The proud spirit of the Norwegian people shines in every dimension of their capital city — from its once-fearsome Viking ships to its sleek new Opera House, from a fun folk museum that keeps traditions alive to the constant festival of its thriving harborfront. Connecting with the culture, we enjoy art — from Vigeland's statues to Munch's scream — and join local friends for a boat ride on their fjord.
The public is welcome to this still-operational military base, which has a collection of sights scattered over Oslo's fortified old center. As you dodge patrol guards and vans filled with soldiers, you'll see the castle, war memorials, the Norwegian Resistance Museum, and cannon-strewn ramparts affording fine harbor views and picnic perches.
Oslo's harborfront City Hall is full of great art and is worth touring. The mayor has his office here, and every December 10, this building is where the Nobel Peace Prize is presented. The huge murals inside take you on a voyage through the collective psyche of Norway, from its simple rural beginnings through the scar tissue of the Nazi occupation and beyond.
In this impressive museum, you'll gaze with admiration at two finely crafted, majestic oak Viking ships dating from the 9th and 10th centuries, and the scant remains of a third vessel. Along with the two well-preserved ships, you'll see the bones of Vikings buried with these vessels and remarkable artifacts that may cause you to consider these notorious raiders in a different light. Highlights are the cart and sleighs, ornately carved with scenes from Viking sagas.
This museum holds the 125-foot, steam- and sail-powered ship that took modern-day Vikings Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen deep into the Arctic and Antarctic, and now also includes Amundsen's Gjøa, the first ship to sail through the Northwest Passage. The exhibit spins a fascinating tale of adventure, scientific exploration, and human determination…all at sub-zero temperatures.
Next to the Fram is a museum housing the famed Kon-Tiki, built by the larger-than-life anthropologist, seafarer, and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl. Also on display is Heyerdahl's Ra II, which made a 3,000-mile journey from Morocco to Barbados to prove that Africans could have populated America. Short clips from Kon-Tiki, the Oscar-winning 1950 documentary film, play in a small theater at the end of the exhibit.
The Norwegian Folk Museum is a 35-acre park on the Bygdøy peninsula, scattered with traditional buildings from across Norway. There's also a recreated old town and a folk-art museum. In peak season, the park is especially lively, with craftspeople doing their traditional things, barnyard animals roaming about, and attendants in period clothing. Don't miss its Sami culture exhibit, the best I've seen in Scandinavia.
Oslo's striking Opera House angles up from the water on the city's eastern harbor, across the highway from the train station. Information-packed tours explain what makes this one of the greenest buildings in Europe and why Norwegian taxpayers helped foot the half-billion dollar bill for this project: to make high culture accessible to the younger generation and a stratum of society who normally wouldn't care. You'll see a workshop employing 50 people who hand-make costumes, and learn how the foundation of 700 deep-set pylons support the jigsaw puzzle of wood, glass, and 36,000 pieces of marble. The construction masterfully integrates land and water, inside and outside, nature and culture.
The most essential paintings on display here are those featuring quintessentially Norwegian scenes and themes. Tuck these images carefully away with your goat cheese — they'll sweeten your explorations elsewhere in Norway. The gallery also has several Picassos, a noteworthy Impressionist collection, a Van Gogh self-portrait, some Vigeland statues, and many raving examples of Edvard Munch's work.
Within Oslo's vast Frogner Park is the sculpture-filled Vigeland Park, which is clearly loved and respected by the people of Oslo (no police, no fences — and no graffiti). At once majestic, hands-on, entertaining, and deeply moving, it's one of Europe's top artistic sights. In summer, it's a particularly tempting destination in the late afternoon, after the museums have closed, and there's still plenty of daylight. (Sculptures are also well-lit after dark, when the park remains open, and safe to visit.)
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we're in the home of my Norwegian ancestors...and I've got a cousin here who owns a boat! This is Oslo. Thanks for joining us.
