Diary of a Guidebook Writer: How to spend a few hours in Stavanger

Photo: David Nikel Large scale models of oil rigs are on display at the Petroleum Museum.

Photo: David Nikel
Large scale models of oil rigs are on display at the Petroleum Museum.

David Nikel
Trondheim, Norway

Few visitors seem to stay in Stavanger beyond a few hours. Cruise ships dump thousands of people on the city’s streets every day before they are whisked off to the Lyse­fjord and onwards to Bergen.

Yet most of these visitors seem to have no idea of what to do with their few hours in Stavanger. Most seem to potter about the cobbled streets of the Old Town before returning to their ship, while others spend the entire time in the tacky gift shops along the quay.

Perhaps this is why the tourist information office has recently relocated next to the cruise ship terminal, a move I’m of two minds about. Cruise ship arrivals can now be directed to the city’s best attractions, but the location is inconvenient for other travelers.

So, how should you spend a few hours in Stavanger? Here are my recommendations:

The story of the black gold
Stavanger is without doubt a strange place to be visiting right now. The Norwegian Petroleum Museum (referred to by most, including me, simply as the Oil Museum) stands proudly as the number one tourist attraction in the city and a symbol of the wealth that has driven the city’s growth over the past forty years.

Yet the elephant in the room is the current oil price. Although it’s recovered from its $30 low earlier this year, it’s still less than half of what it was in 2014. Many North Sea oil wells have been plugged, new exploration work is limited, and many of Stavanger’s international community have lost their jobs.

The Oil Museum itself is far more interesting than it sounds. Interactive exhibits simulate a helicopter ride out to sea and the control room of a rig. The history of the rigs in the North Sea and Norwegian Sea and a temporary exhibition about the Norwegian Oil Fund—valued at 7.1 trillion kroner at the time of writing—help to show the Norwegian perspective on the industry, while environmental concerns are debated in a surprisingly frank and honest way.

Even if you decide to skip the museum, check out the Geopark right outside. The collection of recycled materials from the energy industry has been turned into a graffiti-strewn dystopian playground.

Photo: David Nikel The downtown’s predominantly white buildings are brightened up by murals.

Photo: David Nikel
The downtown’s predominantly white buildings are brightened up by murals.

Street art from the Nuart Festival
Stavanger is known internationally for its acceptance of street art as a genuine art form. Every year, the Nuart Festival celebrates this and artists add to the city’s collection. During the festival, guided walks are available, while the NuArt iPhone app allows you to self-guide around the hundreds of artworks hidden in plain sight all year-round. Check out nuartfestival.no for more information about the festival and the street art scene in general.

Herring canning in the Old Town

As pleasant as a stroll around the cobbled streets and whitewashed timber houses of Gamle Stavanger, the city’s Old Town, can be, make time to swing by the Norwegian Canning Museum. Long before the discovery of oil, Stavanger’s economy was built on herring. More than 50 canning buildings have been demolished, so the museum is an important historical record and a fascinating window into conditions in a 100-year-old factory.

On the first Sunday of every month, plus Tuesdays and Thursdays during the summer, the smoking ovens are lit and visitors can try freshly smoked sardines. I visited on a Friday, so I had to make do with chocolate sardines from the gift shop. I wasn’t exactly disappointed.

Viking runes at the Museum of Archaeology
The Canning Museum is part of the MUST (Museum Stavanger) collection of museums, but the city’s most interesting museum is an independent one. A short walk from downtown Stavanger, the university-affiliated Museum of Archaeology could be called the Viking Museum given its focus on that era. Rune stones, coins, and other items from the Viking era are displayed alongside Stone Age and Iron Age relics and even a polar bear skeleton from 10,000 years ago.

The rich interior of Stavanger Cathedral
The original Norman architecture of Stavanger Cathedral has seen substantial Gothic additions and varying decor from across the centuries. The interior is richly decorated thanks to the city’s post-Reformation growth of the 17th century and also features a beautiful St. Olav Tapestry from the 1920s and the much older stone baptismal font from the 14th century.

The most notable feature is the stunning colorful pulpit that details the complete story of the bible from Adam and Eve through to a triumphant Christ crowning the canopy. The pulpit was the masterwork of Scottish craftsman Andrew Smith, who also carved and painted the five grand epitaphs dotted around the cathedral.

Scratch beneath the service and you’ll find plenty to keep you occupied in Stavanger, even on the shortest of visits.

David Nikel is a freelance writer based in Norway. He runs the popular www.lifeinnorway.net blog and is the author of the upcoming MOON Norway guidebook.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 4, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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David Nikel

David Nikel is a freelance writer based in Norway. He runs the popular www.lifeinnorway.net website and podcast and is the author of the Moon Norway guidebook, available now in all good bookstores.