The ancient Heddal stave church in Norway

Stave churches are integrated into Norwegian heritage and one of the main symbols of Norway, falling behind its stunning fjords and mountains. Before going to Norway, I had no idea what one was but glad I happened upon them while traveling around.

Characteristics of the churches

A stave church is a wooden medieval Christian church. The prefix ‘stave‘ reflects how they were built by framing logs of timber called staver in Norwegian.

Though there is thought to have been around 2000 of these structures built in Northern Europe, Norway is currently the only country in Northern Europe where intact ones remain. Other churches in Europe does resemble the characteristics of these wooden churches, but aren’t generally considered to be stave churches.

There are currently 28 left scattered about the country.

Unlike the massive stone churches that can be found in the rest of Europe, these are intricate buildings of art and woodwork in which pre-christian Viking motifs from Norse mythology have been incorporated.

Where can you find them?

The oldest and only stave church on the UNESCO World Heritage List is Urnes Stave Church, in Luster, by the Sognefjord. The constructors of this church, who built for a powerful family in the 12th century, took note from other European design trends and  incorporated wooden animal motifs, characteristic of the Viking Age, into the structure.

Urnes, unfortunately, is less visited due to its remote location but still used occasionally for weddings and christenings.

The largest stave church in Norway is Heddal in Telemark,  Notodden municipality, and it is still used today to hold congregations! I got to tour inside the church near closing time and it was so beautiful decorated I didn’t want to touch anything for fear I would ruin it somehow (even though it’s been around since the early 13th century).

The most popular and best preserved church is Borgund built in the 12th century. It is probably the most visited of the remaining churches because of its proximity to the Sognefjord, one of the most accessible fjords in Norway. It now functions as a museum. Here you can see inscriptions in the old runic alphabet and numerous carved dragons on the roof.

The video below gives you  a virtual tour of the Borgund church:

The complete list of Norwegian stave churches

Let’s call it ‘semi-official’, some of them are moved and some are rebuilt.

  • Borgund, Sogn og Fjordane — end of the 12th century
  • Eidsborg, Telemark — middle of the 13th century
  • Flesberg  in Flesberg, Buskerud — c. 1200
  • Fåvang in Ringebu, Oppland — rebuilt in 1630 (two old churches rebuilt as one)
  • Garmo, Oppland — c. 1150
  • Gol in Gol (now at Norsk Folkemuseum), Buskerud — 1212
  • Grip, Møre og Romsdal — second half of the 15th century
  • Haltdalen, Sør-Trøndelag — 1170–1179
  • Hedal, Oppland — second half of the 12th century
  • Heddal, Telemark — beginning of the 13th century
  • Hegge, Oppland — 1216
  • Hopperstad, Sogn og Fjordane — 1140
  • Hylestad, Setesdal — second half of the 12th century
  • Høre, Oppland — 1180
  • Høyjord, Andebu, Vestfold — second half of the 12th century
  • Kaupanger, Sogn og Fjordane — 1190
  • Kvernes, Møre og Romsdal — second half of the 14th century
  • Lomen, Oppland — 1179
  • Lom, Oppland — 1158
  • Nore, Nore og Uvdal, Buskerud — 1167
  • Øye, Oppland — second half of the 12th century
  • Reinli, Oppland — 1190
  • Ringebu, Oppland — first quarter of the 13th century
  • Rollag, Rollag, Buskerud — second half of the 12th century
  • Rødven, Møre og Romsdal — c. 1200
  • Røldal, Hordaland — first half of the 13th century (could be a post church)
  • Torpo, Ål, Buskerud — 1192
  • Undredal, Sogn og Fjordane — middle of the 12th century
  • Urnes, Sogn og Fjordane — first half of the 12th century (on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site)
  • Uvdal, Uvdal, Buskerud — 1168

As you can see from the list, they are scattered throughout the southern part of Norway — several of them are near other popular tourist sights. If you’re going to Norway, make sure you stop by one of these!