Things to Do in Oslo
Norway’s cosmopolitan capital lies at the head of Oslofjord, a narrow body of water 68 miles (107 kilometers) in length that leads out to the strait of Skagerrak and eventually to the Baltic and North Seas. The fjord’s islets are its main attraction, home to sandy beaches, cycling and hiking routes, and historic lighthouses.
Set on Oslo’s Bygdoy Peninsula, the Viking Ship Museum (Vikingskipshuset) houses an extensive collection of Viking-era artifacts discovered around Oslo Fjord. The museum is best known for its Viking ships, which have been painstakingly reconstructed and elegantly displayed in pristine white galleries.
Set on the banks of Oslo Fjord, Akershus Castle (Akershus Slott)—also known as Akershus Fortress (Akershus Festning)—was built in 1299 as a residence for Norway’s royal family. Over the years it has served as a fortress to protect Oslo against sieges from rival Swedish forces, as a Renaissance castle, and as a full-fledged 19th-century prison.
Home to the Oslo City Council and numerous galleries and studios, the Oslo City Hall (or Rådhuset) showcases the city’s political and cultural sides. It is widely considered one of Oslo’s architectural gems, winning the 2005 vote for Oslo’s "Structure of the Century."
Planning for City Hall began in 1915 and served a dual purpose: not only establishing an Oslo City Hall, but also replacing the old Oslo harbor slums. The building exemplifies a changing mentality in Norwegian architecture at the time, combining native romanticism, functionalism, and classicism.
Once inside, the building contains the Festival Gallery, complete with a stunning view of the harbor side, the East Gallery, with Petr Krohg’s stunning mid 20th century frescoes, “The town and its surroundings,” Banquet Hall, and Central Hall, with a mural of Oslo’s patron saint, St. Hallvard.
Oslo’s Royal Palace was designed by architect Hans Linstow and built in the early 19th century for King Charles III, who reigned over a united Norway and Sweden. He died before work was completed on the vast Neo-classical edifice and it was his son Oscar I who finally moved into the palace in 1849. Today it is the official city residence of King Harald V and his wife Queen Sonja, and is open during the summer for guided tours of parts of its 173 palatial rooms.
A dozen of the palace’s ornate staterooms are included on the tour, including the Council Chamber, King Haakon VII Suite, Bird Room — delicately decorated with 40 species of bird — the Mirror Hall, Great Hall — where lavish balls still take place under dripping crystal chandeliers — and the Banqueting Hall.
The colorful Changing of the Guard ceremony takes place outside the palace daily at 1.30pm; it’s short in winter but in summer takes a full 40 minutes of pageantry, with the King’s Guards on horseback, bands, square bashing and parades along Karl Johans Gate.
The Royal Palace is surrounded by the manicured gardens of Slottsparken, also laid out by Hans Linstow. As well as lakes, leafy promenades and picnic spots, the park is dotted with statues of Norway’s great and good, including King Carl Johan and Queen Maud, mathematician Nils Henrik Abel and women’s rights defender Camilla Collett — the latter two both by Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland, whose lifework can also be seen in Oslo’s Vigeland Park.
Stretching from Oslo Central Station to the Royal Palace, Karl Johans gate is Oslo’s main thoroughfare. Named after King Charles III John (Karl Johan), the street is home to many of the
city’s top attractions, including the Royal Palace, Stortinget, National Theatre and Central Station.
During Oslo’s short summer, residents flock to the beer gardens lining the street for al fresco drinks. Come winter, a pond along the street transforms into an ice skating rink. Throughout the
year, restaurants, cafes and bars lining the street fill up with both locals and visitors. Much of Oslo’s best shops can be found along the street and the smaller streets branching from it.
The Kon-Tiki Museum is home to a variety of boats and other artifacts from the famous Thor Heyerdahl’s expeditions. Thor Heyerdahl is a Norwegian expeditionary and ethnographer who famously sailed by raft from South America to the Tuamotu Islands. The museum includes the very raft used during that expedition.
The museum also houses permanent exhibits on Ra, Tigris, Kon-Tiki, Fatu-Hiva, and Easter Island and even has a cave tour (that is 100 feet/30 meters in length) and an underwater exhibition with a life-size whale shark. For those who are not well acquainted with Norway’s topographical landscape, there is a recommended widescreen film that takes the viewer on an aerial tour of the country’s coastline and settlements.
Once you’ve soaked in all the exhibits the museum has to offer, the restaurant offers a lunch menu which includes authentic Norwegian cuisine, including the highly recommend Kon-Tiki Fish Casserole and Tapas buffet.
Norway’s stylish, innovative new arts center opened in 2008 at Bjørvika, with views stretching out over Oslo Fjord. It is home to the national ballet, opera and orchestral companies but audiences probably come as much for the sublime waterside setting of this gleaming white auditorium as they do for the performances. Designed by Norwegian architect Tarald Lundevall, who also built the National September 11 Memorial Museum & Pavilion in New York, the opera house is constructed of marble, granite and glass and won the prestigious Mies van der Rohe Award for Contemporary Architecture in 2009. Inside there are three main stages, combined able to seat audiences of up to 2,000; all this is supported by a staff of 620 led by artistic director Tom Remlov in a labyrinth of more than 1,000 studios and workshops.
