Travel diary: Two days in Oslo
Norway. Vast pine forests, stunningly beautiful fjords, clear air and prosperous people. It's a winter wonderland and a summertime adventure playground.
But if you're anything like me, Oslo has never featured especially highly on your 'bucket-list' (yes, I hate that phrase too!) As it turns out, that was exactly why I ended up choosing to go there! Let me take you back...
Black Friday 2017: Ryanair (gulp!) - attempting to claw back a little dignity after their monumental flights cock-up over the summer - released some ridiculously cheap flights. Just £4.99 each way, they covered various European destinations, and I was poised by my laptop and ready to pounce.
But instead of being forthright and booking everything I could possibly get, I dithered. Not, as many of you might imagine, due to me re-considering whether I could possibly fly with Ryanair even for £4.99 (although my limit wouldn't be too much higher than that!) No, I dithered because suddenly I was faced with too much choice. I work from my laptop and the world (well, Europe in this instance) really was my oyster. I usually spend a lot of time pondering a destination, half-picturing myself there, and researching what there is to do. Now I didn't have the time, and I could see everything disappearing before my eyes as people beat me to it...goodbye Budapest, Berlin and Bologna (yes, I'd only got to the B's by that point.)
So I had to make a snap decision before everything had gone - somewhere I'd never been where I could easily find accommodation and there was enough, but not too much, to do.
My heart beating fast, and that regular Christopher Columbus adventurous kind of thrill, I settled for the Norwegian capital. I'd rarely considered it before, but that very fact somehow made choosing it easier; like it wouldn't matter if I hated it. My flights were booked.
I found Airbnb accommodation in the centre of the city at a stylish apartment with Netflix and a bed you could pull out from under the wall. I bought a guidebook. In just 6 weeks I'd be off.
I'll gloss over the flight. For all the criticism, Ryanair got me there. Enough said.
Gardermoen, Oslo’s main international airport, was a pleasure. This was Scandinavia’s second busiest airport, but it felt like there were almost no other passengers there. Even the train station ticket machine eliminated my need for conversation: “Your next train will be at platform four in three minutes.” Not long after that stressful Black Friday I'd done some reading up on what to expect from Oslo - and discovered that it's supposedly the second most expensive city in the world. Great. But on arrival I began to wonder whether this ease of passage was just an enviable norm for Norwegians.
What followed was a 35km, 25-minute train ride into the city itself. Jaw-dropping beauty, woods and hillsides, fields and valleys with sporadically dotted houses and farms; and blanketed by picture perfect pure white snow. With thick snowfalls in autumn and winter, Oslo’s weather and temperatures are vastly different to those in spring and summer. But I didn’t need to worry, Norwegians excel at shrugging it off, with a transport system to cope in all extremes. The snow lessened considerably with each of the last few kilometres into the city.
I was to discover this common sense translates to every aspect of Oslovian life. From buildings to parks and road systems, the crucial initial planning stage has produced sensible, if not spectacular design. A simple Scandinavian thinking: structural implementation allowing nature itself to be the spectacle.
I collected my Airbnb apartment keys from a safe deposit box in a newsagent down the road. The ease of everything meant that so far I hadn't had to speak to anyone! I respected this as a weary arriving traveller, but undoubtedly began to lament it a little by the end of my stay. If you're new to Airbnb, read our beginner's guide here.
A compact city centre, most places of interest in Oslo are walkable. I took an inevitable first stroll along Karl Johans gate, the main street of the city connecting Oslo Central Station and the Royal Palace at the other end. As well as designer shops, some of the most popular tourist attractions are also situated on the street, including the National Theatre and the “Spikersuppa” (pond) at Eidsvolls plass. The pond had frozen over to produce an impressive winter skating rink on which families were pirouetting with ease. This area was beautiful at night, the trees covered in golden twinkling lights, and cafes and bars glowing from their outdoor heaters.
It was fascinating to note the number of statues in Oslo - they’re almost everywhere you look. From historic and regal to arty and playful, some were utterly baffling. But they undoubtedly elicited a sense that this is a city which thinks and cares about its public spaces.
