Everything you ever wanted to know about visiting Oslo
Visiting Oslo: The land of fjords, ‘Frozen’ and so much more.
Everything you ever wanted to know about visiting Oslo, Norway and why you should go!
Despite Oslo’s 1000-year history, it’s quite possible that most people’s acquaintance with the capital of Norway has something to do with a little film called Frozen from 2013.
You may have heard of it.
However, while the initial burst of Frozen-related tourism may have tapered off—just as a wave of little girls named Elsa is hitting kindergarten age—the popularity of visiting Oslo is perennial. People visit Oslo for its world-famous cuisine, pulsating nightlife, gorgeous forests, icy landscapes, fjords, stunning architecture and world-class museums all year round. Plus, Oslo was named one of Lonely Planet’s Top Ten Cities in 2018, and with good reason. The Norwegian capital invites visitors to explore the quaint, historic Gamle Oslo, aka old town district, marvel at centuries of fascinating architectural styles on display throughout the city, and enjoy the world-class dining on offer at the six, count ’em, six restaurants mentioned in the Michelin guide, including the only Norwegian restaurant to be awarded three Michelin stars. Also, a favorite when visiting Oslo is strolling the city’s more down-to-earth food halls and traditional food markets, visiting its coffee houses, and partaking in the city’s booming microbrewery culture.
The 2019 annual World Happiness Report ranked Norway at Number 3 on its list of the world’s happiest countries based on criteria like income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support and generosity. Visiting Oslo and seeing her smiling, incredibly beautiful denizens sunning themselves at the city’s extensive parks and nearby beaches in the summer, it’s easy to see why they’re so happy. Visiting Oslo in winter of course offers its own kind of glittering, frosty beauty. But summertime here is a revelation for most people; as they explore the Oslo fjord and the Oslo beach, many travelers are surprised to discover that Oslo weather is plenty warm enough for outdoors-oriented life — even sunbathing in the buff is a popular outdoor activity here!
But how did Norway and its capital get to where they are today: a leader in green technology despite controlling a multi-billion dollar oil-based wealth fund, a tourist hub for people interested in visiting Oslo as well as trekking further north to take in the stunning beauty of the fjord country and the Northern Lights, and home to some of the best cuisine Scandinavia has to offer? Here’s a brief look at where Oslo and Norway have been, which may give us some insight into where they are today.
Vikings and a ‘hard leader’
Vikings plied the waters off of Norway during their heyday between 700 and 1000 A.D, as they did throughout the rest of Scandinavia and beyond. But despite today’s Oslo residents having strong connections to their Viking forebears—and a really cool Viking Museum, a must-see when visiting Oslo, with three restored 9th-century Viking ships that were recovered in the area—there’s not a lot of evidence of any kind of permanent Viking settlement there.
Recent archaeological finds have uncovered Christian burials on the site of modern-day Oslo dating back to pre-1000 A.D., but you wouldn’t want to tell that to the first Norwegian king of that era, “hard leader” King Harald Hadrada. According to Norse sagas, Harald—given the title Hadrada, which roughly translates to “stern counsel” or “hard leader”—founded the city he called Ánslo in 1049 and designated it a trading location or kaupstad. When Harald wasn’t busy accumulating wealth by fighting in wars as far afield as Constantinople or trying to claim the thrones of England and Denmark, he took his place as a key figure in the history of Oslo. By consolidating his power at home, creating a plan for the unification of Norway under one governmental structure, introducing a coin-based economy, and greatly enhancing Norway’s foreign trade, Harald cemented not only his place in the history of Oslo, but also in creating a distinct nation of Norway and Oslo culture.
By 1070, only a couple of decades later, there were enough merchants visiting Oslo that the trading post had grown into a village. It soon grew large enough to compel the Catholic Church to name it a diocese or bishopric, and by 1300 it was elevated to the capital of Norway under the reign of King Haakon V. He was the first Norwegian king to live permanently in the city of Oslo, and he made his own contributions to Oslo culture by initiating construction on Oslo’s famed Akershus Castle and Fortress, the stunning royal compound which served as the model for Elsa and Anna’s castle in Frozen. The fortress dominates the heart of the old town, overlooking the harbor to this day, and is still one of the top places to visit in Oslo, Norway and Scandinavia as a whole.
