At Tim Wendelboe, one of the best coffee roasters and espresso bars in the world, we gazed in awe at the snow-steeped Norwegian streets, bundled in winter coats while savoring freshly brewed cappuccinos. It almost felt like Brooklyn, but we were in Oslo, an 11 hour flight on Norwegian Airlines direct from Los Angeles.
A man swished by on skis down the serene city street. Fearless moms pushed strollers with bundled babies through the snow. When we tromped through the white powder to admire sculptures donned with snow caps in Vigeland Park, we watched a child no older than three laying sideways in the snow trying desperately to prop himself up on skis (with no poles) – a parent by his side reinforcing his multiple attempts. Perhaps Norwegian preparation for childhood? We were not used to the temperature, but found these scenes charming.
Fast forward two years and I was happily back in Oslo, Norway’s southern coast capital at the head of the Oslofjord, a city so clean, so streamlined and so safe that while there I dreamt about the possibilities of a city like this in America. Everywhere in Oslo, Norwegians seemed happy with their way of life. They drink fresh water right from the tap, health care is not a worry, and the whole country appears very well off.
Quickly I learned about the progressive coffee culture and food scene. Each restaurant indulged us in high quality inventive dishes that included fresh sushi, local fish, pork prepared in various ways, and new ingredients like cloudberries, beetroot, brunost (sweet-savory brown cheese), and reindeer salami. A young well-dressed hipster chef with a ginger beard and arm tats greeted us at each restaurant, offering champion wines that I had never experienced in the US. Perhaps their proximity to fine European grapes? Every establishment boasted an open-air kitchen to view the skill behind our culinary feast.
Luck would have me staying at The Thief again, an international five-star hotel right on the energetic waterfront area that I soon learned is how Norwegians talk about their city’s history, as if “before and after The Thief,” due to the hotel swiftly changing the area bringing international luxe guests and restaurants galore on the waterfront. On the fjord next to The Thief is a modern museum called Astrup Fearnley designed by Renzo Piano, as well as a walkable area of upscale restaurants, bars, and shops.
Walking swiftly to keep warm in the snowy streets, gazing at the white dusted sailboats with Oslo’s medieval castle fortress as a backdrop and the “sunset” producing pink clouds, I wonder what Oslo must look like in summer when all of the outdoor cafes and restaurants are teaming with international travelers.
A few days into our trip we took a tour outside the city, driving in the snow by the Holmenkollen Ski Jump – once used in the Olympics – with a ski museum at its base. Passing by forests of trees doused in thick snow with a cabin-style home here and there, reminds me of childhood weekend ski jaunts in Vermont.
Oslo is like a best kept secret, one you don’t want to share with anyone for fear of the word getting out and mobs of annoying tourists showing up. The refreshing environment is one that can’t be bought here. There is space (no overcrowding), good energy (no pretension), and a peace of mind here (no worries). It is not a dog eat dog world. We never saw a homeless person in this city of 700,000 people.
Take advantage of your time in Oslo and make sure to experience the following:
Oslo’s new cultural center was once a haven for smugglers, thieves, scoundrels, and prostitutes in the 18th century. Now Tjuvholmen (Thief Islet) is a modern hideaway where Jay Z, Mariah Carey, Lena Dunham, and other famous Americans have stayed. The hip, luxurious setting on the water is filled with carefully selected designer furniture, global Nordic cuisine, a lavish spa (that you can enter privately from your room through an underground tunnel), and ultra-chic rooftop and library bars. Grand, bold, expensive art greets you at every turn – like a piece in the elevator with moving eyes.
What sets this hotel apart is not only the location on the edge of the fjord (in walking distance to all of the trendy eateries and shopping) but the hotel’s attention to detail, service, room comfort, food, and cosmopolitan design. The staff takes great pride in your personal care, and they make you feel comfortable as soon as you arrive. Room features that made our stay that much better included heated bathroom floors, luxurious down duvet bedding, warm blankets, verbena tea and cookies left each night with turndown service, one button next to the bed to turn off all the mood lighting, private balcony waterfront views, décor in soft lush rich tones, exclusive toiletries, and rainfall showers.
Interactive TVs in each room offer ‘Art-on-Demand’; themed maps such as Oslo Escape Routes take you on a curated tour of art, design and architecture; and the hotel’s Riva boat is ready to take you around the fjords all summer long. “Escapees” can be brave like a Norwegian and take a dip in the clean Oslo Fjord, or venture next door to the Museum of Modern Art to view Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Barney and many more pieces with your free hotel access ticket. Find tranquility at the spa’s glowing pool, sauna, steam room and hamam/massage treatment.