Acoustics are second to none and the repertoire includes modern dance and classical ballet, jazz, chamber and Baroque concerts, plus light-hearted operettas and serious opera. Open-air concerts are held on the opera house’s sloping roof in summer and there are sometimes small recitals in the foyer. The Argent restaurant is currently the place to lunch in Oslo.
Comprising of more than 200 bronze, granite, and cast iron sculptures by the Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland, Oslo’s Vigeland Sculpture Park is the world’s largest such complex made by a single artist. Located within Frogner Park, it is also one of Oslo’s top attractions, drawing more than a million visitors a year.
Consecrated in 1697, Oslo Cathedral (Oslo Domkirke) is used for Norwegian Royal Family weddings and funerals. The public is also welcome to admire its interesting architectural details, including a 1950 tempera ceiling by Hugo Louis Mohr, stained glass windows by Emanuel Vigeland, and magnificent altarpiece with acanthus carvings.
More Things to Do in Oslo
Jutting out into Oslo Fjord, the Bygdøy Peninsula is a one-stop leisure destination just west side of the city center. A clutch of Norway’s most popular museums are found here along with hiking and cycling trails, beautiful – if small – beaches at Huk and Paradisbukta, plus several cafés and seafood restaurants. Come sunny days, the peninsula is full to bursting with Oslo families enjoying the peninsula’s laid-back vibe and the organic farm at the Royal Manor, which is the summer residence of King Harald V.
Altogether Bygdøy is home to the Neo-Gothic castle of Oscarshall, the Holocaust Center in the austere Villa Grande, and no less than five museums. Of these, the Viking Ship, Fram, Maritime and Kon-Tiki museums deal with Norway’s illustrious nautical heritage, while the open-air Norwegian Folk Museum concerns itself with Norway’s cultural past. It displays a colorful collection of Sami national costumes from Lapland alongside 150-odd reconstructed buildings including traditional Sami goahti and a magical 13th-century wooden stave church from Gol, a small town north of Oslo.
Holmenkollen is an Oslo landmark hill north-west of the city center; there has been a ski jump here since 1892 but the present-day ‘S’-shaped jump at Kongeveien was constructed in 2010. The jump is 394 ft (120 m) long and it is 197 ft (60 m) high and it’s one of Norway’s best-loved visitor attractions.
There’s plenty of year-round outdoor and indoor action at Holmenkollen: climb the 250 steps to the viewing platform for vistas across the scenic Nordmarka protected wilderness; visit the world’s oldest ski museum at the foot of the jump; or grab a zip line to whizz 1,180 ft (360 m) down the length of the ski jump – a ride for real adrenaline junkies with a firm head for heights. Somewhat more enjoyable is the simulator ride that gives a bird’s-eye experience of ski-ing down the ski jump.
In winter Holmenkollen hosts the World Cup Nordic skiing events and is the springboard for Nordic or downhill ski-ing and skating in Nordmarka, which by summer it is hiking and cycling central, with locals pouring out of the city at weekends to get back to nature among the tranquil forests and lakes.
Along with the Kon-Tiki and Norwegian Folk museums, the Fram is another of the crowd-pullers on the Bygdøy peninsula. It’s found in a new and extraordinary pyramidal structure with a vast portrait of Roald Amundsen projected on to the façade, which houses the most famous Norwegian polar-exploration boat of all time, the icebreaker Fram.
Fram was veteran of many Arctic voyages when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen – the first man to reach both North and South Poles – gained worldwide fame by sailing her to Antarctica from 1910 to 1912, where he beat the UK's Robert Scott in a race to the South Pole.
The museums displays have also been given a spruce up and now feature dioramas capturing the horrific conditions of polar exploration in the early 20th century, a recreation of Amundsen’s Antarctic base put together from photos and written witness, and displays on the Northwest Passage through the Arctic ice floes, all brought to life with the use of multimedia, interactive maps, and black-and-white images. Kids will love all the tales of nautical daring and the "dark walk" simulator, in which they experience temperatures below freezing, but the highlight of a visit is boarding Fram to explore the ship’s cramped confines and learn of the hardships of polar exploration.
Named and built after the Norwegian symbolist painter Edvard Munch, the Munch Museum (or Munchmuseet) first opened its doors in 1963 to commemorate what would have been the painters 100th birthday. It contains 1,200 paintings, 4,500 drawings, 18,000 prints, and 6 sculptures, watercolors, and graphic art, all bequeathed to the city of Oslo upon Munch’s death.
The museum also contains less conventional pieces of Munch’s artwork, including lithographic stones, etchings, and woodcut plates, as well as newspaper cutouts, books, and other information about the artist, further encapsulating the full career of the adored artist.
Whether you’re a fanatic or just interested in Munch’s work, you can take the experience home with you at the museums souvenir shop, complete with books, posters, shirts, and catalogs.
