Norway’s first Renaissance city, Fredrikstad was born in the 16th century on the orders of King Frederick II. The Old Town is inside a bastion fort at the mouth of the Glomma, Norway’s longest river. And the reason for these heavy fortifications is that Fredrikstad was a Danish-Norwegian bulwark against the Swedes to the east.
You can take the path around the moat, see what you can find in the endearing little Old Town, and then storm the outlying forts seconds away at Isegran and Kongsten. Here the south side of the Oslo fjord, the sunniest region in Norway, the natural splendour may leave you lost for words. You can see what we mean at dreamy granite coves, the throng of skerries and islets at Hvaler, and the immaculate royally property of Hankø Island.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Fredrikstad:
1. Gamlebyen (Old Town)
Implausibly cute, the fortified Old Town on the left bank of the Glomma in Fredrikstad is the oldest settlement in the city and has stood since 1567. When Frederick II signed the charter Fredrikstad became the first Norwegian city founded after the Middle Ages.
The man responsible for the abiding star-shaped design was the 17th-century Dutch engineer and quartermaster Willem Coucheron.
He constructed a zigzagging moat and earthwork ramparts that were so effective that Fredrikstad was never taken in a siege.
Some 350 people live on the trellis of cobblestone lanes within the fortifications, and the houses range from lovably rickety wooden houses to cultured Baroque piles.
Take a break at one of the welcoming cafes and restaurants, and potter around the busy flea market on the main square on Saturdays.
At the mouth of the Glomma is an island that has been fortified since the 13th century.
The nobleman Alv Erlingsson had a castle on Isegran at this time, which was destroyed by the King’s army in 1287. Its earthworks would become Fredrikstad’s city defences 400 years later.
Isegran was long a base for shipbuilding, and now historic wooden sailboats are restored in the same workshops they were built.
These are on the north side of the island and comprise Norway’s only school for the art of boatbuilding, while you can appreciate the vintage boats moored on the water.
The maritime museum in the powder magazine shows all the expertise that goes into restoring “International One Design” sailboats, and you can pause for a hot drink at the cafe.
3. Kongsten Fort
Founded in 1685, Kongsten Fort to the southeast of the Old Town is a freestanding fortress designed to bolster Fredrikstad’s vulnerable eastern approach and linked to the Old Town via a “hidden path”. Standing on its walls and checking the lie of the land, you’ll appreciate why the fort was constructed at this location.
Although there’s no museum at Kongsten Fort, you can come and size up the architecture, perusing the intact ramparts, gateway, bastions, powder magazine, casemate and the commander’s house.
These spaces are rented out for events and accommodation, while on its 300th anniversary the fort appeared on Norwegian postage stamps.
4. Old Town Model Train Centre
Open weekends and holidays, the Old Town has the largest model railway in Scandinavia.
In interconnected buildings is a miniature landscape more than 400 square metres in size, with two kilometres of track for 35 locomotives.
What will thrill kids and adults alike is the high degree of detail, with people, landforms, animals, monuments and Fredrikstad’s cityscape rendered at 1:87 scale.
The trains are computer operated and, as a neat touch, the centre’s control room is housed inside a replica of a Norwegian commuter train.
5. Hankø Island
An extraordinary place for a hike, this island used to be the hunting ground for the Lord of the nearby Elingård Manor.
But in the 1870s curative sulphurous mud was found on the island and it became a spa, baths and public recreation area owned by the Norwegian royal family.
Trees were planted and fallow deer were introduced, and in 1930 King Olav V built a holiday home on Hankø.
Get there via the ferry from Hankøsundet, which deposits you at the island’s northernmost point.
At the crossing, stop to appreciate the stately Seilerkroa inn on the water, painted red and completed in 1883. Also make sure to hike to the Hankø Fjordhotell & Spa established in 1877 and once swarmed by Norway’s elite.
6. Hvaler Islands
The Hvaler archipelago at the southwesternmost point of Østfold county is a world of granite skerries and islands varying in size from a few metres to several kilometres across.
The islands got the name Hvaler from the plural of “Hval”, the Norwegian word for whale as they resemble a pod of cetaceans in the water.
They may be remote, but the islands are joined to the mainland by the 108 road, meaning you could go out and come home before lunch.
The choice of things to do in the archipelago is as big as your imagination: You can dine on fresh seafood, board an island-hopping ferry, go on hikes in birch and spruce forest, find forgotten coves, take a kayak tour, play a round at the Hvaler golf course and seek out Medieval churches.
7. Litteraturhuset Fredrikstad
One of the stylish new developments on the Glomma, the Litteraturhuset opened in 2013 and is a cultural centre devoted to the written word.
A big cube clad with wood boards and glass the Litteraturhuset is the second largest institution of its kind in Norway.
With a coffee shop, auditorium and exhibition space, the centre puts on TED-style seminars, science and art shows as well as readings and performances for children.
You can check the website for the busy programme, which has something different almost every day.
