For your first visit you need about two full days to be able to appreciate the city and all of its major sights while keeping pleasantly unhurried pace.
Distances are walkable in the city center, public transport is needed for some attractions.
Love its provincial feel mixed up with occasional grandeur.
Don’t miss: walking the roof of the Opera House; sailing on a tall ship around the harbor.
Worthy attractions: Cathedral; Frogner Park with Vigeland sculptures; Royal Palace; National Gallery; City Hall; Fram Museum; Viking Ship Museum; Akershus Castle; Opera House.
Left for another visit: Kon-Tiki Museum; Norsk Folkemuseum; Munch Museum; Vigeland Museum; Akerbrygge.
Last visit: August 2015.
Oslo likely has one of the lowest tourist attraction quotients of all of Western Europe 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 only problem are gypsies and other assorted panhandlers (whom we did not see in places like Copenhagen).
Things to See
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 unusual 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 stand-by 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 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 1:30pm, you can witness a guard change ceremony ♥. It is not too long, 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).
One of the dominating structures on the waterfront is City Hall ♥♥. Its industrial-looking exterior hides a very impressive and unusual main hall, decorated with paintings that feel like socialist art. The hall is the setting of the annual ceremony for 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 are Vigeland sculptures at Frogner Park ♥♥♥. Nearly 250 sculptures by the same artist create an ensemble which is pretty unique in execution, celebrating different aspects of 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.
Aside from Vigeland, Oslo seemingly has the highest density of statuary ♥ all over the city, from kings to famous personalities to who-knows-what; there are nudes, animals, 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. We saw a few churches from the outside, but stepped only into St Olav, which had 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. We only visited two. Viking Ship museum ♥♥ displays three ships in different stages of preservation, as well as 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 if you 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.
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 a 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 snack bar on board for those requiring refreshments, and the same ship goes on a 3-hour-long evening cruise complete with a seafood buffet.
We were told that Oslo pass is being phased out after 2015, so this paragraph may not be applicable in the future. We used it on our visit. You can buy one at the visitor center on the side of the main train station. It allows free access to all museums (but not to the Royal Palace), in some cases with an expedited entry; public transportation within Oslo is also free, plus discounts on boat trips apply. We ended up going to only three paid-entry museums (Cathedral and City Hall can be visited for free, and Frogner Park requires no entry ticket either), but the cost of tram and bus rides allowed us to break even. One or two additional museums plus a handful of public transport rides would definitely make the cost of 48-hr card worth it.
Public transport in Oslo is very efficient, with 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.
Places to Eat
TripAdvisor nowadays makes finding restaurant recommendations quite easy, so these vignettes are meant to offer no more than a starting point for your research. These couple of places were visited in the summer of 2015 and comprise the entirety of our familiarity with Oslo culinary scene.
Café Elias ♥♥, around the corner from National Gallery – traditional, organic food. Try any of the soups, the reindeer shank, and the traditional Norwegian dessert. Board games and decks of cards are available for diners to make use of (we saw one couple engaged in a chess match to such degree that the food appeared an afterthought). Very nice experience, belying the simple café atmosphere. Our damage: NOK 1400 for two, including a bottle of wine and gratuities.
Lunch at 3 Broders ♥ on Karl Johans gate. The menu is not extensive, but both the mussels and the open crabmeat sandwich worked out really well. We sat on the sidewalk; interior dining area looks very atmospheric. Our damage: NOK 525, including glass of wine, bottle of cider, and small tip.
As in any large city, the options for a hotel or an apartment are plentiful on major online platforms. Any location in Sentrum will put you within walking distance to most of the points of interest. The excellent tram network makes staying somewhere outside of city center workable as well.
Thon Hotel Rozenkrantz ♥♥♥ was one of the best hotel stays ever on our travels. The hotel 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. Coffee and water are freely available by the front desk; there is also a “business” station with two PCs. Free wi-fi. Very friendly staff. The hotel offers a free supper to all guests: it consists of one hot offering (we had fish on Saturday) and a few cold cuts, plus drinks. You can skip supper, but don’t dare to skip breakfast, the singularly best selection of hot and cold offerings we have ever seen at any hotel; beyond outstanding. Last stay: 2015.