Vikings, wars with Denmark and the Nobel Peace Prize. Immerse yourself in a spot of Norwegian history and culture at some of Oslo's best museums
Think of Norway and what immediately springs to mind? Fjords, dramatic countryside and a country where living standards are among the highest in the world. But take a trip around some of Oslo's museums and you will learn much more about the history of this fine Scandinavian country, its culture and how events of the past have conspired to make it the place it is today.
Six museums in two days
Taking advantage of an Oslo Pass (www.visitoslo.com/en/the-oslo-pass.49104.en.html), myself and two friends managed to get around some of the best museums in the city in just over 24 hours. The pass gives you unlimited entry to most of the museums, exhibits and galleries in Oslo, for either a 24 hr period (230kr), 48 hrs (340kr) or 72 hrs (430kr). Most of the exhibits cost 80kr anyway, so if you’re planning to visit more than three during your stay buying an Oslo pass is a no-brainer. The pass includes unlimited travel on public transport – plus discounts on car parking, restaurants and winter sport activities. Your pass starts from the time you visit the first attraction.
Housed inside the grounds of Akershus Castle (Oslo mil/Akershus, a 10-minute walk from Oslo’s bus and train station) is the deceptively spacious Armed Forces Museum (Forsvarsmuseet; +47 22 41 25 21). Seemingly small when you first enter, a good two hours can be spent perusing through all of the artefacts from Norwegian military history. As expected, the museum contains weapons and items from Norway at home and abroad in the Second World War. More unique, though, is the excellent insight into Norway’s relations with neighbouring Sweden and Denmark over time. Be sure to visit the mock-up scene of the navy at sea during the Second World War. Housed behind glass, on the opposite side of the walkway is a memoriam of names of Norwegian servicemen who lost their lives at sea. Very moving stuff.
Arguably the best and most distinctive of all of the museums offered in Oslo is the Vikingskipshuset – or Viking Ship Museum (Huk Aveny 35; +47 22 13 52 80). Norway claims to have here the best preserved Viking ships anywhere in the world. Once you’ve visited it’s difficult to argue too. The three ships – Gokstad, Oseberg and Tune – aren’t the biggest you’ll ever see but just admire their structure, carvings and picture them at sea and they’re mighty impressive. There’s lots of informative background on Viking history, plus a few artefacts recovered from dead Vikings – the ships were 1100-years-old when they were discovered.
The Viking museum is located at Bygdøy, a small district of Oslo packed with museums, which you can reach via a short ferry ride from Oslo harbour (summer only) or travel overland by bus (no 30). The journey takes no more than 10 minutes on either form of transport.
Bygdøy also houses the Norwegian Maritime Museum (Bygdøynesv. 37; +47 24 11 41 50). If somewhat unspectacular, it does chart Norway’s impressive and rich history at sea, focusing in particular on cruiseliners in the mid-late 20th century – the preserved cabins taken from some ships in the 1970s are worth a look.
Opposite the maritime museum is the FRAM Polar Ship museum (Bygdøynes; +47 23 28 29 50). The attraction is dominated, as you’d expect, by the polar ship of the same name but the museum offers much more. There’s a history of polar exploration by some of Norway’s most celebrated seafarers and, as you walk around, you certainly get some sort of feel as to what conditions must have been like at sea.
Aside from visiting Akershus Castle itself, our final museum visits were to the Nobel Peace Center (Rådhusplassen; +47 48 30 10 00) and the Norwegian Resistance Museum (Oslo mil/Akershus; +47 23 09 31 38). Situated just off the waterfront in downtown harbour Oslo, the Nobel Museum is about – well, exactly what it says. Museums can sometimes feel like they’re as old as the artefacts within them but not this one. It details through video, sound and memorabilia the history of the Nobel Peace Prize and it’s got an ultra-modern, fresh and clean feel to it. At the time of visiting in February 2010 the museum was right up to date, with the flagship exhibition focusing on President Barack Obama’s Peace Prize Award.
The Resistance museum is hugely informative, taking you through the Norwegian’s experiences during the Second World War.
Out and About: The best of the rest of Oslo – a short walking tour
A walk from the start to the end of Oslo’s main street, Karl Johan’s Gate, offers an at-a-glance introduction to much of the best of the city. Starting at Oslo Central Station and finishing up at the Royal Palace, the walk takes you past the Norwegian parliament building, Stortinget, Oslo University and, with a slight detour, the National Theatre. All of the buildings are typically Scandinavian – historic in their own right, but with a modern appearance that defies the age of the buildings.
One visit to Oslo and you will forever remember what the Norwegians call a parken. The city is full of parks, big and small, some grand and some understated. The most spectacular and unmissable is without doubt Vigelandsparken (Entré Kirkevn; +47 23 49 37 00). It’s a huge sculpture park, housing work by the Norwegian sculpture Vigeland and also taking in tennis courts, swimming pool and two more museums. Viglensparken is a five-minute ride on the tram from the interchange just outside the National Theatre.
Eating out – food and drink
Oslo is by no means cheap, and this applies particularly to food and drink. A pint (well, almost a pint) of local brew Ringness or the much lighter and refreshing Auss will set you back anywhere between 500kr-900kr (£5 upwards); a standard meal in a restaurant at least 180kr (£18-20). Coffee is a bit more reasonably priced, comparable to a British Nero or Starbucks (£2-4). Try one of the numerous Dele Deluca coffee shops – coffees for 10kr (£1) and some excellent breakfast pastries and cookies.
Finding a restaurant in Oslo which serves (reasonably priced) traditional Norwegian food is certainly a difficult task. Instead, expect to find a surprising number of international fast food chains (Burger King and McDonald's among them) and a range of Chinese, Indian, Thai and other international cuisines. Two of the most prominent chains are the Big Horn Steak House and TGI Friday's. You get discounted food with your Oslo pass at TGI’s. That was where we opted to eat (TGI Friday's, Karl Johans Gate 35; +47 22 33 32 00; www.fridays.no) – and it was seemingly the most popular restaurant in town.
Where to stay
The MS Innvik is highly recommended – and not just for its stunning location on the waterfront adjacent to Oslo’s iconic Opera House. It’s an old touring theatre ship and makes for a wonderfully quirky hotel. It docked in Oslo’s waters after a long stint touring all over Scandinavia but the Innvik’s owners have retained all of its character in its new life. Plays are still performed to the public in the basement of the ship, below a cosy bar on the main deck which leads through to the cabin rooms. By no means spacious, they comfortably sleep two people (in bunkbeds). All the rooms are en suite and cost either 425kr (single) or 750kr (double).
If you’re looking for a more straightforward, good quality Nordic hotel, try one owned by the Thon Hotels group. There’s 15 of them in the city (including one opposite the Innvik and Opera House - Thon Hotel Opera, (Dronning Eufemias gate 4; +47 24 10 30 00) and rooms are priced from 595kr depending on which one you choose.