The port town of Ålesund is often considered to be the most beautiful in Norway, largely down to the distinctive Art Nouveau style of architecture of the buildings, set on a canvas of several small islands, against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains dropping sheer to the fjords below.
Wandering through the streets of the centre is an ideal way to explore the Art Nouveau influences throughout the town. Now I must admit, I have never studied architecture or design, or anything creative beyond high school art, so this is a guide produced by an appreciative amateur, not an in-depth lesson in architecture.
What is Art Nouveau?
Saying that, let’s start off with a little introduction into the style known internationally as Art Nouveau. It defined the look around the turn of the 20th century; Europe of La Belle Époque, the gilded age that led into the darkness of WWI. Crossing architecture, art, graphic design, furniture making, and crafting, the style was heavily inspired by dynamic forms found in nature, making use of asymmetry, whiplash lines, and ornamental motifs like flowers, trees, and insects.
In Scandinavia, Germany, and the Baltic nations, Art Nouveau was known as Jugenstil (Youth Style), in Spain as Modernisme, especially Modernisme català in Catalonia, and in the UK as Glasgow Style. You’ll recognise the Art Nouveau style immediately in the entrances to the stations of the Paris Métropolitain, on the façades of Sagrada Família and the other works of Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, in the Willow Tearooms of Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow, in the stained glass work of Louis Comfort Tiffany and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, and in the jewellery of René Lalique.
Why is Ålesund Well Known for Art Nouveau?
The reason Ålesund has such a prevalence of Art Nouveau buildings is the consequence of one fateful night in the town’s history. At around 2am on 23rd January 1904, a fire broke out in the factory of the Aalesund Preserving Company, on the island of Aspøya, when a cow kicked over a burning torch, spreading quickly to neighbouring buildings. Fanned by strong winter winds, the blaze quickly engulfed the wooden buildings around the Brosundet fishing harbour. By daybreak, embers caught in the wind had started several separate fires on the other side of the water.
Despite the efforts of fire fighting crews, including a steam-powered fireboat, the situation was soon out of control. Residents were evacuated, grabbing what they could carry and heading out into the winter morning. In total, 850 buildings were completely destroyed, and a further 230 seriously damaged. More than 10,000 people were displaced from their homes in the firestorm, and incredibly only one life was lost, having tempted fate by re-entering her home to save personal items.
Relief funds were donated from across Norway, and Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, who regularly visited the area on sailing voyages in the fjords, dispatched three ships to provide humanitarian aid to the stricken population. The reconstruction of the town became an urgent project, and following Norwegian independence after the dissolution of the United Kingdom of Sweden and Norway in 1905, a way of cementing national identity.
The result is a beautiful collection of period buildings with the bright colours, Art Nouveau ornamentation, and architectural flourishes of the prevailing Jugendstil style. Today, Ålesund is a partner in the Réseau Art Nouveau Network, which connects European cities with a rich Art Nouveau design heritage, like Brussels, Vienna, Glasgow, and Barcelona, and less well known examples, like Darmstadt in Germany, Aviero in Portugal, and Szeged in Hungary.
Ålesund Art Nouveau Walking Tour
This post will lead you on a virtual tour of Ålesund, uncovering the Art Nouveau architecture of the town, and when you finally travel there yourself, can act as your self-guided walking tour. The route starts from Skateflukaia, near the Tourist Information Centre (Turistkontoret). The walk is only around 5km at most, and will take a couple of hours to complete.
Head away from the water’s edge to find Kongens Gate, a cobblestone-clad pedestrian shopping street, and follow it to the junction with Løvenvoldgata and St. Olavs Plass. Turn left, then left again outside the Løvenvold Kino (cinema) on to Storgata. Don’t forget to keep looking up at the buildings to spot details like flowers, sunbursts, carvings and spires inspired by traditional stave churches, and even dragons. At the junction by the Scandic Hotel, turn right and head uphill into Byparken.
The View from Aksla Fjellstua
Byparken, a pocket-sized park at the foot of Aksla, is the starting point for the ascent up the 418 steps to the Fjellstua mountain viewpoint. By an incongruous monkey puzzle tree is a statue of Viking chieftain Hrólfr Ragnvaldsson or Gånge-Rolf (Rolf the Walker), supposedly a local lad born in Ålesund, and much better known internationally by the name Rollo, Duke of Normandy. For fans of the Vikings TV series, he’s the inspiration behind Rollo, ruthless brother of the hero Ragnar Lothbrok.
The steps are well-paved and have sturdy handrails, and benches are located every twenty steps or so, breaking the challenge of the ascent into more manageable chunks if needed. There’s no reason to rush though, as the views on the ascent are worth lingering over, and the ice cream selection at the Fjellstua as you soak in the panorama is just reward for the effort.
