The undisputed oil and energy king of Europe, Stavanger’s fortunes were transformed when Norway discovered the Ekofisk oil field 200 miles off the coast in 1969. True to its title of Oljebyen (The Oil Capital) Stavanger has a world-class museum about the Norwegian petroleum industry, opened in 1999 and looking like a small oil platform in the harbour.
Stavanger is a convenient entry point for the Lysefjord and its towering cliffs and the fantasy-like natural lookout, Pulpit Rock, more than 600 metres over the water.
Back in the city you can see what Stavanger looked like before the oil days at the Gamle Stavanger district where shipping offices and a fish-canning factory have been turned into museums.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Stavanger:
1. Gamle Stavanger (Old Stavanger)
After the Second World War the centre of Stavanger was due to be razed and rebuilt in concrete, a plan opposed by the city architect Einar Hedén.
So you can thank him for the preservation of Old Stavanger, a neighbourhood of more than 200 wooden buildings on little cobblestone lanes on the west side of the Vågen bay.
Most are sweet whitewashed weatherboard cottages, and many have restaurants and boutiques on their ground floors.
The area chosen for preservation used to be run down and a little sketchy but is now a desirable, upmarket neighbourhood and a joy to explore on foot.
Stavanger is the most convenient city if you want to experience the wonders of Lysefjord, lying an hour to the east.
Words don’t really do justice to the epic landscapes at Lysefjord, but on a boat trip you’ll have a front row view of majestic walls of rock, waterfalls and idyllic little islands.
The Stavanger-based Rødne Fjord Cruise company schedules tours all year round, and a typical trip will take between three hours and half a day.
One sight that will make an indelible impression is the Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock), a cliff-top 604 metres over the water.
It’s easier to climb than it looks and involves a bus ride and then a flight of stairs.
Needless to say the views from up here mind-blowing.
3. Stavanger Cathedral
In the Storhaug borough not far from the harbour is the oldest and best preserved cathedral in Norway.
It was first raised in the Romanesque style in thefirst half of the 12th century and then given an ornate Gothic chancel in the 13th century after a fire in 1272. Even now, it’s not hard to tell the understated nave apart from the theatrical choir.
Something you can’t help but notice inside is the lavish Baroque pulpit, which was carved by the Scottish craftsman Andrew Lawrenceson Smith in 1658. In the choir keep your eyes peeled for the soapstone baptismal font, carved with foliate patterns and multifoil arches at the end of the 13th century.
In the nave there’s also a group of original Romanesque capitals sculpted with animal motifs.
4. Stavanger Petroleum Museum
Approaching from the North Sea you could mistake the Petroleum Museum and its shiny metallic cylinders for an oil platform.
This is no accident, as the museum chronicles more than 50 years of Norwegian drilling in the North Sea.
Up-to-date and smartly designed, the exhibition has drilling equipment, submersibles, robots, a scale replica of an oil platform, and interactive displays to give a sense of life on board.
You can also find out about the technological leaps since the 1960s, and get to know the sophisticated underwater systems and state-of-the-art ships that will sustain the industry into the future.
5. Sverd i fjell (Swords in Rock)
On a peninsula poking into the Hafrsfjord in the Madla neighbourhood is a solemn monument recording a great naval battle.
After the Battle of Hafrsfjord, fought some time at the end of the 9th century the Viking chief Harald Fairhair was able to proclaim himself the first King of Norway, uniting a number of petty kingdoms under one ruler for the first time.
At 10 metres high, the monument is three bronze swords plunged into the rock and was designed by the sculptor Fritz Røed and unveiled by King Olav V in 1983. The largest of the swords represents Harald Fairhair, while the two smaller ones symbolise the vanquished pretenders.
The monument also represents peace as the swords are stuck in the rock and can’t be removed.
6. Norwegian Canning Museum
At Øvre Strandgate 88 in Old Stavanger, the Canning Museum is in a canning factory that was in business from the 1916 to the 1950s.
With architecture dating back to 1841, the factory was abandoned until 1975 when the museum opened.
What’s exciting is that all of the machinery is still in situ and the enthusiastic guide will explain and show you how freshly caught fish (sprats) were smoked and packaged, as well as working conditions on the factory floor.
The equipment is in working order, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays in summer you’ll be able to try classic Norwegian smoked brisling right out of the oven.
7. Stavanger Art Museum
Under the auspices of the multi-location “Museum Stavanger”, this institution is on the west shore of the Mosvatnet lake, southeast of the city centre.
The collection centres on the 19th-century Stavanger landscape artist Lars Hertervig, who was a member of the Düsseldorf School but moved back to Stavanger after a mental breakdown and only achieved renown posthumously.
His works are joined by a strong assortment of art by Edvard Munch, Kitty Kielland and Christian Krohg.
A permanent modern installation here is the Broken Column by the British sculptor Antony Gormley.
The museum also has a special workshop for children to express themselves creatively, and stages up to four temporary exhibitions at one time.
In early 2018 the highlight was a show on the textile artist Frida Hansen.
8. Øvre Holmegate
Up to 2005 this street on the east side of the Vågen was rather nondescript.
