City Guide to Oslo, Part 2: Exploring, Must See Attractions, and Tipspublic
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Our travels brought us to Oslo, Norway. We were excited to explore a new country and spend time in Scandinavia. We were honored to be invited to house sit a dog (Lucy), a cat (Garfunkle) (whom we affectionately nicknamed G-Funk) and a beta fish (whom we affectionately nicknamed Mr. Beta). With three weeks in a country known for it’s natural beauty, especially for its fjords, we knew it would be a welcome change from the big cities we’d been in recently, (Paris, Istanbul, and Cairo). Plus, another cool thing that Norway is known for are plugin electric vehicles. In 2016, of all new cars sold in Norway, it had the highest percentage (in the world) that were plugin electric vehicles, at 29%. In contrast, Netherlands, the number two country, only had 6.4% (Wikipedia).
Even though Oslo is the capitol of the country, it’s not that big, relative to other capitals we’ve visited; there are 650,000 people in the city and 1.71 million people in the metro area. It rains often, even in the summer months, with an average of 1.5 inches in the ‘dry’ months and 3.5 inches in the ‘wet’ months. So, while it’s not a constant downpour, it’s always a bit wet outside. On the positive side, and as you’d imagine, the landscape is incredibly green. In that way, it reminded us a lot of western Washington State. Unlike Washington though, Norway is known for being an expensive place to visit. So, as a budget conscious, and we’d like to think, savvy traveling couple, we were grateful for the accommodations that our house sit provided us. Not to mention, we had the added benefit of having a couple of great companions, Lucy and G-Funk. Oh, and we mustn't forget Mr. Beta!
With just over three weeks in Norway, we’d of course planned on sightseeing in Oslo, but also exploring further afield. We’d seen pictures of some absolutely amazing hikes that we could do, like Pulpit Rock (Preikestolen), or Reinebringen, so we couldn’t wait to get out and explore. The original plan with house sitting was actually going to allow us the freedom to spend a night or two away from the home during the second half of the house sit. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, plans changed and spending a few days exploring away from Oslo was going to be a bit more challenging. Therefore, since our primary commitment is always to the home and the pets, we opted not to execute plans to travel throughout the country and do different hikes. However, just you wait Norway, just you wait, we’ll be back before you know it!
The official language in Norway is Norwegian, which is closely related to Swedish and Danish. However, don’t fret, similar to our experience in the Netherlands, most people here spoke English and at a high proficiency rating. So, it’s no surprise that Norway ranks 4th out of 72 countries in English proficiency.
The currency is the Norwegian Krone (NOK). At the time of our visit, the exchange was 1 USD to 8.5 NOK. Interestingly, the smallest denomination you’ll come across is a single Krone. You used to be able to use Øre, of which 100 made up one Krone, so they would be similar to the US cent. However, since 2012, they’ve only been recognized electronically.
We recommend carrying a small amount of cash on you, as we found some merchants’ payment systems only accepted European credit cards. Granted they were smaller, independent shops where we ran into this problem. However, you don’t want to find yourself on a Sunday or a Holiday, with most major stores and grocers closed, and without an accepted method of payment, and no ATM to be found. Take our word for it! Additionally, if you’re going to be dealing in cash, it’s wise to be familiar with the banknotes to be sure you get and give the correct bills.
As soon as we arrived, we started walking. It’s part of our settling in and becoming familiar with the area. We had everything we needed for daily living within walking distance of the home we were house sitting, which made things simple. However, the house was a bit out of downtown, so for sightseeing in city center, we’d need to take public transportation. We had the option of using the homeowner’s car, she’d been extremely kind to extend an offer for us to use it. However, after mulling it over, we decided it didn’t make sense to drive to downtown. Fuel is expensive, at about $7 US per gallon (during our visit) and parking is even more expensive. Lucky for us, there were bus stops in three different directions, and all of equal distance from the house.
So, knowing that we’d be taking public transportation, we did a bit of research ahead of time. To make your journey on public transportation in Oslo easier, we've gathered all of the information, relevant links, and tips we learned along the way, in one place. Find them in our City Guide to Oslo: Public Transportation.
Oslo Travel Tips:
- If you're traveling in the summer, consider packing an eye mask. The sun sets after 10:30 pm and rises before 4 am, meaning there isn’t truly darkness at night, just twilight. Check the interactive graph of daylight hours to see what the nights will look like during your visit.
