The city that's 1,000 years young

Mark Rowe visits Oslo, one of northern Europe's newest capitals, and finds a thriving cultural life beneath its peaceful exterior


Why go? Oslo is a young capital - Norway only gained independence in 1905 - and is a city of quiet charm with a thriving cultural life. You won't find the cobbled streets and gabled houses of other northern European cities but, perched at the mouth of one of the country's countless fjords, it is in a beautiful setting. The broad sweeping avenues with grandiose houses and the wide harbour - where traditional fishing industries mix with café society - create a restful feeling of space, and with a population of just 500,000 you won't find Oslo too crowded. The heart of the city beats around the main street, Karl Johans gate, which leads up to the royal palace, passing parks and the national theatre on its way.

Why go? Oslo is a young capital - Norway only gained independence in 1905 - and is a city of quiet charm with a thriving cultural life. You won't find the cobbled streets and gabled houses of other northern European cities but, perched at the mouth of one of the country's countless fjords, it is in a beautiful setting. The broad sweeping avenues with grandiose houses and the wide harbour - where traditional fishing industries mix with café society - create a restful feeling of space, and with a population of just 500,000 you won't find Oslo too crowded. The heart of the city beats around the main street, Karl Johans gate, which leads up to the royal palace, passing parks and the national theatre on its way.

Why now? In its typically quiet, unassuming, sorry-to-bother-you sort of way, Oslo is celebrating the millennium of its foundation with a series of arts displays and festivals throughout the autumn. As winter approaches, temperatures can drop below freezing, and the city turns into one large Christmas-card picture, with crisp snow dusting the centre.

The mission I've always harboured a suspicion that Norway, a country run in such an irritatingly efficient, logical and downright Scandinavian fashion, would, paradoxically, boast a capital with its fair share of tortured geniuses and full-blown eccentrics. Oslo does not disappoint.

A good starting point is the Edward Munch museum, where you can see The Scream, the tormented artist's best known work. In fact, Munch liked it so much he painted 50 versions of it. The Scream, all lurid contours, is unsettling, but perhaps the most moving exhibits are the less-visited lithographs and woodcuts, which best show Munch's fine eye for human emotion. Many of them are bleak, but then Munch's life was punctuated by melancholy. Even allowing for this, he once dismissed Oslo as a "Siberian city", which just goes to show that if you are really determined to be miserable in a wonderful place you can be.

Equally potty, but no less inspired, was Norway's most famous dramatist, Henrik Ibsen, another mercurial talent with more than his share of human failings. For 40 kroner (£3), you can take a guided tour in English of Ibsen's house. Here you learn all about the obsessive gambler's dysfunctional relationship with his wife, whom he called, not always endearingly, "the eagle."

And let us not forget Thor Hyerdhal, who attempted to re-write anthropological history by proposing the controversial theory that the islands of Polynesia could have been settled by the Indians of South America. To try to prove it he made the 101-day journey on a balsa-wood raft called the Kon-Tiki, which has pride of place in the Kon-Tiki Museum. Next door is the Fram Museum (admission NKr25) - devoted to pioneering Norwegian expeditions to the North and South poles - where you can board the Fram, the ship that took Roald Amundsen to his stepping-off point for the epic march to the South Pole in 1911. Amundsen charted the waters of the North-West Passage and spent his days flying in an increasingly precarious fashion over the North Pole until, at the age of 68, he disappeared off the map somewhere over the icy waters of the Arctic.

If you have ever wondered what the Vikings did in their spare time then pop along to the Viking Ship Museum (NKr30) which houses three huge, renovated ships, each more than 1,000 years old. One was used as a burial chamber, while another is thought to have been a pleasure craft - a 10th-century gin palace.

Remember this When you have had enough of indoor Oslo, head for Vigeland Park (free entry) to wander around the sculptures of Gustav Vigeland. Here are 212 sculptures of the human form which span a bridge and a fountain and culminate in a shuddering tower of grasping humanity, striving to reach the top of a mountain of bodies. The most photographed of these statues is the "angry small boy", which looks a little too much like William Hague for comfort.

