A former lumber city in Southern Norway’s Telemark County, Skien is surrounded by water bodies, with lakes, fjords and island idylls close by.
The playwright and poet, Henrik Ibsen was born in Skien and lived in different places around the city until he was 15. One of these homes, at Venstøp, is a museum that goes into depth on his childhood at a preserved early 19th-century property that still has a bowling alley used by the Ibsens.
Beginning at Skien, the Telemark Canal is a mammoth waterway running all the way to Dalen more than 100 kilometres to the west. You can hike or cycle a section of the canal, or see the stirring mountainous scenery and historic locks from the comfort of a heritage boat.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Skien:
1. Telemark Canal
Nobody had seen anything like this canal that made a big swathe of Telemark County navigable in the second half of the 19th century.
A living heritage site, the Telemark Canal is made up of two waterways: The Norsjø–Skien canal, connecting Skien to the Norsjø Lake, and the longer Bandak–Nordsjø Canal which was finished 40 years later and goes all the way to Dalen 133 kilometres to the east.
There are countless ways to experience the canal and its glorious upland nature, on a hike, drive, canoe or kayak excursion or by chartering your own boat.
But the simplest is to catch one of the heritage boats, MS Henrik Ibsen and the MS Victoria, negotiating 18 locks like the flight of five chambers at Vrangfoss.
At the hilltop Brekkeparken right beside down town Skien is an outdoor museum with historic buildings transferred here from across Telemark County.
The structures include farmhouses, mills and workshops and date from the 17th century to the beginning of the 20th century and you can peek inside to get a feel for the humble living conditions in times past.
Also in the park is a cafe blessed with fine vistas of the city, as well as a duck pond and colourful flower beds.
Around mid-May Brekkeparken is decked with thousands of blooming tulips.
The stately 19th-century manor house also puts on seasonal exhibitions.
3. Henrik Ibsen Museum
At Venstøp, five kilometres north of Skien you can see where Henrik Ibsen lived from the age of seven to fifteen.
At the estate there’s a preserved farmhouse from 1815, a washhouse, barn, quarters for farm workers and storehouse.
Outside in the orchard is a bowling alley from the 1830s, where guests of Knud and Marichen Ibsen (Herik’s parents) would have been entertained almost two centuries ago.
The exhibitions deal solely with Ibsen’s childhood and school life, examining the effect that they would have on his writing.
At the cafe be sure to indulge in a slice of honey cake, which was Ibsen’s favourite as a child.
4. Skien Kirke
Among the largest churches in Norway, the neo-Gothic Skien Kirke was consecrated in 1894 after its predecessor burnt down.
The church was built on the assumption that it would become a cathedral, which explains the whopping size.
But apart from during the occupation government in the Second World War, Skien Kirke has remained a parish church.
The interior is beautifully ornamented with paintings of vine and fleur-de-lis patterns, while there are radiant stained glass windows in the choir, sacristy and transept.
The pulpit is also a work of art, with portraits of nine prominent churchmen from Norway’s history framed by glazed bricks.
The organ above the gallery on the west side is one of the largest in the country, composed of 5,000 pipes.
5. Skien Fritidspark
Opened in 2008 the Skien Fritidspark is a giant leisure park that has activities for people of all ages, at all times of year.
From November to March there’s an outdoor ice rink and, depending on snowfall, a slope for skiing and snowboarding.
Also in this season you can follow Skien IK, the local ice hockey team which plays its home games in the arena.
Curling meanwhile is a year-round activity, while the complex’s indoor water park, spa and wellness facilities and fitness centre are open in any season.
In summer you can also tackle the outdoor rope course, play a round of minigolf, play frisbee golf 24 hours a day or make use of one of five tennis courts.
Other sports on offer include indoor climbing, badminton and beach volleyball, so you’re sure to find an activity that suits you.
Named in honour of Skien’s most famous son, the Ibsenhuset was Norway’s most up-to-date cultural centre when it opened back in 1973. All of the rooms inside take their names from Ibsen’s works.
The main auditorium, the “Dovregubbens Hall” has space for 800 spectators, while the “Peer Gynt Hall” seats 250. Both have a jam-packed programme of classical concerts, ballet, rock gigs, seminars, plays and shows for kids.
The foyer is a space for art exhibitions curated by the Skien Art Association.
In September the Ibsenhuset holds the ceremony for the Norwegian Ibsen Award, handed out to the country’s top playwrights.
7. Gjerpen Church
By Skien’s Børsesjø lake is one of the oldest churches in Norway, completed in 1153 just a century after the formal introduction of Christianity to the country.
A prized piece of Norwegian heritage, Gjerpen Church is one of only a few Medieval buildings in Norway that still has a role today, and is in high demand for christenings and weddings.
