Once an afterthought, the Norwegian capital is following in the footsteps of Copenhagen and Stockholm—and coming into its own.
By Micha van Dinther
May 07, 2018
On the map of Scandinavia, Oslo has long occupied a parenthesis: an afterthought of a city, there but not worthy of much mention. A flyover town thought of as neither beautiful nor intriguing, with a low-built urban center that was completely cut off from the fjord by a web of highways and clusters of gritty industrial plants, the Norwegian capital has often been overshadowed by its headline-grabbing neighbors—Stockholm’s historic grandeur and Copenhagen’s hipster cred always seem to one-up what locals call the “Tiger City” at every turn.
But, as the Hans Christian Andersen story goes, even ugly ducklings can grow to become swans. Oslo’s metamorphosis happened seemingly overnight in the spring of 2008, with the opening of the city’s opera house, a giant glistening iceberg that appeared to emerge from the cool waters of the Oslo fjord. Designed by then-unknown architectural firm Snøhetta, 36,000 individually cut slabs of white Carrara marble covered the auditorium, creating a visual that was impossible for the world to ignore. King Harald is said to have described it as the country’s biggest cultural event since the completion of the Romanesque-meets-Gothic Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim—and that was in 1300. Scandinavia was dazzled. The swan had arrived.
Ten years on, development in every sector has transformed Oslo beyond recognition. As one of the wealthiest and fastest growing cities in Europe, and with one of the youngest populations, it has shaken off its Nordic modesty for good. Gone are the days when the Law of Jante, a cultural compass that aimed to suppress individual success in favor of a level playing field, had the nation in a suffocatingly tight grip. Sure, Jante still lives on to a certain degree, but it doesn’t saturate society to the same withering effect that it once did.
Each of my visits to the city has been ripe with new discoveries: scaffolding that hints at the sleek new building beneath it, a once-abandoned storefront that is being converted to a hip boutique or eatery, or an up-and-coming designer who, for the first time, is showcasing his or her work at the emerging Oslo Design Fair.
Fueled by Norway’s vast oil wealth, the Harbor Promenade is now Oslo’s pride and joy, dotted with new restaurants, bars, and museums that are turning neighborhoods like Bjørvika, Tjuvholmen, and Aker Brygge into stylish places to live, work, and play. Meanwhile, the now iconic opera house will soon be joined by a new Munch Museum, a National Museum, and a public library designed by local firm Lund Hagem.
Amid all the urban renewal, Oslo also remains more connected to nature than most metropolises. Dubbed the Blue-Green City for its location between a fjord and a national park, it inspires Norwegians to jump at the chance to escape for a boat ride, a hike, or skiing. Of course, when that seems like too much effort, Oslo-ites are known to take the lazy way out: they dip into the Oslo fjord right from the steps of the opera house. Architecture doesn’t get more ecofriendly than that.
Although run-of-the-mill business hotels can be found in abundance there, Oslo has long lacked the type of stylish havens one would expect from a modish Scandinavian capital. That may soon be a thing of the past thanks to several high-profile projects on the horizon. In March 2019, Clarion will have completed its renovation of The Hub, an 810-room behemoth located next to Oslo Central Station, and the recently finished Barcode Project—a redevelopment on former docklands—will see the opening of another Clarion hotel around the same time.
Until then, the Thief reigns as the city’s standout stay. Located on Tjuvholmen (Norwegian for “thief islet”), a waterfront area formerly inhabited by bandits and outlaws, the nine-story property is the brainchild of larger-than-life Norwegian hotelier Petter A. Stordalen. With a price tag of $93 million, the cost of the Mellbye Architects build exceeds that of any other hotel in Scandinavia, and that’s before factoring in the valuable collection of original art. Local interior designer Anemone Wille Våge’s gold-accented palette of muted hues, heavy drapery, and lush carpets strays from the typical neutrals of Scandinavian design, taking cues from moody French designer Jean-Michel Frank and classic Riva yachts (the hotel has its own Riva to take for a spin on the Oslo fjord).
Another surprising departure from the pared-down Scandinavian aesthetic, also outfitted by Wille Våge, is Christiania Teater. Situated in a 1917 post-modern Nordic Renaissance building, near the National Theatre, it saw a major overhaul in 2016 that introduced playhouse motifs: deep jewel tones, dramatic lighting, and movie house–style wallpaper.