- Don’t be confused by signs and the like, ‘gate’ means street in Norwegian.
- Pack rain gear, no matter what time of the year you’re visiting it’ll almost always be damp, with a bit of mist, drizzle, or rain in the air. On a side note, when it rains, the slugs come out. We mention this because they weren't the slugs we’re used to at home. We don’t know if it’s something in the water here, but the slugs are huge! In all seriousness, it must be natural selection as they've adapted to their environment. We even saw a snail that seemed to be the granddaddy of all snails. (Shannon here! A fact about me… I’m thoroughly grossed out by slugs and worms alike. It's just the way they move… you don’t know which way is the head or the butt… and let's not forget the slimy gooeyness... yuck!)
- Save money by making your own meals and purchasing food from grocery stores. Use Google Maps to find the closest store(s) to you, but keep in mind that not all stores will show up on the map. Throughout our travels, we’ve found countless grocery stores, pharmacies, etc., that didn’t show up on a map, but we discovered them by simply walking and exploring the city. We found the least expensive stores in Oslo to be:
- Most shops and grocery stores are closed on Sundays and holidays. We set an alarm/reminder on our phone to go off on Saturday afternoons, reminding us to purchase groceries for the next day.
- If you find yourself in need of groceries or other supplies on a Sunday (when most stores are closed) try a major train station.
Sightseeing in Oslo
Oslo is a mix of modern and traditional. You’ll find modern office buildings and museums, interspersed with traditional architecture, Scandinavian and Viking history, and even castles. Even if you’re not typically a museum goer, there’s so many unique museums here that they may peak your interest. Unlike many of the capital cities we’ve been to throughout Europe, you don’t need a lot of time in city center to experience it. Which is a good thing, since the rest of Norway, with its fjords and glaciers beckons to be explored. For the budget conscious travelers, since Oslo is a very expensive city, you’ll be glad to know that two or three days in Oslo is probably a good amount of time to see the sights.
To possibly make your research on sightseeing in Oslo (and other destinations) easier, we’ve kept our maps with all of the information we gathered (accurate at the time of our sightseeing). Finding hours, prices, and general information can sometimes be challenging, so we’ve tried to include these details on our maps and provide appropriate links below. And finally, not every attraction is suitable for every visitor, but the copywriters and marketing departments for the destinations sure make it sound like it. How many times have you read “Great for kids and adults alike” and shown up at the venue to wonder why anyone over 20 years-old without kids would go out of their way to be there? Below we’ve included our itinerary with tips, impressions, and our takeaways on each place that, when combined with the official attraction information and website, may help you decide if it’s a destination for your travel adventure or not.
NOTE: We used this sightseeing map for our personal sightseeing adventures, because of that, some notes may not make perfect sense, and some information could be outdated. Information on this map was valid at the time of creation. Prices may be shown in US dollars but are actually Norwegian Krone (local currency). That being said, feel free to save it to your Google account and use it as a starting point (or modify it accordingly) for planning out your personalized itinerary in Oslo.
Walk the City
By far, just like most other places we visit, our favorite thing to do while sightseeing was walk around the city. Going from destination to destination, walking is the best way to see the town in a way you never would be able to on a train, in a car, or even on a bus. When we’re walking we can take a detour down the interesting street we pass, or walk through a park that wasn’t on our map. We get a feel for local residents and what it’s like to live in the city.
So our absolute, number one tip to sightseeing in Oslo, is to walk around. Walk along the waterfront, around the neighborhoods (Karl Johans Gate, Aker Brygge and Grünerløkka), down (or up) the Akerselva River, and walk everywhere in between.
The Vigeland Park
Part of the larger park Frogner Park, The Vigeland Park is one of the most visited sights in Oslo. It boasts 212 bronze and granite sculptures by sculptor Gustav Vigeland, making this the largest sculpture park by one artist in the world. The 80-acre park is divided into five sections along an 850-meter axis. Walk the axis and you’ll pass through the Main Gate, the Bridge with the Children’s Playground, the Fountain, the Monolith Plateau, and the Wheel of Life. While you’re at the park, don’t miss some of the most well-known and unique sculptures:
- The Angry Boy – It's of a small child throwing a fit. Find it on the middle bridge in the center of the park.
