Sightseeing for Sailors in Oslo: Bygdøy

By Rick Steves
Viking Ship Museum, Oslo, Norway
At Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum, this ninth-century vessel evokes the era of the Vikings. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)
Norwegian Folk Museum, Oslo, Norway
Stave churches nestle near farmhouses, shops, and other buildings collected around Norway at the Norwegian Folk Museum. (photo: Rick Steves)

While I've enjoyed a lot of travel adventure, I doubt anything in my journals would rival the adventure my grandparents had as they sailed away from their Norwegian homeland — poor and without even a phrasebook to deal with the language barrier — to homestead in Alberta. And every time I return to Norway, I think of the Viking spirit that egged them on and — I like to think — keeps me traveling.

Anyone with Viking ancestry (or victim-of-Viking ancestry) can enjoy a shiver of adrenalin sailing across the Oslo fjord to Bygdøy, where the sea-faring heritage of Norway is proudly on display. This exciting cluster of sights is on a park-like peninsula reached, appropriately, by ferry from downtown Oslo. The Bydgøy sights, all within a 15-minute walk of each other and the ferry landing, provide the best day out for anyone visiting Norway's capital city.

Three great ninth-century Viking ships and plenty of artifacts from the days of rape, pillage, and plunder are housed in the Viking Ship Museum. There are no museum tours, but everything is well-described in English, and it's hard not to hear the English-speaking bus-tour guides. The exquisite cloth and embroidery in the dark room (which lights up when you enter it) has you marveling that Eric the Red and his gang had fashions beyond capes, loincloths, and dreadlocks. There was a time when much of a frightened Europe closed every prayer with "and deliver us from the Vikings, Amen." Gazing up at the prow of one of these sleek time stained vessels, you can almost hear the screams and smell the armpits of those redheads on the rampage.

Long after those Vikings were Christianized and the last great warrior king was buried with his ship, the people of Norway have inspired the world with their passion for exploration. The great Norwegian ship, the Fram, took modern-day Vikings Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen deep into the Arctic and Antarctic, farther north and south than any ship before. The Fram Museum is fascinating. After reading the ground-floor displays, you're welcome to explore the boat. You can imagine you just stowed away — pumped for a salty adventure — and ended up with the rest of the Fram crew spending three years in an Arctic ice drift.

Just a harpoon toss away, you can visit the Kon-Tiki and the Ra II. These are the boats Thor Heyerdahl built and sailed, 4,000 and 3,000 miles respectively, to prove that early South Americans could have sailed to Polynesia and that Africans could have populated Barbados. He made enough money from his adventures to also prove that rich Norwegians can only stay that way by moving to low-tax Monaco.

The adjacent Norwegian Maritime Museum provides an overview of Norway's maritime heritage. If you like the sea, this is a saltlick. Even landlubbers will enjoy the movie shown here. The Coast: A Way of Life is a breathtaking widescreen film that swoops you (in a comfy theater) scenically over Norway's dramatic sea and fishing townscapes from here all the way to North Cape.

And just up the street, the Norwegian Folk Museum offers a look — with 150 buildings brought from all corners of Norway and reassembled on 35 acres — at how those who stayed home managed to live. While Stockholm's Skansen, another open-air folk museum, claims to be the first (and was the first open to the public), Oslo's is actually the first museum of this kind, starting in 1885 as the king's private collection. You'll find craftspeople doing their traditional things; security guards disguised in cute, colorful, traditional costumes; and endless creative ways to make do in a primitive log-cabin-with-goats-on-the-roof age, as well as exhibits filled with toys and fine folk costumes. The towering 12th-century wooden stave church is one of just a handful that survives in Norway. Designed by architects whose experience was mostly in boat building, these evocative buildings — reminders that Norway has been Christianized for about a thousand years — look curiously like upside-down ships.

The museum hops in the summer but is dead off-season. The free one-hour guided walks bring otherwise empty barns, homes, and schoolhouses to life. Otherwise glean information from the museum guidebook and the informative guards who look like Rebecca Boone's Norwegian pen pals.

Our trips to the "old land" may not stack up to our ancestors' journeys to the "new land." But if we travel thoughtfully, we can connect with our heritage, get a better sense of why we are who we are, and be thankful those crazy Vikings finally settled down.