On Parkveien 31, the former private residence of author and women’s rights activist Camilla Collet offers a more authentic experience. Housed in an 1845 building, each of Camillas Hus’s seven suites and rooms were individually appointed by interior architect Tine Ramstad, with tiled baths, classical furnishings, and a palette worthy of a Norwegian sunset.
Restaurants and Bars
As in the rest of Scandinavia, gastronomy has always occupied a sad chapter in the nation’s past, with Norway’s inhabitants looking to the Mediterranean for their culinary kicks. Norwegian staples such as pinnekjød (rack of lamb), brunost (brown cheese) and fresh game and seafood had never gotten a fair appraisal. That was until the New Nordic food movement swept across the entire region.
At Maaemo, the first Scandinavian restaurant to receive three Michelin stars (alongside Danish restaurant Geranium), head chef Esben Holmboe Bang takes diners on a journey through the rough and rugged Norwegian landscape inside a spare black-and-white space. Following a strict protocol of locally sourced, organic, and biodynamic ingredients, dishes—such as the signature rømmegrøt (sour cream porridge, served with shavings of reindeer heart and brown-butter ice cream)—are prepared in a glass-walled kitchen that hovers over the dining room, a dramatic spiral staircase its sole mode of connection.
While the dining scene is notorious for wallet-killing prices—a meal at Maaemo is sure to set you back several hundred dollars—there are stellar inexpensive options for those who know where to look . At Kontrast, Swedish chef Mikael Svensson plays with local ingredients such as whitefish roe, langoustines, brown cheese, and lingonberries in contemporary six- or ten-course menus. The inventiveness feels all the more revelatory set against the simple elegance of its surroundings, an intimate dining room marked by concrete floors, warm wood tables, and matte-black lighting. Galt, run by five young chefs with experience from several highbrow restaurants, is this year’s rising star. The well-plated dishes, inspired by traditional Norwegian home-cooked meals, earned the restaurant its first Michelin star after just six months in business.
Near the Majorstuen area, Fyr Bistronomi is another example of a kitchen in which up-and-coming chefs are challenging the constraints of fine dining and rebelling against the astronomical price tags that come with it. Here, Sebastian Myhre presents a humbler, more convivial type of fare, using a Josper grill as his preferred cooking utensil. Well-worn brick, plants, and red mesh overlays line the space, which attracts a lively crowd that makes the trek across town for quality wines, grilled skrei (cod), and Scandinavia’s version of the cronut: bread-on-a-stick croissants with blueberries and syrup.
Locals are increasingly seeking out exotic flavors. The culinary trend of the year: Asian cuisine, with concepts popping up around town. Named after a character in the classic Norwegian novel Sult, by Knut Hamsun, Happolati occupies the ground floor of an 1872 building that once housed the National Hospital. Local design practice Anderssen & Voll outfitted the light-filled space with blond-wood tables and chairs, ribbed-pine screens, Jaimee Hayon’s “Formakami” paper lanterns, and origami-inspired pieces that seem to jump off the stark white walls. After extensive travels to the hidden corners of the eastern and northern hemispheres, chef Rune Bjørneng gathered material for an Asian-Nordic fusion menu featuring noodle soup, halibut tartar, and a picture-perfect dessert box filled with caramelized bao buns, several types of ice cream, and two petite bottles of chocolate cream and lemon curd.
As with its Scandinavian brethren, cocktail culture is alive in well in Oslo, with craft-distillery and bar Himkokleading the pack by applying the same principles of Nordic dishes to the glass. The distillery’s own aquavit, gin, and vodka serve as a base for experimental cocktails that incorporate unexpected ingredients like seaweed, horseradish, and licorice. For drinks with a view, head to Radisson Blu Scandinavia and the 21st-floor Summit. Conceived by Snøhetta, the bar sits before a perforated brass sheet featuring the silhouette of a mountaintop and has various levels of seating, an effect that gives patrons a sense of sipping cocktails on an alpine peak.
