By Rick Steves
This burg of about 117,000 feels more cosmopolitan than most Norwegian cities. This is thanks in part to the North Sea oil industry, with its multinational workers and the money they bring into the city. Known as Norway's festival city, Stavanger hosts several lively events, including jazz in May, chamber music in August, and a wooden boats festival in early September.
The most scenic and interesting parts of Stavanger surround its harbor. Here you'll find the Norwegian Emigration Center, lots of shops and restaurants, the indoor fish market, and a produce market. The artificial Lake Breiavatnet — bordered by Kongsgaten on the east and Olav V's Gate on the west — separates the train and bus stations from the harbor.
Norwegian Petroleum Museum (Norskolje Museum) — This entertaining, informative museum — dedicated to the discovery of oil in Norway's North Sea in 1969 and the industry built up around it — offers something for everyone. With half of Western Europe's oil reserves, Norway is the Arabia of the North. Since the discovery of oil here in 1969, the formerly poor agricultural nation has been transformed into a world-class player — it's ranked third among the world's top oil exporters, producing 3.2 billion barrels a day.
This museum describes how oil was formed, how it's found and produced, and what it's used for. There are interactive exhibits covering everything from the "History of the Earth" (4.5 billion years displayed on a large overhead globe, showing how our planet has changed — stay for the blast that killed the dinosaurs), to day-to-day life on an offshore platform, to petroleum products in our lives.
Kids love the model drilling platform that they can climb on. The museum's architecture was designed to echo the foundations of the oil industry — bedrock (the stone building), slate and chalk deposits in the sea (slate floor of the main hall), and the oil rigs (cylindrical platforms). While the museum has its fair share of propaganda, it also has several good exhibits on the environmental toll of drilling and consuming oil. The small museum shop sells various petroleum-based products.
Norwegian Emigration Center (Det Norske Utvandrersenteret Ble) — This fine museum, in an old warehouse near the wharf where the first boats sailed with emigrants to "Amerika" in 1825, is worthwhile for anyone seeking their Norwegian roots. On the second floor, you'll find a study center and library. There are computers (Internet and microfilm) free for use to look up your relatives. The free library is lined with shelves of bygdebøker — books from farm districts all over Norway, documenting the history of landowners and local families. For a charge per hour, the staff will give you a step-by-step consultation. Otherwise, they'll help answer questions and steer you in the right direction for free. The third floor has a small exhibit everyone will enjoy: It tells the story of the first emigrants who left for America — why they left, the journey, and what life was like in the New World. If you want to look up relatives, do some homework ahead of time and bring at least two or three of the following: family surname, farm name, birth year, and emigration year.
Stavanger Museum — This "museum" is actually five different buildings/museums covered by one ticket: the Stavanger Museum, featuring the history of the city and a zoological exhibit (Muségate 16); Stavanger Sjøfartsmuseum, the maritime museum (Nedre Strandgate 17–19); Norsk Hermetikkmuseum, the Norwegian canning museum (brisling — herring — is smoked mid-June–mid-Aug Tue and Thu, Øvre Strandgate 88A); Ledaal, a royal residence and manor house (Eiganesveien 45); and Breidablikk, a wooden villa from the late 1800s (Eiganesveien 40A). Pick up the handy brochure and buy your ticket from the TI.
Gamle Stavanger — Stavanger's "old town" centers on Øvre Strandgate, on the west side of the harbor. Wander the narrow, winding back lanes and peek into a workshop or gallery to find ceramics, glass, jewelry, and more (free, shops and galleries open roughly daily 10:00–16:00, coinciding with the arrival of cruise ships).
Stavanger Cathedral (Domkirke) — The cathedral was originally built in 1125 in a Norman style, with basket-handle Romanesque arches. After a fire badly damaged the church in the 13th century, a new chancel was added in the pointy-arched Gothic style. Have a look inside and see where the architecture changes about three-quarters of the way up the aisle.
Day Trips to Lysefjord and Pulpit Rock
The nearby Lysefjord is an easy day trip. Those with more time (and strong legs) can hike up to the top of the 1,800-foot-high Pulpit Rock (Preikestolen). The dramatic 270-square-foot plateau atop the rock gives you a fantastic view of the fjord and surrounding mountains. The TI has brochures for several boat tour companies and sells tickets.
Boat Tour of Lysefjord — Rodne Clipper Fjord Sightseeing offers 3.5-hour round-trip excursions from Stavanger to Lysefjord (including a view of Pulpit Rock). Boats depart from the east side of the harbor, in front of Skansegaten, along Skagenkaien. Buy your ticket on board or at the TI.
Ferry and Bus to Pulpit Rock — The Pulpit Rock trail's starting point, about an hour from Stavanger by a ferry-and-bus combination, is easily reached in summer by public transit or tour. Then comes the hard part: the two-hour hike to the top. The total distance is 4.5 miles and the elevation gain is roughly 1,000 feet. Pack a lunch and plenty of water and wear good shoes.
Tide Reiser offers ferry-and-bus tours to the trailhead from Stavanger. The following are approximate schedules — reconfirm all times at the TI before you go: Ferries depart from the Fiskepiren boat terminal to Tau. After you cross the fjord to Tau, buses meet the incoming ferries and head to Pulpit Rock cabin or to Preikestolen Fjellstue, the local youth hostel. Be sure to time your hike so that you can catch the last bus leaving Pulpit Rock cabin for the ferry. Cheaper public transit options are also available; pick up the helpful leaflet and confirm details at the TI. They can also give you details about more strenuous hikes.