Instead of sticking to Oslo, Stockholm or Helsinki, consider exploring town by town for a fuller, more authentic Nordic experience. Norway’s Sunnmøre district is a perfect place to start; located on the country’s west coast, the area boasts a number of stunning fjords, all within a few miles of one another. Scandinavian landscapes, culture and unique history put this region at the top of any traveler’s bucket list. The Sunnmøre Alps are known for scenic hikes, while roadside villages preserve tradition and welcome visitors to eateries, shops and intimate museums. As the unofficial capital of the district, the seaside town of Ålesund is worth spending a few days in; this “Art Nouveau” center is full of curiosities surrounding its reconstruction after a devastating fire in 1904. Ålesund will satisfy any history or architecture buff, while nature lovers will enjoy the opportunity to explore Sunnmøre via sparkling waterways, wooded trails and blustery mountain summits.
Pulling into Ålesund, you’ll notice its rows of art nouveau- style buildings almost immediately; their sweeping fixtures, ornamental features and stoic spiral towers line the town’s streets like illustrations adorning a storybook.
Start your journey through time by checking in at Hotel 1904, located in the center of town. As Alesund’s oldest hotel, the building is a local fixture with a notable art nouveau entryway that transports you a century back in time. Green Garden, Hotel 1904’s onsite restaurant invites guests to enjoy gourmet breakfast, lunch, dinner menus. along with specialty espresso. The chef works with fresh, locally sourced vegetables and seafood, as well as delicacies from around Europe. A cozy indoor dining room or breezy outdoor space sets the scene for daily meals that are both healthy and filling. Hotel manager Andre Klevberg is behind the restaurant’s sleek aesthetic, as well as the decor elevating the rest of the hotel.
After breakfast and espresso, Ålesund is all yours, and it makes sense to start our tour with a bit of background about the town. The Art Nouveau Center, known as Jugendstilsenteret, is a short walk away from the hotel, and stands right next door to KUBE, the local art museum. The Center catalogs Ålesund’s rebirth after a devastating fire in 1904 that ground town life to a halt. Over the next decades, the town was rebuilt, brick by brick, in one of Europe’s emerging architectural styles. The result was as much a creative endeavor as it was one born of necessity; despite their relatively young age, Ålesund’s Art Nouveau facades are historic in their visual homage to the early 20th century.
When at Jugendstilsenteret, be sure to ask about the Time Machine display or make a reservation to participate in the experience ahead of time. The Time Machine is a series of images, audio recordings and other effects that take you back to 1904, and the spirit of perseverance that led to the town’s revival. Combine your visit with a stop at KUBE to easily spend an entire morning immersed in history and art.
Located a few minutes west of town, the Norwegian aquarium, known as the Atlanterhavsparken Aquarium and Science Center, is another Ålesund staple, though you may want to drive or catch a cab to get there. If you don’t mind taking public transportation, a frequent local bus will get you there as well. The attraction is one of the region’s largest saltwater aquariums and overlooks the Atlantic. Inside, visitors can see fish, other marine life and underwater plants up close, all while learning about the crucial role each species plays in Norway’s delicate coastal ecosystem.
The aquarium’s outdoor section is home to a variety of mammals, including otters and seals at play. While most of the animals are native to this part of Scandinavia, some, like the Humboldt penguins, are part of the aquarium’s breeding program which works to help endangered species thrive. Other activities include an interactive touch tank, displays on Norway’s maritime economy, a crustacean exhibit and opportunities to feed the fish.
On your way back to town, stop at local concept store Dale, which offers a uniquely Norwegian spin on current and vintage trends. From casual suits to clutches and footwear, Dale dresses you for the occasion. This is also a great place to stop if you weren’t prepared for Norway’s moody weather and need to boost your wardrobe on the go.
As you wrap up your day in Ålesund, head to Bro, a restaurant located along Notenesgata Street. Served Tuesday to Saturday, the restaurant’s Evening Menu is one of its biggest draws. This seasonal selection follows the chef Ronny Kolvik’s instincts, featuring delicacies that rotate throughout the year. Heavily drawing on local seafood, your choices include fresh vegetables and the catch of the day, all artfully served in a sophisticated dining area.
As night falls, settle back into Hotel 1904 with a drink at Green Garden’s bar while reflecting on your day and planning tomorrow’s attractions.
Dedicate the following day of your trip to Ålesund’s storied landscape by touring its most famous vantage point. Mount Aksla, located just east of the town center, is a well known summit that should make it onto everyone’s itinerary. The peak provides views of not only Ålesund’s cityscape, but also the harbor and islands that extend into the ocean beyond it. On clear days you’ll also be able to spot the Sunnmøre Alps, a worthwhile panorama even if you don’t have time to hike their slopes. The trek to the summit takes you up exactly 418 steps, making the views that much more rewarding.
If you have time for another short trip after taking on Mount Aksla, visit Godøy Island’s historic lighthouse, named Alnes Lighthouse after the nearby fishing village. Lying west of Ålesund, the island is accessible by car. Once at the lighthouse, you can climb to the top via a staircase, and learn about its function and construction from a series of displays. Homemade Norwegian cakes and local handicrafts to take on the road are available once you make your way back down. The lighthouse dates back to 1876 and is well-preserved as a significant local landmark.
For dinner back in Ålesund, try Apotekergata No. 5’s creative menu, which comes with an impressive wine list. The restaurant’s rustic-chic decor, a warm, intimate atmosphere and fresh, locally inspired meals will help you wind down after a long day spent outside.
If you can’t get enough of Ålesund and its fjords, take a few extra days to explore Hjørundfjord and Geirangerfjord, both of which make unforgettable day trips from town. The drive to Hjørundfjord takes you along the edge of the water, which runs between two peninsulas just south of Ålesund. Part of a larger archipelago, both peninsulas have their share of villages and small communities to stop in as you follow the natural curve of the fjord via roads E39 and 60. Along the way, you’ll have unmatched views of the Sunnmøre Alps, the same peaks you would have admired from a distance on the summit of Mount Aksla.
A two hour drive southeast out of Ålesund will take you to Geirangerfjord, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bordered by cliffs full of greenery and wildflowers, the fjord area is home to Norway’s Fosserasa National Hiking Trail and Storseterfossen Waterfall, two of the region’s best known natural attractions. Accessible by vehicle, the Geiranger Skywalk lets you take in the panorama at the highest viewing point in the area before heading back down for lunch or a kayak tour of the fjord.
If you’re driving in from Ålesund, be aware that the fastest route requires you to take a ferry to Eidsdal before continuing on to Geirangerfjord, For those who would rather take the long way to their destination, the MS Geirangerfjord II ferry treats you to a three hour ride through multiple fjords, accompanied by an audio guide describing the history and characteristics of the landscape passing before your eyes. Return schedules are also available, meaning you can be back in Ålesund that same evening or extend your stay to an overnight.
If you’ve been on the fence about which part of Norway to focus on on your next foray into Scandinavia, Ålesund is a sound choice for not only its local flair, but its potential as a home base as well. Waking up to the town’s Art-Nouveau rooftops and salty breeze will keep you inspired and in the moment, especially once you learn about the effort it took to put Ålesund back on the map a little over 100 years ago. After spending the night in town, you can travel across the region’s archipelagos and be back in Ålesund to enjoy a fresh- caught dinner based on traditional recipes. With endless fjords, colorful villages and even its own Alps, the area surrounding Ålesund will introduce you to Norway the old fashioned way, whether it be by water vessel or on foot.