Oslo likely has one of the lowest tourist attraction quotients of all of Western Europe’s national capitals. Comparatively speaking, it is probably deserved, as other cities boast more history or more culture or more vibrancy, or all of the above.
Nonetheless, Oslo is a very nice-looking city, with many impressive buildings, parks, fountains, flower-bed-adorned boulevards, and hundreds of statues of all kinds.
The main street in the city center, Karl Johans Gate ♥♥, is practically the only street in town that feels perpetually busy. It hosts many shops and cafés and runs near most of the main sights in the center. The Cathedral ♥♥ is close to the eastern end of the street and is remarkable primarily for its unusually colorful painted ceilings.
At the other end, Karl Johans gate runs up to the bright-yellow Royal Palace ♥♥, which requires some advanced planning to tour. Access is allowed only with guided tours, which start once every forty minutes. Tickets should be procured online. You can go on standby and may get on the next tour (especially at the end of the day), but there is no guarantee. There are only 4 English-language tours a day – and you really need to listen to the guide, it adds quite a lot to the proceedings, providing many interesting details about the Norwegian royal history and the construction of the palace. Very much worth the additional cost (not included in the Oslo pass).
If you are by the palace at around 1:30 pm, you can witness a guard change ceremony ♥. It is not too long, and has a few quiet pauses, but is reasonably entertaining. Get a spot towards the guardhouse for better views.
The National Gallery ♥ does not boast a world-renowned collection but is worth a visit. A thoughtful layout guides you through eras of painting. There are only a few impressionists and classic masters, but mostly Norwegian painters, with a separate room devoted to Edward Munch, including his famous The Scream (Note: More recent visitors to Oslo pointed out that Munch’s works have now been moved to the refurbished Munch Museum.)
One of the dominating structures on the waterfront is the City Hall ♥♥. Its industrial-looking exterior hides a very impressive and unusual main hall, decorated with paintings that very much feel like socialist art. The hall is the setting of the annual ceremony for the Nobel Peace Prize award. The history of the building is well presented on various boards, and the mythology reliefs by the entrance are interesting in their own right.
The other prominent feature of the waterfront is Akershus Castle ♥. It is not extraordinary in any sense but offers nice views over the port and the harborside area. There are a couple of interior spaces that can be visited in the castle, which we did not do.
Probably the most outstanding sight in Oslo is the Vigeland sculptures at Frogner Park ♥♥♥. Nearly 250 sculptures by the same artist create an ensemble that is pretty unique in execution, celebrating different aspects of the human body and spirit. The statues are laid out on the main axis of the park, which also offers several flower gardens, fountains, nice picnic areas, etc.
There is a separate Vigeland Museum that I doubt anyone prioritizes to visit given the park display.
Aside from Vigeland, Oslo has a remarkably high density of statuary ♥ all over the city, from kings to famous personalities to who-knows-what; there are nudes, animals, or abstract figures in every square, nook, and cranny.
Conversely, the city does not have much in the way of churches, aside from the cathedral. Or, rather, churches that are close to the city core all seem to be active places of worship with few exceptional features to offer to the passing tourist. An example might be St Olav, which has some newish stained-glass windows and sparse decorations.
There is more than a handful of museums in Oslo worth a visit, several of them clustered in the Bygdøy district. Viking Ship Museum ♥♥ displays three ships in different stages of preservation, as well as a multitude of artifacts from a ship burial. There is plenty of fascinating stuff you can learn here, further expanded on if you use the wi-fi-enabled guide on your smartphone (there are also wall display descriptions in English and Norwegian).
Fram Museum ♥♥♥ is simply fantastic, especially for those that are scientifically inclined. You can explore the polar ship, partake in a couple of activities related to polar science, and read all about Fridtjof Nansen expeditions on extensive wall displays in English and Norwegian. An enthusiast can easily spend three hours here.
Other museums worth consideration are Kon-Tiki Museum and Norsk Folkemuseum. The promenade of Akerbrygge should probably also be part of the itinerary.
In the standout architecture category, Opera House ♥♥ is an unusual modern building whose sloping ramps allow you to freely walk up the roof, with nice views over the city. One of the more eclectic statues in town called She Lies is positioned in the water in front of the Opera.
There are a few flavors of harbor cruising available from the piers in front of the City Hall. The cheapest “mini-cruise hop-on, hop-off”, which can be run on an unassuming modern boat, did not strike our fancy. We went for a fjord cruise on a tall ship ♥♥, which was one of the highlights of our stay. It is two hours long, with a pretty good recorded narration in English. Get yourself to the front of the ship – as close to the bow as possible – for the best sweeping photo opportunities. There is also a refreshments bar on board, and the same ship goes on a 3-hour-long evening cruise complete with a seafood buffet (on a different ticket, obviously).
We used the Oslo pass, which allows free access to all museums (but not to the Royal Palace), in some cases with skip-the-line privileges; public transportation within Oslo is also included, plus discounts on boat trips apply. We ended up going to only three paid-entry museums, but the cost of tram and bus rides allowed us to break even. One or two additional museums plus a handful of additional public transport rides would definitely make the cost of the 48-hr card worth it.
Public transport in Oslo is very efficient, with an extensive tram and bus network covering all needs. Bygdøy, with 6 different museums, however, is served by a single bus route, which runs often enough at busy times but may still take some waiting for. On weekend mornings, waiting 25 minutes for the next bus or tram may be unavoidable, so plan walking endeavors at those times.
Accommodation-wise, any location in Sentrum will put you within walking distance of most of the points of interest. The extensive transport options make staying somewhere outside of the city center workable as well.
In the “memorable stays” category, Thon Hotel Rosenkrantz sits centrally around the corner from National Gallery, within 5-10 minutes of walking from all major sights in the city core. There is a tram stop right outside the door. Modern interior with all possible amenities. The hotel offers a free supper to all guests: it consists of one hot offering and a few cold cuts, plus drinks. Even if you skip supper, don’t dare to skip breakfast, the singularly best selection of hot and cold offerings we have ever seen at any hotel.
As far as eating out is concerned, whether you reserve a table in advance based on online ratings or just pick a restaurant at random, it is hard to have a truly disappointing meal in Oslo. Worthy of a specific recommendation is Elias mat & sånt (on Kristian Augusts gate), serving traditional organic food; board games and decks of cards are available for diners to make use of.