Up north, the winter sun is softer. It glistens overhead briefly, fills the sky with a gentle luminescence and then gracefully disappears.
What started out as a birthday surprise for Kasha, a weekend in Oslo, turned out to be one of the biggest surprises for me too. The locals were warm, helpful and genuine. The city is surrounded by small islands that dot the Oslo Fjord, art galleries and sculpture parks bristle with truly unique works of art and the museum quarter has so much packed into the small peninsula that you could spend days exploring without stepping foot into the city centre.
Fancy a break somewhere special? Here are some of the things you can’t miss in the vivacious Norwegian capital.
Where to start: the Oslo Opera House
With its position reaching lazily into the water of the harbour, Oslo’s Opera House is one of those things you simply have to see. Early in the morning is the perfect time to visit and climb on the building’s roof (don’t worry they actively encourage this) or wander through the fabulous interior to witness its unique design and use of light. If you’re visiting when it’s icy, be aware that the roof is pretty much a slip and slide, there are steps but they offer little grip. Sunset is also a beautiful time to visit.
What to do if you want to save money: Oslo Pass
If there’s one place in the world that you should buy a city pass, it’s here. Norway can be an expensive country to visit, but if you want to see the main tourist sights, the Oslo Pass can save you heaps of cash. The pass is available in 24/48/72 hour formats. I’d recommend at least the 48 hour pass as this gives you plenty of time to visit from the selection of 30 museums and make the most of the free public transport.
Where to get a culture fix: Oslo National Gallery
If you’re familiar with one piece of Norwegian art, it’s probably going to be Edvard Munch’s iconic The Scream – a scene which also features Oslo as its backdrop. There’s undoubtedly something so human that we can all recognise in this scene of mental breakdown, perhaps it’s something as simple as a universal anxiety that we all share. This painting rivals even the Mona Lisa for its instant recognisability, so it’s no surprise then that Norway’s National Gallery displays The Scream alongside many of Munch’s finest works, not to mention the largest public collection of paintings, drawings and sculptures in the country.
Ordinarily, I might not always include an art gallery in my must-visit itinerary, but the collection here was captivating. I went in to see The Scream and left so curious about incredible talent of lesser-known Norwegian painters. Many of these talented individuals were influenced by the art scene in Paris and brought back their skills to the icy north – resulting in staggeringly beautiful works of art.
Where to eat if I’m indecisive: Mathallen Oslo Food Hall
I’ve been there. You’ve researched for hours to find that perfect Instagram-friendly eatery serving incredible local fare, only to find that it was a pop-up that’s closed or that UniBantz312 said in a TripAdvisor review that the food is actually godawful. Mathallen Oslo solves all of those issues by providing over 30 eateries, cafes, Norwegian specialty shops and even Scandinavia’s longest bar all under one roof. Shoutout to the fantastic Cupcake and Pie Co. too – which is perfect for those with a sweet tooth.
The best part is that the food hall is also located in the trendy Vulkan area, which has been transformed from a once industrial part of town to a community hub. Street art murals, local craft stalls that kind of vibe. The place is so hot with the local entrepreneurs that bars and restaurants have popped up all around the area, offering creative menus, delicious food and reasonable value for money (Lucky Bird was our shout).
Where to take a walk: Vigeland Sculpture Park
This is one of the most popular things to do in the city all year round – and for good reason. Located in the larger surrounds of Frogner Park, Vigeland is the largest sculpture park in the world devoted to a single artist. But this isn’t the unusual thing: it’s the works themselves. Towering naked bronze figures throwing babies, dancing, running and expressing every kind of emotion you can imagine. There’s even a tower of 121 intertwined figures (The Monolith) that makes up the highest point in the park. Designed by artist Gustav Vigeland, the figures aren’t all positive ones. Many express despair, sadness or rage: but all are fascinating. It’s also surprising to know that many of these figures have stood here since around 1939. The park is a short bus ride out of the city, but ideal for those en-route to the museum peninsula.
