13 September 2017

Long Weekend in Oslo: Bex's Guide

I love spending time in the Nordic countries but visiting can be expensive, which is one of the reasons why their capitals make such great city-break destinations. Over the past few years, I have been doing just that, making three- or four-day trips to Stockholm, Helsinki, Copenhagen and Reykjavik. Last on my list was the Norwegian capital, Oslo, and when in April I found a Norwegian Air return for just £50, I snapped it up, even though I was also saving up for the costly four-week trip I am taking in October. And yes, Oslo can be eye-wateringly expensive, but I found a few ways to keep costs down and had an enjoyable three-day trip, which also prompted me to add a longer trip to Norway to my travel to-do list.

Accommodation: Try to book your accommodation as early as possible. Technically, the second weekend in September is outside the 'high' season (which seems to end around 20 August), but hotel rooms were still expensive. I knew I wanted to stay in the arty/hipster neighbourhood of Grünerløkka, a mile or so north of the central station, which is where a lot of the good coffee shops are located. There are more cheaper options nearer the station but I think Grünerløkka is a more pleasant area to stay in. This limited my options somewhat, but I found a room at PS:hotell in on Vulkan — a former industrial area turned trendy quartier with restaurants, bars, and arts and culture spaces — in the heart of Grünerløkka for 800 Krone (about £77) per night.

My room was minimalist but clean, comfortable and quiet, despite overlooking busy Vulkan. I'm not usually swayed by a free breakfast (I prefer to find my own), but in Oslo, one shouldn't look a gift horse — or free meal — in the mouth... The hotel employs staff through Norway's social welfare system, providing training and experience to help staff get permanent jobs. There were a couple of minor kinks (reception wasn't staffed when I was trying to pick up my bag, which meant I almost missed my airport train) but generally everything worked well, and the location can't be beaten.

Arriving: Oslo's Gardermoen Airport is about 30 miles north of the city centre. For 180 NOK (£17) each way, you can take the Flytoget Airport Express, which as frequently as every 10 minutes will get you to Oslo central station in about 20 minutes. Just a couple of minutes slower and slightly less regular, the NSB trains cost 93 NOK (£9) each way. I took this latter option, of course, and was in the city centre under an hour after touching down. There are also various airport express coaches, which take about 50 minutes and cost about 160 NOK (£15) one way.

Money: There are currently about 10.34 Norwegian Krone (NOK) to the British pound, which makes conversions easy if sometimes painful. I didn't take out any cash and my credit card was accepted everywhere. Many shops, cafes and restaurants also supported contactless payment. I had read various opinions on whether to tip in Norwegian restaurants, the consensus being that it is by no means compulsory but that tips of between 5 and 20% would be very well-received, depending on the type of establishment. One thing that took a little getting used to was that when presented with the card-reader, you have to enter the total amount you wish to pay (including the tip) before entering your pin. As I hadn't quite got into NOK mode yet, this extra step meant I sometimes tipped slightly more generously than I intended and sometimes slightly less so. I hope it balanced out in the end.

Even if you go to Oslo in the height of summer, good weather is by no means a sure thing. A week before my trip, I noted the forecast of solid rain for the next ten days, and this didn't change so I packed and planned accordingly. I arrived at lunchtime on Friday, and the rain did end up holding off until Saturday, when it poured down. Sunday, meanwhile, started out gloriously sunny and then swiftly switched back to downpours in the afternoon. The lesson, then, is that you should bring an umbrella and/or raincoat whenever you come. A short visit meant I had to plan my activities around the weather — and the fact that almost all shops are closed on Sundays. Here are some of the things I did:

Museums. The unexpected sunshine meant that I only ended up visiting the small but interesting National Museum — architecture (50 NOK), rather than also going to its larger sibling, the National Gallery (100 NOK, although this also includes admission to the architecture museum). A new museum including art, architecture and design will open in 2020. I'm not that into Munch, so I skipped the Munch Museum, but with more time, I'd have liked to pay a visit to the Ibsen Museum.

City centre sights. I saw the Oslo Opera House several times, and every time I approached the striking, modernist building — constructed in 2008, designed to resemble a glacier and located on the waterfront — the heavens opened. You can climb the sloping sides to reach the roof (I ended up getting soaked when I did) and they also do guided tours of the building.

Akershus Fortress. A little further west, this castle sits splendidly on top of a hill overlooking the city and the bay. There is an admission fee but you can walk around the grounds for free. (Aker crops up in several Oslo place names but is the name of the river that flows through the city centre.) Det Kongelige Slott (royal palace). For a more traditional architectural stroll, head through the park surrounding the 19th century palace, and then down the hill past the university buildings, the National Theatre and the National Gallery.

Aker Brygge. A former shipyard turned smart shopping and dining area. It's also worth visiting if you like modern architecture, and the Renzo Piano-designed Astrup Fearnley Museum is located here.

Grünerløkka strolling. The Grünerløkka neighbourhood is a great place to explore, with plenty of historic buildings, colourful street art and interesting shops and eateries. I went for a run along the Akerselva River, which runs down from Lake Maridalsvannet to the north. It is very steep northbound, but there are waterfalls and public artworks to keep you entertained.

Two streets with particularly pretty colourful houses are Damstredet and Telhusbakken, both on the hill just west of Vulkan and the Elva river. The pond on the corner of Damstredet and Akersveien is a particularly good spot for reflected photos of the colourful houses.