There’s no sense in coming to Norway without sampling its its finest local resource: coffee. Oslo is on the forefront of the third-wave coffee movement, as proved by World Barista Champion Tim Wendelboe, who has grown his eponymous empire to include a 17-acre Colombian coffee plantation, a micro-roastery, a training center, and a much-lauded espresso bar. Coffee shop by day, cocktail bar by night, Fuglen is another hit, where cortados are served in a living room–like space appointed with midcentury Norwegian design objects, all of which are for sale. Oslo’s smallest coffee shop is also its most exclusive. At Talor & Jørgen, run by Australian roaster and pastry chef Talor Browne and barista Jørgen Hansrud, the queues are so long for the onsite roasted java and handmade donuts that a membership with weekly bean deliveries has become one of the city’s most cherished services.
In Socialist-minded Norway, a debate rages regarding the privatization of public spaces. The 63-acre sculpture park Ekebergparken, which remains open 24 hours a day and is free of charge, debuted to much controversy in 2013 when Norwegian business man, art collector, and philanthropist Christian Ringnes reportedly spent nearly $50 million in private funds to restore the then-deteriorating 120-year-old municipal park. Four years on, the heated arguments seem to have cooled, likely because of the impressive collection. Here, 37 works of art (with 43 more to be installed before the park is completed)—including work by classic masters such as Rodin and Salvador Dalí and contemporary stars like James Turrell, Dan Graham, Elmgreen & Dragset, and Marina Abramovic—sit along gravel paths, undoubtedly making Ekebergparken one of the world’s most high-culture dog walks.
Another point of admiration: the park has been identified as the backdrop of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” The 1910 tempera on cardboard piece is currently on display at the Munch Museum, but it will find a new home once construction is complete on Lambda, a larger cultural institution dedicated to the expressionist painter and printmaker. The vertical, glass-dominated structure, designed by Spanish firm Herrero Arquitectos, is set to open to the public in 2019 or 2020, and is currently being erected next to the Oslo Opera House. The angular roof will complement the opera house’s horizontal structure—which, since its inauguration in 2008, has become to the city what the Statue of Liberty is to New York—a striking emblem in the new harbor area that symbolically reconnects Oslo with the sea.
A little farther downstream lies the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, a space that, despite having been sponsored by the Thief hotel, somehow escaped controversy. Instead, the Renzo Piano–designed structure and the modern art within its walls were described by hometown newspaper Dagbladet as “ripping the lid off Pandora’s box.” The collection, which is concentrated on individual works and artists rather than movements and historical periods, is supplemented with rotating exhibitions by internationally renowned artists such as Takashi Murakami, and Cindy Sherman.
Many of Oslo’s independent galleries are artist-run, which encourages an environment that is less conventional and commercial than usual. The gutsiest is VI, VII, founded in 2012 by writer and artist Esperanza Rosales, in a 1930s building that was revamped with marble and concrete by designer Andreas Engesvik and architect John Roa Luna. The name—pronounced “sixes and sevens”—is a metaphor for the gallery’s bold approach. It has shown avant-garde work, including Eva LeWitt’s first-ever solo show, earlier this year. The stark white Galleri Riis, which focuses on regional contemporary art, has positioned itself as one of Scandinavia’s most influential collections, as evidenced by its expansion to Stockholm.
Not to be outdone, the Vigelandshould top any art lover’s list. Located in the former studio and home of sculptor Gustav Vigeland, the museum showcases his portraits and monuments, as well as plaster models for the more than 200 sculptures in bronze, granite, and cast iron found in the adjacent park. Sometimes referred to as Penis Park—Vigeland’s “The Monolith” is a 46-foot-tall phallic sculpture consisting of 121 intertwined human figures—the public garden gets more than one million annual visitors, who will no doubt make their way to the Kleihues + Schuwerk–designed National Museum when it opens as one of Europe’s largest museums in 2020.
Like Oslo’s art world, the fashion scene there is more isolated than that of Sweden and Denmark, developing its own peculiarities and takes on Scandinavian minimalism. A new generation of designers is boldly stepping forward, and Oslo Runway, the country’s version of Fashion Week, continues to grow. The city’s distinct style is most pronounced on the streets. In Grünnerløkka, the neighborhood’s youthful inhabitants don a look that combines sportswear, vintage, and high fashion. The aesthetic has been elevated internationally thanks to Skam (“shame”), a racy, true-to-life television series that follows a group of teenagers as they navigate sexuality, race, religion, and friendship. Grünnerløkka boutiques such as Ensemble,Dapper, and concept store F5 are all advocates for Scandi street style, showcasing local brands such as Avenue, ESP, Clean, Haikw, and Moe Oslo. The most impressive space has to be the Snøhetta-designed YME Universe, which spans three floors on the city’s famous pedestrian street Karl Johans Gate and draws on Norse mythology to mimic the clashing of fire and ice through its décor.
