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Oslo, Norway - From a famous ski jump to barcode design, it’s cutting edge

I am a little embarrassed to say that I had never given Norway much thought, other than watching athletes in skin-tight aerodynamic suits win the most medals over the years at the Winter Olympic games. But Oslo was the third stop on our November travels through Scandinavia, and I was in for one big surprise.

We arrived in Oslo after a brief flight from Stockholm, Sweden. Again, an express train deposited us in about 18 minutes at the National Theatre Station, only about a 15 minute walk to our accommodation - make that a 20 minute walk as the police diverted us around a group of Israeli/Palestinian protestors. In Oslo, we rented a little studio suite with cooking facilities just steps to the west of the Royal Palace which sits in the beautiful Slotsparken Park. I highly recommend this location as, unbeknownst to me when I booked, it is smack-dab in the middle of the government embassies which means we were surrounded by opulent houses for way less than the cost of an average hotel room in Oslo. It was also close to the metro and tram and busses, not that you really need transit as Oslo is such a compact city. The main centre is maybe a couple of kilometres long, not including the dock areas. The Royal Palace is also a good reference point as it sits on a hill in the western part of central Oslo.

The Royal Palace and Slotsparken Park: The Royal Palace was opened in 1849 and is considered one of the most important buildings in Norway. It is neoclassical in style, built of yellow brick, with pillars dominating the front. It’s still in use for state dinners, visiting heads of state, and working royalty. The huge fellow on a horse statue in front is Karl Johan, former king of both Sweden and Norway. Slotsparken is the Palace Park, about 54 acres in total with beautiful paths and statues.

Oslo is a city of about 700,000 that sits at the end of the Oslofjord, and the city extends down both sides of the fjord, so it looks like an inverted ‘y’. There are a total of just over a million people in the metro area. It’s a beautiful city, sitting on the water but surrounded by green hills and mountains. Two thirds of the area are deemed protected areas of nature.

Oslo has a history dating to the Vikings, founded in about 1040. It apparently had a couple of name changes but settled on Oslo in 1925. In the 2000’s, it was the fastest growing city in Europe. Now, it is the economic and government centre of Norway.

So, why was I so surprised?

Well, what stood out for me is that Oslo is a photographer’s dream for lovers of modern architecture and design. Oslo has become known for its contemporary creativity, and it’s worth researching. Apparently, the most recent design is influenced by factors such as available finance and the desire to have buildings that suit many purposes while being iconic, the need for pleasing buildings that assist well-being given the rather harsh weather, and concern that buildings fit in with the environment. There are some not-to-miss areas and buildings. As my partner said, it’s as if the architects decided to use every skill they ever learned to design the next most cutting edge building.

I’ll give you a walking tour - with one great metro trip thrown in. Let’s start with a west to east walk of the central area where the ‘new‘ mixes in with the ‘old’ but where the ‘new’ is really the most notable. Of course, this walking tour should be spread over a few wonderful days because there is a lot to see.

Let’s start at the Royal Palace gate. Visualize that you are looking east, heading down a green walkway that becomes a broad street known as Karl Johan’s Gate (the same Karl Johan of the statue outside the palace). This is the main street cutting through central Oslo. You immediately walk by the University of Oslo’s law faculty area on your left, more stately pillared centuries-old buildings. The university is the oldest in Norway, dating to 1811:

You then come to the National Theatre on your right, again fronted by stone pillars, one of the main performing arts centres in Norway. The first performance was in 1899. There are now four different stages inside. The metro and train station is right behind the building. To the south side of the theatre is a cafe called Theatercafeen where, a security guard told us, the important and famous people go. As we are neither important nor famous, we opted out.

Then on your right, our first exposure to Oslo design - the re-developed Tjuvholmen dock area, full of high rise, cutting-edge, funky apartment buildings, the Astrup Fearnley Art Museum, restaurants, and shopping areas. There are all types of angles and curves and colours and glass. We just walked around, heads tilted skyward in wonder. Look at these apartment buildings!

The Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art is considered a ‘shelter’ for modern art stretched over three buildings with a glass roof slanted towards the water and even crosses a canal.

On your way into, or exiting, the Tjuvholmen area, you come to the stylish National Museum, the Nobel Peace Centre, and the magnificent City Hall.

The National Museum opened in 2022 and is the largest art museum in the Nordic countries. It is a grey, square stone box-building and, apparently, critics call it the “national prison”. It has a ‘light hall’, an exhibit space at the top of the building that is 2,400 square metres made of a thin layer of marble between two panes of glass making it somewhat translucent.

The Nobel Peace Centre highlights the winners of Nobel Peace prizes and is a meeting place for discussions on peace and conflict.

The stunning City Hall (Radhuset) was opened in 1950. It has the largest carillon in the Nordic countries and plays everything from classical to pop music on the hour. The entire building tells Norway’s history. The entrance is lined with murals. The main hall is a great room with high ceilings, marble, murals, and massive windows looking out to the harbour. But the second floor is apparently absolutely stunning with tapestries and more murals tucked into rooms and halls. Unfortunately, it was closed for an event when we visited. I regret not returning later in our stay. By the way, the city hall definitely has some friendly and humorous security guards.

The parliament building and Grand Hotel are steps to the north on Eidsvolls Plass.

The Norwegian Parliament Building opened in 1866. It was made of yellow brick and light grey granite and has a beautiful large semi-circle with arched windows in the front which is the main meeting chamber.

The Grand Hotel opened in 1874. It hosts the Nobel Peace Prize banquet (the other Nobel Prizes are handed out in Stockholm, Sweden). It is a stately white building with a rotunda.

Every time we passed Eidsvolls Plass, some form of demonstration was occurring. As the City Hall security told us, that’s just ‘everyday’ in Oslo.

