Aust-Agder is blessed with a profusion of beautiful and historic towns in an idyllic coastal setting, plus a varied landscape of river valleys, forested areas and mountains, attracting visitors from abroad as well as Norwegians from all over the country throughout the year.
Reminders of Henrik Ibsen, the 19th century Norwegian playwright regarded by many as the father of modern drama, are omnipresent in Aust-Agder. The town of Grimstad, where Ibsen lived between 1843 and 1850 and where the Ibsen Museum is located in the house in which he wrote his first play, is also renowned for the beauty of its coastline, including hundreds of islands preserved and maintained for public enjoyment by a local charitable foundation.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Aust-Agder was a major exporter of timber and wooden materials, mainly to the Netherlands and England. Shipping ports, situated near the mouths of rivers, developed into small towns and municipalities, as a fleet of Norwegian commercial ships grew and gradually took charge of export activities.
The largest town is Arendal, a former shipping centre built on and around seven small islands. One of the most attractive tourist destinations in the county, Arendal is host to the annual Norwegian Grand Prix Class 1 powerboat race.
Tyholmen, the old part of town (and a winner of the Europa Nostra prize for cultural heritage preservation), is a warren of narrow lanes, winding streets and mysterious alleys; its distinctive buildings dating from the 17th century are a fine example of imaginative but sensitive urban planning. The focal point is Pollen, a guest harbour and centre for cafes and restaurants, with a bustling nightlife.
Aust-Agder museum boasts important collections of shipping, geology, mineralogy, and urban and coastal culture between 1600 and 1900. At Bratteklev shipyard, visitors can see how the great sailing ships were built until as recently as the early 20th century.
With their white-painted houses nestled between flowering gardens and sun-bleached rocks, the little southern towns of Lillesand, Tvedestrand, Risør and Brekkestø resemble nothing so much as a pearl necklace strung along the coast. When Norwegians use the word “idyllic” it is usually this southern coastline they have in mind.
The charming town of Risør offers, in addition to its annual chamber music festival, a Wooden Boat Festival during which beautifully crafted vessels of all ages gather in the picturesque harbour, surrounded by white wooden houses. Boat-building has been a tradition here for a millennium or more.
Lyngør, an island at the edge of the open sea with barely 100 year-round residents, is a unique community of closely built wooden houses lining a cosy, sheltered harbour. One of Europe’s best-preserved villages, in summer it is a magnet for sailing enthusiasts.
Lillesand, a small but lively and beautifully kept village known for its ravishing displays of flowers, is another of Aust-Agder’s most popular summer resorts.