We had originally planned on spending a month in Norway. We wanted to explore the countryside, spend Christmas in the same area my mother’s ancestors are from, and get a real feel for the culture and traditions. However, we were offered a house sit in the French Alps for most of December into January, and that was impossible to say no to. Oddly enough, it was cheaper to keep our tickets from Reykjavik to Oslo and then buy one to Paris instead of changing it from Reykjavik straight to Paris, so we had changed our plans to a long weekend in Oslo instead. Rather than cram in as much of the country as we could in four days, we decided to focus on the city, knowing we’d return for the rest of Norway at a later date.
Oslo is Norway’s capital and consequently one of the largest and most populated cities in the country. It sits on the Southern coast on the Oslofjord, a fjord being a long, narrow inlet from the sea surrounded by high cliffs. Almost everyone speaks English as another language, like most Scandinavian countries. Being early December, Christmas decorations abounded, aesthetically aided by the seemingly permanent blanket of white snow.
Scandinavian countries are famously expensive to visit, and Norway is no exception. There was no reprieve for us after Iceland – costs were just as high if not worse. That being said, we used some of my travel rewards points to get a hotel room in the center of the city as a treat. The SmartHotel Oslo is is in the city center very near the Royal Palace, and relatively affordable even without rewards points. But the rooms are tiny. The double bed easily took up the majority of floor space, and was tucked between the outer wall and the wall to our bathroom. The desk folded down from the wall, leaving about a foot between it and the bed. With our luggage installed, there was just a narrow strip of carpet for us to stand, and passing each other required much careful sidling. The bathroom was small enough that the shower impeded on the floor space between the sink and toilet, and the shower doors could fold inward when not in use. It all was impeccably clean, and mostly efficient. I felt that some added shelf space and hooks on walls wouldn’t go amiss, and would save lots of careful maneuvering around stuff on the floor. Luckily, however, we didn’t spend most of our time in the tiny hotel room. There was Oslo to explore.
Our hotel was two blocks over from one of the largest Christmas markets in town, as luck would have it. Braving the piercing cold by wrapping up in literally every piece of warm clothing we had, we went out to explore the stalls and their offerings several times during our stay. Every year I visit the Christkindl Market Chicago with family and this was remarkably similar, down to the very stall designs. This Oslo market had the added benefit of space, however, and was able to have larger pedestrian areas, larger eateries, and even a ferris wheel and skating rink, without crushing crowds. Bonfires were scattered throughout the market with logs for sitting on and piles of wood for people to keep the fire going. Clayton and I enjoyed “Christmas spiced” bratwurst on several occasions, and warm waffles with jam for breakfasts. It was particularly convenient to have the market nearby, as the street food was cheaper than any restaurants. Eating out in Norway is just as famously expensive as it is in Iceland, and usually our other meals would consist of 7-11 sandwiches and chips. Even then, those 7-11 meals would cost $10 each, so we’d split the one sandwich between us. We frequented the market for meals and general Christmas atmosphere quite often, and the lights, music, and scents got us in the Christmas spirit. At one point, I was interviewed on camera by a school group looking for tourists to share their Christmas traditions from around the world. We could tell they were quite disappointed, however, since my Christmas traditions were rather Norwegian, thus less exciting for them.
Oslo has a fairly walkable city center, and we found ourselves heading towards the Akershus Festning, a fortress overlooking the harbor and a popular historical tourist destination. The imposing medieval structure was used as a royal palace, military base, and prison in its varied history. Although we couldn’t go inside, it didn’t cost anything to wander around the buildings that made up the complex. An information desk was open, and in the same room some posters gave more information on the fortress and its days as a prison. We went back outside and eventually made it up to the cannon-covered battlements to look out at the water before our frozen eyelashes convinced us to go get warm. Just a five minute jaunt away was Aker Brygge, a pier full of fishing boats and ferries. There are also numerous shops and restaurants running parallel, and we stopped into a Norwegian coffee shop to get warm drinks and remember what it was like to feel our toes. The joint had windows for walls, with panoramic views of the fjord.
