Moving to Norway, to a town randomly dictated by a job offer, in the middle of a global pandemic, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Hamar. Much to my astonishment (having moved in the middle of July), I landed in a vibrant, buzzy beach town.
Hamar lies on the edge of Norway’s largest lake, Mjøsa, and in the summer, the whole place throbs with the locals’ love for the lake and its many possibilities.
From late May, the water becomes warm enough (in Norwegian terms) for even the smallest children to swim comfortably, and Hamar’s main beach area at Koigen comes alive with swimmers, sand-castle builders, water sports enthusiasts, and residents relaxing in a large beer garden watching the Skibladner – the oldest paddle steamer still running as a passenger ferry in the world – running return tourist trips from the main dock across to Gjøvik on the western side of the lake and north to Lillehammer.
Often the sounds of the Skiblander chugging off are accompanied by performances from live orchestras, the sounds of salsa classes held on the seafront to make the most of the warm weather, or the hourly chiming of the “bell tower” – an installation built out into the lake that chimes versions of old folk songs.
From Koigen, the promenade along Mjøsa northward towards the spectacular Domekirkeodden passes Hamar Diving Tower – famous in Norway for a scandalous level of overspend when it was constructed – and the mobile sauna KOK which floats on a raft in the lake and can be booked either in slots or for private sessions.
Domekirkeodden is Hamar’s most famous landmark and serves as an entrance to the Hedmarkstunet – a museum consisting of rehabilitated houses and community buildings from throughout Norwegian history.
Continuing along the lakeside walk, you arrive at the Railway Museum, where you can enjoy strong dark filter coffee and large fluffy waffles in an antique train carriage tucked into the forest.
There’s also a hugely popular climbing and zip-lining park here, with trails for all ages. If you continue through the forest, you can access ever more beaches and the wonderful Kafe Torp, which has the best cakes in town.
Luckily for me, the appeal of taking a stroll along this part of the lake-front lingers year-round and becomes even more magical in the winter when the lake begins to freeze, and the snowy peace is only broken by the illumination of Domekirkeodden and the sounds of its various Christmas concerts – put on by both the region’s churches and the Museum itself, where the focus is historical folk music and story-telling.
A thriving cultural scene
As the weather turns, Hamar’s thriving cultural scene becomes even more valuable. Hamar has a main Kulturhus, which houses numerous modern, well-equipped music venues with a varied year-round program of concerts, a large library that hosts literary events, and the Innlandet region’s main public theatre “Teater Innlandet,” which produces tours throughout the county as well as performing at the Kulturhus.
At the other end of the town’s main strip, the comparatively small Hamar Teater is the venue that feels most welcoming and which won the municipality’s Hamar Prize in 2020.
Built in the “Victoria Quarter,” a set of repurposed municipal buildings from the 1920s, it’s a real gem that combines a varied program of more intimate shows and festivals with regular performances from Hamar Jazz Klubb and a bar with a hipster but “hygge” vibe. The theatre sits above the extremely popular Festivalen bar and Scene, which has regular gigs.
While all of the existing venues in Hamar have been affected to some extent by the rolling coronavirus restrictions this year, Hamar actually got a new “place to be” this autumn– “Matkvartalet Hamar” offers international street food and groceries in the revamped husk of the old central shopping mall.
It’s a nice addition to the network of coffee and hang-out spots throughout the town, the most popular of which is Café Larsen, which also sells a limited selection of homeware, stationery, and clothing (and is open Sundays which remains unusual in Norway!).
Throughout the winter, the main activity in Hamar is to get out of town as much as possible – to the surrounding skiing spots, which are plentiful. As an extremely amateur skier, I’ve found the beginners routes around Ankerskogen park – which is the site of a surprisingly busy frisbee golf course in the warmer weather – a godsend.
Ski tracks are cut here essentially for the benefit of children but work very well as an introductory course for new immigrants. Once confident, there are skiing areas short drives away at Budor, Lierberget, Våler, and the stunning Hedmarksvidda. You can borrow skis and other outdoor equipment, for free, from “Bua” in town – a nice reflection of the Norwegian sensibility that everyone has a right to access the outdoor life.
Rumour has it that Mjøsa freezes thick enough to ice skate on most winters, but I’m still waiting for that. As a back-up, you can skate at the Vikingskipet – Hamar’s winter Olympic venue dating from the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics, which also hosts the town’s ice hockey team Storhamar IL.
The Vikingskipet sits at the edge of Åkersvika bird sanctuary, which winds round an inlet of Mjøsa to the southwest of Hamar. While there’s a pleasant cycle route round the reserve and lots of water birds if you’re inclined to watch for them, the real magic of Åkersvika is the way it floods the town with bird populations that compliment the seasons – tiny Chiffchaffs in flocks of hundreds chattering in gardens and parks throughout the summer months and huge, brooding rooks and hooded crows topping off every tall tree in icy mid-winter.
It’s been a strange time to make a new home, with restrictions and closures limiting the social life of this lovely town, but the most noticeable thing about Hamar has been that whenever I speak to anyone that lives here, they absolutely love this town. They’ve always got a recommendation, or a story about the town, or reassurances that it’s even better in normal times than it is now.
While I hope that’s true, I admit to being pretty smitten already.
Source: #Norway Today / #NorwayTodayTravel
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