Best Stave Churches in Norway to Explore

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STAVE CHURCHES in Norway

There’s no denying it, mother nature gave Norway more than its fair share of beauty. With its craggy snow-crested mountains thrusting from deep, emerald green fjords, the mystical Northern Lights that shimmer across a midnight sky and cascading waterfalls enshrined in mystery. Could there be more? Oh yes.

Reminiscent of Viking times and intertwined with Norse mythology, stand the ethereal, wooden Norway stave churches. Mother nature will need to share the accolades.

black timbered stave church
Borgund Stave Church

What is a Stave in Norway?

First things first, we need to clarify what is a stave in Norway. Designs for Norway’s stave churches differed but they all shared a common feature in that they were built with major uprights or ‘staves’.

Staves of Borgund stave church
Staves within the Borgund stave church

These corner post staves then formed the framework of the central room from which the skeletal framework of wall planks was hung. These were then called ‘stave walls’. The curved parts of the building were taken from the naturally occurring ‘knees’ of a tree between the trunk and the roots.

Construction of Stave Churches in Norway

Stave churches Norway were built of a preserved old-growth pine that was left to stand vertically after cutting, to allow the sap or pine resin to be drawn upwards to the top of the timber and branch sockets. From here, the sap would fall prey to gravity and soak the timber as it travelled toward earth thus creating protection for the timber and importantly, resistance to rot. This helped greatly, as many of the earlier built Norway stave churches used a construction method using earthbound staves.

However, a later and more effective structural improvement was to sit these vertical staves on sills or foundations of stone. This technique was key to timber preservation (to prevent dampness and resultant rot) as attested by the remaining historical stave churches, all of which rest on such sills.

It is thought that the master skills of craftsmen gained during boat building were used during the stave church construction. What gives this idea credence is that the interior design of a stave church is similar in construction to that seen of the interior of a Viking longship.

Borgund stave church roof interior.
The inner roof structure resembles that of a boat

Another part of the successful preservation of timber is owed to the application of coats of tar to the timbers. Pine timber was placed in a kiln and under low heat conditions, the wood was reduced to charcoal with the black tar by-product. The tar has a distinctive and pleasing pine scent and was commonplace in all the stave churches we visited.

We spoke to a painter at Heddal stave church who said he re-applies the tar to the exterior of the church every couple of years and the job takes months to complete. The tar was manufactured, as much as possible, to the methods of old. 

Stave-church-exterior
Pine tar is applied to the exterior of the stave church

When were stave churches built in Norway?

Norwegian stave churches, architectural marvels of their day, were mostly built between the 12th and 14th centuries for the Roman-Catholic church. However, in 1536, the Evangelical Lutheran faith replaced Catholicism during a period known as the Protestant Reformation.

What happened to stave churches?

There were once thought to be over 1000 medieval Norway stave churches existing at one time. Today, however, there are but 28 beautiful stave churches remaining in Norway. The Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage between the years of 2001 and 2015 undertook The Stave Church Preservation Programme in an effort to restore Norway’s architectural heritage. Skilled craftsmen were used to not only assess the structures but also to employ the original building methods and techniques, as much as possible, during the restoration process.

wooden designs in a wooden building
Borgund stave church interior

How many stave churches in Norway?

Norway claims the bulk, with 28 of 31 historical stave churches, worldwide. Both Sweden and Poland have one historical stave church each with the Polish stave church actually originating in Norway. England’s very own St. Andrews Church, located in Greensted, lays claim to not only being the oldest wooden church in the world but also the oldest ‘stave built’ timber building in Europe, dating back to about 1060 AD.

wooden stave church exterior dragon heads
Borgund stave church dragon head exterior

Interesting Norway Stave Church Facts

  • The oldest stave church in Norway is the Urnes stave church, in the municipality of Luster in Sogn og Fjordane county and is included on the UNESCO world heritage list
  • The largest remaining stave church is Heddal stave Church in Eastern Norway. Measuring 26 metres high, 20 metres long and 16 metres wide
  • It is believed that between the 12th and 14th centuries there were around 2000 stave churches in Norway
  • Sometimes you are able to see what are now near-invisible runes on the stave walls and staves
  • 2 recent stave church replicas exist internationally: Iceland’s Heimaey stave church in Vestmannaeyjar (built 2000) and USA’s Chapel in the Hills in South Dakota (built 1969) which is a replica of Norway’s Borgund stave church

OUR FAVOURITE NORWAY STAVE CHURCHES

We made sure that during our Norwegian road trips we included these stave churches on our must-see list. 

Here are the five that have dazzled us so far:

stave church in a green grassed cemetery
1. Røldal
Black Stave church with a green forest behind it
2. Borgund
Stave church with a fjord and mountains as a backdrop
3. Hopperstad
Stave church with a blue sky
4. Heddal
Gol stave church
5. Gol

MAP: WHERE TO FIND THE BEST NORWAY STAVE CHURCHES

To use this map, expand it using the square symbol on the top right-hand side and then look to the key on the left-hand side. By clicking each location you will find the corresponding position on the map. 

church door runes
Church door runes or maybe just ancient graffiti

Many of the original Norway stave churches had survived up to the 19th century but a law was introduced stating that churches must be able to hold at least a third of the local population which resulted in new churches being built and the dismantling of stave churches.

