique attraction, as well as the northernmost of the measuring points.
The project lasted for almost 40 years and was the first international project Norway participated in as a nation. The Norwegian measuring points were listed as a World Heritage Site in 2005, along with 32 more in other countries.
Rjukan–Notodden Industrial Heritage Site
The industrial cities Rjukan and Notodden are Norway’s most recent addition to the World Heritage Sites. It was included on UNESCO’s list in 2015, and the Norwegian Crown Prince Haakon marked the occasion in an official ceremony in 2018.
In this part of Telemark, pioneering work took place at the start of the 20th century, as the transition from coal to hydroelectric industrial power played an important part in what is known as “the second industrial revolution” in Northern Europe.
Dams, tunnels, power stations, railways, and ferries are remaining artefacts from an industrial adventure that unfolded in the dramatic Norwegian nature.
The largest power stations of their time were located in the remote Vestfjorddalen valley west of Rjukan. The transport system developed here also contributed to an international standard for electric railroad operations.
Traditional music and dance in Setesdal
On UNESCO's list of intangible heritage
A mere 50 km north of Kristiansand in Southern Norway lies the lush inland valley of Setesdal, a region renowned for its preservation of old customs and traditions. The folk music and dances here have been included on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Here, traditional dance and music are interwoven with everyday life and are still passed on down through the generations. The most common instruments are the Hardanger fiddle and the jaw harp, and the melodies are mostly dance tunes. Traditional vocal styles include kveding and stevjing, the latter using a four-line poetic form often performed by two or more singers, as a call-and-response dialogue.
At the Setesdal Museum at Rysstad you can get to know the rich cultural traditions of Setesdal.
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