WHAT TO DO
Surrounded by mountains and sea, Oslo is a compact city with a thriving cultural scene and an always evolving identity. As the capital of Norway, it offers history and heritage alongside modern art and contemporary architecture. Founded in the year 1040 as Anslo and established as a kaupstad (market town) in 1048 by Harald Sigurdsson, the city was renamed Oslo in 1925. It was designated the European Green Capital for 2019 due to its many vast green spaces. The city also has one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world primarily thanks to its renowned public transportation system. With a number of wonderful museums, fabulous restaurants and a beautiful fjord, Oslo is sure to please.
Begin your journey at the magnificent Oslo Opera House, home of the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet. Opened in 2008 and reminiscent of a glacier floating in the waters of the Oslofjord, the Opera House is considered one of the most iconic buildings in Scandinavia. If you cannot attend a performance, be sure to join a guided tour so you can fully appreciate the building's interior. Afterward, walk up to the white marble roof for splendid city views. Next, explore the easily walkable city center. A great stroll is down its main street, Karl Johans gate - start at Oslo Central Station and make your way west until you reach the Royal Palace. There are several points of interest along the way: Oslo Cathedral, Parliament Building, National Theater, Historical Museum and the Ibsen Museum. The highlights of a visit to Oslo Cathedral, which dates from 1697, are the elaborate stained glass windows by Emanuel Vigeland (brother of Gustav) and the painted ceiling, completed between 1936 and 1950. The exceptional altarpiece, a 1748 model of The Last Supper and the Crucifixion by Michael Rasch, was an original feature of the church (from 1700), but it was moved all over the country before being returned from Prestnes church in Majorstue in 1950. Found at Karl Johans gate 22 and built in 1866, Norway's yellow brick Parliament Building is one of Europe's more charming parliaments. Designed in lavish fashion by Oslo's Henrik Bull, the National Theater was constructed specifically as a venue to honor plays by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (more on him shortly), whose works have been performed here since 1899. Located at Frederiks gate 2, the Historical Museum is actually three museums under one roof. Most interesting is the ground floor National Antiquities Collection (Oldsaksamlingen), which has displays of Viking era coins, jewelry and ornaments, and includes the only complete Viking helmet ever found. Look out for the 9th century Hoen treasure, the largest such find in Scandinavia. A section on medieval religious art includes the doors and richly painted ceiling of the Al stave church (built around 1300). From there, head to the Ibsen Museum at Henrik Ibsens Gate 26. While downstairs houses a small museum, it's Henrik Ibsen's former apartment, which you'll need to join a tour to see, that is unmissable. This was the playwright's last residence and his study remains exactly as he left it, as does the bedroom where he uttered his famously enigmatic last words, 'tvertimod!' ('on the contrary!'), before dying on May 23, 1906. Note: the museum is open from 11a-4p and is closed on Thursday. Finish up at the Royal Palace. The Norwegian royal family's main residence sits at the top of Slottsparken, one of the capital's first public parks. Construction of the 172 room palace originally began in 1825 for Swedish king Karl Johan, but wasn't completed until 1849, five years after his death. His son, Oscar I, and daughter in law, Josephine, became the first royals to move in. The palace has been greatly modernized under the current monarch, King Harald V. Note: in summer, one hour guided tours of the interior are available. They visit a dozen rooms including the Cabinet Parlor, Banquet Hall and the Palace Chapel. Tickets can be bought at the gate - at the rear of the palace.