Eating out Take a deep breath. While you won't have to live off a diet of fingernails and mineral water, dinner is not cheap, and it can be salutary to marvel at Japanese package tourists frequenting the self-service cafeterias. Costs can be cut by filling up on the all-you-can-eat breakfast included in your hotel price, and making lunch your main meal of the day. Many restaurants offer good-value set lunches. Try the Pale Kjelleren, a shopping centre on Karl Johans gate, next to the university, which offers Italian, Greek and Spanish dishes for £5 a head. Bacchus, a cosy café in Basarhallene, behind the cathedral, offers ciabatta at £7 and carrot cake ( gulrotkake) for £2.50 a slice.

Italian restaurants are the cheapest option for evening meals, and you can eat tasty pizzas with your fingers at Flamenco (Karl Johans gate 6, tel:00 47 22646464; £14 a head). Fish is a national obsession, and lovers of seafood should head for Lofotstua near Vigeland park (Kirkeveien 40; tel: 00 47 22469396; £30 a head), named after the Lofoten Islands, the world capital of the cod market. Take a choice from salmon or cod in delicious sauces - but you may want to avoid ordering sel (seal). In between sightseeing, pop into the café of the Grand Hotel on Karl Johans gate for coffee and a Danish pastry - you're in Norway, remember, so respect local sensitivities and call the thing a Wienerbrod (£5). If you're lucky you'll be seated next to the table favoured by Ibsen. It's still prepared for him, complete with burning candle.

Night life There is no shortage of places to enjoy a beer in the evening (and at £4 for half-a-litre you're unlikely to drink too many). Drinking establishments include the 3 Brodre (Ovre Slottsgate 14) with its stucco ceiling and comfy armchairs and, a little further up Karl Johans gate at number 45, Studenten, which has more of a spit-and-sawdust feel to it. Lorry, (Parkveien 12) is a rambling place with large tables, an elk head pinned to the wall and a large selection of world beers.

Where to stay The most popular hostel is Oslo Haraldsheim (Haraldsheimveien 4, Grefsen; tel: 00 47 2222 2965; four-bed rooms at £13 each) a little north of the centre. To upgrade from hostels you are looking at £60 to £70 for good medium-range billets such as Hotel Munch (Munchgate 5; tel: 00 47 2321 9600).

If you want to go the whole hog, splash out on the utter luxury of the Continental Hotel (Stortingsgaten 24; tel. 00 47 2282 4000; £168 a double). One of the great fin-de-siÿcle European hotel experiences, it is home to sumptuous rooms and snug bars.

Lunch is a delight in the hotel's Theatercafeen, served in art nouveau surroundings, amid leather sets and in a frosted glass conservatory to the accompaniment of a string quartet and pianist. Try the guinea hen salad with chanterelles and orange vinaigrette and round it off with the blueberry pie.

Spending money Allow for about £80 per person a day, including hotels.

Don't buy one of the ubiquitous viking hats with floppy horns. Apart from being as kitsch as it gets in Norway, the Vikings never had horns on their helmets (that would have given the enemy something to grab hold of). Do buy, or hire, a pair of cross-country skis and head for the Nordmarka hills, north of the centre, where the last stop on the T-bane - Sognsvann - leads to a series of trails around the beautiful Sognsvannet, the archetypal Scandinavian lake surrounded by conifers.

Consumer information The author travelled with Braathens, which flies from Gatwick to Oslo for £125.90. Scandinavian Travel Service (020-7559 6666) offers two nights' accommodation with breakfast in a three-star hotel including flights for £265 per person.

The Rough Guide to Norway (£10.99) offers comprehensive listings for Oslo. If you're travelling on a tight budget then try to find a copy of Hunger by Knut Hamsun which details the experiences of a penniless would-be writer roaming the capital.

Buy an Oslo pass, which entitles you to free transport as well as free entry to almost all of the city's museums and discounts in some hotels and restaurants. It costs £15 for one day, £24 for two days and £34 for three. More details from The Norwegian Tourist Board (tel: 020-7839 6255; website www.visitnorway.com).

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