Three Days in Oslo
All in all, you will be delighted with your visit to Oslo, capital of Norway, which the United Nations has ranked as the best country in the world to live, because it has the worlds highest standard of living and superior levels of education, income and life expectancy. Oil revenues and a focus on social welfare politics have placed Norway at the top of the United Nations Human Development Index for the third year in a row. Average salaries have doubled to $45,000 in the past 20 years. As a result of this growth, Oslo might be a little expensive to visit, but you will find it is very worthwhile and we will show you how to economize while still having a great time, as shown in our travel videos.
Oslo's population is only 550,000, making it the smallest Scandinavian capital, yet the citys official boundaries sprawl far into the rural countryside for 175 square miles, half of which is forest. Another half million people reside in the surrounding region of the Oslo Fjord area. With just 4.5 million residents in this huge country that stretches 1,200 miles, Norway is the least-densely populated European country.
You cannot get lost in Oslo. The fascinating downtown is a compact area just one mile long and a half-mile wide, filled with the typical European variety of shops, parks, restaurants, museums, scenic waterfront and historic sights to keep you highly entertained for several days.
We arrive and check in to our Grand Hotel, located on Oslos main street, Karl Johans Gate, and facing across the street the very pretty Studenterlunden Park in the heart of Oslo, as you will see in our travel videos. This small park is Oslos major gathering place in fair weather, serving as an outdoor living room. The busy garden caf√© in the middle is an excellent place to stop for drinks and a light meal, or just sit on a bench and watch the entertainers who often show up in front of the Parliament. A long fountain runs through another section of the park, and the whole area is circled with tall trees and beautiful landscaping.
Oslos three main shopping streets, Karl Johans, Rosenkrantz and Stortingsgata, surround this popular patch of greenery, so be sure to wander later along the full length of each one to squeeze the most out of Oslos best neighborhood, and do some meandering through the park as well. The shops along the main stretch of Karl Johans used to be private townhouses, a hundred years ago. In those early days people did not want anyone living across the street from them looking in their windows, so they bought the land facing them and turned it into the park. Nobody lives here any more because it is the most active retail strip in town.
In the next block from our hotel there is an excellent small shopping mall called Paleet, which you could easily miss if you didnt realize the doorway at number 37 Karl Johan leads to an inner world with three levels containing 42 stores and a few restaurants along the sidewalk out front along the main street. The sleek, modern design of the mall is artfully composed of colorful marble, glass and bronze, enhanced by bubbling fountains and potted palms.
We begin our walking tour along the pedestrian mall section of Karl Johans Gate and continue for six blocks towards the train station. The busy intersection fronting the station is crossroads of town, with a large shopping mall on one side, the cathedral one block over, and many small shops along the side streets. Later you might return to the mall to eat in their ground-level food court and do some browsing while admiring the nine-story atrium, busy with local shoppers, as seen in our
We walk to the Oslo Cathedral, the Domkirche (1697), which sits on Stortorvet Square, one of the main squares of town, which hosts a colorful flower market, as you will see in our travel videos. Some items to notice briefly at the church are the bronze front doors, depicting the Sermon on the Mount, stained glass windows, carved pulpit and the highly decorated ceiling. Arcades behind the cathedral were once stables but now host cafes and a bazaar where artisans present their works, continuing a tradition from the Middle Ages. Across the street is Oslos largest and best department store, Glas Magasinet, which offers many goods of Norwegian design, and is especially known for high-quality glass works. Yet another pedestrian mall, Torggata, extends three blocks north from here into another nice shopping area. From here we walk towards the waterfront into the traditional downtown historic district.
The oldest buildings of Oslo can be found in several blocks between the train station and Akershus Fortress at the harbor. This neighborhood offers a pleasant place for a city stroll, with shops, restaurants, a couple of modern art museums and various historic buildings, presenting a typical business environment that has special appeal for connoisseurs of city life.
This section was created in unison after Oslo was completely destroyed by a great fire in 1624, which burned the wooden village to the ground in a single day. Timber has always been readily available in this land of forests, so wood had been the preferred building material. After the fire, King Christian IV required all new houses be built with stone or brick to make them fireproof. The king also decided to rebuild the town in a slightly different location, closer to the fortress, so all the residents left their home sites and moved into this new area.
