Like Copenhagen, Oslo has a harbor statue, but it’s nothing like the Danes’ kitschy-cute Little Mermaid. In 2010, Norway’s Queen Sonja unveiled a jagged mass of glass and steel that looks like someone took a chain saw to I. M. Pei’s Louvre pyramid. It’s an iceberg, of course, and it’s meant to look as if it just drifted into the harbor. It sits loosely anchored, spinning at the will of Oslo Fjord’s fierce winds and tides. Love it or hate it—and there are plenty on both sides—it does a fair job of pointing toward Oslo’s brash future much the way the mermaid recalls Copenhagen’s fairy-tale past.
Everywhere you turn, there’s a tall crane adding another striking modernist monument to a city that’s always gotten much less respect than its debonair cousins, Stockholm and Copenhagen. That’s particularly true now. Noirish crime writers like Stieg Larsson, gripping TV series like The Killing and Borgen and restaurants like Copenhagen’s Noma, consistently voted the world’s best, have made Sweden and Denmark the unlikely kings of global cool. Norway? Their overlooked, slightly gawky cousin.
This is changing, and quickly. I’m looking out at the sculpture—created by Monica Bonvicini and enigmatically titled She Lies—while eating a delicious scallop bisque in the brasserie of the Oslo Opera House (Kirsten Flagstads Pl. 1; operaen.no). You may have seen photos of it, since Snøhetta, the local architecture firm that designed it, has since won a fistful of awards. Its defining feature is a wide, sloping roof that runs down to the water’s edge, making the entire structure a giant grandstand. It’s safe to say that far more visitors have climbed the roof than have ever heard a note of Verdi inside. That’s fine with everybody in Oslo, where communal solidarity counts for a lot.
The opera house, which went up in 2008, is credited with setting off Oslo’s architectural renaissance. On its left, the cranes work overtime on what is informally known as the Barcode Project: a row of coolly elegant offices and residences, some squat, some slim, that jut up from the waterfront like stripes on a bar code. This was all a working port until not very long ago. It’s no secret where the burst of energy comes from. Norway is rich with oil money, and thrifty management has made it richer still. The country’s sovereign wealth fund, the world’s largest, is now valued at $750 billion and expected to double in the next ten years. (Little Norway currently owns one percent of all the world’s stocks.)
The city is laid out around the Oslo Fjord in a kind of horseshoe pattern. Hills to the north and east make it feel a bit like an amphitheater. At center stage, of course, is the sea and the surrounding seawall, which is where much of Oslo’s feverish urban development is concentrated. For a sophisticated world capital, Oslo feels like a small town. That’s partly because it has only 613,000 residents. But it feels even smaller because it’s spread out over 175 square miles—more than four times the area of Paris—yet only about a third of that space is developed. Not far back from the steel and glass boxes on the littoral, the cozy wooden houses begin, and Oslo the world capital turns into Oslo the quaint Nordic village.
Oil is king now, and the Norwegians clearly felt it was high time for Oslo’s skyline to reflect the realignment. “In the last five years, the oil money has transformed Oslo the same way it has the Middle East, but in a more modest, Nordic kind of way. They don’t like to stick it in your eye,” says my friend Bob De Young, who’s been showing me around. De Young left Wayne, New Jersey, as a young man and wandered the world before settling down in Oslo with a Norwegian woman in the late 1970s. We walk back along the harbor promenade to the glittery mini-peninsula of Tjuvholmen, where I’m staying. The neighborhood, crisscrossed by small canals, was used until recently as a shipyard. Now it’s stacked with chic restaurants and fancy apartments. At its heart is a brand-new hotel called The Thief (rooms, from $325; Landgangen 1; 47-2/400-4000; thethief.com). The name has nothing to do with the room rates; Tjuvholmen means Thief Island, and was so named because felons were hanged there in the 18th century.
The Thief is the place to stay on the stylish waterfront. Moreover, it proves that gemütlich-chic isn’t an oxymoron. The decor is bathed in warm coppery tones; the beds are piled high with pillows—tons of pillows—and every room is equipped with a “toncho,” what you get when you cross a poncho with a travel rug. The restaurant, Fru K, is fine, too, turning out a superb version of the innovative Scandinavian fusion cuisine that has stolen the culinary limelight from the lab-coated Spaniards. Kari Innerå, Fru K’s young chef, is a locavore’s locavore. (She grew up on a farm in northern Norway.) Wanna know which goat produced the milk for that delicious Norwegian brown cheese? She’ll tell you.
But what’s most noteworthy about The Thief is what’s hanging on the walls. You know you’re in Norway when you see Henrik Ibsen with his wild muttonchops glaring at you from a portrait, but the rest of the hotel looks as if it just got back from a shopping spree at Art Basel. A giant Richard Prince cowboy looms over the lobby. A cast-iron figure by Antony Gormley grovels creepily in front of the entrance.
It turns out that Petter A. Stordalen, The Thief’s billionaire owner, picked up almost everything he needed right next door at the Astrup Fearnley Museet (Strandpromenaden 2; afmuseet.no), which has a loan arrangement with the hotel (to get in, I just showed my Thief room card). The museum is another of Oslo’s new jewels, but less for its unstartling contemporary collection than for its lovely Renzo Piano buildings, clad in beige timber beneath swooping glass roofs.
