Carrie and I combined a trip to Northern Ireland over Christmas to see family with a chance to visit wintry Norway! Before we traveled, we had heard almost endlessly from other travelers about how expensive everything is. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Norway ranks second (after Switzerland) as the most expensive country to live in. The high cost of living comes with a well developed social welfare system and investment in infrastructure, leading Norway to rank constantly at or near the top of the OECD and UN Human Development reports.
Carrie recently returned to Oslo for work and I joined towards the end of her trip. This return gave us the chance to update our guide with our review of some restaurants and important things to see and do. Check out our updated guide to Oslo below.
Norway and Tourism
In 2013, Lonely Planet considered a budget experience in Norway to be €120 or less a day per person, which includes accommodation, food, and travel. Despite the common assumption that a visit to Norway is expensive, we were determined and successful at planning a (relatively) inexpensive and impactful visit by shopping at grocery stores and markets, visiting local bars and not those in touristy areas, staying in hotels that offered traditional Norwegian breakfasts, and selecting our travel dates to reduce the cost of travel.
Norway offers an enormous amount of sightseeing and adventure opportunities for travelers from its majestic arctic landscapes and famous fjords, to skiing, and gazing at the northern lights. For our five day trip we traveled to Bergen and Oslo. We began our trip in Bergen, a coastal city located in southwest Norway, a popular embarkment point for cruises to the famous fjords. From Bergen we traveled by train along one of the world’s most scenic train rides to Oslo through wintry forests and mountains. We ended our trip with a couple of nights in historic Oslo.
We flew from Dublin to Bergen on SAS, the Scandinavian airline, via Oslo. Oslo’s airport is beautifully designed, with a modern interior that uses wood with extremely high ceilings, making it feel spacious, and yet cozy. Our three hour layover was enough time to sit down and sample our first Norwegian beer. This was our first purchase in the land we had heard was almost unbearably expensive. Our bill was 196 Kroner or $32 for 2 large (slightly larger than a pint) Ringnes beers. A little pricy, but isn’t everything always more expensive at the airport?
Where to Stay in Bergen, Norway
Clarion Admiral Hotel
To get to the Bergen city center we took a coach bus from the airport to the Torget Fish Market, which was two blocks from our hotel. I chose to stay in the Clarion Admiral Hotel, because it had received excellent reviews, was centrally located, offered a breakfast buffet of traditional Norwegian foods, and most importantly was affordable. Clarion is part of a large international hotel chain. The hotel was situated right on the harbor, opposite the Bryggen (historical part of Bergen). The breakfast buffet selection of warm and cold food options was vast and delicious, particularly the fresh fish and was one of the hotel’s highlights.
Through my research I learned that the hotel was undergoing a remodel and I was a little concerned about what state the hotel would be in, but we stayed in one of the rooms that had been recently renovated, and the ongoing construction was only noticeable from the exterior. The room was nicely decorated with a modern, yet cozy design and had a heated bathroom floor. We also had a small view of the Bryggen and the harbor.
What to do in Bergen
The Bryggen, one of Northern Europe’s oldest ports, established in 1350 is a must see in Bergen. The enchanting quarter consists of two and three story wooden buildings of similar size and shape, with stone-stacked or wooden foundations. Much of the original buildings were destroyed in a fire in 1702, but have since been rebuilt and now house galleries and shops. The Bryggen Museum (40 Norwegian Kroner) is worth a visit and does an excellent job of documenting the history of the settlement and includes the foundation of one of the earliest buildings. Interestingly, in its early years water in the Bryggen was usually not safe to drink and therefore everyone consumed beer to stay hydrated, both young and old. One advantage to visiting in the winter is that you don’t have to contend with the crowds that descend on the city in the spring and summer.
Another point of interest in Bergen is the Fløibanen Funicular (70 Norwegian Kroner). Luckily, Bergen is a very walk-able city so nothing we visited was ever more than ten minutes by foot. The funicular took us up a large hill that towers over the harbor and the rest of Bergen. The scenic ride took roughly 10 minutes to climb to the top with several stops along the way. The top of the hill provided a beautiful panoramic view of the harbor, the rest of the city, and the fjords off in the distance.
Torget Fish Market
For Carrie’s birthday she decided we would go to the Torget Fish Market for dinner. Since the market closed at 4 pm that day we ate dinner a little earlier than usual. The fish market is located in modern-designed glass building on the waterfront. Each of the fishmongers sold a selection of pre-made food as well as raw seafood. The fish market was the best place to sample Norway’s fine selection of seafood. We decided on the Norwegian delicacy of whale, which we simply had to try, along with Norwegian caviar, and a shrimp, crayfish and salmon, and salmon sandwiches.