Trade and trade-adjacent businesses like shipbuilding have always been an important thread running through the history of Oslo, dating back to its earliest days. It wasn’t long before word of Harald’s improvements to the economy and strong pro-trade policies connecting Oslo and Norway with much of the rest of the world reached traders from the Hanseatic League. Merchant guild members of the Hanse confederation had taken up residence in Oslo by the 12th century, and they quickly grew influential as they plied commerce and trade routes linking Norway to not only the other Scandinavian nations, but also the rest of Europe and across the entirety of the Baltic region.
Fires, Danes and other disasters
However, by the 1350s, Oslo and Norway’s population had been drastically reduced due to the Black Plague. Some historical estimates place the population loss for the city of Oslo at up to 75 percent, and the relative power of Oslo and the nation of Norway on the world stage was also severely hampered as a result. By the end of the century, Norway had been reduced to the lesser partner in a “personal union” with Denmark, a governmental structure in which two nations are ruled by one king, but each continues to maintain its own distinct laws, boundaries and culture. Old King Harald would have been shame-faced to learn that by this point, his beloved city of Oslo, Norway was the capital of the nation he had created in name only. The city was more or less reduced to an administrative center, and Norway itself little more than a province of the mighty Danish empire. That was the beginning of a dark period for Norway and for the history of Oslo, with the ostensible king actually residing in Copenhagen, Denmark, and the once-proud nation reduced to the vassalage of the Danish king.
The history of Oslo is filled with natural disasters as well as governmental ones, having been wiped out by fire numerous times over the centuries. Following the the fourteenth time the municipality was more or less razed by a city-wide inferno, then-King Christian IV of Denmark ordered the capital to be rebuilt across the bay, nearer to the Akershus Fortress and Castle. Not one for humility, King Christian also decreed that the new version of the city should be named Christiania, and citizens were ordered to move their shops and workplaces to the new site to honor him. Construction on Christiania began in 1624, and Oslo was the name reserved just for the site of the former city prior to the 1624 fire, which became an eastern suburb of the new capital. Today when visiting Oslo, tourists can see the original area designated for this municipal rebirth in the district locals refer to as Kvadraturen, recognizable for being laid out on a grid. The city was struck by its final Black Plague outbreak in 1654, and another fire devastated Oslo in 1686, destroying a quarter of the city. Oslo (which would continue to be called Christiania until 1925) wasn’t restored to an actual governing capital again until 1814 when the union with Denmark was dissolved.
‘The Scream’ heard round the world
A return to power as the nation’s seat of monarchy seems to have agreed with Oslo, and the 19th century saw something of a renaissance for the capital. The Oslo University opened in 1813, the Royal Palace began construction in 1825, and the Norwegian Parliament building, aka the Stortinget building was begun in 1861. Other new works constructed during this era include the Stock Exchange, the National Theater, and the Christiania Theater. The arts blossomed in Oslo during the 19th century, with playwright Henrik Ibsen (“A Doll’s House”) and Nobel Prize for literature author Knut Hamsen taking up residence there.
Ibsen and Hamsen were the de facto leaders of a flourishing Oslo culture of arts, theater, literature and music that included Norway’s most famous painter, Edvard Munch, the artist behind the iconic painting “The Scream.” Munch studied in Oslo at the Royal School of Art and Design before he made his mark on the history of Oslo. He reportedly said that he was inspired to compose his famous 1893 painting when he was out for a walk near the Oslo fjord around sunset one evening. Munch claims that the setting sun turned the sky “blood red” and he could feel “an infinite scream passing through nature.” Scholars say they have identified the exact location where Munch was walking along the Oslo fjord overlooking the city when he saw that particular sunset, and people visiting Oslo today can walk through the woods of Ekeberg Park to the spot. Experts have offered numerous explanations for the sky’s unusual color as reported by Munch, including a distant volcanic eruption, or simply Munch’s emotional state due to dealing with his sister having recently been sent to an asylum.
By 1850, Oslo had shot past its neighbor to the north Bergen to become Norway’s most populated city, skyrocketing from just 10,000 in 1814 to 230,000 in 1900. By 1905 Norway had become fully independent, and given the history of Oslo, there was a popular groundswell calling to return the name of the capital to the original, suggesting that having a capital named after a long-dead Danish king was less than ideal for an independent Norway. In 1925, the capital was renamed Oslo to reflect that independent spirit, and to restore the name the city previously had 300 years before, prior to the 1624 fire.
