WITH A DARING SPIRIT AND BOTTOMLESS POCKETS, THE NORWEGIAN CAPITAL IS TURNING ITSELF INTO A DESTINATION THAT’S WORTH A DETOUR
When the Oslo Opera House opened in 2008, it seemed like a mistake. The sleek, rectilinear iceberg was a transcendent architectural achievement on the city’s waterfront, equal parts surprising and elegant. Hours might slip by as you meandered past the public-facing ateliers to watch the scenery and costumes in progress, inspected the magnificent sloping wooden dome of the concert hall and climbed on top of the roof to watch the Italian marble blocks reflect the ethereal Norwegian light. Once you finally descended from the reverie and turned toward the rest of the city, the contrast was so stark that you couldn’t help wondering, why here?
Oslo back then was a shabby, haphazard capital, the urban backwater of a nation whose soul belonged to the countryside. The city was where transactions happened – and little else. Many of those transactions, of course, were for astonishing sums, even amid the economic doldrums of the day, thanks to the oil that still accounts for nearly one-fifth of Norway’s GDP and has helped the country amass the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world, now worth $1.1 trillion. But Oslo, the rusticated heir of this great fortune, was a disappointment, all blemishes and little beauty.
Twelve years later, the city has changed dramatically. Oslo will never be Paris or Prague: it simply doesn’t have the historic bones. But being nouveau riche in the 21st century has allowed the Norwegian capital to push the envelope further than older metropolises could ever dream, embracing daring urban development projects that are transforming the city into a forward-thinking showpiece worthy of the global spotlight it’s about to receive.
The headliners right now are the new culture institutions – three of them, all opening within a year. “We are spending more than one billion dollars on these buildings: the library, the Munch Museum and the National Museum,” says Christian Lunde, the managing director of Visit Oslo, with evident pride. His position as an advocate for the city requires him to be optimistic, so his enthusiasm is not surprising, but on the unseasonably warm January day when we spoke, Lunde is positively glowing. “That just covers the architecture,” he continues, “and it’s all public money!”
There’s a saying that wealth only lasts three generations: the first fills the coffers, and the next two empty them. Norway is entering its third generation of having money, but it seems poised to break the mould. Stein Olav Henrichsen, the director of the Munch Museum, has been there from the beginning. “When I grew up in Oslo in the 1960s, we had two shipyards in the centre of the city, and it was a very dull place,” he says. “Nothing happened in the evenings.” The discovery of oil in the North Sea brought money, but not an overnight transformation. Indeed, even at the turn of the millennium, says Henrichsen, the city barely seemed European – an opinion shared by many of Oslo’s cosmopolitan class.
“The last decade has been incredible,” Henrichsen enthuses. “We’ve had a lot of parallel developments, and different parts of the city have developed their own personalities.” Investment, he says, has been carefully considered, so that, for instance, the once-undesirable side of the harbour around the Opera House is now home to a series of recent, dovetailing developments: the selfie-friendly library, entirely free from right angles; the luxe Amerikalinjen hotel, a high-concept charmer; the aesthetically daring Barcode district, named for its tall, thin, monochromatic buildings; a sprawling residential neighbourhood still in progress; and Henrichsen’s new Munch Museum, a 13-storey, 26,313sq m titan dedicated entirely to Norway’s most famous artist, Edvard Munch.
Because the new projects all fit together so well, it would be hard to see the spending as wanton. Norway is one of the Western world’s few countries where Millennials are wealthier than their parents were at the same age – and decision-makers across the city are intent on continuing this upward mobility for generations to come. “My kids won the lottery by being born here,” says Lunde. “We all want to make sure that our kids and their kids can flourish.” Part of that continued growth is attracting visitors, an ambition Henrichsen frames by way of a comparison: “Last year, the same number of people visited Oslo from abroad as visited the National Museum of Scotland – we have enormous potential for growth.”
Destination architecture has a chequered history, but Norway has a special relationship to contemporary aesthetics. The country’s most beloved studio, Snøhetta, which created Oslo’s Opera House, is to architecture what Copenhagen’s Noma is to restaurants: the Nordic forerunner of a global trend. Where Noma took locavore cuisine to the next level, Snøhetta has replaced the modernist dictum “form follows function” with the 21st-century tagline “form follows environment”.
