By Jim Ferri
If you’ve never visited Oslo, or if you haven’t visited it in the past decade or two, you’ll find it to be one of the more interesting cities in Northern Europe.
Many travelers, myself included, found it to be rather ho-hum in the past, since it couldn’t match the svelte and beauty of Stockholm or the charm of Copenhagen.
All that has changed: today’s Oslo is modern and captivating. Credit it all to the North Sea, where Norway has gleaned gazillions from the oil harvested from the depths, some of it making it’s way to the capital and transforming it into a charming city.
It’s a city well worth visiting. And given the rising value of the dollar, prices in Oslo have moderated, making it more within reach of many American travelers.
It’s time to give it a try. Here are some of the top things to see on a visit.
The Spectacular Oslo Opera House
The most visible fragment of this rebirth is the spectacular Oslo Opera House, home of The Norwegian National Opera and Ballet. Often compared to an iceberg for the way its jagged shape seemingly rises up out of the water, its long sloping roof, up which you can walk, provides a spot for beautiful views over the harbor and the city.
From this rooftop perch look across the harbor and to your left you’ll see another iceberg floating nearby, a mass of glass anchored to the fjord, looking as if it just drifted in. To the right is an architectural project known locally as the “Barcode Buildings,” a row of office and residential units reminiscence of the stripes on a barcode.
Straight ahead across the harbor is Aker Brygge, a former shipyard that’s been transformed into a hip and attractive car-free area filled with shops, restaurants and cafés. Anchored to it by a small bridge is Tjunholmen, the city’s newest glittering borough. Once an industrial area, it’s composed of two small islands that are now chockablock with galleries, restaurants and Oslo’s Museum of Modern Art.
As you look about you’ll find it hard to believe the city has more than 600,000 residents. That’s because it’s spread out over an expanse four times the area of Paris with a huge amount of green space throughout it. “Blue and green with the city in between,” say the tour guides, referring to the blue fjord and the green forests that surround the Norwegian capital.
The Grand Hotel, Site of the Nobel Peace Prize Banquet
Oslo is a walking city and the opera house is only a five-minute walk from Central Station. From there in about 15 minutes you can walk in a straight line up Karl Johans Gate, the city’s Champs-Élysées, to the Royal Palace. Go after lunch and you can see the changing of the guard at 1:30 PM.
Take a leisurely walk back up Karl Johans Gate to the Grand Hotel, a beautiful Old-World style hotel where every year on December 10 the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate is accommodated and the annual Nobel Banquet is held. The City Hall, where the Peace Prize is awarded, is back down on the harbor.
Instead of continuing on to City Hall hop aboard tram #12 to the incredible Vigeland Park, a monumental sculpture park and the most popular attraction in Norway. There are 212 life-size sculptures in the park, all created by Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland. The nude sculptures show the breath of humanity in all stages of life with the center of it all a 50-foot-tall monolith carved from a single rock.
The sculpture park is actually part of Frogner Park, and visiting it is a wonderful experience, a great place just to wander around for a few hours. And it’s not just for those interested in sculpture; walk about making your personal interpretation of what each of the statues represents, judging them by the expressions on their faces. It’s fascinating.
Four Museums on the Bygdøy Peninsula
From the park take the #30 bus out to Bygdøy Peninsula,” a museum-loaded spit of land on the far side of the harbor that holds four of the city’s popular museums.
Stop first at the Norsk Folkemuseum (aka the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History), an outdoor museum with more than 150 buildings from all over Norway including houses, barns, storehouses and a 13th-century stave church. If you’re interested in outdoor museums you could easily spend the whole day here, but there are three others – the Viking Ship Museum, Kon-Tiki, and Fram Museums – you’ll want to see, so watch your time.
Continue on to the popular Viking Ship Museum, which you can mistake for a church if you’re not aware of the stop. It’s a spectacular little museum and the closest you’ll ever get to the ancient Vikings. Step inside and you’ll find three 9th-century Viking longships, all unearthed from burial mounds in Norway. Along with the ships are funeral offerings found on the vessels including chests, tapestries and ceremonial sleighs.
When you leave take the bus to the end of the line, another five minutes down the peninsula to the the Kon-Tiki Museum, dedicated to the famous Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl. It’s quite interesting to look at the fragile-looking papyrus and balsa-wood vessels that Heyerdahl constructed and used to sail across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, to demonstrate how contact was possible between ancient civilizations on different continents.
Across the road is the Fram Museum, which gives you a first-hand look as to how Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen made his epic 1911 journey to the South Pole. The dull white and blue lighting in the museum almost makes you feel as though you’re sailing in the Artic.
The Nobel Peace Center and More Museums
Once outside the museum, instead of taking the bus back downtown, opt for the 10-minute ride on a small ferry across the harbor. It docks right near City Hall and the Nobel Peace Center, the latter a fascinating place that hosts a permanent exhibition as well as changing ones.
If you turn right when you walk out of the Center you’ll be walking back through Aker Brygge towards Tjunholmen. Wander along the boardwalk here and admire the area, or stop in one of the many cafés for a quick bite. Then continue walking up the boardwalk to the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art (Warhol, Jeff Koons, Nauman, Sherman, etc.) in its spectacular home in Tjunholmen.
If you’re interested in other museums you’ll find the country’s largest collection of art at the National Gallery (works by Edvard Munch, El Greco, Matisse and a pallete of others). You can see Munch’s famous “The Scream” here, as well as at the Munch Museum (since he created several versions of the famous painting) as well as more than 1,000 other pieces of his works. Back near City Hall the Stenersen Museum displays a collection of Norwegian art from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries.
If you go:
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