Although Oslo Norway has its roots in the 11th century, it is very much a city of the 21st century. Named the capital of Norway in 1814, it had been relatively provincial for most of its history. This all changed after the 1970s with the discovery and extraction of oil in the North Sea. Although the country has been very judicious in spending this money (reserving much of it, as discussed in our post on Bergen, for the days when its cash cow dries up), it has invested quite a bit into its capital city. It has nicely renovated historic structures such as its City Hall, Royal Palace and Historical Museum, has revitalized declining areas including Aker Brygge and Bjorvika, and has built new, world-class structures like the 2008 Opera House and the in-progress Public Library.
It has been rewarded by private sector revitalization of a number of neighborhoods and an explosion in the city’s cultural community. Examples include its Museums of Contemporary Art and Architecture, Aker Brygge, Tjuvholmen and the Bjorvika Quarter. And all of this while preserving and extending its previous cultural treasures such as Vigeland Sculpture Park, National Gallery and Historical Museum. Within a few short decades, the city has transformed itself into one of the premier cultural capitals of Scandinavia and one of the most popular and livable cities in Europe—not to speak of one of the most expensive.
While we originally visited the city eons ago (in 1980), we rediscovered an entirely different city in 2016. Among the most striking features were:
- The young age of so many of the residents (OK, so we were also young when we were last there); a large percentage of young adults and many, many babies and children;
- The very limited number of cars; kept out largely by steep fees for driving in the city. Instead, people walk and take mass transit;
- The large numbers, extensive routes frequent schedules and large numbers of people riding street cars;
- The incredible popularity of people sitting at outside cafes and bars, with the vast majority drinking beer; and
- The lack of noise, pollution, litter and graffiti (except in some zones where street art is funded or encouraged.
Oslo Sights and Attractions
We focused much of our initial exploration around the waterfront and in the city center. Our rediscovery of this area began with the City Hall and its next door neighbor, the Nobel Peace Center.
City Hall is an imposing modern brick structure whose two towers dominate the view from the harbor. Begun in 1930, it wasn’t completed until 1950. While the brick exterior is pretty drab, exterior character comes from its beautiful clock and wood-carved illustrations of Norwegian mythology. But while most of the exterior may be relatively drab, the interior is anything but. The huge grand hall is lined with murals denoting the city’s history and second floor ceremonial halls are large and lavishly decorated with marble floors, coffered ceilings and walls that are either painted with mural or covered with tapestries or oil paintings. The city council building chamber, meanwhile, has strikingly pretty light fixtures.
Nobel Peace Center is housed in a neo-classical building that was converted from a train station to museum in 2005. It houses a number of exhibits relating the Nobel Peace Prize, a prize that was created and is administered by a commission appointed by the Norwegian Parliament pursuant to a bequest by Alfred Nobel. Alfred Nobel, who grew up relatively poor and was home-schooled, eventually came into money with his father, a chemist, who made his fortune and opened his own chemical company. The father paid for Alfred to travel and study abroad, and hired him when he returned. Together they worked on and eventually perfected, and made a fortune selling dynamite, a much more stable version of the powerful, but deadly fragile explosive, nitroglycerin.
Nobel’s will bequeathed his fortune to establishing a fund to perpetually fund four annual prizes: for chemistry, physics and literature (with the winner to be identified by committees from his home county of Sweden, and another for a relatively undefined prize to be administer by a committee chosen by the Norwegian Parliament. This prize, subsequently defined as the “Nobel Peace Prize”, was to be awarded to the person or organization that best met one of three broad criteria: working for international betterment, reducing standing armies, or working for peace. While the annual awards ceremony takes place in the Oslo City Hall, the museum is a few doors away. It has two permanent and a number of temporary exhibits. The two permanent exhibits focus on the history of Nobel, and a particularly evocative one, bathed in blue LED lights that highlight the contributions of each of the award winners 127 to date.
When we visited, there were three smaller exhibits, two of which focused on previous winners (one on UNICEF and the negotiation and conciliation process by which Tunisia moved from brutal dictatorship to a path of liberal democracy; and one on the horrors of the Syrian refugee situation).
The primary exhibit focused on the highly controversial 1936 winner, German political journalist, Carl von Ossietzky, who published a report exposing ways in which Germany was violating the terms of the Versailles Treaty (ending WWI) by producing extensive volumes of armaments. Although found guilty of treason, he was not jailed and allowed to retain his passport, in the unstated hope that he would leave the country. Not only did he not leave, but he intensified his efforts. By the time Hitler gained control of the government, Ossietzky had become a huge public relations problem and was eventually sent into a concentration camp. The divided Nobel prize panel, eventually decided to grant the award to this man, who had been convicted of treason, despite the fact that it would dramatically sour Norway’s relations with Germany. This became the first of several awards that had political ramifications for Norway: those to South African apartheid dissidents Albert Lutuli and Desmond Tutu, Polish trade union leader Lech Walesa, Russian dissident Andre Sakharov, Myanmar pro-democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi and most recently, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who is in prison and has not so far, been able to collect his prize.
Akershus Castle and Fortress, was built as a fort in 1308 and gradually expanded, such as through the addition of a castle and royal chapel, through the 17th century. Although we did not tour the castle, we walked the grounds and ramparts, explored the visitor center (with in-depth exhibitions of the role of the fort in Norway’s 18th century war with Sweden and the forts use as a prison from medieval days into the 20th century. The complex also contains an Armed Services Museum and of greatest interest to us, the Norway Resistance Museum (see our date?? post on Oslo museums
Opera House, which was completed in 2008, is the city’s newest architectural gem. Designed by local architectural firm, Snohetta, it has become one of the most popular of the city’s public spaces. The graceful and striking white marble and glass structure, overlooking the water and a glass sculpture in the harbor, has walls that slope gradually up to the rooftop. It literally invites pedestrians (but specifically excludes skateboarders and bikes) to walk up to side of the building and sit, relax and enjoy the views from part way up the wall or all the way atop the roof. The extensive glass widows invite people into interior, whose floors continue the white marble theme, but are offset with slatted wooden walls and a number of decorative motifs that soften and add visual interest to the marble and wood surfaces. Although we missed the tour of the three auditoriums, we were very impressed by the common areas and especially, the stunning and inviting exterior.
National Theater, an 1899 building that specializes in works by Norwegian playwrights and serves as the home of the International Ibsen Festival.
Parliament Building and its tranquil park and, alongside, a block of Karl Johans gate is filled with café tables.
Oslo Cathedral, originally built in 1697, it has been largely rebuilt with a clock tower from 1718 and interior that was restored in 1950, with ceiling murals and stained glass windows created by local artists. The square in which the cathedral is located is encircled by an historic, circular gallery that is now occupied by shops and cafes.
Royal Palace, the sprawling, neo-classical home of Norway’s Royal Family, is housed in a lovely garden with ponds, forests and plenty of open space in which the public is invited to tour and walk within a few feet of the royal residence.
After exploring the central part of the city, we then started out exploring the neighborhoods in our next blog