We spent a lot of time in Oslo just walking. One afternoon we headed for the streets of Damstredet and Telthusbakken, picturesque neighborhoods in the heart of the city. Colored houses popped out of the snow covered streets, and a candle burned merrily in each window, fighting back against the early sunsets. Unfortunately Telthusbakken was being torn up for construction, but we could still get a good feel for it. Right by these two streets was a large cemetery, containing the graves of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and painter Edvard Munch, among thousands of others.
It took us quite a bit of searching, but we managed to find the headstones of these great artists, with the company of hundreds of enormous, noisy crows sitting in large trees. Our ultimate destination for the evening was the Mathallen Food Hall, an indoor market in the hipster part of town. It reminded me of the St. George’s Market in Belfast, although this one was much more ‘bougie’ and didn’t have craft merchants. We walked around looking at the plethora of cuisines on offer, from traditional Norwegian to pub fare to sushi to tapas to Italian. We chose the Italian, getting a steaming bowl of pasta each. At this point we didn’t know Italy was in our near future, and we dreamed of Italian food and a warmer climate. There was also plenty of tasting available at grocery stalls, and we tried different breads and fancy cheeses, salty chocolates, sausages, and jams and honey. My favorite out of all of it was a coconut and passion jam – admittedly not very Norwegian, but shockingly delicious. In the two times we visited the food hall, I must have “tried” it five or six times. I sincerely regret not buying a jar of it. Sometimes it’s possible to be too careful with luggage space, I suppose. We also tried whale sausage. From what we gathered by questioning the butcher and what we could find on the internet, the whale was sustainably and humanely farmed, and I really hope that was true. It was rich and buttery sausage, and I am glad we tried it. As they say, when in Rome….er, or Oslo.
We’d managed to tour up to this point without spending any kroner on tickets or admission fees, but that tourist fantasy can’t last forever. We decided to take advantage of the Oslo Pass, which for one flat fee could get you into multiple museums and on any public transport for a certain amount of time. Our hotel was out of the 24-hour passes, which is the one we wanted, and the front desk staff sent us across town to the central station tourist office to buy. Only when we finally got there did we discover that you can easily buy one on your phone…live and learn. We bought our passes then hopped on a bus, slyly not writing in our start time until we got to our first destination so we could squeeze as much time out of it as possible. We were headed to the outskirts of the city to visit two museums: the Norwegian Folk Museum and the Viking Museum.
The Norwegian Folk Museum is unlike any other museum I’ve ever seen. It’s an open air museum, and traditional buildings and houses from all parts of Norway were transported in their entirety to be put on display and preserved on the extensive grounds. Each area of the museum is a grouping of buildings from a particular area of the country, and as we walked through we could see the subtle and not-so-subtle differences in styles from the different areas and different time periods. Most were quite simple, but the intricate wood carving on beams and railings caught our eye.
Many houses also had complicated patterns painted onto beams to add decoration indoors. My absolute favorite was the traditional stave church, towering over the landscape on a snow-covered hilltop. It was quite small inside, but it smelled wonderfully of rich wood and oils. Many barns and storage sheds were built on stilts to keep mice and rats at bay, and looked as if they were floating delicately over the snow. One particularly crowded area was a recreation of a Norwegian town in the 1950s, and had apartments showcasing the styles of different decades. Some of the rooms reminded me forcefully of my maternal grandparents’ home, back when I was young and we would visit when they were still alive.
The reproduction town morphed into a reproduction village, decorated for Christmas. In one home, a museum employee dressed in traditional garb was cooking lunch over a wood fire stove, and the succulent scents followed us on our way back to the entrance. Near the entrance was an indoor portion of the museum, and had displays on Christmas traditions as well as a permanent exhibit showcasing traditional Norwegian dress, furniture, and tools. Colorful knit sweaters were the example of modern Norwegian garb, as many of those sweaters are still made and worn today. As much as it pains me to go against my heritage, I prefer my Icelandic sweater, mostly because a) it seems warmer and b) I’ve already purchased it.
