Stylist’s entertainment editor Helen Bownass goes in search of culture, cuisine and calm in the Norwegian capital
It’s rare that you visit a capital city and feel like it makes you breathe a little deeper, one that imbues you with an instant calm. But there’s something soothing about Oslo that made my tired lungs feel capable of expanding by an extra 25%. The Norwegian capital is a city of 650,000 in a square footage four times the size of Paris (population 2.25 million) and is replete with high-brow culture and low-key Scandi charm, all watched over by forests, hills and fjords.
Water is integral to Oslo and there have been scores of new developments along the formerly neglected waterfront. The jewel in the waterfront crown is the glacier-like Opera House, designed with sloping terraces intended to be walked, lounged (and even sledded) all over, depending on the season. A promenade faces the river taking you from the Opera House on to the City Hall, which hosts the Nobel Peace Prize every year on 10 December, and the Nobel Peace Center, which is currently showing an inspiring UNICEF exhibition, with plenty of cosy bars and restaurants in between.
I’m staying at The Thief, which is named after Tjuvholmen, or Thief Island, where the city’s convicts were imprisoned and executed in the 18th century. This stylish boutique hotel, a bona fide architectural gem, is perched on the edge of the peninsula, with canals gently lapping below my balcony.
Staying in this contemporary, all-out-luxury hotel is like moving into your very own art gallery: I’m greeted by a giant Richard Prince cowboy in the lobby; a Julian Opie creation is my daily lift companion; and I breakfast on fresh rye bread and smoked salmon next to an Andy Warhol. (Guests can also feast on contemporary art in the Astrup Fearnley Museum next door for free.)
Special mention must also be given to the dreamy hotel spa. And in Oslo in winter, where temperatures regularly hover below -10°C, spas really come into their own. After a sauna and steam, I’m prescribed a pot of salt to sluice all over my skin, followed by ice scrubs, freezing monsoon showers and a dip in the twinkling swimming pool. The only way I manage to drag myself out is by the promise of a Nordic Ninja cocktail (aquavit, yuzu sake and green tea syrup) followed by a dinner of creamy turbot soup and tender veal in the hotel’s lavish metallic-and-velvet-clad restaurant Fru K, which is rarely out of Oslo’s ‘best restaurant’ lists.
Away from the water, the Munch museum is an homage to Oslo’s most celebrated gloomy artist, Edvard Munch, where I learn that he painted four different versions of The Scream, none of them any more cheery than the first. At the Nobel Peace Museum, I get a welcome reminder of all the good there really is in the world. And the sprawling Frogner Park is a local’s favourite, with more than 200 bronze sculptures by artist Gustav Vigeland; a selfie with the angry baby statue is practically mandatory. It’s also free, which in Oslo is very welcome.
A word on money. What people say about Norway being expensive is true. This is particularly the case with alcohol and taxis. Happily, much of Oslo is walkable and the easy-to-navigate bus and metro system covers the rest. The airport train (flytoget.no) is £14 each way and takes 20 minutes to the centre.
To save cash, virtually all Norwegians take a matpakke (packed lunch) to work, so I join them by diving into my local supermarket and stocking up on lefse (flatbread), soft brown cheese (a Norwegian delicacy, with a distinctive sweet taste) and hotdogs (they’re very popular). And contrary to popular belief, it is possible to dine out affordably if you’re sensible.
For this, your best bet is the Vulkan neighbourhood – a former industrial district that’s now a hipster enclave. Mathallen has been a game-changer for foodie Norwegians, a covered food hall in a former factory, all brickwork and steel beams, where you can mix and match sushi with sourdough pizzas and Korean rice bowls at communal tables, often to live music. Eating is a highlight in Oslo, and I eye up the local specialities at Bondens butikk before venturing upstairs to the low-key restaurant for their prized sourdough (raised with help from a 200-year-old culture, I’m told) and Smelteverket, a much-loved basement gastropub with the longest bar in Norway.
From there I wander happily round the nearby neighbourhood of Grünerløkka – let’s call it the Dalston of Oslo – which is full of independent shops and drinking dens. F5 has the pick of Norwegian fashion designers, while interior store Kollekted By is a living breathing Pinterest board. Coffee is taken seriously in Oslo, especially at Tim Wendelboe. No faddish flat whites here; Oslo’s caffeine king’s espresso bar is a tribute to mid-century Scandi design.
It might seem strange to book a European weekender when everyone else is booking winter sun, but I knew culture, cuisine and cosy cafes could revive my spirits better than any sunlounger. For a city break that delivers beauty, inspiration and R&R, Oslo won’t fail you.
From city streets to snow-capped peaks
Few visitors realise that Oslo’s snowfields are less than 20 minutes from the centre – and you can get there on the metro
Visit Oslo in the winter months and you’ll be struck by an odd sight on the metro: locals stepping onto route 1 trains clad in furs and fluoro, clutching ski poles and snowboards. They’re headed for the slopes of Tryvann Vinterpark, where 18 ski runs and 11 lifts lord it over the capital. From the city centre, the train winds its way through the hills and grand hillside homes of Holmenkollen, where you’ll spot the iconic Olympic ski jump that played a starring role in the final scenes of Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman. Hop out at Voksenkollen for a hearty lunch of ox tartare and razor-clam stew in the fairytale surroundings of the Lysebu hotel’s restaurant. Ride on to Frognerseteren to jump on the much-loved toboggan run, or simply watch others fly downhill while you scoff apple cake at Finstua cafe.