- Man Attacked by Babies – A sculpture along the water that looks like a man tossing babies. However, it actually depicts 'genii’ spirits' in the form of children attacking the man.
- The Fountain – It’s surrounded by sculptures representing the four stages of life: Childhood, Adulthood, Parenthood, and Mature Adulthood.
- The Monolith – At 46 feet in height, it depicts 121 humans rising towards the sky. Impressively, it’s made from a single piece of granite and took over 14-years to complete. It represents man’s desire to reach the spiritual world.
- The Wheel of Life – Located at the end of the park, the Wheel of Life is a sundial and represents eternity with human figures intertwined in a circle.
We found the park to be beautifully designed and very unique. Sculptures varied from people’s everyday activities, to the odd and absurd, and all revolving around the theme of The Journey of Life. While some people find some of the sculptures to be inappropriate, we appreciated the uniqueness of the park. It’s definitely a highlight of Oslo. The park is free to visit.
Akerselva River Walk
Running though Oslo is the Akerselva River; it starts at Maridalsvannet Lake and runs to the Oslo Fjord. There are walking paths along the river that run the 5 miles (8 kilometres) from the lake to city center. Take the walk and you’ll get views of waterfalls, swimming spots, forested areas, and if you’re lucky, plenty of wild life. Akerselva is a historical area, known as the center of Norway’s industrialization in the late 19th century. So on the walk, you’ll pass by many modernized and converted factory buildings that were once saw mills, textile factories, and mechanical workshops. In contrast to its history, the park area is now known as ‘green lung’ and is dotted with recreational areas and parks. The entire walk takes about 2 hours, and we highly suggest starting at the lake and making your way south. We started our walk first thing in the morning and as we walked from the lake down the river, we slowly saw the clouds part, the mist burn off, and the sun shine over us. One of our favorite parts, beyond the serenity of the nature around us, was the waterfall at Beier Bridge.
Grünerløkka and Birkelunden Park
Grünerløkka is a charming bohemian neighborhood east of the Akerselva River. Once a working-class, industrial neighborhood, it's been transformed into a vibrant, artsy pocket of Oslo. Spend time exploring vintage and second hand shops and drinking coffee at the many artisan coffee shops in the area. Head to Birkelunden Park on a Sunday for the flea market, or any day to enjoy the pavilion and fountain. As part of the industrialization of Norway, the working population in this area was dense and therefore large apartments buildings were constructed. Since then, the history and large area of residential buildings has been protected. As you sip on your coffee, imagine the history and stories that lay within the towering historic four story apartment buildings from the late 19th century that line the streets.
Old Aker Church
Set to the west of the Akerselva River, Old Aker Church was built in the mid-12th century and is the oldest remaining church in Oslo. From the outside the church is unassuming as it stands on a hillside overlooking a large cemetery. However, walk inside and you’ll feel like you walked into a time portal and landed in the Middle Ages. The architecture isn’t Gothic or Baroque with intricate details and arches. There aren’t decorative sculptures of gargoyles, angels, or other mythical beings. The windows aren’t decorated with large, ornate stained glass that tell biblical stories. However, there’s a sense of simplicity in the historical stoned building. Although, if you need more intrigue, the church is said to be built on pillars of gold, above a silver mine that’s full of treasure and guarded by a dragon.
Optionally, you can take a Pilgrimage that starts at Medieval Park in Oslo and ends at Old Aker Church. It takes about an hour and takes you through preserved remains of medieval Oslo and churches that were starting points for medieval pilgrimages. Find route information on the pilgrimage at St. Olav Ways.
University Botanical Garden
The oldest botanical garden in Oslo isn’t simply known for its beauty, it’s also a scientific garden and home to more than 5,500 plant species. The varied collection of plants are arranged in different gardens, including the Scent Garden, the Palm House, the Viking Garden, and the Victoria House. Our favorite part of the park was the Rock Garden (south side of the park), which boasts 1,450 species of alpine plants surrounding a peaceful waterfall and pond. Leave yourself enough time to explore all areas of the park and you’ll travel from the Artic all the way to the Tropics. Check the garden map to plan your trip.
