The capital of Southern Norway, Kristianstad is a summer getaway that has family attractions and untouched nature on land and water. Behind Kristiansand’s allure is a pretty historical quarter, a green seaside promenade and the adorable wooden wharfs where fishermen once sold their catch.
The east and west harbours are both screened from the Skagerrak currents by an archipelago of granite islands and skerries. Between the two harbours is the craggy Odderøya island, covered with coniferous forest and with traces of a naval base and fortress dating back to the 17th century. And that’s all without mentioning the Dyrepark zoo and theme park, the most visited attraction in Norway.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Kristiansand:
1. Dyrepark (Kristiansand Zoo and Amusement Park)
Norway’s favourite visitor attraction is 10 kilometres east of Kristiansand.
Among more than 100 species at the zoo are tigers, wolves, zebras , cheetahs, lions and lynxes.
The animals are kept in humane, well thought-out enclosures allowing as much room to move as possible.
Take the Africa exhibition, in which you walk through rainforest on a raised walkway, with small monkey species climbing freely on the branches overhead.
For the last 20 years there has also been a theme park here, based on the popular Norwegian Captain Sabertooth books and TV show and laid out like a pirate village.
Some attractions here include a haunted house, daily stunt shows and memorabilia from the television series and films.
Badelandet meanwhile is a recently opened waterpark, and KuToppen, a favourite for smaller children, is a farm with cows, goats, sheep, pigs and horses that can be fed and petted.
City parks don’t get more scenic than Ravnedalen, just to the north of the city centre in Kristiansand.
The park was landscaped using military labour under the command of the future Major General Joseph Frantz Oscar Wergeland from 1874-1878. Ravnedalen is in the Romantic style, where fresh lawns, mature trees and an outdoor stage for 5,000 spectators sit against imposing granite cliffs and waterfalls.
These rock faces are climbing heaven and Ravnedalen has about 70 climbing routes, many of which are bolted or partly bolted.
The park has a pond and exotic plants like magnolia and rhododendron, while the spruce trees planted here in the 1870s have become some of the largest in Norway.
There’s also a delightful pond-side cafe in the former gardener’s house.
On a grid one block in from the right bank of the Otra River, Posebyen is a photogenic neighbourhood of one and two-storey wooden houses with tiled roofs.
Just a brief walk from Kristiansand’s busier shopping streets, Posebyen is a tranquil residential area, where whitewashed houses have little gardens on their doorsteps and some doors and window frames are painted in bold matching colours.
A lot of these buildings survived the great city fire in 1892, providing space for domestic animals and doubling as workshops for artisans.
The houses by the river on Elvegata would have been home to workers at Kristiansand’s shipyards.
4. Kristiansand Cannon Museum
Møvik fort, as it came to be known after the war, is a German coastal defence with four immense gun positions, a casemate and a narrow gauge railway to transport ammunition.
The fort was built to protect the Skagerrak strait’s shipping lanes, but was never finished and only one of the gun positions is armed.
This is more than enough, as the 38cm Krupp artillery gun is the second largest in the world to be mounted on land.
Its barrel weighs 110 tons and is almost 20 metres long.
The newly restored ammunition train is open for rides on its 1.8-kilometre track, and you can explore two bunkers and follow hiking trails up to scenic lookouts to contemplate Skagerrak and Flekkerøy island.
5. Kristiansand Museum
At Kongsgård on Kristiansand’s eastern outskirts is the largest historical museum in the south of Norway.
Set outdoors and with 40 historic buildings, Kristiansand Museum dates back to 1903 and has three main areas, Setesdaltunet, Vest-Agdertunet and Bygaden.
Each of these is named for the original location of its buildings (Setesdal valley, Vest-Ager County and the old centre of Kristiansand). You can potter around homes, a sauna, barns, workshops, a schoolhouse and a general store, all from the 16th to the 19th century.
One unassuming structure, the Refugees Cabin, has a compelling story, as it was used by Resistance members evading the Gestapo, while Miniby, is a high-detail scale model of Kristiansand as it would have looked in the 1890s.
In summer kids can take part in workshops, play old-time games and listen to fairytales as part of the “Fun at the Museum” programme.
6. Strandpromenaden (Kristiansand Boardwalk)
At Kristiansand’s waterfront you could set off on a scenic and leisurely walk, stopping to enjoy the views of the marina and islands like Odderøya to the south.
The Strandpromenaden won the Nordic Green Space Award in 2013 as it threads through several waterside parks, so you’ll never be far from greenery on your stroll.
One park, Otterdalsparken has the second largest fountain in Norway, and the Tresse hosts the preserved Christiansholm Fortress from the 17th century.
There’s also a Blue Flag beach here, Bystranda, which is 270 metres long and has calm waters, shielded by a breakwater for the marina and a peninsula on its east side.
You can continue your stroll, around this peninsula packed with stylish new apartment buildings and carry on up the right bank of the Otra River.
From the Standpromenaden you can cross a bridge to begin a hike or bike ride on the island of Odderøya.
Rugged and shrouded in forest, the island is mostly undeveloped as throughout the 19th century it was Northern Europe’s largest quarantine station.
There’s still a cemetery from this time at Kjerregårdsbukta.
