From Norway’s Fish Canning Museum to learning more about the offshore oil industry, via Instagrammable streets, here’s my pick of things to do in Stavanger.
“Hello! I’m Piers and I’m from Guildford”
This is the warm welcome I receive at the Norwegian Canning Museum (Norsk Hermetikkmuseet). The story of how an English Egyptologist ended up as the curator of a museum celebrating the Norwegian fish canning industry is almost as compelling as that of the fluctuations in the fortunes of the city of Stavanger on Norway’s southwest coast. Settled in the 8th century, the city received a royal trading charter in the 15th Century but remained relatively insignificant until the opening of the first fish preserving plant in 1873. From this date until the closure of the last cannery in 1982, 350 of these plants came and went. In 1972 alone, there were more than 70.
However, the demise of the fish canning industry did not destine Stavanger to sink back into obscurity. With the discovery in 1969 of Ekovosk, the North Sea’s largest oil field, Stavanger’s fortunes changed once again. Sardine City became Oil Central.
But there is more to this pretty harbour city than fish and fuel. Read on for my pick of things to do in Stavanger.
1. Packed in Stavanger: The Norwegian Canning Museum (Norsk Hermetikkmuseet)
For the fishy tale of Stavanger’s past
On the face of it, visiting a fish canning museum may not be an enticing prospect. However, the combination of its multi-layered history and the boundless enthusiasm of Piers make this a fascinating visit. Miss it at your peril! The fishing industry has been central to Norway’s economy and as recently as the 1960s, the canning plants were Stavanger’s main industry and source of employment. The museum is housed in one of these former plants, the interior dating from 1880 – 1930.
In addition to documenting the fish canning process, the museum reflects on societal change and technological innovation within the industry. A large proportion of the workforce were women, which in the late 19th century represented a minor revolution, freeing them from the confines of the marital home. As Piers put it:
“They earned a little bit of money, had a gossip about what was going on in their street and, importantly, whose son should go out with whose daughter”
A little bit of money was right. Compared with their salaried male co-workers, women were paid piecework rates. In 1920, women brought in an annual salary of 400 NOK (£40) whilst the men earned up to 720 NOK (£72) a year. Those men who smoked the fish could earn over 2,000 NOK (£200) annually. A small fortune!
Smoking fish was equal parts art and skill, requiring three years’ training. An additional perk was the two free bottles of beer a day that the men were allowed to drink in the workplace. The last so-called smoker died in 2017 at the grand age of 96. Clearly, those daily beers did him no harm! His grandson has carried on the tradition and smokes fish at the museum every Tuesday during the summer months.
A quest for greater productivity fostered technological innovation. If you think your job is bad, spare a thought for the women working in the plant. Until the 1950s, they removed the fish-heads one-by-one with a pair of scissors. The introduction of a decapitation machine – a custom-made guillotine if you like – saved them from this task and significantly increased productivity to 4,000 fish per hour.
With their nimble fingers, the women could pack 6,000 cans of sprats per day. Not that it was a competition, but the men soldering the cans shut could not keep up, only able to seal 600 cans a day. The canning plant had a problem. After a shaky start, automated sealing machines appeared from 1960 onwards which were able to seal up to 10,000 cans per day.
As well as these pieces of kit, the museum has assorted canning trays, drying racks and smoking ovens. These ovens are still operational and the museum continues to smoke its own sprats.
The museum also has over 38,000 sardine tin labels out of the 40,000 available. Only another 2,000 to go!
- The museum is located at Øvre Strandgate 88 in the heart of Gamle Stavanger (old Stavanger).
- Summer opening hours are 10am – 4pm. However, the museum opens earlier there is a cruse ship in town. Check the museum’s website for further details.
- Admission fee is 95 NOK (£9). This also gives you admission to five other museums on the day of purchase including the Maritime Museum.
2. Ahoy there shipmate! Stavanger Maritime Museum
For all things nautical
The mildly diverting Maritime Museum traces the city’s maritime history over the last 200 years. Housed in two former fish warehouses dating from the late 18th century, facing Stavanger’s wharf, it gives you a picture of what life was like for local merchants through its displays of all things nautical. These range from archeological finds to reconstructions of shipping offices and stores. Make sure that you check out the collection of old photos.
- The museum is located at Strandkaien 22, near the Torget at the head of the harbour.
- Check the museum’s website for opening times.
- Admission fee is 95 NOK (£9). This also gives you admission to five other museums on the day of purchase, including the Canning Museum.
- The display information is predominantly in Norwegian. However, the helpful museum staff will give you a display guide in English.
3. Wander around Gamle Stavanger (Old Stavanger)
To Instagram those picture-postcard perfect streets
Gamle Stavanger, on the western side of the harbour, has the largest concentration of 18th century wooden buildings in Northern Europe, and is Stavanger’s jewel in the crown.The 173 white-painted houses are the result of a boom between 1810 and 1870 when millions of herring made an appearance off the shores of the city. Stavanger flourished and new homes were built to accommodate local seafarers, craftsmen and those cannery workers.