Within walking distance from the Folk Museum is the Viking Museum. The Viking Museum is built like a giant cross, with salvaged Viking ships in three of the four branches. It’s absolutely stunning to see the wreckage of these behemoths, hundreds of years old. These were the same ships that went sailing, exploring, plundering, and traveling across countless seas. They inspired fear in some that saw them on the horizon, and joy in others who knew their warriors were returning home. These particular ships were buried with heroes, and those distinct burial mounds are how they were found. They were put back together as much as they could be, barring missing pieces, and now are on display for all to see. The ships are large, but I still can’t imagine traveling across an ocean on one, crowded in with other warriors and rowers. The one branch of the museum without a ship contained treasures, tools, and other objects from the Vikings. The video on the lifecycle of a Viking ship, however, completely stole the show for me. One of the branches of the museum was darker than the others, and housed a ship that was the most sparse in what was recovered. Every fifteen minutes, the room would get even darker and a projection would cover the three walls and ceiling. A mix of CGI and basic animation with epic music demonstrated the different phases of a Viking ship, from building, to sailing, to traditional burial. It was beautifully, seamlessly produced, and I couldn’t help but feel pride for my Norwegian ancestors in that moment. Even without Norwegian blood, I feel like anyone watching that video would feel pride in our persistence in the face of the unknown we as a species have demonstrated throughout thousands of years.
The next morning, we went to squeeze one more museum into our Oslo Pass. The Munch Museum is a nondescript building with a cafe area almost as large as the exhibit hall itself. We made our way inside and through a security checkpoint that would rival any airport. I suppose they’re hyper cautious these days after the temporary theft of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” in 1994. We walked through the museum, contemplating Munch’s other works as well as some guest artists with rather risqué pieces. Suddenly, we were at the exit. Where was The Scream? I asked a staff member and they shrugged, saying it was at the National Museum, across the city. This must be a loan of some kind, as the internet had led us to the Munch Museum to see the famous painting. Rather disappointed, we pretended that we had seen it by looking at it on a postcard in the gift shop, then headed back to the metro. Checking our watches, we decided we could try and cheer ourselves up by getting a ferry ride around the harbor using our Oslo Pass. If we hurried, we’d just make it to the pier to board one before our passes ran out. Luckily, we did just that, and boarded a ferry that made a circuit around Oslo’s harbor. We passed tiny islands, some of them only housing a few dozen colorfully painted houses. Although they were physically removed from the city itself, they avoided isolation with the regular public ferries that came by to pick up and drop off commuters almost every hour. Even better, they got to maintain their rustic charm despite being so close to a modern city like Oslo. The ferry gave us some great views of the city skyline, including the fortress we’d toured several days before. Content that we’d gotten our money’s worth out of the Oslo Pass, we disembarked back at the Aker Brygge pier and bought some Christmas-themed coffee drinks to round out our time in Oslo.
Oslo is a charming, safe, and expensive city, and I enjoyed our time there. I’m not sure anyone needs more than four days to really see it, and although I hope to return to Norway soon, I’m content to spend my next visits out in the Norwegian countryside. There are many beautifully fjords and mountain ranges to explore, as well as the small island where I can trace my mother’s ancestors from. As we flew over Norway on our way into Oslo, we gazed at the glacier-like landscape – icy and brilliant white with snow. It’s hard to imagine anyone living in such a wild and beautiful landscape, but we saw lights of towns and trains ducking in and out of mountainsides the whole way across. There is much to see in Norway, but this wasn’t the time for it. We had our four days in Oslo, and now it was time to head south and spend the holidays in the French Alps.