Norway’s capital city, Oslo is the forgotten child of the three primary Scandinavia cities (with Stockholm and Copenhagen). Stockholm and Copenhagen have restaurants that global travelers revolve trips around. They have dynamic cultural and arts scenes. Outside of having the world’s most famous ski jump on the outskirts of town and being the site of where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded each year (of course Stockholm is where the other Nobels are handed out…), Oslo is best known for being one of the world’s best destinations to empty your wallet in record speed without even trying.
Trust me, this happened to us before we even realized we were in Oslo. A $250 USD taxi ride from the airport to the city center was a perfect introduction to the city’s best known trait. Hence, I have now coined the term, both verb and adjective, of “Osloing,” or to Oslo somebody is to charge an exorbitant fee… just because. Then shrug your shoulders.
A Big Mac in Oslo is around $8 these days. A main course at the city’s best known restaurant, Solsiden, is by all means almost always enjoyable and would go for the low to mid $20s USD in the U.S. Here, they are mid to high $50s USD. It’s the abundant oil money in Norway that everyone claims to make the prices so stratospheric (everywhere in Norway is expensive…Oslo is certainly not alone. It’s just most notable since it’s the major city). Then again, I was just in Houston and that city is no more expensive than a non-oil city, like Minneapolis.
Oil can be a reason for Oslo’s inflated prices. The real reason for Oslo’s inflated prices, which make the likes of Paris, Copenhagen, and Tokyo seem “cheap” by comparison, is because Oslo is Oslo. C’est la vie.
Oslo is not comparable for the most part to Paris’ magnificent culture, Copenhagen’s quirks, or Tokyo’s metropolitan awe. It is however a beautifully situated city with many, many redeeming reasons for a visit. The setting at the foot of the Oslo fjord can’t be beat. On the rare sunny day, being on the water or looking out on the water from Akershus Castle or the Opera House’s “roof” (more on that later). That thoroughly modern Opera House is a stunner, on par with Sydney’s for the most symbolic in the world I’d argue. The water taxi offers wonderful views back at the Opera House and the city, along with taking you to the city’s main museum housing rare Viking ships.
For art, Munch is the man, including his famed painting “the Scream” at the Munch Museum in a quiet park outside the center, or a collection of Munch at the National Gallery. The National Theatre is known around the world, as is Norway’s theatre history with Oslo being the home of Henrik Ibsen. The Theatercaféen is the see and be seen bar/cafe/restaurant of Oslo right next to the National Theatre, unfortunately closed almost all of the summer. In fact, it seemed like half of Oslo’s major restaurants are closed in the summer. But why would anybody visit during the brutally cold winter?
It’s possible to see Oslo without entirely getting “Osloed.” The National Gallery is free on Sundays (!), the hundreds of unique Gustav Vigeland sculptures in Frognerpark are free, and the subway is cheap and efficient. So are the surface street trams, which you in theory pay for (but almost never get caught if you don’t…not that I ever did this).
Being the capital, the Palace and Parliament are both here, located on the main boulevard, Karl Johans Gate, the Champs-Elysée of Oslo if you will, with far less grandeur. A great stop right next to Parliament is the Grand Café in the Grand Hotel, where Ibsen used to lunch daily, and you can find decent coffee and open faced sandwiches, and a shockingly good version of moules frites in a garlic heavy broth with fries as crisp as they should be. They even do a very acceptable riff on Pad Thai with beef involved. It’s a tourist spot that is far from a trap.
Interestingly, my most rewarding meal in Oslo was at an Italian trattoria called Popolare, in the city’s “hippest” neighborhood, Grünerlokka. There, outstanding microbrews, cocktails, and the highlight of a culinary stay in Oslo, coffee can be found.
Solsiden, along the waterfront at the foot of Akershus Castle, is the one address every guide, concierge, and website will point you to in the city. The view is breathtaking. Fortunately the seafood focused menu shines too, whether it’s a perfect pan fried arctic char with cabbage, bacon, and a not as boring as it sounds parsley butter sauce, or frieed turbot in a vividly loster flavored sauce. Strangely to me, desserts may be the real highlight. I’ve never had a more coconut-strong coconut ice cream than what came with a chocolate mousse and baked pineapple, or a lovely summer time strawberry meringue with a plate full scattering of lush strawberries and vanilla cream dollops. The only reason Solsiden took me aback was that I had reserved over a month in advance and received a faraway corner table, the worst in the house. Service lagged the whole night and not every table near a window ever had diners. Were we in Siberia because…we reserved in advance? Strange place with a magical setting and close to special cuisine.
The special destination restaurants all seem to be closed in summer of course, or at least Sundays and Mondays, the days of our visit. Maaemo is the only restaurant with two Michelin stars in the city. Bagatelle, Statholdergaarden, and Oscarsgate each have a single star. The city may not be Paris when it comes to dining, but Apent Bakeri’s breads could possibly compete with the best of France.
In the end, you’ll dine well in Oslo. It will cost you. That’s what you’ll leave remembering most. You’ll also remember that this is a first and foremost a world class city for coffee and beer. Cheers to that.