EAT AND DRINK
At the The Thief hotel, we enjoyed one of our favorite wine-paired dinners off a global menu with a Nordic twist in a warm elegant chic setting. The melt in your mouth fish was a standout of the menu. The Thief features an endless variety of healthy breakfast options, where loose leaf tea and fresh brewed coffee in a personal pot are brought to your table, while healthy juice shots and blended concoctions served in little glass jars were too satisfying. The organic, sustainable, and locally sourced ingredients were the best way to start each day, either made-to-order or options including bacon, eggs, croissants, beans, cheeses, or fresh yogurt with myriad of seed, nut, and dried fruit toppings.
This chic waterside Japanese restaurant specializes in the best sushi and robata grill dishes. Upon entering, we gazed at the King’s boat while devouring endless plates of sushi – like uni, salmon with mango and honey dressing, tuna in truffle soy sauce, and smoked halibut with soy onion sauce and goji. We learned that we were sitting in Jay Z’s seat on his last visit and he had ordered a large sushi take-out for his jet ride out of Norway.
Sit at the central bar and feast on their 5-course sushi and sashimi meal or one of their set menus. Sushi tastes better in Oslo, maybe better than anywhere in the world, probably due to the clean water and fresh fish.
Check out this laid-back eatery with exposed brick and a long bar for burgers, salads, and small plates. Expect expensive Scandinavian locally sourced eclectic dishes like yellow beats, citrus, and pistachio nuts; chicken feet; grilled bread with chicken liver mousse and horseradish; grilled cabbage; pork cheek; and even wine aged in an egg-shaped rock.
This is Oslo’s first true social dining experience – with a long communal eating table that seats 24 people. The lovely owners set out to change the way people eat. Expect a clean sleek setting with farm to table, organic, seasonal, Nordic cuisine. We watched the chef gut a massive fish in the open-air kitchen, before sitting down to a generous lunch of shredded pork over pasta with sprouts, and apple olive oil cake. For dinner, we returned to indulge in bold, juicy mussels and fresh flakey fish (that we saw being prepared earlier in the day).
A good place to start your eating in Oslo is this fun lively spot in a hip space. They specialize in Nordic cuisine with modern twists and tasty natural wines, many from Austria and France. Watch the buzzing kitchen and share creative plates of bone marrow and chips, pork cheek, deer or beetroot tartar, spring cabbage, Jerusalem artichoke, and a slew of intriguing desserts.
Enter through this beautiful white-themed courtyard (perfect for summer) filled with boho rustic furniture and pass the tiny indoor bar. Dine on nouveau Nordic cuisine “showcasing the full potential of the seasons” like grilled cabbage, potato churros with sour cream and fish roe, deep fried shallots (like an onion ring), and cured duck with a crispy waffle.
The concept of a food hall/market is a very new idea in Oslo, but now this old industrial building features over 30 vendors, shops, and eateries. From a fish monger, Spanish tapas, a butcher, vegetables, baked goods, coffee, cheeses, wine and beer, quiches, we found many unique products to eat, at shared tables. The space also offers cooking kitchens to learn and over 100 activities like competitions, themed events, and wine clubs. Spend time at this foodie destination from 1-4 pm on Sundays.
Der Peppern Gror
Watch your Indian food being prepared, but with a modern twist in this hipster-designed interior with its raw metal concrete vibes combined with Bombay chairs, lamps, and clocks imported from India. The owner took great pride in the beautifully presented dishes with well-known spices – like simosas, fried spicy calamari squid, curries with various meats, butter chicken, street food bites, nan bread, and a large variety of vegetarian dishes. A Sweet Lassi helped cool our taste buds down.
Please take me back to this underground speakeasy in the city centre where seasonal spirits (aquavit, gin, vodka) are made in-house and drinks come with names like Cloudberry, Sage, or the Beta Cocktail (a favorite) – a mix of Himkok vodka, carrot juice, ginseng, grapefruit and a dash of horseradish.
Choose from high quality coffees from farm cooperatives they work with from Honduras, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Colombia. Oslo is famous for their light roasting, even for espresso. Try a coffee tasting from their on-site micro roastery.