King Christian IV personally designed the layout of the new town with wide streets that follow the same grid pattern we see today -- when he wasnt busy fathering 23 children and ruling Denmark at the same time. This proud king renamed the city after himself, and it continued to be known as Christiania for the next three hundred years until it was renamed Oslo in 1925.
We walk along the main street of this neighborhood, Radhusgata, to find several of Oslos oldest existing structures, including: Radmannsgarden, the towns earliest house, built in 1626, and adjacent to it, the Anatomigarden, a half-timbered building that was part of the early university. They are now the site of a caf√© and art gallery. Across the street is Garmannsgarden, which was built in 1641 and served as City Hall from 1733 to 1843. Today it houses the Theater Museum, which is appropriate since Oslos first public theater performance happened here in 1667. Two blocks further down Radhusgata at number 11 is the well-preserved Vice Regents Manor, now one of the towns most deluxe restaurants, Stattholdergarden.
Oslos two main museums of modern art are in this neighborhood one block apart: the National (Museet for Samtidskunst) showcases art from 1945 through today in a rustic stone building formerly occupied by the Bank of Norway, located at 4 Bankplassen; and the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, with contemporary special exhibits in a recently-built structure at 4 Dronningens gate. You might want to come back in your free time later.
A meandering stroll along the grid of streets in this old section is quite rewarding and easily done in under one hour, for it covers a square area about 500 meters on each side, and is filled with venerable stone and brick buildings dating back a few centuries. There is an energetic downtown feeling to the place, which is occupied mostly by offices, shops and restaurants, as shown in our travel videos. We explore some of the streets named Myntgata, Tollbugata, Prinsens gate, Dronningensgate, Kirkegata, Akersgata, the small plaza at Christiania torv, and the pedestrian malls along Nedre Slotsgate and Ovre Slotsgate.
We walk along the waterfront to see the impressive home of the city government, Oslo City Hall, which was a built between 1931 and 1950 in what was then the very modern style of Functionalism, with a plain brick design that looks like three large, plain boxes. At first the public did not care for this structure, which clashed with the rest of Oslos more sophisticated design, but of course, over time, it has been accepted and stands as one of the recognizable symbols of the city. City Hall is the center of administration, with offices in the two towers and larger meeting rooms in-between. Most famously, the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded here each year on December 10th. Underneath the exterior arcades you will notice scenes carved in wood depicting the old Norse mythology. City Hall, with many fine artistic displays showing the traditions and history of Norwegian society, is open to the public for a slight admission charge when there are no official functions happening inside.
City Hall faces the harbor, where there is a major focus of activities in Oslo: a large restaurant mall, historic sights and excursion boat services. Here you will find Aker Brygge, the most exciting dining and shopping complex in town, where a shipyard that stood until the 1970s has now been transformed into a wonderful place to have a meal, do a little shopping and take a stroll along the waterfront. An indoor food court and lovely sidewalk cafes offer prime position for watching the attractive crowds on parade along the waterfront. End your walk here, free for dinner, perhaps at one of these attractive outdoor restaurants with a harbor view, illustrated in our travel videos.
VIGELAND SCULPTURE PARK
We begin the day with a 20-minute trolley ride through town to Vigeland Sculpture Park, which is often cited as Oslos top attraction: an amazing collection of 200 statues by Gustav Vigeland, arranged in one of the worlds most interesting sculpture gardens. Even those who dont care much for statues, this will find this a worthwhile expedition because the subjects are people and human emotions, which have universal appeal. The pastoral setting in a large, green park also enhances the experience. Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943) is little-known outside of Norway because hardly any of his pieces left the country, so the viewer will be surprised and delighted by the absolute genius of this work. It is a breathtaking ensemble that can be considered one of the worlds great works of sculpture.
We approach the statues through a beautiful park of broad green lawns lined with poplar trees, then reach a bridge that has 58 different bronze sculptures of naked people, showing powerful emotions through body language and facial expression. Be sure to find the most famous piece along the south side of the bridge, the Angry Boy, his face contorted with rage and little fists clenched in fury. Or look at the mother and daughter with their backs towards each other, having a disagreement, or the father and small boy happily playing together.
