May 18 2016
From a towering height of 60 metres, as you gaze down the in-run of the Holmenkollen ski jump in Oslo, one inescapable thought will strike you: ski jumpers are definitely more than a bit mad. Maybe it’s a fascination with a sport that can do serious damage to participants that attracts over a million visitors to the hill each year, making it Norway’s most popular tourist destination. Nonetheless, how many other cities offer such a precipitous – and vertigo inducing – attraction, as well as letting you ascend to the top of it to take in the view?
There’s a curious thing about Oslo – as you find your way around, you wonder why you haven’t been before. Maybe it’s the cost, because you’ll soon discover that the slope of the ski jump isn’t the only thing that’s steep about the Norwegian capital. Its regular appearance in league tables listing the most expensive cities in the world is perhaps enough to deter some visitors but that would be a shame as Oslo is quite rightly earning plaudits as an up and coming popular travel spot.
In any event, is the quality of a holiday to be judged solely on how much it costs? While ‘how far will my money go?’ is a primary consideration for most travellers it’s a fact that New York, London, Sydney and Hong Kong are all among the dearest places on earth to visit. But they’re popular destinations because, despite the outlay, they provide priceless experiences and memories. Can Oslo justifiably claim to be in the same travel league? The answer may surprise you – it’s definitely a location that’s come in from the cold.
Let’s get back to the top of that ski jump though. As you gaze across at the Oslo Fjord from your elevated vantage point it’s possible to take in ‘the blue and the green and the city in between’. It’s a stunning sight, and one that reveals the changes taking place in the city. For years Oslo was very much a low-rise conurbation – there were only a handful of buildings over 100 metres tall. Now, a boom in commercial, retail and residential development has led to a wave of construction that is dramatically changing the skyline.
Fortunately, the emphasis is on the aesthetic, with developments such as the Barcode project in Bjorvika and in Aker Brygge (a former shipyard) leading the way in reviving the city’s waterfronts. The jewel in the crown, and a reason to visit Oslo in its own right, is the spectacular Opera House in the Bjorvika development area. Opened in 2008 its gleaming angled exterior surfaces emerge from the fjord like a giant iceberg. You don’t just look at this 21st century wonder – you can actually walk over its roof to take in yet more panoramic vistas and the floating She Lies sculpture anchored to a platform in the fjord. Inside, the hall is no less aesthetically pleasing with its sweeping marble and oak interiors, ingenious lighting and built-in art installations.
The whole point of the building is to attract people whether they’re going to an opera or ballet performance or not, and on that front it scores as it pulls in almost as many visitors as the ski jump each year. Especially recommended is a backstage tour where you can marvel at the sheer scale of the whole enterprise. If Sydney Opera House helped put the Australian city on the world map this design marvel promises to do the same for Oslo (plus, what would the Aussies give for those state of the art facilities?). Not feeling like taking the aria? Then simply go there for lunch and work it off with a nice overhead stroll afterwards. No crampons required.
Another building to locate for its undoubted wow factor is the Astrup Fearnley Museum at the end of Aker Brygge. The museum is made up of three pavilions residing under a distinctive glass roof shaped like a sail. However, don’t just stand outside and stare – inside you’ll find a significant collection of modern and contemporary art together with rotating exhibitions from international artists. Definitely worth a visit.
One iconic image synonymous with the city of Oslo is the world famous The Scream. Possibly inspired by a tourist discovering the price of a glass of beer – or possibly not – you can actually see the work in two of the city’s galleries – the National Gallery and the dedicated Munch Museum. In fact, Edward Munch created four versions of his masterpiece in both paint and pastels and you can spot the variation in backgrounds and vividness of hues if you compare them. Three of the originals are still in Oslo while the fourth version was sold privately for US$120M in 2012 (even their paintings are expensive). Munch isn’t just about The Scream though – make sure you check out his Madonna, Sun, The Day After and The Dance of Life.
The best bargain (there are some) for the price-conscious visitor has to be the Oslo Pass that not only provides entry to virtually every museum and sight in the city, it also throws in free public transport as well. At 355 Krone (US$40) for one day, or 620 Krone (US$70) for three days, it’s a veritable steal. It comes with a useful app too (Visit Oslo), that many other cities will soon be copying. Although Oslo is compact enough in terms of size you will need to use a bus or a boat to access the museum complex at Bygdoy, and the train to get up to Holmenkollen. Trams are also included in the pass and it’s an easy system to get your head around (honestly!).
