by Joseph Pedro
"We will answer this attack on our democracy with more democracy and more openness…and will take back our (feeling of) security," Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg told a clearly shaken population after the July 22 attacks that left a total of 76 people dead, of those 68 were youth. It's hard to imagine an attack like this happening in the city that I visited just a couple months ago. I experienced so much love from the people in this welcoming place and when news reports flashed scenes of the destruction, I was in absolute disbelief. Commentators echoed the message that Norway would be forever changed, and I couldn't help but flash back to conversations I had with Norwegians who were so proud of their country and the openness that Oslo stood for. The American news was wrong. The attack has made the country and Oslo stronger, and it has shown the world exactly what kind of place Oslo is, particularly when more than 150,000 people came together for a display of unity that fills me with hope that the city I grew to know and love is stronger today than it was on July 21. "Norwegians by answering with love to hate gave the world a great love lesson," a survivor of the youth camp said.
With outstanding cultural attractions, an exciting culinary
scene, inspiring nature, and warm, welcoming people,
Oslo will win you over soon after you arrive.
The vibrant capital city of Norway is home to 600,000, and a place where LGBT people are an integral part of life. "We have come very far when it comes to rights for LGBT people," says Bård Nylund, the President of the Norwegian LGBT Association. "This means that we can feel comfortable anywhere in the city. Because we are a small capital in an international context, it also means that people walk everywhere, and nearly [everywhere] the LGBT community is visible. There is also no problem showing love in public. Over 70% of the Norwegian population agrees with same-sex marriage, which has been legal since 2008."
After arriving in the city on the new Flytoget Airport Express train, I was early for my hotel check in, so I grabbed a coffee and sat down in a little park near the National Theater by a statue of Norwegian actress, and de facto gay icon, Wenche Foss. It was early in the day, as Scandinavia Airlines' new direct route from New York to Oslo had me touch down a little after 8 A.M. It was a beautiful spring morning (apparently the first sunny day in a long time), and everyone in Oslo was taking advantage of it. Adorable little children in their matching reflector vests ran around, students from the nearby law school chatted with a cigarette cloud around them, old ladies took up the park benches and calmly watched the goings-on unfazed by the morning rush, and I even spotted two girls give one another a passionate goodbye kiss. Then, a very handsome man sporting a finely-trimmed beard and short-sleeved plaid shirt came over and asked me something in Norwegian. I, of course, stared half fixated and half confused and chirped, "What? I am from America." "It's OK dude, you can be my date," he replied. "OK," I said, without asking where. (It turns out it was to a Dutch techno festival up north called Sensation.) After all this, I couldn't help but feel immediately in love with the city, already so comfortable with my place in Oslo, and this was all before breakfast.
Norway is considered one of the top 50 wealthiest countries, and its people enjoy a quality of life that is often ranked as the best in the world. New, contemporary skyscrapers, for both housing and offices, showcase the growth. New cultural buildings, like the Opera House and the soon-to-be-built Munch Museum, demonstrate an appreciation for cutting-edge design and an optimistic outlook for the future.
For travelers, though, the city's prosperity brings to light a major concern: the cost. The city is ranked the most expensive in the world, and I will attest that Oslo is, well, the most expensive city I have ever visited. From picking up a $4 bottled water on the street to a $14 pint of beer at the bar, you'll definitely want to travel here with money. It also means that if you plan on keeping up with the Norwegian Joneses, it may mean maxing out your credit cards. I did learn lessons from some poor backpacking Norwegian college students (who don't have to pay a dime for education, but students are students and they know how to survive on very little). For lunch, pack some protein bars to eat on the go, or grab a bite to eat at one of the many kebab houses or European baguette shops like Deli de Luca or Upper Crust. This way you can save some money during the day and splurge on a nice dinner. You'll be yearning for the days when the American dollar was worth something, but don't think too much about it, just ask the locals where to get the best deals.
Unlike in some Scandinavian capitals, it is easy to get your bearings in Olso. A walk down the city center's main street, Karl Johans gate (a road you'll become very familiar with) takes visitors from the Royal Palace (built under a Swedish king, Charles II) to the modern-day train station. In between, you'll discover most of the city's classic and iconic buildings that were built in the late 19th century, including the National Theater, the Grand Hotel, and the University of Oslo. Karl Johans gate is also lined with shops, restaurants, parks, street performers, plenty of eye candy, and many attractions. Some of the street is pedestrian-only, creating a lively atmosphere at all times of day and night.
I begin my city exploration outside the downtown area with a walk through the park Frognerparken. Like most visitors, I spend a majority of my time in the Vigeland Sculpture Park, an area that perfectly encapsulates Oslo's liberal ideologies. This heavily touristed, 80-acre section is a whimsical trip through the mind of Norway's most famous sculptor, Gustav Vigeland. Start by entering the park over a bridge that connects the main gate to the fountain. The bridge was the first piece installed in the park and features over 58 nude sculptures, including the Angry Boy, which has become a major symbol of the city. LGBT travelers will take delight in the gay undertones of some of the sculptures along the bridge, in particular the ones featuring two men and two women.
