Oslo defines Nordic cool.
Once a seat of the Viking empire, Norway’s capital was shaped by centuries of maritime culture. Visitors today can take a bite out of a thriving food scene and discover a new breed of young designers and quirky drinking dens in such former working-class neighborhoods as Grünerløkka.
Natural features—forests, valleys, island-studded inlets—distinguish this Scandinavian metropolis. Flanked on three sides by the wooded hills of the Marka region and on one by the 62-mile inlet known as Oslofjord, Norway’s capital is an ideal destination for lovers of the outdoors—which describes most of the city’s 600,000 residents.
Stay at one of the hotels in the Holmenkollen district, Oslo’s leafy playground, and you may find yourself hiking, biking or, weather permitting, cross-country skiing before dinner. A 20-minute metro ride from this verdant outer borough sits Oslo’s center, founded some 1,000 years ago and pulsing with museums and galleries, world-class restaurants, and fun-loving nightlife. For recreation, head to Frogner Park, where locals promenade, skateboard, and sunbathe among 212 statues by Norwegian artist Gustav Vigeland.
But for the best impression of Oslo, experience it from the water. Catch one of the hop-on, hop-off sailboats for a cruise that takes in the reenergized Aker Brygge area, City Hall (home to the Nobel Peace Prize awards ceremony), and the medieval Akershus Fortress. A particular draw is the waterfront Opera House, completed in 2007 and shaped like an ice floe; its sloping marble-clad roof lures walkers at all hours.
Oslo’s contemporary sheen pairs with a briny maritime history. On Bygdøy, a peninsula west of downtown known for its museums, the Viking Ship Museum houses a pair of well-preserved ninth-century ships along with period artifacts. Two more recent vessels rate their own museums.
The Fram Museum commemorates “the world’s strongest polar vessel,” the century-old Fram, used by a series of Arctic and Antarctic explorers, including Roald Amundsen. Next door, the Kon-Tiki Museum focuses on the oceangoing balsa raft that environmentalist Thor Heyerdahl sailed from Peru to Polynesia in 1947. A mile north lies the outdoor Norwegian Folk Museum, with its much photographed 12th-century wood church.
> Norse Noshing
For a nation with a small population, Norway has produced a surprising number of world-class chefs, including four Bocuse d’Or gold medalists. You will find one of them, Bent Stiansen, at his restaurant, Statholdergaarden. Other worthy culinary emporia include Eik and Maaemo, the latter the only Nordic restaurant to receive two Michelin stars on its first attempt.
Classic Norwegian fare fills the menu at Grand Café, where smørbrød (open-faced sandwiches) and prawn mayonnaise are perennial favorites. Don’t miss the large mural on the back wall portraying the Christiania Bohemians, a group of artists who patronized the café in the late 1800s; you may recognize playwright Henrik Ibsen, who came to Grand Café twice daily to quaff a beer and read the papers.
One of Oslo’s most popular lunch spots for 115 years, the Viennese-style Theatercaféen, across from the National Theater, also serves smørbrød, along with reindeer and seafood (try the lutefisk) entrées.
For a more Bohemian ambience, head to the Grünerløkka area, where offbeat cafés and restaurants have names such as Noah’s Ark, Villa Paradiso, and Mucho Mas (Mexican home cooking). The Vietnamese-flavored Hai Cafe is a local darling. African and Asian eateries abound in the eastern parts of downtown and in the Grønland neighborhood.
Aker Brygge, a renovated shipyard west of Grønland, and adjacent Tjuvholmen (“thief island”), Oslo’s newest neighborhood, teem with pubs and bars. On summer days you’ll find people munching on prawns fresh from fishing boats and enjoying after-work beers. Many Oslovians reserve Sundays for a hike in the hills north of the city, for panoramic views—and servings of waffles with sweet goat cheese in the log-framed Frognerseteren Restaurant.
> Fashion Fair
An eclectic mix of unconventional shops is on tap in Grünerløkka, from vintage clothing at Frøken Dianas Salonger to imaginative gifts and home products at Liebling and odd T-shirts at Probat. Indoor food hall Mathallen stocks coffees, fish, cheeses, and meats, including such local offerings as smoked sheep’s head; children are invited to try free cooking courses. Then there is Friends Fair Trade, which claims to have Scandinavia’s biggest selection of fair-trade clothes, gifts, and more.
Oslo insiders know to shop nearby Grønland for the city’s best assortment of vegetables and fruits. Also here: colorful textiles at bargain prices.
The independent bookshop Tronsmo is a literary gem, covering everything from politics to design— and with a comic-book collection in the basement.
Scout out haute couture at Eger, on Egertorget (Eger Square); Paleet, near Karl Johans Gate; Glas-Magasinet and 0ther boutiques on Bogstadveien; and everywhere, it seems, in Aker Brygge. For men’s fashion, don’t miss Moods of Norway; it has three shops in central Oslo.
Behind the city cathedral, the Basarhallene (“bazaar halls”) house arts and handicraft studios. Several artisans also work in and sell their wares at the Norwegian Folk Museum. For antique and vintage oddities, stop in Butikk Brocante. Classic Norwegian sweaters and blankets fill the shelves of Heimen Husflid.
Want more contemporary work? Norway Designs and Expo Arte Jewellery Design sell clothing and jewelry by European artists. And an afternoon jaunt takes you to Bærums Verk, a 17th-century ironworks a dozen miles northwest of downtown, recently repurposed into shops, restaurants, art galleries, and artisans’ workshops.
> After Hours
Norwegians drink more coffee than anyone else, which is reflected in Oslo’s trove of independent coffee shops. Many double as nighttime cocktail bars, such as LaWo, Café Con Bar, and Fuglen, where the vintage furniture is for sale.
Care to dance? Nivou, Oslo’s largest nightclub, offers two floors, which fill by 1 a.m. Patrons at Baroque Bygdøy Allé strut to house music under chandeliers. Raspoutine’s “imperial Russian” decor draws a tony clientele inured to high prices.
Find alternative entertainment at Underwater Pub, where you may feel you’re in an aquarium; professional and amateur opera singers entertain diners Tuesdays and Thursdays. Litteraturhuset (“house of literature”) encompasses a bookshop, a restaurant, and, best of all, places to sit and read. Brick-walled Bare Jazz caters to that genre with live acts and a shop selling jazz recordings. Lorry has long been popular for its 129 types of beer served in a homey, quirkily decorated setting.
In Grünerløkka you’ll find such fun venues as the 1950s-style Bar Boca (fabulous mojitos in summer), colorful Café Kaos, vintage-themed Fru Hagen, and the industrial-chic club Blå. If you prefer wine bars (with Italian food), Enoteca, with two locations, is a fine choice.
For creative cocktails and one of the best vistas of Oslo, ascend to 34 SkyBar, atop Norway’s tallest hotel, the Radisson Blu Plaza. And for performances—on stage and on a plate—head to the coolest venue in town, the Oslo Opera House, where the arts are complemented by some creative cooking in the winter-themed Argent Restaurant and the glass-walled Sanguine Brasserie.
This piece, reported by Anne-Sophie Redish, first appeared in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine. This is an adaptation of a story that ran in our partner U.K. edition, National Geographic Traveller.