My list of things to do in Oslo – proof that visiting Norway’s capital is worth a visit the whole year, even in winter when it’s cold.
I love Oslo. I honestly do. It certainly is one of the most expensive cities in the world – but that’s for a reason. There are so many fun things to do in Oslo and you can all do them in style. The capital of Norway is, however, quite a small city as well. You can pretty much see everything there is in 3 days. I recommend you to go there in early spring when there is still some snow.
At least that’s the time when I think you can enjoy the northern country the most. It also gives you the chance to travel on to the far north of Norway, to Spitsbergen (read why Spitsbergen should absolutely be on your list as well!).
Why early spring? Because there will be still some snow! That way you can enjoy all the winter sports activities Norway is famous for. Since Oslo is located in the most southern part, and Norway greatly benefits from the Gulf Stream, it won’t be that cold.
By the end of March, Oslo will also be light enough to actually enjoy the city – even though it will be fun to visit the city during the arctic night as well! (You’ll have to move a bit further north to see polar lights, though. They are very rare in Oslo itself).
Also, I really want to stress that I couldn’t possibly mention all the wonderful tourist attractions in Oslo. So do get a paper pack travel guide. Personally, I love to bring some offline along. I can really recommend the Marco Polo Guide to Oslo, it certainly helped me plan out my first trip. But let’s start with my list of the best things to do in Oslo.
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1. Oslo Opera House
In recent decades, Norway managed the exceptional success story from an insignificant Scandinavian country to one of the richest nations in the world. The oil riches have been put to good use. Oslo’s harbor front underwent a unique land reclamation project. The hallmark of this project certainly is Oslo’s new opera house. Designed by Tarald Lundevall the outstanding building has been awarded many prestigious architecture prizes.
But the outside is not the only thing worth seeing at the Oslo opera house. Do go inside! You might not expect it so high up north, but the opera & ballet productions are more than excellent – even if you are not a big fan of the performing arts, to begin with. I’ve seen three operas there. Especially their Cavalleria Rusticana left me speechless!
2. Shopping in Oslo
Scandinavia is famous for its elegant and minimalistic clothing. Brands like Acne, H&M, Sandqvist and so on come to mind at once. So as a list of things to do in Oslo can’t do without mentioning shopping opportunities. As a tourist, I’d recommend you to walk along the Karl Johans gate.
This is Oslo’s main street that will ultimately lead you to the royal palace. The best shops are located on this street. Don’t be shy of turning left or right into one of the adjacent streets either, but be aware that Oslo is one of the most expensive cities in the world – so don’t expect bargains!
3. Royal Palace in Oslo
Norway is a constitutional Monarchy, so there really is no way around visiting the Royal Palace. If you want to tour the Royal Palace you need to be in Oslo in summer. The Royal Palace Oslo is only open to visitors between End of June and Mid-August (check the official schedule for more information).
Personally speaking, you can pretty much skip touring the insides. The tour will only last a scant 20 minutes and the palace of the Norwegian monarch is, all things considered, nothing all that spectacular. If you want to see a truly outstanding palace rather check out my guide to the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg.
4. The Changing of the Guards at the Royal Palace in Oslo
Every single day of the year the Changing of the Guards takes place in front of the Royal Palace – bad weather included. In case you were wondering at which time: it will be exactly at 1:30 pm. The whole ceremony will roughly take 40 minutes.
So best time your visit at the royal palace accordingly. In summer, the Changing of the Guards will be even more spectacular since mounted officers and a band will lead the procession to the gates of the Palace.
5. Oslo City hall
What would be a list of things to do in Olso without mentioning the city hall? Normally city halls are something you will view from the outside, take a picture and move on. Not so in Oslo. The Oslo City hall is an architectural gem from the 1930ies.
Don’t let yourself be put off by the outside. The red brick construction certainly has its very own charm, but is, admittedly, probably not at the height of contemporary architectural taste anymore. I actually quite like it, though! It also has been named Oslo’s “Structure of the Century” by popular vote.
Getting inside you will find out why. All halls are decorated with sweeping murals and the finest marble masonry. The German inside me argues for caution – after all, the NS-Regime made use of a similar style for their propaganda only a few years later. Luckily these days are over. Rather think of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, which is held here each year on December 10th.
6. Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art
Never heard of the Fearnley or Astrup families? I didn’t know them either before my first visit to Oslo. These Norwegian shipping magnates exhibit their outstanding private collection of contemporary art in a spectacular building at the harbor front.
Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Tomas Sachs are only a few of the names that you will see on your tour through the Astrup Fearnley Museum. Like I said, the museum focuses on contemporary art, so don’t expect pretty pictures and realistic statues.
Some items are downright disgusting and others (like the golden Micheal Jackson statue by Jeff Koons with his favorite chimpanzee Bubbles) more than hilarious. But if you are very open-minded about such things, you will thoroughly enjoy the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo. In fact, I’m willing to say that the Museum is one of the best, if not the best, museums of contemporary art in the world!
7. Holmenkollen ski-jump
Here comes your reason to visit Oslo in winter. Located in the hills above Oslo you will find the Holmenkollen (kollen meaning hill in Norwegian). Just get on the metro and get out at the station with the same name (this will actually be a fun ride since the metro will climb quite a steep incline!)
Right at the top of the hill, you will find the Holmenkollenbakken – Oslo’s famous ski-jump arena. Buy yourself some tickets and enjoy the breath-taking view from atop! If you are not scared of heights you can also rent an apartment through Airbnb at the top of the ski jump! (this is a promotional offer – not sure how long this will last!)
Also, don’t forget to check for special winter sports events in the arena. The Norwegians love their winter sports (in fact the King will most likely attend them as well!!) and you don’t want to miss an event where half Norway will be on their way to Holmenkollen.