Next, make your way down towards the harborfront and visit the Oslo Radhus. This twin towered, red brick town hall, completed in 1950 to commemorate Oslo's 900th anniversary, houses the city's political administration and is filled with mid century tributes to Norwegian cultural and working life. Something of an Oslo landmark, it's here that the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded on December 10 each year. Nearby at Radhusplassen 1 is the Nobel Peace Center (Nobels Fredssenter). Norwegians take pride in their role as international peacemakers and the Nobel Peace Prize is their gift to the men and women judged to have done the most to promote world peace over the course of the previous year. This state of the art museum celebrates the lives and achievements of the winners with an array of digital displays, films and exhibitions. Strategically located on the eastern side of the harbor - to protect the city from external threats - Akershus Fortress was built by king Hakon V in 1299. Extended and modified over the centuries, it still dominates the harborfront and the sprawling complex consists of a medieval castle, Akershus Slott and the Norwegian Resistance Museum. Located beside a memorial for resistance fighters executed on this spot during World War 2, this small but worthwhile museum covers the dark years of German occupation, as well as the jubilant day of May 8, 1945 when peace was declared. Artifacts include underground newspapers, numerous maps and photographs. From the fortress, head to Aker Brygge wharf and its island tip, Tjuvholmen (thief island), for a hit of contemporary architecture. This salty air area is filled with stylish eateries, bars and the striking Astrup Fearnley Museum. Found at Strandpromenaden 2, this private contemporary art museum resides in an impressive, silvered wood building designed by Renzo Piano, with a sail like glass roof that feels both maritime and at one with the Oslofjord landscape. Its most famous piece is the gilded ceramic sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles, by American pop culture artist Jeff Koons. Note: the museum is open from 12p-5p and is closed on Monday. After taking in modern art and architecture, hop on a ferry from the pier for a cruise of the scenic Oslofjord. In addition, you must take a ferry to the residential and rural feeling neighborhood of Bygdoy - home to the city's most fascinating and quintessentially Norwegian museums.
The ferry from Aker Brygge pier will drop you off in front of the Fram Museum in Bygdoy. This museum is dedicated to one of the most enduring symbols of early polar exploration, the sailing ship Fram. Wander the decks, peek inside the cramped bunk rooms and imagine life at sea and among the polar ice. The detailed exhibits include maps, pictures and artifacts from various expeditions. Launched in 1892, the polar ship Fram, at the time the strongest ship ever built, spent much of its life trapped in the polar ice. From 1893 to 1896 Fridtjof Nansen's North Pole expedition took the schooner to Russia's New Siberian Islands, passing within a few degrees of the North Pole on their return trip to Norway. In 1910 Roald Amundsen set sail in the Fram, intending to be the first explorer to reach the North Pole, only to discover en route that Robert Peary had beaten him to it. Not to be outdone, Amundsen turned the Fram around and, racing Robert Falcon Scott all the way, became the first man to reach the South Pole. Next door to the Fram Museum is the Norwegian Maritime Museum. This museum depicts Norway's relationship with the sea, including the fishing and whaling industries, the seismic fleet (which searches for oil and gas), shipbuilding, wreck salvaging and pleasure craft. Across the street is the Kon Tiki Museum. This worthwhile museum is dedicated to the balsa raft Kon Tiki, which Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl sailed from Peru to Polynesia in 1947. On display are maps, books and other relics from the expedition. A short walk away is the excellent Viking Ship Museum at Huk Aveny 35. Around 1100 years ago, Vikings dragged up two longships from the shoreline and used them as the centerpiece for grand ceremonial burials, most likely for important chieftains or nobility. Along with the ships, they buried many items for the afterlife: food, drink, jewelry, furniture, carriages, weapons and even a few dogs for companionship. Discovered in Oslofjord in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the ships and their goods are beautifully restored - offering a moving insight into Viking life. There are three ships in total, all named after their places of discovery: Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune. The most ostentatious and intimidating of the three is the Oseberg. The burial chamber beneath it held the largest collection of Viking age artifacts ever uncovered in Scandinavia, though it had been looted of its jewelry. As daunting as the ship appears, it was probably only ever intended as a royal pleasure craft. The sturdier 80 foot long Gokstad, built around 890, is the finest remaining example of a Viking longship, but when it was unearthed its corresponding burial chamber had also been looted and few artifacts were uncovered. There is also the third, smaller boat, the Tune, which is fragmentary but what remains is incredibly well preserved. Note: the museum is open every day from 9a-6p. End your museum tour of Bygdoy at the informative Norwegian Folk Museum (Norsk Folkemuseum). Located at Museumsveien 10, this cultural history museum is Norway's largest open air museum and one of Oslo's most popular attractions. It includes more than 140 buildings, mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries, gathered from around the country, rebuilt and organized according to region of origin. Paths wind past old barns, elevated stabbur (raised storehouses) and rough timbered farmhouses with sod roofs sprouting wildflowers. The Gamlebyen (old town) section is a reproduction of an early 20th century Norwegian town - throughout the summer you can see demonstrations of weaving, pottery making and other cultural activities. Another highlight is the restored stave church (a medieval wooden church), built around 1200 in Gol and moved to Bygdoy in 1885. The exhibition hall located near the main entrance includes displays on Norwegian folk art, historic toys and national costumes - including traditional clothing used for weddings, christenings and burials. Note: the museum is open every day from 10a-5p.
