Two Perfect Days in Oslo

By Barbara Beckley

Oslow, Norway

Oslo, Norway. It's not the first European capital that usually comes to mind – except perhaps on December 10, when the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo City Hall.

But spend a few days in Oslo as I recently did – and wow! It turns out to be one of the world's most charming cities. Cozy enough to walk to most major attractions. Chic enough to boast Europe's newest architecture. Friendly enough to feel at home (everyone I met spoke English and most had visited or had family or friends from Southern California – my home region). And squeaky clean. There are no "fixer-uppers" in Oslo; every building, whether old or new, is in mint condition.

I flew to Oslo following a cruise along Norway's gorgeous fjords. Getting from Oslo International Airport into the city center was a breeze. From inside the terminal, I hopped onboard the modern high-speed Flytoget Airport Express Train and in 19 minutes I was strolling across the sunny Oslo Central Station plaza toward my hotel. The sleek, high-rise Clarion Hotel Royal Christiania was perfectly positioned: within two blocks of Karl Johans Gate, Oslo's main avenue; the Oslo Cathedral and Tjuvholmen, Europe's trend-setting new neighborhood and home to the ultra-chic Thief Hotel.

taxidermy polar bear

After a cappuccino and people-watching from under the red brick arches of the Café Cathedral, I strolled along Karl Johans Gate, admiring the romantic Euro street scene of sidewalk cafes, tree-lined promenades, street performers, lion sculptures standing guard outside the Parliament, the ionic columns on the National Theater, and imposing Royal Palace, home to the reigning king and queen of Norway. Outside the posh Grand Hotel Oslo, where the Nobel Peace Prize banquet is held, a jazz band was giving a free concert, drawing a crowd with phenomenal Dave Brubeck and Benny Goodman sounds. Stylish shops grabbed my attention. I discovered wonderful vintage clothing, handbags, jackets and even Norwegian national dresses (the intricate regional outfits that are worn on national holidays) from the 1960s and ‘70s in the UFF Underground basement boutique. A taxidermy polar bear greeted me inside the Den Norske Husfliden store, known for traditional Norwegian products since 1891, were I bought a reindeer fur seat mat. Reindeer fur is so thick, the locals use it to sit on during hikes, picnics and ski outings.

Dozens of renowned museums were within easy walking distance. The Nobel Peace Center, the cutting edge Astrup Fernly Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Architecture, the Ibsen Museum, the Holocaust Center, the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design and the National Gallery (home to The Scream by Edvard Munch) were just the beginning. I used my Oslo Pass, which gives visitors free entry to more than 30 museums and free public transportation, among other benefits.

I joined the "in" crowd for dinner that night at Sjomagasin, a contemporary, up-market restaurant opposite the Thief Hotel. Three tall, thin, blonde women wearing five-inch stilettos and riding bicycles reaffirmed that Tjuvholmen is indeed Europe's hippest piece of real estate. Inside Sjomagasin, the stylish open-kitchen and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Oslofjord canals, were a perfect pairing for the fresh, creative dishes including steamed blue mussels with white wine and chili, smoked wild halibut and glazed elderberries over vanilla ice cream.

 Oseburg Viking ship

The next day, I was wowed by Oslo's dramatic Viking history, world famous art and record-setting sports on a guided van tour. Viewing up close the massive Oseburg Viking ship – as pristine today as when it sailed the seas 1,100 years ago – was impressive to say the least. A docent told me that when it was unearthed in 1904, it was painted in bright colors. Unfortunately, the colors couldn't remain during the ship's preservation process. The Oseburg is one of three Viking ships on display at the Viking Ship Museum. Each was used as a burial vessel for the royal owners, which allowed the ships to remain intact throughout the centuries. Oslo was a major stronghold during the Viking age from 800 to 1050 AD. Now that the city is expanding – it's Europe's fastest growing metropolitan area and the leader in new architectural concepts – Viking ruins are being unearthed constantly in the new developments.

We've all seen it – replicated in art displays and magazines worldwide – the Monolith by Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943), the sculpture of interlocking nude figures rising to the sky. But to actually see it in person at the Vigeland Sculpture Garden within Oslo's Frogner Park, took my breath away. Strolling beside the sweeping lawns dotted with fountains, lakes and bridges of the world's largest sculpture garden, I was in awe at the more than 200 granite, bronze and wrought iron works that embody Vigeland's life work. Comic relief from his portrayals of the human condition in all its emotions and stages was provided by the occasional sea gull blissfully perched atop a sculpted head. Why nudes? Because his works would never become dated by clothing styles, my guide explained.

Riding up through a posh hillside neighborhood, I was amazed by the Holmenkollen Ski Jump. It's the world's newest and most modern ski jump, rising more than 2,000 feet from the ground and more than 3,000 feet long. Opened in 2010, it hosted the 2011 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships and will do so again in 2016. And guess what? People other than skiers can enjoy the steep thrills. I was there in summer and I watched as visitors whizzed from the top to the bottom on a zip-line. Surely one of the most harrowing zip rides ever. In the winter, Holmenkollen is open to the public. However, you have to prove you have the skills to ski it.

Wine in hand, on my last night in Oslo, I gazed out across the city, the sparkling inner Oslofjord, emerald islets and the surrounding mountains from my table at the casually elegant Ekeberg restaurant. No sports heroics were needed to get to this hillside favorite – I simply hailed a taxi from my hotel and was there in five minutes. Built in 1927, the multi-room, functionalist-style restaurant was the go-to for view-filled dining until the early 1990s. Now, newly revamped and re-opened, the Ekebergrestauranten is once again a must-choice for panoramic views and a tasty combination of classic and modern cuisine. The seasonal Norwegian specialties including olive-poached halibut, Jerusalem artichoke soup, and reindeer loin and Hardanger trout combined with the stellar view was the perfect ending to my perfect time in Oslo.

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Barbara Beckley is a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times travel special sections, Alaska Airlines magazine, Horizon Air magazine, US Airways magazine and is editor of the eMagazine, where this story first appeared.