Oslo is Norway's capital and cultural hub. Its many attractions tell an exciting story. They give an insight into a people who, in a thousand years, have evolved from fearsome Viking marauders to proud hosts of the Nobel Peace Prize.
We'll gather with the masses for a concert atop of Oslo's strikingly modern opera house, admire the graceful lines of ancient Viking ships, enjoy some medieval flirting, feel the soul of Norway in its National Gallery, cruise the Oslofjord, and join locals in Europe's ultimate sculpture park.
For much of its history, Norway was ruled by other Scandinavian powers — Denmark and Sweden. In fact, for 300 years, the city was named “Christiania,” after its Danish king. Then, in 1924, to underscore their independence from Denmark, locals tossed out that name and took the Old Norse name: Oslo.
Situated at the head of a 60-mile-long fjord, Oslo is by far Norway's biggest city. The city sprawls from a small historic core to encompass over a million people in its metropolitan area. Nearly one in five Norwegians calls greater Oslo home. Its streets are a mix of glassy high-rises, and — especially in its finer residential neighborhoods — grand facades. Oslo's harborfront hums with international shipping and a thriving cruise industry. Upscale condominiums enjoy fjordfront settings, and people here seem to be living very well.
The city's grand boulevard, Karl Johans Gate, cuts from the train station through the center of town to the Royal Palace. It's a people-friendly boulevard, lively with restaurants, parks, and strolling crowds.
The boulevard is named for the man who built this palace: Karl Johan. He was the 19th-century Swedish king who ruled Norway after Sweden took Norway from Denmark.
A military parade befitting Norway's modest military power enlivens the scene. It ends up at the palace, where people gather to watch the daily changing of the guard.
While Norway still has its royalty, they are figureheads tamed by a constitution. Today there's no question — it's the people who are in charge. And they're making their city increasingly livable. In the past, you would have dodged several lanes of traffic to get to the harborfront. Oslo has made its town center quiet and pedestrian-friendly by sending most traffic through tunnels under the city. They also levy a traffic-discouraging toll on cars as they enter town, which subsidizes public transport.
Many European cities are doing the same thing: tunneling and finding creative ways to help fund public transportation. People are retaking their lakefronts, riverfronts, and harborfronts. You can even hear the birds.
The historic Akershus Fortress overlooks Oslo's harbor. While once the menacing place from where Danish and Swedish overlords kept an eye on the Norwegian people, today the fortress seems to oversee only good times. While it's still a military base, soldiers seem only to guard oblivious picnickers. Cannon-strewn ramparts offer inviting benches and fine harbor views.
Opposite the fortress, a row of former warehouses has been transformed into trendy restaurants and condos. Once a gritty industrial zone, today it's a vibrant neighborhood enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.
Oslo's striking City Hall faces the harbor. It was finished in 1950 to celebrate the city's 900th birthday. Norway's leading artists all contributed to what was an avant-garde thrill in its day. The statues, which date from the 1930s, celebrate the nobility of the working class. The art, which shows everyone working together, implies a classless society.
Inside, the grand hall is famous for hosting the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Entering here, I'm reminded that in this most highly taxed corner of Europe, city halls, rather than churches, are the dominant buildings. While the state religion is Lutheran, people rarely go to church. Instead, they seem to almost worship good government. In fact, this main hall actually feels like a temple. The altar-like mural celebrates family values, good citizenship, and civic administration.
The mural shows both town folk and country folk — people from all classes and all walks of life. Together, despite their differences, they're collaborating, with a determination to build a better society.
This art illustrates how Norwegians are comfortable with their more socialistic form of government. They pay high taxes, have high expectations of their government, and are generally satisfied with how their leaders spend their money.
Oslo's harborfront provides an inviting place to simply enjoy the urban scene between sightseeing stops. From there, a ferry shuttles visitors across the harbor to Bygdøy, a peninsula with several museums highlighting the nation's maritime history.
