Many travel guides relegate Oslo to a mere jumping-off point for other Norwegian adventures– flying into its international airport and connecting right away to other destinations, like the Norway in a Nutshell tour, Bergen, the awe-inspiring Lofoten Islands, Tromsø, or Trondheim, among others. Oslo winters can seem especially uninviting, with bare trees and icy sidewalks, and the city has the reputation of being gray, gritty, and boring.
While we heartily agree that no trip to Norway is complete without visiting the majestic Geirangerfjord, or any combination of the country’s seemingly-infinite natural wonders… skipping Oslo is a big mistake!
Oslo is absolutely worth visiting for a few days. Like other European capitals, it is bursting with urban art; a combination of decorative, edgy, and whimsical architecture; world-class museums; and inventive cafés. It definitely has a more “hipster” vibe than other European metropolitan centers, but also that distinctly Scandinavian chic appeal that will have you eager to return to the city again and again. As for us, we would move there tomorrow!
While the Oslo winter season can definitely be quite frosty (layer up, folks!) we would argue that shoulder season is one of the best times to visit, to avoid crowds, find total steals on lodging, and have the snowy city largely to yourself.
Relatedly, we found Oslo (and Norway in general) to be a bit cheaper than its Danish and Icelandic counterparts. While Scandinavia is definitely in our top 3 regions to explore (and always will be… it’s just so majestic!) we were relieved to find that Oslo was easier to “shoestring” than other cities like Copenhagen.
With that said, read on for everything you need to know to plan your perfect Oslo winter visit– and why you should prioritize a few days in Oslo while you’re in Norway.
Oslo Top 5
- Walk up to the roof of the majestic Oslo Opera House, located right next to the Oslo central train station. Afterward, take a stroll down the Karl Johan Street, a shopping street nearby and Oslo’s “main street.”
- Watch the changing of the guard at the Royal Palace, located at the end of Karl Johan Street.
- Explore the bizarre (and, to be honest, pretty creepy) sculptures at the Vigeland Sculpture Park, located inside the larger Frogner Park, central Oslo’s largest park.
- Step into history at the Akershus Fortress, which dates to medieval times and has extensive grounds to explore, and stroll along the Akerselva River walking path, for chic warehouses-turned-shops and serene river views.
- Oslo has a museum for everyone– from the Viking Museum, to the Norwegian National Gallery and the Edvard Munch Museum, to the Kon-Tiki Museum, dedicated to Thor Heyerdahl’s epic raft journey from the 1940s, including his boat and maps.
Getting There, Staying There:
You will likely arrive in Oslo via its international airport, Oslo Gardermoen (OSL.) The airport is excellent– very Scandinavian-looking with its clean lines, minimalist architecture, and lots of glass.
There are a variety of ways to get into the center of the city from the airport, including by bus, taxi, train, etc. The easiest way is definitely the fabulous Flytoget airport express train, which departs from the airport every 10 or so minutes. It’s a high-speed train, and only takes about 20 minutes to get to the central train station in Oslo.
This train was our first introduction to Norway, and wow… we were impressed. It’s borderline-luxuriously comfortable– with reclining seats, Wifi, bathrooms, and lots of space for luggage– and it was really easy to find, board, and acquire tickets. It always departs from Track 3, and you truly can’t miss it. The downside is that the regular adult fare is quite pricey— 200 NOK (or about 20 USD.) Students and 16-20 year olds ride for half that amount, and we made sure to show our student IDs to get the student price. However, compared to the price of taking a taxi, the train is almost always a no-brainer.
When we arrived at the Oslo central train station, it was a short walk to where we were staying, an Airbnb in the Grünerløkka neighborhood. We definitely recommend this neighborhood– it’s super walkable, really hip and popular, and located right by the river. You can walk to the downtown areas like Karl Johan Street really easily, and the Airbnbs were really economical (45-60 USD per night for a shared space.) We loved our hosts, Magne and Lisbeth, and their fluffy, snuggly kitties!