The Royal Palace and Royal Park
Karl Johans Gate is the main street in Oslo. The street is lined with shops, public squares, gardens, and fountains. It’s a meeting place for locals and tourists, and of course you won’t be able to miss the Royal Palace sitting at the top of the street. You can walk directly to the Royal Palace, or take a detour through the Royal Park that surrounds the palace. The grounds of the palace are free to wander, however, if you want to see the inside, you’ll need to take a tour. Tours last about an hour, are only offered in the summer, and cost 105 NOK. Don’t forget to check tour information for up-to-date tour times, ticket prices, and ticket purchasing information. During our visit, we were fortunate to be at the palace just in time for the changing of the guards at 1:30 pm. The short 10 minute ceremony was the cherry on top of our visit to the palace.
Parliament and the Storting Building
Storting ('the great assembly' in Norwegian) is the supreme legislature of Norway and is made up of 169 members and eight political parties. The Storting building is home to parliament in Norway and it’s located in the center of Oslo. The building’s exterior is certainly worth a few pictures as it sits above a public square and garden. Free guided tours are available, but if you want to see ‘what’s going on now’, check The Storting Live, a live video feed from within the debating chamber. If you only want to see the hemicycle, you can enter on the north side of the building on Karl Johans gate. When we entered, we were a bit unsure if we could continue into the building, since there’s no visitor information on the door. Once inside, security assured us that we could visit the hemicycle. After we completed the security check and put our things into a locker (everything except our camera and cellphones, though they still needed to be on ‘airplane mode’), we took the elevator to the fourth floor. Upon exiting the elevator, we turned left, followed the short hallway, and then turned right. Security met us at the door and instructed us to be quiet, as there was a session in progress. From the balcony, we admired the ornate gold and lush red parliament hemicycle. We’ve toured a couple of European Parliament buildings, including the main European Union hemicycle in Brussels, but we’ve never had the opportunity to see one in session. It was pretty cool!
The Oslo Cathedral was completed in 1697, although the church was originally established in the 11th century. It’s home to the Oslo Diocese and hosts national, royal, and parliamentary events. Pay close attention and you’ll be able to see the renovations, from the Gothic to the Baroque era, that it’s undergone over the last 400 years. During our visit, we were immediately drawn into the small cathedral by the floor to ceiling murals of grandiose detail, the gold chandeliers, and the loft organ. For visitor information, visit the Oslo Cathedral website, although you’ll need the translate feature on the Google Chrome web browser.
Oslo Opera House
As we said earlier, Oslo is a mix of modern and traditional. Although, if you’re still not convinced, wait until you lay your eyes on the Oslo Opera House, it’s architecturally radical in design, and one of the most modern buildings in Oslo. Since 2008, it’s been home to national ballet, opera, and the orchestral companies. If you want to see a performance in Oslo, this is the place to be. Although in our case, we went mainly to admire the architecture of the building. Winning the prestigious Mies van der Rohe Award for Contemporary Architecture, the innovative design makes it look as if the arts center is rising out of the water. Uniquely, visitors are actually invited to walk on the roof and explore the different and unique views of the city and the Oslo Fjord. The unique and modern architecture doesn’t stop on the outside either. Inside, public areas are creative and unusually designed spaces, that either make you feel like you’re walking through a video game or in a futuristic movie.
Built on the end of the headland, the Akershus Fortress dates back to 1299 CE when it was commissioned by King Håkon V. It's survived many sieges in its lifetime, and impressively has never been captured in active battle. In the 16th century it was converted into a renaissance castle and a royal residence, although today, the fortress is a popular venue for events. Take a guided tour during the summer months by visiting the Fortress Visitor Center, which can be found in the ‘Long Red House’ by the Carp Pond.
Oslo City Hall
Oslo City Hall is a large and imposing building that’s unlike any other city hall we’ve visited. It was built in 1931, but construction was halted during World War II and not officially completed until 1950. Don’t let what you see on the outside fool you. The heavy, square, red brick exterior disappears once you pass through the enormous wood carved doors. The interior of this building is a story of Norwegian culture and history. The rooms are expansive, ornately decorated, and covered in huge murals that depict Norwegian history, culture, and working life. Not only does it house city council and administration, but also art studios, galleries, and the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Also, don’t leave without giving the exterior a closer look, you’ll see carvings, sculptures, and a beautifully ornate clock. For fans of elaborate and ornamental timepieces, pay special attention to the astronomical clock on the front (north side) of the building (not the tower). Tours are free, offered in the summer, and there’s no need to book in advance.
