Published: August 2005
What is it about size and me? Oslo is small. In the great scheme of things of course, she's a totally respectable Eurocapital. Her population hovers just under the half million mark. But perhaps it's all that Viking bluster married to a fairly impressive reputation as the Eurovision underdog; ten years on from my first visit, and I just remember her. well, bigger. Not that it's a problem. Small things and all that, but the result is a city that's more "oh" than "wow". A definite "ow" for me is the ban on smoking introduced in June 2004. That's no bars, no restaurants, and no clubs. As the rest of Europe tidies up its act it seems we are truly becoming an island nation once more.
The flight over was a joy. A word of warning to the uninitiated; some cheaper airlines advertise flights to Oslo but the truth of the matter is they fly not to Gardermoen Airport, a quick 30 minute train jaunt from the city centre, but to Torp, 110km down the Oslofjord, an hour and a half by bus. Why, we might as well start advertising London Bristol as a capital airport! I flew with SAS, which by the way had the best inflight service I've come across in a long time.
Oslo itself is squidged into the far upper corner of the Oslofjord, which truthfully isn't Norway's prettiest. The city however is the oldest of the Scandinavian capitals, dating back to the mid 11th century but for much of its history it's been a provincial poor relation, taking a back seat to sweet little Copenhagen and stuck-up Stockholm. Norway was swallowed up by the Danes back in the 13th century and then got sucked into Sweden in the 19th. Independence came in 1905 so no surprises, 2005 has been a pretty big do.
Oslo certainly costs. Despite having been reassured by friends, and those whose opinion I would trust about as far as I could stumble, that Oslo's got cheaper, ten years on and I still found it pricey. It was at least on a par with London as far as much of the spend went (bar hotels, which are surprisingly reasonable), and more expensive when it came to the old booze. £6 - £7 was the going rate for a spirit and mixer; fine for shi-shi-tholes but not for your average spit-and-swallow type pub.
Cue London Pub, ye olde Oslostry drinker. Well, what have we here? A darkened basement sporting a thick tread of shag worn like an old dap, artexed walls that look like a dirty protest, and years' accumulation of smoke and nicotine. Desperate for a ciggie? Just lick a pillar. The whole thing looks like a branch of the London Dungeon and of an early evening, you'd think it was. 10pm onwards though and the place is heaving with an extremely mixed age group, mostly down-to-earth and not your prissy alcohol pop types. I liked it very much, excepting the cigarettes for sale behind the bar that just seemed to add insult to injury. London Pub is open until 3am.
Upstairs on street level once you fight your way through the exiled addicts is Chairs. It's an old fashioned square dance cum club space with black walls and the odd flicker of fruit-lozenged lights, very late 80s. The crowd is mixed both genderwise and ethnically, though the attitude is wonderfully lowkey. Chairs is open until 3am.
The seriously fashionable set heads a couple of blocks down Kristian IV's Gate to shu club. I wouldn't recommend anytime before midnight. 11.30pm and it was just me, a mojito and the gorgeous Sten behind the bar, and he turned out to be straight. Come 1am however and my mojito was reduced to just so much limp mint. It was heaving. Over two floors, Oslo's cutest squeeze their stuff, and there's a lot of squeezing because so many smokers are trying to make it to the front door for a puff. The sweat drips from cooling corners like leaking refrigerant. This place was not my cup of tea at all. Shu club is open until 3am. On the corner of Kristian IV's Gate however just shuffling alongside shu is Sjokoladekoppen, a very nice laid back café with sofas and outside seating which serves as an early drinks venue for the crowd who aim to shu it later on.
