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Family Travel: Splash out in child-friendly Norway

Could Oslo be the most family-friendly destination on the planet? Naturally, the Norwegian tourism authorities would like you to think so. But after testing the city that shares its latitude with the Shetlands to its limits, I have to conclude that Norway's capital has a strong claim to the title.

Foreign capitals and young children don't always go together. Schlepping around crowded streets tends to be more a task in herding recalcitrant cats than mutual enjoyment. So to find a city that caters brilliantly for children without making a fuss about them, and where both parent and child can enjoy themselves – often at the same time – is a real find.

Oslo is benign and friendly. With just 550,000 inhabitants and plenty of open space, it feels more like a modest, prosperous port than a seething metropolis. Getting around is easy: public transport works with Scandinavian efficiency; there's room on the pavements for a family of five to walk together; and if you need directions plenty of helpful people will direct you in excellent English.

This city by the sea appeals to both adult and child because of its juxtapositions: you exit one of the major museums and a few minutes walk away is a great little beach; you walk through one of the biggest sculpture parks in the world and tucked away behind some trees is a swimming pool; you come out of the National Gallery having seen Edvard Munch's The Scream, wander up a couple of streets, and, look, is that really a reptile park?

With three children under 10 in tow, I headed for the outdoor swimming pools at Frognerparken, a large public park in the west of the city. A lot goes on here. There's an adventure playground for younger children, picnic areas, cafés and a permanent art exhibition. Within the park's boundaries is Vigeland sculpture park, where the work of one of Norway's leading 20th-century artists, sculptor Gustav Vigeland, is displayed.

Lining your route to the swimming pools, in various states of joy and distress, but all united in their undressed state, are sculptures of men, women and children, the best known of which is called the The Little Angry Boy. Although the nudity on display may provoke a fair bit of giggling (as it did with my children), this the most culturally fascinating walk to a swimming pool that I've ever made.

The three swimming pools, the water slides and the diving area that make up Frognerbadet were busy with locals when we arrived. It felt like a lido from the 1950s, especially around the diving boards where hordes of strikingly similar teenage boys – all with long swimming shorts and white-blonde hair – stood around taking it in turns to impress with their dives.

Oslo and its surrounds offer a wide choice of swimming venues. Often these are natural beauty spots provided by the ultimate in juxtapositions: a conurbation located between fjord and forest. There are 22 freshwater beaches and 14 saltwater beaches in the area, some just minutes from the city centre.

The Scandinavians are ingenious at carving out scenic bathing spots from their natural habitats, each designed to maximise every precious sunny ray from a summer's day.

The weather was very different – dark clouds and light drizzle – when we took the 10-minute ferry boat from Aker Brygge, Oslo's inner harbour area, to the Bygdoy peninsula. This thumb of land hosts a collection of museums focusing on Norway's nautical history. There's the Viking Ship Museum, the Kon-Tiki Museum, the Fram Museum and the Norwegian Maritime Museum.

Only when you see some of these vessels in their full glory do you understand what was achieved when they were built and sailed in. There are few schoolchildren in the UK who are not taught about the Vikings, but no picture can truly convey the size and structural beauty of their ships.

Likewise the Kon-Tiki raft, a rudimentary floating platform made of balsa wood and used by the Norwegian anthropologist and explorer Thor Heyerdahl in 1947 to sail the Pacific. Only upon seeing just how fragile a construction she is does it really hit home what a feat of extraordinary bravery that expedition was.

Next door to the Kon-Tiki Museum is another famous wooden vessel, the polar ship Fram. The strongest wooden ship ever built, she performed formidably in the Arctic and Antarctica. This is a vessel you can properly explore, on deck and below. The kitchen, bedrooms and engine room have all been kept in their original condition, so even if the revolutionary engineering of this ship is lost on the young, the detail of day-to-day living on a polar vessel is not.

Then, on a very rainy afternoon, we headed to the Reptile Park, another example of Oslo's juxtapositioning. It's a few streets away from the National Gallery and opposite the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design. "Park", though, is perhaps an ambitious word for the modest number of reptiles on show here. The exhibition is more of a private collection than a public zoo, but taking in the array of frogs, snakes, geckos and pythons is an enjoyable way to while away time.

Finally, on a day that couldn't decide whether to blast us with sunshine or cover us in cloud, we took a trip 20km south of the city centre to Tusenfryd amusement park. Tusenfryd has all the prerequisites to make it a hit with children: fairground rides, rollercoasters and a swimming pool with water slides. Height restrictions meant that I had to accompany my youngest on many of them, so I gamely boarded various rides that dropped you from great heights, turned you sideways, upside down, and rolled you over. As I looped the loop once more, it occurred to me that this was probably just another of Oslo's strange juxtapositions.

Getting there

The writer flew with Norwegian (020-8099 7254; norwegian.no ), which serves Oslo from Gatwick and Edinburgh. BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and SAS (0870 60 727 727; flysas.com ) both fly from Heathrow. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com ) flies from Stansted and Prestwick to Torp, 120km south-west of Oslo.

Staying there

The Oslo Package provides an economical way of staying in the city. It allows up to two children to stay free in their parents' hotel room. See visitoslo.com for more details. Family-friendly hotels which offer the package include: Scandic ( scandichotels.com ), Thon Hotel ( thonhotels.com/slottsparken ), and Radisson SAS Scandinavia ( radissonsas.com ).

Visiting there

Swimming in and around Oslo: see friluftsetaten.oslo.kommune.no

During the summer holidays, the Badebuss departs for various beaches from Central Station every hour between noon and 6pm.

Bus number 30 or ferry 91 will take you to the beach at Bygdoy ( trafikanten.no ).

Vigeland Sculpture Park: 00 47 23 49 37 00; vigeland.museum.no

National Gallery: 00 47 21 98 20 00; nasjonalmuseet.no Viking Ship Museum: 00 47 22 13 52 80; khm.uio.no/vikingskipshuset

Kon-Tiki Museum: 00 47 23 08 67 67; kon-tiki.no

Fram Museum: 00 47 23 28 29 50; fram.museum.no

Norwegian Maritime Museum: 00 47 24 11 41 50; norsk-sjofartsmuseum.no

Oslo Reptile Park: 00 47 41 02 15 22; reptilpark.no

Tusenfryd Amusement Park: 00 47 64 97 64 97; tusenfryd.no

More information

The 24-hour OsloPass, available from the Visit Oslo tourist office (00 47 815 30 555; visitoslo.com ) costs NKr220 (£23) for adults and NKr95 (£9.80) for children.