As far as capitals go, Oslo is easily one of the most vibrant and colourful that you
As far as capitals go, Oslo is easily one of the most vibrant and colourful that youcan find. Although most people travel to Norway to get to the fjords on its west coast or to travel north for a taste of the Arctic, they have to fly into Oslo anyway (in the south), so it’s worth spending a couple, or more, days here, acquainting yourself with the city.
Although the city of Oslo was founded in 1048 by King Harald Hardråde, what you see today is no older than the year 1624, when a massive fire destroyed pretty much all of the medieval city. All that remains of its hoary past are the ruins of some churches, street names and some historical pastures that have been converted into parks. Medieval Oslo was the capital of Norway till the fourteenth century, when it became a subordinate city and lost its capital status under the almost 500-year-long Danish-Norwegian union. Renamed Christiana, after the Danish monarch Christian IV, the new city continued to be called that until as late as 1925, when it was officially renamed Oslo. Today, the city is an aesthetic mix of modernist architecture and sumptuous open spaces.
Getting your bearings
Oslo is a large but compact city, and a pretty one to boot. The focus of the city is the Oslo fjord and all its public spaces and the city centre face it. In a curious amphitheatre effect, the rest of the city, including the residential areas, is located in the hills that surround the fjord. But that’s not all. Barely a half hour’s drive from the city will land you in thickly forested hills that are a part of Norway’s wolf reserve. Reflecting this singular mix of the urban and the wild, Oslo is a fun city. And unlike many other European countries, most Norwegians speak, or at least understand, English, so communicating is not an issue.
Getting around is not a problem either. The city’s mass transport systems are top class and to explore the city, all you have to do is hop onto any of the many bus lines, trams and the metro system, called the Tunnelbane or T-bane in short. As most of the accommodation in the city is located around the Oslo fjord the best way to get under the skin of the city is to walk or rent a bike.
Like its sister Scandinavian countries Finland, Sweden and Denmark, Norway prides itself on its socialist politics and welfare state. Fuelled largely by its massive oil industry and a big fisheries industry, Norway is a wealthy country with a strong currency (the country uses the Norwegian Kroner or NOK and not Euro; NOK 1 = Rs 9), and most things are expensive. But, thanks to the economic model of high taxes and high government spending on essential services, a large number of public utilities and sites are either free or heavily subsidized. It may still pinch your pocket, but the best way to deal with it is to get hold of the Oslo Pass (NOK 395 for adults for the 48-hours pass) which you can buy at the Ruter’s information desk at the airport. The pass comes with a handy booklet of attractions and the best way to reach them. Many hotels and hostels also sell the pass. It gives you free entry to over 30 museums and attractions, as well as free travel on all public transport, walking tours and discounts at restaurants, shops, entertainment and leisure venues.
What to see & do
Oslo is an overwhelmingly museum city. Although the city’s museums are not packed to bursting with the kind of treasures you find in Paris or London, it still has a fair number of these, and then some quirky ones. So start your museum hop with the most ponderous of the lot, the National Gallery (Nasjonalgaleriet) (+47-21982000, nasjonalmuseet.no). Housed in a palatial brownstone from 1880, the gallery is divided into several sections that focus on Norwegian art and place it in the context of the larger European art traditions. The first floor houses the gallery’s permanent exhibit, divided into early medieval, Renaissance and modern periods. Here you can see such classics as Pablo Picasso’s Guitar and Glass, Albert Marquet’s Dark Nude, Amedeo Modigliani’s Potrait de Madame Zborowska, Claude Monet’s Spring by the Seine, and a Van Gogh Self Portrait. The Renaissance section has a recently discovered sketch by Peter Paul Rubens as well as El Greco’s St Peter Repentant and Francisco Goya’s Potrait of a Picador, among others. However, the centerpiece of the gallery is the heavily guarded Edvard Munch collection, containing such classics as The Scream and Madonna. The gallery also has an extensive sculpture collection and a large book and souvenir shop.
In Norway, Vikings and trolls dominate the national imagination, so definitely head to the Viking Ship Museum (22125280, khm.uio.no) for a crash course in Viking history and culture and also to see two of the best preserved wooden Viking ships from the ninth century. This includes the richly carved Osberg ship which was excavated in 1903 from a burial mound in western Norway. Used as a burial ship for two prosperous women back in AD 834, you can also see the various gifts that the ladies were buried with including clothes, combs, kitchen and ship equipment, beds and tents. There are other excavated items from Viking tombs around the Oslo fjord. You can make it a quick visit, as it’s only about five kilometres from the city centre and well connected by ferries and buses.
For the offbeat, you cannot beat the Mini Bottle Gallery (23357960, minibottlegallery.com). A one-of-a-kind museum devoted to a collection of 53,000 bottles, this three-storey building displays these in 50 different installations. These bottles are stuffed with anything from fruits and berries to worms and even mice. The displays themselves are quite something, ranging from a brothel room to a horror room. The collection belongs to a local brewery baron, so many of the bottles come full of various liquors and beers. It’s quite puerile, and also fun.
