Maybe the original Vikings looted, pillaged and ran visitors through with swords, but in Poulsbo – Puget Sound’s very own Norwegian fishing town – the worst that’ll happen is you might be inspired to wear a silly hat with horns. And the best? Explore Poulsbo, either this weekend at the annual Viking Fest or any other day of the year, and you’ll come away with picturesque photos, a satisfied stomach, and a new appreciation for all things Scandinavian. And all right, a silly hat with horns.
A big part of Poulsbo at any time of year is the quaint, Scandinavian look and feel of this fishing town. Settled in 1883 by Norwegian immigrants, the town seems a lot cozier than its 9,000-strong population.
The narrow streets wind up a hill from the curving main street, each set like a picturesque jigsaw puzzle with brightly colored houses and shops. Steep white gables, low-slung eaves, turrets, wooden waterfront buildings and trim in sky-blue and red have all the tidy prettiness of a fjord-side town in Norway.
The waterfront park looks down on a marina neatly stocked with boats, and snow-capped mountains rise up behind the wooded bay.
Walk through the town and the postcard expands in delicate detail. On many of the gables and building walls are murals of old Norway, including an enormous Viking ship with raucous blond ruffians on the side of Boehms’ Chocolates. There’s even a red British phone box outside the Hare and Hounds pub – possibly a subtle reminder that the Vikings did their best to conquer England, too.
GO & DO
But of course the main, inescapable attraction this weekend in Poulsbo is Viking Fest. Begun in 1969 by citizens wanting a way to connect with the old country, the festival commemorates Syttende Mai, Norway’s national constitution day.
Since Norway gained a constitution and independence from Sweden in 1814, this actually has nothing to do with medieval Vikings, but that doesn’t stop the good Poulsbo burghers from hopping onto a rollicking good theme. You can watch Viking paddleboard races and Viking historical videos, cheer Miss Viking Fest and wander the Viking Village in Waterfront Park (a collection of craft and food booths), eat Viking food like lutefisk washed down with beer and – of course – buy a silly hat with horns.
There’s also an awful lot of Scandinavian heritage that isn’t specifically inspired by long-haired horn-wearing warriors. The Leikarringen folk dancers and Sons of Norway Men’s Chorus will both perform traditional folk songs, videos at the Sons of Norway Lodge feature local boating entrepreneur Thea Foss, explorer Roald Amundsen, and the infant King of Norway; and there’ll be plenty of costumes in the parade. There are also the usual dance and music troupes, and a two-day pancake breakfast.
Want to avoid the festival crowds? Go to Poulsbo any time and there’s plenty to do.
The Marine Science Center on the east end of town offers a tidepool touch-tank, aquarium displays, and a whale skeleton in a welcoming, atmospheric location. (Open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursday-Sunday, admission by donation.) At the other end of town, the History Museum, tucked into the back of City Hall just up Moe Street from the English pub, offers a picture of how early settlers lived, with a working brass weighing machine, photos, documents and a fascinating millinery section completely free of silly Viking hats. (Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, free).
Northwest Boat Rentals offers guided wildlife canoe tours from the dock area near the science center (9:30-11:30 a.m. Wednesday-Sunday, $49.95, nwboatrentals.com) and the Martinson pioneer cabin gives a glimpse into early immigrant life (10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays, free).
While you’re walking, listen around midday for the carillon pealing out from the blue-and-white First Lutheran Church high on the hill.
You really ought to try lutefisk. Gelatinous, stinky fish soaked in lye – what more could you want? But if you really need something else, Poulsbo probably has it.
At the western end, Crepe Nuovo serves up delicious wafer-thin buckwheat crepes wrapped around fresh ingredients (the Club Med is tangy with feta and olives) in a tiny blue cottage overlooking the bay. There’s tapas and paella at the Burrata Bar, bangers and mash at the Hare and Hounds, enchiladas at Casa Luna (a touch of fuschia-pink Mexico down a narrow gap between shops), outdoor tables and upscale Italian at Sogno di Vino, Nepalese curries at Himalayan Chutney, and pretty much any other cuisine you could want.
Those who know go to the famous Sluys Bakery for coffee and dessert – amid the usual strudels and rolls are the delicately cardamom-scented fatigmand twists, tangy dark pepperkakor, dala horse cookies and Viking Cups, cinnamon rolls with an indecent amount of creamy filling spilling out the top. (Much better for you is the ultra-fresh bread.) Or pick up truffles, fudge or chocolate orcas at Boehms’ Chocolates. Take your treats to the waterfront or perch on one of the street benches decorated with – of course – Viking ships.
Wash it all down with European beer at Mor Mor, the Hare and Hounds or the Europub, or look for the locally-made Sound Brewery Belgian-style double, triple and porter.
When Vikings finish their looting, it’s obvious that Poulsbo is where they go to spend it. Even if you’re not looking to spend any loot of your own, the two blocks of cute little shops are worth an hour of cruising just to gape at stuff you probably won’t find anywhere else in Washington. The Marina Market is first choice for anyone hankering after European groceries: Featured in The Wall Street Journal and consistently voted in the top five of Western Washington, this cornucopia stocks everything from Belgian beer to rare Norwegian Nokkelostine cheese, British sweetmeats, Yorkshire puddings, Dutch chocolate (including alphabet letters for Sinter Klaas day), 350 kinds of licorice, German breads and – yes – frozen lutefisk TV dinners.
“A lot of this is stuff you just can’t get anywhere else,” says owner Andrea Rowe, who imports much of her goods direct from Europe.
If it’s Norwegian sweaters or St. Lucia candles you need, head to Nordic Maid, which stocks everything you can think of that comes from Scandinavia: cookie stamps, cookbooks, Viking chess sets, Uff Da T-shirts, books, pewter cups – and of course those silly Viking hats. Indigo Plum stocks high-quality European walking shoes like Born and Dansko.
And then there’s everything else: antiques, consignment stores, beachy knick-knacks, wine and books.
You just might need an extra ship to carry it all out in.