Yesterday I got an email from an old friend and former colleague who is visiting Norway and wondering what to see and do. His is not the first email of that kind – and it dawned on me that the rational and productive thing to do (well, it is early Sunday morning and I am still undercaffeinated) is to write this up as a blog post. (Did the same thing for my Norwegian friends asking me about what to do in Boston.) So – what would I recommend if you should find yourself in Oslo during the summer, with some time to look around?
First of all, you need to understand a few basic things about Norway. Norway has lots to recommend it, but we are mainly about nature – while Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim and some of the other cities are nice, they are a bit like a one-star Michelin restaurant – worthy of a stop, but not destinations in themselves. To appreciate Norway, you need to appreciate nature and natural beauty – and be willing to put in some effort to see it. On that note:
So: If you are going to Norway, pack good shoes, rain gear, basically the light hiking setup. You may not need it, but you certainly won’t regret packing it. As the saying goes here, there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. And we mean it.
Caveat: I like to list things that are (arguably, somewhat) unique to Oslo. We have nice cafes and tolerably good museums (such as the National Gallery), but those you will find in any capital in Europe. Most people who come here do it for a short visit – and you want to stay away from that which is mostly for the tourists and not different from anywhere else in Europe. So, here is where I take my (mostly) American friends:
- The Vigeland park (or Frogner park). This is the world’s largest sculpture park dedicated to one artist, Gustav Vigeland. And, as every American says who has been there – they are all naked! Vigeland was a pupil of Rodin and the sheer size and rather playful humor of the place is enjoyable and a sure hit with the kids. (My favorite: The little girl who, unseen by her parents, is picking up a snake. See if you can find it.) One of Oslo’s city symbols is “Sinnataggen”, a little boy having a tantrum. This is also where people in Oslo go to relax and hang out if the weather is good, so you might see some locals.
- The Holmenkollen ski jump, especially if we can throw in a little walk in the woods. The ski jump is impressive in itself (though ski jumping is no longer the enormous draw it used to be for Norwegians) and you get an excellent view of Oslo. There is a zip line if you feel adventurous. But, to really have a Norwegian experience in the sense of doing something the locals like, walk from Frognerseteren to Tryvannsstua (pictured, about 3 km) or Skjennungstua (5 km, view, delightful pastries) to get a sense of Oslomarka. Oslo is 63% protected forest, with gravel roads, paths and (in winter) hundreds of kilometers of prepared ski tracks. Heavily used by the citizens of Oslo and surrounding municipalities.
- The Munch museum, a bit run down, will probably move to a new building in 2018/19, but the paintings are, of course, worth seeing.
- The Viking Ship museum. The museum itself is crowded and due for an update, but it is the only place in the world, as far as I know, where you can see a complete, real Viking ship. Worth the trip. If you are feeling energetic, there are lots of other museums (at the Bygdøy peninsula, take a boat there from the City Hall). I have taken people to the Folk Museum a lot – mainly because two of my daughters have had summer jobs there and can provide an inside perspective – but it requires a deeper interest in folklore and rural history than most people have (but if you go there, make sure to sample the Hardangerlefse, cooked over open fire. Carbs galore.) There is the Fram and Kon-Tiki museum, as well, though I haven’t been for many years. Plus Huk, a nice beach, if you feel like a dip.
- The Ekebergparken sculpture park, a relatively new sculpture park donated by property investor and man-about-town Christian Ringnes. The park itself is more of a lightly edited forest than an art installation, but it works well, and the collection (themed as an homage to women) is very good. And the view of the city is excellent – this is, quite literally, where The Scream was painted. (There is a metal frame at one point where you can take photos recreating the painting yourself. Including screaming.)
- Explore the fjord – Oslo is built around the fjord, and if you can get on a boat – even just taking a summer ferry out to some of the islands – by all means do it. (I live on an island, perhaps I am a bit partial here.) In later years, the city has tried to make the shoreline available for walking (a project called Fjordbyen) and it works rather well. The high point, of course, is walking on the roof of the Oslo Opera House, but the Akershus Fort and just hanging out slowly sipping a cold (and expensive) drink while ogling the historical boats you find here and there is nice, too.
- Explore Oslo by bike or foot. The urban bike project is pretty good, you download an app to your smartphone and check out and in bikes from many places. Best path: Along Akerselva. Grünerløkka (partially along the river) is the “bohemian” (well, gentrified) district, Frogner is more upscale, Grønland for immigrant food and culture, and Gamlebyen for history.
- Eat at a restaurant. Food is somewhat expensive, drinks horribly expensive, but the quality is very high. My personal favorite is Kampen Bistro, a semi-hidden neighborhood restaurant/community house with a semi-fixed menu and the world’s best cheese platter. But you will find lots of good food and a constantly changing set of restaurants – Google for a list. (Alternatively: My friend Bill Schiano once spent most of a day walking from bakery to bakery all over town, a very happy man.)
- If you want to say you have seen something not many Norwegians have seen: The Emanuel Vigeland mausoleum, created by Gustav Vigeland’s, well, rather eccentric brother. Opening hours are complicated, but if you have been there, you have definitely seen more of Oslo than most people.
Norway outside Oslo
Well, now it gets difficult. There are, literally, hundreds of web pages devoted to Norwegian tourist spots, from Prekestolen to Trolltunga to Hurtigruten to Flåmsbanen to whatever. They are all fantastic, but since you can read about them in lots of detail there and also plan your route via visitnorway.com and other sites, I will stay away from the obvious choices, and, again, go for something a bit more hidden and for the local (though not very hidden.)