Odderøya was also the site of a fort and naval base from 1667 to 1999, and here and there are historic vestiges like ramparts, gun mounts on majestic outlooks, a hospital and gunpowder magazine.
Set a course for the island’s southern tip, where the old garrison engineer’s house has a cafe open on Sundays and with a wonderful perspective of the Oksøy and Grønningen lighthouses.
On the canal between the east and west harbours are the redeveloped wooden wharfs where the daily catch used to be brought ashore.
It was all spruced up in the 1990s, when the wharfside houses were returned to their original design and painted in ochre and red.
In the 21st century Fiskebrygga is a pedestrian area, with boutiques, cafes and fish and seafood restaurants, and putting on outdoor concerts on Thursday nights in summer.
Take a seat on the wooden steps and watch the busty water traffic with an ice cream in hand.
And even if it’s been gentrified Fiskebrygga still has a fish market where you can buy live shellfish like oysters, shrimp, mussels and scallops.
9. Kilden Performing Arts Centre
At the northern end of Odderøya is an acclaimed concert hall and theatre that opened in 2012. This striking building faces the west harbour and has an undulating oak facade reflecting the ripples on the water.
The venue packs in more than 200,000 spectators a year at its 708-seat theatre and opera hall, and a 1,185-capacity concert hall, home of the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra.
Facing west, the building’s oak and glass catch the light a couple of hours before sunset for amazing photographs.
Keep an eye on the programme if you’re hankering for some live entertainment, be it an Ibsen play, opera, symphony or international musical like the Book of Mormon (premiering in April 2018).
10. Kristiansand Cathedral
The Neo-Gothic cathedral is the fourth church to be built on the city square (Torvet) since the 17th century.
Two of its predecessors burnt down, the most recent in 1880 and this brick-built monument was consecrated in 1885. Something unusual about the cathedral is that in order to integrate the surviving walls from the previous building, the altar is oriented to the west rather than the east like almost every other church.
From May to August there are guided tours of the building, which is 70 metres high, has space for 1,500 worshippers and is composed of 700,000 bricks.
The organ in the eastern gallery was updated in 2013, and it’s worth finding out if there’s a free concert when you’re in town.
11. Agder Natural History Museum and Botanical Garden
The only natural history museum in Southern Norway, this attraction has a long past having been founded back in 1828. Since 1990 the museum has been found at the former Gimle estate, with galleries in the farmhouse and the botanical garden planted in the estate’s park.
Exhibitions cover topics like minerals and rocks, the development of life at “From the Ice Age to the Present” and different ecosystems at “From the Sea to the Mountains”. The botanical garden is set both outside indoors, with Norway’s largest assortment of succulents inside, and rhododendrons, a rose garden, a herb garden, nectar garden an arboretum, a pond and rock garden awaiting outside.
12. Gimle Gård
On the same estate, the Gimle Gård manor house is an enchanting property from the turn of the 19th century.
The house, standing out for its long porch with slender columns, was in the same family from its construction up to 1982 when its last owner, Othilie Louise Arenfeldt Omdal passed away, and was turned into a museum in 1985. As the manor was in the same family for five generations it stands as a timeline of changing tastes and customs, boasting a ballroom and wood-burning oven, but also a 20th-century fridge and TV. You can also browse the family collections of period furniture, ceramics and painting.
13. Baneheia Outdoor Area
Ravnedalen leads onto the larger Baneheia, a beloved recreation spot that was gifted to the people of Kristiansand by Christian IV of Denmark when the city was founded in 1641. For more than 200 years Banehaia was used for grazing and as a source of timber, until Joseph Frantz Oscar Wergeland planted new trees and plotted stairways and walking trails through the woodland.
This system of trails leads to exhilarating scenic lookouts and has been enlarged to include illuminated trails, nature trails, running tracks and specially designed paths for the disabled.
Enclosed by forest, but close to the city is 3. Stampe, a lake with a sandy beach and a mild water temperature in summer.
14. Aquarama Bad Waterpark
Right behind Bystranda beach is a sports and leisure attraction for all comers.
Aquarama has six different bathing areas, with five different water temperatures, and designed for everyone from families with toddlers to serious swimmers at the Olympic-sized pool.
For something a little different you could test your footwork on the Flowrider Surfing wave, with qualified instructors on hand to assist you.
On hot days you can bask in the outdoor pool, just a few metres from the beachfront.
Aquarama also features a cutting-edge fitness centre 1,300 square metres in size, and if you’re in need of pampering the spa has a menu of restorative treatments calling on the sea for inspiration.
15. Kristiansand Skjærgården (Archipelago)
At the West Harbour you can embark on a summer cruise around the granite archipelago off Kristiansand’s shore.
You’ll encounter historic outports and secluded coves walled by granite cliffs.
The company M/S Maarten schedules round trips to Lillesand, passing by hundreds of little skerries and gorgeous harbour villages like Ulvøysund and Brekkestø.
The town of Lillesand to the east is also very picturesque and abounds with the whitewashed wooden houses that are typical of Southern Norway.
You could also go in for a closer look at the Oksøy and Grønningen lighthouses, while further west off Søgne you can investigate the Second World War coastal fort in Ny-Hellesund, built into granite cliffs.