One venue that wasn't open at the time of my visit was Soho. Heralded on umpteen websites as Oslo's biggest, brightest and gayest conurbation of café, bar and club, it had the discourtesy to go bust last year but word is it will reopen. One survivor from this mega-complex on Kirkegata is Det.11.bud which when pronounced comes out as "der elfter bwd". It means The Eleventh Commandment and is Oslo's gay-friendly eatery. Actually, that sells it short. This is a very smart, gorgeously distressed eating space serving grown-up eats. The gimmick is that modern twist on tapas which has nothing to do with Spain but consists of ordering umpteen little dishes. The cost accumulates. So it's 3 dishes for £25, 5 for £34, up to 7 for £40. All desserts are £7 and all wines are £30. I drank Great Ostertag 2002 Riesling like Granny Smiths steamed in an old sock, ate oysters that felt like someone else's tongue in my mouth and crumbed a blue cheese, which reminded me of a man I once met. The food was surperlative if not the best I've had. The clientele is mostly business on weekdays but gay on weekends, and as you've no doubt noted, it ain't cheap!
Another option I'd recommend is Gaio at the Radisson Plaza in Sonja Henies Plass. The hotel itself is a rather soulless building, the tallest hotel in northern Europe, though the rooms inside are immaculately and comprehensively kitted out. Thank God for Radisson's obsession with hairdryers and ironing boards. However, I've not been known in the past to give the thumbs up to a Radisson restaurant. Generally, I find them hit and miss affairs, the food a bit amateur and the décor too trying. Gaio is the exception to the rule, fantastic and imaginative Mediterranean cooking and an extremely varied wine list taking in the likes of Corsica and Lebanon, Old World and New. The highlights were a rack of lamb like a marshmallow with a slight chew and an oyster so plump it felt illegal. Starters from £10, mains from £15, and wine from £25. There's also a set 3-course menu for £29.
Which leaves the remainder of Oslo's attractions. The heart of the city, stretching along Karl Johans Gate is a pretty late 19th century layout, a long pedestrianised shop-littered trawl up to the Slottsparken and the Royal Palace. Turn away, dear, not the shops, no bargains to be had here. This street of course is where every December the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize parades. Ironically recent winners have found their prize defunct by the time they make it to the Palace. Peace not being what it was. Many visitors make a B-line for the Munch Museum. A scream that may be but my personal faves are to be found outside the city centre.
The Vikingskiphuset in Bygdoy south west of the city is worth the fifteen-minute ferry trip from the harbour. This is the Viking Ship Museum housing three 9th-century Viking ships discovered at the beginning of the last century in the mud of the Oslofjord. The state of preservation is breathtaking, and no matter what your penchant for Vikings, the ships themsleves testify to some pretty serious talents at work in the craftshop p.
Northwest of the city centre is the Frognerparken which is better known to most as the Vigelandsparken. Dedicated in 1924, the space, centering on a monumental fountain and obelisk, is a sculptural riot courtesy of Gustav Vigeland who crammed the park with statues right up to his death in 1943. The work is Modernist but the energy is pure medieval. Around the fountain we trace human relationships from cradle to grave and just so many skeletal corpses, while up on the obelisk bodies writhe like the façade of a Gothic cathedral. I don't know if the drab drizzle helped but this was one of the most invigorating artistic exhibitions I've ever seen.
Norwegians however are the key for me to Oslo. To be blunt, they have something a little bit crazy in their make-up, which sets them apart from their distinctly stiff Swedish neighbours. And they like a drink, which is no bad thing. And a tendency to party. Take it from someone who knows. As far as cities go, Stockholm has the looks, and there's no denying so does many a Swede, but it's a Norwegian you want to end up in bed with.
What do you think of Oslo?
I'd love to hear any advice you may have so please DROP ME A LINE
Gareth has been with TRAVEL CHANNEL since its launch in 1994. He has produced and presented on TRAVEL LIVE and THE TRAVEL BUG, produced ESSENTIAL... and reports on TRAVEL TODAY. He is a regular contributor to the website. In 2010 he produced the hit series THE HOLIDAY SHOW which he also co-presented with Ginny Buckley. Gareth’s passions are history, culture, food & drink.