The view from Aksla Fjellstua is easily one of the most recognisable in Norway, and certainly among the most beautiful. Ice cream coloured buildings cluster around the harbours of the central three islands of Ålesund. The islands and skerries of wider archipelago lie dark in the sparkling water of Breidsundet to the west. And the sheer, often snow capped, peaks of the Sunnmøre Alps encircling the Hjørundfjord provide the backdrop to the south.
To return to the streets, there are several well-signposted walking trails from the top of Askla, all of which are much quieter than the steps, and give sensational views over the rooftops to the Sunnmøre Alps or the islands beyond. It takes around 20 minutes to descend from the Fjellstua.
The Fjellstua is a stop on the Ålesund sightseeing train, which visits several tourist attractions around the town and has audio commentary in various languages, and is served by a hop-on hop-off bus, so climbing the stairs isn’t essential to appreciate the views from the top.
Retrace your steps to St. Olavs Plass, then follow the edge of Ålesundet, the narrow channel that provided safe harbour to the historic herring fishing fleet and is now home to a flotilla of small sailing boats. Hellebroa bridge, between the islands of Nørvøya and Aspøya, feels like the true heart of Ålesund. Crossing Ålesundet, it is the perfect vantage point for photographing pastel-painted buildings reflected in the sheltered water.
Two sculptures look over the old fishing quays near the bridge, reminding passers-by of the importance of the industry to the town. The Boy Fisherman (Fiskergutten) is said to invoke the optimism of youth, while nearby The Herring Wife (Sildkona) is a tribute to the women who processed and salted the catch ashore, ready for export across Norway and the rest of Europe.
Ålesund Art Nouveau Centre (Jugendstilsenteret)
Just over the road from Hellebroa is the old Swan Pharmacy building at Apotekergata 16, the highlight of Ålesund’s Art Nouveau offering. The beautiful interior of the shop was preserved while it continued to operate, along with that of the private residence on the upper floors, and after the business closed in 2001, it was redeveloped into the Art Nouveau Centre (Jugendstilsenteret).
Interpretation tells the story of the devastating fire in 1904, and subsequent reconstruction of the town, and explores the Jugendstil, Art Nouveau, and Glasgow Style influences that were blended with Norwegian folkloric art and Norse heritage to create a distinctive Nordic Jugendstil style in Ålesund. If design is really your thing, the centre is unmissable, as is Art Museum Kube (Kube Kunstmuseet) in the neighbouring old Norges Bank building.
Things saved from the fire
A short walk from the Jugendstilsenteret on Apotekergata, the area of Molovegen near the harbour mouth is home to the handful of wooden buildings that survived the fire in 1904. Similar to the traditional buildings of picturesque Bryggen in Bergen and Gamle Skudeneshavn on the island of Karmøy, they give a glimpse of how Ålesund would have looked at the turn of the 20th century.
One of the buildings holds the Fisheries Museum (Fiskerimuseet), a small museum that details the heritage of one of the biggest fishing fleets in Europe, and keeps traditional boatbuilding skills alive. The best views of the old harbour can be seen from the small lighthouse at the end of the breakwater.
To the Church
Finish your Art Nouveau walking tour by retracing your steps on Molovegen, then turning onto Øwregata. Any diversion into side streets will reveal more eye-catching buildings and architectural features, but continue uphill towards the imposing yellow building of Aspøya school, to lead to Kirkegata and Ålesund Kirkje.
The large stone church replaced the original that was damaged in the fire. The foundation stone was laid by King Haakon VII in 1906, and the period style is evident, especially in the arch windows. The highly decorated interior is also worth a peek if you visit during their opening hours.
Top Tips to Explore Art Nouveau Ålesund
Don’t miss the Ålesund Art Nouveau Centre (Jugendstilsenteret) at Apotekergata 16, for the context behind the design movement, a glimpse of some stunning period interiors, and some specialist collections. The centre is open Tuesday to Sunday, with entry costing 90NOK (U18 entry is free). There’s also a gorgeous café, and small gift shop in the original pharmacy.
The Tourist Information Centre (Turistkontoret) on Skateflukaia is the starting point for guided tours through the summer season, and has a selection of guides and leaflets available in a range of languages with more information about the local architecture.
Take yourself for coffee and cake in one of the many cafés or bakeries around the town as a break from your walking tour, such as Apotekeren Kafe or Walderhaug Bakeri og Konditori. I recommend trying a couple of local specialities; either fruity, slightly boozy Skilpaddekake (turtle cake) or almondy, meringue-topped Verdens Beste kake (world’s best cake).
Getting to Ålesund
Hurtigruten coastal ferries call in Ålesund daily all year round. It’s an overnight sailing northward from Bergen, or three nights on board travelling south from Tromsø. Port stops are usually brief, however Ålesund is one destination with the opportunity to spend a few hours ashore or take part in an organised excursion.
A large number of visitors to Ålesund arrive via cruise ship, with just a few hours to spend in port. Fortunately, ships dock in a central location, making a walking tour the ideal way to explore the city during a stopover.
A bus service connects Ålesund with Bergen, with the scenic journey taking around nine and a half hours.