May 17 is Norway’s national day and the constitution day, and it’s the biggest annual celebration in Norway. This is the day where everyone goes out to celebrate, eat cake and ice cream, watch the parade, and just have a great day.
Norway’s national day is really something unique, and the experience can be a bit daunting for foreigners and tourists. First of all, let me just say that everyone is welcome to celebrate May 17, so feel free to join as a foreigner.
But since there’s a lot of tradition and special things about May 17, let’s take a closer look at the things you as a foreigner or tourist should know before you celebrate Norway’s national day!
Where to celebrate May 17
Where exactly should you go to celebrate May 17 in Norway? Every town, city and even village will have a May 17 celebration, but the best experiences are in the bigger cities.
If you are able to, head to a city such as Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim or Stavanger. These will have a much more interesting and including celebration than small towns like Odda or towns in Lofoten will.
However, watching the May 17 parade in a smaller town can also be a nice and less tiresome experience.
How and when to celebrate May 17 as a foreigner in Norway
The celebration itself will usually be in the downtown city or city center of the city, and begins at around 10.00 AM. Most places have morning rituals from around 7 or 8 AM as well, but the main children’s parade (barnetoget) usually starts at 10.
It’s common to start the celebration with this children’s parade, go for lunch either at home or at a school, then return to the city center to watch the citizen’s parade.
Start the day by watching the children’s parade and lunch
You will want to get yourself to the city center around 09.00 so that you have enough time to find a good spot and be ready for the parade. It will be very crowded, next to impossible to find car parking, and a bit difficult to maneuver as a group without getting lost.
Most people watch the children’s parade while cheering on. Buy a Norwegian flag and wave it while cheering on, and just enjoy the parade and the marching bands. The children are organized by schools and classrooms, and the royal family will come out to wave to the children in Oslo.
Norwegians typically go to the city to watch the children’s parade, and send the kids off to go in the parade while they find a spot to watch and cheer. After this is done (1 to 2 hours), we typically go to the children’s schools to have some cake, snacks and May 17 games, or home to have something to eat.
Younger people without children also often go to cafés, bars or restaurants to eat or drink with their friends in the time between the children’s parade and the citizen’s parade.
You can hang around in the city between the two parades if you want, or go home and get a bit of rest before the citizen’s parade begins. Some might choose to go to a local school to partake in these activities, but it’s not really common to go to these schools unless you have or know children that attend that school.
Return to the citizen’s parade at 17.00
The citizens parade (borgertoget) tend to start around 17.00. This will be open to clubs, organizations and other types of organized groups, and this will have both children and grown-ups in it.
So when the clock is approaching 5 PM, return to the city center to see the citizen’s parade if you want to. Keep in mind that the area will likely be even more crowded than for the children’s parade, so don’t underestimate how much time you need to get there. Also, it’s going to be near impossible to drive a car in the city center!
Most Norwegian families meet up for dinner (pølse i brød) and cake at their private house after the citizen’s parade. At this point you are pretty much free to do whatever you like. Many people are pretty tired by now, so feel free to go and eat at a restaurant or just chill out and call it a day.
PS. the starting times for both the children’s and citizen’s parade are just estimates, and can change a bit from city to city. So check out the municipality’s website for where you will be staying on May 17 to make sure you find the correct times.
How to act as a foreigner on May 17
Just act respectfully on May 17, and you will be fine. Even though there’s a lot of traditions on May 17, you can do pretty much as you like. So just dress nicely, enjoy yourself, be respectful and watch the parades.
It’s common for people to drink a lot of May 17, but try not to get drunk. This is a celebration where children are in the center, so it’s not nice for people to act like drunk fools during the day.
What to wear on May 17
Some people are under the impression that you have to wear a bunad (traditional Norwegian clothing) on May 17, but the matter of the fact is that only about half of Norwegians do this. So you absolutely do not need to buy a 50.000 NOK piece of clothing to partake in the celebration.
You are expected to dress up a bit, so no hoodies and sweatpants on May 17! Choose a nice dress if you’re a female, and either a suit or just a nice outfit if you are a male. Dress up like you would for a restaurant dinner or a fancy lunch.
And keep in mind that it can get pretty chilly if the wind suddenly picks up in May, so don’t underestimate how nice it is to bring a jacket.
If you want to, you can buy a festdrakt. This is a kind of off-brand bunad without all the silverware and fancy parts, and it’s becoming increasingly popular for Norwegians to wear a festdrakt instead of a bunad.
These festdrakts look a lot like bunads, but only cost 2,000 to 3,000 NOK for a complete set. The two most popular places to buy festdrakt is from Coop Obs and Sparkjøp.
Festdrakts are gaining a lot of popularity, so my guess would be that they are a lot more common in 3 – 4 years from now.
You are also free to buy May 17 ornaments and clip them on your dress or pieces of clothing to make them a bit fancier. These are cheap ornaments in the color of the Norwegian flag that you can wear. Some might find them a bit tacky, but they are part of the celebration, and you are absolutely encouraged to wear them even as a tourist. All grocery stores sell these the last week before May 17.
What to eat and drink on May 17
May 17 a day where everyone eats a lot of food, cake of snacks, but you might be surprised by how much free choice you have to choose what to eat.
The day obviously begins with a breakfast. If you’re a family, then you will want to cover the entire table with different types of things to have on a slice of bread. It’s common to have a bit of fancy things, but the breakfast itself is not that important.
Group of friends often gather for a vennefrokost (friend’s breakfast) where they eat a nice breakfast while drinking champagne. Some chooses to do this in cafés or restaurants.
If you’re a foreigner or tourist, just feel free to have any breakfast you like. You might enjoy going out to eat breakfast at a restaurant to get a feel for what the May 17 culture is like. Just remember to dress up even for breakfast if you’re going out!
Lunch on Norway’s national day often consists of pølse in bun. You can buy this pretty much anywhere in the city center, or make it yourself. Combine it with a few pieces of cake and an ice cream, and you got yourself a nice May 17 lunch. Alternatively head to a restaurant or café to eat a lunch there.
Now keep eating cake and ice cream until it’s dinner time. Many families serve more pølse for dinner (especially for children), while other families serve a nicer dinner. There’s no right answer here, so anything goes. You might want to order a meal at a restaurant, but it might be difficult to find free seating since many people are out eating on this day.
My family tends to serve the stew called lapskaus for dinner, since this can be prepared in a slow-cooker while we are out and celebrating. And of course the children get some more pølse if they want.
Nicklas is the owner and editor of The Norway Guide, and is responsible for most of the content on the website.
He lives in Skien, Norway with his wife and two children. Nicklas is specialized in Norwegian ecology (including Norway’s geology, wildlife and flora) from his degree in Ecology And Nature Management at University of South-Eastern Norway, but has a particular interest in tourism and content creation.
His biggest hobbies are fishkeeping, going on hikes with his dog, and rooting for the local football team.