Unknowing visitors will begin to understand the human-condition theme that connects all Vigeland's work. His vision of humanity becomes more evident at the Fountain, which is made of bronze, not granite like the rest of the sculptures. Walk around the Fountain clockwise to follow humans from birth to death. My favorite was the death statue, which has the men and women, now skeletons, camouflaged in trees, depicting the cyclical nature of life. The main attraction for visitors to the park is the epic, granite Monolith. This "totem pole" consists of bodies upon bodies in various poses. At first you won't know what to think of it as the white granite creates an almost too realistic feel, appearing soft rather than hard. Spend time walking around admiring the clustered, larger-than-life statues that surround the Monolith, which also shows human beings in various stages of life. The perfect weather during my visit to the park revealed excited families, escaped school kids, and amorous couples enjoying the weekday afternoon sun.
OF OSLO, NORWAY
When the city's residents aren't partaking of the pleasures found in numerous parks (95% of residents live within 300 meters of open space), they are packing their bags and venturing to "the mountains." In winter and early spring, tshis means a ski weekend and in summer, a trip to a cabin. This desire to get back to nature was brought up in almost every conversation I had with Norwegians.
By the tenth confab with a native about their passion for skiing and winter sports, I had no choice but to hop on the Metro 1 (right near the National Theater Park) to experience Oslo's natural and adventurous side. A visit to the world's largest ski jump, called Holmenkollbakken, is de rigueur during your trip (if you don't go, expect some looks of disappointment from locals). The inspiring view of both the city and the fjords makes the trip quite worth it, even if you're (like me) not that interested in skiing. I did, though, gain much respect for those people who would dare to strap on skis and go down the slope.
Oslo has no shortage of cultural attractions, and the easiest and most inexpensive way to experience them all is with an Oslo Pass that you can purchase online or at a tourist info booth. These cards, sold by the day, give visitors entry to over 30 museums (including all the must-visits), a free guided city tour, discounts at shops and restaurants, and, best of all, free use of public transportation, all for around $40.
After I pick up my pass, I venture to an area called Pipervika, which is just steps from a mini-dock behind the Rådhusplassen or City Hall Square. Here, I board a mini cruise (ferry) that shuttles people to various popular destinations on the Bygdøy peninsula and continues to the Opera House. Public buses also run, but seeing the city by water is an unforgettable experience. The hop-on-hop-off service is an easy and free (with Oslo Pass) way to see the city. Once the boat pulls out of the dock, you really get a strong sense of the city's intimate relationship with the ocean. With floating barges that have been turned into restaurants filled with people grabbing a drink, and numerous sunny docks along the waterway in the neighborhood of Aker Brygge, this cityscape could convince anyone that life in Oslo is good. After just five minutes on the boat, the bustling dockside turns to green and large private estates. "The country" is so close to the city that the royal family even built their vacation home on Bygdøy.
The peninsula is also home to the Viking Ship Museum; the sprawling open-air museum Norsk Folkemuseum; and the exploration museums that include Kon-Tiki Museum, the Norwegian Maritime Museum, and the Fram Museum, making this an absolute-must cultural circuit. My favorites by far were the Viking Ship and the Fram Museum. The Viking Ship Museum not only has three of the best-preserved ships from that era, but also the skeletal remains of humans; it is both grand and eerie. The Fram Museum teaches visitors about Norway's quests to the North Pole, in particular, the voyages by Norway's most famous sons Fridtjof Nansen, Otto Sverdrup, and Roald Amundsen. Get ready to re-experience childhood flights of fancy involving high-seas adventures when you step aboard the actual Fram ship. This immersive experience into the historic 19th-century voyages had me running around the deck, trying to discover secret passages in this goliath schooner, and respecting the pertinacious spirit of discovery these men had. I spent a good two hours here, but I have to admit, the whole experience would have been improved if I were actually to set sail to the North Pole. Alas, I had to return home and get ready for a night at the opera.
While continuing to discover and reflect on the nation's past, Oslo is also continuing to look to the future. A government move to build a more densely populated capital and to make better use of the city's waterfront helped spawn the exciting neighborhood of Bjørvika. It's a nice walk down Karl Johans gate to the train station, and you'll, without a doubt, spot the modernist marvel, the Oslo Opera House. There is not much in this area now, probably more cranes and construction than people (I literally have to walk over a shaky pedestrian bridge to get to the Opera). Once a new tunnel is completed, most of the traffic will be diverted, making this section of town much more pedestrian-friendly. Once again, your inner kid will awaken when you climb the sloped roof (apparently it's a skateboarder's dream) and check out the views of the fjord. Also, a ticket to the Oslo Opera House is an absolute must—missing the interior design of one of the world's most expensive cultural spaces (it cost the city over $800 million) would be a shame. I treated myself to an evening alone at the Opera. I recommend booking a reservation at the in-house, fine dining restaurant, Brasserie Sanguine, which offers daily Mediterranean-inspired tasting menus inside the building's main atrium. It was also easy to be on time for my show, as the waiters were well aware of my schedule limitations. Sitting in the theater with the well-heeled Oslo crowd and taking in Jií Kylián's ballet, Wildflowers, offered an unforgettable evening.