Oslo today: Green, clean and great cuisine
Visiting Oslo today, one of the first things you notice is how clean the city is, even by Scandinavian standards. The city of 628,000 residents boasts streets that are pristine and parks that are even more so, as are the trains and most other public transportation. Oslo is also one of the safest cities in Europe, according to police reports.
All of that bodes well for enjoying the city to the fullest for its vivacious citizens. Oslo has a decidedly young and energetic vibe, a forward-thinking hopefulness that’s reflected in ongoing building projects you can see when visiting Oslo along the waterfront. Modern architectural masterpieces like the Opera House are sure to impress, with its angular marble and granite facade appearing to rise up from the harbor in dramatic fashion, as well as the wood and glass Museum of Modern Art, a striking pair of connected buildings.
The youthfulness and vitality of Oslo is also evident in the way residents and city leaders pursue environmentally sustainable solutions for the lives of the residents of the city. Oslo was named the European Green Capital for 2019, and boasts one of the lowest carbon footprints on the planet. Its young and engaged populace demands and has gotten green solutions to the problems of modern living, like a top-notch public transportation system, extensive and respected bicycle lanes, and vast green spaces and parks. And foodies take note: Oslo culinary culture also leads in supporting sustainable farming and fishing practices.
But, oh, when it comes to food while visiting Oslo, there’s so much more.
While the cuisine that Oslo culture had to offer a few short decades ago was once derided as little more than overpriced hot dogs (rød pølse, the bright red Vienna-type sausages also favored by the Danes) these days Oslo has taken a respected position on the world stage when it comes to dining out. The city is at the forefront of the neo-Nordic cuisine that has been evolving in Scandinavian countries since the early 2000s. As the city’s eclectic and innovative chefs continue to explore, some have even taken to labeling Norwegian and particularly Oslo food as “neo-fjordic” cuisine.
Places to visit in Oslo include the northernmost three-Michelin-starred restaurant in the world, along with five other restaurants mentioned in the Michelin guide. But for hardcore foodies eager to immerse themselves in true Oslo culture, nothing beats the food halls. There’s both the traditional kind and the decidedly non-traditional, where you can stroll through trendy refurbished warehouses or factories and choose from among various stalls offering everything from pho, shawarma, Thai, tacos, and even the traditional lutefisk for the brave, or just flatbread with goat’s cheese and pickled beets. You can probably even find a pølse, if that’s your thing.
Going hand-in-hand with the rise of neo-Nordic cuisine, inherent to Oslo culture is the coffee shop. While Norwegians don’t have a special word for the long, luxurious afternoon coffee break like the Swedish fika, they nevertheless take their coffee very seriously. In exploring Oslo, the visitor with weary feet will never find him or herself very far from a coffee shop that may double as a micro-roastery and almost certainly will have homemade pastries and other snacks. And if you visit in the depths of summer when the weather in Oslo is at its most outdoors-friendly, you can partake in the Norwegian tradition of “white nights, black coffee” and enjoy a late evening coffee brewed over a fire as you watch the last of the daylight finally recede around 11 p.m.
Nowhere is the vibrant youthfulness of Oslo culture more evident than in the city’s booming nightlife scene. Bars overflow with joyous, sweaty dancers every weekend listening to Europe’s best DJs, local rock and punk acts, and even Norway’s famous black metal music while sipping a locally-brewed beer or a trendy, experimental cocktail. If something a little more highbrow is more to your taste, the nightlife while visiting Oslo also offers plenty of opportunities to take in jazz, chamber music or opera, as well as offering an impressive array of options for live theater and cabaret.
Oslo culture also heavily favors outdoors-oriented activities, with plentiful urban parks and a number of nearby beaches that draw crowds of sunbathers and volleyball players in summer. Oslo beach life isn’t confined to the typical summertime activities however, and some of them have naturist sections as well as plentiful hiking and biking trails nearby. The Oslo fjord itself is a great place to explore Oslo and its surrounding countryside, as boat tours of the nearby islands are endless opportunities for Instagrammable moments. And with just a 20-minute metro ride out from the city center you can find yourself—or lose yourself—in the Nordmarka Forest, a pristine wilderness area dotted with small lakes, towering pines and great hiking trails. And don’t forget that winter outdoors activities when visiting Oslo are unbeatable. Cross-country skiing in the Nordmarka is incredible, and there are numerous downhill ski resorts within easy striking distance of the city.