The Five Dishes of Oslo
Solsiden: Pan Fried Hake with Spinach and Ratatouille
Provence meets Norway. Unfussy, perfectly flaky fish with a robust sunny sauce.
Tjuvholmen Sjomagasin: Grilled Langoustines from Froya
A very promising young, immaculately glossy seafood restaurant, these massive langoustines are more like lobsters than the shrimp you think of. The meat tastes of the sea and is almost foie gras in texture. All the seafood here is notable. The langoustines are the stuff of legend. I don’t what it is about the waters of Froya to make the langoustines like this. It’s too bad the amateur service and the fact that 3 people were all in this 200 seat behemoth restaurant for one weekday lunch. The Sjomagasin will be the new anchor of the shiny new Tjuvholmen waterfront neighborhood (skip the Coldstone-like flavors at Paradis Ice Cream nearby).
Trattoria Popolare: Horse Carpaccio with Parmesan Reggiano and Arugula
Yes, I ate horse. It was raw horse too. The horse meat tastes…like beef with a hint of gaminess. It was also one of the best meat carpaccios I’ve ever had.
Trattoria Popolare: Spaghetti with Chili, Garlic, and Shrimp
This was the dish that made me realize Popolare is one of those cozy trattorias that we can never get tired of. A little dash of heat and the plumpest of shrimp compliment al dente spaghetti. This is how pasta should be.
Trattoria Popolare: Whole Grilled Hake
Oh how full of herbs, citrus, and tender flesh this entire fish filet was. The table devoured this down to the last skeleton. This hake makes a cafe for every fish being served in a whole preparation. It seems everything at Popolare from the caprese salad to the pastas is on par with the best of Rome or Florence, except the tiramisu. This hake stood out the most.
The Concept of Oslo: Expensive
I’m not trying to be repetitive or nasty about this. The fact is you will think multiples times per hour while in Oslo about how absurd the prices are. People aren’t joking when they say Oslo is expensive. It is.
A food concept? Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that Oslo loves its three courses meals, often prix fixe deals. It’s a bit like Paris in that regard. The small plates/tapas trend has not arrived here yet.
Cocktail of Oslo: The Trinidad Sour at Bar Boca
Wonderful drink at a wonderfully quaint and quirky bar. And…it’s reasonably priced to help even more in forgetting the rest of the city’s prices.
Shall We Grab Some Coffee?
Absolutely, without a doubt, in full agreement with The New York Times‘ Oliver Strand. Coffee cities aren’t much better than Oslo. Put it right on par with Helsinki, Portland, Oregon, Seattle, and San Francisco for charming cafes, quality baristas and local micro roasters. Tim Wendelboe’s tranquil shoebox cafe in Grünerlokka is the focal point for the city’s coffee drinkers, but Java and Mocca from Robert Thoreson of Helsinki’s famed Kaffa Roasters, give Wendelboe a run for his money. Java would be my pick for a cafe with its clean, sleek ambiance, and palpable energy near a university. It would also be my pick for pristine black coffee. Wendelboe’s elegant espresso is a magnificent lighter shot. It feels younger and brighter than most espressos, boasting toffee notes and a heady crema. It’s pretty much the perfect single espresso.
Of course you can also get either Tim Wendelboe or Kaffa espresso or coffees at the city’s most unique and quirky cafe: Bar Fuglen. Near the National Gallery, it’s a coffee bar by day and bar bar at night Thursday to Saturday. This is certainly a concept that will grab hold everywhere soon. Fuglen’s espresso is beautiful, the lackluster hot chocolate not so much.
Beer or Wine?
This is not a debate. Beer ladies and gentleman. Start with the legendary handsomely ornate Olympen Brewpub in a mostly working class forgotten neighborhood. Olympen is where traveling beer drinkers deeply ponder fascinating brews from Aegir and Nogne ø, while locals down pint after pint of the Norwegian equivalent of PBR over animated debates. Do make sure to sample pubs that brew their own beer too.
Near the National Theatre, Amundsen is more like a sports bar and crafts a terrific Nordic Warrior Double IPA and a bland pale ale. Schous in Grünerlokka is more like an underground German beer cave, featuring their superb Thunderbear Stout and Dick the Beagle Belgian Pale Ale that marries a saison with an amber.
Restaurant of Oslo: Bar Fuglen
We’re throwing a curveball here. Solsiden is the classic and Maemmo is the one hope to bring Oslo to Copenhagen and Stockholm’s dining excellence. But this is a city of coffee and it’s also a city full of young, innovative minds. The coffee by day, cocktail by night concept is brilliant, especially when it’s of this caliber. Fuglen has now opened a second branch in…Tokyo.
Symbol of Oslo: Opera House
No, the symbol is not $. This architectural masterpiece is a marvel. The roof slants down to the fjord’s water. Tourists climb all over the roof. And most importantly, I gather the indoor acoustics could rival La Scala.
And finally in conclusion…
Show time! A concert for Norwegian television on the Karl Johans Gate