The enigmatic, adventurous spirit of Viking sea culture meets the energy of 21st-century Europe in one of the fastest-growing cities on the continent. Oslo, Norway, is one of the greatest cross-sections of past meets present. Tradition (from its Viking roots), influential works of art, and 18th-century architecture sit alongside the cutting edge of modernity in Oslo.
The omnipresence of cranes along the skyline reveals an ever-evolving landscape, yet the city’s socially conscious residents and developers are committed to maintaining the title of European Green Capital in 2019, meaning a visit to Oslo is a visit to a city with one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world.
Oslo is known for its sustainable food, green space, parks, and some of the most pristine natural environments on earth located just a stone’s throw from the city center. When the sun goes down, artistic and forward-thinking Oslo transforms into one of the most energetic nightlife capitals of Europe, with live music, craft cocktails, and a constantly innovating culinary scene.
There is something magnetic about Norway’s capital. Whether your passion lies in adventure, culture, history, gastronomy, or architecture, this sea-faring European city is brimming with activities that will thrill even the most discerning traveler.
1. Meander Old And New Oslo From One Waterfront Perch
The best way to get a feel for Oslo’s vibe is to step into a veritable microcosm of the city itself. No doubt this is Oslo’s unique Harbour Promenade. The 5.5-mile waterfront boardwalk is one of the best places in the city for sightseeing, history, art, architecture, and adventure. The promenade winds through many different parts of the city, both new and old, showcasing that this historic city has made itself right at home in the 21st century.
“Important waterfront landmarks include a mix of enticing modern urban achievements: Aker Brygge Wharf, a trendy shopping and restaurant area, the newly renovated Tjuvholmen boasting modern canals, and the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet,” says Caroline Duterque, chief editor of the Jack and Ferdi travel app. “Large orange information towers are placed at regular intervals along the whole waterfront promenade and will keep you on track.”
Oslo’s magnificent Opera House — built to look like a floating glacier and considered one of the most recognizable buildings in Scandinavia — is located on the promenade. Not only is it an architectural marvel, it is also known for its world-class opera and ballet performances.
Tip: Be sure to stop by SALT, a pop-up art project in Oslo that features various bands, poets, and local food and drink stalls. It’s a great spot to visit during the evenings to take in the hustle and bustle of locals and tourists. Insiders know that the promenade is also home to one of the world’s largest saunas, so don’t forget to bring your bathing suit.
2. Give Peace A Chance
December 10 marks the day each year when Nobel Laureates are honored at ceremonies in both Stockholm, Sweden, and Oslo. Alfred Nobel, the founder of the award, stipulated in his will that prizes in physics, chemistry, physiology, medicine, and literature would be awarded at the Stockholm ceremony, while peace prizes would be awarded in Norway. Today the Nobel Peace Center stands in the heart of Oslo as the premier place to learn about the Nobel Peace Prize and its past winners.
The center showcases past laureates and their work, plus the story of Alfred Nobel. It also acts as a modern-day salon for debate about important social issues. The center itself is housed in what used to be a railway station. Admission costs roughly $13.
3. Sail Into The Past
The Oslo region was a very important area during the Viking Age, which endured from 800 to 1050 A.D. The Vikings were one of the world’s greatest civilizations, and they were major contributors to the age of discovery. Today, most of the world’s knowledge about the Vikings comes from archaeology and lore, much of which can be experienced at the Viking Ship Museum on the Bygdoy Peninsula, a residential and cultural neighborhood near the city center known for Oslo’s popular museums, hiking trails, and recreational areas.
The Viking Ship Museum hosts some of the world’s best-preserved Viking ships and displays archaeological finds from Viking tombs around the Oslo Fjord. “A visit to the Viking Ship Museum on the Bygdoy Peninsula will show you that not only were Vikings mighty warriors, but also outstanding storytellers, poets, traders, and craftsmen,” says Duterque. “The Viking Age display includes beds, a beautiful horse cart, woodcarving, tent components, and household utensils.”
Admission is roughly $11.
The best way to get to the peninsula in summer is to take the boat that departs from Pier 3 behind City Hall. During the winter visitors and locals prefer bus number 30, which operates year-round.
4. Hit The Beach
While you’re over on the Bygdoy Peninsula, a visit to Huk beach is an absolute must. Although Scandinavia isn’t exactly known as a beach destination, the locals of Oslo definitely take advantage of their waterfront real estate. Huk is one of three main sandy beaches along the peninsula, and is one of the best spots to immerse yourself in local life. Residents of Oslo love to visit Huk for walks, runs, biking, and simply relaxing. For those who really want to let loose, the bathing beach is divided into a regular public beach and a nude beach.
