As you approach Oslo from the air, the landscape beneath changes from fjords and half-frozen rivers snaking through trees, to snowy fields dotted with alpine farms, before they give way to reveal the city.
Oslo is a city of contrasts. Long summer nights when the sun almost never sets, versus winter days where it doesn’t seem to rise. It is a medieval city rich with history, home to Vikings – and yet until oil was discovered in the 70s, it was one of the poorest capital cities of Scandinavia. Now, Oslo feels like a city that is on the brink of something bigger.
Everything from the airport to the famous Monolitten monument in Frogner Park is under construction. The Royal Palace, completed in 1849, is centuries younger than most European counterparts. And it is only slightly older than the Grand Hotel Oslo, which this year marked 140 years in business.
The oldest hotel in the city, the Grand Hotel Oslo has a colourful past. Henrik Ibsen, the 19th-century Norwegian playwright and poet, spent his days in the Grand Café with other famous artists of the time. Today, on the back wall of the café, a fresco depicts the bohemian artists who made the hotel bar their haunt.
The opulent banquet hall continues to host the Nobel Prize award. The large wrap around balcony, with views of the Norwegian Parliament to the left and National Theatre to the right, is where the winners brave the cold to wave to the crowds each year.
But, as with the rest of the city, the Grand recently had a facelift. After coming under new ownership, the hotel was part-renovated to give it a more modern feel. But more than simply restore the hotel to its former glory, the renovations also included the introduction of a new modern art collection. The result is a hotel that feels steeped in history yet at the same time impossibly trendy.
Walking into the large marble-floored lobby bar, your eyes are drawn to the 3-ft tall Tracey Emin neon work, her interpretation of ‘The Scream’. To the right of the bar, the Palmen restaurant features plush furnishings and a Venetian glass chandelier by Cerith Wyn Evans.
The rest of the hotel is similarly sprinkled with bits of unassuming modern art. Andy Warhol’s “Portrait of Crown Princess Sonja” sits in the appropriately named Queen’s conference room, along with a ceramic vase by the Queen herself.
In the lobby sits a golden boy on his rocking horse, a sculpture by Danish-Norwegian artist duo Elmreen and Dragset (a smaller version of the work they showed in London’s Trafalgar Square in 2012). The newly renovated lounges, it has been installed several photographs by the renowned British photographer Tim Walker.
The restaurant scene in Oslo is quickly becoming a rival to more famous culinary Scandinavian cities. Maaemo is the only Norweigan restaurant with three Michelin stars. Visitors are spoiled for choice, but the food in Oslo isn’t cheap. A 5-course tasting menu in Restaurant Eik (in central – or ‘sentum’ – Oslo) will roughly cost 600 Norwegian kroner or $100 CDN. But, in a city where even a burger costs around $15, it’s worth spending a bit more for something special.
If you like fresh bread, pastries and coffee shops, you’ll be spoilt for choice in Oslo. But if you want to eat like a local, a proud fishing heritage means you can’t go wrong eating anything caught from the sea. The best fish of course depends on the season. Rakefisk (fermented trout) and skrei (a type of cod) are popular in the winter, and indoor markets like Mathallen Food Hall is where to find them. In the summer, you can wander down to the beautiful harbour for fresh shrimp.
Oslo bars are where you can do some real damage to your wallet. Like their English cousins, Norwegians are well-versed when it comes to gin – Vidda and Kimerud are the most famous brands. The Eight Bar on the roof of the Grand is the place to go for the best gin cocktails in the city with a view – although an honourable mention for goes to Chair bar in Grünerløkka, (the hipster part of town).
If it’s wine you’re after, the Grand also boasts one of the Oslo’s only wine cellars. The cellar’s modern design, with a focus on glass and steel beams, neatly contrasts with a predominately Old World wine collection (focusing on Burgundy, Tuscany and Piedmont regions).
In Norwegian culture, the sauna is where to practice the Scandi tradition of hygge – which, loosely translated, means ‘being comfortable’. The Grand’s Artesia Spa, with an enclosed roof top pool, sauna, and heated beds, is the best way to embrace this cultural trend when the sea winds and snow bite.
While it’s easy to get around the city on foot, the best way to see it is by boat. From City Hall, host to the Nobel Prize Museum, you can take a ferry to the smaller islands around Oslo. Or, if you have time, take a breath-taking fjord sightseeing trip. Head up to Holmenkollen ski jump and zip-line, or simply take a cruise along the Oslofjord in the summertime, when the sun stays high all day.
A short ferry ride is also the best way to reach some fantastic museums on the peninsula west of the city, Bygdøy. The Viking Ship Museum and Norwegian Folk Museum are worth a visit. Bygdøy is also popular during summer for its beaches and trails.
Back at the Grand, standing on the roof with a gin and tonic, it’s easy to get a sense of how much of Oslo is still growing – just count the number of cranes in the sky. It will be interesting to see what this skyline looks like in a few years’ time.