Oslo is the smallest and quietest of the Scandinavian capitals and also a familiar name on Europe’s top 10 most expensive cities. However, thanks to a recent oil price collapse, the Norwegian capital is again within reach to travelers. And Oslo is bustling, bohemian and beautiful.
If you glide in to Oslo by train after a flight with low-cost airline Norwegian to Oslo Airport, you’ll glimpse an array of tiny islands apparently bobbing about in the Oslo fjord. They’re an enchanting sight with their miniature beaches, diminutive woods and brightly colored little cabins, all just a short ferry trip from the city.
A trip to Langøyene from the Town Hall pier takes only 15 minutes. Langøyene means “long islands” and is actually two narrow isles that were joined together by a rubbish tip which was grassed over and landscaped. The island is now dedicated to summertime fun.
What’s more, there’s a frequent ferry service to Langøyene during the summer that takes about 15 minutes, making it eminently feasible to stay on the island and visit the city every day. (Read also: Freedom to Roam in Scandinavia).
However Langøyene is only one of half a dozen islands at the city end of the Oslo fjord. The remaining five are served by two ferries that spend all day doing little circuits of them, so we recommend you to do some island-hopping.
Ferry no 93 first calls at diminutive Bleikøya. It’s worth jumping off here for a wander around the exquisite wooden cabins where wealthier Osloites spend their summers.
But greater treasures await you at Gressholmen. Very sparsely populated and mainly given over to a nature reserve, this is a place where you can flop on to a beach or lose yourself among the woods and wild pansies with no inkling whatsoever that Oslo city center is just two miles away. A cafe is open from noon until late.
Next stop is Lindøya, where the 93 will drop you off at its eastern end, leaving you to saunter on footpaths and tracks across the car-free island (again served by a cafe). Here you can marvel at the numerous hamlets of cabins and their proud owners tending their tiny gardens, before arriving at the western end to pick up the 92.
Those eager to see everything will want to stop off at Nakholmen, a smaller version of Lindøya. Otherwise, stay on the boat to Hovedøya (“main island”), a popular picnicking and bathing destination and possessor of a historical gem: the remains of a 12th-century Cistercian monastery founded by Lincolnshire monks. The beautiful barn of a cafe right next door makes for a perfect final watering hole before you head back to the hubbub of the city.
Today Oslo is a diverse, bustling city with a growing immigrant population. Art lovers should visit the Edvard Munch museum. You may also see some of the troubled artist’s best painting for free at the old University Aula on Karl Johans gate. Visitors interested in old Norse tradition should swing by the Viking Ship Museum.
In summertime, with nearly 14 hours of sunlight, it’s best, however, to stay outdoors.
North of the center, but well connected by tramcar service, is Holmenkollen, which is a source of national pride for Norwegians. This ski jump has been hosting ski festivals since 1892, and has been home to many prestigious international competitions, including the Winter Olympics. The jump itself is an impressive sight, while a ski museum and a display of polar artefacts will also be of interest to snow-ophiles. Don’t miss out on visiting the observation deck on top of the jump tower and seeing unparalleled 360 degree views of Oslo any time of year.
Winter is perhaps the perfect time to visit Oslo – it’s the only place in the world where city break and ski break collide so happily. Get yourself a pair of skis, take them on the metro (everyone does), and within 20 minutes you’ll reach Nordmarka forest complete with miles upon miles of cross-country ski trails in peaceful and idyllic surrounds. You can keep going until late, as they’re lit up past 10pm – if you’ve never skied in the dark, believe us you should.
If slope skiing or boarding is more your thing, Oslo Winterpark, similarly close to the center, is another option. This comes with the added bonus of cozy winter cabins where you can sip mulled wine by an open fire – but be warned that drinks here are unsurprisingly pricey. Mulled wine aside, it’s completely kid friendly, too.
There are more than 50 museums and galleries in central Oslo, including those dedicated to magic, music, medicine and the military, but don’t try to do too many. The two mentioned above should however be on your list.
If you have special interests, pick up the Visit Oslo’s pocket guide for full details of the capital’s free attractions, Akershus Fortress, the Oslo City Museum and DogA, the Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture.
The free Vigelandsparken (also known as Frogner Park) is a popular destination. You have probably never seen an art installation quite like it. Staggering 212 of the Norwegian sculptor Gistav Vigeland’s human naked creations, including a towering 50-foot monolith carved from a single stone are on display there. It’s most famous piece is a statue of a young boy having a tantrum in his birthday suit.
While the Frogner Park remains Oslo’s best-known repository of open-air art, it now has a rival on a hillside overlooking the harbor, the 63-acre Ekebergparken. The park was a gift to the city from a local beer magnate and displays works by internationally renowned artists such as Dalí, Rodin and Bourgeois. Not to be missed is a disorientating piece by James Turrell (Sundays only, 12pm-6pm) in which visitors enter a tunnel beneath a reservoir to look into what is apparently infinite space. The park is just a few minutes’ climb from the city center on tram no 18 or 19, so grab a picnic basket and spend the afternoon there.
A trip to the ultra-modern opera house is a must. It is also designed for scampering up the building’s sloping walls.
