48 Hours In: Stavanger

Oil put it on the map, but wooden houses and a fascinating fishing history provide this city's charm


Why go now?

To get ahead of the crowds which will be converging on Norway's fourth-largest city next year, when Stavanger shares the title of European Capital of Culture with Liverpool. With a population of just 115,000, it is compact, easy to explore and holds great charm – all of which sounds unlikely given that this is also the oil capital of Norway. There's a great mix of the new and the old here: you'll see plenty of huge ships and tankers in the harbour, yet this tiny city also contains the greatest number of wooden houses in northern Europe. And there's a wealth of things to do: Stavanger boasts 26 museums and galleries and is the gateway to especially fine fjord country.

Touch down

Ferry services run from Newcastle to Stavanger with DFDS Seaways (0871 522 9955; www.dfds.co.uk). The ferry terminal (1) is at Strandkaien, an easy walk to the city centre.

Stavanger's Sola airport is served non-stop from Heathrow by SAS (0870 60 727 727; www.flysas.co.uk), Newcastle and Aberdeen by Wideroe (00 47 75 11 11 11; www.wideroe.no) and Aberdeen by City Star Airlines (01224 722 610; www.citystarairlines.com). Airport buses (00 47 51 59 90 60; www.flybussen.no) leave for the city centre three times an hour. The 25-minute journey to the central plaza (2) costs Nkr70 (£6.30).

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Haugesund Airport, about a 90-minute bus journey south to the city centre. Kystbussen buses (00 47 5523 8700; www.kystbussen.no) connect with the flights and cost Nkr130 (£11.70) one way.

Given the high duties in Norway, and the fact that the country is outside the EU, many travellers consider it worthwhile to invest in alcohol; you are allowed 1l of spirits, 2l of wine and 2l of beer.

Check in

The one drawback of Stavanger is expense: all that oil money means that this is not a cheap city to visit. However, good budget accommodation is offered at Stavanger Bed & Breakfast (3) at Vikedalstgaten 1A (00 47 51 56 25 00; www.stavangerbedandbreakfast.no). This pleasant, no-frills guesthouse is within easywalking distance of the city centre, with doubles from Nkr740 (£67) including breakfast.

If you pay a little more you can expect high standards. The Thon Hotel Maritim (4) at Kongsgaten 32 (00 47 51 85 0500; www.thonhotels.no) is a very comfortable mid-range option close to Stavanger cathedral (5). Doubles cost from Nkr1,335 (£120) including breakfast. For views and atmosphere, book a room at the Skagen Brygge Hotell (6) at Skagenkaien 28 (00 47 51 85 00 00; www.skagenbryggehotell.no), set in refurbished warehouses right on the harbourfront. Double rooms start at Nkr975 (£88) including breakfast.

You may find these hotels available online at lower rates bundled together with flights at websites such as www.expedia.co.uk or www.opodo.co.uk.

Get your bearings

Set on a peninsula in Norway's South-west, Stavanger developed around two harbours: Vagen and Ostre Havn. The picturesque old town is set on a hill just to the west of Vagen. To its south-east is the newly developed central plaza (2), with Stavanger's Gothic cathedral (5) behind it. The church overlooks the small City Park, with its pretty pond. Immediately to the north is the main shopping area, which straggles between the two harbours. The tourist office (7) is just above the cathedral at Domkirkeplassen 3 (00 47 51 85 92 00; www.regionstavanger.com) and shares its premises with the Stavanger 2008 offices, where you can book tickets to Capital of Culture events. It opens daily 9am-4pm (Saturdays to 2pm) except Sundays, with longer hours and Sunday opening between January and August 2008.

Take a hike

For a walk that presents a perspective on both harbour areas as well as the old town, start at the tourist office (7), where you can pick up free maps of the city and the outlying region. Walk up cobbled Laugmannsgata, past Ting (8), a funky homeware shop, to Arneageren. This small square is dominated by the lively Kulturhuset (9), the "Culture House", which contains a library and cinema as well as the Norwegian Children's Museum (open Tuesday to Saturday 11am-3.30pm, and Sunday 12noon-4.30pm; admission is Nkr80/£7.20).

