the-story-behind-the-stunning-architecture-of-alesund,-norway

The Story Behind The Stunning Architecture Of Ålesund, Norway

Central Ålesund is defined by its eye-catching architecture, very different from other Norwegian … [+] coastal towns.

David Nikel

Regardless of the weather, Ålesund is one of Norway’s most attractive towns thanks to the towers, spires and other ornamental features of the architecture. In stark contrast to the simple wooden houses of many other Norwegian coastal towns, central Ålesund’s fairy-tale look has more in common with Paris, Prague, and Brussels.

To understand why, we must look back more than 100 years when a fire all but destroyed the town.

Fire in a factory

During the 19th century, Ålesund emerged as a key trading center along Norway’s west coast. It grew quickly from a few hundred people to more than 10,000, during which time many wooden houses were built in a confined space.

A view of downtown Ålesund from Mount Aksla.

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In the early hours of January 3, 1904, a fire broke out inside a factory building. Despite arriving quickly on the scene, fire crews were met with thick smoke and the sight of the factory and neighboring wooden buildings ablaze. Fire crews were quickly overwhelmed as the fire spread due to a fierce winter gale passing through the town.

Within a matter of hours, only 230 houses remained standing. Remarkably there was just one reported fatality in the blaze, even though more than 800 houses were destroyed.

Popular with European royalty

Today Ålesund is known as one of Norway’s must-visit places. The same was true in the early 20th century, as the town and the surrounding area including the Sunnmøre Alps and Hjørundfjord were popular with European royalty and other wealthy tourists.

One of those—Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany—was so shocked to hear of the fire that he sent four ships with people, materials and medicine to help the recovery efforts.

The Hjørundfjord of Norway has long been popular with European visitors.

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Young Norwegian designers and architects took up the challenge to rebuild the town and were inspired by the art nouveau style popular in Germany and other parts of Europe at the time. The result created one of Norway’s most distinctive towns.

A walking tour

The best way to appreciate the final result is simply to wander the streets of the compact central district. Start at Lorkenstorget, the square by the canal bridge that links the two halves of downtown Ålesund.

Head up Notenesgata before turning left onto the attractive waterfront path Skansegata. Retrace your steps once you reach the Ålesund tourist information office at Skateflukaia, cross the bridge and turn right on to Apotekergata for another view across the water.

Stroll through Molovegen, a formerly run-down waterside district now dominated by academic institutes and galleries. Continue along the pier to the 150-year old Molja Lighthouse for another perspective on Ålesund and Mount Aksla not often seen in photographs.

When walking around Ålesund, always look up.

David Nikel

The lighthouse doubles as room 47 for the nearby Hotel Brosundet. The hotel claims that the cozy room that includes breakfast delivered to the door has been featured in more travel magazines than any other European hotel room.

How to learn more

Although the town’s architecture is a museum in itself, Jugendstilsenteret is still worth a visit to learn even more details about the city fire and subsequent renaissance.

The reception area retains the original fittings from the building’s former life as a pharmacy, while the exterior is a striking example of the architecture that makes Ålesund so appealing. Your ticket also covers entrance to the Kube Art Museum, next door.

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