The Viking Ship Museum shows off ninth-century Viking ships — icons from those days of pillage and plunder. Norwegian marauders terrorized Europe for generations. Gazing up at the prow of one of these sleek vessels, you can imagine the horror peasants in France or England or Russia felt when those redheads on the rampage sailed up their river.
Over a thousand years ago, three things drove Vikings on their far-flung raids: hard economic times in their bleak homeland, the lure of prosperous and vulnerable communities to the south, and a mastery of the sea.
In a boat like this — finely crafted of oak — the Vikings ranged far and wide. They settled over a thousand miles away in the west of France, which became Normandy — named for those Norsemen. And they hop-scotched across the Atlantic from Iceland to Greenland and on to the east coast of Canada, which they called “Vinland.” Imagine 30 men hauling on long oars, muscling through the sea for weeks and months on end.
In 1892, a replica of this ship sailed to America in 44 days — to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus not discovering America.
This ship, with its well-designed rudder and intricate carving, was probably a ceremonial pleasure craft for royalty to promenade on calm waters.
Viking chieftains were buried in their ships with their possessions. In fact, that's why these particular ships survived. Excavations turned up artifacts of leather and finely carved wood like these ornate sleighs. This horse cart is decorated with fanciful scenes from old Viking sagas.
An adjacent museum houses another Norwegian ship, the Fram. A thousand years after the Vikings, the steam- and sail-powered Fram took modern-day explorers Amundsen and Nansen deep into both polar regions. This tough ship ventured both farther north and south than any ship had gone before. Exhibits help you imagine life in these extremes, so far from the safety and comforts of civilization. For three years, this boat — especially designed to survive the pressure of a frozen sea — was locked in the grip of the Arctic ice.
The Fram was well equipped with instruments for scientific research. State-of-the-art in the early 1900s, these tools enabled the explorers to bring back important new data from the polar frontiers.
Next to the Fram is another example of Norway's seafaring heritage: the Kon-Tiki. In 1947, the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl and his crew constructed the Kon-Tiki raft out of bamboo and balsa wood. They set sail from Peru on the crude and fragile craft, surviving for 101 days on fish, coconuts, and sweet potatoes. About 4,300 miles later, they landed in Polynesia.
The point of this expedition was to show that early South Americans could have settled Polynesia. While Heyerdahl proved they could have, anthropologists doubt they actually did.
Today, with this idyllic fjordside setting, locals seem content not to sail far away...but to simply enjoy the delightful setting of the city they call home.
And for the people of Oslo, their fjord is a natural wonderland. Many choose to live in peaceful island communities, just an easy commute from downtown. Others see it as a playground. My cousin Kari-Anne and her partner Knut are picking us up for a short cruise.
Within minutes, Oslo is a world away, and we're surrounded by the beauty of its fjord. Islands provide a quick escape for commuters, vacationers, kayakers, and campers. While locals love to zip off in their boats, even tourists can hop on a ferry to enjoy much of the same experience.
We're anchoring in a charming cove only about 10 minutes from the city.
Rick: So it's the perfect escape, Oslofjord.
Kari-Anne: Very nice resort for everybody.
Rick: When a tourist comes to Norway, we kind of think "expensive" and "high taxes."
Kari-Anne: But we also have a thorough social democratic principle where the idea is that the basic things should be free for everybody.
Rick: Now a normal American worker pays probably 30 percent of their income in taxes, I think. What would a worker...?
Kari-Anne: Generally would be around 50 percent.
Rick: OK, but if you add in the cost of education to send your kids to college, and health care in America...
Kari-Anne: It would probably be the same.
Rick: Probably the same. But does this idealism demoralize people from being innovative and working really hard to get ahead?
Knut: I think it is the opposite, because you have security in the bottom, and then you can actually have creativity and productivity based upon that.
Rick: I'm sure it's not perfect, but all in all, do you like the system?
Kari-Anne: I'm convinced that it's a good idea. I mean politically, it's a basic idea I believe in. And of course it can always be better. But I think that the best thing is you're free from the kind of anxiety that I have a feeling many Americans feel — that, um, "How can I afford to go to hospital in case I get ill? What happens when I get old if I don't have the money to stay in a nice place?", for instance. All these things are more or less taken care of in this system.