In more recent times, since 1992, twenty-two stave churches have unnecessarily found their demise at the hands of arsonists.

BEST STAVE CHURCHES IN NORWAY


RØLDAL STAVE CHURCH

wooden stave church
The picturesque Røldal stave church
Wooden stave church in a mountain setting
Røldal stave church

Year of Construction: 1250

Location: Odda municipality of Hordaland county, Norway within the village of Røldal

This church was an important pilgrimage site in Norway up until 1835. A crucifix inside the church, dating back to the 13th century, was said to ‘sweat’ each year and it was this sweat that held healing powers.

In the early 20th century the church underwent a major renovation and the outer walls are now protected with an outer wooden layer. To this day, Røldal Stave Church still operates as the parish church for Røldal.

RODAL STAVE CHURCH INFORMATION

  • Opening times: 10 am to 4 pm each day however this is a general rule and it is best to confirm that the church is open for the dates of your visit by contacting:
  • Tourist Information in Bergen,
    Strandkaien 3, NO-5014 Bergen Norway
    Tel.: (+47) 55 55 20 00
    E-mail: [email protected] 
  • Cost: 50 Nok per person
  • Free parking is available close by the stave church;
  • Guided tours are available by contacting: Guidetelefon + 47 4810 9284 or via email: [email protected]

Want to include this stave church in your own road trip? Grab some ideas from our Norway itinerary.

BORGUND STAVE CHURCH AND BELL TOWER

black wooden stave church on a small hill
The beautifully preserved Borgund stave church
Borgund stave church and bellw tower with new Borgund church
Borgund stave church with a bell tower and the new red timbered Borgund church

Year of Construction: Around 1180

Location: Lærdal municipality in Sogn og Fjordane county, Norway within the township of Borgund

This is one of the best-preserved stave churches in Norway and has been used as a template for the renovation of other stave churches. 

It is characterised by its carved portals, the dragon’s head carvings that adorn the rooftops and the scale-like wooden shingles on the roof. The interior is far from plain, with many different designs and patterns on its wooden walls.

Close by the Borgund Stave Church is the only free-standing stave bell tower in Norway and is believed to have been built in the 13th century. In 1868, one of its two large bells was shifted into the ‘new’ Borgund Church.

borgund bell tower and stave church in background
Borgund bell tower with Borgund stave church in the background

Borgund stave church existed as the county parish up until 1854 and in 1877 was purchased by the National Trust of Norway to save it from demolition and hence proclaimed a museum.

Mythical runes on the door and staves
Mythical runes on the door and staves
stave church roof
Borgund Stave Church

Of interest is the nearby Kongsvegen or The Kings Road that passes a short distance behind the Borgund Stave Church. This hand-built paved road was completed in 1793. We hiked part of this historic route and you can read more here in our 10 of the Most Spectacular Hikes in Norway article.

Borgund stave church in a country background
Borgund Stave Church

BORGUND STAVE CHURCH INFORMATION

  • Opening times: 01 June to 30 Sept. each day from 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM 
  • Cost: Adult: 100 Nok, Children: 80 Nok (the entrance fee to the Stave Church also includes entrance to the Borgund Stavkyrkje visitor centre, about 100m from the church.
  • Contact[email protected] or Tourist Information in Bergen, Strandkaien 3, NO-5014 Bergen Norway, Tel.: (+47) 55 55 20 00, E-mail: [email protected]  / www.visitBergen.com

HOPPERSTAD STAVE CHURCH

black wooden stave church with fjord in background
Hopperstad stave church overlooking the fjord
stave church craftsman names etched in wood
Inscriptions of the craftsman’s names – Hopperstad stave church
wood carvings inside a church
Intricate carvings in the wood – Hopperstad stave church

Year of Construction: 1130

Location: Vik Municipality of Vestland county in the village of Vikøyri

This triple-nave stave church proudly stands just outside the village of Vikøyri with panoramic views over Vikøyri and the Sognefjord.

From the outside, the roof is adorned with popular dragon head depictions.

Interestingly, if you view the church roof from the inside, it takes the shape of an inverted boat with its exposed ribs. Looking closely at the walls reveals runic inscriptions and symbols. Even the door bears the carver’s marks. It was common to bury the dead underneath the church floor but this practice ceased early in the 19th century partly due to the smell.

stave church inside wood carvings
Hopperstad stave church interior

HOPPERSTAD STAVE CHURCH INFORMATION

  • Opening times: 01 June to 30 September and each day between 9:00 am and 4:00 pm.
  • Cost: Adult: 80 Nok, Children: 60 Nok
  • Contact: +47 57695270 / [email protected] or  email ‘Visit Sognefjord’ Tourist Information Centre on [email protected]
  • Parking is available right by the church boundary

HEDDAL STAVE CHURCH

Heddal stave church with sun backdrop
Heddal stave church — Norway’s largest

Year of Construction: 1200

Location: Notodden Municipality within Telemark county in the village of Heddal

This mid-13th century stave church is impressive, boasting 3 turrets and over 50 roof surfaces and it rightly claims the title of the largest stave church in Norway.