You’re going to need a whole day to explore the peninsula of Bygdoy, not least because it’s home to at least six galleries. Here, the country’s seafaring prowess is very much to the fore starting with the Viking Ship Museum that houses three recovered burial boats from around the tenth century. If you close your eyes you can almost picture Kirk Douglas running across the outspread oars. The emphasis of the Fram Museum is very much on polar exploration and details the intrepid exploits of various Norwegian expeditions to the North and the South Poles.
Wackiest of all is the Kon-Tiki Museum that celebrates the exploits of Thor Heyerdahl. Thor and his crew set off from Peru in 1947 aiming to cross the Pacific Ocean in a balsa wood raft to prove his anthropological theories about inter-continental migration. Not many people expected to see them again, but they made it. In the name of science Thor then dreamt up further daring – some said harebrained – schemes including sailing across the Atlantic in a reed boat. It’s the sort of inspired mad genius and Norwegian derring-do that becomes a little clearer when you stand on top of the ski jump slope…
Back in the centre of the city you’re going to get an awful lot more use out of that Oslo Pass. Alfred Nobel ensured that Oslo was put on the world map over a century ago as the home of The Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Peace Centre celebrates the recipients of the Prize since 1901 – it’s fair to say, with hindsight, that some of those names may raise eyebrows now. You decide.
In reputational terms, on much safer ground is renowned playwright Henrik Ibsen (Hedda Gabler, A Doll’s House) who was known as ‘the father of realism’. Ibsen lived in the city for the last fifteen years of his life, eleven of which were spent in an apartment opposite the Royal Palace, that now houses a museum dedicated to him. A guided tour of his preserved living quarters is very much recommended, not least to learn the story of his reported last words: on hearing a nurse inform a visitor that he was feeling a lot better he piped up, ‘On the contrary.’ Realistic to the last.
If Nobel and Ibsen are synonymous with Norway and Oslo, there’s a good chance a visitor to the city may not be as familiar with another favourite son, sculptor Gustav Vigeland (1869 – 1943). That’s an oversight that can – and should – be corrected with a visit to the Vigeland Museum and the adjoining Frogner Park. Here you can view a series of Vigeland’s remarkable works including a 46-feet high monolith, depicting 121 human figures rising to the sky, carved from a single piece of granite. Also look out for his monumental bronze fountain and the comical – and highly popular –Angry Boy statue.
Norway took some time to emerge in the form we recognise the country today. For more than 400 years it was united with Denmark. Then Napoleon intervened in 1814 and ceded Norway to the King of Sweden. Full independence arrived as recently as 1905 and even that was challenged by Nazi occupation between 1940 and 1945. It’s not just sovereignty that’s chopped and changed. Originally called Oslo, King Christian renamed the town Christiana after a fire in 1624 necessitated extensive rebuilding. From 1877, the name was Kristiana before being changed back to Oslo in 1925. Are you keeping up here?
You can discover most of this history by stretching the Oslo Pass again. The medieval Akershus Castle, the Norwegian Resistance Museum, Oslo Cathedral and City Hall all come included in the pass, and are worth a visit. Stortinget, the Norwegian Parliament, also offers free one-hour tours on most Saturdays of the year – it’s free, but you can’t book in advance, and numbers are limited to 30.
As you would expect from a country that owes so much of its wealth to a vibrant fishing trade you can expect to be getting plenty of Omega 3 down you as part of your Norwegian diet. In fact, Restaurant Fjord is reminiscent of the old Monty Python Spam sketch in that it offers cod, cod, cod and cod on its sampler menu. But only in the cod season. How do they manage that, you want to know? Tartare of cod, cod tongue (they have them/they’re big), fried cod roe and baked cod is how. Delicious. Other high-end restaurants in the city offer more varied and expansive menus. Check out Hos Thea, Gamle Raadhus, Feinschmecker, Lofoten and Solsiden.
It’s natural to associate Oslo with winter – all those snow sports – but it’s equally at home in the summer where you can hang out at the Aker Brygge, dining alfresco or taking a glass of wine or two. Or maybe you’d prefer to take a boat trip or pack a picnic to take to the park? But if you go in the summer, you’ll miss the winter weather that so defines the Norwegians. Go anytime it suits you is probably the best answer (but pay particular attention to what clothes you pack).
Joking aside, is it really that expensive to visit Oslo? Well, it’s not cheap, but if you’re looking for somewhere new, different, on the up, and you’re used to paying London and New York prices then the advice is: take the jump.
A version of this article first appeared in Gafencu magazine, May 2016.