The Litteraturhuset also stages high-profile events like the Fredrikstad Animation Festival every November and International Women’s Day in March.
8. Roald Amundsen’s Birthplace
One of Norway’s favourite sons, the polar explorer Roald Amundsen was born in the parish of Borge just outside Fredrikstad.
Amundsen led the first expedition to the South Pole and was the first to navigate the Arctic’s Northwest Passage.
He was born to a family of ship-owners and is said to have cultivated his intrepid spirit sailing yachts along the Glomma River.
An interesting side-note is that his mother wanted him to avoid the maritime business so he trained to become a doctor until she died, then went to sea for the rest of his life.
The family farm has a bust of Amundsen out front and is open on weekends for tours in winter, and from Wednesday to Sunday during the summer.
The house has period furniture and souvenirs from Amundsen’s voyages, and the knowledgeable guide will fill you in on Amundsen’s achievements.
9. Hans Nielsen Hauge’s Memorial Museum
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On the stunning Rolvsøy island you can call in at the painted cottage where a highly influential early-19th-century social reformer was born.
A Lutheran, Hans Nielsen Hauge became an itinerant preacher after a spiritual awakening in 1896. From then on he wrote books that were widely read and gave rise to the gender equal Haugean Movement, which encouraged informal religious gatherings (forbidden at the time), set up factories and mills around the country and challenged the authority of the Church of Norway.
If you’re keen to know more about this enigmatic character his birthplace can be visited by appointment and the owner will even make coffee and waffles for you if you order in advance.
10. Østfold Kunstsenter (Østfold Art Centre)
In a refined 19th-century mansion in the centre of Fredrikstad, the Østfold Art Centre is dedicated to contemporary and applied art.
Run by artists, the centre has a gallery for constantly-changing temporary exhibitions alongside a sales gallery.
When we wrote this post there were solo shows for the installation artist Beathe C. Rønning, ceramics designer Margit Seland, conceptual artist Hazel Barstow and the painter Davood Zandian.
There’s also an art shop, cafe and workshops for youngsters in the summer holidays.
11. Fredrikstad Cathedral
Although hardly ancient, Fredrikstad’s 19th-century Gothic Revival cathedral has a lot going for it.
Consecrated in 1880 the cathedral’s most striking feature is its 70-metre tower and its copper-clad spire.
This monument only officially became a cathedral in 1969 when the Borg diocese was created.
In the choir you’ll see the stained glass windows painted in 1917 by the accomplished religious artist Emanuel Vigeland who also contributed to the cathedrals at Lund, Aarhus and Stavanger.
The altarpiece meanwhile was the work of Axel Revold who was art professor at the Norway National Academy of Fine Arts for two decades.
12. Østre Fredrikstad Church
The Old Town’s first church was built from wood in 1560 and burnt down not long after.
The same fate would befall each of the next five churches on this site.
Finally after the last wooden church was claimed by a blaze in 1764 the city decided to build a church from stone and brick that has remained unharmed since 1779. There are small traces of its predecessor in the stonework of this proud Baroque church that can seat 450 worshippers.
Call ahead and you can view the understated interiors, which have carved wooden pews and a gallery supported by Ionic columns with capitals painted gold.
13. Mærrapanna Naturreservat
A joy in summer, the Mærrapanna Naturreservat is a bathing area and nature reserve on a peninsula 15 minutes by car.
The scenery is memorable as on the ground are monumental granite boulders, which take on a mesmerising orange hue in the sunlight.
Between the boulders are tufts of heather, pine and verdant grassy areas.
The peninsula is never more than 100 metres wide and has sheltered bathing spots where kids can paddle in safety, as well as picnic benches, fishing spots, a playground, barbecue pits and bathing ladders for stronger swimmers.
One of the loveliest beaches near Fredrikstad, Foten is only 10 kilometres to the southwest and is awarded the Blue Flag every year for its water quality and amenities.
The last upgrade was in time for summer 2012 when a beach volleyball court and new children’s playground arrived.
The beach is a little sandy bay, which blends with large, rounded granite rocks that people lounge on in summer.
Swimmers can take a dip in the gentle sea via a wooden pier with bathing ladders, and a multi-level diving board has been built on the rocks beside deeper water.
15. Fredrikstad FK
Now, watching a football match in Norway might not be your lifetime ambition, but there are a few reasons to keep the local team Fredrikstad FK in mind if you come in summer.
First off, football is a summer sport in Norway, played from March to November so there’s a good chance of catching a game.
But Fredrikstad FK is a team of real history and culture, playing at the well-appointed Fredrikstad Stadion, which opened next to the Glomma in 2007. Founded in 1903, the Aristocrats as they’re known, are now in the 2. Divisjon having been relegated from the OBOS-ligaen in 2017. But their current lowly position belies the club’s heritage as one of the most successful in Norway’s history, having won the top division nine times and lifted eleven Norwegian cups.