Think Norway and images of expensive beer, amazing fjords and blue eyed blond Viking folk generally come to mind. Though not far from wrong, stereotyping Norway and Oslo in particular can lead to srprises.
Norway has long left it’s past as a predominantly agricultural and fishing nation and emerged over the last three decades as an oil producing economic power house, known for it’s socially progressive laws, marine engineering, high taxes and newly found status as one of the richest nations in the world. With an increasingly cosmopolitan population of less than six million, magnificently preserved forests and the second longest coastline on the globe (second only to Canada) one is easily led to believe that there must be countless opportunities for development in this Scandinavian nation. Oslo is the capital and a good place to start exploring.
Positioned at the deepest end of the narrow Oslofjorden bay that cuts into the mainland from the Skagerrak Strait, Oslo is home to around sixhundredthousand people and can be reached by ferry from Denmark or Germany or buy road and rail passing through Sweden. It goes without saying that a Scandinavian Airways flight is the easiest way tof reaching the Norwegian capital from anywhere in Europe and beyond. Gardermoen Airport has a welcoming, cosy appeal with wooden floors and cladding that comforts the visitor as soon as he or she steps off the plane. An efficient rail link then connects the airport with down town Oslo in less than a thirty minutes.
What made an impression on me on arrival though were the prices advertised at the airport’s eateries. A simple croissant sold for the better part of 5€, a cappuccino for over 4€. Sandwiches for 10€ and a slice of cold pizza for around 15€. Dare I mention beer for over 12€? A chilling welcome to Scandinavia and just a taste of things to come.
What to do in Oslo for a couple of days during the cold Winter months? What’s not to be missed? Where to stay and where to hang out? Here are some suggestions.
Where to stay
With limited time to explore Oslo it makes sense to find accommodation as close to the town centre as possible. Anywhere around Karl Johans Gate is a good choice for easy access to public transport, shops, bars and restarants. The harbour is a convenient five minute walk away and is the starting point for cruises and ferries to the Oslofjorden islands and beyond. Options for accommodation around Johannes Gate include pricy hotels, affordable Air B&Bs and cheaper “Pensjonat” guest houses. Unfortunately there are youth hostels available as of 2018.
I stayed at the mid tier Bondeheimen Hotel based mostly on the encouraging reviews I read about the breakfast buffet served here in the mornings. I was not disappointed. My room was clean, with underfloor heating, quiet and comfortable. The hotel’s location was great, the service friendly and of course breakfast totally to my satisfaction.
What not to miss
Gustav Vigeland is perhaps Norway’s most prominent artist of recent times. Known as an exceptionally prolific sculptor Vigeland is also responsible for the design of the Nobel peace prize medal which has remained unchanged since it was first minted in 1902.
Frogner Park is an open air display of some of Vigeland’s work. It’s free of charge, always open and well maintained and can be easily reached the town centre by metro or tram.
The granite and bronze figures exposed date back to the early years of the last century and have an appealing, essential, minimalist style to them which was typical of those years. The statues are all part of a common theme i.e. the transition we all go through during our lives; from infancy to adolescence and then from adulthood to old age. Our joys and struggles are masterfully and entertainingly represented in the artist’s full size human figures with their emotionally charged poses. It’s hard not recognise yourself in some of the shapes on show.
Centrepiece in the park is the granite monolith that towers perhaps some fifteen meters tall. The carvings on the rock once again tell the story of life’s cycle: birth, family, love, work, struggle, joy… it’s all in there.
Considered by most Oslovians as their back yard, Holmenkollen is really just a 340m high hill on the north western fringes of the Norwegian capital. Come the winter snow however, and the festive season too, Holmenkollen is a hotspot for winter sport enthusiasts from near and far. It’s easily reached from the town centre by metro ( line 1 ) and it’s not unusual during the colder months to find masses of Oslo folk commuting by rail to this place with skiing cloths and equipment in hand to enjoy the outdoors. It’s also tradition for the Norwegian Royal Family to spend Christmas at Holmenkollen at their Royal Villa and sometimes mingle with the crowds as well.
