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Who would have thought that the once sleepy, provincial city of Stavanger, fourth largest in Norway, would ever be named European Capital of Culture for 2008? The old Stavanger is gone forever. Today it's a bright, cosmopolitan city and one of our favorites in Norway.

What brought about this miraculous change? "Black gold" (oil, that is) from the North Sea. Packing riches and economic clout, Stavanger has become the oil capital of Norway.

The good news is that it still retains a bit of its old charm as a famous seaport set in some of the most beautiful fjord and mountain country in Norway. Since the 9th century, fresh fish and vegetables have been sold at the old marketplace. Many of its low wooden houses, some of which have been around for 9 centuries, still remain.

Stavanger has also burst out with some of the most intriguing museums in the Southwest, although it's hardly a rival of Bergen in that regard. Nothing is finer in Stavanger than its historic harbor, where you can see ships both new and old.

Long before the North Sea oil boom, it was the herring fishermen who put Stavanger harbor on the map. In the 19th century, this harbor bustled, its wharves teaming with net makers and menders, coopers, and smiths. The port today not only constructs the rigs for those offshore oilfields, but refines the oil as well.

You can wander the narrow streets of Stavanger for hours, visiting its shops, bars, restaurants, cafes, and art galleries. Budget at least 1 busy day for this bustling old seaport on the Ryfyllkefjord.