Housed in a suitably futuristic complex designed by Renzo Piano, the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art (Astrup Fearnley Museet) is a privately owned gallery devoted to modern and contemporary art. Its sizable collection dates from the 1960s and features both international and Norwegian artists.
Vigeland Museum is a sculpture museum in western Oslo comprising the essential works of influential Norwegian artist Gustav Vigeland. Located next to a park of the same name that features the iconic and famous statues, the museum, which actually was Vigeland's home and studio until his death in 1943, now houses his best sculptures, drawings, sketches, monuments, portraits and plaster models.
Gustav Vigeland moved to this site after offering to donate his works to the City of Oslo in exchange for an atelier. Located on the third floor, his apartment can be visited by appointment. The museum's displays on the first two floors document his working process and memorabilia; it also regularly welcomes contemporary art exhibits. The building itself is often considered to be a splendid and rather rare example of neo-classical architecture in Norway.
Jutting out into Oslo Fjord, the Bygdøy Peninsula is a one-stop leisure destination just west side of the city center. It is Oslo’s ‘Museum Island’ and hosts several maritime museums as well as the open-air Norwegian Museum of Cultural History (Norsk Folkemuseum).
Highlighting Norway’s colorful cultural history from 1500 to present day, this wonderfully family-friendly museum presents an array of more than 150 buildings brought together from all over the country, each representing different regions and eras and including a reconstructed traditional Samigoahti (tent) and the exquisite, 13th-century wooden stave church from Gol, north of Oslo.
There are several streets of wooden houses from Oslo and its suburbs, as well as a three-story, 19th-century apartment block, rebuilt here to showcase life in the Norway of the last two centuries, from an elegant Art Nouveau interior to a suitably scruffy 1980s student bedsit. Permanent exhibitions include a collection of Sami national costumes from the northern reaches of Lapland, toys and folk art. There’s a full schedule of temporary exhibits and photographic displays, plus folk dancing and horse-and-carriage rides; the museum’s staff are all kitted out in traditional costume and run a farm and saw mill.
The Oslo National Gallery houses a proud collection of works comprised mainly by works of Norwegian painters from the 19th century until about 1945. These are including but not limited to famous landscape painter J. C. Dahl, T. Fearnley, H. F. Gude, naturalist painter and illustrator C. Krohg, and G. P. Munthe. There is also a special separate exhibit devoted to the much beloved Edvard Munch and his world renowned painting ‘The Scream,’ back in action after its theft in 2006.
There are also works by other Scandinavian artists including pictures by El Greco, Rubens and Rembrandt, as well as a collection of modern works and a room containing replicas of antique sculptures.
In 2003 the National Gallery joined with three other Norwegian museums to become the National Museum of Art, Architecture, and Design, making them all in effect the cultural and historical hub of Norwegian culture and art.
With such an array of collected art, The National Gallery contains the largest collection of domestic and international art in the country and simply cannot be looked over by any visitor.
Please note: The Oslo National Gallery is currently closed for renovation. The reopening is scheduled for 2022.
Run under the management of the Norwegian Folk Museum (Norsk Folkemuseum), Oslo’s homage to the life of Norway’s most famous dramatist is located in the house that was occupied by Hendrik Ibsen (1828–1906) and his wife Suzanne for the last 11 years of his life.
Found in a luxurious apartment block in the middle of the city, the story of Ibsen’s life is told in two major exhibitions. As the most renowned playwright in the world after Shakespeare, there’s a comprehensive exhibition focusing on his personal life, featuring his clothes, writing implements and family photographs in the neighboring apartment.
Perhaps more impressive is Ibsen’s own apartment, which was lovingly restored with period furniture and many family possessions before being reopened in 2006 to mark the centenary of his death. Once scattered across Norway, his belongings and furniture have been carefully returned to the library, parlors and study where he wrote his last two plays. Throughout the suite of rooms, soft furnishings have been woven and wallpapers recreated to match Ibsen’s original décor, while oil paintings and chandeliers adorn the walls just as they did in his time.
Norway’s second-busiest port, after Bergen, the Port of Oslo (Oslo Havn) is a popular destination on Scandinavian cruises, welcoming over a hundred annual cruise calls. Located at the head of the Oslo Fjord, cruise passengers have easy access to the Norwegian capital, with its many lakes, parks, and museums.
Located in central Oslo, the Palace Park (Slottsparken) is the city central park that surrounds the Royal Palace. Construction began in the 1820s by Hans Linstow, the same architect who built the palace, although because of financial restrictions it took more than 30 years to put together. Altogether more than 2,000 trees were planted, most of which are still standing.
The main feature of the park is The Royal Palace, which is the main residence of Norwegian royalty, currently Herald V. If you happen to be in Oslo during the summer months, the palace opens for guided tours, including some of the most beautiful state rooms, upper vestibule, dining room, bird room, mirror hall, and Palace Chapel.
In 1911, the trend of adding monuments and statues to the park began, amongst the first were Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland, and author Camilla Collett. Years later, statues of Queen Maud, mathematician Nils Henrik Abel, and Kronprinssesse Martha were added.
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