The circle of life seems to surround you in Oslo. It’s most manifest in the series of sculptures at the centre of Vigeland Sculpture Park, where figures of humans from birth to death create an eternal ring representing nature’s way of taking and giving back life to Earth. Look closely and you will see this circle in the paintings of Edvard Munch, and much more obviously in the lush forests and wooded hills just a few miles from the city centre. You can even trace it on the plates of its best restaurants — with food reflecting the time of year and the nation’s natural larder.
With short days in winter and long, light nights in summer, Oslo wears a different cloak according to four very distinct seasons. It’s a place to experience hygge (Scandi for ‘hug’, but really meaning ‘embracing all things cosy’) in its warm nooks and crannies when it is cold, and in warmer months its wide-open spaces are the perfect place to bask in the glory of almost endless days.
Skirting the bay of the Oslo Fjord area, much of the city is at the water’s edge, from the vibrant, newly regenerated district of Tjuvholmen, to the magnificent Akershus Fortess, a medieval castle built to protect the capital of Norway.
The Oslo Radhus (town hall) in the downtown Pipervika neighbourhood houses the city council, art studios and galleries. It’s a glorious, almost Brutalist structure, its brick facade decorated with historical themes, combining national romanticism with modern ideas. Home to the annual Nobel Peace Prize Award Ceremony, it has a 49-bell carillon, which marks the passage of time by playing an eclectic range of music, from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons to Bowie’s Changes.
Oslo may be steeped in history but it’s also a funky, happening city. Groovy Grünerløkka is home to great bars and restaurants and fabulous vintage shops, while the once industry-heavy riverbank area known as Vulkan has been spruced up and is now a magnet for foodies, with restaurants, cafes and the Mathallen Food Hall.
Yes, Oslo can be pricey, but it’s a city that can still be enjoyed by those of slender means, not least by avoiding (extortionately-priced) alcohol. Buy an Oslo Pass (490 NOK/£44 for 48 hours) and the city’s 30-odd museums will be free to enter, along with pools and other attractions, plus you get free bus and train transport.
What to see & do
Ibsen Museum: Visit the home where Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen spent the last 11 years of his life.
Munch Museum: Home to over half of Edvard Munch’s art plus changing exhibitions linking artists and photographers with Munch. If the museum’s The Scream is ‘resting’, see one of Munch’s four versions of the painting on permanent display at the National Gallery in the city centre.
Norway’s Resistance Museum: As well as celebrating those who fought against the Nasjonal Samling (Norwegian fascist party), this museum addresses uncomfortable questions about Norway’s past during Nazi occupation.
Nobel Peace Center: Celebrating Nobel Peace Prize winners and telling the story of Alfred Nobel and the prize itself. There are also changing exhibitions, often related to war and peace and conflict resolution.
Moods of Norway: With a tractor as its logo, this company makes ‘happy clothes for happy people’, all with a Norsk twist.
House of Oslo: A chic interiors shop with a cool Scandi aesthetic. There are stylish clothes and jewellery outlets too, plus a cafe, supermarket, florist and sports shop.
Eger Karl Johan: Upmarket department store full of global brands.
Mathallen Food Hall: Stock up on smoked salmon, brown cheese and other local produce, then try some bites from the many street food stalls.
Crowbar: Located in very hip Torggata, in central Oslo, this is the place to taste locally produced beer, as well as a big range of outsiders. Like the rest of Oslo, alcohol is expensive, but flights of the brews are available and worth sharing if you’re on a budget. T: 00 47 21 38 67 57.
Fuglen: A coffee bar during the day, a speakeasy-style cocktail bar by night, this happening joint serves up its own mix of tipples, including a white horse and a ginger daiquiri. It’s also a design shop, selling Scandi vintage — almost everything you see is available to buy.
Like a local
Sørenga: Take a swim at Sørenga, where you’ll find a large seawater pool in the fjord. Just east of the opera house, this former container port has been developed into a chic residential area with a floating park at its centre.
Rådhusbrygge 3: Early in the morning head to Rådhusbrygge 3, pier number three, behind City Hall to watch fishermen bring in their catch, hauled from the Oslo Fjord. From 7am, they sell fresh fish straight from the boat but it’s also possible to buy boiled shrimp and eat them by the quayside.
Where to eat
££ Fru K: Local, fresh and seasonal ingredients are cooked with a Norwegian twist at this restaurant located inside hotel The Thief. Go for the five-course chef’s tasting menu for around £46. Try the beautiful turbot soup with pickled apple followed by fallow deer with cabbage, pumpkin and thyme.
£££ Maaemo: With a trio of Michelin stars to its name, this restaurant is a mecca for international foodies who flock here for its 26-course tasting menu. Scallops, mahogany clams fished in Nordskot, langoustine from Midsund, Norwegian cod and smoked reindeer are all likely to feature, depending on the season. On our visit the langoustine came glazed with pine and cold-pressed rapeseed and was utterly astonishing.
Where to stay
££ Thon Hotel Rosenkrantz Oslo: By no means a looker f rom the outside but inside a redesign has given it a welcome boutique-y feel. Centrally located, just a short walk from the train station and sights such as National Gallery, the Royal Palace and Akershus Fortress.
£££ The Thief: This stylish five-star design hotel is packed to the rafters with works by big-name modern artists — Julian Opie, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, among others. Rooms have their own art pieces, suites have been curated by artists and you can buy some of what you see. Located by the water at Tjuvholmen, it also boasts a fabulous spa.
Getting there & around
Norwegian Air flies to Oslo from Gatwick, Edinburgh and Manchester. Scandinavian Airlines, British Airways and Finnair fly from Heathrow, while Ryanair will fly from Stansted from 30 October.
The Flytoget Airport Express Train reaches central Oslo in 19 minutes, £14 one way. The Oslo pass is sold in cards of either 24, 48 or 72 hours, giving free public transport plus entry to many attractions and museums. Available as an app.
When to go
There’s really no bad time to go to Oslo, although the long, light summer nights are particularly glorious, while the winter is very cold, with an average temperature of -3C.
How to do it
Taber Holidays offers a three-night luxury break to Oslo from £1,195 per person, including flights from Heathrow to Oslo, private transfers by Mercedes to and from The Thief, accommodation with breakfast, a five-course gourmet meal with a selection of wine, complimentary entry to the hotel’s spa and unlimited entry to the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art.
Published in the September 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)