I AM STANDING AT THE EDGE OF OSLO’S WATERFRONT, looking at the construction projects going on behind the Oslo Opera House. Yanyan is a few meters away, taking pictures of the birds that approach humans at a proximity I’m not used to seeing. The opera house is an architectural marvel that has become an icon of the city in recent years, and in a way, it has typified Oslo’s rise to become a cultural powerhouse in Scandinavia.
The Opera House anchors most explorations of the waterfront, and to its west is the Akershus Festning, a walled fortress built in the medieval period as protection from attacks on the city. Exploring its labyrinths of cobblestone paths lead to magnificent viewpoints of the Oslofjord. Further west is the Aker Brygge, a seaside neighborhood of shops and restaurants, which while pricey, have lots of atmosphere. It’s also here that the famous Astrup Fearnley Museet, a private contemporary art museum, is located.
We arrived the previous night in Oslo, and as Yanyan and I explore Norway’s capital early this morning, we are sensing self-confidence that is to be expected of a city that dictates the political, cultural and economic aspects of a country, especially when that country is less renowned for its cities than its towns and villages and the fjords that surround them.
WHILE ARCHEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE SHOWS that the area that is now Oslo has been settled in by Christian tribes before 1000 AD, the city itself was founded in 1048 by King Harald Hardråde. Oslo would become the capital of Norway around 1300, but the union with Denmark would strip the city of its privileges, essentially relegating it to a provincial administrative center.
In 1624, a fire destroyed much of Oslo, prompting officials to move the city several kilometers to the west in the Akershus Festning. It was also during this time that city was rechristened Christiania in honor of Danish King Christian IV.
The “old” Oslo was largely abandoned after the fire, and only a few small settlements of low-class residents were found outside the Christiana’s borders. Christiania would then experience rapid growth in the 19th century as the capital of a new kingdom in a union with Sweden. Large areas of the old capital were incorporated into Christiana, increasing the city’s population and expanding its industry. In 1925, the city reverted its name to Oslo. Nevertheless, for all its development, Oslo was a relative backwater compared to Stockholm and Copenhagen.
It wasn’t until 1969, when oil was discovered in the North Sea that was part of Norwegian territory, that Oslo’s fortunes turned. Since then, the city – and the country by extension – has undergone constant reinvention, forging ahead to become a major enterprising and global player. The country’s largest companies started rushing into the capital, turning it into a modern jungle of concrete and glass towers. This construction boom has defined modern Oslo, particularly in the area around the Opera House.
AFTER EXPLORING THE OPERA HOUSE, Yanyan and I go to the city center, an area that is mostly insulated from the reinvention that takes place in most of Oslo. Here, neoclassical buildings from the late 19th century fill the skyline. Most notable of these is the Nasjonalgalleriet, the national museum that contains a number of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, among his other works.
Within the area as well is the Royal Palace, where the Norwegian monarch lives. The building was built in the early 19th century as the residence of the King Charles III, who ruled what was once the union of Norway and Sweden. However, for much of history, the building wasn’t used as a permanent residence until 1905, when King Haakon VII (formerly Prince Carl of Denmark) decided to move into the palace.
Other notable buildings in the area are the Oslo University, the National Theater, and the Oslo Cathedral, along with a number of bars, cafes, and restaurants serving cuisines from around the globe. Here, the cosmopolitan side of Oslo is evident.
STILL, FOR ALL ITS SELF-CONFIDENCE, Oslo remains a relaxed and amenable place that typifies the Norwegian attitude. This has partly to do with the city’s affinity to the environment. Despite the construction boom, Oslo is never far from nature, with parks dotting the city center, and the Oslofjord surrounding the outer city limits. It’s these green spaces and sites that provide a glimpse to Oslo’s past that Yanyan and I enjoy the most.
The city is replete with museums reminding locals and visitors of its history. Foremost of this is the Vikingskipshuset, a charming museum on the Bygdøy peninsula. Here, three unearthed Viking ships are on display, giving visitors some information on Viking history. Within the area are other museums detailing Norway’s love affair with the sea and exploration.
North of the city center is Vigelandsparken, a sprawling area of greenery within Frogner Park that contains the works of Gustav Vigeland, Norway’s most beloved sculptor. The most famous of these works is a towering pillar above an embankment overlooking the park, with figures of people carved into the 20-meter high granite. The structure depicts Vigeland’s vision of humanity climbing on top of each other to reach the top. It’s a deeply moving rendition of the artist’s perspective.