It’s noon on a Wednesday, and I’m making the most of a rain-free day by getting out and exploring Stavanger – the city I’ve called home for the past four months. I make my way around the mirror-like harbour, past the city’s iconic row of waterfront heritage buildings, and enter the charmingly haphazard maze of streets that make up its heart.
Historians will tell you that Stavanger was classified as a city as early as 1226, but this vibrant hub in the southwest of Norway didn’t spring to life until the great oil boom of 1969. Striking black gold a mere 300 kilometers off the mainland was the catalyst for the city’s growth, and the resulting influx of people and industry earned it the title of the ‘Oil Capital of Norway’.
They’re unapologetically proud of their drilling history in Stavanger. It’s the lifeblood of this city, and it’s there for all to see, immortalised in the surprisingly fascinating Norsk Oljemuseum. But, Stavanger is a city with so much more substance than oil.
Beneath its industry, the city is a natural beauty. Within half an hour’s reach of the CBD you’ll find Borestranda, a sandy stretch of beach known for its pumping surf break and buzzing seasonal campsite. By contrast, the tiny, ex-monastic island of Mosterøy offers a coastline that’s rugged and wild, framed by the towering cliff line of Mastrafjorden. But no cliff line is as epic as that of nearby Lysefjorden. This gaping fjord is home to the famed Preikestolen, a 600-metre-high, flat-top cliff (perfect for hiking) with panoramic views seemingly pulled straight from a Hollywood blockbuster.
On a quest for the best view within the city’s bounds, I climb up the small but steep hillside to Gamle Stavanger, a protected heritage precinct perched above the main harbour. It’s the epitome of a fairy tale village: warm and charming, lined with quaint, uniformly white wooden cottages that hark back to the 18th and 19th centuries. If Gamle Stavanger is the grand old dame of town, then the rainbow row of shopfronts at nearby Fargegaten is indeed its rebellious little sister.
Directly translated as ‘colour street’, this short pedestrian mall is an eclectic mix of brightly painted cafes, bars and retailers. Here, I rifle through the racks of pin-up style dresses at Syvende Himmel; sip on a coffee and bury my nose in a secondhand book from the cafe-turned-bookstore, Bøker og Børst; and settle into one of the brown leather booths at Stavanger’s favourite craft beer venue, Cirkus, with a syrupy dark ale in hand.
On a warmer day, utepils (which translates to ‘drinking beers in the sun’) would have been on the cards. Being a much-loved Norwegian pastime, Stavanger isn’t short on places to enjoy outdoor beers. The recently opened Lervig Local is the urban outpost for the city’s largest local brewery, who have taken over the green parkland adjacent to them with picnic tables. Just a short drive out of town and Tananger’s Hummeren Hotel, and the beachside Sola Strand Hotel, serve utepils and seafood-forward fare with a side of water views.
But, it’s the beer gardens at Hansenhjørnet, Beverly Hills Fun Pub, Oven Paa and Proud Mary Pub that you’ll want to patronise on a Wednesday or Thursday. They’re all friendly neighbours in a row of harbourfront heritage buildings, and are the driving force behind the city’s busiest public street party, Fjåge i Vågen. It’s utepils on steroids; a street-closing celebration of afternoon sunshine, lager and local live music.
As noon nears, my growing appetite leads me to Olive Tree, a cosy Italian restaurant and bar that opened its doors just as Norway was thrown into lockdown. It’s one of many Italian restaurants in the city. Still, none are quite as popular as the multi-level Villa 22 that dishes out bubbly-based woodfired pizzas and bittersweet negronis from its prime waterfront location. Just like its party-throwing neighbours on the harbour, Villa 22’s popularity isn’t so much a case of totally groundbreaking fare as it is location, location, location.
A five minute stroll away is the lively Mexican joint, Harry Pepper. People come for the blackened lamb and build-your-own-fajitas menu, but stay for the collection of more than 50 mezcals and tequilas. Seafood lovers needn’t wander much further, with Fisketorget, the local fish market known for its creamy, catch-of-the-day fiskesuppe (fish soup), just around the corner.
Walk a little further afield, and you’ll find the tiny but mighty 10-seat Sabi Omakase, the second-ever restaurant in Stavanger to attain Michelin star status. The first was the much-lauded RE-NAA, a fine-dining experience serving up a grand total of 22 courses, each one spotlighting hyper-local Stavanger produce.
As I wind up my day of exploring and make my way back home, I smile to myself; I’ll never be a local in this city, but, for now, I’m happily soaking up every last bit of Stavanger’s cultural vibrancy and small-town feel.
Words Monique Ceccato