Where to stay?
The 60-room Oslo Hostel Central has been rated the second-best hostel in the world by Hostelling International backpackers. Housed in an elegant red-brick end-of-terrace building and located in the heart of Oslo between the city’s main drag and the Akershus Fortress, it offers private rooms as well as dorms, friendly multilingual staff on reception, and a decent breakfast to fill up on. The rooms are informed more by a stylish minimalism than any attempt to thrill, but are finished to such a high standard that the “s” in “hostel” becomes all but silent.
Comfort Hotel Xpress, just a short walk from Oslo’s main station, is designed to prioritize the things young travelers care about (clean and comfortable, free wifi, free coffee, some communal kitchen space) and save on things they don’t (your sheets won’t be changed unless you request it, space is limited, there’s no room service).
We also recommend the moderately-priced and historic Hotell Bondeheimen, which offers not only a very central location close to the main square, royal palace and plenty of sights, but a complimentary and delicious breakfast.
Sold in 24-, 48- and 72-hour form, the Oslo Pass not only offers free travel on all public transport (including ferries), it also gets you into more than 30 attractions, outdoor swimming pools and walking tours, and offers discounts at restaurants, shops and on concert tickets. Highlights include the harbor-front Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art the Holmenkollen ski jump (see above) and the Popsenteret, the surprisingly brilliant interactive museum of Norwegian pop (more than just A-ha, it turns out). The pass is available from tourist information centers, hotels, hostels, campsites, and some museums.
If you don’t want to buy an Oslo Pass, grab a Zone 1 season ticket, valid on all buses, trams, trains, metro and ferries (except to Bygdøy). They’re available from kiosks and shops, ticket machines and bus terminals.
Eating and drinking out
Oslo’s dining scene has really upped its game over the last few years. The result is that you can eat very well indeed without going to the city’s most expensive spots.
Oslo is not a city that’s short of hipsters, with its Grünerløkka district to the east of the center, boasting a vibe a lot like eastern parts of London, New York or Berlin. Once an industrial wasteland and the city’s poorest area, it’s now home to coffee shops, microbreweries, bars and restaurants galore.
Be sure to check out great spots like coffee legend Tim Wendelboes eponymous shop in the Grünerløkka negighborhood. “Our goal is to be among the best coffee roasters and espresso bars in the world and to be a preferred source for quality coffee, knowledge and innovation,” says Wendelboe.
Also try St. Pauli – if just for novelty value. This waterside beer garden serves German beers, Norwegian and German food and shows old football matches. Bustling gastropub Grünerløkka Brygghouse, which comes complete with its own microbrewery, is also a good shout.
While in the area, consider a cycle down the fast-flowing Akerselva river (there’s no shortage of places to hire bikes), a spot of shopping at the many vintage markets and boutiques, or a graffiti-spotting stroll.
Lurking in the less-than-trendy St Hanshaugen district, Restaurant Schrøder may be off the tourist trail but the eatery boasts a devoted local following drawn to its traditional Norwegian menu and, in particular, its cod and mackerel dishes (when in season). Grey lino, red-check tablecloths and huge sepia paintings of old Oslo give the place a stuck-in-the-1950s feel. The prices are moderate. If you’re lucky, the diner at the next table might be crime writer Jo Nesbø, who likes the place so much he’s also made it the favorite hangout of his fictional detective, Harry Hole, who has become so popular that Hollywood has turned the crime novel The Snowman into a film, starring German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender.
If you’re looking for genuine Norwegian cooking, head to a place like Elias mat & sånt. If you like Chinese, Thai og kebabs, there are several possibilities in the capital.
Try hip Lokk (information in Norwegian only), which specializes in soups (and more recently some stews) and does them very well indeed. A must visit is Mathallen (literally ‘food hall’) which is an indoor food market in the Grünerløkka area, with more than 30 stalls, bars and restaurants. It could be described as the beating heart of Oslo’s new food movement, and is a reliably atmospheric and affordable place to get your fill. Make sure you try some pickled herring – pretty much Norway’s national dish – at some point.
The Underwater Pub may not actually be underwater (it owes its name to its sub-aqua decor) but it does allow you to bring in your own food. Alternatively, you can ask the bar staff to get one of three local takeaway joints to deliver a meal to your table. For a truly joyous experience, go on a Tuesday or Thursday and nurse your half liter of the local Ringnes beer while professional opera singers perform choice excerpts for your listening pleasure. Most of the action takes place at the top of the stairs of this split-level pub, so get there in the early evening to secure a table with a good view.
At Amsterdam Café you may enjoy opera as well as jazz.
Jazz friends should have a look at what’s happening when they’re staying in the capital of Norway. Jazz in Oslo may be a helpful resource.
Oslo, of course, isn’t East European cheap, but it’s not so expensive that you’ll end up calling your embassy to get back home. Our advice is this: If you’re willing to spend money on a trip to New York City, Tokyo, Moscow, or London, you can definitely afford a trip to Oslo.
Oslo – on a budget, compiled by Tor Kjolberg
The secret to Exploring Oslo on the Cheap