Oslo is relatively undiscovered compared to its Scandinavian sisters, which makes a weekend away feel a bit like discovering a really good secret.
Small enough to properly explore, and unfussily pretty (the term ‘chocolate box’ doesn’t exist in Scando design); Norway’s capital makes for a stylish city break that, in some ways, doesn’t feel like a city break at all.
You’re never swallowed by tourist herds here, for starters. This might be to do with, yep, some steep pricing (a main course is around £20/€24, a pint of local beer £7/€8.20), and no obvious check-the-box sights like in London or Paris, but Oslo’s laidback charm has its own power.
One stroll through streets lined with pastel-coloured houses, or a cruise on the glittering, forest-flanked and island-dotted Oslo Fjord, and you’ll start to feel the place’s effect.
So, what to do on a Friday to Sunday visit? There’s plenty to cram in…
Check in to Grims Grenka, a two-year-old design hotel and Oslo’s coolest address. Rooms start at £130/€150 and are of a clean, minimalist style, bolstered by some essential bits of Scandinavian design including Bang & Olufsen entertainment systems and super-comfy Jensen beds. Cutting-edge looks and moody lighting are tempered by the friendliest of staff, who’ll happily recommend bars and restaurants and even fetch you blankets if you feel the chill during midnight drinks at the rooftop bar. This roof space is the real gem of an already fantastic hotel. Night-time never gets past the twilight stage in Oslo during summer, so you can sit up here until late and enjoy views all the way to the surrounding hills. Yummy cocktails start at £7/€8.20, an exception to the ‘twice the price of home’ rule that applies with most food and drink.
You can stay out at the roof bar until 2am, but if you want to step up the tempo a little, eastside suburb Grünerløkka is your best bet for clubbing. An unobtrusive doorway on Møllergata leads to basement club The Villa (under equally cool Hell’s Kitchen bar and restaurant, Møllergata 23; entry £10/€12) and a five-minute walk further east brings you to Blå (Brenneriveien 9; entry £10/€12), graffiti-covered inside and out. Blå also has a cute riverside-set outdoor lounge strung with fairy lights, which is perfect for watching dawn break again in the (very) early hours…
The pinball effect of shuttling from one supposed must-do sight to another (and none of it living up to the hype – a city-break thing that happens all too often) never really comes in to it with Oslo – it’s a place you feel you’re discovering on your own. Having said that, tell anyone who’s been to Olso that you’re going there and they’ll recommend you see either one or both of Vigeland Park and the Munch Museum, and we’re no different. Both are interesting, engaging places to go and their small, accessible scale means you can explore without feeling lost or, even worse, bored.
It’s at the Munch Museum (Tøyengata 53, entry £7.50/€9), where, amongst the painter’s other melancholic works, a version of The Scream can be seen in the flesh. The painting was briefly stolen a few years ago, and the museum lamentably notes an almost undetectable bit of water-damage in one of its corners.
After all this rather satisfying bleakness, Vigeland Sculpture Park in Frogner on the west side of the city offers a bit of outdoorsy respite, though still with an artistic edge. The park is filled with giant bronze and granite human sculptures by Gustav Vigeland, which have the collective effect of being touching, beautiful and disconcerting at the same time.
Oslo’s also marvellous to explore by water. On Saturday evening, take a three-hour commercial cruise from Aker Brygge for a bite-size look at Oslo Fjord, sailing around islands populated by colourful, wood-panelled houses and coastal hills with Grand Designs-style homes rising from fir forests. Here you get a feel for the real fluidity that exists between rural and urban living in Norway – and get to have a nosy at the idyllic weekend hideaways of Oslo’s clean-living locals.
Sunday wouldn’t be complete without a stroll around a market, so it’s back to Grünerløkka for a daytime peep around club Blå’s Sunday flea market. The place is transformed by sellers offering trendy, affordable ranges of handmade accessories, retro homeware and great quality vintage clothes (check out Benedicte Hetty Balner’s stall in particular, where the delectable clothes, bags, shoes and jewellery are sourced from her travels to Argentina).
It’s then a two-minute stroll along Akerselva River to the main street Markveien and its strip of cute-as-a-button second-hand stores. Other notable places include art gallery-cum-bar Sound of Mu (Markveien 58) and Bugges restaurant (Leirfallsgate 6) with its delicious modern menu and granny-chic interior. Sit outside here and watch Grünerløkka’s resident mix of yummy mummies and students make the pavement their catwalk.
If you’re in need of some chill-out time after pounding the streets, head to central thoroughfare Karl Johans gate and the top-floor spa at the Grand Hotel (Karl Johans gate 31). This historic venue hosts the Nobel peace prize every November and19th-century playwright Henrik Ibsen made its cafe his favourite spot. The upstairs spa is in contrast a thing of sleek, modern beauty, all slate tiles and underwater disco lights in the pool. Sweat out your cares in the compact sauna and steam rooms, get head-to-toe beauty treatments and finish it all off with by basking in the sunshine on the outdoor terrace.
Round off your Oslo weekend with a night at the opera – forget the stuffy, gilded spaces of traditional opera buildings and marvel at the angular white plains of Oslo’s modern architectural marvel, whose sloping exterior means you can scale the building all the way to the roof. Hike up here for one last look at Oslo’s panoramic bay and dappled skyline, then head down for a final-night show – a fittingly sleek and stirring conclusion to your time in this quietly dramatic city.
Norwegian.com offers cheap flights to Oslo, and elsewhere in Norway, from throughout Europe.Oslo’s official tourism site has more information on what to see and do in the Norwegian capital.