Turn right into Solvberg-gata and then left along Bakkegata, glimpsing Ostre Havn to the right down narrow alleys lined with wooden houses. Cross Breigata and turn left on to trendy Holmgata with its Bohemian cafes and boutiques. Cross Kirkegata and walk down to Vagen harbour. Turn left and walk around the port, lined with bars and restaurants in converted warehouses, and pass the fish market (10) and the Maritime Museum (11) (open 11am-4pm daily except Mondays, Nkr60 (£5.30). Continue past Stavanger's old toll booth (12). Turn left up the stairway of Andasmauet (13) and you're in the narrow lanes of the old town, its white clapperboard houses bordered by tiny, well-kept gardens. Turn left down Ovre Strandgate and amble along this pretty lane, taking a left fork at the end, which will lead you, via Nedre Strandgate, to Stavanger's central plaza (2), with the tourist office (7) to the left above.

Lunch on the run

The wonderful old wooden building at Skagen 26 has the ambitious name of N B Sorensens Dampskibsexpedition (14). Dating from 1876, it is now a restaurant that creaks with atmosphere and and serves light lunches, such as open sandwiches of salmon or shrimp and salad from Nkr45 (£4).

Cultural afternoon

Stavanger's two most significant museums don't at the outset sound as if they would offer much in the way of entertainment value: they are dedicated to the history of petroleum and the history of canning. Yet both are very absorbing – and in parts great fun.

The Norwegian Petroleum Museum (15) at Havneringen (00 47 51 93 93 00; www.norskolje.museum.no) is a state-of-the-art outfit, offering lots of hi-tech, hands-on displays, as well as a convincingly realistic mock-up of life on the rigs. It opens 10am-4pm daily, until 6pm on Sundays; admission is Nkr80 (£7.20). The Norwegian Canning Museum (16) at Ovre Strandgate (00 47 51 84 27 00; www.stavanger.museum.no) recreates the environment of a "sardine factory" (actually processing sprats) in the early 20th century, a business that first brought Stavanger considerable fortune – though few of the workers experienced the resulting riches. It opens 11am-4pm daily except Monday; admission is Nkr60 (£5.30).

Window shopping

North of the cathedral (5), Stavanger's neat range of shops include Noa Noa for shoes and Peak Performance for outdoor wear on Nygata; Oleana for Norwegian knitwear on Kirkegata; and Lise-Lotte's and Lisbeth's as well as other small clothes boutiques on Breigata.

An aperitif

Boger og Borst (17) translates as "Books'*'Booze". This bar at Holmgata 32 has plenty of reading material (largely in Norwegian) and a laid-back ambience. It is a favourite haunt of the hippie chic crowd.

Dining with the locals

Set on the ground floor of the impressive Petroleum Museum building (15), Bolgen & Moi (00 47 51 93 93 51; www.bolgenogmoi.no) is one of the city's most sophisticated restaurants, serving the likes of beautifully presented shellfish soup with pan-fried scampi, and fillet of veal with chanterelle and morel sauce. A three-course meal costs around Nkr465 (£42), not including drinks.

Sunday morning: go to church

Stavanger's cathedral (5) is dedicated to St Swithin, and is said to contain an original relic: one of his arms. It is an impressive building dating from the 12th century. Inside, the most striking sight is the extraordinary baroque pulpit, looking like a ship's figurehead, which was added in the 1600s.

The Sunday morning service is at 11am. The church is otherwise open 11am-4pm from Tuesday to Thursday and Saturday, closed Monday and Friday. In summer it opens daily 11am-7pm.

Take a view

Walk up the hill on the east side of Vagen harbour. At the top is Valberg Tower (18), built in 1852 as a lookout point to guard against ship and city fires – Stavanger's wooden houses being particularly susceptible to flames.

The views from the surrounds of the tower at ground level are good, but for an Nkr20 (£1.80) admission fee you'll get an extensive outlook from the top (open weekends 11am-3pm, weekdays 10am-4pm).

Out to brunch

At the Kulturhuset (8), Kult Kaffeen (00 47 51 89 16 00) is a lively yet laid-back café that opens at noon on Sundays. Its special menu on Sunday includes pancakes and bacon (Nkr85/£7.65) and fish cakes (Nkr135/ £12.15) as well as its usual fare of pasta dishes and more.

Take a ride

It would be a great shame to visit Stavanger without taking a trip out to the stunningly beautiful Lysefjord. Flanked by amazing granite hills, it exudes an almost ethereal light. Rodne Fjord Cruise (00 47 51 89 52 70; www.rodne.no) offers a three-and-a-half-hour weekend boat trip (daily in the summer) leaving from Stavanger's Skagenkaien (19) at noon all year round, with prices from Nkr320 (£29).

Icing on the cake

The full programme of events for Stavanger's year as European Capital of Culture will be revealed on 17 October (00 47 51 91 20 08;www.stavanger2008.no). Expect exhibitions, theatre and dance, as well as peace projects – and possibly even a football match against Liverpool.

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