8. Cross-country skiing in Oslo
But don’t finish your stay in the Holmenkollen area with a tour of the ski-jump and its arena. Rather rent yourself some cross-country skis and get going! Oslo Winterpark is just a few kilometers away and easily accessible by public transport (on the same metro line and then two stops with the bus).
There is a big sports center to be found at Oslo Winterpark. You can either decide for down-hill skiing (I found the sloped to be less than impressive, but I have been skiing since age 3) or cross-country skiing. Renting equipment is possible for both (you will have to bring your own warm clothes tho). There are also quite a few scenic ski huts along the slopes. So make sure to stop by and enjoy a hot tea or a hot chocolate with some warm Norwegian waffles!
9. Traditional wooden Church
In the Holmenkollen area, you will also find the Holmenkollen Chapel. This wooden chapel is actually located just a couple of meters away from the skip-jump. If you want to see some traditional Norwegian architecture, make sure to stop by. The Royal lodge is close by as well.
10. Munch Museum
No other-other artist is as readily associate with Norway as Edvard Munch. In Oslo, you will find a museum dedicated to the work and life of the famous painter (and his contemporaries). Located close to the center, you will find a well-curated exhibition more than worth the visit.
The Munch Museum is the place where you will be able to see one of the versions of the famous “The Scream”. But don’t just focus on this one painting, and rather enjoy the other inspiring artworks from the turn of the century.
11. National Gallery Oslo
Oslo also has a National Gallery and this list of things to do in Oslo wouldn’t be complete without mentioning it. It’s a great collection and, as you can see, they have a cardboard version of The Scream. Please excuse the picture – an inner compulsion urged me to take it!
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12. Akershus Fortress Oslo
Looming over Oslo’s harbor you will find the Akershus Fortress. This is a medieval castle that mostly served defensive purposes but also served as a prison. Even today the Norwegian Ministry of Defence has its headquarters there. The Akershus Fortress is opened to the public for a small fee. It’s quite an impressive building you might want to put on your list of things to do in Oslo if you are a fan of military history that is.
13. Fram Museum, Kon-Tiki-Museum, and Viking Ship Museum
Located a few miles outside of Oslo you will find an area with a couple of nautic museums. The Kon-Tiki-Museum focusing on Thor Heyerdahl’s spectacular balsa wood raft and how he crossed the Pacific with it. You will also be able to visit the Viking Ship Museum and its impressive Viking burial ships just a bus stop away.
Most spectacular of all is probably the Fram Museum. This museum houses the original ship that made the early expeditions into the Arctic possible. Roald Amundsen, Fridtjof Nansen are famous names that instantly come to mind and their histories are made real here.
14. The Magic Ice bar Oslo
I am quite reluctant to put the Magic Ice bar on my list of things to do in Oslo. It is, to be quite frank, a very touristy thing to do. In theory, you got the opportunity to have a drink at bone-chilling temperatures surrounded by ice sculptures. This is, however, not a place where locals hang out. So you only got the opportunity to meet other tourists.
All in all, it is also quite empty and the cocktails not worth their names. In my experience the Magic Ice bar Oslo cannot meet expectations – it really boils down to a nice picture for your family album or Instagram that comes at quite a steep price.
This is just an honorary mentioning. The Norwegian Parliament (called Storting in Norwegian) is holding its meetings in a building right in the middle of the city. You will certainly pass it on your way to the royal palace or shopping in the Karl Johans gate – no need to specifically put it on your list of things to do in Oslo.
16. National Theater Oslo
I will end this list of things to do in Oslo with another impressive building located along the Karl Johans Gate: the National Theater Oslo. Since most production will be in Norwegian, there seems little point in getting tickets, even though the theater is considered the home of Henrik Ibsen’s plays.
Except you do understand Norwegian, famous Peer Gynt will have to meet the Button-molder without you. If you got the time, you might want to check out the interiors, though.
Where to stay in Oslo
Oslo is not a cheap city. Like I said it frequently ranks among the top most expensive cities in the world. Weirdly enough it lacks excellent hotels at the same time. None of the international luxury hotel chains decided to get involved so far. That really doesn’t leave a lot of options. Since I hate recommending anything I haven’t stayed at, here are the 4 hotels in Oslo I think are worth considering.
This is probably the most modern luxury hotel in Oslo. It was built on Tjuvholmen – the glittering new district in Oslo’s Harbor. It features very modern design – sleek, stylish and certainly catering to your every need. Personally, I really enjoyed sleeping in this buzzing district. Quite a few bars & restaurants around it.
Check it out here >
The Continental Hotel is probably the best address within in the city. Karl Johans Gate, the Theater or the Storinget are directly in front of the entrance. For many years this hotel has been the only 5-star hotel in Oslo – so a lot of tradition and expertise come with the name. I’ve been staying at this hotel a couple of times before the Thief opened.
Check it out here >
The Grand Hotel Oslo
The Grand Hotel Oslo is probably most famous for its beautiful fin de ciecle restaurant/café in the basement. Much like the Continental, it is located directly inside the city center – only 500 meters away from the Royal Palace. They do offer a wonderful spa.
Check it out here >
Scandic Holmenkollen Park
This hotel is one of my favorites in Oslo. Three reasons: It dates back to 1894, so especially the old part really gives you this unique Norwegian feeling. It is located on a hill overlooking the city (such a beautiful view). And it is very close to Holmenkollen ski jump. In winter, during big tournaments, the sportsmen will drop here and give the whole place a very international feeling. Chose this hotel if you don’t want to be in the city and especially if you are in Oslo for a winter sports event. The Picture above depicts the hotel – neat, eh?
Check it out here >
I hope you enjoyed my list of things to do in Oslo. Would you want to visit Oslo? Or is the world’s most expensive city nothing for you?