Compared with other Scandinavian capitals, Oslo is a cozy, somewhat provincial city. Fewer tourists come here than, say, Copenhagen, but that doesn’t mean visitors won’t find plenty that delights. Located on the Aker River at the head of the Oslo Fjord, Norway’s capital has modern architecture, hundreds of lakes, lots of parks, world-class museums and public statues nearly everywhere (including a lot of notoriously naked ones).
Oslo covers 175 square miles within its city limits and ranks as one of the world’s largest capitals. However, with a population of 600,000, it is the least densely populated capital city in Europe. Norway was once part of Denmark and later part of Sweden, and many of Oslo’s buildings — including the Royal Palace and House of Parliament — stem from Swedish rule. The country became independent in 1905. Later, Norway was occupied by German forces for five years during World War II (the Nazi history is something Norwegians are now willing to talk about, which may be of particular interest to World War II buffs).
Traveling there, you’ll notice the high standard of living (and that things aren’t exactly cheap). It’s so expensive, in fact, that many Norwegians go to Sweden to shop. Still, Norway is one of the richest countries in the world, thanks in no small part to its North Sea offshore oil.
Oslo residents are big on nature and proud of their pristine forests and fjord. Consider taking a ferry trip through Oslo Fjord for fine views of the natural scenery and small fishing villages. Cameras ready!
If there’s one must-see attraction, it’s the Nobel Peace Center across from the waterfront and near City Hall. The prize is named for Alfred Nobel (1833 – 1896), a scientist who accumulated 355 patents (he invented dynamite, among other things) and became one of the richest men in Europe before giving his fortune to a fund. The remaining Nobel prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine and literature are awarded in Nobel’s native Sweden. The center in Oslo is in a converted, historic train station but is all cutting edge, high tech — lights flash, audio comes from odd places, and stories of both hate and peace are told. Quotes depicted on a video wall of changing quotes include Nehru’s, “You don’t need genitals for politics, you need brains.” On the second floor is a documentary explaining the achievements of various laureates including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Dalai Lama, as well as the striking Nobel Field, the equivalent of a Hall of Fame display of all laureates; their headshots appear in a dark room at eye level on sticks placed among smaller sticks, with lights resembling flowers in a field of grass. Haunting modern music plays in the background — it’s a magnificent installation. The small gift shops have items with peace symbols, and the museum has a lovely cafe with indoor and outdoor seating.
Additional Nobel history, among other things, is on tap at City Hall, where the Peace Prize ceremonies are held annually. City Hall also features a fantastic series of murals depicting everything from scenes of local life to exciting glimpses of resistance efforts during World War II. Upstairs is a quaint painting of a family sitting around a tree by native son Edvard Munch (most famous for not-so-quaint “The Scream”).
The newly developed waterfront is a lively place with outdoor cafes, trendy shops, street musicians and other performers. The eastern end is anchored by the fabulous Oslo Opera House, which looks like two icebergs rising from the fjord. Opened in 2008, the opera house — fashioned from 36,000 slabs of white Carrara marble — is one of Norway’s most popular attractions. It’s outstanding. More recently, in 2012, the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art reopened at the western end of the waterfront in a new building designed by world-famous Italian architect Renzo Piano. The collection includes items by Andy Warhol, Richard Prince, Robert Gober, Matthew Barney, Cindy Sherman and Bruce Nauman. The museum has a beach, sculpture park and an observation tower with terrific views across the capital.
Near the ship piers, the Medieval Quarter has interesting historic relics including Akershus Fortress, which dates back to the 17th century. State and royal events are still held there. The site boasts gorgeous gardens, and its hilltop locale offers great views of Oslo and the fjord. Also on site is the fascinating Norwegian Resistance Museum, showcasing exhibits from Norway’s strong allied resistance efforts. Exhibits include a molar with a radio receiver implant that allowed resistance fighters to follow the news.
Some of Oslo’s most intriguing museums emphasize its relationship with the sea, and they’re all located on the peninsula of Bygdoy. The Kon-Tiki Museum showcases the balsa-wood raft that native son and explorer Thor Heyerdahl sailed from Peru to Polynesia. The Viking Ship Museum features ancient Viking ships that date to 800 A.D. and an interesting collection of found utensils and jewelry. While you’re in the neighborhood, stop by the Fram Museum, which houses the ship that took 19th-century explorers to the South Pole and the Arctic. And not the least bit maritime in theme but fascinating nevertheless is the Norwegian Folk Museum, an open-air collection of some 150 buildings dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Visitors get the feeling they’re actually wandering through a Norwegian town of yesteryear.