Take a museum break and enjoy a few of the lovely parks Oslo has to offer. Opened in 2013, Ekebergparken secured Oslo's reputation as a contemporary art capital and, in particular, one devoted to sculpture. A vast forested public park overlooking the city and the Oslofjord, it is dotted with work from the collection of property developer and art collector Christian Ringnes. Make sure you visit the Ekeberg stairs, a historic as well as spectacular viewpoint and the Munch spot - the view that inspired The Scream by Edvard Munch (more on him later). There is the previously mentioned Slottsparken, filled with rambling pastures, flowering meadows, a duck pond or three and wooded arcades. There is also Frognerparken, which attracts westside locals with its broad lawns, ponds, stream and rows of shady trees for picnics, strolling or lounging on the grass. Most importantly, it contains Vigelandsparken, a sprawling sculpture park within a park. The centerpiece of Frognerparken - Vigeland Park is an extraordinary open air showcase of work by Norway's best loved sculptor, Gustav Vigeland and is home to over 200 granite and bronze pieces by the artist. His highly charged works include entwined lovers, tranquil elderly couples, bawling babies and contempt ridden beggars. Speaking of bawling babies, his most famous work here, Sinnataggen (The Angry Boy), portrays a child in a mood of particular ill humor. Do not miss Monolitten (The Monolith) and Livshjulet (The Wheel of Life). Note: the park is always open. It's a nice walk from the park and west side of town back into the city center. Take Gyldenloves gate east until you arrive back at Slottsparken in the city center.
Conclude your Oslo voyage with a visit to two of the city's most important institutions. The National Gallery (Nasjonalgalleriet) houses the nation's largest collection of traditional and modern art, and many of Edvard Munch's best known creations are on permanent display, including his most renowned piece, The Scream. There's also a group of works by acclaimed European artists: Picasso and El Greco, as well as Manet, Degas, Renoir, Matisse, Cezanne and Monet. Note: the gallery is set to relocate near the Oslo Radhus in 2020. Next, make your way to the Munch Museum (Munchmuseet) in the Toyen neighborhood. Note: take the metro (t-bane) and get off at the Toyen stop - follow signs to the museum. This monographic museum dedicated to Norway's greatest artist, Edvard Munch, houses the largest collection of his work in the world: some 28000 items, including 1100 paintings and 4500 watercolors, many of which were gifted to the city by Munch himself. Here, you can view a pastel version of The Scream (1893) and Madonna (1894). On August 22, 2004, The Scream and Madonna were stolen from the Munch Museum by masked men wielding firearms. The robbers forced the museum guards to lie down on the floor while they snapped the cable securing the paintings to the wall and escaped. The paintings were recovered by Oslo Police two years later on August 31, 2006. Note: the museum is expected to move next to the Opera House in 2020, to a site called Lambda. Wrap up Oslo by wandering the hip neighborhood of Grunerlokka. Note: take tram 13 and get off at the Schous Plass stop. Grunerlokka has cool street art, stylish bars, mellow cafes, indie shops and music venues, and its pretty squares are filled with chilled out locals and students from nearby art schools. The coffee sipping and beer swilling fun continues across the Akerselva River in the revitalized warehouse district of Vulkan.
