The Small Norwegian Town That's the Perfect Gateway to the Scandinavian Outdoors
The small Norwegian city of Ålesund is geographically unique — it sits on a collection of seven small islands where a handful of fjords meets the Atlantic Ocean. In no other coastal city in Norway is the importance of fishing, seafaring, and life lived by the water more pronounced.
Ålesund is also architecturally unique from other Norwegian cities, as there are almost no wooden buildings. In January 1904, the devastating Ålesund Fire swept through what is today the downtown area, decimating almost every structure that stood at that time. The city rebuilt from scratch, and today, Ålesund’s central district is a beautifully designed testament to early 20th-century Art Nouveau architecture that can’t be found anywhere else in the country.
But it isn’t the architecture alone that should draw tourists to Ålesund. After visiting Oslo, travelers will likely set their sights on Norway’s smaller cities as gateways to experience the region’s scenic fjords and mountains.
While Bergen and Trondheim are both excellent next-stops, the tradeoff is that both can become crowded with visitors, causing traffic, clogging up restaurants, and flocking to souvenir shops in search of troll memorabilia.
Ålesund, on the other hand, which welcomes significantly fewer cruise ships than the other Norwegian cities, has managed to retain its quiet, authentic charm. And best of all, it is ideally situated to experience the best of Norway’s great outdoors.
Amblers of all skill levels will be delighted to find a range of hiking options both within the city limits and a short drive away. All trips to Ålesund should start with a walk up Town Mountain to Aksla Viewpoint, where there is an unobstructed panorama of the town’s archipelago, the ocean, and the surrounding mountains.
Intermediate hikers can spend an afternoon heading up Mount Godøyfjellet, where you can look down on the Alnes Lighthouse, as well as out and over the vastness of the Atlantic; once you’ve reached the top, you can also hike around the scenic alpine Lake Alnesvatnet. Mount Saksa, located south of town, provides perhaps the best views in the region. And more ambitious hikers will find plenty of trails to explore in the surrounding Sunnmøre Alps.
If you are in search of some of Europe’s best breaks and can handle the frigid Norwegian Sea (armed with an insulated wetsuit or two), you will be surprised to find a small, dedicated, nearly-secret surfing community just in front of the Alnes Lighthouse.
Not brave enough to dive into those chilly waters? Grab a coffee from the Lighthouse Café and observe said surfers from the safety — and warmth — of the shore.
Ålesund’s unique location perched on the ocean as well as close to so many fjords make it ripe for water adventures. Local boating company 62°NORD offers thrilling “sea safaris” on high-speed RIB boats that fly across ocean waves and bring thrill-seekers up close to dolphin, seal and bird colonies visible only from the water. A variety of other kayak rentals and boat rides — some more adventurous, some more leisurely — can be organized from the downtown center every day.
Featuring only endemic fish and flora, and created using only natural formations and local seawater, the Atlanterhavsparken Aquarium is an exercise in sustainable ecotourism. Located just a few minutes out of town on the banks of the Atlantic Ocean, the design of this aquarium is so well-integrated into the landscape that travelers might have a hard time spotting it when passing by on boats on their way out to the ocean. Lauded globally for its conservation efforts, education programs and having one of the largest saltwater fish tanks in Northern Europe, this is one aquarium that can be enjoyed by parents and children alike.
Roadtrip the Fjords
While there are several fjords within driving distance to Ålesund, a day trip to see Geirangerfjord and Hjørunfjord is a perfect foil of tourist attraction and unspoiled tranquility. Don’t be intimidated by all the car ferries along the way — they are cheap and generally make crossings every 20 to 30 minutes all day long.
Make your way east to Highway 63, then drive down the 11 precarious switchbacks of Trollstigen into Geiranger. This little town sits at the terminus of Geirangerfjord, which as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is worth seeing but still receives a fair share of tourist buses. Take the car ferry from Geiranger to Hellesyt, drive up Highway 655 through Øye (while stopping for lunch at the haunted Hotel Union), and grab the ferry from Urke to Sæbø. From here, you can drive north along the shore of Hjørunfjord, which is as pristine and solitary as Geiranger is populated. Keep an eye out along the way for the traditional red-shingled, moss-roofed farmer cottages alongside the road. From this part of the journey until you grab the Festøya ferry back to Ålesund, you are likely to be the only car in sight.