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 this way 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, its vast territory and coastline, its wealth in minerals (titanium, copper) and magnificently preserved forests, one can be easily led to believe that this is a land of countless opportunities. Oslo is the capital of Norway and a good place to start exploring.
Positioned at the furthest end of the narrow Oslofjorden bay that feeds from the Skagerrak Strait, Oslo is home to around six hundred thousand people and can be reached by ferry from Denmark and Germany or buy road and rail passing through Sweden. Flying of course, is the easiest way to reach the Norwegian capital and a Scandinavian Airways flight will get you there from any major city in European and from beyond.
Gardermoen Airport is welcoming, cosy and pleasant with wooden floors and paneling that are typical reflection of local decor. It’s a an interesting place to hang in and there’s an efficient rail link to down town Oslo (less than thirty minutes).
What makes an immediate impression on arrival though are the prices advertised at the airport’s eateries. A simple croissant is 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 for sure and just a taste of things to come.
What to do if you’re stuck 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 restaurants. It’s also at a convenient five minute walk from the harbour which is the starting point of cruises and ferries rides 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 I found no youth hostels available as of 2018.
I chose to stay 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, always open, well maintained and can be reached easily by metro or tram from the town centre.
The granite and bronze figures exposed in the Park date back to the early years of the last century and have an essential, minimalist style to them which I found quite appealing. 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 our struggles are masterfully and entertainingly told by the artist’s full size human figures and their emotionally charged poses. It’s hard not recognise yourself in some of the statues on show.
Centrepiece in the park is Vigeland’s granite monolith that towers around 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 just a small hill (340m) on the north western fringes of the Norwegian capital. Come the winter snow however, and the festive season too, Holmenkollen transforms into a hotspot for winter sport enthusiasts from near and far.
There are over two thousand kilometres of cross country skiing tracks around Oslo, ninety kilometres of which are lit for late night skiing with cabins to cater for food and overnight stays. Some of these make Holmenkollen part of their route and easy starting point. Cross country skiing is Norway’s national sport, a speciality in which the country excels at and generally dominates the Winter Olympics with over 120 gold medals to the nation’s credit.
Holmenkollen is easily reached from Oslo 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 suits and skis in hand ready 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.
However, the most prominent feature to be found at Holmenkollen is the “Holmenkollbakken”, a massive ski jump that dominates the skyline at 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 ground and has enough space for over sixty thousand spectators. Ski jumpers come here to train from all over Europe and beyond and some have achieved leaps over 140m in length.
But if skiing is not your thing then just the views from Holmenkollen are worth the trip to the hill alone. Beautiful vistas of Oslo and the Oslofjorden at sunset can be admired from here while slowly sipping a mug of hot Glögg, the local mulled wine sold for no less than 10€ a cup.
-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 its stunning inside decor and also for being the venue of the Nobel prize award ceremony that takes place here every year. There’s plenty of marble to admire and the decorative paintings by artists Sørensen and Rolfsen in the huge Main Hall, contain some interesting highlights of Norway’s twentieth century history.
-Oslo Opera House
Angular and deceptively small looking 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 structure 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 some extraordinary, 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 old viking communities. The precision with which the boats were crafted is extraordinary and the work put into restoring them for public display is superb.
What to eat
Reindeer burger might not appeal to everyone but to the carnivores out there (including myself) it’s a definite must. Tasty, tender and nutritious one of these bad boys in a bun fills you up with satisfaction for hours. Reindeer burgers are particularly popular around Christmas time and are easily found at the open air Christmas Market just in front of the Grand Hotel along Karl Johans Gate. 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 of glitzy high end fashion boutiques. There are also at least a couple venues worth exploring here. The Scotsman Pub has character and buzzes in the evenings with a healthy mix of locals and tourists. There a shuffleboards (which seem 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 singing pianist, some keen wannabe vocalists make this place ideal for a late night laugh. Drinks still way above 10€.
So, to sum it up:
If you can put the steep prices for food and alcohol aside, Oslo makes a great city break. There’s an international feel and people are generally friendly and welcoming. The city is clean and public transport efficient.
In 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 even after dark with plenty of like minded folk, too.
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