Just to the southeast of the Parliament Building is Akershus Fortress, an ancient castle from the 1200’s, built high on a cliff overlooking the harbour as a royal residence and to protect the city. It is still a military area with the Armed Forces Museum and Resistance Museum. The grounds are wide open and great for a stroll. It has a large, beautiful military parade space and veteran’s memorial and eternal flame.

Just a little northeast of the Akershus Fortress is the Oslo Cathedral, built of red brick with a green copper tower and the main church for the Church of Norway Diocese of Oslo from 1697. It is used for weddings and funerals by the Norwegian royalty and government.

Keep walking east, and you come to the four ‘pièces de rèsistance’ in Central Oslo. You’ve entered the Bjorvika neighbourhood.

First, you come to the magnificent new Public Library, the Deichman Bjorvika. It opened in 2020. They say the outside resembles several books stacked together while the top tier is like an open book. It has six floors of glass and almost 20,000 square feet of space. It has reading and study areas, a cinema, gaming areas, cafes, and art. It is such an inviting space.

But you know you are in greatness when you see the Oslo Opera House, right next door to the Public Library. It was completed in 2007 and has been described as a flat iceberg, the outside made of marble and granite. The amazing thing is that you can walk all over the different levels of roof as the roof angles to the ground. The lobby has 49 foot tall windows and surfaces of oak. We did not tour the building, but it might be worth it. Apparently, the main auditorium has a chandelier made of almost 5,000 crystals. The lobby was certainly the perfect place to warm up and eat our sandwiches on a couple of rainy days.

And then you round the corner, and tucked behind the Opera House and the Public Library is the amazing Munch art museum, another work of art in itself as the top appears to be falling over. It is 60 meters high and made with recycled aluminum panels. Edward Munch was a Norwegian artist and, like some great artists, a tortured soul. He was really in touch with the human condition and his works reflect the social issues of the day - but stand true today, as then. His one work The Scream, is probably his most well-known. The museum is awe-inspiring. Enjoy this collage (All photos taken are of Edward Munich’s paintings at the @munchmuseet. The museum allows for photos to be used, with credit to Edward Munch and to the Munch Museet.)

Just as an aside, it was at the Munch where we had Norway’s signature cake, Kvaefjordkake or Verdens beste. It is a dream of two layers of sponge cake, vanilla cream, meringue, and toasted candied almonds. Worth every cent of the $19.00 we paid for one piece and one cup of coffee. I will definitely be re-creating that cake when we get home,

But just when you think you’ve seen it all, turn a bit north, adjacent to the gorgeous glass and funky edges and sloped marble of the Public Library, Opera House, and Munch Museum, to the Barcode District. Yes, the name arises when you look at the tall skinny buildings from far off - they look like barcodes, tall and angular with lots of glass and cut-out designs. This was formerly an industrial and dock area that has been totally refurbished and is now home to businesses and apartment blocks. It has won worldwide recognition. In my opinion, the Barcode District is so unique and beautiful.

Finally, when you have ogled all the delightful angles of the downtown area, keep walking a bit southeast, and you come to the wonderful Ekeberg Park with a steep, high climb for great views of all of that architecture below. Paths wind through 25 acres of forest, and you can go on a hunt for some 40 sculptures tucked amongst the trees. The sculptures are by different artists with no consistent theme, but many of them are of women. As well, there are plaques telling Oslo’s history from the Stone Ages. It’s a great workout (or you could take city transport to a flatter area and have a nice stroll).

And that covers most of the main sights in central Oslo - some stately ‘old’ rubbing shoulders with the cutting edge ‘new’. As I said, just the central area alone could fill several days.

If you do want a little detour from the central area, you could walk the river walk along the Akerselva River pathway that runs north to south. We picked it up in the Grunerlokka area which is an area known for cafes and vintage boutiques and walked south to Bjorvika where it ends, passing some of Oslo’s more bohemian areas with graffiti and street art. If you want, you could walk all 7.5 kilometres, one way, learning about many of Oslo’s little neighbourhoods.

Going back to the start of our walk, you might want to venture just a few blocks southwest of the Royal Palace where you come to the National Library, much more traditional than the Public Library. It is ornate inside with wide staircases and murals and the most delightful little coffee shop tucked amidst the books on the second floor.

The National Library coffee area is like a secret hiding place in Oslo, a great place for quiet and reflection.

Now, for a walk (or public transit) northwest of the Royal Palace, to one of the the most visited parks or sights in Oslo, the Vigeland Sculpture Park in the large Frogner Park. It is absolutely mind-boggling in it’s grandness. I don’t think I have ever seen anything quite like it in all my travels. It contains some 200 sculptures in granite, bronze, and iron by Gustov Vigeland. The statues were installed over a 40 year period and are mostly human figures of different ages clinging and intertwined, possibly symbolizing humankind’s desire for some form of spirituality. Absolutely incredible.

Now, let’s go back to those winter games for a minute. It’s no surprise that Norway has won the most medals over time at the Winter Olympics. In Oslo, you can get up close. Take Metro line 1 up to the Holmenkollen stop. The ride alone is worth the metro pass as it is a long, long narrow crawl up to the station, more like a funicular than a metro. Then, it’s a steep (about 750 meters) climb to the Holmenkollen National Ski Area. You can actually go to the top of the famous ski jump if you want to pay, but even if you don’t you can see just how astonishingly steep those jumps are. And I definitely was not going to try that simulator, even if it was free (it wasn’t). The National Ski area dates to the late 1800’s and is a training ground for ski jumping, cross country skiing, and biathalon and was most recently completely rebuilt for the 2011 Nordic Ski Championships. It holds annual World Cup competitions.