Follow Rough Guides writer Lucy Pierce as she embarks on an Oslo city break, experiencing the city's sauna scene, tucking into reindeer sausage and uncovering a Norwegian infatuation with electric cars.
After a couple of years of sticking to UK staycations, my friend and I were keen to celebrate her birthday with a trip overseas. With Copenhagen and Stockholm already ticked off, our gaze turned to Oslo. We didn’t know much about the Nordic capital, making it all the more intriguing. I soon discovered that Oslo is often cited as one of the most livable cities in Europe – perfect.
However, it is one of the most expensive cities in the world as well. As expected, the shops promising Scandi-chic fashion and interiors lured me over, but I didn’t dare enter. I could have easily spent a month's rent on one item.
We arrived on a chilly October morning, and the city felt spacious and easily walkable, a welcome change to London. There was plenty of green space and wide cobbled streets – but do pay attention when crossing the road, as you may not hear the faint purr of electric cars.
Oslo has the biggest per capita market for EVs in the world, by miles, and is on track to have electric cars only by 2025. The A-ha moment? The 80’s pop band, famous for their hit single Take on Me, inspired and led the electric car revolution.
After seeing a petrol-converted electric Fiat Panda, they began causing chaos with their first-of-a-kind EV. Driving through tolls, parking illegally and not paying taxes. Why? They claimed sustainable transport should be free from levies.
So, here I was in Oslo, where I saw more Teslas than people.
I’d heard a lot about Norwegian saunas, so my friend and I went to see what all the fuss was about at SALT. A girl in the changing room told me “during lockdown, saunas were one of the few things we could do. So we all started coming here for the sauna dj sessions. Do you have something similar in London?” No, we don’t.
I was baffled at the concept of lounging in my swimsuit, drinking warm cider in a 35 degree sauna and listening to thumping house music, and couldn’t imagine it catching on in Clapham.
It was three degrees outside and I couldn’t wait to get warm. En route to the sauna, we passed wooden barrels filled with water. Steam was rising from the two burly blokes sitting in them, so I asked if it was warm? They laughed, “yeah, it’s boiling”. I stuck my hand in, it was ice cold. I thought they were mad.
After the pyramid-shaped sauna – inspired by wooden racks for hanging up fish – we wandered over to another room. We found ourselves face-on with essential oils being wafted at us with a towel, between ladles of water sizzling on the hot stones.
As the temperature rose, the profuse sweating began and it became difficult to breathe. It was nearly too much, until we were sprayed with cold water on a seaweed maraca-like brush.
I could now see why those mad men were sitting in an ice cold tub, I tried it and almost enjoyed it as my body regulated. I even jumped into the fjord between sweat sessions, it was exhilarating.
As a keen skier, I’ve ogled various Winter Olympics on the TV, but never seen a ski jump in its glory. Holmenkollen is 132m tall, and those looking for a real rush can do a zipline from the jump tower. Holmenkollen museum, included in the OsloPass, is an interesting time frame of Arctic discoveries, the evolution of skiing and the Norwegian Royal Family’s attachment to the sport. As we walked around the base of the jump we saw roller-skiers and heard the pop of gunshots as the locals trained for the biathlon.
We wandered past The Royal Palace, where the day to day of the monarchy is conducted, towards the modern Aker Brygge. The National Museum and Nobel Peace Center are next door to each other and both included on the Oslo Pass. The National Museum spans from history, fashion, design and houses Edvard Munch’s famous painting, The Scream.
The Nobel Peace Center is shocking, warming and eye-opening. Alfred Nobel was nothing short of genius – inventing synthetic rubber, dynamite, leather and many other things – and decided to dedicate his fortune to do-gooders.
Five prizes “for the greatest benefit to mankind” – physics, chemistry, physiology, medicine, literature and peace – would be awarded annually by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. In 2021, the prize money was set at ten million Swedish kroner (nearly 800 thousand pounds). Yet the fund was worth over five billion kroner (393 million pounds) at the end of 2020!
The impressive Vigeland Sculpture Park has more than 200 sculptures of various positions of women, men and children by Gustav Vigeland. The Norwegian sculptor is known for his creative imagination, and also for designing the Nobel Peace medal. The sculptures are set in Frogner Park, which was in all its autumnal glory. The rusty hues bringing colour to an overcast day.
