Photo: Oslo waterfront pedestrian promenade

Sunset settles over the pedestrian promenade on the Oslo waterfront.

Photograph by Espen Rasmussen, The New York Times/Redux

By Caitlin Etherton

Oslo is the largest city in Norway and the country’s economic hub, with a true-to-its-roots leaning toward maritime trade and industries. But a ruffian Viking heritage and a number two spot among the world’s most expensive cities in 2010 are no reason to plunder the capital city. Vigeland Sculpture Park alone grants free access to 212 sculptures, beautiful fountains, and plenty of tree-lined lawns that will easily please your pockets. From the Nobel Peace Prize, to snow kiting on skis, to Edvard Munch’s infamous “The Scream,” the City of Tigers has a ton of free offers both indoors and out.

Art

Oslo’s art scene is all about Edvard Munch. His expressionist paintings have made their way all over town, from the frescoes gracing the mid-19th-century Assembly Hall of Oslo University, to the 1,100 paintings and 4,500 drawings of the Munch Museum (free entrance October 1 to March 31).

After braving “The Scream” at the Munch Museum, you can see it again at the always-free Nasjonalgalleriet (National Gallery). Munch painted several versions of the legendary image, two of which have been stolen at one time or another. The National Gallery is Norway’s largest public art collection showcasing a wide range of Norwegian and foreign artwork including paintings by El Greco and Amedeo Modigliani.

Several blocks away, the Stenersen Museum displays three floors’ worth of private art collections, including a vast amount of artwork by Edvard Munch, who was a personal friend of Rolf E. Stenersen. The museum also has 300 paintings and 100 drawings of Amaldus Nielsen, Norway’s “Painter of the South.” Visit for free from October to April.

Vigelandsparken the 212-sculpture park within Oslo’s Frogner Park, is possibly the most popular and visited art attraction in the city, especially when the weather’s nice. Famous Norwegian Gustav Vigeland created each of the park’s sculptures from “Angry Little Boy” to the 50-foot-tall “Monolith,” carved from a single stone.

Even more of Vigeland’s work, including woodcuts, drawings, sketches, sculptures, and photos can be seen next-door at the Vigeland Museum, free from October to April. The city of Oslo built the museum as a studio and residence for Vigeland in exchange for the donation of a large portion of his life’s work. After the sculptor’s death in 1943 his ashes were sealed inside the museum’s copper tower. Vigeland Museum is currently closed, and scheduled to reopen in May 2011.

DogA, the Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture is housed in the old transformer station of the award-winning Hausmanns gate 16. Inside you’ll find an arena full of changing exhibitions on architecture and design from Christmas markets to Oslo Fashion Week shows. Free, guided tours are available every Sunday at 2 p.m. (except in July). Other freebies for design gurus include the National Museum of Architecture and the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design (featuring a 12th-century Norwegian sheep’s wool tapestry) and the royal costume collection.

Culture

Karl Johans Gate is Oslo’s Champs-Élysées. It is the leading venue for the city’s parades, home to the Royal Palace, and the site of a seasonal ice-skating rink. The street is bustling with restaurants and stores that make for excellent people watching and window-shopping.

At the end of Karl Johans Gate sits Det Kongelige Slott (the Royal Palace) and Slottsparken, a tree-filled park open to the public year-round. Just after lunch, around 1:30 p.m., you can catch the daily changing of the guard in front of the palace. Those lucky enough to visit on a weekday when the king is in residence will also have the opportunity to hear the Royal Guard band play during the ceremony.

Leaving the Royal Palace, a sharp turn northeast onto Frederick’s Gate will lead you to the Historical Museum where you can check out 13th-century Norwegian woodcarving, Inuit masks from Greenland, Viking swords, and more. The Historical Museum is actually many museums in one, comprised of the Classical Antiquities Collection, the Ethnographic Museum, Collection of National Antiquities, Runic Archives, and the Collection of Coins and Medals, all maintained by the University of Oslo.

Several blocks southeast of Karl Johans is the Oslo Cathedral, the Dutch baroque church that has been renovated several times in its history, including in 1950 to mark Oslo’s 900th anniversary. The current cathedral, often used by the Norwegian Royal Family and Norwegian government, was built in 1697 and was recently reopened in April 2010 after four years of careful renovation. Emotive stained glass windows, detailed ironwork, and smooth marble floors create a lovely quiet spot for contemplation.

