Southeast of Oslo, Norway’s second smallest county styles itself “Norway’s gateway to Europe” thanks to highways E6 and E18 and the Oslo-Gothenburg railway line which cut across it on their way to Sweden. Norway’s longest river, the Glomma, also runs through the county and out into the Oslofjord at Fredrikstad. Although it is one of the few counties in Norway without real mountains, Østfold’s countryside is diverse and fascinating, from the west-facing skerries with their rocky islets and multitude of sandy beaches, to inland lakes and waterways, forests and meadows. All the cities have their own local forests with well-maintained ski tracks in the winter and hiking footpaths in the summer.
The summer resort of Hvaler, whose year-round resident population of barely four thousand souls scattered across four major islands swells to 30,000 or more in season, is Østfold county’s undisputed tourist paradise. Its main attraction is a vast formation of skerries scattered along the coastline from the southern Swedish border, almost 600 islands and islets altogether. A leisurely sail or cruise through the skerries is an essential part of the experience, particularly as so many of the islands and islets are accessible only by boat.
Halden, an ancient settlement facing Sweden across one of eastern Norway’s steepest fjords, is dominated by Fredriksten Fortress, an impregnable 17th-century stronghold – and an impressive reminder of ancient Scandinavian rivalries.
Seafood and fishing are natural accompaniments to a holiday in Østfold. Herring, cod, prawns, crab, mussels, monkfish, flounder and, of course, salmon are there for the taking. The Skagerrak, the arm of the North Sea separating Norway and Denmark, is one of the most productive stretches of water in the world: hundreds of thousands of tonnes of fish are caught here annually.
Shipping has played a central role in Østfold throughout its history thanks to its long stretch of coastline, blessed with mild winters and ice-free conditions. As a result, no fewer than seven official port districts have been designated in the county, of which Halden, Sarpsborg, Fredrikstad and Moss are the most important commercially. Other mainstays of the economy include farming, forestry and fishing: raw materials and produce from Østfold are highly prized.
For the visitor, the busy but picturesque port of Fredrikstad, with its 300-year-old centre known as Gamlebyen (Old Town), is renowned as one of the best preserved fortress towns in Scandinavia. Almost five kilometres of pedestrian routes provide a perfect walking tour through the lively cobbled streets.
With traces of habitation in the area dating back 8000 years or more, Østfold is rich in historic monuments from the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages. Many are concentrated along the stretch of highway known as Oldtidsveien (“Antiquity Road”), between Fredrikstad and Skjeberg: burial mounds, stone rings, fortified hamlets and monumental rock carving sites featuring human figures, animals, ships and wagons, weapons and tools. The road runs through an historical landscape rich in natural beauty, with scenic farms, fields and meadows, woodlands and glimpses of the glittering sea. Outstanding sites include Begby, Ravneberget, Hulveien, Hunn, Gunnarstorp, Hornnes and Solberg.