No argument, Oslo is one of Europe’s most amenable capitals, a vibrant, self-confident city with a relaxed and easy-going air, its handsome centre set between the rippling waters of the Oslofjord and the green, forested hills of the interior. Yet Oslo’s confidence is new-found: for much of its history, the city was something of a poor relation to the other Scandinavian capitals, Stockholm and Copenhagen especially, and it remained dourly provincial until well into the 1950s. Since then, however, Oslo has transformed itself, forging ahead to become an enterprising and cosmopolitan commercial hub with a population of about half a million. Oslo is also the only major metropolis in a country brimming with small towns and villages – its nearest rival, Bergen, is less than half its size. This gives the city a powerful voice in the political, cultural and economic life of the nation and it’s pulled in all of Norway’s big companies, as a rash of concrete and glass tower blocks testifies.
Fortunately, these monoliths rarely interrupt the stately Neoclassical lines of the late nineteenth-century city centre, Oslo’s most appealing district, a humming, good-natured place whose breezy streets and squares combine these appealing remnants of the city’s early days with a clutch of good museums – in particular the Nasjonalgalleriet (National Gallery) and the Hjemmefrontmuseum (Resistance Museum) – plus dozens of lively bars, cafés and restaurants.
The city’s showpiece museums – most memorably the remarkable Vikingskipshuset (Viking Ships Museum) – are on the Bygdøy peninsula, which is readily reached by ferry from the jetty behind the Rådhus (City Hall). East Oslo is the least prepossessing part of town, a gritty sprawl housing the poorest of the city’s inhabitants, though the recently revived district of Grünerløkka is now home to a slew of fashionable bars and clubs. The main sight on the east side of town is the Munch-museet (Munch Museum), which boasts a superb collection of the artist’s work, though plans are afoot to move the museum to the harbourfront. Northwest Oslo is far more prosperous, with big old houses lining the avenues immediately to the west of the Slottsparken. Beyond is the Frognerparken, a chunk of parkland where the wondrous open-air sculptures of Gustav Vigeland are displayed in the Vigelandsparken. Further west still, beyond the city limits in suburban Høvikodden, the Henie-Onstad Kunstsenter displays more prestigious modern art, enhanced by the museum’s splendid setting on a headland overlooking the Oslofjord.
The city’s enormous reach becomes apparent to the north of the centre in the Nordmarka. This massive forested wilderness, stretching far inland, is patterned by hiking trails and cross-country ski routes. Two T-bane (Tunnelbanen) lines provide ready access, weaving their way up into the rocky hills that herald the region. The more westerly T-bane rolls past Holmenkollen, a ski resort where the skijump makes a crooked finger on Oslo’s skyline, before terminating at Frognerseteren. Here the station is still within the municipal boundaries, but the surrounding forested hills and lakes feel anything but urban. The more easterly T-bane offers less wilderness, but it does end up close to Sognsvannet, a pretty little lake set amid the woods and an ideal place for an easy stroll and/or a picnic.
Oslo curves round the innermost shore of the Oslofjord, whose tapered waters extend for some 100km from the Skagerrak, the choppy channel separating Norway and Sweden from Denmark. As Norwegian fjords go, the Oslofjord is not particularly beautiful – the rocky shores are generally low and unprepossessing – but scores of pretty little islets diversify the seascape. Many of these forested bumps accommodate summer chalets, but several have been protected from development and one of them – Hovedøya – makes for a lovely excursion. By comparison, the towns that trail along the shores of the Oslofjord are of little immediate appeal, being for the most part workaday industrial settlements. The few exceptions include, on the eastern shore, Fredrikstad, Norway’s only surviving fortified town, and on the western shore, the Viking burial mounds of Borre and the holiday resort of Tønsberg.