Ålesund is a town of 47,000 on Norway's western coast, famous for its Art Nouveau architecture and striking natural beauty. It's an ideal port stop on a cruise itinerary: the city center is compact and close to the cruise ship pier, and there are several museums and other sights to keep tourists occupied without feeling overwhelmed. Since our subsequent port stops in Flåm and Geiranger would be mostly focused on appreciating the scenery, I wanted to spend our time in Ålesund in the historic city center.
Getting off the ship: Ålesund's city center is an easy 0.2 kilometer/0.1 mile walk from the cruise ship pier.
What to do:
Climb up the 418 stairs (plus a fair amount of uphill terrain beforehand) to the top of Mt. Aksla for an amazing view of the city and surrounding islands. I recommend doing the climb first thing in the morning, so that the stairs and the observation platform are less crowded.
During the summer season, a guided city walk departs daily at noon from the Tourist Information Office (TI). Simply meet up with the group outside the TI and pay the guide directly. The tour is about 1 1/2 hours long and is offered in Norwegian and English. Our very knowledgeable guide provided an in-depth history of Ålesund, with a focus on the devastating 1904 fire that destroyed the town center. The city was subsequently rebuilt in the Art Nouveau style popular at the time, which gives it a unique architectural cohesion. The tour features many excellent examples of Art Nouveau architecture and ends at the Fisheries Museum.
Learn more about the industry that built Ålesund at the Fisheries Museum. Although most of the exhibits are exclusively in Norwegian, there are pamphlets available that provide English translations for the majority of the text. An hour is enough time to get an overview of the exhibits, which focus on cod processing and fishing history. The museum reminded me of a county historical society museum, with a dusty "we put a lot of old stuff in a building" vibe. However, I did enjoy the Safe Haven exhibit about pilots (the specialized captains who bring ships into harbor), which was completely captioned in English.
The Art Nouveau Center added another layer of context to the guided city walk. Housed in a former pharmacy and its upstairs apartment, the museum features the apartment's original front hall and dining room, complete with furnishings; a collection of Art Nouveau objects including furniture, glass, and ceramics; and a wonderful exhibit profiling some of the craftsmen who rebuilt the city. There's also an informative audio visual presentation about the 1904 fire, told through survivors' narratives. Since the museum is fairly small, an hour is enough time to see everything.
I spent a relaxing hour wandering around the city taking photos of building details--the Art Nouveau style includes lots of colorful decorative flourishes, some inspired by nature and others reflecting the Norwegian nationalism prevalent during the early 20th century (Norway secured full independence from Sweden in 1905). Be sure to to look up, since most of the decorations adorn the buildings' second and third floors.
It might not have been the healthiest choice, but I treated myself to a delicious lunch of pastries at Walderhaug Bakeri og Konditori (Tollbugata 6, no English website), which is near the TI (look for the building across the street with the upside down pretzel sign). I loved the skoleboller (school bun), a classic Norwegian pastry filled with custard and topped with shredded coconut.
You can learn more about the city's history at the Ålesunds Museum, which is located in the city center. Other nearby attractions include the Sunnmøre Museum, an open-air folk museum with historic buildings and boats, and Atlanterhavsparken, an aquarium exhibiting fish, seals, and penguins. Both the Sunnmøre Museum and Atlanterhavsparken are accessible via bus from the city center.
Important information: The city center's public restrooms require exact payment in 5 or 10 kroner coins (the restrooms near the TI and cruise pier were 10 kroner and the ones in the Kremmergaarden mall were 5 kroner). Make sure you have change.
The takeaway: Although it was fun to wander around Ålesund on my own, the guided tour provided valuable background on the city's history and architecture that help me better appreciate the picturesque buildings. Be sure to climb up Mt. Aksla for the stunning view and visit the Art Nouveau Center for an engaging history lesson.
Ålesund is a walkable, easy-to-navigate city with plenty of sightseeing to occupy your time—there's no need to rely on cruise ship excursions.
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