Traveling the world is one of my favorite things to do. I love to immerse myself in new places and cultures different from my own and where I come from. Whether that be people, history, food or experiences, I want to dive head first into the places I am lucky enough to visit. The world is an immense place and with 195 countries in total there is a lot to see and do. This is my first trip to Scandinavia and of all things, to keep in the spirit of Christmas, I decided that December was the best time to go. The whole region is supposed to be beautiful during the summertime and that happens to be high-season, but I would argue that winter is the perfect time to explore. Although the major cities such as Oslo, Copenhagen and Stockholm are very much abuzz with activity, there aren’t the large crowds and lines that summer brings. If you want to visit museums or other major tourist attractions or smaller, lesser known parts of the city that only locals can point you to, then winter is your jam. Plus who doesn’t love snow on the ground and a chill in the air for Christmas?
Getting There, Getting Around and Places to Stay
I happen to be based in Denver, and traveling anywhere internationally involves some finagling and a bit of time travel. The easiest thing to do is to get to one of the coasts and then depart in earnest from there. For this trip, that involved a flight to JFK airport in New York, a layover in London, Heathrow and finally arriving in Oslo, Norway after a 32 hour travel day, or two, if you count leaving on the 25th and arriving the 26th… Once at Gardermoen Airport, with baggage in hand, there is just a quick train ride to Oslo Sentralstasjon in the heart of the city and that is where my adventure begins.
The FlytoGet Train is the easiest and cheapest way to get from the airport to the middle of Oslo. Coming out of customs, just follow the signs for the train and you wind up at a attended kiosk station that lets you buy tickets (196 NOK or $22 USD) for the direct train to downtown Oslo that leaves every 10 minutes from Track 2 or 3 usually, and only takes 19 minutes.
There are plenty of hotels and hostels throughout the city, but if you are planning on exploring a bunch or perhaps traveling to more than just Oslo, I would suggest Comfort Hotel Grand Central. It’s located right inside the train station, the hotel rooms are clean, the staff, especially Hans Andreas and Mo, are amazing and the price won’t necessarily break the bank at $125 – $140 USD or 1,100 – 1,250 NOK (Norwegian Krone) a night. Of course there are cheaper options but I am a little older than I once was. I don’t need uber fancy, but I prefer my own room and bathroom at this point as well as the ability to lock said door with all of the camera equipment I travel with at any given time. That’s not to say bad things will happen, I just prefer the better safe than sorry attitude. This particular Comfort Hotel is also amazing because it puts you right on the main shopping district with straight shots to the Norwegian Parliament building and Oslo Cathedral as well as the most popular Winter Holiday Market in the city. It also has one of the main public transportation stops for both the tram and the bus system that can easily take you all around the city in a matter of minutes. One of the best breakfasts I’ve had while traveling is also included with the room. Fresh food each morning as well as some amazing additions such as ginger shots to keep up your immune system and Norwegian brown cheese, which is slightly sweet. If you want something a little cheaper then you can check out either Saga Poshtel Oslo Central or Anker Hostel, both start around 495 NOK a night, or $56 USD.
Once settled, and depending on your length of stay, I would suggest considering the Oslo Pass. If you have the time, there is a Oslo Visitors Center right inside Central Station before you exit and a super convenient place to pick up said pass. You can also go online and deal with it as well in a digital version. The pass is available (2020 Prices) for three different time periods, 24 hours (445 NOK or $50 USD), 48 hours (655 NOK or $74 USD) and 72 hours (820 NOK or $93 USD). Not only can it be used for all forms of public transportation within the city, including buses, trams and even ferries, there is a list of attached free museum and attraction entries as well as discounts on a number of other attractions, restaurants and more. Personally, I would say in order to make the pass worth it there should be about three activities per 24 hour period that you want to check out. Otherwise just pick up the varying one hour to seven day public transportation pass.…
A Smattering of Things to Do and Places to See While in Oslo
There are plenty of things to do and see while in Oslo. Depending on the length of your stay you can definitely hit a variety of amazing experiences. Here’s what I did over a couple of days….
The Vigeland Sculpture Park is chock full of sculptures from artist Gustav Vigeland. With more notable and famous sculptures such as The Angry Child, The Monolith and The Wheel of Life, the park is nestled within the larger Frogner Park. It is free and open to the public all year round and the easiest way to access it, at least from Oslo Central Station, is by the #12 tram. It is full of more than 200 bronze, granite and cast iron, mostly naked, sculptures from the artist and is one of the top tourist destinations with over a million visitors each year.
Again take the #12 Tram from Central Station to Aker Brygge, the main transportation wharf for Oslo at City Hall, and grab the B1 ferry to Hovedoya Island, the first of five stops along the route that takes about eight minutes to get to but will take about an hour round trip so plan accordingly. Once on Hovedoya, take a stroll along the hiking trail that first leads you to an old cannon battery that overlooks some of the smaller islands. After taking in the views, follow the trail down to Hovedoya Beach (Playa de Hovedoya) to get an up-close look at the coastline before heading over to Hovedoya Kloster, the ruins of a centuries old monastery. This is a super popular destination during the spring and summer months, however, during my trip in December there were a total of six people on the entire island which was awesome for a chance to shed the bustling downtown atmosphere and get in a little solitude. Although it was overcast, there was a fresh layer of snow on the ground and the silence, outside of the crunching of my footsteps through the winter blanket, was a much needed reprieve.