Standout architectural projects are evident across the country, from Snøhetta’s recently opened Under, an underwater restaurant-cum-marine research centre at the country’s southern tip, to The Twist, a river-spanning art museum by the Bjarke Ingels Group whose name derives from its mindbending shape. And in Oslo, too, architecture takes centre stage, not only at the trio of new openings, but at, among others, the Astrup Fearnley Museet, a Renzo Piano-designed contemporary art space with a wooden façade and glass roof that sits at the picturesque edge of the waterfront.
Elsewhere in the city, the indigenous propensity for the unexpected is everywhere: the Oslo Philharmonic, which just celebrated its centenary, will introduce its new 24-year-old chief conductor, Klaus Mäkelä, in August. Or consider the Oslofjord, where individual floating sauna cabins are available to rent by the hour, and you are encouraged to cool off by jumping from the roofs into the now-pristine harbour water. Meanwhile, the city’s newest Michelin star comes by way of a Russian-born, Korean-origin sushi chef, Vladimir Pak, whose eponymous restaurant is an extraordinary fusion all his own and has become the second-hardest table to book in town – behind only Maaemo, which had three stars for years and is also taking a risk itself by moving to a new location this year.
Perhaps surprisingly, the least-daring industry in Oslo is hospitality. It’s almost as if locals can’t quite believe that savvy travellers wouldn’t rather overnight out among the forests and fjords. Innovation here, in fact, is concentrated in just one person, Siri Løining. Working on behalf of billionaire hotelier Petter Stordalen and his Nordic Choice Hotel Group, she developed The Thief and Amerikalinjen and is now working on the forthcoming Sommerro. This trio of properties has what Løining describes as “a local perspective with international flair”. She aspires “not just to create content, but context” – which is a pretty apt description of Oslo itself at the moment. It is designing a city for the Norway of the future, one building at a time.
THE OSLO SHORTLIST
WHERE TO STAY
Nowhere beats The Thief (thethief.com), which is art-filled and glam-forward and where most of the Nobel Peace Prize glitterati stay when they come for the annual ceremony. Sister property Amerikalinjen (amerikalinjen.com), which opened in 2019 in the former HQ of the Norwegian America Line, has more of a laidback vibe, attracting locals too in its bustling location next to the main rail station. For something completely different, try Camilla’s Hus (camillashus.no), a beautifully restored seven-key throwback to the 19th century run by the wonderful Mario De Sousa Rego.
WHERE TO EAT
Once it opens in its new setting, Maaemo (maaemo.no) is sure to return to its Michelin three-star form, and similarly exquisite meals can be had at Omakase by Vladimir Pak (omakaseoslo.no), French star À L’aise (alaise.no) and Kontrast (restaurant-kontrast.no). More casual at the table but impressively serious in the kitchen are Galt (galt.no) and the forthcoming The Tea Room (imperialoslo.com), the new project from a pair of Maaemo alums, whose wine bar, Imperial, is another must-visit.
WHERE TO DRINK
Coffee is a passion in the city, especially in the hip Grünerløkka district, home to Supreme Roastworks (srw.no), where multiple baristas have won international awards, and Fuglen (fuglen.no), which has another location downtown and three in Japan. As the day progresses, stop by Håndslag (haandslag.no) or Kutlurhuset (kulturhusetioslo.no) – both on Youngs Gate – for a laidback beer or glass of wine. And in the evenings Himkok (himkok.no) and Nedre Løkka (nedrelokka.no) serve up the city’s best cocktails, each pairing them with atmospheric decor.
WHERE TO SEE ART AND ARCHITECTURE
Walk atop, through and around the Opera House (operaen.no) – and book tickets for an opera or ballet if you’re there in season – before going across the street to snap a photo in the one-of-a-kind new public library (deichman.no). A literal stone’s throw away is the Munch Museum (munchmuseet.no), which, when it opens in the autumn, will house the 28,000 works of Edvard Munch that you didn’t know existed (The Scream is only the start) as well as visiting exhibitions by contemporary artists. For more contemporary art, the Astrup Fearnley Museet (afmuseet.no) is the country’s leading repository– some pieces of which are lent to the neighbouring hotel, The Thief, which welcomes the public – and Ekebergparken (ekebergparken.com) is a standout sculpture park offering a breath of fresh air high above the city. The coming National Museum (nasjonalmuseet.no), will be the largest art museum in Scandinavia when it opens in 2021, and for a taste of pre-wealth Oslo, the beguiling Kunstnernes Hus (kunstnerneshus.no) features a muralled staircase dating from the 1930s, but the exhibitions are cutting-edge – from international contemporary artists – and the café is always buzzing.