But as part of the “Kul Kultur” project Øvre Holmegate was totally revitalised after the local hairdresser Tom Kjørsvik proposed a way to transform it.
First it was closed off to road traffic, and then, using a colour scheme devised by the artist Craig Flanagan, the houses were painted in eye-popping colours.
They are shades of green, turquoise and pink, and on the back of the revival exciting businesses like trendy bars, cafes and boutiques have moved in.
9. Stavanger Maritime Museum
Also in one of the whitewashed wooden houses in Old Stavanger is a museum all about the history of shipping, fishing and shipbuilding in southwestern Norway.
You can enter a general store as it would have looked in 1910, stocked with anything from milk to paint and seafaring equipment.
There’s also an office interior that once belonged to the Monsen Shipping Company, in business in Stavanger for 165 years.
And on the top floor is a reconstruction of a sail-making workshop, with work benches and tools.
You can also see how an affluent merchant’s family would have lived at an apartment interior from the early 1900s, complete with study, kitchen, parlour and dining room.
The museum preserves two seaworthy sailboats: A traditional Hardangerjakt sloop launched in 1848, with a mast 19 metres high, and the Wyvern yacht designed by Norwegian naval architect Colin Archer and christened in 1897.
10. Breidablikk Museum
Also managed by the Stavanger Museum AS is an elegant villa built in the Eiganes neighbourhood in the early 1880s.
It was commissioned by the rich merchant and ship owner Lars Berentsen, and prominent architect Henrik Nissen made the plans.
Breidablikk is designed like a Swiss chalet with exaggerated eaves, and has neo-Romanesque and Gothic influences.
A team of artists like painter and decorated Louis Anton Jacobsen worked on the interiors, which have a superlative standard of workmanship and illustrates the lofty lifestyle of Stavanger’s bourgeois in this period.
Nearly all of the decoration and furnishings are from the 1800s, while the layout of the surrounding English garden hasn’t changed.
Next to the house is a barn from 1852, containing agricultural tools and horse-drawn carriages from the period.
When summer arrives the street lining the east side of the Vågen is cleared of road traffic and becomes a lively pedestrian street with lots of outdoor seating and stalls for festivals.
Skagenkaien could well be the most vibrant nightlife street in the city, home to restaurants and bars in handsome wooden houses, mostly from the 19th century and punctuated by hotels.
One of the finest can be found at no.
16 and dates to 1770, with the Skjøna Skagen restaurant on its ground floor.
At the innermost part of the street you can check out the classy boats in the marina, while further up are the quays where ferries depart for the Lysefjord.
12. Vitenfabrikken (Science Factory)
Down in Sandnes, a train or car ride south of Stavanger is a terrific science museum that opened in 2008. The Science Factory explores the fields of technology, physics, chemistry, astronomy and mathematics, and has some inspiring installations like a Foucault Pendulum 11 metres high, a Tesla coil and the inventions of Leonardo da Vinci.
In winter, don’t miss the fourth floor, which is an observation terrace set up with telescopes.
The groundbreaking 19th-century mathematician Niels Henrik Abel was born in this part of Norway, and “Abel’s Sketchbook” is a special interactive exhibition investigating the common ground between art, science and technology.
At Stavanger’s Ullandhaug suburb is a reconstructed Iron Age farm, revived in the 1970s after lying abandoned for 1,500 years.
The farm was first settled in the Migration Period in the 4th century, but was burned down and deserted about 200 years later.
The feted archaeologist Bjørn Myhre investigated the site in the late 1960s, when it was recognised as one of almost 200 Iron Age farms in the low-lying Jæren region.
On a hillside dotted with sheep, you can take an English language tour to learn about ancient folklore, watch ancient crafts in action, light a fire with firesteels and spin wool.
An interesting thing about the huts is that they were designed with small doorways, not to keep the warmth in but to make potential home invaders vulnerable to an attack by residents.
14. Sola Beach
Stavanger can get temperatures above 20°C in July and August, and on clear, sunny days you could pack off for the beach at Sola.
Found 15 kilometres from the southeast of the city, this 2.3-kilometre arc of fine sand is also just a kilometre or two from the airport.
And while sunshine might not be guaranteed, one thing you can bank on is wind and so Sola Beach is a hit with kitesurfers and windsurfers.
On a walk you’ll stumble upon a German Second World War bunker at the southern end of the beach.
And also just in from the dunes on the south side is the Solastranden Golfklubb, an 18-hole links-style course, posing a challenge for its unpredictable breezes.
For more wide open skies and cinematic beaches, carry on south down the coast to Klepp, under half an hour by road from Stavanger.
The protected natural landscape in the Jæren region has the longest strip of flat sandy coast in all of Norway, adding up to 11 kilometres and fringed by dunes sustaining a rare diversity of wildlife.
In contrast to the rest of Norway’s coastline there are no fjords and the topography is low-lying.
At the Orre Friluftshuset (recreation centre) you can find out about local hiking and cross country ski routes and check out exhibitions, all within a quick jaunt from Orrestreanda beach.