Heddal stave church is still in use as the main parish church in Heddal. The church’s interior designs reflect legendary myths of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer seen in wall paintings and an altar dating back to the 17th century.

The four doorways are heavily carved with each facing one of the main directions on a compass. Men, women, clergy and processions used their own doorways in an effort to ward off evil spirits.

Heddal stave church with cemetery
Heddal stave church catching the late afternoon light
Heddal stave church undergoing painting with pine tar
Heddal stave church undergoing painting with pine tar

HEDDAL STAVE CHURCH INFORMATION

  • Opening times: late June to Mid-August each day between 10:00 am and 5:00 pm
  • Cost: Adult: 80 Nok
  • For additional information contact: Håvard Russnes tel. 915 67 600 [email protected];  Anne Marie Halvorsen tel. 922 04 435 [email protected]

GOL STAVE CHURCH

wooden stave church amongst pine trees
Gol stave church – renovated and relocated to Oslo

Year of Construction: approx. 1200

Location: Oslo at the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History 

The Gol Stave Church was originally from Gol, Buskerud Municipality in Viken county, Norway. In 1885, this church was due for demolition but was instead gifted to the King of Norway who moved it from the mountains to Oslo and reconstructed it to resemble its original look.

The Gol stave church is now a museum located in the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History on Bygdøy, a peninsula on the west side of Oslo. 

Taking pride in place on the hill within the museum grounds is the Gol stave church. At the church entrance, we met Annie, a local guide who was resplendent in national dress. In Norway, the ‘bunad’ is the name for the folk costume for both women and men and worn most commonly on Norway’s national day, 17th July or Constitution Day. Follow the link to our article where we share our experience of 17th July in Norway.

Typically a bunad can cost between 30,000 and 40,000 Nok (Norwegian Kroner) which averages out to USD$3,500 or GBP2,900. Yes, it’s an investment! This link takes to you a Norwegian site where you can see the different regional designs of bunad.

I digress, now back to the Gol. Annie, our guide, was really knowledgeable and shared the history of the church and stave churches in general. She walked us through the church pointing out under torchlight nearly invisible runes on the walls and staves. One of the memorable stories she told us was that the women always stood on the north side of the church in the event that the demons should get in. This way the women would be taken first!

gol stave church wooden roof structures ininterior
Pine staves and panels in the Gol stave church
gol stave church altar with motifs
Painted scenes inside the Gol stave church
lady in traditional norwegian dress outside a stave church
‘Annie’ – our informative guide at the Gol stave church in traditional Norwegian ‘bunad’
man phootgraphing a stave church from outside
Gol stave church

GOL STAVE CHURCH INFORMATION

  • Opening Times: 01 Jan to 30 April each day 11:00 am to 4:00 pm; 01 May to 30 Sept 10:00 am to 5:00 pm;
  • Free wifi throughout the museum grounds
  • Contact: Oslo Visitor Centre, Call centre: +47 23 10 62 00, Mon – Fri 09:00 to 16:00hrs or email: [email protected]  OR Norsk Folkemuseum, 22 12 37 00, or email: [email protected]

MAP OF NORWAY’S REMAINING STAVE CHURCHES

Below is a map showing the remaining 28 stave churches in Norway and a list if you want to be familiar with the names.

Map showing the remaining stave churches in Norway
  • Borgund stave church
  • Eidsborg stave church
  • Flesberg stave church
  • Garmo stave church
  • Gol stave church
  • Grip stave church
  • Haltdalen stave church
  • Hedalen stave church
  • Heddal stave church
  • Hegge stave church
  • Hopperstad stave church
  • Høre stave church
  • Høyjord stave church
  • Kaupanger stave church
  • Kvernes stave church
  • Lom stave church
  • Lomen stave church
  • Nore stave church
  • Øye stave church
  • Reinli stave church
  • Ringebu stave church
  • Rollag stave church
  • Rødven stave church
  • Røldal stave church
  • Torpo stave church
  • Undredal stave church
  • Urnes stave church
  • Uvdal stave church

VISITING STAVE CHURCHES AROUND NORWAY

Norway stave churches are dotted all around the country and the easiest and most time-effective option is to have your own vehicle.

This means you have control over when you need to get going and which direction you can head. If we need to hire a vehicle then we use Rentalcars.com to find the best car rental deals.

Best Stave Churches in NORWAY ROUND-UP

In all our travels we’ve not seen the likes of these architectural masterpieces anywhere. Norway stave churches surely represent quintessential ‘old Norway’ at its very best. And to think that these beautiful works of art were built not by master craftsmen, but by talented local tradesmen.

Have you visited any of the Norway stave churches? Did you have a favourite? We loved visiting the stave churches and we’d really like to hear what you thought of them. Feel free to drop a comment below.

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Norway Stave Churches

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