Oslo

Natural beauty, Scandinavian innovation and world-class art converge in Norway’s cutting-edge capital.

Natural beauty, Scandinavian innovation and world-class art converge in Norway’s cutting-edge capital.

If Oslo is best known for anything, it’s the Nobel Peace Prize, or perhaps The Scream, an angst-ridden painting by one of Norway’s most famous sons, Edvard Munch. Between these diametrically opposed national icons, however, lies a vibrant city blessed with natural beauty, rich history and an urban vibe that’s cool without being intimidating.

But of course a visit to the city, which sits on the country’s southern coast at the head of the Oslofjord, is incomplete without seeing the painting that has been at the centre of so much fuss. There were four versions of The Scream created between 1893 and 1910, three of which can be found in Oslo (the fourth, and the only one in private hands, sold at auction in 2012 for nearly $US 120 million, one of the highest prices ever paid for an artwork). One of them is at the National Gallery in a room devoted to the works of Munch. It was here, on the day of the opening ceremony of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, that it was brazenly stolen by renowned thief Paal Enger and his gang, but recovered a few months later.

While at the gallery, check out its cafe. With polished marbled stucco and gilded ornamentation, it’s decorated like a French salon with reproductions of 17th- and 18th- century sculptures from the Louvre - a gift from France. Then take a 30-minute walk to the Munch Museum in Tøyen (next to the Botanical Garden) to see two more versions of the painting, one a pastel, the other an oil - the latter of which was targeted by thieves in 2004, and recovered after a two-year operation. The Munch Museum houses more than half the artist’s paintings and most of his prints; in 2019 it will relocate to new premises on the Bjørvika waterfront.

Another notable building in Bjørvika is the Oslo Opera House, a striking building clad in white granite and Italian marble that opened in 2008. The structure gently slopes up from the water’s edge so visitors can walk from the ground onto its horizontal roof. This lends the building a sense of egalitarian spirit, as if to say that although it’s a shrine to the high arts, anyone can walk on top of it (pack a picnic for the best seats in, or rather on, the house). In 2012, thousands of Norwegians did just that, crowding the entire roof to watch a free Justin Bieber concert performed on a pontoon in the harbour.

About 10 minutes away, also on the waterfront, is the Oslo City Hall, where the annual Nobel Peace Prize ceremony is hosted. The exterior of this grand 1930s building offers no hint to the visual spectacle you’ll find inside - gorgeous marble floors and large colourful murals line the vast halls and, in the eastern tower, a 49-bell carillon rings out on the hour.

From here it’s a short walk to Akershus Fortress, a medieval castle that has in its lifetime been both military garrison and prison. Today it hosts cultural events and visitors can take a tour of the grounds, picnic on the grass and enjoy views of the sea.

The ocean plays a particularly significant role in Norway’s history. Right beside the fort, you can catch a ferry to the Viking Ship Museum (or get there via a more prosaic bus route through the suburbs), where the world’s two best-preserved timber Viking ships, built in the ninth century, are on display. There are tools, textiles and decorative items on display as well, but it is the majestic longboats, bare and black in their empty white viewing chambers, that are the most mesmerising. It is almost impossible to believe that people once crossed vast open seas in these now marooned vessels.

There are more cultural riches to be found outdoors in Oslo. Vigeland Park, the world’s largest sculpture park by a single artist, is possibly the city’s most popular attraction. Open to visitors all year round, the park represents the life’s work of Gustav Vigeland, who also designed the layout of the grand, formal gardens that display more than 200 of his sculptures in bronze, granite and wrought iron.

Less well known but just as deserving of a visit is the Ekeberg sculpture park, filled with works by some of the biggest names in art of the last 130 years. The open-air museum, set in 25 hectares of Public Park perched on a hill overlooking the harbour, was gifted by Norwegian art collector and philanthropist Christian Ringnes who spent millions of dollars on the project. Some of the pieces were commissioned for the site, while others were purchased. The collection includes artworks by Marina Abramovic, Louise Bourgeois, Rodin, Renoir and Dali.

There’s no doubt that the Norwegians are a cultured lot, and there’s no better place to feel as though you’re part of the intelligentsia than at the House of Literature. The aim of the house - which was an initiative by the Freedom of Expression Foundation - is to encourage more reading and public debate. There is a bookstore and a stylish cafe with tables spilling onto the large forecourt where patrons can order traditional Norwegian prawn sandwiches. This is the place to be seen and watch the world go by.

The House of Literature is on a corner opposite the park in central Oslo where you’ll also find the Royal Palace. If the flag is up, then King Harald is home. This will also be where you’ll find one of the coolest public toilets - a glass cube that, when lit up blue at night, looks like a spaceship.

If hip urban design is your thing, head to Grünerløkka. Only 20 years ago this now-trendy area was the low-rent end of town, but its renaissance can be attributed to the almost single-handed efforts of one man. In the mid-1990s, entrepreneur Jan Vardøen was involved in opening Mexican restaurant Mucho Mas. Its success spurred him on to establish other dining ventures, including a microbrewery, a bakery, the Aku Aku Tiki Bar, Nighthawk Diner and pizza restaurant Villa Paradiso. From there the area flourished.

The best place to start your tour is from the modest corner espresso bar and micro-roastery called Tim Wendelboe, named after its owner, the 2004 World Barista Champion and 2005 World Cup Tasting Champion. Wendelboe is a serious coffee dude whose goal is to be among the best coffee roasters in the world. The best-selling brew at his pared-back coffee house is the TW Cappuccino al Freddo, made creamy in an old milkshake machine and served in a cocktail glass.

Fortified by caffeine, you’re now ready to take on the vintage Nordic furniture and thrift shops that are nearby. The most beguiling collection of old wares is to be found at Fransk Bazar, which bills itself as a purveyor of French vintage interiors. Anything and everything can be uncovered in the happy jumble, from antique shop signs, furniture, homewares and industrial fittings, to champagne coolers and gum ball dispensers.

At the top end of Grünerløkka is one of the newest parts of the city which, because of its sudden emergence just a few years ago, has been named Vulkan, or Volcano. A collection of restaurants and bars, its central feature is the large and impressive food hall, Mathallen. A double-heighted barn of a place, here you can pick up everything from burgers, tapas and sushi, to speciality cheeses, ice-cream and chocolates.

Before leaving Grünerløkka, check out the quirky and hard-to-find Cafe Mir. This bar, housed in an old school building, is located in a courtyard up an unassuming flight of stairs and hosts live music. The bar has some aviation-inspired touches, so you can sit in an aeroplane seat to prepare you for your flight home.

Aviva Lowy - Published in Voyeur May 2016
Quick Facts 
Population 658,390
Area 480.76 km2
Time Zone UTC+1
Languages Norwegian, Sami
Currency Norwegian krone
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