Above: Old meets new in Ålesund, Norway, where a historic port was rebuilt in art nouveau style in the early 20th century. This view is from Aksla Hill.
Ålesund, Norway: Northern Lights & Sights
Art nouveau architecture. A Norwegian food festival and a historic harbor. Fjords and mountains. Ålesund could be the backdrop for a Nordic fairy tale—with a modern plot twist.
The Scene Sprawled on a collection of rugged North Sea islands with mountains looming in every direction, Ålesund is the quintessential Scandinavian seaport. But the town’s unusual concentration of Jugendstil, or art nouveau architecture, built after a devastating fire in 1904 makes it a design destination.
City Gem Let the pros point out the turrets, towers, and decorative flourishes of the city’s distinctive architecture on a guided tour through its cobblestone streets. The highlight of the walk is a stop at the Jugendstilsenteret, a former pharmacy, now the interpretive Art Nouveau Centre with an impeccably preserved interior.
Insider’s Tip Climb the 418 steps to the top of local mountain Aksla for a sweeping vista of the town center, fjords, and the Sunnmøre Alps. “Locals go to the Kniven and Rundskue overlooks, where you have spectacular 360-degree views,” says Ålesund resident Bertil Holen. Here’s where to snap that shot that will make you the momentary envy of your Instagram friends. And, as Holen points out with a wink, “it’s for free”—a bit of a rarity in a notoriously pricey nation.
Local Flavor Ålesunders love their svele—a sort of crepe filled with butter and sugar or brunost, a caramelized cheese made from whey—with a cup of strong coffee, a snack that’s popular on local ferries. But bacalao is their mainstay: Ålesund exports more of the dried, salted cod, also known as klipfish, than anywhere else in the world. Try it at XL Diner, where chef Ivar Breivik makes it shine in no less than seven dishes, including the Norwegian comfort classic with bacon and stewed peas. Visit Ålesund in August during the Norwegian Food Festival, and enjoy a bountiful Nordic feast featuring both traditional and daringly modern cuisine made from fresh local ingredients.
Nightlife In the summer, snag a table at an outdoor café and nurse a local Sylte pineapple soda or cold Hansa pilsner. Kick back and watch the sunset around midnight—the light is so intense, say Ålesunders, that the ocean appears to be burning.
By Sea Paddle a kayak down the Brosundet canal through the heart of town, at eye level with the chiseled old salts hawking fresh fish and shrimp off their colorful wooden boats. Rentals are available through Actin and 62 Nord, both of which are found near Queen Sonja’s square. The picturesque fishing village of Alnes, on the island of Godøy (a quick boat or bus ride from Ålesund), is home to a landmark lighthouse. Climb the tower for magnificent views, learn about the coastal culture, and order a slice of the signature lighthouse cake.
Ship Shape About 120 annual cruise calls, including ships from Norwegian Cruise Line, Cunard, and Crystal Cruises. —Margaret Loftus
Read "Ports of Call" in the February/March 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler.