What sets Oslo apart from other European cities is not so much its cultural traditions or its internationally renowned museums as its simply stunning natural beauty. How many world capitals have subway service to the forest, or lakes and hiking trails within city limits? But Norwegians will be quick to remind you that Oslo is a cosmopolitan metropolis with prosperous businesses and a thriving nightlife. Once overlooked by travelers to Scandinavia, Oslo is now a major tourist destination and the gateway to what many believe is Scandinavia's most scenic country. That's just one more change for this town of 500,000—a place that has become good at survival and rebirth throughout its 1,000-year history. In 1348 a plague wiped out half the city's population. In 1624 a fire burned almost the whole of Oslo to the ground. It was redesigned and renamed Christiania by Denmark's royal builder, King Christian IV. After that it slowly gained prominence as the largest and most economically significant city in Norway. During the mid-19th century, Norway and Sweden were ruled as one kingdom, under Karl Johan. It was then that the grand main street that's his namesake was built, and Karl Johans gate has been at the center of city life ever since. In 1905 the country separated from Sweden, and in 1925 an act of Parliament finally changed the city's name back to Oslo. Today, Oslo is Norway's political, economic, industrial, and cultural capital.
Many Oslo chefs have developed menus based on classic Norwegian recipes but with exciting variations, like Asian or Mediterranean cooking styles and ingredients. You may read about "New Nordic" cuisine on some menus—a culinary style that combines seafood and game from Scandinavia with spices and sauces from elsewhere.
Spend at least one sunny summer afternoon harborside at Aker Brygge eating in one of the many seafood restaurants and watching the world go by. Or buy steamed shrimp off the nearby docked fishing boats and plan a picnic on the Oslofjord or in Vigeland or another of the city's parks. Note that some restaurants close for a week around Easter, the entire month of July, and during the week between Christmas and New Year. Some restaurants are also closed on Sunday. Smoking in indoor public spaces isn't allowed, but is permitted on terraces and other outdoor spaces (colorful blankets and heating lamps are usually provided for such places in winter).
Det Gamle Rådhus
If you're in Oslo for just one night and want an authentic dining experience, head to the city's oldest restaurant—housed in Oslo's first town hall, a building that dates from 1641. Its known for its traditional fish and game dishes such as the moose entrecote or the Røros reindeer. An absolute must, if you're lucky enough to be visiting at the right time, is the house specialty, the pre-Christmas lutefisk platter. The backyard has a charming outdoor area for dining in summer.
The classic chandeliers and velvet sofas here make it look like a vintage neighborhood hangout. Locals gather here for fresh, well-executed comfort food—burgers, pasta, sandwiches, and salads—or the spicy chicken salad, a house specialty. At night, Fru Hagen lets its hair down further, becoming a disco/bar that's open until 3 am.
This diner, its American origins "adjusted to a Norwegian way of life," has been drawing the crowds since it opened in 1989. The classics burgers are all there, but for something a bit different try the "Favourite," with cheese, bacon and chili con carne; or the Zorba (chicken burger with tzatziki); and then a Beach Lime Pie for dessert. Full American-style breakfasts are also available, and there's also a small kids' menu. The original Keith Haring on the walls and the big terrace for sunny days are two more pluses here.
This popular pub right by Grønland Torg serves homemade traditional Norwegian food in an atmospheric setting. The building, which dates from the 1730s, was once an orphanage. The big lunch menu features a good selection of smørbrød (open-faced sandwiches) as well as smoked-salmon salad and the traditional karbonade (a sort of open-faced hamburger, served with fried onions). There is a fireplace inside, and a beer garden for enjoying the sun in summer.
Most lodgings are central, just a short walk from Oslo's main street, Karl Johans Gate. Many are between the Royal Palace and Oslo Central Station. For a quiet stay, choose a hotel in either Frogner or Majorstuen, elegant residential neighborhoods behind the Royal Palace and within walking distance of downtown. A television and phones are in most Oslo hotel rooms, and an Internet connection is found in all but budget hotels. Most hotels in Oslo include either a full or continental breakfast in their rates, and all have no-smoking rooms.
Oslo's cafés, restaurant-bars, and jazz clubs are laid-back and mellow. But if you're ready to party, there are many pulsating, live-rock and dance clubs to choose from. Day or night, people are usually out on Karl Johans Gate, and many clubs and restaurants in the central area stay open until the early hours. Aker Brygge, the wharf area, has many bars and some nightclubs, attracting mostly tourists, couples on first dates, and other people willing to spend extra for the waterfront location. Grünerløkka and Grønland have even more bars, pubs, and cafés catering to a younger crowd. An older crowd ventures out to the less-busy west side of Oslo, to Frogner and Bygdøy.
Drinking out is very expensive, starting at around NKr 70 for a beer or a mixed drink. Many Norwegians save money by having a vorspiel—a "pre-party" at friends' houses before heading out on the town. Some bars in town remain quiet until 11 pm or midnight when the first groups of vorspiel partyers arrive.
At Herr Nilsen, some of Norway's most celebrated jazz artists perform in a stylish space. There's live music several nights a week and jazz on Saturday at 4 pm.
This is one of the most important Nordic clubs for jazz, electronica, hip-hop, and related sounds. The patio, along the Akerselva River, is popular in summer.
Bibliotekbaren og Vinterhaven
If you're more partial to lounging than drinking, the Bibliotekbaren og Vinterhaven (Library Bar and Winter Garden) is a stylish hangout with old-fashioned leather armchairs, huge marble columns, and live piano music. Politicians, actors, musicians, journalists and locals have come here for nearly 100 years for informal meetings, quiet chats, or just to enjoy the tempting sandwich and cake buffet.
Oslo is the best place in the country for buying anything Norwegian. Popular souvenirs include knitwear, wood and ceramic trolls, cheese slicers, boxes with rosemaling, gold and silver jewelry, items made from pewter, smoked salmon, caviar, akvavit, chocolate, and geitost, the sweet brown goat cheese that can be found in just about every Norwegian kitchen.
Established Norwegian brands include Porsgrund porcelain, Hadeland and Magnor glass, David Andersen jewelry, and Husfliden handicrafts (most of which are sold in branches of the Norsk flid crafts chain). You may also want to look for popular, classical, or folk music CDs; English translations of Norwegian books; or clothing by Norwegian designers, such as Moods of Norway.
Prices in Norway, as in all of Scandinavia, are generally much higher than in other European countries. Prices of handmade articles, such as knitwear, are controlled, making comparison shopping pointless. Otherwise, shops have both sales and specials—look for the words salg and tilbud. In addition, if you are a resident of a country other than Norway, Sweden, Finland, or Denmark, you can have the Norwegian Value-Added Tax (mva) refunded at the airport when you leave the country. When you make a purchase, you must clearly state your country of residence in order to have the necessary export document filled in by store staff.
More an amalgam of shops under one roof than a true department store, GlasMagasinet has stores selling handcrafted items made with glass, silver, and pewter. It's opposite the cathedral.
More than a shopping center, essentially a waterside pedestrian paradise, this renovated shipyard is where Oslo hangs out. Open late, it has 60 shops and 35 restaurants.
The elegant Paleet opens up into a grand, marbled atrium and has many high-end clothing, accessories, and food stores—and there's a food court in the basement.
Karl Johans gate, starting at Oslo S (Oslo Central Station) and ending at the Royal Palace, forms the backbone of downtown Oslo. Many major museums and historic buildings lie between the parallel streets of Grensen and Rådhusgata.
West of downtown are Frogner and Majorstuen, high-end residential areas known for fine restaurants, shopping, cafés, galleries, and the Vigeland sculpture park. Southwest is the Bygdøy Peninsula, with a castle and five interesting museums that honor aspects of Norway's taste for maritime exploration.
Northwest of town is Holmenkollen, with its stunning bird's-eye view of the city and the surrounding fjords, a world-famous ski jump and museum, and several historic restaurants. On the more multicultural east side, where a diverse immigrant population lives alongside native Norwegians, are the Munch Museum, Botanisk hage (Botanical Gardens) and Naturhistorisk museum (Museum of Natural History). The trendy neighborhood of Grünerløkka, with lots of cafés and shops, is northeast of the center.
One of the largest open-air museums in Europe, this is a perfect way to see Norway in a day. From the stoic stave church (built in AD 1200) to farmers' houses made of sod, the old buildings here span Norway's regions and most of its recorded history. Indoors, there's a fascinating display of folk costumes. The displays of richly embroidered, colorful bunader (national costumes) from every region includes one set at a Telemark country wedding. The museum also has stunning dragon-style wood carvings from 1550 and some beautiful rosemaling, or decorative painted floral patterns. The traditional costumes of the Sami (Lapp) people of northern Norway are exhibited around one of their tents.
At one end of Karl Johans gate, the vanilla-and-cream-color neoclassical palace was completed in 1848. The equestrian statue out in front is of Karl Johan, King of Sweden and Norway from 1818 to 1844. The palace is only open to the public in summer. Kids of all ages will love the Royal Palace's changing of the guard ceremony, accompanied by the Norwegian Military Band, that takes place daily, rain or shine, at 1:30.
A vast green lung and a favorite hangout for locals, Vigelandsparken has 212 bronze, granite, and wrought-iron sculptures by Gustav Vigeland (1869–1943) as well as ample park space. The 56-foot-high granite Monolith is a column of 121 upward-striving nudes surrounded by 36 groups on circular stairs. The Angry Boy, a bronze of an enranged cherubic child stamping his foot, draws legions of visitors and has been filmed, parodied, painted red, and even stolen. Kids love to climb on the statues. There's also a museum on-site for those wishing to delve deeper into the artist's work.
The Viking legacy in all its glory lives on at this classic Oslo museum. Chances are you'll come away fascinated by the Gokstad, Oseberg, and Tune, three blackened wooden Viking ships that date to AD 800. Discovered in Viking tombs around the Oslo fjords between 1860 and 1904, the boats are the best-preserved Viking ships ever found; they have been on display since the museum's 1957 opening. In Viking times, it was customary to bury the dead with food, drink, useful and decorative objects, and even their horses and dogs. Many of the well-preserved tapestries, household utensils, dragon-style wood carvings, and sledges were found aboard ships. The museum's rounded white walls give the feeling of a burial mound. Avoid summertime crowds by visiting at lunchtime.
Holmenkollbakken og skimuseet
A feat of world-class engineering, this beloved ski jump was first constructed in 1892 and has been rebuilt numerous times, remaining a distinctive part of Oslo's skyline. The cool, futuristic-looking jump you see today was finished in 2010. It offers spectacular views and some repose from Oslo's urbanity, and it still hosts international competitions. The ski-jump simulator puts you in the skis of real jumpers, and the world's oldest ski museum presents 4,000 years of ski history. Check on hours before visiting; they're subject to change, particularly in the fall through spring months.
This redbrick building is best known today for the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize, which takes place here every December. Inside, many museum-quality masterpieces are on the walls. After viewing the frescoes in the Main Hall, walk upstairs to the Banquet Hall to see the royal portraits. Free drop-in guided tours are available. Meet in the main hall for the 45-minute tour at the noted times. To visit the City Hall Gallery, enter harborside. Special exhibits are hung throughout the year. On festive occasions, the Central Hall is illuminated from outside by 60 large spotlights that simulate daylight.
Akershus Festning og Slott
Dating to 1299, this stone medieval castle and royal residence was developed into a fortress armed with cannons by 1592. After that time, it withstood a number of sieges and then fell into decay. It was finally restored in 1899. Summer tours take you through its magnificent halls, the castle church, the royal mausoleum, reception rooms, and banqueting halls. Explore Akershus Fortress on your own with the Fortress Trail Map, which you can pick up at the visitor center or download at www.forsvarsbygg.no/ftp/verneplaner/Akershus_eng%20HQ%20visning.pdf. Note that the castle is closed during official visits, which happen a couple weekends a year.
Edvard Munch, Norway's most famous artist, bequeathed his enormous collection of works (about 1,100 paintings, 3,000 drawings, and 18,000 graphic works) to the city when he died in 1944. The museum is a monument to his artistic genius, housing the largest collection of his works and also mounting changing exhibitions. Munch actually painted four different versions of The Scream, the image for which he's best known, and one of them is on display here. While most of the Munch legend focuses on the artist as a troubled, angst-ridden man, he moved away from that pessimistic and dark approach to more optimistic themes later in his career.
This was the ship used by the legendary Polar explorer Roald Amundsen when be became the first man to reach the South Pole, in December 1911. Once known as the strongest vessel in the world, this enormous Norwegian polar ship has advanced farther north and south than any other surface vessel. Built in 1892, it made three voyages to the Arctic (they were conducted by Fridtjof Nansen and Otto Sverdrup, in addition to Amundsen). Climb on board and peer inside the captain's quarters, which has explorers' sealskin jackets and other relics on display. Surrounding the ship are many artifacts from expeditions.
The museum celebrates Norway's most famous 20th-century explorer. Thor Heyerdahl made a voyage in 1947 from Peru to Polynesia on the Kon-Tiki, a balsa raft, to lend weight to his theory that the first Polynesians came from the Americas. His second craft, the Ra II, was used to test his theory that this sort of boat could have reached the West Indies before Columbus. The museum also has a film room and artifacts from Peru, Polynesia, and the Easter Islands.
The gallery, part of the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, houses Norway's largest collection of art created before 1945. The deep-red Edvard Munch room holds such major paintings as The Dance of Life, one of two existing oil versions of The Scream, and several self-portraits. Classic landscapes by Hans Gude and Adolph Tidemand—including Bridal Voyage on the Hardangerfjord—share space in galleries with other works by major Norwegian artists. The museum also has works by Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Gauguin, as well as contemporary works by 20th-century Nordic artists.
This area was the site of a disused shipbuilding yard until redevelopment saw the addition of residential town houses and a commercial sector. Postmodern steel and glass buildings dominate the skyline now. The area has more than 60 shops and 35 restaurants, including upmarket fashion boutiques, pubs, cinemas, a theater, a comedy club, and a shopping mall. There is an open boulevard for strolling. Service facilities include banks, drugstores, and a parking garage for 1,600.
Oslo's opera house opened in 2008 with a fanfare that included the presence of the Norwegian king and a host of celebrities. The white marble and glass building, designed by renowned Norwegian architect firm Snøhetta, is a stunning addition to the Oslo waterfront, and the pride of Norwegians. It doesn't just look good; accoustics inside the dark oak auditorium are excellent, too. The program includes ballet, orchestra concerts, rock, and opera. Locals and tourists alike enjoy visiting at off hours, eating in the venue's restaurants, and walking on the building's roof.