Gateway to dramatic fjords, surrounded by mountains and itself an architectural jewel, Ålesund, Norway is an essential visit when you’re exploring the country’s ruggedly beautiful west coast.
Whether you choose to spend your time embracing the great outdoors on foot or by kayak, strolling the historic center, or uncovering some of the town’s quirky museums and cozy pubs, you’ll almost certainly fall for this enchanting place and want to come back for more.
Why Visit Ålesund?
Ålesund, Norway lies about halfway up the country’s fjord-indented west coast on a long spit, shaped like a fish hook and framed by high mountains that rise almost vertically from the sea. Countless smaller islands and skerries are dotted along the shore, with the often snow-capped Sunnmøre Alps forming a scenic backdrop.
As well as cod fishing, the town is famous for its perfectly preserved Art Nouveau architecture that lines the waterfront and elegant cobbled streets of the downtown area. Ålesund is also the self-styled “adventure capital of the fjords”, with the dramatic scenery of the famous Geirangerfjord within easy reach.
Waterside beer gardens, some excellent seafood restaurants, intriguing museums, and quirky shops make this a great place to visit—and this being Norway, there are opportunities to explore the outdoors right on the doorstep.
In summer, locals take to the hiking trails, sail the surrounding fjords, and go kayaking and mountain biking. Ferries, fishing boats and private yachts buzz back and forth between the surrounding islands, and in the long summer evenings, the sun barely sets, infusing the town with a happy, carefree atmosphere.
History & Culture
Ålesund’s architectural beauty arrived as a twist of fate rather than a case of deliberate town planning. In 1904, the population was just 11,777 (today, it’s 66,000). On the night of January 23, a terrible fire swept through the town, destroying 850 homes, all of which were made of wood, and leaving 10,000 people homeless.
Between that fateful night and 1907, the whole of downtown Ålesund was rebuilt in the Jugendstil, or Art Nouveau style, which was popular at the time. Architects and craftspeople flocked to Ålesund from all over Europe, which was in a state of economic depression, in search of work.
The result is enchanting; graceful homes with little fairytale towers, turrets and weather vanes, the facades painted in shades of ochre, red, pale yellow and white. Look out for the old church, built in marble and stone in 1909 as a gift from German Kaiser Wilhelm II; inside, you’ll find beautiful frescoes and stained glass windows.
Ålesund today makes its living from tourism, as well as fishing; two-thirds of the world’s salt cod is exported from here. The town is also famed for its innovative ship design.
You’ll see oligarchs’ megayachts in various stages of construction along the main jetty, somewhat incongruous against the dainty architecture and vintage wooden boats moored in the channel that divides the town center.
Many people speak English here, and generally speaking, you’ll find Norwegians to be friendly, pragmatic, and polite. Norwegian culture is inextricably combined with nature, and most people are passionate about the outdoors. Norwegians have a strong sense of personal space, perhaps a result of being surrounded by so much raw beauty.
You may have heard of the Danish concept of hygge, meaning coziness and comfort. Norwegians claim that the Danes stole this word from their language, but in any case, have their own version, koselig, meaning much the same.
You’ll see koselig embodied everywhere in Ålesund; it’s far more important to Norwegians than luxury or ostentation. Soft lighting, candles, soothing music, a fire, good coffee and conversation, a comfortable knitted sweater, waffles with cream, and throws of reindeer pelt are all koselig. Combined with an innate sense of good taste and design, of course.
Wildlife & Nature
Nature is everywhere in Ålesund. You’re surrounded by water all the time, with views of sometimes snowy mountains in every direction. The urban area ends abruptly, giving way to steep hills, in summer covered with wildflowers, and stony Norwegian beaches.
You could spot seals in the sound, and white-tailed eagles wheeling overhead. Cormorants perch on buoys, gannets dive for fish, and gulls shriek on the wind. Nearby Runde Island has some of Norway’s highest bird cliffs, and you can take a day trip there on a high-speed RIB (rigid inflatable boat) to see puffins and a nearby seal colony.
Ålesund is also in the heart of some of Norway’s best fjord country. Using the town as a base, you’re within a two-hour trip to some of the most beautiful places to visit in Norway, such as Geirangerfjord and Hjørundfjord, both impossibly dramatic, sheer-sided mountains plunging into the glassy water. You can explore further afield by boat, on a road trip, or on foot.
Tips for Visiting Ålesund
There’s a lot to see in Ålesund, so you should plan your time carefully. You can wander around the downtown area in under an hour, as it’s so compact, although it would be a shame to hurry. There are several museums, all small-ish, so pick one or two.
There are hikes right from the downtown area, the most popular being the ascent of Aksla, a hulking Norwegian mountain that looms over the city park. Allow 45 minutes to get up and another 45 to get down. So realistically, a walk around town, lunch, and a hike would be feasible in a day.
Otherwise, you might choose to spend your time kayaking, or heading to a nearby attraction like the Atlantic Sea-Park—one of the best aquariums in the world—or the fabulous Sunnmøre Museum. But even if you pick a longer activity, you should still build in time for a short walk to admire the architecture.
Things to Do & Attractions in Ålesund
Step Back in Time at the Sunnmøre Museum
Catch a glimpse into Norwegian daily life in the past at this fascinating open-air museum. Located just outside Ålesund, the museum is situated in a tranquil waterside setting at Borgundkaupangen, a trading center until the 16th century.
