Built on the riches of oil, Stavanger conceals a pristine old town of timber houses that twists down to its high-spirited port. There’s plenty to hold you in the city now urban regeneration has got a grip, with everything from street art tours to sushi fine-dining, but the real treasures lie in its backyard.
Here you’ll find the big wilderness that southwestern Norway does so well – jewel-coloured fjords, cliffhanger trails, dune-fringed beaches and moon-rock landscapes with a beauty that borders on the surreal. Here are just some of the adventures to be had on Stavanger’s doorstep.
Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock) at dawn © Roman Burri / 500px
On the edge: Pulpit Rock
The anticipation will mount on the cruise from Stavanger across Lysefjord, as day-trippers brave the top deck for close-ups of sheer cliffs and the rainbow-arced waterfalls that spill down their vertical faces. These mighty granite rocks razor many hundreds of metres above opalescent waters of cyan, azure and turquoise. It’s a sight that inspires towards the poetic and the profound, and one that distills the ethereal beauty of Norway’s southern fjords.
Preikestolen, or Pulpit Rock, is the iconic fist of rock which thrusts 604m above the fjord. To reach it, you can take a 4km-long path – partly hacked out by Nepalese Sherpas – which wriggles up through a dense forest of gnarled pine and birch, before shimmying across granite slabs and exposed cliffs to the plateau.
The hike up to Pulpit Rock affords spectacular views, even when it’s a little slippery underfoot © Kerry Christiani / Lonely Planet
Pulpit Rock is spectacular whatever the Nordic weather gods throw at it; not even fog can detract from its heart-stopping proportions. While most hikers sensibly stand well back from the precipice, some caution-free visitors dangle limbs precariously over the edge or pose for selfies, even though it seems they might blow off the edge with the gentlest puff of wind.
Near the trailhead is a 350m-long zipline (preikestolenfjellstue.no/zip-line), which ups the vertigo further still and offers fleeting glances of the Lysefjord scything its way through a ripple of grey mountains.
Head for heights: Kjerag and Flørli
Stavanger is also the jumping off point for a number of other staggering day hikes, including a more challenging 28km version of the Preikestolen trek (seven to eight hours). Every bit as arresting is the region’s other rock star – the 1100m-high Kjerag. This mighty rock with a five-cubic-metre boulder wedged into a crevice in the cliffs is such a freak of nature it looks superimposed. Hikers rave about the stiff 10km hike to the top, while the vertical drop makes it a prime launch pad for BASE-jumping.
Slightly to the west of Kjerag is Flørli (florli.no), a long wooden stairway – the longest in the world, in fact – which leads to heavenly views. Puffing up the 4,444 steps brings you to a viewpoint 740m up that commands an outlook deep into Lysefjord and the Preikestolen massif.
The improbably positioned Kjeragbolten © Beas777 / Shutterstock
Hitting the fjords near Stavanger reveals the region in a whole new light. The scenery switches the instant you leave the harbour, with rugged, seabird-dotted islets and bays coyly tucked into the pleats and folds of the cliffs.
To up the adventure a notch, take a RIB ride (fjordevents.no) that bounces and swerves across the inky waters at speeds of up to 50mph, leaving you windswept, wave splashed and crying out loud for more.
Should you prefer to paddle the fjord at your own pace, gazing up to the cliffs and rock formations in quiet exhilaration, there are plenty of opportunities to slip into a canoe or kayak, for instance with Rogaland Activ (rogalandaktiv.no). Porpoises, sea eagles, seals and wild goats are often sighted. A night in the wilderness can be combined with kayaking, stand-up-paddle-boarding or canoeing at the foot of Pulpit Rock at Preikestolen Mountain Lodge (preikestolenfjellstue.no).
These can easily be tied in with a trip to Flor & Fjære (florogfjare.no), a little Eden near Stavanger, which bears the imprint of landscape gardener Olav Brin and his wife Siri. Once barren, the island of Sør-Hidle is now a riot of colour, plumed with palms and cacti, bamboo and olive, figs and banana trees, plus seemingly every flower under the sun.
The colourful gardens at Flor & Fjær © Kerry Christiani / Lonely Planet
Paths wend past a meditatively calm bonsai garden, where neatly clipped trees reflect in a koi-filled lake, and through gardens stippled with slender cypresses and fragrant with lavender – all of which flourish in the local microclimate.
Mighty waves and moon rock
Heading south of Stavanger, the Jæren region has the kind of big skies, open horizons, lush farmland and ocean views that can instantly lift a mood. On a clear day, the pure, sharp light is dazzling, and surfers, windsurfers and kite-surfers harness North Sea waves on the broad, dune-backed beaches of Borestranden and sublime Solastranden. One of Norway’s 18 national tourist routes wends its way through the region; this 41km coastal road (nasjonaleturistveger.no/en/routes/jæren) strings these beaches together with cultural highlights like Kvassheim Lighthouse (friluftsfyret-kvassheim.no), which dates to 1912, and Sverd I Fjell, a trio of mighty Viking swords embedded in rock that marks where King Harald Fairhair fought a battle to unite Norway in 872 AD.
The windswept sand dunes of Solastranden © Kerry Christiani / Lonely Planet
Further south still, the scenery shifts and gives way to the massive boulders, deep valleys and pockmarked, cave-pitted hillsides of the Magma Geopark (magmageopark.no). This unique, 2320-sq-km protected area is scarred by the erosive forces of the last Ice Age and if the landscape seems lunar, that’s because it is – the dominant rock here is anorthosite, a rare igneous rock that is more common on the moon than on earth.
A terrific base for exploring the park and its fjords is Sogndalstrand, a dinky harbour village crammed with listed 19th-century wooden buildings. From here, it’s possible to take a boat across the gorgeous Jøssingfjord to Helleren. While settlements have been here since the Stone Age, the big draw today is the two houses that huddle below a rock overhang. A nearby marked trail makes a 300m scramble up the rocks to Hellersheia where soul-stirring views across Jøssingfjord await.
These houses, sheltered under overhanging rock, are Helleren’s main attraction © Kerry Christiani / Lonely Planet
Top billing for hikes in the Geopark, however, goes to the Brufjell, a three-hour circular walk involving a challenging descent to the coast and some truly impressive caves and potholes carved out by glacial erosion at the height of the last Ice Age. Like much of this region, the route looks freshly minted for a film set and somehow not quite of this world.