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.
Top image © krylkar/Shutterstock
Oslo has the range of hotels you would expect of a capital city, though surprisingly few of them are independents – most are chain hotels with Thon and Rica the two big players. The city also has a light smattering of B&Bs and guesthouses plus a trio of youth hostels.
Downtown Oslo boasts a vibrant bar scene, boisterous but generally good-natured and at its most frenetic at summer weekends, when the city is crowded with visitors from all over Norway. There‘s an infinitely groovy string of bars out of the centre too, in the Grünerløkka district. With the city’s bars staying open till the wee hours, Oslo’s nightclubs struggle to make themselves heard – indeed there’s often little distinction between the two – though there is still a reasonably good and varied scene. Live music is not Oslo’s forte, and Norway’s domestic rock and pop is far from inspiring, but jazz fans are well served, with a couple of first-rate venues in the city centre.
At the top end of the market, Oslo possesses several dozen fine restaurants, the most distinctive of which feature Norwegian cuisine and ingredients, especially fresh North Atlantic fish, but also more exotic dishes of elk, caribou and salted-and-dried cod – for centuries Norway’s staple food. There is a reasonable selection of less expensive, non-Scandinavian restaurants too – everything from Italian to Vietnamese. More affordable – and more casual – are the city’s cafés and café-bars. These run the gamut from homely places offering traditional Norwegian stand-bys to student haunts and ultra-trendy joints. Nearly all serve inexpensive lunches, and many offer excellent, competitively priced evening meals as well, though some cafés close at around 5 or 6pm as do the city’s many coffee houses, where coffee is, as you might expect, the main deal alongside maybe a light snack. Finally, those carefully counting the kroner will find it easy to buy bread, fruit, snacks and sandwiches from stalls, supermarkets and kiosks across the city centre, while fast-food joints offering hamburgers and warme pølser (hot dogs) are legion. Smoking is forbidden inside every Norwegian bar, café and restaurant – hence the smoky huddles outside.
The green expanse of Frognerparken (Frogner Park), to the northwest of the city centre, incorporates one of Oslo’s most celebrated and popular cultural targets, the open-air Vigelandsparken. This, along with the nearby museum, commemorates a modern Norwegian sculptor of world renown, Gustav Vigeland (1869–1943), displaying a good proportion of his work, including over two hundred figures in bronze, granite and cast iron. These were all presented to the city in return for favours received by way of a studio and apartment during the years 1921–30. The park is also home to Frogner Manor, which now houses the Oslo Bymuseet.
A country boy, raised on a farm just outside Mandal, on the south coast, Gustav Vigeland began his career as a woodcarver but later, when studying in Paris, he fell under the influence of Rodin, and switched to stone, iron and bronze. He started work on the Vigelandsparken in 1924, and was still working on it when he died almost twenty years later. It’s a literally fantastic concoction, medieval in spirit and complexity, and it was here that Vigeland had the chance to let his imagination run riot. Indeed, when the place was unveiled, many city folk were simply overwhelmed – and no wonder. From the monumental wrought-iron gates on Kirkeveien, the central path takes you to the footbridge over the river and a world of frowning, fighting and posturing bronze figures – the local favourite is Sinnataggen (The Angry Child), who has been rubbed smooth by a thousand hands. Beyond, the central fountain is an enormous bowl representing the burden of life, supported by straining, sinewy bronze Goliaths; a cascade of water tumbles down into a pool flanked by figures engaged in play or talk, or simply resting or standing.
Yet it is the 20m-high obelisk up on the stepped embankment just beyond the central fountain that really takes the breath away. It’s a deeply humanistic work, a writhing mass of sculpture that depicts the cycle of life as Vigeland saw it: a vision of humanity playing, fighting, teaching, loving, eating and sleeping – and clambering on and over each other to reach the top. The granite sculptures grouped around the obelisk are exquisite too, especially the toddlers, little pot-bellied figures who tumble over muscled adults, providing the perfect foil to the real children who crawl all over them, giggling and screaming.