If you’re visiting Oslo in August, you can follow up a trip to the Intercultural Museum (open to the public year-round in a refurbished Grønland police station), with music, dancing, art, and food at the annual Mela Festival, a multicultural festival celebrating everything from Pakistani handicrafts to South African jazz and Bhangra.

Then head across the square to Rådhus, or City Hall, whose galleries and expansive murals are free for the touring almost year-round. Even if you are visiting Oslo in the summer, the May-through-August entrance fee is no reason not to swing by City Hall. The fountains and sculptures just outside the building are great entertainment for kids, and the eastern tower’s 49 carillon bells make for beautiful background music. The bells play on the hour year-round, with special concerts during the summer months.

City Hall is also where the Nobel Peace Prize is presented every year on December 10. The ceremony is invitation-only (can’t help you there), but if you stick around for the traditional torchlight parade that evening, you can catch a happy wave from the Peace Prize winner as he or she graces the Grand Hotel balcony at about 7 p.m.

And if all that doesn’t satisfy your Norwegian culture-craving, the Oslo City Museum, Armed Forces Museum, Norwegian Customs Museum, and guided tours of the Norwegian Parliament Building—all of which are free—should do the trick.

Family/Kids

The Norwegian Museum of Magic, established in 1997, shows off the history of Norwegian magicians with a large collection of posters, newspaper reviews, programs, photos, props, costumes, and all sorts of wizard-y equipment. Come on a Sunday afternoon to enjoy a mini-magic show.

While many of Oslo’s museums are free for children under the age of six, the Norwegian Maritime Museum is free for all kids under 16. An excellent waterside location, a panorama film, and a 2,200-year-old Bronze Age log boat—Norway’s oldest—will awaken the imagination of kids of all ages.

One of the best children’s playgrounds in the city is found on the grounds of Frogner Park. Better yet, the kids of Oslo are well aware that there are no rules (or gates) to prevent them from clambering all over the park’s 212 sculptures.

Time-travel to the Middle Ages when you visit Akershus Slott, a medieval castle on the coast of Oslo that was once used as a prison and is now more often a venue for picnics, military orchestra concerts, and festivals. During popular sports series, the city will sometimes install a large outdoor screen so that people can enjoy the game. On calmer days, take a walk along the stone paths that lead past castle walls and canons to a picturesque boat-filled harbor. (There is an admission charge to go inside the castle.)

In mid-May, Constitution Day is celebrated with a huge children’s parade and a performance by the royal marching band. Stick around the Royal Palace to get a glimpse of the Royal Family as they too enjoy the festivities from the palace grounds.

Bookworms

Catch up on some reading and snuggle into a bright chair while you do your laundry at Café Laundromat, a retro coffee shop with free wireless Internet, over 4,000 books (what may be the largest privately owned library in Oslo), and a good menu if you do decide to actually spend a kroner or two. They are sponsors of Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders, so why don’t we just consider that cup of cappuccino a donation?

For a slightly grander library experience, stop by the National Library of Norway and its impressive collection of literature from 14th-century legal papers to modern digital documents and every lovely Norwegian folktale in between.

The Oslo Book Festival fills the streets from Karl Johans gate to the House of Literature every year in September. If the crowd of more than 130,000 gets too overwhelming, do a little shelf-browsing at Norli, the largest bookshop in Norway, with three different locations inside the city limits.

Outdoors

Oslo may be Norway’s largest city, but not all of that space is filled with buildings. The city has dozens of parks, 40 islands, and two rivers, all positioned between rolling green hills and the bright blue waters of the Oslofjord. Take a 20-minute city bus ride to Holmenkollen, the site of the FIS World Cup ski competitions. Climb to the top of the giant ski jump to see one of the most beautiful panoramic views of Oslo, the surrounding country, and the Oslofjord.

While there, be sure to go for a walk around Sognsvann Lake or try out cross-country skiing along any one of Oslo’s numerous (and well-marked) public skiing trails. For backpackers traveling either on foot or on skis, the Oslomarka area is home to plenty of trails and 27 small hytter (cabins) often open and free of charge for an overnight’s stay. For further information, it’s best to check with the Norwegian Trekking Association.