From the ridiculous to the sombre, the ruins of the medieval Hovedøya Monastery just off the coast of Oslo are a fairly popular destination, and definitely worth a visit. Situated on a pretty, green island renowned for its flowers, biodiversity and rich geological history, it’s also a popular spot for a swim and a picnic. Easily connected by ferries from Vippetangen in downtown Oslo, the ruins are of an English Cisterian monastery that was built by the Abbot Philippus in the twelfth century. Looted and burnt down in the sixteenth century, this island is now a natural preserve. The views are lovely, and the food delicious.
Norwegians are outdoorsy by nature and they love their public spaces. In the summer, you’ll find them playing games, walking around, or simply lounging in the sun for hours on end. These are great places to get to know the people, who’re friendly and always eager for a chat. One such space is the green oasis of the Botanical Garden (nhm.uio.no). Designed as an arboretum, it houses over 7,000 different plant species, as well as a delightful rock garden. Of particular interest is the Scented Garden that is specially arranged for the visually impaired and wheelchair users. Hang out in the local café, or go for hikes in a specially designated section.
The city centre, or Sentrum, stretching from roughly the train station, past the National Theatre to the Palace grounds is the heart of the city, buzzing with life. Shops, restaurants, small nurseries and cafés dot the area, especially around the Karl Johans Gate. You’ll find impromptu open-air concerts, graffiti artists, buskers, the odd celebrity chased by screaming fans (the Norwegians love their pop culture), and plenty of kiosks to hang out in with a bottle of local beer.
Another great neighbourhood is Grünerløkka, north of the city centre across the Akerselva river. It is the final word for Oslo nightlife. Filled to the brim with Norwegian design shops, cafés and clubs with excellent live music, you can’t ask for a better place to spend your evening. Try Mir (lufthavana.no) for indie, Kaos (cafekaos.no) for electronica, Fru Hagen (fruhagen.no) for the best DJs or Blå (blaaoslo.no) for the jazz.
Where to eat
Norway has plenty of great restaurants and bars, so there’s much to keep you busy. They range from the expensive to the fairly cheap, and the Oslo Pass gets you good discounts in some. For starters, definitely visit the elegant Engebret Café (22822525, engebret-cafe.no) in leafy Bankplassen. It’s actually a full-fledged restaurant where you’ll get possibly the best authentic Norwegian cuisine in the city. Dating back to 1857, when it served the lively theatre community in the area, this was one of the favourite haunts of the playwright Henrik Ibsen as well as that of Edvard Munch. Tastefully decorated with wood panelling and boasting of a fine collection of fish and game (try the fish stew and the reindeer fillet) along with excellent beer and wine, it’s essential that you have at least one meal here.
Grünerløkka has some of the best restaurants in the city, especially the Bistro Brocante (22356871, bistrobrocante.no) which serves some delectable ‘home-cooked’ French cuisine. It has a great outdoor area to soak up the sun and watch the hipsters while you eat. On Fridays and Saturdays, the restaurant doesn’t shut as long as there are patrons. Fru Hagen, Oslo’s original hip bar, has delicious sandwiches, soups, salads and burgers. The neighbourhood is also a good place to quench your thirst, with the tiny Bar Boca serving great beers on the cheap on five tightly packed communal drinking tables. The basement of the old Schous brewery now houses the Schous Kjelleren (21383930, schouskjelleren.no) micro-brewery, where you can sample some great self-brewed beer. Also check out Mathallen, a collection of small food stalls and fresh produce stores.
Elsewhere, head over to the Sanguine Brasserie (21422142, sanguinebrasserie.no), a great open-air restaurant located at the Opera House situated at the mouth of the Oslo fjord. The building is renowned for its singular architecture and for great views of the fjord and Bjørvika.
Just below the historic Akerhus Fortress, is the Solsiden Restaurant (22333630, solsiden.no) where you get the best seafood in Oslo. Choose from live lobster tanks, gorge on scallops, oysters, salmon or monkfish and enjoy the sunset.
Where to stay
Oslo has a wealth of places to choose from to put up for the night. The most grand is, of course, the beautiful Grand Hotel (from NOK 3,987; +47-23212200, grand.no) on Karl Johans Gate, home to visiting royalty and celebrities. With 292 rooms and 54 suites, stay here in style. The Thon group has 15 hotels in Oslo catering to different budgets. The most budget-friendly is the centrally located Thon Hotel Astoria (from NOK 550; +47-24145550, thonhotels.com). Another centrally located option is the charming Cochs Pensjonat (from NOK 600; +47-23332410, cochspensjonat.no). About nine kilometres from the city centre in the beautiful Nordmarka wilderness area is the Bogstad lake. At Bogstad Camping (from NOK 185, 22510800; bogstadcamping.no) you can stay in a caravan, in tents or in motor homes.