Gustav Vigeland enthusiasts may be interested in the work of the great man’s younger and lesser-known brother, Emanuel Vigeland (1875–1948), a respected artist in his own right. His stained-glass windows can be seen in Oslo’s Domkirke, while the Emanuel Vigeland Museum (Sun only noon–4pm; 40kr;
emanuelvigeland.museum.no), 10km or so northwest of the city centre at Grimelundsveien 8 (T-bane #1 to Slemdal and a 10min walk), has a collection of his frescoes, sculptures, paintings and drawings.
Overlooking the Oslofjord, some 15km west of the city centre in Høvikodden, the Henie-Onstad Kunstsenter (Henie-Onstad Art Centre) is one of Norway’s most prestigious modern art centres. There’s no false modesty here – it’s all about art as an expression of wealth – and the low-slung, modernistic building is a glossy affair located on a handsomely landscaped, wooded headland. The gallery was founded in the 1960s by ice-skater-cum-movie-star Sonja Henie (1910–69) and her third husband, the shipowner-cum-art-collector Niels Onstad. Henie won three Olympic gold medals (1928, 1932 and 1936) and went on to appear in a string of lightweight Hollywood musicals. Many of her accumulated cups and medals are displayed in a room of their own, and they once prompted a critic to remark: “Sonja, you’ll never go broke. All you have to do is hock your trophies.” Despite her successes, Henie was not universally admired – far from it, not least because of her links with the Nazi elite both before and during World War II.
The wealthy couple accumulated an extensive collection of twentieth-century painting and sculpture. Matisse, Miró and Picasso, postwar French abstract painters, Expressionists and modern Norwegians all feature, but these now compete for gallery space with temporary exhibitions of contemporary art, making it impossible to predict what part of the permanent collection will be on display at any one time. After the museum, be sure to spend a little time wandering the surrounding Skulpturparken (Sculpture Park), where you’ll see work by the likes of Henry Moore and Arnold Haukeland; plans of the park are available at reception.
Norway has a well-organized, high-profile body of professional artists whose long-established commitment to encouraging artistic activity throughout the country has brought them respect, as well as state subsidies. In the 1960s, abstract and conceptual artists ruled the roost, but at the end of the 1970s there was a renewed interest in older art styles, particularly Expressionism, Surrealism and Cubism, plus a new emphasis on technique and materials. To a large degree these opposing impulses fused, or at least overlapped, but by the late 1980s several definable movements had emerged. One of the more popular trends was for artists to use beautiful colours to portray disquieting visions, a dissonance favoured by the likes of Knut Rose (1936–2002) and Bjørn Carlsen (b.1945), whose ghoulish Searching in a Dead Zebra has been highly influential. Other artists, the most distinguished of whom is Tore Hansen (b.1949), have developed a naive style. Their paintings, apparently clumsily drawn without thought for composition, are frequently reminiscent of Norwegian folk art, and constitute a highly personal response often drawn from the artist’s subconscious experiences.
Both of these trends embody a sincerity of expression that defines the bulk of contemporary Norwegian art. Whereas the prevailing mood in international art circles encourages detached irony, Norway’s artists characteristically adhere to the view that their role is to interpret, or at least express, the poignant and personal for their audience. An important exception is Bjørn Ransve (b.1944), who creates sophisticated paintings in constantly changing styles, but always focused on the relationship between art and reality. Another exception is the small group of artists, such as Bjørn Sigurd Tufta (b.1956) and Sverre Wylier (b.1953), who have returned to non-figurative Modernism to create works that explore the possibilities of the material, while the content plays no decisive role.
An interest in materials has sparked a variety of experiments, particularly among the country’s artists, whose installations incorporate everyday utensils, natural objects and pictorial art. These installations have developed their own momentum, pushing back the traditional limits of the visual arts in their use of many different media including photography, video, textiles and furniture. Leading an opposing faction is the painter Odd Nerdrum (b.1944), who has long spearheaded the figurative rebellion against the Modernists, though some artists straddle the divide, such as Astrid Løvaas (b.1957) and Kirsten Wagle (b.1956), who work together to produce flower motifs in textiles. The most prominent Norwegian sculptor today is Bergen’s own Bård Breivik (b.1948), who explores the dialogue between nature and humankind. With similarly ambitious intent are the much-lauded installations of Jørgen Craig Lello (b.1978) and the Swede Tobias Arnell (b.1978), who claim to “utilize logically broken trains of thought, false statements and fictional scenarios in their examination of how the world is interpreted and understood”. Good luck to them, then.