The imposing Royal Palace’s location affords it impressive views down Karl Johans gate. As the main residence of the king and queen, I was taken aback by its distinct lack of security, even in spite of being "guarded" by gun-toting teenagers in uniforms. My wind-blown slippery walk here was rewarded when I encountered a changing of the guard ceremony outside the palace.
There are plenty of good food choices in Oslo, and my first dinner was in a strange but lovely little Mexican place where each of the tapas-style dishes was almost as much as a main meal in the UK and made me panic about the rest of my budget. The best, and also most affordable bar I found was, ironically, called 'London Pub' and was primarily a gay bar. Inside it felt historic and well-designed, and it was a lively place to spend the dark, cold evening.
The magnificent Oslofjord was my destination on the second morning. I was instantly struck by the amount of construction work close to the harbour, with all the main tourist areas undergoing modernisation to make them more user-friendly by 2030. It was difficult to get a photograph facing the city without a crane in it, but the mostly-completed Aker Brygge area made for a lovely walk in amongst its new-looking restaurants and bars. And at just ten years old, the Opera House looks and feels ultra-modern. Visitors can appreciate its cunning dimensions and contours with a walk around it, as well as being able to ascend to its roof for spectacular far-reaching views of the city and the fjord.
Not far away, and in stark contrast, is Akershus Fortress and Castle. Opened in 1319, it’s one of the oldest buildings in Oslo, gifting panoramic views from its hillside and bestowing a true sense of its history from its fortified stone walls.
My favourite area of the city was Grünerløkka, one of Oslo’s trendiest neighbourhoods. Edvard Munch lived here when he was young, and it retains an artsy, bohemian, Greenwich Village kind of feel. Bar Boca, with its retro vibe and quirky cocktails, was a small but perfectly formed place to people-watch and soak up the atmosphere. I enjoyed a ‘Green Prince’, one of many cocktails unique to the bar. I’m still not sure what was in it though!
Knowing how expensive Oslo is, I was initially daunted about heading out to eat. For a capital city with a relatively small population, there’s certainly a huge choice of restaurants and cuisines. On my second night I ended up in Hard Rock Cafe. Yes I know its sad, but I was passing and it's become a bit of a 'thing' when I'm travelling. Like the Mexican meal the night before, it felt extortionately expensive: a sharing starter, side dish and two drinks equated to over £50!
Oh, and Oslo has an abundance of fish, in every variety and form. Salmon, shrimps, herring, fresh as it can be…sometimes sitting on menus alongside “delicacies” like reindeer and moose burgers. Still expensive though. I concluded that, for much of the year at least, Oslovians must appreciate their restaurants' warm respite from the cold and overlook the cost!
But prices are like this everywhere in Oslo. I had to forget about it - and once I stopped continually currency converting in my head I started to relax. I even forgot about it long enough to do a bit of shopping in Karl Johans Gate.
Summing it up
Two days in bitterly cold weather can go by very quickly - mostly searching for places to stop for coffee and to warm up! I did enjoy my time here - it felt impromptu, peaceful and easy. Oslo is quite minimalist - it's sleek and forward-thinking, and quite trendy. I often found myself marvelling at the simplicity of Norwegian design, and mildly envious at the apparent self-sufficiency. True, there's not huge amounts to see and do unless you're very into museums, but there is enough to make your own enjoyment. I'm not sure that more than two days would ever be warranted though.
Given more time, I’d have definitely immersed myself more in Norway's Viking history and links. I'd have loved to have gone to the Bygdøy Peninsula to visit the Viking Ship Museum which contains some of the world’s best-preserved examples. Believed to have been buried in Oslo in the 9th century to carry their deceased owners to the next life, they were excavated from three royal burial grounds in the city.
Oslo’s lack of traffic and bustle and its remarkable cleanliness make for a stress-free break - even enough to counter the stress of its sky-high prices! Although I was never really able to scratch beneath the surface of its slick exterior or its somewhat reserved inhabitants, I was given the space to enjoy the city on my own terms. And maybe that’s why I came back so calmed...which surely makes a dithering bucket-list diversion worthwhile.
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