A local's guide to Oslo.
I fell in love with Oslo 25 years ago, shortly after I fell in love with a girl who called it home. Falling in love with people really isn’t much different than falling in love with cities; you can fall easy, or you can fall hard. Sometimes it’s love at first sight, sometimes it takes a few attempts, and often enough it’s a long-distance romance instead of the “love the one you’re with” type of thing. Either way, city or person, the hard part is keeping the romance going. I’ve been lucky: I still love the girl and I still love the city.
I supposed I’ve changed in all these years. I’m a responsible adult now. For example, I don’t so often get to see that fantastic Oslo summer sunrise at 3:30 a.m. like I did when I was younger. I worry about adult things like parking, and taxes, and getting to my appointments on time. I have gotten a little older, I suppose. Funny thing is that city of mine, Oslo, has gotten younger.
It is not a huge capital city like Stockholm or Berlin. Oslo is modest
at first glance. It was built between the deep water of Oslo fjord and a thick belt of high-forested hills more then 1,000 years ago. When I first came to Oslo it seemed like a secret place on the edge of an antique map. I knew almost nothing about it then. What I found was a city that was organized around different neighborhoods, stretching from a more or less working class Eastside to a more affluent Westside. I learned to find my way around by making landmarks out of the high 19th century church spires above the colorful apartment houses and the lush parks alongside the sidewalks.
It was summer when I came. Let’s face it... it’s a great summer town. This far north the sky never really gets dark that time of year, and all that sunlight creates a green canopy of leaves almost everywhere. Oslo is a city that lives with nature up close and personal—few cities can offer so much natural variation. If you are the type to walk the paths, you are in luck. In Oslo you can easily go from beach to forest, through meadow, and along shoreline all before lunch. Many of the city’s cultural highpoints, such as the Viking Ship Museum and the Norsk Folkemuseum are located on an idyllic peninsula called Bygdøy on the Westside. Folkemuseum, or Folklore Museum, contains the royal farm manor, which is a working farm open to the public. It is a little piece of the 1700s not more than a half hour’s walk from the city. If time doesn’t exactly stand still on Bygdøy, it doesn’t move any faster than the milk cows chewing peacefully in direct sight of city hall.
Not to say that time has stood still in the rest of the city. Although people tend to think about themselves as either coming from the East or the West, that geographical demarcation has a different meaning now. The two sides are less rivals and more compliments to one another. Westside neighborhoods like Frogner and Majorstua have always been a few notches more posh than the areas further east. Frogner is a place of classic late 19th century architecture with wider streets and more exclusive shops. It still feels like a slightly more mature neighborhood compared to others, however. It has an international feel that sets it apart from the rest of Oslo. The area is anchored at one end by the enormous and astounding Frogner Park—with its extensive sculpture garden completed by in 1943 by Gustav Vigeland after more than 20 years and 200 works of art.
Over on the Eastside, the parks and buildings are perhaps a little less grand, but noticeably livelier. Oslo tends to wake up when the sun shines, but nowhere is it more precious than the sidewalk cafes and coffee shops of Grünerløkka. What was once a rather gray working class area has transformed into a hip and colorful enclave of students, artists, and young families who have all set their marks on this neighborhood. Grünerløkka’s transition has been as fast as it is complete. Twenty years ago the only cup of coffee to be had was one you made yourself. Today it is ground zero for a unique coffeehouse movement that has managed to keep the otherwise invading international chains at bay. Along the main streets like Thorvald Meyers Gate and Markveien there is seldom more than three doors between cafes, restaurants, and coffeehouses. Several of the area’s baristas have won world championships, many of them roast in the shops, and they all take their coffee very seriously.
Perhaps the most dramatic change in Oslo these past years is the revolution in eating. Until a few years ago the few really fine restaurants were confined to either the Westside or the city center
and tended to be rather traditional. Now young chefs are riding the wave of Nordic cuisine and introducing the use of local ingredients. One of my favorite streets is Torgata that leads from Grünerlokka into the center of town. The area around Torgata has always been a kind of melting pot for Oslo’s growing cultural diversity, but lately the kebab stands and Thai joints have been joined by a new generation of ethnic as well as Nordic establishments. Place like Taco Republica and Piscoteket bring tastes from a different part of the world to an already exotic neighborhood. Jor serves a more casual version of the type of Nordic-inspired cuisine that has made Restaurant Maaemo one of the hottest tables in Europe.
Scandinavian design, young Norwegian designer clothes, and vintage finds are part of Eastside shopping. Kollekted By was started by two of Norway’s best stylists as a way to promote the newest trends in Scandinavian and European interior design. If a design shop can be called playful, then Kollekted By is playful. Jannicke and Allesandro’s elegant store is a kind of representation of the modern face of Oslo. It looks out into the world from the secure and careful beauty of home.
Norwegians walk. They walk to work, they walk through the forest, and they walk into the mountains. In Oslo they can walk on the roof of the opera house that seems to rise out of the fjord like a sheet of ice. From here the city faces out into the fjord on one side and looks back into the growing skyline on the other. Out there in the fjord, just a few minutes away by public boat, the traces of Oslo’s first settlements can be explored on Hovedøya Island. City life drops away. From here it’s easier to imagine that the changes of 25 years mean less in the big picture, and the bustle of the city seems more distant than it really is. As exciting as it can be to watch a place reinvent itself, it is just as important to remember that a good love affair should last a very long time.
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