Fjords for miles, storybook streetscapes, sunsets at midnight, and Michelin-starred restaurants. Fathom's California Chaney checks into the storied and newly revamped Britannia Hotel and has a perfect late-spring weekend in Trondheim, Norway's hidden gem of the North.
TRONDHEIM, Norway — I arrived to the charming city of Trondheim in time for May 17, Norway's Nasjonaldagen or National Day, a celebration of the 1814 signing of their constitution. Throughout the country, joyous parades of school children fill the streets, waving enormous flags as marching bands cue hip, hip, horray! to the jolly crowds watching on the sidelines. In the United States, we prefer debauched displays of beer-soaked patriotism. In Norway, the men are dressed in their finest suits and women and children wear bunads, traditional folk dresses decorated with flowing capes and embroidered vests. Nasjonaldagen is an all-day affair, as friends pop champagne from their balconies and children are allowed to eat ice cream and hot dogs to their hearts' desire. Whether it was the jet lag or the crisp northern air (I swear, the cleanest I've ever breathed), it was impossible not to be swept away by the infectious high spirits and inclusive joy. I felt like I was watching the Olympics of happiness.
Lately, Trondheim, Norway's third largest city, 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle, has a lot to hoot and holler about. The food scene, led by creative and charming chefs, is quickly rising to the level of those in Oslo or Copenhagen, as new restaurants sweep Michelin stars left and right. The skyscraper-free downtown is mapped by storybook cobblestone streets that lead to the beautiful Trondheim fjord, lined with colorful 18th-century fisherman's wharves and old wooden A-frame houses. And while the city is more than one thousand years old, there's a youthful vibe in the air, thanks to the tech university in town, Norway's largest.
To add to the city's merriment, Britannia Hotel, recognized as the grand dame of the north since 1870, reopened its doors last April after a three-year, $160-million-dollar renovation. For centuries, visionary politicians, Parisian fashionistas, British aristocracy, and stars of the screen have graced the hotel's hallowed halls. Today, after a 21st-century facelift, the glamorous property is poised and eager to welcome a new generation of worldly travelers. With the reopening, the hotel debuted updated, elegant suites with handmade Swedish Hästens mattresses, a subterranean spa, and trendy new restaurants, one of which earned a Michelin star after a mere ten months.
Although I was invited to stay at Britannia Hotel six weeks after the reopening, it already appeared to operate with the polish of a well-oiled machine. Spirits were high, the staff clearly excited to show off the hotel's new bells and whistles to friends, returning regulars, and first-timers. Greeting us at the concierge desk was Sten Stensrud. His family owned the hotel for decades until 1980, and he has returned to the same position he held as a teenager. Sten recalled memories of eating every meal in the hotel as a child and learning to ride a bike in the iconic dining hall, moving tables out of the way so he could cycle round and round. "It's an honor to be back at Britannia. When I came in and saw how nice the renovation had turned out, I was thinking about my parents and my grandparents. They would be very happy," said Sten, smiling from cheek to cheek. While Britannia's reputation and legacy are built on five-star service, it's tales like Sten's and those of the people who work at, live in, and visit the hotel that make it a destination — a place to leave a little part of your spirit.
Location: Britannia Hotel is located on a peaceful street in the center of the city. A few blocks from the beautiful Nidelva River and historic Old Town Bridge, which locals call Lykkens Portal — "the gate of happiness."
Style: A story is told in every elegant detail.
This Place Is Perfect For: Affluent travelers who enjoy a high level of decadence, including Michelin-starred room service.
But Not So Perfect For: Budget travelers, young couples, and groups of friends who enjoy the hipper, grungier scenes in Oslo and Bergen.
What's On Site: In addition to chic new interiors in guest rooms, the renovation included a new spa with a heated lap pool, sauna, steam room, ice bath, infrared cabin, and hot tub with a starry-night illuminated dome. Treatments are specifically designed for travelers, soothing the aches and pains of a long transcontinental flight. The 24-hour fitness center has spinning bikes, training machines and rowers, along with small group classes and one-on-one personal trainers.
