The town is situated on a strategically important sound, the Karmsundet, through which ships could pass without traversing heavy seas. In the early years, the coastal waters off Haugesund were a huge source of herring, and the town grew accordingly. Despite being barely a village back then, King Harald Fairhair lived at Avaldsnes, very close to the modern town of Haugesund. In the last decades, the town, like its neighbours, has been turning towards the petroleum industry, with the herring being long gone.
The 73-square-kilometre (28 sq mi) municipality is the 398th largest by area out of the 426 municipalities in Norway, making it one of the smallest in Norway. Haugesund is the 23rd most populous municipality in Norway with a population of 37,166. The municipality's population density is 543.7 inhabitants per square kilometre (1,408/sq mi) and its population has increased by 15.1% over the last decade. The "urban area" of the town of Haugesund, which actually crosses over slightly into the neighboring municipality of Karmøy, has a total of about 40,152 (of that 5,425 people live in Karmøy) people. This leaves about 2,000 residents of Haugesund that live outside the town of Haugesund in the rural portion of the municipality.
The Haugesund Region, a statistical metropolitan area, which consists of the municipalities Karmøy, Haugesund, Tysvær, Sveio and Bokn, has a population of approximately 100,000 people (as of 2009).
Despite being a fairly young town, the areas around Haugesund were lands of power during the Viking Age. Harald Fairhair, the first king of Norway, had his home at Avaldsnes, very close to the present town. Fairhair was buried at Haraldshaugen, a burial mound adjacent to the Karmsundet strait. This site is the namesake of the town and municipality of Haugesund. The national monument at Haraldshaugen was raised in 1872, to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of the Battle of Hafrsfjord in 872. The Battle of Hafrsfjord has traditionally been regarded as when western Norway was unified under a single monarch for the first time.
The urban village area of Haugesund (population: 1,066) was declared to be a "town" and it was separated from the municipality of Torvastad on 1 February 1855 to become a separate municipality of its own. On 1 January 1911, a small urban area of Skåre (population: 3,847) that directly abutted the town of Haugesund was transferred to Haugesund. On 1 January 1958, the remainder of the municipality of Skåre was merged with the town of Haugesund, creating a larger Haugesund municipality. On 1 January 1965, the island of Vibrandsøy (population: 70) was transferred from Torvastad municipality to Haugesund.
Haugesund has a strong historical bond to the sea and especially the herring. In the earlier years, the coastal waters of Haugesund were a huge source for fishing herring, and the town grew accordingly. The protective straits of Smedasund and Karmsund gave the town potential to grow in both fishing and shipping. Even to this day, Karmsund is one of Norway's busiest waterways. The town is still growing geographically even though the population has increased only moderately the last decade. Today the herring is long gone, and the town is turning more and more towards the petroleum industry, like its neighbouring town to the south, Stavanger.
The town is named after the Haugesundet strait. The first element (Hauge) goes back to the genitive plural of the Old Norse word haugr meaning hill or mound. The last element is sund meaning strait or sound.
The coat-of-arms for Haugesund was granted on 5 March 1930. They were designed by Hallvard Trætteberg. The arms are blue with three silver/white seagulls lined up vertically. The seagulls and blue color were chosen to represent the importance of the sea. These arms replaced the old coat-of-arms that were granted on 29 December 1862. The old arms showed three herring barrels, an anchor, and three seagulls. The old arms showed the importance of herring fishing and processing in the town. The three barrels also represented the three parts of the municipality: the mainland and the islands of Hasseløy and Risøy. The new arms from 1930 removed the herring barrels due to the decline in the importance of that industry.
Haugesund has a coastline with the North Sea, however, the island of Karmøy and the archipelago of Røvær shelter most of the city from the rough waters of the ocean. The Karmsundet strait, located between Karmøy and Haugesund used to be very strategically important, since ships could pass without having to sail through heavy sea. Haugesund's city centre has a distinctive street layout, similar to those found in Kristiansand and Oslo. Haugesund has a typical maritime climate with mild winters, cool but pleasant springs, and mild summers lasting until the end of September. Monthly 24-hr average range from 1.1 °C (34.0 °F) in February to 14 °C (57 °F) in August. Mean annual precipitation is 1,520 millimetres (60 in), with September to December as the wettest period.
