One of the best features of Oslo, Norway, is its setting. Located at the base of the Oslo Fjord, the city extends up the mountains that surround it on three sides. The city's cultural center is downtown, right on the water. Oslo is easy to navigate and so compact that you can walk almost everywhere.
Oslo was once considered the sleepy cousin of Stockholm and Copenhagen, but it has finally come into its own, with cultural and entertainment possibilities that rival those of cities many times its size. An opera house has opened on reclaimed land in the fjord, and Oslo's Philharmonic Orchestra is world-class. A giant sports stadium was built to replace the original stadium at Bislett, where dozens of speed-skating and track records were set.
For those who love the outdoors, Oslo has more than 1,550 mi/2,500 km of hiking and skiing trails within the city limits, and there's a good view at almost every turn. Don't let the climate scare you: It's not as cold as you might expect. Norway's coast is bathed in warm water thanks to the Gulf Stream. Although winter temperatures can be chilly, summers bring pleasantly warm days (up to 75 degrees F/24 degrees C), cool evenings and a sun that doesn't set until around 11 pm—giving visitors even more time to spend outdoors.
According to the United Nations, Oslo enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world, partly because of the discovery of substantial oil and gas deposits in the late 1960s. The United Nations has consistently named Norway the best place in the world to live. The capital city's public transport, clean water, access to nature, low crime rate and superb medical service in no small way contribute to this. Oslo also regularly tops the list of the most expensive cities in the world.
Oslo curves around the innermost shore of the Oslo Fjord. It is surrounded by forests to the west, north and east and covers approximately 175 sq mi/450 sq km.
Oslo's center is compact, with the main railway station (Sentralstasjon) serving as its eastern edge and the royal palace as its western. The main street, Karl Johans gate, connects the two. Other popular sights are on the Bygdoy Peninsula, which juts out into the fjord, southwest of the city center.
Oslo was first settled around AD 900 by Vikings who built small wooden houses at the foot of a hill in what is now called Gamlebyen (Old Town). Viking King Harald Hardraade's castle was there, and the remains of two churches and a bishop's residence from that time can still be seen. At the end of the 13th century, King Haakon V Magnusson started work on Akershus Castle at the base of the Oslo Fjord.
When and how Oslo got its name is uncertain, and the meaning is ambiguous, as well. "Os" refers either to a long, narrow hill or to a Norse god, and "lo" translates as field. So, Oslo means either "the field below the hill" or "the field of a god."
After a fire destroyed the city in 1624, Danish-Norwegian King Christian IV ordered the town rebuilt in brick and stone behind Akershus Castle. He renamed the city Christiania, after himself, and oversaw construction of many buildings in what is still the cultural center of the city—called Kvadraturen (the grid).
After a short period of independence from Denmark in the early 1800s, Norway entered into a union with Sweden that lasted until 1905. The city was named the capital of newly independent Norway, and its name was changed back to Oslo in 1925.
During World War II, Germans occupied the city for five years. After the war, Oslo expanded on a small scale. The city's economy did not take off until the late 1960s, when oil was discovered in the North Sea. Although the main oil town is Stavanger, on the west coast, many oil and construction companies have their main offices in Oslo. More than 40 years after the discovery of North Sea oil, Oslo has become a wealthy city with all the advantages and occasional problems that involves. Oil still drives the Norwegian economy.
Start your exploration of the city by walking along the main street, Karl Johans gate, which bustles with activity in the summer. At the top of Karl Johans gate is the royal palace, where you can watch the changing of the guard daily at 1:30 pm. Halfway down the street is the Oslo Cathedral, with its cluster of medieval-style shops. At the bottom of the street, you'll find the main railroad station (Sentralstasjon).
For a worthwhile detour, take the clearly signposted walkway from the station to the nearby Oslo Opera House. The white marble-and-granite building appears to rise out of the water like a sparkling glacier, and it is the only opera house in the world where you can walk on the roof. Enjoy sweeping views of the city, the fjord and surrounding islands.
As you head south of Karl Johans gate, toward the sea, you'll come across the National Theater, city hall, Akershus Slott (castle) and Aker Brygge—a modern waterfront shopping complex built on the grounds of a former shipyard.
Don't miss the Vigeland Sculpture Park, home to nearly 200 statues created by Gustav Vigeland. The wrought-iron gates to the park are open all day, so you can visit it long after other city attractions have closed. The ski jump at Holmenkollen is also a popular attraction.
The Munch Museum and the National Gallery both display a great number of works by Munch. The attractions at Bygdoy are also worth a visit, particularly the Viking Ship Museum (1,000-year-old ships that look almost modern) and the polar ship Fram, which took Norwegian explorers to both the Arctic and the Antarctic.
The Kon-Tiki Museum, alongside the Fram, is a museum not to be missed. Also make sure to get a close look at the medieval stave church at the Norwegian Folk Museum. Bus 30 will take you to the museums at Bygdoy, and a ferry travels there from City Hall in summer.
Consider purchasing an Oslo Pass, which grants admission to many museums, as well as unlimited use of the public transportation system, among other perks. It's a great way to save money in this expensive city. You'll find the card at most hotels, the Oslo Central Station and the Tourist Information Center. You can also buy it online at http://www.visitoslo.com/en/activities-and-attractions/oslo-pass.
Nightlife in Oslo starts late, despite the fact that most restaurants close early. Two popular German words used in Norway, vorspiel
(foreplay) and nachspiel
(afterplay), define Oslo nightlife, but without the sexual connotation.
Since prices are high, people often meet privately to have a drink or two at a friend's home (this is vorspiel) before they pour into discos and nightclubs at midnight. The law requires that bars and clubs stop serving alcohol at 3 am. (Expect crowded streets, especially once the bars close on Wednesday and weekend evenings—this is the nachspiel.)
Be prepared for steep drink prices, and many clubs charge a cover of 50 NKr-120 NKr. Visitors in Norway should be aware of the difference between bars and brun pubs. Bars are similar to those in other parts of the world; brun (brown) pubs have traditionally been watering holes for a predominantly male clientele. In recent years, brun pubs have become popular with both males and females, and they are now a celebrated part of Oslo's culture. Because of their heritage, brun pubs tend to be less expensive than bars and can often have a more local atmosphere.
Beer prices less than 50 NKr a glass are considered cheap; 70 NKr and more are rated as expensive. The cheapest beer price you may find is 45 NKr a glass, which means that the place will be packed and often rowdy.
Traditional Norwegian food consists of hearty soups, meat-and-potato entrees, and seafood such as lutefisk (dried cod marinated in water and lye), smoked herring and salmon. Oslo experienced a restaurant boom in the 1980s, and with it came some inventive new dishes. Oslo now has several Michelin-starred restaurants.
Eating out in Norway can be expensive, but you will find that it is the wine that contributes to the largest part of your bill. In a less expensive restaurant, the house wine may be around 250 NKr and can escalate to unmentionable prices for fine wines.
Generally, breakfast is served before 10 am, and lunch is 11 am-3 pm. Be sure to try the brown cheese—it's eaten in thin slices on dark bread spread with butter. Norwegians usually take a bag lunch to work, so there are fewer lunch options, though you will find some downtown.
Locals dine out infrequently, preferring instead to go home early to their families. When they do dine out, most Norwegians prefer to eat in the early evening, but most restaurants are open for dinner until 10 or 11 pm.
Smoking is banned in all restaurants and bars.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a two-course dinner for one, excluding tip or drinks: $ = less than 200 NKr; $$ = 200 NKr-350 NKr; $$$ = 351 NKr-500 NKr; and $$$$ = more than 500 NKr.
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