Food + Drink: Only ten months after opening, Britannia's flagship restaurant, Spielsalen (translation: "House of Mirrors"), proudly received its first Michelin star. Located in the hotel's original ballroom, the 18th-century crystal chandeliers, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and curtained metal enclosures resembling giant birdcages set the meal in a fantastical wonderland. This is the first restaurant for head chef and 2017 Bocuse d’Or silver medalist Christopher Davidsen, who incorporates gastronomic excitement into every course of the tasting menu (ten in total), perfecting the element of surprise: Each reveals a story of his childhood on the ocean. While dining, I felt as though I was witnessing a ballet: elegant courses danced among the room's mirrors, and the well-rehearsed servers, chefs, and sommeliers gracefully presented each course as an edible fairy tale. The wine pairing was selected by four-time Norwegian wine sommelier champion Henrik Dahl Jahnsen. Diners who want a close-up of the action should request the counter bar, which seats up to four guests, where the menu is served banquet-style, Davidsen plating and presenting everyone's dish simultaneously. After the Michelin win, scoring a reservation is quite a feat, so hotel staff advise to make reservations several weeks or months in advance.
Spielsalen isn't the hotel's only on-site restaurant worth trying: On the subterranean level, Jonathan Grill is the first restaurant in Norway to feature smoke-free, Japanese table grills where guests can cook their own meats, seafood, and vegetables. Palmhaven, the hotel's iconic grand dining hall since 1918, serves breakfast with an impressive buffet and a dedicated "breakfast Champagne menu," along with afternoon high tea and musical performances. The casual, all-day French-bistro Brasserie Britannia is popular with locals and hotel guests alike, with draft beers on tap and no-fuss, comfort classics like croque monsieur and onion soup.
Whether you identify as a oenophile or simply enjoy the house red, a visit to the hotel's Vinbaren is a must — the subterranean wine cellar is home to more than 10,000 bottles. To challenge the sommeliers, ask for a region and vintage to match your birth year and country. (They'll probably have it.) Cocktail aficionado will love Britannia Bar, where head bartender Øyvind Lindgjerdet crafts cocktails inspired by weird and wonderful Trondheim stories, such as government-approved piracy during the Napoleonic Gunboat Wars, a New Year's Eve party gone wrong, and a notorious teetotal highway patrol officer.
Number of Rooms: 257 rooms and suites are fit for royalty — individually designed and decorated in Scandinavia's best, with a palette of rich grays and golds, velvet furniture, chinoiserie wallpaper, and cloud-like Hästens mattresses. The supreme Colonialmajoren suite located in the building's 1897 wing highlights the historical elegance of Britannia, with a large seating area, dining table, spacious wardrobes, a "glam" room, and a stand-alone, golden clawfoot tub in the marble bathroom. Many suites connect to additional second or third bedrooms, making them ideal for families or guests who want extra space to entertain.
Drawbacks: Casual clothes don't fly in five of the six restaurants, so pack the finery.
Standout Detail: The staff and service are exceptional. The management clearly spent a lot of time cultivating the best talent for the reopening, and it shows.
With a popular under 200,000, Trondheim is bite-size in comparison to other European cities. However, it is one where history and modernity, as well as the old and the young, live happily side by side. For example, on one side of the fjord stands the world's northernmost Catholic cathedral; on the other, Norway's largest university. Nidaros Cathedral, the largest medieval building in Scandinavia, is built on the burial site of King Olav II, the country's patron saint, and was the site of coronation for new kings. Today it sits at the end of a religious pilgrimage trail across Norway. Travelers place rocks on his altar and descend the claustrophobic stairs into the cathedral's crypt to see the collection of marble gravestones.
The walkable city has all the charm and well-being of its Scandinavian neighbors, but rivals (and, I would argue, tops) that of Oslo or Copenhagen as a culinary destination. Especially if you like like seafood as much as I do. For the three days I was here, I ate a small ocean's bounty.