From rappers to rock, big-name bands and artists often include Oslo on their tours with many of them appearing at Oslo Spektrum. The most prestigious annual event is Norwegian Wood (wnorwegianwood.no), a five-day, open-air rock festival held in June in the outdoor amphitheatre at Frogner Park, a ten-minute ride from the city centre on tram #12. Previous years have attracted the likes of Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Ringo Starr, The Kinks and Van Morrison, and the festival continues to pull in major international artists, supported by a variety of Norwegian acts. The arena holds around six thousand people, but tickets (around 580kr/day) sell out well in advance.
Oslo also hosts the rather more adventurous Øyafestivalen (woyafestivalen.com), a four-day event held in August that showcases a wide range of artists, mostly Scandinavian but with a string of imports too – Pulp and Kanye West for instance. A club night traditionally kicks the whole thing off in style. The festival takes place in venues across the city with major performances in the open air in Middelalderparken, a large slab of greenery, off Bispegata, a ten-minute walk east from Oslo S – or take tram #18 or #19 from Jernbanetorget. Finally, in early or mid-August, Oslo’s week-long Jazz Festival (woslojazz.no) attracts internationally renowned artists as well as showcasing local talent, who perform at a variety of venues, both inside and out.
Tickets for all three festivals are available from Billettservice (t815 33 133, wbillettservice.no).
There’s no shortage of things to do with young (pre-teen) children in Oslo, beginning with the enchanting, open-air Vigelandsparken and, if the weather is good, the beaches of the Oslofjord islands. In wintertime, ice-skating, tobogganing and horse-drawn sleigh rides (see Oslo with children) are also almost bound to appeal.
Few children will want to be dragged round Oslo’s main museums, except perhaps for the Frammuseet, but there are a couple of museums geared up for youngsters (see Norsk Teknisk Museum). Another bit of good news is that discounts for children are commonplace. Almost all sites and attractions let babies and toddlers in free, and charge half of the adult tariff for children between 4 and 16 years of age. It’s the same on public transport, and hotels are usually very obliging too, adding camp beds of some description to their rooms with the minimum of fuss and expense.
The most popular museum with children is the Norsk Teknisk Museum, at Kjelsåsveien 143 (Technology Museum; late June to late Aug daily 10am–6pm; late Aug to late June Tues–Fri 9am–4pm, Sat & Sun 11am–6pm; 90kr, children 50kr; wtekniskmuseum.no). Out to the north of the city, this is an interactive museum par excellence, equipped with working models and a galaxy of things to push and touch, as well as a café and picnic area. To get there from the city centre, take bus #54 from the Aker Brygge to Kjelsås station alongside the museum.
Rather more creative is the Barnekunstmuseet at Lille Frøens vei 4 (Children’s Art Museum; mid-Jan to late June Tues–Thurs 9.30am–2pm, Sun 11am–4pm; late June to mid-Aug Tues–Thurs & Sun 11am–4pm; mid-Sept to early Dec Tues–Thurs 9.30am–2pm, Sun 11am–4pm; closed mid-Aug to mid-Sept; 60kr, children 40kr; wbarnekunst.no). This has an international collection of children’s art – drawings, paintings, sculpture and handicrafts – along with a children’s workshop where painting, music and dancing are frequent activities; call ahead for details on t22 46 85 73 or check out the website. To reach the museum take the T-bane to Frøen station.
Surrounded by forest and fjord, Oslo is very much an outdoor city, offering a wide range of sports and outdoor pursuits. In summer, locals take to the hills to hike the network of trails that lattice the forests and lakes of the Nordmarka, where many also try their hand at a little freshwater fishing, while others head out to the offshore islets of the Oslofjord to sunbathe and swim. In winter, the cross-country ski routes of the Nordmarka are especially popular, as is downhill skiing. Indeed skiing is such an integral part of winter life here that the T-bane carriages all have ski racks. Every winter, from November to March, a floodlit skating rink, Narvisen, is created in front of the Stortinget, beside Karl Johans gate. Admission is free and you can rent skates on the spot at reasonable rates. The tourist office also has the details of all sorts of other winter fun in the Nordmarka – from tobogganing and horse-drawn sleigh rides to guided winter walks.