The architecture is mostly Romanesque, as you can tell from the square western tower and the small, semicircular window openings.
In 1959 the head of the occupied government Vidkun Quisling was buried in the adjoining graveyard, 14 years after he was executed in the legal purge.
8. Island-hopping on the Langesundsfjord
South of Skien, just after Porsgrunn the Skien River enters Friefjord, an arm of the larger Langesundsfjord.
Within easy reach of the city, this fjord is embroidered with little islands and you could pass a joyous day or two jumping from one to another, dining at cosy restaurants, biking through meadows and forest and swimming in natural pools.
A total of nine islands are linked by ferry from Helgeroa, Brevik and Stathelle Langesund.
Sandøya, a ten-minute ride from Brevik is a hiking paradise with lush forest and gently sloping hills.
9. DuVerden Maritime Museum and Science Centre
Five kilometres to the south is the small town of Porsgrunn, home to a science and seafaring museum in an asymmetrical building on the riverfront.
The centre ties together Porsgrunn’s maritime and industrial heritage with high-tech interactive stations helping children learn through participation.
They can feel what it’s like to control a container ship, create a mini storm with a special weather turntable, operate a crane, test their reaction time and watch 3D movies about the International Space Station in the amphitheatre.
10. Porsgrund Porcelain Factory
Norway’s only china manufactory was established in Porsgrunn in 1885. The Porsgrund Porcelain Factory was a joint enterprise between the ship-owner and entrepreneur Johan Jeremiassen and the German ceramicist Carl Maria Bauer.
Within two years the factory had fired its first set of fine china, and 130 years later continues to use the same production method.
Porsgrund supplies crockery to Norway’s royal family, and at the factory you can watch the firing and painting process with your own eyes and chat with the factory staff.
There’s also a small museum presenting remarkable pieces from the history of the brand, and you may find it difficult to leave the shop without investing in a piece of this “white gold”.
11. Borgestad Church
The Norwegian Prime Minister Gunnar Knudsen founded this church in 1907 as a burial place for his daughter who passed away at 16 years old in 1902. At first glance the building, with its crenellated tower and ogival arches will seem much older.
The church was designed by architect Henrik Nielsen, while the famous artist Emanuel Vigeland was commissioned for the 24 stained glass windows, painted in 1918-19. These portray images from the bible like the Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree, while on the way out you can look up to the gallery to see a cheerful angel dancing in the clouds with a harp.
12. Ulefos Hovedgaard
A day out you can’t pass up is this estate built in 1807 as a summer residence for the landowner and businessman Niels Aall and his wife Christine Johanne Blom.
Ensconced in an English park, Ulefos Hovedgaard is considered the finest example of Empire architecture and decoration in Norway.
The palace is crested by a monumental dome and is set on a rise with distant views to the sea.
The Telemark Museum is in charge of the property, and the best part of the tour is the great hall, the Havesalen.
This has marble-effect pilasters between striking murals of Norwegian waterfalls, two of which were painted by a Swedish prisoner of war.
13. Adventure Factory
Somewhere for kids aged 1 to 13 to run wild and burn off energy climbing, jumping, playing games and solving puzzles.
There isn’t a larger indoor play park in all of Scandinavia than this little world of slides, ball-pits and soft obstacles.
The Adventure Factory has a designated space for children aged one to three to clamber.
Parents on the other hand can enjoy an hour or two of peace, dining at the cafeteria, watching one of the big screen TVs, playing a game of billiards or table tennis and making use of the free Wi-Fi.
Skien isn’t far from the Skagerrak strait on the coast, and just over 20 kilometres to the south there’s a natural park at the southern extremity of the Langesund Peninsula.
But what makes this such a absorbing place is that it was the site of a German coastal fortress in the Second World War.
The fortress was later adopted by the Norwegian Home Guard and Coastal Artillery until it was finally decommissioned in 1993. Even now the peninsula is littered with bunkers, secret tunnels chambers blasted from the rock and gun positions.
The chalky soil and moderate climate have given rise to a diversity of rare plant life and the peninsula is also one the region’s best places to spot migratory seabirds.
15. Mersmak i Skien
If you happen to be in Skien at the last weekend of August you’re just in time for the Mersmak i Skien food festival.
Now in its eleventh year, the festival puts on cookery courses, competitions, how-tos, a massive organic breakfast on the Saturday morning and evening concerts.
Kids aren’t forgotten either, as there’s a workshop teaching them how to prepare fish and another in which they can make and keep their own confectionery.
If you’re up for some stockfish or sweet Norwegian cheese, producers from around the country set up stalls at the waterside market, where you can also sample international street food.