Jan 27, 2016
Swaying to the soundtrack of singing princesses and dancing snowmen, filmgoers fell in love with the snow-capped mountains and quaint streets lined with pastel houses in Disney’s hit movie Frozen. The animated children’s film is set in an archetypal storybook town: quiet, quaint and in a land far, far away. But what many don’t realise is that this wintry fantasy land is inspired by Norwegian fjord towns.
One such place is Ålesund. Just an hour’s flight from Oslo, it’s nothing short of a real-life Arendelle – Frozen’s fictional kingdom. There are no talking animals (and it’s unlikely people on the street will break into song and dance) but that’s pretty much where the differences end.
You won’t stumble upon Ålesund by chance: the drive from the airport takes you through a maze of bridges, mountains and lakes that no trail of breadcrumbs would help you navigate. Magnificent sea and mountain views are inescapable. Every road winds along or to a canal or harbour. The town’s Art Nouveau buildings are thin, lofty and colourful, with sharp little peaks; the streets are laid with cobblestones; and there are castle-like towers, locals on bicycles and wooden-masted sailboats.
I’m here in summer and, while the temperature is relatively warm, the mountains are covered in snow. And the sun doesn’t stop shining. I toast my successful journey at 11pm bathed in a dusky light that never really seems to fade.
So how to make the most of this real-life wonderland? Easy. Let your imagination go and follow these 10 ways to fall under Ålesund’s spell.
Stay in a room with a (stupendous) view
While it’s true that all the views in Ålesund are spectacular, nothing beats waking up every morning like you’re watching a scene from the film. For this, stay at Hotel Brosundet. Designed by renowned architecture firm Snøhetta, its exposed-timber rooms with stylish furnishings have a rustic Scandinavian vibe. To get the view, book a room on the waterfront – your window will frame the canal, the passing boats and a majestic mountain backdrop. You may be happy to play out your entire holiday here. ￼
Shoot to thrill
If you have time to do only one thing here, make it a visit to the Fjellstua viewpoint atop Mount Aksla for the perfect photo opportunity. In summer, go at night when it’s not as busy and the bright sky is splashed with a purplish-pinky hue. You’ll see ocean, mountains and islands dotted with colourful houses. If you have a car, a romantic way to get here is to drive along the winding road. You can also walk up 418 steps beginning in the Town Park or take the City Train.
Street and greet
Ålesund is so picturesque and small that independently wandering the streets with a camera is one of the best ways to explore it. But to hear the stories behind buildings that look like they’re straight out of a Brothers Grimm tale, go on an official guided walking tour with a local. You’ll learn that most of the town was burned down one night in 1904 then meticulously rebuilt. Tours depart from the Tourist Information Office daily at noon and last 90 minutes. Be prepared to pay a small fee.
Take a hike
Not that Ålesund needs escaping but with so many wondrous sights at its doorstep, it’s worth going beyond the town centre. There are many well-trodden hiking routes through the mountains, overlooking the sea and fjords, that don’t require climbing expertise. For a simple, short hike, try the Rundebranden route, which is only two kilometres long but rises to 300 metres and, from its peak, offers a postcard view of the Norwegian Sea dotted with rugged islands. ￼
Hit the road
If hiking’s not your thing, a road trip is a great way to explore the region’s beauty. Pack a picnic, rent a car and head 15 minutes east to tiny Spjelkavik then a further 15 minutes south-east to Magerholm. Stop at the ferry port in Magerholm for a photo of the SunnmØre Alps. At the foot of these mountains you’ll see the factory and headquarters of one of Scandinavia’s largest furniture manufacturers, Ekornes (famous for its Stressless sofas and reclining chairs). You can’t tour the factory but the Ekornes showroom in Ålesund is worth a visit. Take a car ferry across the Storfjorden and, on the other side, drive south along a narrower fjord to a little town called Straumgjerde. There’s not much here except some houses and a patch of grass for your picnic. Eat, relax and then, if you can part with the serenity, make your way back to Ålesund.
No trip to Norway’s fjords is complete without at least one boat tour. Options abound – just make sure to choose one that visits the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Geirangerfjord. Here, the mountains drop dramatically into the snaking inlet and the combination of wild green vegetation and waterfalls feels like Avatar meets Ice Age (just to add another couple of movies into the mix). If you’re up for some adventure and really want to be dwarfed by the mountains, do a kayak tour. Local operator Kayak More Tomorrow offers a range of guided tours that includes Geirangerfjord and also more relaxed town tours through the small waterways of Ålesund.
Shop, Scandi style
Browse the modern and textbook-chic homewares, furniture and gifts at Invit. You can also enjoy a coffee at the store’s on-site espresso bar or sitting outside on a pontoon. And if you thought it couldn’t get any hipper, the main barista, Andrè, happens to be a champion latte artist – so look down before you drink.
Sample the Norse cod
Norway specialises in a dried-cod dish called bacalao and, while it may not sound terribly appetising, no restaurant in the country does it better than Ålesund’s XL Diner. The fish is preserved with salt so that it can be transported and stored for long periods of time. To prepare the bacalao, the cod is soaked in water for a few days, until it’s nice and tender, then made into rich stews that are surprisingly tasty and filling. Hands down, order The Royal Bacalao Plate, which offers three different versions of the specialty – all of them amazing. If you look out the window, there’s a dramatic statue of a windswept captain on the bow of his boat. The so-called Shetland Bus monument is a tribute to the rough sea crossings made from Scotland’s Shetland Islands to this very spot, to aid the Norwegian Resistance movement during World War II. Of course, the view also includes endless mountains and water. Take it all in with a glass of bubbly. ￼
Watch the sun (sort of) set
After dinner and another visit to the Fjellstua lookout (to work off that fish stew), enjoy the late-evening summer light from a stool at Milk Bar & Lounge. The bar, built on a dock, hangs over the water with a westerly view. The cocktail? An Ålesund Iced Tea, of course.
Find Frozen afloat
For the ultimate fan experience, Disney offers a series of Norwegian fjord cruises that sail into Ålesund. On board, expect character meet-and-greets, deck parties, scavenger hunts and movie screenings with singalongs. It really doesn’t get more Frozen than this and it’s probably the most luxurious and kid-friendly way for families to get a taste of Ålesund and other similar towns in the region. ￼