Extremely important warning: In addition to the weather and clothing issue mentioned above, Norwegian culture is fundamentally built on the principle that you, yourself, and nobody else, is responsible for being knowledgeable and physically capable of doing whatever you set out doing. Norwegians do not believe in protecting people against their own stupidity. (And forget about suing anyone, you’ll be laughed out of court.)
Norwegians are quite cynical about this. Do not expect there to be signposts and security fences in the mountains or along the fjords – but if there are, obey them religiously, because they denote real dangers, not risks of lawsuits. Every year, some tourist will fall off Trolltunga or Vøringsfossen, step too close to a calving glacier or drown in a fjord because they did not have the wits, skills or equipment necessary. That is considered to be the tourists’ fault. At Svalbard, tourists are referred to as “Bamsemums” (a popular foam-bear-covered-in-chocolate candy) because of their propensity to end up as polar bear lunch, on account of going where they are not supposed to without a gun. Something of the same spirit prevails in most of Norway, though in some places (such as Trolltunga), the local authorities are thinking about fencing things in a bit, mostly because it is so expensive to haul the bodies out.
Yes, I am exaggerating a bit. But not much.
With that out of the way: The best way to see Norway is to amble around (preferably in an electric car), stop whenever you feel like it, and (thanks to the Viking-age freedom to roam) go for a walk in your hiking shoes. Norway is all about nature, and there is so much of it that practically anything is worth seeing. That being said: The south coast is mellow and sunny and idyllic, the west coast is spectacular with deep fjords and high mountains, the North (north from Trondheim, that is) goes from New Zealand fjords to Alaskan tundra. The Eastern forests offer opportunities for canoeing and fishing, if you are into that. The mountains in the middle have peaks and glaciers and mountain huts, managed by the truly wonderful Norwegian Tourist Association. Explore at your leisure, spend time, and above all, do not feel forced to see the famous sites, when you can find something almost as good quite close.
I have never been to Geiranger, for instance. (But I haven’t seen Star Wars either.)
As for recommendations, here is a fairly random list of things I like:
- Mountaineering is great, but where to go if you don’t have much time? Some suggestions from Jotunheimen (but there are thousands of others):
- Knutshø (pictured, steeper than it may look) is dramatic, close to the road, has fantastic views, and there are not many people there. Perfect one-day walk: Park the car and do it, walk along the ridge, return along the lake on south side. Great view of Besseggen.
- Bitihorn is another, less dramatic alternative.
- If you want to get above 2000 meters, try Rasletind.
- The Rosendal Barony is breathtakingly beautiful, as is the view. Not far away (south of Odda there is a path up to Buarbreen, a part of Folgefonna, nice walk to a glacier.)
- If you don’t fancy walking, taking the boat from Gjendesheim to Gjendebu and back is worth it. While reading Three in Norway by two of them.
- Solvorn is a sleepy little hamlet with a fantastic little family hotel called Walaker. From there, you can drive to Veitastrond and Tungastølen (damaged in heavy weather in 2011, will hopefully reappear with fantastic new architecture) and walk in to Austerdalsisen (fantastic glacier views, while they are still there.)
- While I am at it – the Glacier Museum in Fjærland is worth a visit. As well as the nearby glacier (mind your step.)
- Ålesund is a beautiful little coastal city which burned in 1904 and was rebuilt in Art Noveau style. Many Norwegian cities were architecturally brutalized in the sixties and later, but Ålesund has kept its style.
- Trondheim is nice – and Baklandet Skydstation has been named the best cafe in the world several times. I love it. And it is close to the only bike lift I know of. Trondheim is a university town – primarily the technical university, Norway’s MIT.
- Bergen is nice – the whole city – perhaps with an exception for the fish market, which has transmogrified from local and lively market to a canned tourist experience the last few years. Will probably be fixed. Take a tram or cable car to the surrounding hilltops*.
- The south coast has lots of beautiful little towns with white-painted “skipper” houses. I like them all – Lillesand, Grimstad, Arendal, Tvedestrand, Risør, Kragerø – but if you somehow can get to Lyngør, it is absolute perfection in summer.
- Tromsø has nightlife and nature and the most active local patriots in Norway. And that is saying a lot.
- I quite like the Henrik Sørensen museum near Holmsbu.
- Svolvær and Lofoten and the other Hurtigruten things are fantastic, of course, don’t misunderstand me, but they tend to fill up.
- Fishing is, apparently, fantastic. (I don’t fish myself…)
A few notes:
- You cannot see the northern lights in the summer. Sorry.
- Nor the midnight sun in the winter.
- Norway is expensive and service is friendly but overstretched (we have near wage equality and employees are very expensive…). Do not expect fawning service, even at fancy hotels.
- Norwegians are rather reserved and have a fairly expansive sense of personal space. When the other people at the bus stop are keeping their distance to you, it has nothing to do with you. It’s them. (See The Social Guidebook to Norway for further information).
And that is that. Comments welcome. More to follow as I remember things.
PS: Found this video with Morten Rustad’s 10 favorite places in Norway. I spent much of my summers as a boy in Valdres and Jotunheimen and agree with him. But note also: Solitude and challenge is a plus, crowds a minus, for the quintessential Norwegian tourist/explorer:
*No, not mountains. I Norway, any mountain with trees on top is a hill, no matter how steep or tall.