Here's the thing you need to know about Norway: no matter where you go in the country, you are pretty much guaranteed to find something awesome. Whether it's amazing views or great food or just an outstanding, friendly community, Norway really has a lot going for it. No wonder this country is at the top of many travel bucket lists.
This was hit home for me as I traveled along Norway's west coast, skipping the always-beloved Bergen and hitting up lesser-visited cities like Trondheim and Kristiansund instead.
And then I got to Ålesund. A city with a name that I didn't even know how to pronounce properly and that I knew exactly nothing about.
I arrived late in the day after spending way too much time driving back and forth on the Atlantic Ocean Road. It was still light out though (helloooo midnight sun), which meant I could see the pretty buildings and cobbled streets of Ålesund's main downtown area as I drove through. Not to mention that driving into town required driving along gorgeous fjords.
Yes, I had a feeling I was going to like this place.
This was cemented the next day, when I got to see Ålesund inside and out.
Some fun facts about this coastal city:
- A massive fire in 1904 completely destroyed Ålesund's city center. It was rebuilt a few years later almost entirely in the Art Nouveau style.
- Ålesund is spread over 7 different islands in Norway's Møre og Romsdal county, and most are connected via undersea tunnels.
- Ålesund has always relied on fishing as its major industry. Today, Ålesund still provides a ton of cod and cod liver oil to Europe and the rest of the world.
- In 2015, Disney Cruise Line partnered up exclusively with Ålesund tourism to offer guests a “Frozen” experience in the city – guests could join Anna, Elsa, and Kristoff for a special festival at the Sunnmøre Open Air Museum.
My time in Ålesund was, admittedly, far too short. But here's a taste of what I got up to there:
Seeing Ålesund from above
If you only do one thing in Ålesund, make it be going up to the Aksla Viewpoint. You can reach this on foot by going up 418 steps, by taking the tourist train that toodles around town, or by using the hop-on, hop-off bus.
The views from the lookout are outstanding. It was drizzling slightly when I was up there, but the sun was out – meaning a rainbow soon appeared over the colorful city center below. Perfection.
If you have time, there's a nice cafe up here where you can grab a coffee while you enjoy the view.
And, no matter how you get up there, I highly recommend walking the 418 steps back down into Town Park!
Exploring the Art Nouveau center
Like I mentioned earlier, most of Ålesund burned down during a January 1904 fire. When they rebuilt it a few years later, they did it in the Art Nouveau style of architecture, which incorporates natural forms and soft lines. You see this reflected in Ålesund's buildings, many of which have flowers and other swirly shapes on their exteriors.
If you have time, pop into the city's Art Nouveau museum, which is built inside an old pharmacy.
Visiting the aquarium
I'm picky about the zoos and aquariums I visit on my travels. The last thing I want to do is support a place where the animals are mistreated or simply “on display” as opposed to being properly cared for. I needn't have worried in Ålesund, though.
The Atlantic Sea Park (Atlanterhavsparken) is one of the largest saltwater aquariums in Europe, and it's an aquarium that does things right. The building is in a scenic area surrounded by hiking trails, mountains, and even a beach, and the aquarium pulls in fresh sea water directly from the ocean – nothing is treated here.
The focus is also on local and Norwegian sea life, with exhibits with names like “Deep Fjords,” “Ålesund Harbour,” and “Islets and skerries.” I spent some time at the touch-tanks with all the kids, as well as outside wandering around the 6,000-square-meter “seal park,” which is home to a handful of harbor seals that were born into captivity elsewhere in Europe. The seal park is entirely outdoors and feels like you're just walking along the coast instead of within the grounds of an aquarium.
Driving to Alnes
Since Ålesund is spread out across a few islands, I couldn't really visit properly without doing some island hopping!
At the suggestion of a few people at the tourism office, I decided to drive to see the lighthouse in Alnes, a tiny isolated town on the island of Godøya. To get there, I had to drive through a couple undersea tunnels, and then a one-way tunnel to cut through a mountain on Godøya itself. (Talk about terrifying.)
When I came out on the other side, I was greeted with sweeping sea and island views. What a place!
The lighthouse and its little cafe were closed (I was there in May, which is still the off-season in most of Norway), but it didn't matter. The sun was finally shining and the views were impressive enough to keep me there for half an hour.
If you have a rental car and some time, this is a great short trip from Ålesund, only taking about 30-40 minutes each way.
Ålesund is not a part of Norway I knew anything about before visiting. And, to be honest, if I had planned my own trip to Norway, Ålesund probably wouldn't have made my final itinerary, despite it being on the fjord parallel to the famous Geirangerfjord. And what a shame that would have been!
Ålesund is a great city, and definitely deserves a detour if you happen to be in this part of Norway.
WHERE I STAYED
I stayed at the First Hotel Atlantica, which is located within walking distance of most of Ålesund's main sights. It's also really close to the highway, and there's a shopping center/parking garage right next door in case you have a car with you.
Is Ålesund a city that will make YOUR Norway itinerary now?
*Note: Big thanks to Innovation Norway and Fjord Norway, along with the local tourism board, for hosting me during my visit. As always, opinions and recommendations are 100% my own!