You can wander through 55 old houses that have been relocated here, and also explore an impressive collection of boats, including some replica Viking ships, and one actual specimen that’s over 1,000 years old. The Medieval Age Museum on the same site tells the story of archeological exploration in the area.
Meet Penguins, Seals, & Otters
If you’ve got children in tow, or if you’re interested in marine life and conservation, the excellent Atlanterhavsparken Aquarium, also known as Atlantic Sea-Park, should pass a couple of happy hours.
Located on the outskirts of town, it’s built around a natural rock outcrop. The fish and crustaceans, many of them from Norwegian waters, are displayed in enormous tanks, with interactive displays to tell you more about the ecology of the coast and fjord systems.
A big attraction is the outdoor pools. One houses a colony of endangered Humboldt penguins, many of which are the result of a successful captive breeding program. Otter Island, with its own pool and miniature lighthouse, is home to three otters that were rescued as pups.
A colony of harbor seals lives in Seal Bay, the biggest seal enclosure in Europe. The animals have come from other aquaria, rather than being taken from the wild. Time your visit for 2 p.m., when feeding time begins for all three species.
Hike to a Mountain Viewpoint
For the best view of the town, the snowy Sunnmøre Alps, and the whole archipelago, hike up to the Aksla Viewpoint on a steep hill overlooking the town park. There are 418 steps along a vertiginous, zig-zag path, or you can opt for the City Train, a mini road “train”, for an easier ride.
For a more challenging hike, head for the trail that leads up Sukkertoppen (Sugar Loaf) 15 minutes’ drive from downtown, the opposite direction from Aksla.
It’s a two-and-a-half-hour round-trip walk and a steep slope, but you’ll be rewarded with dazzling views down over the town, the surrounding islands, and some of the most beautiful mountains in the world.
Admire Art Nouveau
The Jugenstilcenteret, or National Center of Art Nouveau, is located in the town center in an elaborate, turreted building, a former pharmacy, itself a shining example of the Art Nouveau style.
Inside, you can wander through different rooms displaying anything from textiles to vintage ceramics. The Time Machine audio-visual presentation is a great way to get a perspective on the town’s history, whizzing you from the fire of 1904 through the Art Nouveau reconstruction.
Visit the stylish shop selling gifts in Art Nouveau design, including pretty William Morris floral notebooks. And while you’re here, drop into KUBE next door, too, a gallery exhibiting contemporary Norwegian art.
Learn About Fishing & Shop for Vintage Goods
Learn about Ålesund’s historical link with the fishing and cod salting industry in this converted warehouse, dating back to 1861 and located on the harbor. It’s one of the few buildings to have survived the 1904 fire. Next, walk out along the stone jetty to a red lighthouse for great photos looking back towards the old waterfront.
After your visit, keep going along the narrow lane away from the town and you’ll come across Trankokeriet Antikk, the most fantastic and undeniably eccentric antiques and vintage emporium, complete with its own tiny coffee shop.
Browse for anything from vintage clothing to old fishing equipment, vinyl, wooden skis, old prints and maps, and ornaments.
Paddle Through the City
There are a number of opportunities to see Ålesund from the water and plenty of operators offering guided kayak trips. Perhaps one of the most unusual, and ideal for inexperienced paddlers, is a kayak tour through the town center with a guide, stopping to learn about the Art Nouveau architecture, much of which lines the waterfront.
Food & Drink in Ålesund
Ålesund is a popular summer destination in Norway, and there’s no shortage of places to eat and drink. A lot of restaurants specialize in local, very fresh Norwegian food, from fish, particularly cod, to game meat (elk or reindeer), asparagus, leek, and cabbage.
Berries feature on every menu, from plump blueberries and fresh raspberries to the delicious, golden cloudberries only found in the far north of Europe.
Bro, right on the waterfront, is the place to head for what Norwegians call “coastal gastronomy”—local specialties from the land and the sea. Try juniper-smoked trout, elk with raspberries, or chocolate mousse with cloudberry sorbet.
ANNO is a cozy pizzeria, popular with locals, while for food on the go, there’s Jafs Brokiosken, a fish and chips stall on the waterfront by the bridge in the center.
Norwegians love afternoon tea, although they’re big coffee drinkers so may substitute the tea, and you’ll see people in restaurants enjoying dainty cakes and sandwiches on weekends. Try Butikken in the Hotel Brosundet on Apotekergate for coffee, cakes, and baked goods.
There are plenty of pubs and bars, too. Mølla is a cozy pub on Kirkegata, while Molo, right on the waterfront where the bigger yachts dock, is a big, lively microbrewery that also does burgers and has outside seating.
If you head out of town on a hike or on a tour that stops for a snack, you’ll inevitably be served waffles with piles of fluffy whipped cream and berries along with strong coffee, a typical Norwegian snack.
Best Time to Visit Ålesund
Spring and summer in Norway bring long, light days, the sun only just sinking below the horizon around the summer solstice. Sunny days are gorgeous, the water in the fjords sparkling and the outdoors beckoning.
But you may also encounter mist, cloud and rain; Ålesund is a long way north, at 62 degrees latitude. Bring clothes for every eventuality, including sturdy walking boots and a waterproof jacket. You’re unlikely to want to swim in the sea, although some hardy types do.
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