As anyone who knows me can attest (because I unabashedly advertise this), I am a huge fan of the show Vikings on History Channel. The historical drama follows fierce warrior king Ragnar Lothbrok and shieldmaiden Lagertha on their exploits during the Dark Ages. Episodes are fraught with violence and personal melodrama as the merry band of pagan Norsemen battles opposing Viking clans and terrorizes Christian Europe. While the show may not be 100 percent accurate, it makes for some good TV. It also got me (even more) excited to visit Norway.
One of the characters on the show is a gifted shipbuilder who creates fearsome longships used by the Vikings on their raids of England and France. The Viking Ship Museum in Oslo contains the two best-preserved Viking longships in the world. These along with a rich collection of household items provide fascinating insight into the lives of an almost mythic people. The ships and their contents – including human skeletons – were excavated from several burial mounds across Norway and carefully moved to the museum, located on Bygdoy peninsula in Oslo Fjord.
But Vikings weren’t the only Norwegian seafarers. In 1911, Roald Amundsen and his team sailed a 19th-century wooden vessel through the Antarctic ice to become the first explorers to successfully reach the South Pole. The ship, called Fram (Norwegian for Forward), was designed to freeze into the ice and float along with the current, a revolutionary idea in shipbuilding and polar exploration. Visitors can climb aboard the hulking ship and walk through interior rooms at the Fram Museum, also located on Bygdoy peninsula. To be perfectly honest, I only went inside this museum because admission was included with our Oslo Passes, but I ended up being thoroughly impressed.
Right next door is the Kon-Tiki Museum, dedicated to the oversea adventures of Thor Heyerdahl. Thor – who was afraid of water and could barely swim – decided to sail a balsa wood raft from Peru to Polynesia just to show it could be done. Amazingly, Thor, his team, and the raft survived the journey, giving weight to his theory that Polynesia’s first settlers could have come from South America. Why this was necessary to prove, I have no idea, but to each his own.
Of much more interest to me was the Norwegian Folk Museum, which I could have spent all day exploring. The open-air museum is dedicated to preserving the cultural history of Norway and consists of 160 buildings from all across the country. The recreated towns and villages demonstrate how Norwegians have lived from the 16th century onward. Highlights include a 13th century stave church, a Sami village, and a 1950s farmstead complete with livestock.
Frequent ferry service runs to and from the Bygdoy peninsula from the marina in front of Oslo city hall. You’ll want to allot a full day (10:00-17:00) to visit all four museums. We found it easy to walk among them, but it’s also possible to take the ferry from one side of the peninsula to the other. On the city side, the boardwalk along the quay leads to Aker Brygge, a trendy entertainment district in a converted shipyard. This is where we headed each night for dinner as I just couldn’t get enough of the pristine water views.
Our second day was spent enjoying the views of Oslo Fjord from various vantage points around town. My favorite spot was atop the walls of Akershus Fortress, a medieval castle perched on a hill above the harbor. The 13th century fortress was “modernized” by King Christian IV in the 17th century and made into a royal residence. Today, Akershus is still used for official state functions and is open to tourists during the summer months.
For a different perspective, we went to the top of the Holmenkollen Ski Jump tower to enjoy views of Oslo Fjord from 375 meters above sea level. Unfortunately this experience was better in theory than in practice. The top of the tower is ringed with a safety fence that reached almost to my shoulders. Then we had to contend with selfie stick-wielding tourists that bordered on the obnoxious. (Lady standing on the trash bin, I’m talking to you.) Between the fence and the fools, it was kind of hard to enjoy the view.
We made it to the Oslo Opera House at dusk, when the last hint of the sun was a pink spot on the horizon, and the sky and white marble opera house were an ethereal shade of blue. People rave about this new landmark, which, admittedly, did photograph extremely well. But at the time of writing, the surrounding area was one large construction site and not as scenic as I was expecting.
We couldn’t leave Oslo without investigating the local art scene. The National Gallery holds a wealth of Norwegian and foreign art between its red brick walls. The paintings, drawings and sculptures are arranged by stylistic periods in color-coded rooms – this is probably the best-organized museum I’ve been to. There is a heavy focus on Norwegian art (as you would expect), and Expressionist painter Edvard Munch gets his own room, possibly in order to corral the folks waiting in line to pose next to The Scream. I didn’t know much about Munch before this trip and found some of his other paintings to be much more interesting than that one famous work.
I actually learned more about Edvard Munch and his paintings at the National Gallery than I did at the Munch Museum, which was surprising. While the Munch Museum contained a large collection of his paintings, they were displayed without information plaques on crammed and colorful walls next to the “works” of a dreadful contemporary “artist” who supposedly drew influence from the famous Expressionist. The whole experience felt chaotic and I left not knowing anything new about Munch.
* I was disappointed to have missed an exhibition comparing Munch and Van Gogh. As the Munch Museum isn’t located near any of Oslo’s other sights, I’d recommend having a look at the museum’s website before visiting to see if the current exhibition is actually something you’d enjoy.
In the middle of the last century, Norwegian artist Gustav Vigeland installed over 200 of his sculptures in Oslo’s Frogner Park. The “cheeky” artworks feature nude men, women and children acting out various human relationships in life. Other sculptures represent stages of the human condition, from birth to death. The installation’s centerpiece is the Monolith, a cylindrical tower meant to show “man’s longing and yearning for the spiritual and divine.” It looked to me like a giant phallic symbol. More interesting, small kids were playing among statues that would raise eyebrows in America.
We visited Oslo over the long Easter weekend when, unbeknownst to us, the city practically shuts down as locals leave for the last ski weekend of the season. Fortunately, enough people visit to ensure that a few restaurants remain open. Options were limited, and the cost of our meals was near heart attack-inducing, but we did manage to find some good places to eat (thanks in part to the helpful recommendations of blogger Megan Starr). To save money, we loaded up on the excellent and free breakfast offered by our hotel and skipped lunch.
Bolgen & Moi
Our meal at Bolgen & Moi turned out to be a pleasant surprise considering the restaurant didn’t turn up in my early research. The dishes emphasized fresh seasonal ingredients and the cost was more reasonable thanks to the option to order three courses at a set price.
Michelin recommended (but not starred) Onda was more hit or miss. My seared scallop appetizer was dynamite, but I found a piece of lobster shell in my halibut-and-lobster entree and the chocolate mousse dessert wasn’t as tasty as the one at Bolgen & Moi. Maybe it was due to the holiday (only half the restaurant was open), but I expected more for the money.
Even over the holiday weekend, Olivia was PACKED. Did I plan to eat Italian food in Oslo? Nope. But it was damn good and I’d go there again. Just looking at the photo of my seafood linguine is enough to make me hungry!
How would YOU like to spend 72 hours in Oslo? Did I miss any cool sights or restaurants?