WHERE TO EAT
Oslo has plenty of great places to eat and enjoy a drink. Start your day at well known Tim Wendelboe, located at Gruners gate 1 in Grunerlokka. Tim is often credited with kick starting the Scandinavian coffee revolution, and his eponymous cafe and roastery is both a locals hang out and an international coffee fiend pilgrimage site. All the beans are self sourced and hand roasted, and all coffees - from an iced pour over to a regular cappuccino or espresso - are world class. Across the Akerselva River at Vulkan 20 is Hendrix Ibsen. It's the perfect place to grab a takeaway coffee for Akerselva wandering, but you'll probably be tempted to linger over the racks of vintage vinyl records on display. If you're in the mood for some tasty waffles, Honse Louisas Hus at Sandakerveien 2 is your place. For dynamite pastries and cakes, try Liebling at Ovrefoss 4. Baker Hansen is the original of what's now a chain of Oslo bakeries. Found at Ullevalsveien 45, it is the classic Norwegian bakery. Enjoy a stuffed cheese and ham wheat roll or a slice of fresh fruit filled marzipan cake. Kaffebrenneriet is located at Universitetsgata 18, opposite the National Gallery in the city center. This relaxed branch of one of Norway's best cafe chains has good coffee, pastries and a solid selection of filled rolls. Apent Bakeri is a neighborhood cafe at Inkognito terrasse 1, close to Slottsparken. It serves coffee in deep, cream colored bowls and has unbeatable breads and pastries. A freshly baked roll topped with homemade rore syltetoy (stirred jam) and enjoyed on the bakery's patio makes for one of Oslo's most atmospheric breakfasts.
In Oslo, food goes hand in hand with culture, as hubs for music and art offer some serious dining options. Kulturhuset can be found at Youngs gate 6 in the city center. The town's 'culture house' moved into this beautiful four story building in 2017. The ground floor cafe offers breakfast and coffee alongside a well stocked wine bar with bites, like charcuterie, cornichons and a solid cheese selection. On the second floor, there’s a beer bar with an extensive menu of local brews and an adjacent library for reading, writing and drinking. Head to the game room and bar on the top floor for shuffleboard and more wine. In a huge warehouse right on the edge of the Oslo port at Akershusstranda 25, Vippa is the newest and hippest food, culture, and music center in the city. Thursday through Sunday, carefully chosen food trucks offer a selection of diverse dishes, accompanied by a DJ or live music. Indulge in Vietnamese summer rolls, Chinese dumplings, Syrian shawarma, Japanese ramen and a selection of local and organic beers and wines. The excellent Sentralen is located at Ovre Slottsgate 3. This innovative hub has a fine dining restaurant, a cafe and a cafeteria. The restaurant does outstandingly prepared and presented seasonal small plates, and the large cafe offers early morning and late night eats - including bread from the owner’s own bakery. Norwegians like meat in tube form and so do I. The place to satisfy such cravings is Syverkioske, found at Maridalsveien 45 in Grunerlokka. It might look like a hipster replica, but this hole in the wall polser (hot dogs) place is absolutely authentic and one of the last of its kind in Oslo. Dogs can be had in a potato bread wrap in lieu of the usual roll and there's a large range of old school accompaniments beyond sauce and mustard that would make the late great Anthony Bourdain proud. Nearby, at Vulkan 5 is the marvelous Mathallen Food Hall. This former industrial space, alongside the Akerselva, is now a food hall dedicated to showcasing the very best Norwegian food, as well as some excellent international cuisines. Eating here is a casual affair - there are dozens of delis, cafes and miniature restaurants, and the place buzzes throughout the day and into the evening. Some of my favorite spots at Mathallen include: Vulkanfisk Seafoodbar, Barramon Pintxosbar, Atelier Asian Tapas, Hopyard and Hitchhiker. Note: the food hall is open from 10a-8p and is closed on Monday. Another good place for seafood is Lofoten Fiskerestaurant, located next to the harbor at Stranden 75 in Aker Brygge.