Your Oslo Winter Guide:
There’s plenty to cover in a few days in Oslo, and you can customize an itinerary stretching anywhere from a day to a week in this fantastic city. We’ve prepared a sample 3-day itinerary below, but this can be compressed into 2 days or stretched into 4 or 5, depending how much time you have.
Start out your visit in Oslo at the central train station. This hub will not only serve as a great guiding star for you as you venture around the city, but is literally a straight line to the Royal Palace and Karl Johan shopping street.
The train station has a pretty sizable grocery store, which is great for stocking up on snacks, Freia chocolate (a must-try, either in grocery stores or from its storefront on Karl Johan Street), and anything else you may need.
Next to the train station, check out the Oslo Opera House, a majestic glass-and-Carrara marble venue that seems like its rising out of the water. You can climb onto the roof (it’s allowed, we promise!) to see views of the Oslofjord, and it’s a great photo spot due to the cool ways light reflects off of it and its many planes and angles. There is a neat floating sculpture called “She Lies” (below right), by Italian artist Monica Bonvicini.
From there, venture down Karl Johan Street and its surrounding connecting streets, perhaps stopping in for a coffee or a glass of wine at the Grand Café, and meander along, doing some window-shopping or admiring the architecture. You’ll see the Norwegian Parliament building, the Stortinget; the National Theatre; portions of the Oslo Cathedral and the University of Oslo; and walk through Eidsvolls plass, the “National Mall” of Oslo, whose Spikersuppa pond doubles as a fantastic ice skating rink in the winter.
There are loads of cafés, restaurants, boutiques, and more to peek into here, many of which are pretty upscale and pricey, but well-worth exploring!
As we mentioned above, if you’re visiting in the winter time, you’re in for a special treat– Oslo, like many other European cities, has Christmas markets! While not as famous as their counterparts in Vienna or Strasbourg, Oslo’s Christmas markets bring a distinctly Scandinavian flair, and feel like you’re inside a snow globe.
There are 2 options for Christmas markets this time of year– the outdoor Jul i Vinterland (pictured below), which is right by the Royal Palace, and the indoor-outdoor Julemarked, on nearby Youngstorget Street. You should absolutely pop into both! Jul i Vinterland has fires to sit and warm up by, a Ferris Wheel, and stalls to try traditional Norwegian Christmas goodies, like toasted almonds and juleglogg, a seasonal mulled wine drink, served hot. Both markets are great places to shop for gifts like ornaments, knitwear, and more.
Try to time your visit to the Royal Palace with the changing of the guard ceremony. Built in the early 1800s, this still serves as the full-time residence of the Norwegian royal family today. The Royal Palace marks the terminus of Karl Johan Street, and is surrounded by Palace Park and Palace Square, both of which are lovely to walk around.
The changing of the guard ceremony takes place every day at 1:30 PM sharp, regardless of the weather. It’s easy to secure a good vantage point– just arrive a few minutes early and stake out a place near the doors to see for yourself!
Look closely at the photo below. If you notice that there are no walls or fences around the palace, you’d be correct. We were pretty astonished to see how accessible it was to visitors! If you visit in the summertime, you can take tours of the inside of the palace, which are free.
Start your morning at the Akershus Fortress, a medieval fortress and palace complex. It’s unclear when exactly construction began, but it is thought to be somewhere in the 1290s, with it mentioned in royal correspondence beginning in 1300. Through history it has served as a royal residence, the seat of the county of Akershus, a prison, and the Prime Minister’s office.
While visiting the fortress and palace, you can also check out the Royal Mausoleum, the Norwegian Armed Forces Museum, and the Norwegian Resistance Museum, all located on the grounds. Note that it is free to walk around the fortress, but entrance to the palace complex costs 70 NOK (about 13 USD), and the museums also have entrance fees. We decided not to enter the museums or the palace, but did spend a lot of time exploring the fortress and grounds, which are beautiful and really fascinating to learn about.