Art lovers might do better to seek out Oslo’s old guard. Forget Edvard Munch and his Scream—it’s there, of course, in case you forgot what it doesn’t sound like. For something more surprising, check out the dazzling Vigeland boys, Gustav and his brother, Emanuel. We took Oslo’s impeccable metro system 15 minutes up to Frogner Park, where Gustav has left a remarkable record of humanity in all its varied shapes and forms: more than 200 statues in bronze and fine-grained Norwegian granite on which he labored for his last 20 years. The grand theme is life with a capital L, but the playfulness and vitality drain any portentousness from his human menagerie.
Emanuel’s work is farther north, in an austere red-brick mausoleum stuck out in the Slemdal neighborhood, and it’s only open Sunday afternoons. But once your eyes adjust to the sepulchral lighting, you can see that the high-vaulted walls are crawling with human figures. Emanuel’s theme is life, too, except he spells it s-e-x. Mystical copulations abound. Skeletons make love. The pin-drop acoustics only enhance the strange vibe. (Norwegian singers love to record there.)
Back when he was still looking for something to do, De Young drifted into the restaurant business. In those early 1980s, Norwegian fine dining meant boiled cod and potatoes in goopy cream sauce. “The dominant spices were salt and pepper,” recalls De Young. He reclaimed an old brick arcade behind Oslo Cathedral from its junkie squatters and opened an outdoor café, a French bistro and a gourmet Italian restaurant. (He recently sold all three.) Today, what’s new is a homegrown food culture that no longer looks overseas for savoir faire. Last year the city got its first Michelin two-star restaurant, Maaemo (Schweigaardsgate 15b; 47/9199-4805; maaemo.no), but De Young wants to go farther afield for our meal.
Back in the hills that ring Oslo, about 15 minutes by taxi, is an old lodge built of stout timber beams. The place opened in 1927 as the catering hall for the Ringnes brewery, but it’s been through a number of incarnations since then—including serving as a radio station for the German Wehrmacht during World War II.
Since 2008, it has been the restaurant Grefsenkollen (Grefsenkollveien 100; 47-2/279-7060; grefsenkollen.no). It still looks like a good place to toast Odin with a drinking horn of mead—but the fare now is nouvelle Viking. Cod from up the coast gets truffles and crispy skin, while Norwegian scallops have picked up some pickled gooseberries and caviar. The cooking is spectacular, and we soldier on happily through the obligatory ten-course tasting menu long after hunger has been slain.
Through the window, Oslo twinkles far below. One sight stands out like the nose on Bob Hope’s face. It’s the new Holmenkollen ski jump (Kongeveien 5; holmenkollen.com), opened three years ago—a sleek swoosh of cantilevered steel, all lit up and rising 197 feet off the ground. It’s everything a dernier cri ski jump should be, with its own VIP lounge, along with a retail shop, a museum and an amphitheater. But there’s no getting around the fact that it’s a ski jump. For all its new cosmopolitan trappings, Norway remains very much Norway.
Fueled by a per-capita average of five mugs a day, Norway drinks more coffee than any country in the world, other than Finland. Here are our picks for the best cuppa for your krone.
A staple of the professional set since 1963, Fuglen is arguably Oslo’s most trusted source of daily grinds. If you’d like to mix business with pleasure, the kaffebar serves artisanal cocktails at sundown—and makes the case for a cappuccino in the morning a little more compelling. At Universitetsgaten 2; 47-2/220-0880; fuglen.com.
Overseen by Robert Thoresen—champion distiller and owner of Norway’s popular Kaffa bean company—the baristas here approach their brewing with all the exactness of a science. At Ullevålsveien 47; 47-2/246-0800.
The espresso-sized micro-roastery seats only five, allowing the award-winning Wendelboe and his apprentices an uncompromising, almost fanatical, view to quality. To enjoy the full effect of the master’s expertise, take a brewing class or attend a Saturday a.m. tasting. At Grünersgate 1; 47-/4000-4062; timwendelboe.no.
Oslo, Down to a Fine Art
Norway has been a major, if unsung, player in the art world since the 1800s, when its painters helped pave the way for German Expressionism. Just ask Renée Price, an Oslo habitué and the director of the Neue Galerie, New York’s museum of modernist German and Austrian art. Here, her favorite caches of Oslo canvases, plus a place to dine and shop between viewings.
Munch Museum: “To those who only know Edvard Munch for The Scream, the museum’s 28,000 works can be a revelation. It’s an excellent time to visit, as 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of Munch’s birth.” At Tøyengata 53; munchmuseet.no.
Munch’s Studios: “The Art Deco cottage where Munch did some of his finest work has been perfectly preserved at Ekely, the 45-acre estate he called home for nearly three decades.” At Jarlsborgveien 14; munchstudios.org.
National Museum: “This is, in a sense, Oslo’s Smithsonian. In December it reopens its popular ‘Dance of Life’ exhibit, showcasing its most prized works from antiquity to the mid-1900s.” nasjonalmuseet.no.
Kolonihagen Frogner “Reclaimed-wood tables and exposed-brick walls give the place a warm farmhouse feel. Start with the fresh-baked bread, then get the reindeer fillet—some of the most tender game I’ve ever had.” At Frognerveien 33; 47/9931-6810.
Rydeng Kunsthandel “The family-owned shop is a treasure trove of art, antiques and curiosities. From the heaps of oil paintings to the bell jars of stuffed pheasants, there’s always a discovery in store.” At Uranienborgveien 7; 47/9885-0954. —Rory Tolan