Wherever I travel, it's stimulating to learn about different social systems that confound many Americans.
But life wasn't always a picnic on the fjord. The Norwegian Folk Museum takes us back to a day when life was more of a struggle. It displays 150 traditional buildings brought here from all corners of the country and reassembled in this sprawling park.
The museum is alive with people demonstrating slices of folk life. Smartly crafted log construction and sod roofs were well-designed for the long, cold winters. Stepping inside, you get a tasty example of life back then. These women are making the old-fashioned lefse.
Christianity came to Norway back in Viking times. Builders employed their expert woodworking skills — evident in their shipbuilding — to make fine wooden stave churches. They're named for the staves, or upright posts, upon which they're built. While commonplace in 12th-century Norway, only a few of these churches survive.
And every hour through the day, a crowd gathers at this farm hamlet from the northern region of Telemark to enjoy folk music and dance. With the very strict social constraints of centuries past, folk dances were an acceptable way for boys and girls to flirt and strut their stuff.
Back in the center, we take a short walk from downtown. Leaving the tourist attractions behind, you connect a little more intimately with the city. The national graveyard is a well-tended oasis of peace, where many of the country's cultural greats are buried. It leads to Oslo's oldest still-standing building. The 12th-century Gamle Aker church was built in the stark Romanesque style. The power of the stonework seems to echo the force of medieval Christianity — a force that was necessary to tame those Vikings, turning them from pagan raiders into Christian farmers.
From the church, a quaint lane leads down to the Akers River. It's lined by a delightful row of wooden cottages. Because of Oslo's many devastating fires over the centuries, you won't see architecture like this in the town center.
The Akers River park is a favorite of dog-walkers and joggers. While tranquil today, its waterfalls once powered a series of mills, which drove Oslo's early industry: flour mills in the 1300s, sawmills in the 1500s, and Norway's Industrial Revolution in the 1800s.
These women laborers are pondering the textile factory where they and hundreds like them toiled long and hard...not even dreaming of the good life women just a century later would enjoy in this same city.
This former working-class district, called Grünerløkka, is now a favorite of Oslo's creative and bohemian set. Locals come here for its convivial night scene, colorful eateries, and mellow cafés.
And at the edge of Grünerløkka is a neighborhood that reflects Oslo's changing ethnic complexion. Like much of Europe, the people of Oslo are learning to share their city with a growing immigrant population. One in five of Oslo's citizens are not ethnic Norwegians.
These "new Norwegians" have provided a much-needed and generally appreciated labor force, filling jobs that wealthy Norwegians would rather not do. Immigrants are critical in the booming construction industry. Cab companies, restaurants, and hotels are increasingly dependent on these workers. And entrepreneurial immigrants have opened successful shops and popular ethnic restaurants, literally adding spice to the otherwise pretty drab local cuisine.
Modern Norway is a fast-changing scene — both ethnically and architecturally. Oslo's striking Opera House, built of Carrara marble, seems to rise like an iceberg from the sea. This is the only opera house in the world that doubles as a public plaza, with a roof designed to be walked on.
Built on a once-gritty industrial zone, traffic was redirected underground, and today the city enjoys a popular new cultural venue. It's a huge hit. Its roof doubles as a grandstand for outdoor concerts. And its striking interior comes with all the elegance you'd expect. Concert-goers gather in its soaring lobby. The acoustics in this state-of-the-art theater are considered some of the best anywhere — and Oslo's Jazz Festival takes full advantage.
In this distant corner of Europe, many visitors find more high culture than they expect. Norway's National Gallery showcases the powerful beauty of this country's landscape and people as portrayed by its great painters. A thoughtful visit here gives those heading into the mountains and fjord country a chance to pack along a little better understanding of Norway's cultural soul.