Once you’re finished exploring the fortress, spend some time strolling along the Akerselva River. One of Oslo’s most famous coffeeshops is right near here– the sleek Tim Wendelboe micro-roastery, a bucket list destination for coffee aficionados from all over the world. There is an 8-kilometer walking path along the river that is absolutely fantastic to do in whole or in part, and there are lots of cute bridges featuring characters from fairytales, charming wooden constructions, and a multitude of options to stop for snacks or a meal.
In the afternoon. visit the Vigeland Sculpture Park inside the larger Frogner Park. You can go ice skating here as well, if you didn’t have a chance to go at the Christmas market.
Vigeland Park is actually the world’s largest sculpture park comprised of works from one artist— with 200 pieces by Gustav Vigeland, which he worked on feverishly from 1924 to 1943 and bequeathed to the city of Oslo. To be totally honest, we weren’t huge fans of the sculptures. A lot of them were pretty creepy, like “Man Attacked by Babies”! But exploring around the park and comparing the variety of strange works is absolutely one of the must-do activities in Oslo, and Frogner Park itself is gorgeous.
Formerly a manor belonging to Hans Jacob Scheel, a Norwegian general, the park started out as a much less ambitious baroque garden, which eventually grew to become the park. The manor house is still standing today, and is home to the Oslo Museum.
We read a lot of guides describing Oslo as “gritty,” “grungy,” “punk-rock,” and the like– all seeming to be euphemisms for calling it ugly.
While the graffiti/street art scene may not be for everyone (no judgment, we’ve been known to be slightly inclined towards Neoclassical architecture ourselves!) it’s a shame that most guides don’t explore Oslo’s softer side, because not only does it definitely exist… but it’s super cute!
The neighborhood we stayed in, Grünerløkka, definitely leaned into the “punk rock” aesthetic, with its cool-kid vibe, boxy architecture, and very hipster café scene. Other neighborhoods, like the recently-revitalized Aker Brygge, opted for sleek and modern, with lots of glass accents.
On our last day in Oslo, we wanted to seek out its more traditional or old-school architecture styles, and we have a few places to recommend.
- Damstredet: a mere 160 meters in length, this charming, cobblestoned street was once a shantytown, but today the early 19th century homes are adorable remnants of times gone by. Be sure to visit the Vår Frelsers cemetery near here, the final resting place of Norwegian greats like Henrik Ibsen and Edvard Munch.
- Nearby, Telthusbakken is a bit bigger (about 300 meters) and filled with wooden houses, some of which date back to the 18th century. Check out the medieval Gamle Aker church and nearby gardens, and of course take a stroll along the Kjærlighetsstien, or “Love Trail.”
- Two neighborhoods to check out for swankier architecture, considered Oslo’s “suburbia,” are Frogner and Majorstuen. Known for being “posh,” this is where you’ll see a lot of larger standalone houses, with different architectural styles dating back to the 19th century or before. The proximity to Frogner Park is a definite plus, and these are some of the highest property values in the city.
If you’re feeling a bit touristy, check out the Mathallen Food Hall in the Vulkan area, which features 30 stalls’ worth of traditional Norwegian fare, from cheese to ice cream and beyond. For something a bit more local, check out Hendrix Ibsen across the way– the first coffeeshop in Oslo to offer nitro coffee and a neighborhood institution and hangout.
We could gush about Oslo forever, and absolutely recommend spending a few days here prior to (or after!) embarking on your other Norwegian adventures. We hope you enjoyed our Oslo Winter Guide! We would move to Oslo in a heartbeat, and really the only thing stopping us is the relative impossibility of learning passable Norwegian at this point in our lives! As always, we’d love it if you’d let us know what you think in the comments.
You can also pin this guide to Oslo for later here, or click on either of the photos below: