Where magnificent architecture meets the fjord landscape – Ålesund has wild Viking ancestry, an abundance of succulent seafood and jaw-dropping vistas.
Text: Olav Brekke Mathisen
Surrounded by turquoise fjords, the city of Ålesund sits atop a series of small islands, with a scenic view of the archipelago and the Atlantic beyond.
Behind it towers steep mountainsides, highlighting the snowcapped summits of the Sunnmøre Alps.
According to National Geographic, “Ålesund could be the backdrop for a Nordic fairytale – with a modern plot twist”.
“They believed it was a sign from above”, says local historian Einar Gustafson, talking about the naming of Ålesunds “House of Miracles”, and subsequently the events that would destroy the entire city on a cold night in 1904.
As a winter hurricane rattled the city, a fire broke out in the Aalesund fish preserving factory and quickly spread to the nearby houses.
The fishing town was mostly constructed from wood, and during the night, strong winds drove the violent expansion of the fire.
When morning broke, more than ten thousand people had lost their homes. “People took shelter in nearby churches and barns outside the city”, tells Gustafson. After the inferno, only a single house was left standing.
“The owner said that the night before the fire, he received a visit by an angel who told him to stay. And so he did. While the fire raged he sat in his living room and waited it out.” Afterwards, locals were quick to name it The Miracle House.
“Actually, my great grandfather used to live in the miracle house. A few years ago I tried to sleep there one night, to see if I could catch a glimpse of an angel. But I slept like a rock. All through the night”, Gustafson says with a smile.
After the fire, the entire town was rebuilt with strong initial help from Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had strong personal concern for the people of Ålesund.
Later, more than thirty architects collaborated in rebuilding the entire city in stone, brick, and mortar.
The architects chose the contemporary “jugendstil”, or art nouveau, as a design template, drawing inspiration from all over Europe.
Most of the buildings were built in the following three years, and have given Ålesund its unusually consistent architecture – loved by its inhabitants and greatly appreciated by visitors.
Ålesund is a tasty platter full of some of the world’s most sought-after seafood, and visitors can expect year-round high quality on anything that comes out of the sea.
“Actually, I’m on my way down to the harbour to buy some shrimps as we speak”, says the winner of Norwegian Tourism Award Bente Saxon, when we call her.
Along the wharf located right in the city centre, local fishmongers line up to proudly present their daily catch.
January through April is the season for succulent “skrei”, a special type of Arctic cod that is served as more of a delicacy than its common cod cousin.
Ålesund has long traditions for characteristic self-made products such as “klippfisk”, the dried and salted cod speciality which serves as the base ingredient for delicious bacalao.
One can find cafés and idyllic restaurants serving their take on this traditional Spanish and Portuguese dish in many places all around the city’s urban centre.
Bacalao aficionados may want to visit XL Diner, a restaurant right in the middle of Ålesund, which prides itself in making “the best bacalao in Europe”.
Places like Søstrene Fryd offers an advanced menu implementing the best of local, biodynamic produce with a strong focus on both sustainability and ecologically sound farming techniques.
When summer arrives, Bente Saxon has her own personal favourite:
“Nothing beats buying freshly cooked shrimps and brown crabs right of the boat”.
A perfect spot for the romantic weekend getaway.
To get that picture postcard view whilst also burning quite a few calories, one should definitely visit the viewpoint at mount Aksla, towering above the town park.
The preferred way to get there? Taking the stairs. “That means all 418 of them”, Bente Saxon says.
“The most popular selfie spot is actually only halfway up, with a beautiful glass cased viewpoint that almost looks like it’s floating in the air.”
The top point offers panoramic views of the archipelago, the Art Nouveau city centre, and the surrounding alpine landscapes of Sunnmøre.
If 418 steps have made you thirsty, you can grab a drink and a bite to eat at Fjellstua outdoor restaurant and café before you head of to Atlanterhavsparken, Scandinavia’s largest saltwater aquarium.
The sea park offers eleven enormous landscape aquariums with exciting daily dive shows and two open touch pools.
“Thrill-seeking children get to pick up and hold big brown crabs, touch sea urchins, and watch as salmon, halibut, and huge congers get fed their daily snacks”, says Bente Saxon.
The sea park area mostly showcases marine life from the waters surrounding Norway, but behind the thick glass, bizarre creatures from deep-water habitats lurk in the shadows, as species from various ocean depths are also on display.
Most sights are available within a twenty-minute walk, but there are literally hundreds of exotic day trip excursions to plan for. Out on the coast, you find the small island of Runde, home to 150 people — and half a million birds.
From February to August, the nesting season on Runde island shows more than 80 species and truly unique wildlife.
A day trip to Trollstigen (the Troll’s road) with its hairpin bends, amazing waterfalls, and scenic view is also within reach if you want to travel by car.
The Sunnmøre Alps, dropping almost two kilometres down into the fjord, is the perfect place for hiking. The refreshing contrasts of ocean, fjords, and snowcapped mountains have sights you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
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