Ålesund, on Norway’s wild west coast, is unusual. When the little fishing village burnt to the ground in 1904, it was rebuilt in three years, entirely in art nouveau style. It has risen from the ashes: 850 homes were destroyed and 10,000 people were left homeless; the tale of this town is one of revival and restoration.
The port town sits beside forest-clad hills which rush down into dramatic seas; medieval spires and turrets sit atop mural-adorned buildings; unique architecture lines the narrow cobbled streets; and a winding canal runs through the town centre. It’s worth spending a day or two in this portal to the Norwegian fjords, taking in the nature and slow pace of life.
A comfortable bed
Originally a fishing warehouse, Hotel Brosundet (www.brosundet.no; 0047 7011 4500), on the banks of the Ålesund canal, is an intimate 47-room boutique property, tastefully converted to art nouveau style. Old-world charm is a strong element in the hotel's unique decor – the rooms still feature pine and oak beams and arched windows. One wall of the hotel dips straight into the canal, and it's not uncommon to see fishing boats with fresh catches sail by. The lobby, featuring dockside timber and aluminium, is a lovely spot to get a cup of tea and listen to the sound of gulls. To get to room 47, you need to step out of the main building, walk five minutes to the end of the jetty, then climb a flight of stairs. The 150-year old Molja Lighthouse is perhaps one of the world's most iconic hotel rooms. The rustic circular bedroom measures three metres across and looks out onto ships gliding across the Atlantic. Double rooms cost from 1,530 Norwegian kroner (Dh726).
The 197-room Scandic Parken Hotel (www.scandichotels.com; 0047 7013 2300) is ideally poised to take in Ålesund's sights. It's a stone's throw from the waterside and town centre, with charming views of spired rooftops and cobbled side streets.
Find your feet
A walk through the compact town centre is an ideal starting point to absorb Ålesund's history and architecture. Pastel-coloured buildings border the reflective waters of the Ålesundet canal. In summer, bright yellow kayaks float downstream. The town is still deeply connected to its roots in the fishing industry: sculptures of fishermen line the streets; the walls of banks and office buildings are covered in murals depicting the town's fishing history. The Jugendstilsenteret (www.jugendstilsenteret.no; 75 kroner [Dh36]) – a former apothecary, now the town's Art Nouveau Centre – is a perfect stop to learn about Ålesund's reconstruction.
Meet the locals
To say Norwegians are outdoorsy would be an understatement. Ålesund’s walks and hikes are lovely. In the midst of nature is where you’ll get to meet and mingle with the friendly locals. From the town park, climb 418 steps to Mount Aksla, or drive up if you aren’t in the mood for a schlep. From the Fjellstua viewpoint, a panoramic sight greets you: the stunning Sunnmøre Alps loom in the distance, Ålesund’s canal slices through the town’s candy-coloured buildings and the sea swirls all around. The mountainside is covered in rough-hewn rocks, fat purple flowers and overgrown gardens; perfect for a leisurely stroll.
Book a table
In Ålesund, seafood is the way to go. Fresh-from-the-water salmon, cod and herring are your best bets. Klipfish – a dried, salted cod – is Ålesund's most popular export. XL Diner (www.xldiner.no; 0047 7012 4253) is a charming restaurant overlooking the harbour that's known for its fish specialities. You can dig into traditional Norwegian recipes as well as innovative turns on standard fish dishes. The Spanish Bacalao casserole is an interesting variety of fiery red stew of dried cod or klipfish, tomatoes, peppers and onion. A meal for two costs about 700 kroner (Dh332)
With its unique artwork and mood lighting, Brasserie Normandie at the Scandic Parken is perfect for a romantic dinner in a chic setting. The restaurant has a good selection of meats – veal, lamb, deer and beef. The fillet of veal features tender meat with pan-fried vegetables and mushrooms in blue cheese on the side. The herb-crusted rack of lamb is another menu favourite; it comes with fat forest mushrooms and a lingonberry jelly. A meal for two costs 800 kroner (Dh380).
Artifex Kunst & Antikviteter (www.artifex.no) sells antique collectables and artwork by local and international artists. The store houses a gallery with a focus on contemporary art, plus a cafe.
For unique souvenirs, step into Ingrids Glassverksted (www.ingridsglassverksted.no) – a glass-blowing studio with a gallery. For something truly Norwegian, check out the quirky, colourful glass fish.
What to avoid
Give winter a skip and plan a summer holiday, when you can really enjoy the water activity and outdoor walks.
Cruise through Norway’s stunning Geirangerfjord on an open-top sightseeing boat. Cruises cost 205 kroner (Dh97) per person.
Return flights with Emirates (www.emirates.com) from Dubai to Oslo cost from Dh3,465, including taxes, and take seven hours. From Oslo, flights to Ålesund take one hour; a return ticket costs from Dh468 on SAS (www.flysas.com).