Vigelands major sculptural theme is the family, with parents and children coming to life -- loving, playing, crying, running, fighting, hugging and interacting at all stages of birth, growth and death. The struggle of good and evil is another of the themes expressed in bronze and stone. We cover this park thoroughly in our
A climactic crescendo is reached at the center of the sculpture park with the great Fountain, supported by six giants representing the ages of man, and towering above it all, the Monolith, a huge, 55-feet-tall, stone obelisk, with 121 naked, larger-than-life, writhing human figures carved into the single piece of granite. A team of craftsmen worked under the artists supervision for 14 years, transferring one million measurements from his model to transform the 270-ton granite block into this amazing totem pole of the human condition. Arrayed in a circle around the Monolith are 36 groups of statues on different levels, connected by steps and platforms. Several steel gates with expressive outlines of human figures serve as a symbolic boundary, enclosing the central complex.
Vigeland did not discuss or explain his work, but rather invites viewers to make their own interpretations. Perhaps Vigeland was trying to compensate for his own troubled family life with these themes: he did not get along well with his father, who drank a lot, or with his first wife and two children, whom he left early on. But as a child he spent much time with his grandfather on a farm, and this warm relationship is depicted in many of the statues of friendly, old men playing with children. Vigeland studied in Copenhagen and then Paris, where he met Rodin and was inspired by this great sculptor. It took him 40 years to complete this brilliant ensemble. We then proceed by public bus to the Bygod Peninsula, which has an outdoor historical museum and other attractions.
NORWEGIAN FOLK MUSEUM
Here we travel back to the 19th century and see all of Norway in one small park, with original farm houses, country manors, village centers and local experts dressed in authentic costumes to tell you all about it. That is just what you will find at the amazing Norwegian Folk Museum, one of Europes largest open air museums, with 150 original buildings moved here from all regions of Norway.
Each building cluster has a knowledgeable guide in native costume who will entertain you with a personal tour of the property, demonstrate some crafts and answer any questions you might have. Our schedule brings us here just as the historic buildings open at 10:00am, so we can enjoy visits with the guides, who you can have all to yourself for a short while until the main crowds show up around mid-day. You might see a blacksmith in action, taste some freshly baked goods, or watch the goats and pigs being fed. Interior visits of each site show you traditional furniture, kitchen utensils and domestic items which really provide an accurate feeling for the traditional culture. As you walk through the homes and farms with your guides, they tell stories about the actual people who lived there, bringing the nations history to life.
The grounds are landscaped in a natural way that gives the feeling of being way out in the country, with many farm animals to create that rural atmosphere. Each building complex is separated from the others by trees and pastures, so you can enjoy the adventure of navigating from one area to the next as you discover the many sites. Winding dirt paths connect everything efficiently, so you will be able to get around with minimal effort.
Probably the most famous building is the Stave Church, built in 1200 entirely of natural wood beams reaching to heaven like a medieval skyscraper or wooden pyramid. This used to be the common form of old Norwegian churches but now there are only a handful left in the country because they are quite small and dark inside, so they were replaced with larger structures. Fortunately, this example was moved here in 1880 from western Norway and has been perfectly preserved as our guide explains in the
Nearly all the parks buildings are made of wood, since timber was the main natural resource of Norway. This gives an earthy appearance to the design that is greatly enhanced by the sod roofs on many of the houses. It creates a hobbit-like atmosphere where it looks as if the old structures have somehow grown naturally out of the ground. The grassy roofs insulated the homes and were carefully cultivated, growing on top of several layers of birch bark shingles that waterproofed the building and kept the interior warm in winter and cool in summer. Two layers of sod were put together, one growing up and the other down, with the roots mingling in the middle so they did not damage the wood structure. This natural matting would last for many years before it needed to be replaced.
Lovers of arts and crafts will be especially delighted with the Old Town center where the artisans have their workshops, demonstrating traditional skills and selling unique products made there. This includes a silversmith, weavers, candle makers and especially, The Pottery, which has been part of the park for 50 years. Domestic slipware made here is wheel-thrown in local clay with techniques and designs dating back four centuries.