Landscapes have always played an important role in Norwegian art. This genre peaked in the late 19th century, during the Romantic period, which stressed the power and beauty of nature.
Stalheim, by Johan Christian Dahl, epitomizes the Norwegian closeness to nature. Romantics reveled in the power of the great outdoors. The rainbow says it all: This is God's work. Nature is big. God is great. Man is small. The birch tree — standing boldly front and center — is a standard symbol for the politically downtrodden Norwegian people: battered yet still standing.
In the mid-19th century, Norwegians were awakening to their national identity. The Bridal Voyage shows the ultimate Norwegian scene: a wedding party with everyone decked out in their traditional dress, heading for the stave church, engulfed in the majesty of the fjords.
Here, and throughout Europe, nationalism and Romanticism went hand-in-hand. These were hardworking, independent folk. People were poor...but they owned their own land. Paintings like these were patriotic tools.
This painting — Low Church Devotion by Tidemand, from 1848 — shows a dissenting Lutheran church group (of which there were many in the 19th century). Rather than accept the Norwegian king's "High Church," they worshipped independently, in a humble home. The light of God powers through the chimney, illuminating salt-of-the-earth people with strong faiths. Later, many of these same people emigrated to America for greater religious freedom.
Edvard Munch is Norway's most famous and influential painter. In this 1895 self-portrait, we see a complex and troubled artist.
Munch helped pioneer a new style — Expressionism — using lurid colors and bold lines to "express" inner turmoil and the angst of the modern world.
The Scream is Munch's most iconic work. The figure seems isolated from the people on the bridge — locked up in himself, unable to stifle his scream. Munch wrote, "This painting is the work of a madman." This Expressionist masterpiece is a breakthrough painting showing angst personified.
Munch suffered from depression. His father had a mental breakdown. His mother and his sister died of TB. When he eventually overcame his depression, he became a happier man. But he never again painted with such power.
But today, especially when the sun shines in Oslo, it's really not that bad. Wherever I travel, I like to think of public transportation routes as potential tour routes. Oslo's main tram line circles around the city. You can hop on and off, knowing another is always on its way. Trams come by about every 10 minutes, efficiently and economically lacing together many of the city's most important sights.
Oslo's vast Frogner Park is a perfect place to share a moment with Norwegians families at play. Strolling here, you feel a positive spirit — both rugged and pragmatic, celebrating life. The park showcases a lifetime of work by Oslo’s greatest sculptor, Gustav Vigeland.
In 1921, Vigeland made a deal with the city: In return for a great studio and financial support, he agreed to dedicate his creative life to beautifying Oslo with all these statues, which became this much-loved sculpture garden.
From 1924 to 1943, he created a world of bronze and granite statues comprising 600 figures, each nude and unique. Vigeland's sturdy humans capture universal themes of the cycle of life.
Today Vigeland's park is beloved by the people of Oslo. It's both a place to relax...and a place to be inspired. Six giants hold a fountain, symbolically toiling with the burden of life, as water — the source of life — cascades steadily over them.
In clumps of bronze trees, Vigeland takes us through the seasons of life. The centerpiece of the park — a teeming monolith of life surrounded by granite groups — continues Vigeland's cycle-of-life motif. Vigeland explores a lifetime of human relationships in earthbound groups. The figures seem irresistible, as visitors playfully engage with the art. Then, at the center, a tangle of figures carved out of a single block of stone rockets skyward.
Built of bodies, it seems to pick up speed as it spirals skyward. Vigeland left the meaning of his monolith itself open. Like life itself, it’s a wonderful puzzle.
I hope you've enjoyed our visit to Oslo. Like these Vigeland statues, Oslo itself can inspire us to celebrate life in all its complexity, and to embrace it. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time...keep on travelin'.
People who in a thousand years have evolved from fearsome marauding Vikings to people like me [laugh].
And are generally comfortable, satisfied, pleased with how their leaders spend their money.
The point of this expedition was to show that early South Americans could have pollinated [laugh].