Speaking of Norway, it’s not difficult to imagine a picturesque landscape with dense green forests, impressive fjords, and mountains. Against such wonderful scenery, it’s easy to forget that man can be artistic as well. That’s why many visitors were left surprised to discover that Oslo’s cultural scene is so abundant, with museums and galleries rivaling any metropolis in Europe.
Positioned at the head of the Oslofjord on the country’s southern coast, Oslo was firstly founded by King Harald Hardråde of Norway around 1049. The name is derived from the Old Norse words Ás (Gods) and lo (meadow), and thus can be interpreted as “the meadow of the Gods”. From the 17th century to the beginning of the last century, the city’s name was, however, changed to Christiania when King Christian IV built his town here. The city only regained its original name in 1925. Since then it has become the epicenter of politics, economics, and culture in Norway.
When visiting Oslo today, you might be surprised by the number of cultural attractions in the city. Whether you are a history admirer, an art enthusiast, an explorer, or even a fan of architecture, chances are there is a place that meets your desire. Most sights are clustered around the city center, near the Vigeland Park and on Bygdøy Peninsula.
1. Central Oslo
Stretching from Karls Johan Gate to the promenade, Central Oslo is the heart and soul of Norway’s capital. The area has a bit of everything, ranging from historic monuments, classy museums to trendy restaurants and nightclubs. It was here that King Christian IV built the town of Christiania (modern Kvadraturen) after the devastating fire in 1624. This neighborhood also witnessed the establishment of the Norwegian parliament, the Stortinget, in 1814. Since the beginning of this century, the government of Oslo has started a rejuvenation project, in which the city’s old harbor is redeveloped to a modern massive waterfront.
The piéce de resistance of this project is the Operahuset or the Oslo Opera House. It’s a snowy white architecture that appears like a glacier floating in the waters of Oslo. Designed by the Oslo-based architectural firm Snøhetta, this opera house has become one of the most iconic buildings in Scandinavia since its opening in 2008. Inside, the 15-meters high glass window floods light into the foyer which is made of strips of golden oak. The wall curves up through the center of the foyer to the upper floors, thus it bears the name “the Wave Wall”.
2. Vigeland Park
Just minutes from Central Oslo, you will find yourself at Vigeland Park. Within a vast area of over 320 km², more than 200 bronze, granite, and wrought iron statues are on display. All are designed by the talented sculptor Gustav Vigeland, making it the world’s largest sculpture park made by a single artist.
Considering this park as his lifework, Gustav was also responsible for the sculpture installation and the architectural layout of the entire area. The statues are allocated to five units along an axis, including the Main Gate, the Bridge, the Fountain, the Monolith plateau, and the Wheel of Life. Inside the park, you will also find the Vigeland Museum dedicated to the artist. It comprises his atelier, a personal library, and several works of art.
3. Bygdøy Peninsula
Located in the south-eastern part of the city, Bygdøy Peninsula is home to three of Oslo’s most popular museums: the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History, the Viking Ship Museum, and the Fram Musem. The first one, as its name implies, depicts the life of Norwegians in the centuries past. It’s the country’s largest open-air museum, consisting of more than 140 structures from the 17th and 18th centuries. The highlight of the museum is, however, the restored stave church which was built in the 12th century.
A stone’s throw away from the Museum of Cultural History is Vikingskiphuset or the Viking Ship Museum. It’s home to two best-preserved Viking ships in the world: Oseberg and Gokstad. These centuries-old vessels are excavated from burial grounds across Norway, alongside wood carving, tent components, and other grave goods. Close to the shore is the Fram Museum which tells the story of the very first polar explorations performed by the Norwegians. The Fram – once the strongest’s polar vessel – proudly stands at the central hall of this museum
Tips for visiting Oslo
- Oslo is covered by an excellent public transport system. You can reach nearly everywhere by either bus or trams.
- Bygdøy Peninsula is accessible by bus. Yet Ferry No 91 is a better alternative, especially in summer. The ferry departs from Rådhusbrygge (opposite the city hall) and it takes approximately 20 minutes. Once on the peninsula, you can pleasantly stroll among the museums. They are all within walking distance from each other.
- An effective (and affordable) way for a culture trip in Oslo is using the Oslo Pass. The pass grants free admission to nearly all museums in Oslo, as well as public transport. A walking tour, transportation to/from the airport and a one-way ride with Ferry No. 91 is also included in the pass. The card is purchasable online and valid for 24hours, 48hours or 72hours.