After the folk park, we walk ten minutes to the Viking Ship Museum, 600 yards away, or you can wait for the city bus to bring you there. This small museum is another one of the treasures of Oslo, containing two large Viking ships and many cases of artifacts accompanied by informative descriptions. Next we can walk to the nearby dock and catch the little, yellow ferry for a 5-minute ride to the Norwegian Maritime Museum, which documents the entire history of seafaring, from hollow logs to the most modern technology and features an excellent movie on three screens that flies you over the scenic beauties of Norway. By now it is lunch and you have your choice of sandwiches at the outdoor caf√©, or a delicious buffet lunch with local specialties.
There are two other nautical-themed museums on the peninsula to consider for a quick glimpse: the Kon-Tiki Museum, which not only documents Thor Heyerdahls dubious theories about Polynesian origins in South America, but showcases some interesting artifacts from Easter Island, where he did some useful archaeology; and the Fram Museum, with a large ice-breaker used for Polar expeditions in the late 19th century. Then we walk back to the ferry dock at Dronningen for the ten-minute trip back to City Hall. Upon reaching the main docks you might want to walk two blocks over and visit the castle.
On the other side of the harbor you will see the imposing Akershus Castle and Fortress, which is Oslos oldest and most historic attraction, built between 1299 and 1319. A ten-minute walk along the waterfront brings you up the forts ramparts, which offer a lovely view looking back across the harbor. As shown in our travel video, you can walk around the fortress grounds for free, but it is well worth time and money for an interior visit, guided by an costumed expert who explains the functions of the different rooms and fills you in on much of the royal history.
The fortress has been attacked, rebuilt and expanded many times, so there is not much left today from the original structure, but the existing complex is fascinating to explore. The rugged, stone walls at one time had been painted white, but now have an earthy, organic appearance. In addition to guarding the city from attack for five centuries, it also served as a royal residence, so the interior has an elaborate design with regal furnishings. The castle was greatly expanded by Christian IV, an important king who ruled Denmark and Norway from 1588-1648.
The Norwegian Resistance Museum is also on the grounds of the Akershus Fortress, depicting the struggle against the Nazis during World War II, when Norway was occupied for five years by German troops. Officially neutral, Norwegians actively fought against the Germans and put their merchant fleet to work for the Allies. Later this afternoon while walking on your own in the neighborhood of our hotel there are more attractions to discover.
Two blocks along Karl Johans from our hotel you will find the oldest university buildings in Oslo, which were opened in 1854, a few decades after the University of Oslo was founded in 1811. These buildings are now used for administration rather than classes because the main part of campus which accommodates about 30,000 students is outside the city center. There are only four universities in the country, all of them free for Norwegians.
The three attractive university buildings are in the Neoclassical style with impressive columns and pediments, set back in a one-block campus of green lawns and tall trees. Have a look inside the central building to appreciate the beautiful entrance hall, lined with tall columns and coffered ceiling, like a Greek temple, and then proceed into the auditorium where you will find three walls covered with large murals by Edvard Munch, Norways most famous artist, who worked on them for ten years. Many more works by Munch await you if you visit his museum tomorrow.
Karl Johans Gate ends just beyond the university at the lush garden surrounding the Royal Palace, which was built by King Karl Johan, a French general placed on the Swedish and Norwegian thrones by Napoleon. King Johan never got to live in his palace, however, because he died four years before it was finished. His son, Oscar I, moved in after ascending the throne. Norway today is a constitutional monarchy whose king works in the palace but resides elsewhere. The gardens are always open to the public and are a popular jogging route, but the palace is not open to visitors.
Just in front of the palace you will notice the National Theater, the most important stage in Norway. The building dates from 1899 and is quite beautiful inside and out with a mix of baroque and rococo elements. Notice the statue out front of Henrik Ibsen, considered the father of modern theater and probably the worlds most famous Norwegian. His plays are frequently produced here and every other year there is a major Ibsen festival with theater companies from around the world presenting his plays in their native languages, creating a major event on the Oslo social calendar. Ibsen lived just a few blocks from here towards the end of his life, from 1891 -- 1906. A universal thinker, he spent a lot of time in Rome where he wrote many of his famous works, and his plays are still regularly staged throughout the world.
This morning would be an excellent time to visit Oslos two major museums for art and history, easy to find in the center of town just behind the three university buildings, two blocks from our hotel. These fascinating museums are free and certainly worth at least one hour each.