Summing up Oslo
With such an embarrassment of riches for the traveler interested in learning more about Scandinavian culture, visiting Oslo, Norway is an unbeatable trip. The offerings range from wilderness and outdoors activities to top-rated restaurants that draw foodies from around the world. A young and vibrant nightlife and great club scene as well as traditional Norwegian coffee culture make exploring Oslo and its nightlife well worth the price of admission. Toss in an incredible history replete with plenty of Viking lore, great beaches in summer and world-class skiing in winter, and its easy to see why visiting Oslo should be on everyone’s bucket list!
There are no stupid questions: Oslo edition
Everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask!
What is the population of Oslo?
The Oslo population is about 620,000 residents if you count the city proper, while the metro area boasts just over 1 million.
What is Oslo famous for?
Vikings, for starters! Oslo culture is peppered with reminders of Norway’s famous forebears, with plenty of museums featuring restored Viking vessels, sword shops, Viking-inspired signage, and re-enactments. You’ll even see plenty of everyday people strolling about town when you visit Oslo with the traditional plaited beard and hair braiding you’ve seen on the History Channel. The city is also famous for its great architecture, the Edvard Munch (“The Scream”) museum, and is at the forefront of the neo-Nordic cuisine movement.
It’s cold in Oslo, right? Will it snow in July?
Possible, but unlikely. While the winters there are certainly a bit on the chilly side—record lows are around -26ºC or -14ºF—summer highs average a balmy 20ºC or 72ºF. With record highs of 34ºC or 94ºF, you probably won’t need your parka in July.
Is Oslo worth visiting?
With its stunning landscapes, incredible mountain trekking, breathtaking fjords, skiing in winter and beaches in summer, the outdoor life in Oslo alone is worth the trip. Add to that the six Michelin-starred restaurants, a thriving music and microbrewery scene, cutting-edge architecture and some of the best shopping in Scandinavia, and exploring Oslo could be a never-ending story — not necessarily a Frozen one either, if you go in summer!
Is Oslo expensive?
The rumors are true, visiting Oslo can be one of the most expensive trips in all of Scandinavia. However, as with travel anywhere, with diligent research and good planning, more wallet-friendly options are available for dining, accommodations, and even getting there — starting with sub-$25 direct flights from London.
How many days do you need in Oslo?
The Norwegian capital is a compact, easily walkable city, so exploring Oslo can go relatively quickly. However, simply covering the ground isn’t the same as truly visiting Oslo, much less getting to know her. In order to get at least a feel for what the city has to offer, you’ll want to allow for a minimum of five to seven days. Add more time if you’re interested in exploring Oslo’s surrounding countryside.
What’s the best time to visit Oslo?
People visit Oslo year round, depending on what they want to see. For sunlight, outdoor dining, beaches, boat tours and trekking in the nearby forests, summer might be best. However, plenty of people visit Oslo during the winter with skis in tow, ready to tackle its world-class ski resorts, enjoy the breathtaking frozen splendor of nearby fjord country, or simply to delight in the fairy-tale vistas of snow-dusted rooftops throughout the city.
Can you see the Northern Lights in Oslo?
First of all, the prime viewing season to see the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights is when skies are darkest in the northern hemisphere between September and March. The activity intensifies during the equinox months of September and March. But seeing the northern lights is tricky — the phenomenon has to do with solar activity and the earth’s magnetic fields, for starters, neither of which is nearly as predictable as say, weather. Then, you need to be at the right latitude, plus you have to have dark, cloudless skies, which are always tough to count on given Oslo’s weather. Long story short, it is possible to see the Northern Lights if you get to a dark, elevated place well outside the lighted parts of Oslo proper, but it really isn’t very likely. Your best bet is setting aside some time while you’re visiting Oslo to join a tour further north for a couple of days when conditions are right for viewing.
Why visit Oslo?
Heck, after reading all this, why would you not visit Oslo? For natural beauty, a sparkling clean, incredibly safe city on the cutting edge of architecture yet true to its 1000-year-old history of Vikings and more, home of great cuisine, booming microbrewery culture, music, film, and eco-friendly practices—not to mention a city that is home to some of the happiest people on the planet—you simply can’t top visiting Oslo!
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