Where to go for the museums: Bygdøy Peninsula
If you visit in the warmer months, you can enjoy a ferry ride to the peninsula where many of the city’s best museums are located, in the winter you’ll need to catch a slightly less scenic bus ride. While the museums’ distances from central Oslo might initially seems like an inconvenience, it all becomes clear when you see the scale of these attractions. There are five museums within walking distance from each other: the Norwegian Folk Museum of Cultural History, Viking Ship Museum, Kon-Tiki Museum, The Fram Museum and the Norwegian Maritime Museum. Be warned though, you can spend hours in each of these, especially the open-air Folkemuseum which features 160 historic buildings that date back to medieval times. This was easily one of my favourite museums because they also happened to be hosting a Christmas market when we visited. Surrounded by wooden farmsteads we got to taste waffles covered in jam and sour cream, nibbled on caramel-like whey brown cheese ‘brunost’ and watch locals warming their hands on fires, singing songs with their families and enjoying the short-lived sunlight hours.
If you love boats I’d recommend you make a beeline to the south-eastern tip of the peninsula where all the museums have a strong seafaring focus, original ships and in-depth stories of thrilling expeditions across the globe. Out of the Kon-Tiki Museum, The Fram Museum and the Norwegian Maritime Museum I found the story of the Kon-Tiki the most moving, for it’s absurdity, bravery and tenacity.
What to do if you just love Vikings: Viking Ship Museum
You may notice this is the only museum located in the peninsula that has it’s own subheading. That’s because this particular museum is one of the main reasons we came to Oslo. If you’re afraid that this attraction doesn’t live up to the hype, rest easy.
I’ve watched every episode of Michael Hirst’s TV series Vikings. I’ve had dreams about vicious Scandinavian Kings like Ragnar Lothbrock, mythical Norse heroes and Viking raids that would fill the hearts of men with terror. Despite their infamy in TV series, movies and history books, we might never have heard of Viking exploits were it not for the design success of the Viking longboat. This versatile ship could be sailed, or rowed and was capable of crossing oceans and seas, bringing terrifying armies of warriors into unsuspecting lands.
Enter this cavernous museum and you’ll be stood directly at the bow of one of the best preserved Viking ships in the world. Intimidatingly tall, the high prow ends in a spiralling serpent’s head. The wood is dark as jet black ash. To think of 30 heavily armed Norse oarsmen onboard, pulling that ship closer would have induced terror. Despite this, it’s also a thing of great beauty, elegant lines and symmetry. Though it might be hard to believe, many historians argue that Vikings may have been the first Europeans to reach North America, beating Columbus by over 400 years. If true, then the single-sailed, high prow vessel you can see in this building could also have been one of the first ships to cross the Atlantic.
Where to go to island hop on the fjord: public ferry
If you have some time on your final day, I strongly recommend exploring Olso’s fjord. There are tourist ferries that operate various routes around the bay, but if you want to save some cash and see all the islands in an hour, the public ferry is my recommendation.
When we arrived early in the morning, a fog had smothered the harbour. Sailboats bobbed on the water and the ferries already busy transporting people to and fro. If you have time to kill, this is where you’ll find the Nobel Peace Centre and the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art. The nearby ticket office printed our public ferry tickets and we boarded a small boat. Oslo soon retreated behind us and we went upstairs to the viewing platform. The railings were freezing cold, the air even cooler, but we couldn’t take our eyes off that view. The city of Oslo, the fog now fading away as the sun beamed softly above. A wake of silky waves ebbed away from the boat as it cut to the nearby islands. One by one we pulled into tiny spits of land with charming pastel houses dotted along the shoreline. Families departed, or hopped on board. You can disembark at any of these islands if you want, or enjoy a round-trip back to Oslo’s harbour. We stayed put. Our noses were cold (as were our hands, toes and fingers) but the simple beauty of getting out onto the water was very special.
Have you been to Oslo? What were your highlights and what are your top tips? Comment below, I’d love to hear!
Visit Oslo kindly provided us with Oslo Passes, but all opinions expressed are entirely my own.