The young chefs in Trondheim put sustainability at the forefront, crafting an unpretentious yet refined dining scene, taking advantage of Trondheim's access to both fjords and farmland. In 2019, Credo's Heidi Bjerkan becomes the first female Norwegian chef to receive a Michelin star, along with a sustainability award. In the same year, Fagn, by chef Jonas Nåvik (who apprenticed under Bjerkan), earned its star within two years of opening. At this year's ceremony, Britannia's Spielsalen earned the city its third star.
But Michelin stars are only part of the story. This is apparent at To Rom og Kjøkken (translated as "Two Rooms and a Kitchen"), where owners Roar Hildonen and Alexander Skjefte show their appreciation for local Norwegian producers, serving pillowy scallops from the nearby island of Frøya with fermented lime and whipped-to-perfection mashed potatoes that almost had me in tears. The restaurant's wine list features more than 600 labels, along with a signature aperitif from local E.C. Dahls brewery: a Kyoto-style fruit beer brewed with juniper, lemon, sea buckthorn, passion fruit, and mint.
Another favorite meal was brunch at Bula, a "neobistro" by Top Chef Norway 2016 winner and cookbook author Renee Fagerhøi, who serves an eclectic mix of comfort dishes inspired by her upbringing on a Norwegian farm. After hours of National Day parading, I feasted on buttery, sunny-side up eggs over local asparagus, simple salmon and white garlic soup drizzled with house-made herbal marmalade. For dessert, a thick slice of lemon and almond cake topped with a dollop of buttercream. The vivacious and talented chef is also a great entertainer, sharing her inspiration with patrons in the playful dining room with palm-print wallpaper and a bathtub filled with chilling bottles of Champagne.
What to Do Nearby
Cross Gamle Bybro, the iconic red-painted bridge, to get to Bakklandet, Trondheim's old town, bustling with locals and student. The main drag parallel to Nidelva River, Øvre Bakklandet, is a cobbled street of wooden houses and laid-back vibes where outdoor, bistro-style cafes serve coffee, tapas, and local Trøndelag beers, and independent boutiques sell flowers, clothes, and home goods. At the end of the bridge is Trampe, the world’s first bicycle lift, an electric footplate that runs alongside curb, pulling bikers uphill to the university. It reminded me of a lo-fi T-bar lift on a ski-slope. Here's a tourist tip: Leave this one to the locals. It's harder than it looks.
It's a 10-minute walk from the hotel to the waterfront, where you can view the Nidelva River and its picturesque, multi-colored boathouses. But to experience this 80-mile-long inlet like the locals, get out onto the water. The hotel can arrange a day tour to Sula, Bogøy, Frøya, Hitra, and other tiny remote islands in the Øyrekka archipelago with a local operator. Wold KystTransport picked us up in the port, providing appropriate lifejackets, water suits, goggles, and gloves. (It's cold out there.) After slowly pulling out of the fjord, our driver told us to hold on tight before he put the throttle into full drive and zipped across the Norwegian sea for an exhilarating, 90-minute ride. While the fjords are smooth and clear for kayaking, swimming, and boating, the deep blue is surrounded by wind-blown, low-hanging islands and oyster farms. Fisherman look out for the spout of passing whales beneath the large whitecaps.
The population on each island ranges from 15 to 20 year-round residents. I noted one grocery store, very few cars, and children traveling to the mainland via a local ferry to go to school. Per Scandinavian tradition, every island also has a local pub that may be small in size but mighty in seafood. We ate course after course of freshly-caught langoustine, scallops, and shrimp, paired with pints of Norwegian beer, at the cozy brew pubs Terna Brygge on Sula and Ansnes Brygger on Hitra.
If all this has you fantasizing about life as a salty sailor, consider a stay at the centuries-old lighthouse on Sula, which has two rooms available to rent in the warmer months. If solitude gets old, stop by Tom Kjærås' boathouse, where he and his wife, Evelyn, invite visitors for homemade bread and flavorful snacks made from edible plants foraged from their own yard. Their motto: "If you can't weed it, eat it."
Plan Your Trip
Getting There and Around
SAS and Norwegian airlines offer direct flights from Oslo to Trondheim in less than an hour. There's no need to rent a car, as the hotel can arrange transfers to and from the airport and Trondheim is very walkable.