Over in Barcode, Faust, founded by Álvaro Miranda in 2016, supplies the sartorially polished with ready-to-wear and handmade shoes. Open by appointment only, the tiny space, also by Snøhetta, pays homage to the Mudejar architecture of the city of Cordova, home to the world’s first guild of cordwainers.
Being a late bloomer has its advantages. In Denmark, and to a certain degree in Sweden, the design scene is often accused of being stuck in an Egg chair, the influence of midcentury greats such as Arne Jacobsen and Finn Juhl stifling the next wave of talent. With no prior design heritage to take into account, Norway has been able to forge its own path. At last year’s design fairs in Milan, London, and Stockholm, the new work presented by Norwegians seemed to be gaining momentum. “It’s in a very exciting phase,” says Andreas Engesvik who, at only 47, is one of the few “elders” of the Norwegian industry. “We are seeing a huge increase in young designers working internationally. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the brands and manufacturers to back us up, so working abroad is a necessity.”
But there is hope. The annual Oslo Design Fair is showing great potential, and stylists such as Kråkvik & d’Orazio and Per Olav Sølvberg are instrumental in spreading the word. Kollekted By, a corner store owned and run by Kråkvik & d’Orazio, is a must-visit and a great place to pick up the latest pieces by hot names, including tableware by Bjørn van den Berg, furniture by Anderssen & Voll, and lighting by Kneip. Give it a few more years. Oslo’s design scene is gaining momentum—it won’t be too long before it rivals Copenhagen’s.
Four Oslo Insiders Share Their Go-To Spots
Kråkvik & d’Orazio Stylist duo and owners of interior store Kollekted By
“We like to start our day with coffee and freshly baked pastries at Kulturhuset, in the center of town. The cultural meeting spot attracts all kinds of people and is a great place to plan the rest of the day. Shoot Gallery showcases interesting contemporary photography, while Galleri Riis, in Aker Brygge, is one of our most important spots for contemporary art. For shopping, F5 stocks a selection of the best Oslo has to offer in fashion; Norway Says carries Norwegian design and crafts, Kuratert is great for clothing, scents, and design, Tronsmo has a good selection of books, and Articles by EAM makes their own leather details. Art dealer Rydeng, run by Najet Rydeng, has the most gorgeous items.”
Grete Sivertsen Creative director of Oslo Design Fair and founder of experimental hub Edited
A visit to Oslo should include a walk along the fjord, as well as a show and a stroll on the roof of the opera house. I almost feel like I’m on a snow-covered mountain when walking on the white marble. Check out the majestic Vigeland Park and, if the weather permits, head over to Sørenga seawater pool for a refreshing dip. I like to start my days at Kulturhuset, a meeting place for creatives and freelancers, followed by a walk in the botanical garden in the Tøyen neighborhood. Nedre Foss Gård and newly opened Nemesis are favorite spots for dinner; for a glass of wine I head to Territoriet. You should also catch a ferry from Aker Brygge to the islands outside Oslo, Hovedøya and Lindøya being my favorites. They’re as beautiful in winter as in summer.”
Bjørn van den Berg Designer
“The area around Torgata, where I have my studio office, is filled with places to grab a bite—tacos, burgers, ramen, kebab—as well as fashion stores, bike shops, bars, and clubs. Many creatives work in the area, which is located right next to Grünerløkke, Oslo’s version of Williamsburg. But Oslo’s proximity to nature is unique. During winter, the city’s busses and trams are filled with people carrying cross-country skis on their way to Oslomarka recreational area. Architect Arne Korsmo designed Villa Stenersen, the former private residence of art collector and finance businessman Rolf E. Stenersen, in 1939. May through November, it opens to the public on Sundays—visit it for the gorgeous palette of colors, the special light, and the style of architecture that gives me Le Corbusier vibes. The Emanuel Vigeland Museum, the mausoleum of Gustav Vigeland’s younger artist brother, is dark, spooky, and filled with dramatic frescos. One of the city’s great little spots is Standard, a small gallery for contemporary art run by Eivind Furnesvik. It showcases the work of up-and-coming artists such as Gardar Eide Einarsson, Ann Cathrin November Høibo, and Matias Faldbakken.