The Oslo Kiteboarding School offers the first lesson free for anyone looking to learn kiteboarding. The school offers snowkiting and kiteboarding (either on skis, a snowboard, or a board with wheels depending on the season). Lessons take place on the Ekebergsletta, a wide plateau with a peaceful view of the city. Before you go, check their online updates to make sure there’ll be god vind (“good wind” in English).

For waterfalls, old mills, cafés, and riverside lawns, take a walk along the Aker River (Akerselva). Also called “Oslo’s green lung,” the green trails along the river are a great place to escape the city and get a breath of fresh air.

One of the best times of year for a walk along the river is in September during the autumnal equinox. For about a five-mile stretch of the Akerselva, all electric lights are turned off and replaced by 3,500 torches and candles for a torchlight Riverwalk. “Light sculptures, choirs, folk music, jazz, dance, art installations, trolls, and gnomes,” all come out to celebrate the change of seasons—a magical evening completely free of cost.

Heading back into town from your riverside stroll, cross over Akerbrua (Aker Bridge) alongside a parade of Norwegian fairy-tale characters, cast in bronze by artist Dyre Vaa. The end of the bridge leads into the Grünerløkka area, a sort of Greenwich Village of Oslo, where there are often open-air cafés, and outdoor organic markets in the summer. Here you’ll find a young crowd and lots of fun people-watching both day and night.

For greenery in the heart of the city, visit the Botanical Garden within the University of Oslo’s Natural History Museum grounds. The garden’s greenhouses were built in 1868 and 1876, and the rest of the grounds follow suit with elegant old-style gardens including the Great-granny’s Garden, a collection of heritage plants, many of which are no longer commercially available, but preserved here as a sort of breathing museum of plant history. If you’re visiting in the spring, be sure to take a walk beneath flowering trees in the Arboretum. Or in the winter, warm up in the Victoria House, designed especially for giant Amazon water lilies.

Still, there’s no need to stay indoors in the winter. Many seasonal ice skating rinks are free and open to the public, including the Narvisen Ice Skating Rink in the city center and the Frogner Stadium Ice Skating Rink in west Oslo.

Music/Theatre

National Music Day in Oslo promises 20-30 outdoor stages throughout town playing everything from rock to lullabies.

The annual VG Top 20 Live, a giant outdoor concert put on by Norway’s national broadcasting company and the VG newspaper, dubs itself “Scandinavia’s largest concert.” Visit the City Hall square in mid-June to hear the new favorite bands of the year.

For those more inclined toward Mohawks and hard rock, enjoy free admission at the Granittrock rock festival in the Lillomarka Arena in Bergensvelen where you’ll hear bands like Sound City and the Killer Clowns. The two-day festival is held in September.

On Sunday nights in the summer, the Frank Znort Quartet fills the air with jazz, bluegrass, and gypsy music outdoors at Blå. Admission is free, and you can opt to buy a lottery ticket to win a recording of the concert from the week before.

A five-minute walk from Central Station, Oslo’s Opera House is open (with free admission) seven days a week. The outer grounds are accessible all day and all night for excellent views of the city and the Oslofjord from the Opera House rooftop—and a great perspective on the ship-shaped Opera House itself, which won the 2009 EU prize for contemporary architecture. During the day, peek inside for a glimpse of stage decorations and behind-the-scenes costume projects. Inside Tip: The bathrooms here are free too, unlike the restrooms found in most other places in Oslo.

Walls of tutus and more than a hundred years of Oslovian theatrical history are free for your perusal at the Oslo Theatre Museum, housed in the 1641 Town Hall, where a group of traveling actors first performed public theater in Oslo in 1667. Catch a film or two of some of the great moments of Norwegian theater and then check out photographs, sketches, marionettes, technical equipment, and vintage posters.

More Information

For those with time to explore, the Oslo City Pass card is a great deal. Buy a pass good for 24, 48, or 72 hours and get free admission to over 30 museums and attractions, free parking, restaurant and shopping discounts, and free access to everything from swimming pools to island ferry rides. Once a year City Hall gives out cards to everyone in town for a free day of museums, transportation, and attractions.

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