While honoring its role as cafe for the Astrup Fearnley Museum and a super scenic pit stop, Vingen is so much more. Do drop in for excellent coffee, but also come for lunch with small, interesting menus subtly themed in homage to the museum's current temporary show. There is a lot of sharing going on at Vaaghals - skifte is a uniquely Norwegian way of communal dining. Found near the Opera House at Dronning Eufemias gate 8, this intriguing restaurant combines a contemporary address and surroundings with rustic, quintessentially Norwegian ingredients, including dry aged meats, wild fish and foraged herbs and vegetables. Over on the harborfront at Radhusbrygge 4 is Pipervika. If the weather is nice, nothing beats a shrimp lunch, with fresh shrimp on a baguette with mayonnaise and a spritz of lemon devoured dockside. This revamped fisherman's co op still does takeaway peel and eat shrimp by the pound, but you can now also relax with a sushi plate, oysters or a full seafood menu including fish burger on brioche or killer fish and chips. Everything is prepared with daily bounty from the Oslofjord. Each day at 11a sharp, Henrik Ibsen would leave his apartment and walk to the Grand Cafe at Karl Johans gate 31 for a lunch of herring, beer and one shot of akevitt (an alcoholic drink made from potatoes and caraway liquor). You can order the same as the Norwegian playwright (I did), or you can take your pick from perfectly plated, elegantly sauced cod and mussels, spelt risotto with mushrooms or cured lamb and potatoes. Located at Radhusgata 32 in the city center is Cafe Skansen. A dark wood dining room makes for an atmospheric change from Aker Brygge's contemporary architecture and the menu here is in keeping with its surrounds - with lots of traditional seafood dishes, lamb and steaks. If you're the adventurous type, this restaurant offers whale steaks.
For dinner, head to Kontrast at Maridalsveien 15a in Vulkan. A minimalist, industrial space makes a dramatic backdrop for beautifully presented, seasonal dishes that combine a pure simplicity and honed technique. This Modern Scandinavian restaurant with a focus on using ingredients that are both local and at the peak of their season received its first Michelin star in 2016. Chef Mikael Svensson offers world class, organic and ethically sourced ingredients from within Norway. Note: the restaurant opens at 6p and is closed on Sunday and Monday. Ekeberg Restaurant can be found at Kongsveien 15. This New Nordic spot is known for its simple, careful and elegant cooking. It is open every day for dinner and provides splendid Oslofjord and city views. Located at Thorvald Meyers gate 26 in Grunerlokka, the excellent Bass does the city's best small plates - served beneath vintage seascapes on classic Norwegian ceramics. Most dishes are what might be called contemporary Norwegian meets international, from fried chicken and potato pancakes to raw scallops with mango and death by chocolate cake. There's also an impressive wine list, many of which can be had by the glass. Note: the restaurant opens at 5p and is closed on Monday. With some of the biggest names in wine involved in this casual Toyen corner spot, you could easily call Brutus (Eiriks gate 2) a wine bar and not be wrong. But that would overlook that the cooking is some of the most exciting in the city. The space is pure Oslo - raw bricks, lushly painted wood cladding, simple vintage chairs and salon hung contemporary art. The dishes that emerge from the open kitchen are flavor bombs that highlight unusual local ingredients and incorporate pan Nordic influences. The wine list features some of Europe's superstar natural producers and you can indeed come here to just drink and snack. Try the grilled duck wings and salt cod tartar. Note: the restaurant is open every day from 5p. Next, there is the superb Kolonialen at Sofiesgate 16. When a venture is led by the ex Maaemo owner, you can guess the food will be extraordinary, and it is. The short but sublime menu is a mix of pan European dishes done with a contemporary playfulness. Note: the restaurant opens at 4p and is closed on Sunday. Finally, we have the previously mentioned Maaemo, located at Schweigaards gate 15b. It is Oslo’s ground breaking three Michelin starred restaurant, and is run and co owned by Head Chef Esben Holmboe Bang. Maaemo - an old Norse word meaning 'Mother Earth' focuses on creating a narrative around the clean, bright flavors of Norway. It builds around its local produce driven cuisine with a focus on reflecting the changing seasons and the raw nature of Norway. The restaurant exclusively serves a playful tasting menu that is a pageant of dishes such as Norwegian langoustines with pine, mackerel with ramson, and Roros butter ice cream with brown butter caramel. This is not a meal to be taken lightly: first, you'll need to book months in advance - second, there will be a significant hit to your wallet. But go if you can, for a truly memorable culinary experience.
