Stavanger is a quiet city in the South West of Norway, home to a picturesque harbour and filled with old wooden houses and colourful street art side by side in streets both old and new. Although it’s technically Norway’s fourth largest city, it’s got more of a hip but small town vibe about it, and I was strongly in appreciation of its massive selection of independent coffee shops, and boutique and vintage shops dotted all over the place, as well as being a big time fan of the Old Town. (In fairness who doesn’t doesn’t love an Old Town, for goodness’ sake!?) Although this place has been in existence officially since the 1100s, it was in the last century or so that the town really began to prosper, first with the fishing industry and then with the far more lucrative oil. (Not fish oil, in case you’re wondering. Oil oil.) I spent last Summer visiting the city by cruise ship every ten days, and rather enjoyed getting to know this surprisingly colourful place, even in the less-than-colourful weather.
Ye Olde Stavanger!
In actual fact this part of the city is just called Old Stavanger or Gamle Stavanger, not ‘Ye Olde’; technically speaking it’s the largest preserved group of wooden houses in the whole of Europe, although don’t be fooled into thinking that that means it’s a massive area. 173 18th century wooden houses, originally home to factory workers and fishermen sit on cobbled higgledy piggledy lanes next to Vågen Harbour in the shadow of the cruise ships that dock there daily, and it will probably take around fifteen minutes to wander up and down…unless you’re addicted to photographing doors like me, in which case- the possibilities are endless I tell you!! ENDLESS!!!!
The highly picturesque posse of white clapboard houses, colourful doors and bursts of flowers all combine to make Gamle Stavanger one of the most-visited parts of town. Even on a rainy day I appreciated having a wander over the slippery cobblestones just to get some fresh air before retreating into a cosy coffee shop.
If you love food, you’re in the right place pals!
As mentioned above, a good coffee shop was very much in need on a rainy day in Stavanger, and over the few months I spent visiting, I quickly discovered my favourites and stuck to them. There is a whole tonne of quirky coffee places to choose from around the centre of town, although I was a fan in particular of the Bluebird Kaffebar for their brilliant cake selection, and Brostein Kafé on a tiny corner in Gamle Stavanger. There’s something about the unassuming but ramshackle exterior of that little corner-cafe that made me think of The Giraffe,The Pelly and Me, and I always seemed to be drawn to it on dull rainy days when the good soups and warm glow of the candles inside gave the whole place the vibe of a day in late Autumn despite the fact it was June.
But don’t you worry pals, it’s not all rainy days and cozy coffee shops in Stavanger, oh no! Occasionally the sun does actually shine (in fact once it shone so much that I even got sunburnt which was rather a shocker), and luckily one of these miraculous sunshiney days I witnessed was when Scandinavia’s biggest food festival happened to be taking place. VICTORY!!!
Gladmat is a ginormous annual celebration of food in all its glory, occurring every July around Vågen and up to the city’s cathedral. On the day we arrived, the city was heaving with people- I’m pretty sure the entire population of Norway must’ve been there, as up until that point I swear I’d barely seen a soul throughout the country- and the smells coming from every stall were a TRUE DELIGHT.
The most colourful street in Norway
Øvre Holmegate is a quirky street near Stavanger’s second harbour, Børevika, which since 2005 has very much looked as if a giant has been let loose with a paintbox to spruce the place up a bit and maybe bring some colour to the many grey days that Norway experiences weather-wise. In actual fact it wasn’t the handiwork of a giant after all; this brightly-coloured pathway is all down to a local hairdresser who thought it would be brilliant to just make the street a bit more cheery, and when the go-ahead was given, every building was given a specific palette of colours which coordinated with those around it. Apparently there were a few problems when male-owned businesses were against having an overly pink building, or female-owned businesses wanted as much pink as poss (strikes me as a bit crazy that the colour pink is still that controversial), but eventually it all worked out and now the paint job is done it’s most certainly one highly photogenic location.
Filled with coffee shops galore and a whole load of vintage and new boutiques, Øvre Holmegate is just as interesting on the inside as the out, although obviously as it’s in Norway you should be prepared to spend a few bob in order to purchase anything at all.
Other parts of the city are almost as colourful; street art plays a big part in the aesthetic of the whole place and gives a bit of a modern twist to an otherwise very quaint-looking location, particularly any art which involves tattooed trolls and other fairy-folk. What a sight to behold, pals!
Cans, fish and all the oil
During the 1920s, with the export of fish from Norway already a Massive Deal, the canning of sardines is basically what propelled the little city towards big time prosperity. Who would have thought the success of an entire city would pretty much depend on some tiny oily fish and a bunch of tin cans? At the height of the industry’s success there were a grand total of 59 canning factories in Stavanger- rather a lot considering the size of the place- with the factory workers mainly residing in Gamle Stavanger.
Back in those days this part of town was actually not-so-desirable to live in as the pungent aroma of fish was somewhat overpowering, although if you fancy seeing how the workers lived throughout time, it’s worth taking a trip to The Workers Cottage, next to The Norwegian Canning Museum (such a museum does indeed exist, and apparently it’s incredibly interesting, would you believe it?). That little cottage is downright adorable, with the ground floor designed to look like a worker’s cottage from the 1920s and the top floor kitted out with all the 1960s retro mod cons; also in Summer the downstairs kitchen doubles as a cafe serving up coffee, cake and waffles with brown cheese (a Norwegian classic), which makes it all the more worthwhile.
Eventually the popularity of tinned sardines waned somewhat, but luckily for the city of Stavanger oil suddenly became all the rage after oil was discovered offshore in 1969, meaning the city remained one hugely prosperous place to reside and work in. Nowadays it’s known as the Oil Capital of Norway, and many an oil company has their headquarters in the region.
Lysefjord and Pulpit Rock
Don’t get me wrong here pals, Stavanger is a lovely little city, but when I discovered how close it was to the Lysefjord and Preikestolen- the ominous cliff that towers over the water- I was full on desperate to go and have a look. Although it’s possible to book an actual official tour, ferries leave from the harbour throughout the day, and with the help of the friendly folk at the Tourist Office, we figured out which combination of ferry and bus we would need in order to reach it and start our climb to the top.
It. Was. Stunning.
Also I thought I was going to plummet to my death in the fjord a couple of times, but it was totes worth it for that view.
Read all about it: Climbing Preikestolen
- The city centre is downright tiny, so if you stay central you can see everything on foot.
- Be prepared to cough up a fair bit of cash for anything you buy. Stavanger is one of the most expensive cities in the world, the cheeky little bugger.
- The closest international airport is Stavanger International Airport Sola, with a shuttle bus conveniently connecting passengers to the city in around half an hour.
- Distance from Oslo if you’re interrailing is around 8 hours by train, or by bus around 10.
- Although there are two harbours- Vågen and Børevika- both of them are equally close to the city (ie they’re basically smack bang in the middle of it all), so you’ll have no problem getting about if you arrive by boat.
- Whilst it would be nice to learn a few Norwegian words at least out of courtesy, the vast majority of Norwegian folk are really great at speaking English, so there shouldn’t be too many lost in translation moments if you’re lucky.