I love the #12 Tram. Take it from Central Station or hop on after visiting the islands at Aker Brygge, and ride it to the Solli stop. Get off and hop on a #30 bus to the Vikingskipshuset stop and viola, you’re there. Inside are three large viking ships found in various states of preservation from the late 800s to early 900s, as well as other artifacts found within the dig sites around Oslo. There’s a movie, Vikings Alive, which I highly recommend, that runs about every 20 minutes and is a visually immersive experience in one of the ship halls. Watch how a Viking ship is built, sails along the Norwegian fjords and the ocean, before ending its days as a grave ship for a king.
The Oslo Opera House is an architectural beauty both inside and out. A couple of minutes walk from Central Station, the building is glass and steel and right on the water. Make sure to take the time to walk up the slanted pathway to the roof to get some views of the city and fjord. But most of all, spend a few hours watching an actual performance. While there, I was able to grab a last minute ticket to watch a revamped, Kubrick-esque, telling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel”. The sets were stunning and the performers voices were marvelous. With the help of a small screen attached to the chair in front of me, the Norwegian script was translated into English, but even without I could pretty much follow along the ages old story of a cannibalistic witch and the brother and sister duo who foiled its plot to devour them for a meal.
Food and Drink in Oslo
Like most European cities, there is a menagerie of places to eat and drink in Oslo. From fast food chains, that I am all too familiar with from my childhood and early adulthood, to classic Norwegian cuisine and everything in between. Let me say, first and foremost, I love to dive into a country’s traditional food scene. Trying dishes that I haven’t had the opportunity to taste before excites me and in my opinion there is no better way than to explore a new country than through its food.
I have a couple of recommendations that I highly suggest, and will get there, but first I need to tell you that pizza is a thing in Oslo. There are way too many places to grab a personal sized pie and my first thought was “seriously?” On the outset I did not come to Norway to eat Italian food. A little miffed, I was forced, because of timing and poor planning, to resign myself to eating a pie (if I am to be honest, actually two) one night at Cafe Cathedral. But Norway, first let me apologize because I stand corrected. The super thin and crunchy crust from a wood burning oven topped with locally smoked salmon or the razor thin sliced reindeer meat with buffalo mozzarella are two of the best pizzas I have ever had the opportunity to shove into my mouth.
Now on to more traditional Norwegian fare….
If you love food like I do then there are few places better to offer up a multi-course, Norwegian-born tasting menu within Oslo than this restaurant. Intimate dining with an open kitchen concept that allows views of the three chefs preparing dishes. I recommend the seven course Skifte which includes starters of meats and cheeses, rising through fish and pastas to the main course and then desert followed by coffee and small petit fours. The meal will cost 725 NOK or around $80 USD. A wine pairing can be tacked on for another 695 NOK with five selected and procured vintages that bring out even more flavor in each course. Don’t feel like wine? Well gin is also a thing in Norway, and the bar program is well stocked with local distilleries as well as a smart selection of tonics. My suggestion, pick your gin and let your bartender pair up the tonic.
Prefer a more liquid diet while traveling? Himkok is a hidden away speakeasy with no signage per se. Just a blue light above the non-descript wooden door and a small stamp with the letter H entwined by a snake are all that tell passersby that something lies hidden beyond. Walk inside though and a moodily lit room greets you as well a friendly cocktail expert. You are handed a book of drink descriptions and your libation experience begins. Himkok distills their own gin, vodka and aquavit, a grappa-like alcohol specific to Scandinavia, and they pair these with Nordic ingredients like pine and lingonberry to make some truly wonderful cocktails that are hard to find elsewhere.
The Winter Holiday Market Experience
Oslo has plenty of holiday markets and December is the perfect time to celebrate a Scandinavian winter and look for a gift for a loved one. The experience of walking past stalls stuffed with woolen hats, gloves and socks, glass ornaments, meats like moose and reindeer and local cheeses is a fun way to pass an evening. And then there’s the glogg. Sweet, hot, delicious glogg. Mulled wine and port mixed with clove, cardamom and cinnamon in a steaming cup warms the heart on a cold winter’s night. One of the most popular winter markets in all of Oslo is a short jaunt up Karl Johans Gate near the Spikersuppa ice skating rink. The park and rink are transformed into a winter wonderland with lights, a carousel, ferris wheel, merchant stalls, a pair of bantering, Norwegian-speaking moose heads and the outdoor rink. Although I packed plenty of warm clothes, I couldn’t pass up a fleece lined woolen hat and a couple of cups of glogg as I watched people ice skate around statues and Christmas lights. With new hat in place, I warmed myself further, sitting next to an open pit wood fire listening to those bantering moose for a bit before making my way to Sir Winston’s Public House for a pint of delicious Carlsburg beer to cap off the night.