End your evening in Oslo with a drink or two. Fuglen is found at Universitetsgata 2 in the city center. Part cafe, part cocktail bar, it mixes some of the best adult beverages around. Drinks are made with local spirits and are often muddled with foraged ingredients (spruce tips, seaweed from the North Sea, forest flowers). There's a jukebox and stylish Norwegian furniture to sit on - isn't it good Norwegian wood. Staying in the city center, look for Internasjonalen at Youngstorget 2. One of the city's cocktail veterans, the decor here is Cold War kitsch, which is a nice fit for its Oslo Funkis (functionalist) style building - also home to the Norwegian Labour Party, Arbeiderpartiet. There are seats facing the square, a more intimate space upstairs for DJs and concerts, and you'll share bar stools with students, politicians, trade unionists and artists. Around the corner at Mollergata 12 is Oslo Camping. This place has cheap beer and an 18 hole minigolf course. Not far away at Torggata 11 is Angst. Dark, yes, but otherwise far from angsty - this is one of Oslo's favorite small bars. The staff are friendly and the crowds are cool. From there, head up to Grunerlokka and Bortenfor, located at Brenneriveien 7. Along with the riverside beauty you'll get a cozy, cultured atmosphere, good music, Norwegian themed cocktails and very decent wine by the glass. If you fancy more wine, do visit Territoriet at Markveien 58. A true neighborhood wine bar that's also the city's most exciting. The grape loving owners offer up more than 300 wines by the glass and do so without a list. Talk to the knowledgeable staff about your preferences and they'll find something you'll adore. Part of the Grunerlokka Lufthavn complex - a collective cultural center set around a typical garden courtyard and home to many local artists, performers and musicians - Mir (Toftes gate 69) is pure Grunerlokka good times with space station decor, craft beers, house blend chili vodka, and daily entertainment such as electronic acts, improv jazz, DJs and quiz nights. Further up the road at Thorvald Meyers gate 30b is Grunerlokka Brygghus. This atmospheric and amiable alehouse and microbrewery does a range of house brews from pilsners to Weissbiers, and also serves up some intriguing ales from guest breweries. Stomach liners - burgers, bangers and mash, and fish and chips - can be ordered at the bar. For live music, check out Bla (Brenneriveien 9c) and Kafe Haerverk (Hausmanns gate 34). Finish up your Oslo adventure at Torggata Botaniske, found at Torggata 17b. The greenhouse effect done right - with a lush assortment of indoor plants, as well as charming mid century light fittings and chairs, chandeliers, and lots of marble and mirrors. If you're not already seduced by the decor, the drinks will do it, with a list that features the bar's own produce, fresh fruit and high quality spirits. Note: the bar is open every day from 5p.
WHERE TO STAY
Oslo offers a number of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations and provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is Hotel Continental, located across from the National Theater at Stortingsgata 24. Overlooking the Oslofjord, this elegant hotel dating from 1900 is near Karl Johans gate and not far from the Royal Palace. Upscale rooms offer free WiFi and flat screen TVs, plus minibars and designer toiletries. Upgrades add sitting areas, terraces, Nespresso machines and soaking tubs. Amenities include breakfast on the house, a posh restaurant and a cafe, along with a lobby bar offering afternoon tea.
A second option is The Thief, located in the trendy Tjuvholmen arts district at Landgangen 1. This hip, contemporary hotel is adjacent to the fabulous Astrup Fearnley Museum and close to all the action in Aker Brygge. Stylish rooms have balconies and offer flat screen TVs, entertainment systems, complimentary WiFi and Nespresso machines. Upgraded quarters have marble bathrooms and separate living areas. Other perks include a sophisticated restaurant, an awesome rooftop bar with stellar views and a luxe spa with a sauna.
Oslo is full of great architecture, art, culture, beauty and fantastic food. It treated me well and I look forward to returning.