There’s over two thousand kilometres of cross country skiing tracks around Oslo, ninety kilometres of which are lit for late night skiing enthusiasts with cabins to cater for food and overnight stays. It goes without saying that cross country skiing is Norway’s national sport, a speciality in which the country excels and generally dominates Winter Olympics as well with over 120 gold medals to the Norwegian’s credit so far.
Due to the magnificent skiing infrastructure Holmenkollen is often the venue for international skiing events. However, the most prominent feature of this outdoor sports haven is the “Holmenkollbakken”, the massive ski jump that dominates the skyline towards the summit of the hill.
There has always been a Holmenkollbakken since 1892 with new designs (19 so far) successively replacing older ones throughout the years. The current version was completed in 2010, towers at 134m above the ground and has the capacity for over sixty thousand spectators. Ski jumpers who have braved the Holmenkollbakken have achieved leaps over 140m long.
But if skiing is not your thing then just the views from the Holmenkollen are worth the trip to the hill alone. Beautiful vistas of Oslo and the Oslofjorden at sunset can be admired while slowly sipping a mug of hot Glögg, the local mulled wine sold for no less than 10€ a serving.
-Olso City Hall
Definitely an odd looking building, the Oslo City Hall is of course the seat of city’s administration. However, it deserves a mention for it’s stunning inside decor and for also being the venue for the Nobel prize award ceremony that takes place every year. There’s plenty of marble to admire and the decorative paintings by artists Sørensen and Rolfsen in the huge Main Hall contains some interesting highlights of Norway’s twentieth century history.
-Oslo Opera House
Angularand deceptively small the opera house is a prize winning architectural marvel that can be found at eastern end of Oslo harbour no more than a twenty minute walk from the City Hall.
Beautifully clad in steel and Italian Carrara marble the building hosts the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet organisation. The interior of the building has plenty of wood on display on floors, walls and ceilings as well as some inspiring use of metal and plastic decor. It’s an interesting piece of architecture worth exploring.
-Viking Ship Museum
There are someextraordinary, beautifully restored viking vessels that date back to around 800 AD on display at the Oslo Ship Museum. The boats were recovered from old burial sights after being used as tombs for what are believed to have been people of rank within the viking communities. The precision with which the boats were crafted is exceptional and the work put into restoring them for public display is superb.
What to eat
Reindeer burger might not appeal to some but to the carnivores out there (including myself) it’s a definite must. Tasty, tender and nutritious one of these bad boys fills you up satisfying for several hours. Reindeer burgers are particularly popular around Christmas time and are easily found at the open air Christmas market. Be prepared to spend around 15€ for the privilege though (drink included).
Where to chill
An easy stroll heading east along Karl Johans Gate towards Oslo central rail station takes you through the town’s main shopping district with the usual display glitzy high end fashion boutiques. There are also at least a couple venues worth exploring here. The Scotsman Pub (link) is pleasant and buzzes in the evenings with a healthy mix of locals and tourists from all over the globe. There a shuffleboards (which seems to be a favourite amongst Norwegians), and a band or a DJ on some nights along with English speaking staff. Drinks as usual, are extortionately expensive. Anything with alcohol will set you back by at least 10€ if not more.
Just around the corner from the Scotsman’s there’s “The Club” the aptly named venue for those in the mood for a bit of a boogie. Queues here can be long but the music continues all night til 3am.
Another great spot worth checking out is Andy’s Pub ( Stortingsgata 8,) close to the Grand Hotel. Live music from a grand piano and capable pianist, some keen would be half drunken singers make this place ideal for a late night laugh. Drinks still way above 10€.
So, to sum it up:
If you can put the aside the steep prices for food and drink, Oslo makes a great city break. There’s an international environment and people are generally friendly and welcoming. The city is clean and public transport efficient.
December however, temperatures are constantly below freezing and the streets are caked with ice and snow. You need to be careful if you want to avoid slips and trips. Contrary to popular belief, there’s enough sun light during the day (five to six hours) to enjoy the outdoor sights. If you’re into skiing then you can also enjoy the Holmenkollen pistes after dark with plenty of like minded folk, too.
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