Night and Day in Oslo

Night and Day in OsloNorway’s capital offers recreational and cultural delights all year long By Mary Dunkelberger and Kirstin Ohlsen

To be honest, when most people contemplate a European excursion, Norway isn’t at the top of the list. We certainly didn’t consider a visit until an opportunity arose that we couldn’t refuse. Through a family connection, we were able to enjoy two visits to Oslo, Norway’s capital, during both the summer and winter seasons. From our extended stays there, it has quickly become one of our favorite places to visit.

In its most recent report, the United Nations says Norway has the highest standard of living in the world … and between universal health care and a thriving economy, it is easy to see why. For travelers, this means clean streets and well-run venues, but also higher travel expenses. That top-ranked standard of living comes via a 25-percent sales tax, which is already included in the price of any item you buy. (However, the good news for travelers is that it can get rebated when you leave the country.) You can spend the equivalent of $20 for a meal at a fast food restaurant, and a CD costs about the same. Norway is not in the European Union, so if you’re planning a Norwegian tour, be prepared to convert your euros to Norwegian kroner.

Due to its proximity to the North Pole, Norway experiences frigid winters, pleasantly cool summers, and a peculiar sunlight pattern. In the winter, the sun is absent for much of the day, while in the summer you can’t pay it to go away, leading to its dubbing as the “Land of the Midnight Sun.”

If winter sports aren’t on your itinerary, then opt to travel in the summertime when the weather is sunny and cool, averaging around 65 degrees — perfect for fjord gazing.

In the summer, it is very common to see people eating outside, because the weather can be very enjoyable. Most restaurants have an outside option that includes heat lamps and blankets, in case it’s a bit chilly. As is true for most European countries, restaurants are not in a hurry to feed you and rush you out, so take your time (because they’ll take theirs) and enjoy the view.

Oslo is nestled in the southeastern region of Norway. The city itself is very urban yet able to satiate a nature lover’s hunger for outdoor activity with the surrounding mountains, rivers and, of course, fjords. Oslo is situated on the shore of Oslofjord. Norwegians tend to call all bodies of water fjords; the Oslofjord is actually a bay. The true fjords — those fingerlike passages between mountains carved out by glaciers — are mostly clustered on the western side of the country.

Oslo is ideal in the wintertime for the winter-sport-loving traveler, with multiple activities such as sledding, snowboarding and skiing (the area is perfect for both cross-country and downhill) minutes from the city center, all accessible through public transportation. It’s well worth it to take advantage of Oslo’s public transportation system. Between the metro, tram and bus, you can get anywhere you need to go within the city.

This makes for an easy transition between activities without the hassle of a rental car and astronomical gas prices. If you have trouble finding your way around, don’t hesitate to ask the locals; although they may not seem particularly friendly, they will help if asked.

The best way to sightsee in Oslo is with an Oslo Pass. This card acts as your key to the city, offering free public transportation, as well as free and discounted entrance into many city attractions for about $25 per day. Visit just a few attractions and the pass pays for itself. If you choose not to use the Oslo Pass, you will have to pay about $15 for each museum admission and buy tickets for transportation, which can be a hassle. The pass is valid for one to three days — and the three-day pass has a few extra features that make it a worthwhile purchase.

If you’re recovering from jet lag and at a loss for what to do, the area around the Nationaltheatret — National Theater — never fails. If you walk down to the Oslo­fjord waterfront, there is an assortment of attractions including the Nobel Peace Museum, the Aker Brygge shopping complex, the Akershus fortress, the Radhus (City Hall) and many restaurants with views of the mountains and water.

Oslo has a diverse selection of restaurants and can cater to any whim. If you would like to be adventurous and try Norwegian cuisine, they specialize in seafood and even serve some exotic meats such as reindeer, whale and seal. The restaurant Lofotstua specializes in traditional Norwegian dishes and is located near the city center.

Plan on visiting the Nobel Peace Museum. It houses multiple exhibits that show the history of the award and its recipients through amazing displays of modern technology. During our visit, we were lucky enough to see a traveling exhibit of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Barack Obama, who had recently been presented the prestigious award.

No matter the length of your stay, devote a day to the museums on the Bygdoy peninsula. In the summer, you can take a ferry, and in the winter a ride on the No. 30 bus will get you there. The Folk Museum is an exciting mix of culture and Norwegian history. In the summer, the grounds are alive with music, crafts and costumed performers. In the winter, the indoor museum exhibits remain open and are still well worth a visit.

The permanent exhibits include folk dress, household items and a collection of traditional buildings, all spanning multiple centuries.

Another must-see is the Vikingship Museum, which houses three Viking burial ships salvaged from the Oslofjord, and an assortment of artifacts including utensils, textiles and pieces of ships. After the Vikingship Museum, maritime lovers would enjoy a visit to the rest of the Bygdøy museums, which include the Kon-tiki Museum, the FRAM Museum and the Norwegian Maritime Museum. Bygdoy’s museums can all be seen in one day if you keep to a tight schedule.

Another interesting (and free) place to visit is Frogner Park, which contains 227 monumental statues made by Norway’s beloved sculptor, Gustav Vigeland. The modern nudes showcase the stages and struggles of life, often in poignant and sometimes humorous ways.

If you enjoy the park, you may want to visit the Vigeland Museum to learn more about the man behind the statues. The building, provided to the sculptor in exchange for his prolific artistic output by the city of Oslo, once served as his home and studio. Vigeland was a bohemian sort and a contemporary of Norway’s other artistic superstar, Edvard Munch. They were known to share ideas (and, if the stories are true, a woman as well).

If you’re visiting in the winter and have an Oslo Pass, check out the section called Winter Walks, which may have a free tour of the museum and park. Winter Walks can be an exciting way to see other parts of Oslo too, so check out the themes for each day. These guided tours are given in both English and Norwegian.

If art tickles your fancy, Oslo does not disappoint. Between the National Gallery and the Munch Museum, there are plenty of places to see original artwork. Check out some maps for local galleries or just take a stroll through the Nationaltheatret district. If you’re strapped for time, definitely tour the National Gallery, which not only has a room of Munch paintings including “The Scream” but also a room of paintings from artists such as Van Gogh, Picasso, Degas and Rubens. If you enjoyed Munch’s colorful, expressionistic painting style, take the time to visit the Munch Museum, which is still in Oslo, but a little out of the way.

Norway has a lot to offer the adventurous spirit. From indoor activities such as museums and galleries to the outdoors with fjords and slopes, Norway is an unforgettable place to visit. Although the country is not at the top of most people’s European travel destinations, we encourage you to reconsider and choose Norway next time you decide to hop the pond.

Northern Lights in Tromsø

If you have extra time in Norway, check out places beyond Oslo.

While Bergen is ideal for fjord cruises, Tromsø stands out in our minds above the rest. Located in the extreme north of Norway above the Arctic Circle, it is best to fly there. From Oslo’s airport, it’s about a two-hour flight.

It is especially nice to go to in the winter, when there are many activities to choose from. During our visit, we took a cruise and ate fresh cod caught right off the boat.

Later in the evening on board, we were able to enjoy a true “bucket list” experience — catching a view of the amazing aurora borealis. Seeing the aurora is not always guaranteed, and it depends a lot on the weather. Viewing is best on cold, clear nights. If you are lucky enough to see the Northern Lights, it will certainly be an unforgettable experience.