Wooden stores and warehouses flank the quayside, with clapboard houses rising in terraces along narrow, cobbled lanes behind them. Although Gamle Stavanger is deservedly popular, it has not been blighted by tourism. Unlike too many other places, these properties are neither chi-chi galleries or swanky cafes. Instead, this is a firmly residential area complete with hanging baskets, picket fences and tiny gardens.
- Gamle Stavanger is situated on and around Øvre Strandgate.
- You’re looking at steep cobbled streets here! Wear appropriate footwear.
- If a cruise ship is in town make sure you get there early when the streets are mercifully quiet, bar a feline friend or two.
4. Hunt for Antony Gormley statues
For a brush with the work of a contemporary British sculptor
Stavanger commissioned Antony Gormley to create his “Broken Column” work. This series of 23 sculptures of blank-faced human figures, reportedly modelled on Gormley himself, aim to represent the many facets of the city.
- The most accessible statue is beside Torget’s fish market at the head of the harbour
5. Visit the Cathedral (Domkirke)
For a slice of medieval Stavanger
At the other side of the Torget you will find Stavanger’s Cathedral, which has a strong British connection. Built by English craftsmen in the early 12th century under the direction of Bishop Reinald of Winchester, it is dedicated to St. Swithun, who was also Bishop of Winchester for the last few years of his life. According to local tradition, Bishop Reinald brought an important relic to Stavanger, St. Swithun’s arm, which was removed to Denmark during the Reformation.
For you architectural boffins out there, it is a Romanesque church (think pointy-hat towers) with a later Gothic choir (think pointed windows and flowery tracery). Its star turn is the richly decorated pulpit dating from the 17th century. Carved by the Scottish craftsman Andrew Smith, it spans biblical history with a generous sprinkling of cherubs and angels.
- The cathedral is on Domkirkeplassen, facing the harbour
- It is open from 11am to 7pm in the summer.
- The admission fee is 50 NOK (£5).
- At the time of my visit (May 2018) they were restoring the stained glass windows above the altar
6. Visit Skagen
To blow the travel budget on a beer in a cool cafe
If you continue walking along the east side of the harbour you will reach Skagen. In contrast with the monochrome Gamle Stavanger, Skagen is a riot of colour. Yellow meets green with a hint of pink; fuchsia, lime green and lavender mesh together in unexpected harmony. It shouldn’t work but it does. Take your pick of the great cafes for a pit-stop. A refreshing pint of Danish beer can be yours for only 100 NOK (£10). Savour every last drop.
- Skagen is centred around Øvre Holmegate
7. Check out Stavanger’s street art
For cutting edge urban art
In recent years, the street art scene in Stavanger has burgeoned. Each September, the city hosts the Nuart Festival, showcasing national and international street artists. Download the self-guided street art tour of check out the map on the festival’s website.
- Artwork is across the city but there is a cluster in and around Øvre Holmegate
8. Fondle a drill bit at the Norwegian Petroleum Museum (Norsk Oljemuseum)
For a thoughtful exploration of Norway’s offshore oil industry
The last of my things to do in Stavanger focuses on the current source of the city’s wealth … oil. Located by the waterfront at the far end of Skagen, the superb Norwegian Petroleum Museum takes you on a geological, industrial, economic and environmental journey of oil exploration off Norway’s shores.
Norway currently has 62 active oil fields and employs in excess of 200,000 people. The discovery of these oil reserves has made Norway a wealthy country, with an oil fund valued at over 8,000 billion NOK. From a daily output of 40,000 barrels on the first day of drilling in 1971, it now produces 3 million daily. A new oilfield, Johan Sverdrop, 180km west of Stavanger, is due to start production in 2019.
The museum asks searching questions about how the country manages its vast wealth. I feel that it has done this extremely well. The key principles of Norwegian Oil Policy is state ownership and the proceeds benefitting all. As Alison, a fellow visitor, put it “I wonder that if the UK was in the same position (as Norway) would they plough the revenue back into health and social welfare? More likely it would go into the pockets of some fat cat shareholders.” I found her point of view difficult to argue against.
As well as absorbing facts, figures and philosophy, you get to embrace your inner child and play with stuff. Fondle an assortment of oil drill bits or pretend that your are in a helicopter en route to work. And this is likely to be the only opportunity that you will get to enter an oil rig and operate a drill. Good for bringing our the 10 year-old boy – or girl – in all of us!
Sobering though it may be, the museum raises the issue about the environmental effects of fossil fuel burning. Its stance is almost apologetic, a mea culpa moment with a small dose of breast-beating, about its role in global warming. In an attempt to reconcile its position as one to the world’s largest exporters of oil and gas, Norway feels that it must take a lead in refraining from the use of fossil fuel. To this end, it has undertaken to increase the proportion off renewable energy use from 60 to 67.5%. Let’s hope other nations will follow suit.
- The Norwegian Petroleum Museum is located by the waterfront at Kjeringholmen
- Summer opening hours are 10am – 7pm. Admission fee is 120 NOK
How I did it
- I visited Stavanger as part of a 7-day cruise from Southampton, England on P&O Britannia. This cost £1300 for sole occupancy of a balcony cabin.
- There are good air, train and ferry links to Stavanger. It is also a good base to visit some of Norway’s most popular fjords.
Have you visited Stavanger? Can you share some other ideas of things to do?
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