Another must do is walk up and around the slanted roof of the Oslo opera, which is free. It’s beautifully lit up at night, and the view across the fjord is calming.
I am used to London prices, so dinner didn’t feel like that large a jump. Until you want a bottle of wine. I’d heard alcohol was expensive, but I wasn’t expecting the cheapest bottle of wine to be over £60, or a single gin and tonic to be £15. Not quite what my northern friend, who’s birthday it was, was used to.
I asked Osloite Harald why the prices were so steep, he told me: “Alcohol tax was introduced due to Lutheran beliefs and the social problems that came from alcohol abuse. Nowadays, the high tax on alcohol and cigarettes is thought to keep people healthier.”
After mooching around Oslo’s answer to East London – Grünerløkka – in the chill we opted for a warm sandwich at the charming six-table cafe, Løkka Deli. Mine arrived with layers of pastrami, dribbling cheddar and the traditional kraut, giving it a salty twist.
As I regained circulation in my fingers and the condensation from my breath on the window dissipated, I noticed we were next door to the raved about Haralds Vaffel (another Harald!) and kicked myself that I was so full.
Nicknamed the King of waffles in Oslo, Harald initially started selling waffles from his bedroom window in the old town. Word quickly spread, and people travelled across Oslo to his hole in the wall. Rivalling the Belgian waffle, toppings include local brown cheese and ham, as well as saffron, falafel or coconut. I had a nosey at the people eating them and they looked delicious.
As a birthday treat, we tasted Vaghaals eight-course menu that was a journey through Norwegian ingredients. It has been given the nod from Michelin, and is in the modern barcode area. We were seated next to the floor-to-ceiling windows with a view through the looming buildings of the fjord. We started with various breads, dry-aged ham and flavourful chicken liver pâté and a local favourite, dill marinated herrings.
I was delighted to see waffles coming towards us after my post-lunch realisation. Topped with cep and forest mushrooms and deliciously sweet lingonberries – if you’ve been to IKEA, you know.
The grilled cabbage from Toten arrived with a fresh cheese dressing and barbecue sauce in a taste explosion, followed by pan-fried hake from Lofoten with brown butter, turbot emulsion and onion chutney.
The courses kept coming, next was perfectly tender lamb with seasonal vegetables of yellow beets and potatoes. Shutting my eyes to savour the taste, I pictured myself on a trip around Norway eating all these delights again. Obviously we didn’t say no to the chocolate mousse or the petit fours.
Over the weekend, seemingly we gravitated to tasty deer-like sausages, which included a flavourful reindeer sausage at SALT and an enormous moose sausage from a street food van. I have to say, it was a nice change to a Cumberland.
I saw quirky menus at Rorbua of whale meat and reindeer steak, as well as cod tongues, and seagull eggs. While Lorry had fermented trout, half a smoked sheep’s head and reindeer burgers, which I didn’t have quite enough time for.
We stayed at the art-deco Sommerro in the historic neighbourhood of Frogner, which is a short walk to various attractions. The facade and interiors are equally as impressive, with a gold spiral staircase leading you upstairs from the main restaurant. It’s home to Oslo’s first rooftop pool and terrace, with a sauna of course. And, houses a 4,500 square-metre wellness centre, five restaurants, three bars and a 100-seat gilded theatre.
Our room was spacious with parquet floors and a plump wine-red sofa at the foot of the four-poster. Every little detail has been finessed from remote-controlled shutters to a retro Marshall bluetooth speaker and a vintage dial-up phone, as well as a kind birthday card and chocolates for my friend!
Not to mention the breakfast that had everything you could possibly dream of, including the best pecan pie I’ve ever tried.
Fly to Oslo with British Airways or Norwegian, from £43. The Oslo Pass (£38 for 24h) gives free admission to 30 sights and museums as well as unlimited travel on public transport. Stay at the Sommerro (rooms start from £250 per night), including breakfast.
Find out more about Oslo or in our Norway guidebook here.
Lucy looks after the Rough Guides social media and is a freelance travel writer specialising in adventure travel, culture and lifestyle. You can follow her on Twitter @LucyPierce