For art lovers, there are two must-sees. First is the Munch Museum. Expressionist Edvard Munch donated his art to the city when he died in the mid-20th century, and the museum houses the largest single collection of his works in the world with roughly 1,100 paintings and more than 20,000 prints and drawings. The second is Vigeland Sculpture Park. Allow yourself time on a nice day to enjoy this park at your leisure leisure. Part of the 80-acre Frogner Park on the outskirts of town, this fantastic outdoor sculpture garden features the work of Gustav Vigeland, who created life-sized — as well as larger than life — pieces that depict the cycle of life from birth to death. Vigeland, born in 1869, was a great admirer of Rodin and Michelangelo — and it shows. There are more than 200 granite, bronze and iron sculptures, representing 600 figures exhibiting an array of human emotions.
Check out the Holmenkollen Ski Jump in Oslo’s western hills. This site of ski jumping since 1892 was rebuilt in the mid-20th century to host the 1952 Olympics, then torn down and rebuilt to accommodate the 2011 World Championships. Enjoy the awesome view overlooking the city and the fjord; there’s an Olympics museum and a ski simulator. New in 2013: a zip line.
Take a boat ride along the fjords. Directly on the docks are boat operators, and you can hop on any range of “cruises,” from quick 50-minute overviews of the waterways to 2.5-hour fjord tours. The tours pass the Opera House, idyllic bays and a maze of islands with small and colorful summer houses. Check out cruise options from Viator.
Flawed police detective Harry Hole is the protagonist in a series by Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo. Nesbo is an Oslo homeboy, and lucky for fans, there is a two-hour “Discover Harry Hole’s Oslo” walking tour of the places that Hole frequents: the courthouse, the watering holes Underwater Pub and Schroder, the Royal Palace park, Egertorget Square and Sofies Gate. You can buy tickets online at Oslo Guidebureau or directly from your guide.
Not surprisingly, many of Norway’s signature dishes come from the sea. Salmon, trout, cod and halibut are on most menus. So is spekemat, a plate that includes cured ham, sausage and mutton. Smorbrod, the popular Scandinavian open-face sandwich, makes a nice appetizer, and koldbord (or “cold table”) is the equivalent of Sweden’s smorgasbord. A couple of local favorites: fiskesuppe, a fish soup rich with egg yolks and cream, and freshly boiled shrimp on white bread with mayonnaise and lemon juice. Locally produced beer is noted for its high quality. Suggested tipping is 5 to 10 percent for good service.
For People Watching: The famous Grand Cafe in the Grand Hotel, where Henrik Ibsen and Edvard Munch once hung out, is the oldest and most fashionable cafe in the city. (It is from the balcony of the venerable Grand Hotel that the Nobel Peace Prize winner is introduced to the public each year.) The cafe, which has a mural painted in 1928 of Ibsen’s and Munch’s likenesses, is also perfectly positioned for people-watching. Lunch selections include regional fare, such as wild salmon and grass-fed lamb. It’s located one block from Parliament at Karl Johans Gate and Rosenkrantz Gate. Look for the red awnings.
Best Upscale Eats: Gourmet seekers should try Theatercafeen. It’s a Viennese-style cafe that’s long been popular with local theatergoers and visiting celebrities.
Best for Families: Check out Najaden at the Norwegian Maritime Museum, where kids younger than 12 can have the Scandinavian lunch buffet (lots of fish and meat) for half price.
Shopping in Oslo
Shoppers have no shortage of options in Oslo, from well-known international chain stores to funky design boutiques. Norwegian wool sweaters, troll dolls, painted wooden figurines, crystal, glassware, leather and fur jackets are among Oslo’s most popular souvenirs. Many souvenir shops — including those at the cruise ship terminal — accept U.S. dollars and euros and give change in Norwegian krone.
Prices are high, but keep in mind that you may be entitled to a refund of the 25 percent Value Added Tax (VAT) when you leave the country. Keep an eye out for the “Tax Free” logo on the door or window of many stores. See GlobalBlue.com for information about tax-free shopping.
Stroll along the harbor in the Aker Brygge district, where shipyard buildings have been transformed into chic shops and restaurants. This is a great spot to shop for the latest fashions.
Pedestrian-only Karl Johans Gate is the heart of Oslo’s downtown shopping district. Here you’ll find plenty of souvenir shops, big-name international chains and shopping centers.
Grunerlokka is a fun area to browse for second-hand clothes and unique Norwegian design items. Stop by on a Sunday, when a couple of weekly markets offer stalls brimming with handicrafts, vintage clothes and retro goods from the 1940s through the 1980s.
–written by Ellen Uzelac
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