The municipality includes several islands. Risøy and Hasseløy are densely built, and connected to the mainland by bridges. Røvær which lies further out and consists of a number of islands, is also populated and connected to the mainland by ferry. Vibrandsøy and its neighboring islands are now mainly a recreational area. Røværsholmen Lighthouse sits just off the coast of the main Røvær island. The lakes Vigdarvatnet and Stakkastadvatnet are located in the municipality.
Haugesund Airport, located on the island of Karmøy to the southwest of Haugesund in Karmøy municipality, is connected to the cities of Oslo, Bergen, London, Gdańsk and Copenhagen amongst other destinations. The Norwegian airline Coast Air was based at Haugesund airport, but filed for bankruptcy on 23 January 2008.
The European Route E39 bypasses Haugesund to the east, passing through Aksdal. The European Route E134 leads eastwords to Drammen outside Oslo.
The bus station in Haugesund is located at Flotmyr on the east side of the downtown area. Long distance bus services are available to Stavanger, Bergen, and Oslo. The local bus transport is operated by Tide Buss, on a contract with Kolumbus lasting to 2017.
The town is connected to the island of Utsira by car ferry, and to the islands of Røvær and Feøy by passenger ferry. Until 2008, the Newcastle–Bergen–Stavanger ferry operated here as well.
All municipalities in Norway, including Haugesund, are responsible for primary education (through 10th grade), outpatient health services, senior citizen services, unemployment and other social services, zoning, economic development, and municipal roads. The municipality is governed by a municipal council of elected representatives, which in turn elect a mayor.
The municipal council (Kommunestyre) of Haugesund is made up of 49 representatives that are elected to every four years
Haugesund is the main cultural centre for its region, and is home to several festivals, the largest being the Norwegian International Film Festival and Sildajazz, an international jazz festival with approximately 70 bands and close to 200 concerts. Every August, The Norwegian Trad-jazz festival, the Sildajazz is held. Both local and international musicians are presented at the Sildajazz.
In the summer of 2004, the annual rock festival, ""RockFest"" started. It attracted local, national and international pop and rock bands, such as Elton John, Madcon, DumDum Boys and Kaizers Orchestra. The festival started as a part of the celebration of Haugesund's 150 year anniversary. In 2009, the last Rockfest was held, and got replaced by a new concept in 2010; Haugesund Live. Haugesund Live is a series of individual concerts, and has featured bands such as The Baseballs, Kim Larsen and Mötley Crüe.
The soccer team from Haugesund, FK Haugesund is playing in the Norway's highest league, Tippeligaen.
The Norwegian International Film Festival has since 1973 been held in Haugesund, premiering and showing international and Norwegian films. The Amanda Award, Norway's variation of the Oscars, has been held in Haugesund since 1985 in concurrence with the film festival.
Haugesunds Avis is a daily newspaper published in Haugesund, but with branches in Bømlo, Kopervik, Odda, Sauda and Stord. Founded in 1895, it is today owned by the investment group Mecom Group, and is as such part of the media group Edda Media. In 2006, Haugesunds Avis had a circulation of 33 448. As of 2007, the executive editor is Tonny Nundal. The newspaper owns the local radio channel Radio 102.
The Church of Norway has three parishes (sokn) within the municipality of Haugesund. It is part of the Haugaland deanery in the Diocese of Stavanger.
The main campus of Stord/Haugesund University College is located in Haugesund. Established in 1994, it is the result of the merger between Haugesund Nursing College, Stord Teachers College, and Stord Nursing College. The university college has approximately 2700 students and 260 employees, thus making it one of the smallest university colleges in Norway.