Known as one of the best coffee bars by day, this coffee roaster focuses on sourcing the highest quality, most unique, and freshest coffee available for the season, directly from the best coffee farmers around the world. Roasted Nordic-style to enhance to the distinct and natural flavors, stay warm with your brewed cup by spending time in this relaxed atmosphere with mid-century modern design. By 9 pm, this roaster turns into one of the best craft cocktail bars with homemade syrups and a lively atmosphere.
We spent several hours with expert guide Jessica Meza who has lived in Oslo for over ten years after moving from Ecuador. Her understanding of everyday life in Oslo and scholarly knowledge guiding us through the Viking Museum and Vigeland Park was a trip highlight since we would not have known the background and historical details she imparted. Walk by the Royal Palace and the medieval castle fortress on the water. Oslo Chauffeur Service and Nordic Car Service transported us everywhere, although Oslo has excellent public transportation.
National Opera House
Book an evening at this modern venue with its slanted sloping roof angles – an architectural gem built in 2008 by the same company that designed the 9/11 Memorial. The opera house is said to be built like an enormous glacier sliding or perhaps rising in the fjord. White granite and Italian marble create the illusion of glistening ice. Enjoy a coffee during the day in the back café, or sip wine at halftime before heading back into a show. Visitors are encouraged to scale the building’s exterior stairs for unique perspectives of the city as well as head to the roof for panoramic views.
An art project situated between the Oslo Opera House and the Vippetangen Port, visitors can eat at the Boat House, a café and bar with a wood-burning sauna. Often concerts, DJ’s, talks, and various other projects are held during the week.
The National Gallery
View close up, without crowds, the famous works by Edvard Munch like The Scream and Madonna. Browse the exceptional collection of Impressionist and French owned paintings by Monet, Manet, Degas, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, and more. Other iconic Norwegian paintings are on display, like Tidemand and Gude’s Bridal Procession on the Hardangerfford and Harald Sohlberg’s Winter Night in the Mountains.
Astrup Fearnley Museum
For the modern art lover who likes to think outside the box and find some shock and awe with artistic ideas, the ever-changing collection boasts work from young artists from around the world and is considered one of the best in Northern Europe. The building itself is a piece of art. Designed by Renzo Piano, three pavilions are connected by one roof and is a quick walk from The Thief.
Nobel Peace Centre
Open every day but Monday, don’t miss their room of laureates, with interactive tablets telling the stories of each person or organization to win the Peace Prize. An eye opening and timely interactive exhibit on the atomic bomb, its history, and effects was on view, leaving us with a scary sense of the death and disease caused by this horrific act of war.
Viking Ship Museum
Learn about the history of preserved 9th century Viking ships that were used as burial coffins, many filled with animals and other offerings. These ancient ships were found buried, with their masts sticking up out of the ground. The first time we found this museum, we took a short boat ride from Oslo Fjord to Bygdøy Peninsula, then walked through the neighborhood, giving us a glimpse of Norwegian life.
Vigeland Sculpture Park
Admire Gustav Vigeland’s lifework with more than 200 sculptures in bronze, granite, and wrought iron in Frogner Park. It is the largest sculpture park made by a single artist.
Holmenkollen Ski Jump
By car or by Metro, access this steep sky crawling ski jumping hill with panoramic views of the city or spend time at their ski museum. Skiers and snowboarders can head to Oslo Vinterpark, a ski resort also accessible by Metro.
Across from the opera house, there are a collection of buildings known as the Barcode Project, multi-purpose high-rises where you can wander through the various restaurants, shops, and galleries that are housed there. The pedestrian bridge that crosses the city’s main train tracks to connect Grønland and Bjørvika offers great views of the new “Barcode” complex, and the steel and glass design illuminate in color at night.
New National Museum
In 2020 the city’s design and art will be displayed together from four museums: older and modern art, contemporary art, design, and architecture. With a sneak peek hard hat walking preview, we witnessed what will be a grand space on the water (bigger than the Norwegian Royal Palace) where there will be rooftop views, cafes, 5 outdoor sunken garden art areas, a grand lighted gallery space on top for temporary exhibitions, hundreds of art rooms, and an area dedicated to Norway’s prized collection of art by Edvard Munch. View some of Munch’s 28,000 paintings, sculptures, photographs, and sketches that were willed to the city after his death. The new National Museum will be the biggest building housing culture in Norway, and the biggest art museum in Norden (the Nordic countries). Also, the new Munch museum and the new Library will be open in 2020 at the seafront.