The National Gallery is the most important art museum in the country, with an excellent collection of important European paintings in a large space extending through sixty rooms on three floors. Of course, there is an excellent display of art by Norwegians, totaling 2,000 paintings, with a large number from the important 1870-1910 period when local Impressionism evolved in the direction of Naturalistic Realism. Youll also be delighted by the nice sample of French artists, including Manet, Renoir, C√©zanne, Gaughin and Matisse along with several rooms of Old Masters from Renaissance and Baroque times, including Velasquez and El Greco.
One stunning room is filled with some of the best work of Edvard Munch, Norways most important artist, chiefly famous for ‚ÄúThe Scream,‚Äù which is hanging here. Several other versions of this iconic work are on display across town at the Munch Museum, another must for the art-lovers. The Munch Museum owns about 1,000 of his paintings, with many of the best permanently exhibited in large, beautiful galleries that would be ideal to visit tomorrow afternoon.
In a side section on the ground floor of the National Gallery you will discover a room filled with plaster casts of important statues from ancient Greece and Rome. There are also two rooms of modern art, rounding out the collection nicely, although most of the 20th century pieces were moved to the National Museum of Contemporary Art, covered yesterday. The National Gallery building itself is a work of art, designed in a neo-Renaissance style of the late 19th century.
The Historical Museum, one block away, covers the evolution of culture from the Stone Age through the Middle Ages, then continues the human story with an Ethnographic Collection, exhibiting artifacts from the Arctic, Africa and the Americas. As one might expect, the Viking section is especially interesting: horned helmets, battleaxes, farming implements, swords, boats, gold jewelry and hundreds of other fascinating items depicting life of those infamous, ancient Norwegians, who thrived from the years 780 through 1050.
While going through the museum, you will learn all about the history of Norway. Oslo was founded in the year 1050 by a Viking king, Harald Hardrada, who built the first fortress on this site, thereby encouraging people to establish a permanent settlement and marking the end of the Viking era. Harald attempted to conquer northern England but lost his life in battle during that fateful year of 1066. The New World had just been discovered fifty years earlier by the Vikings, led by Leif Eriksson, a Norwegian whose legendary adventure has been confirmed by archaeological studies in Newfoundland. The Viking period lasted nearly 300 years, with a great deal of exploration and conquest extending throughout Europe, into the Mediterranean as far as Istanbul.
It is true the Vikings did a great deal of looting and plundering, but they also established stable, peaceful governments in their conquered territories and introduced advanced technologies that made life easier. Vikings have a justifiable reputation as savage pagans fighting against the Christians, but they later converted to Christianity in 995.
After the vigorous Viking period during the early Middle Ages, Oslo was a small village with very little importance. In the mid-14th century the Black Plague swept through here, as it did most of Europe, killing half the population. In 1380 Denmark seized control and during the next few centuries retained power, although shifting alliances brought influences as well as trade with Germany and Sweden through the Hanseatic League, a powerful trading network.
The religious revolution that swept through Europe in the 16th century converted the northern countries from Catholic to Protestant and moved ownership of vast landholdings from church to king. Norwegians had remained Catholic until 1537, when the king became the head of the national Lutheran Church. In 1814, after the fall of Napoleon, Sweden successfully attacked Denmark and seized control of Norway, which continued until 1905 when Norway finally became independent.
There is still time left this afternoon for art-lovers to visit the Munch Museum, which has about 200 of his paintings displayed in a large, modern building which opened in 1963. It is beyond walking distance, but easily reached by Bus 20 or metro to Toyen. Its ironic that Edvard Munch (1863-1944) is widely known for just one painting, ‚ÄúThe Scream,‚Äù and yet the rest of his pictures show the same skillful hand at work, laced with existential anxiety and strong human feelings. These other pieces are not well know because he sold very few paintings and donated his entire collection for this museum. You have to come to Oslo to experience the wide range of subjects and emotions he explored. Munch studied in Berlin and Paris, influenced by Gauguin, Van Gogh and other Post-Impressionists, but then took the art world to a new level of Expressionism, infused with powerful, frightening passions and brilliant colors.
That does it for Oslo, a city with one of the world's highest standards of living and many fine attractions.