“Huk is a green space and a sandy beach that also features a swimming pool, bike racks, barbecue pits, and even a volleyball court,” says Duterque. While the area is used for outdoor recreation year-round, it’s most crowded on sunny summer days.
5. Snap The Quintessential Oslo Picture
Experience the storybook setting of historic Oslo by taking a stroll through the well-preserved (and still-inhabited) Damstredet and Telthusbakken. These two streets provide picture-perfect glimpses into quintessential historic Oslo. The charming central area of the city has wooden houses from the 18th and 19th centuries. Damstredet is a cobblestone street flanked with wooden houses, while Telthusbakken, just below the medieval church Gamle Aker Kirk, has lovely gardens. Be sure to stroll the romantic Kjaerlighetsstien, which translates to “the love trail.” This green, overhanging foliage “tunnel” is an idyllic (and photogenic) hideaway right in the middle of the city.
6. Taste Oslo’s Evolution Through Food
When listing the great culinary influences of Europe, Norway does not often pop to top of mind. But bear with us for a second: The cuisine of Norway is going through a gastronomic evolution that is calling attention to the finer details that make the Norwegian dining scene so unique.
For a comprehensive overview of Norwegian cuisine, a stop at Mathallen, Oslo’s food hall, is a must. This indoor food market is an energetic, colorful cross-section of small-scale Norwegian producers and specialty shops. Sample locally produced cheeses, hams, and other products to get a grand overview of the culinary landscape not only of Oslo, but Norway on the whole.
Feeling adventurous? Be sure to find a menu that serves reindeer meat. Yes, you read that correctly. Reindeer has been a landmark of Norwegian cuisine for centuries, but for visitors, it’s part of a novel dining experience. One of the best places to try it is at Engebret Cafe, the oldest enduring restaurant in Oslo, which has been in operation since 1857. Order the reindeer steak and prepare to be hooked.
Travelers can return to the present with cocktails at Himkok, voted one of the world’s 50 best bars. “Himkok is not just a bar, but also a distillery where they make their own spirits — usually gin, vodka, and Norwegian aquavit,” says Silke Wolf, travel curator and founder of Local Insiders, a bespoke travel service. “You can look straight into the distillery room. A tour of the premises is included to see the four different drink concepts across two floors.”
Past meets present in plated perfection at Vaaghals, an Oslo fine-dining experience that offers traditional Norwegian food in modern presentation, complete with wine pairing.
7. Pay Your Respects To Emanuel Vigeland
Oslo is proud of its artistic heritage (it is the birthplace of Edvard Munch, painter of “The Scream,” after all). But its love of unusual art doesn’t begin and end with “The Scream,” as evidenced by the prominent display of eccentric sculptures by native son Gustav Vigeland in Vigeland Park. Vigeland (1869-1943), known for his strange and enchanting art and sculptures, was one of the more unusual artists to grace the Scandinavian art scene. And while the park itself is worth a visit to see the sculptures, the Vigeland name has another star to claim, as well. Emanuel Vigeland, Gustav’s brother, was also a dedicated artist. The Emanuel Vigeland Museum serves as both a center for his work and his self-designed mausoleum.
Visit Vigeland Museum, and take in the sounds that echo across the chambers of this haunting yet beautiful work of art. Let your eyes adjust to the dimly lit, 8,600-square-foot space, splashed with (often erotic) frescoes that festoon the walls, depicting the life and death of man. The art within this museum-mausoleum took Vigeland 20 years to complete. Be sure to check its opening times as it is only open for a few hours throughout the week.
Admission costs roughly $6.
8. Get Out Of Town
Nature lovers are in for the “wow” moment of a lifetime when they visit Oslo, especially if the world’s best fjords are on your bucket list. A fjord is a narrow, deep inlet of sea surrounded by towering cliffs, which are typically formed when a glacier retreats and the sea floods the resulting valley floor. Norway is one of the best places in the world to experience fjords. Great news for visitors to Oslo: You don’t have to travel far outside the city to find them.
Oslofjord is about 60 miles long and peppered with many tiny islands that are graced with their own histories. There are several ways to explore this waterway: island-hopping with an Oslo Pass (a card that lets you enter museums and attractions and use the city’s public transportation network) or on a sightseeing fjord cruise. Oslofjord is a popular place to go swimming, kayaking, hiking, and fishing.
Note: The Oslo Pass includes entry to 30 museums and attractions, travel on all public transport, outdoor swimming pools, and more. A 24-hour pass costs about $50.
A two-hour fjord cruise will pass through the bays and surrounding islands, through inlets, and past landmarks including the National Opera and Ballet House, as well as the Bygdoy Peninsula. Rates start from approximately $38.