Island hopping. There are several small islands within easy reach of the Oslo waterfront. When the sun came out on Sunday, I wasted no time in heading out to Hovedøya, the closest one, and a mere nine-minute ferry trip from the Aker Brygge piers. Ferries run frequently and a single ticket costs about 33 NOK (you can buy one from the machine — note that there isn't anywhere to buy tickets on Hovedøya, so I ended up downloading the Ruter Billett app to buy my return ticket; you can also purchase tickets on the boat for a surcharge). I spent a happy hour on Hovedøya walking the trails, exploring the ruins of a 12th century monastery and picnicking on a quiet beach with fjord views. In the summer, you could probably make an afternoon of it but I got back just before the rain started.

Fjord boat trip. Two-hour boat trips into the fjord run from the piers in front of the city hall a few times a day (299 NOK). Longer and shorter trips are also available. I decided to go on Friday afternoon, as the weather forecast was the most promising (cold and cloudy but no rain). I did enjoy the trip — the scenery was beautiful — and I was grateful that it didn't rain but if you get a sunny day, that's the day to do this trip. If it's cold, bundle up, but if it's clear and sunny, the fjord and the islands will look so much more attractive than on a grey, cloudy day.

As usual, I will be putting together a separate Oslo speciality coffee guide, but suffice to say, there is plenty of coffee in the city, including some really exceptional coffee. In the meantime, here are some of the other food and drink experiences I enjoyed:

For a fast but hip burger joint... Illegal Burger. I came here straight after I arrived, hungry and in need of sustenance. You can order most of the burgers as beef, fish or veggie (not the fish/vegan ones, though, the menu points out kindly). I had the cheese royale, which cost about £9.50 and tasted great. The small, minimalist restaurant is attractively designed and the staff are lovely (the server came running after me to return the scarf I'd left behind). There are a few other similar hipster-burger-bars in town, such as Munchies, but this is the original and supposedly the best.

For picnic supplies... Gutta på Haugen. I picked up a mortadella sandwich and some a few other bits from this lovely deli in St Hanshaugen. I took my picnic out to Hovedøya Island, but there's a nice park across the street from Gutta too. They also have a concession in Mathallen (see below).

For satisfying a sweet tooth... W.B. Samson. There are over 20 branches of this popular bakery in and around Oslo, including one at the airport. Their kanelboller (cinnamon buns) have been voted Oslo's best and although my sample size was small, I really enjoyed mine. The sørlandsboller (filled with cream and covered in chocolate) looked amazing too!

For a comforting lunch... Trattoria Popolare. I sought shelter from the rain in this cool Grünerløkka trattoria, ordering a huge bowl of the pasta of the day (spaghetti with fresh tomato, tarragon and breadcrumbs; about £13). It was delicious and filling; the ravioli looked great too.

For when you can't decide what to eat... Mathallen. This meat market turned gourmet food court is filled with food shops and small eateries, serving everything from seafood, to tacos, to confit de canard. In an effort to save money, I ordered the fish burger from Vulkanfisk, which was nice, but their fish and chips looked amazing. The shops shut at 7 pm most days, but the eateries tend to stay open later.

For creative small plates in a friendly, neighbourhood restaurant... Smalhans. There are five- and seven-dish menus available if you book, but walk-ins can mix and match from the set and à la carte menu. The cuisine is Scandinasian! I had some delicious pork cheek tacos with kimchi, a charcuterie plate served with a lovely beetroot and hazelnut salad, and some amazing churros. This plus a cocktail cost about £50, but the food was excellent and the service impeccable. Other restaurants on my list for a nice evening meal included Bass OsloPjoltergeist (which recently popped up in London, and which was still closed for the summer) and Kontrast.

For a cosy cocktail... Fuglen. I went to Fuglen for the speciality coffee and stayed for the creative, well-mixed cocktails and vintage décor. Unfortunately, they were all out of the Cloudberry Sour, but I really enjoyed my gimlet, which came with Plymouth gin and kaffir lime leaves. Another cocktail joint on my list, which I didn't have time to visit, was Bettola.

Almost all of the shopping I did was in Grünerløkka, where there are hip boutiques, design stores, vintage shops and some of the Scandinavian chains, such as Weekday and Gina Tricot. Many shops are located on or near Thorvald Meyers gate, one of the neighbourhood's main north–south drags. Note that most shops are closed on Sundays.

Clothing: Ensemble (Nordre gate 15), well-curated boutique; Qomo (Torggata 35), hip clothes store; Whyred (Torggata 35), cool clothing store.
Interiors/homewares: Brudd Kunsthåndverk (Markveien 42A), ceramics; Eske (Sofies gate 16 — St Hanshaugen), quirky design boutique; Futura Classics (Olaf Ryes plass 1), furniture; Granit (Thorvald Meyersgate 63–67), minimalist homewares; Kollekted By (Rathkes gate 4), beautiful interiors; Søstrene Grene (Markveien 48, and other branches), pretty but inexpensive homewares; Ting (Akersgata 18 — near city hall), good selection of homewares
Lifestyle: Dapper (Nordre gate 13), hipster men's store;
Stationery: Lush Dive (Thorvald Meyers gate 19).

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