For visiting information, as well as performance schedules, visit the National Theater website and use the translate feature in Chrome. It was built in 1899 and it’s Norway’s largest theater. It’s located between Storting and the Royal Palace, just off of Karl Johans gate. It’s a building that commands attention, and rightfully so, since it’s known for its dramatic arts.
- Natural History Museum – Go on a Thursday for free entrance to the zoological and geological exhibitions. The 200 year-old museum collects, studies, and preserves plant specimens, animal specimens, rocks, minerals, and fossils.
- Historical Museum – If you want to see a complete Viking Helmet, this is the only place in the world that you’ll see one. There are temporary exhibits and several permanent collections, including Egyptian Mummies, Norwegian Antiquity, a Medieval Gallery, and Ethnographic exhibitions. Tip: Use your ticket from the Historical Museum within 48-hours at the Viking Ship Museum to get in for free.
- Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art – Considered to have a collection of modern and contemporary art that’s one of the best in Northern Europe, this modern art museum is something special to see. Not just for the art, but for the building and the views of the Fjords around it. This privately owned museum was opened in 2012 and has become a landmark on the Oslo waterfront.
- Norwegian Folk Museum – It’s the world’s oldest and largest open-air museum. With both indoor and outdoor exhibits, this museum has 160 historic buildings. Visit in the summer for fresh baked lefse (flat bread), horse and carriage rides, animal feedings, tours, and much more.
- Munch Museum – If you’re a fan of Edvard Munch, then this museum should be at the top of your list. It’s home to more than half of his paintings and most of his print motifs. The collection is so large, that they’re able to rotate the pieces, making for a unique museum experience each time you visit. At first glance you may not recognize the artist’s name, but you’ve probably seen his iconic 1893 painting, The Scream, which you can see in person at the Munch Museum.
- Nobel Peace Center – Each year the Nobel Peace prize is presented at the Oslo City Hall. So, it’s no surprise that the Nobel Peace Center is in Oslo. Visitors learn about the story of Alfred Nobel and the Peace Prize, along with the Peace Prize laureates and their work. The permanent and rotating exhibitions are presented with digital screens, fiber-optic lights and much more.
- Norwegian Museum of Science & Technology – It's a great museum for families with children. With over 80 interactive installations and activities on the weekend, curious kids will learn about technology, science, industry, and medicine. It’s not every museum where you have access to everything from hammers and saws, to electrical kits, 3D printers, and laser cutters! Download the PDF English Guide to the Exhibitions for more information .
- The Viking Ship Museum – One of the more unique museums in Oslo, and one that captures so much of its Scandinavian origins and history. Here, you’ll find the world’s best collection and most well preserved Viking ships and treasures found in Viking tombs around the Oslo Fjord. Tip: Don’t forget, your ticket for the Viking Ship Museum will get you into the Historical Museum, and vice versa (within 48 hours).
- Holmenkollen Ski Museum – It’s the world’s oldest museum that specializes in Skiing. It's constructed under an actual ski jump and you’ll explore 4,000 years of ski history. The museum exhibits also include Norwegian polar exploration artifacts and an exhibit on modern skiing and snowboarding. To top it off, you can visit the observation deck at the top of the jump tower for panoramic views of the city.
- Fram Museum, The Polar Ship Fram – Home to the strongest wooden ship which holds the records for sailing the farthest north and the farthest south. It was originally built for Fridjof Nansen, but served in expeditions to four total polar explorers. You’ll be able to board the ship and see how the crew lived in the most extreme places on Earth, the Artic and the Antarctic. There’s even a polar simulator to give visitors a glimpse of what the expeditions were like.
- The Kon-Tiki Museum – A museum dedicated to the famous Kon-Tiki expedition of 1947, where Thor Heyerdal crossed the Pacific Ocean on a balsa wood raft in 1947. Learn about the legacy of Heyerdal and his hunger for exploring the world. Exhibits present Heyerdahl’s many expeditions and include a 30 meter cave tour and an underwater exhibit. The Academy Award winning documentary, Kon-Tiki (1950) is shown daily at 12 pm.
When In Norway, Don't Miss Oslo!
Most people think of Norway and think of fjords, glaciers, expansive pine tree filled hillsides, and the Aurora Borealis. But, it’s wise not to miss the gems the capital of this beautiful country offers. We hope you enjoy Oslo as much as we did!