Later that evening we went to a local bar called Pengiven (Penguin). It was a cozy and ‘cool’ bar as described by Lonely Planet, situated in a part of town we had not visited. Their selection of Norwegian craft beers was vast and well worth the visit. The food, all traditional Norwegian staples, such as reindeer, whale, fish pie, and salmon, are also highly recommended.
Bergen to Oslo by Train
We opted for the longer, but more scenic train ride from Bergen to Oslo, which is frequently referred to as one of the most beautiful in the world. With that in mind we choose a train that left mid-day giving us the most amount of daylight for the scenic early part of the ride. We opted to ride in the NSB Komfort car, or business car for roughly $6 USD apiece more, which meant we could choose our seats in advance. An additional perk to the NSB Komfort car is that noise must be kept to a minimum, so we traveled in peace and quiet. The train was very comfortable, clean, had good WiFi, and left nearly to the minute we were scheduled to depart.
Our journey began as we snaked our way alongside several lakes surrounded by fjords, passing through several tunnels, before ascending around the town of Myrdal high up into the mountains, where the scenery changed from green forests and lakes to snow covered forests and mountain tops. At Finse, the highest train station in Norway, some of the passengers jumped off the train with their skis in hand. The train station, situated in the middle of a large plain surrounded by snow covered mountains, was no more than a few buildings on either side of the tracks with 12 foot snowbanks.
Where to Stay in Oslo, Norway
Our hotel was a ten minute walk from the Oslo Central Train Station down Karl Johans Gate, a popular shopping street in central Oslo. I chose to stay at the Hotell Bondenhiem, a Best Western managed property, because of its proximity to many of the sites we wanted to explore in central Oslo, the positive reviews, and its affordability. The hotel was a block away from Karl Johans Gate and Spikersuppa Park. The hotel offered breakfast, but it was nowhere near as good as the selection at our hotel in Bergen, and it was crowded and the the tables were dirty.
One of the ways Lonely Planet recommends to save money when dining out in Oslo is to eat at ethnic restaurants and as a result of Norway’s generous immigration policy Oslo as many Somali, Vietnamese, and Middle Eastern restaurants. With that advice we walked the short distance to the popular Taste of the Far East, a Vietnamese restaurant for dinner.
That evening we stopped in a central dive bar called Stargate that was recommended as one of the few places to enjoy an inexpensive beer in central Oslo. The dive bar had an eclectic mix of Norwegians and foreigners, and while it was a little gritty it was well worth the beer and people watching.
What to see and do in Oslo
Oslo Rådhus and Opera House
Oslo offers an excellent range of free museums and historical sites that will interest everyone, such as the Historical Museum, Oslo Cathedral, Oslo Rådhus, and the Oslo City Museum. The Oslo Rådhus or Town Hall, is the location of the well known Nobel Peace Prizes Ceremony. The grand main hall, where the ceremonies are held had a beautiful painting that covered the enormous wall. Upstairs were several ornate rooms that not only provided sweeping views of the harbor, but featured several exhibits.
The Oslo Opera House, which opened in 2007 appears to float like an iceberg in the Oslo Harbor. It’s stunning and completely unique design is beautifully set on the water with historic Oslo as its backdrop. Due to the cold weather we enjoyed a brisk walk around and on top of the opera house.
The elegant Grand Hotel, conveniently located just around the corner from our hotel is one of Oslo’s most famous hotels and has one of its nicest restaurants, the Grand Cafe. Our dinner at the Grand Cafe was our one grand indulgence of our trip. For dinner Carrie chose the monkfish and I had two different types of reindeer sausages, accompanied with delicious potatoes and carrots. The splurge at dinner also included a Norwegian craft beer Ø Imperial Brown Ale at a cost of $23. Being a huge fan of craft beers I could not pass up the opportunity.
Yes, Norway is expensive compared to most travel destinations, but an affordable and moderately impactful (mainly due to our choice of hotels) visit is completely possible. Selecting centrally located hotels that include breakfast will save you local travel expenses and time in addition to extra meal expenses. As I’ve mentioned in my other past travels shopping at grocery stores for lunch and snacks is another way to save as well as expand your understanding of the country you are visiting, which we did in both Bergen and Oslo. Norway’s infrastructure also means it's very easy to get around by train and bus, meaning a rental car is not necessary if you travel around and between cities.
**Update to our original Oslo guide!** Updated in March 2017
To and From the Oslo Airport
Take the NSB train to Oslo Central Train Station for only 93 Norwegian Krone (NOK), versus 180 NOK for the faster (by only 3 minutes) Flytoget airport train.
Viking Ship Museum
It cost 100 NOK to enter the Viking Ship Museum, which features two almost fully reconstructed ships that were buried, and one partial ship, as well as artifacts recovered near the ships. The three ships, the Oseberg, Gokstad, and the Tune are displayed inside the museum. The first ship you encounter as your enter the museum and the most impressive, is the Oseberg, discovered in 1903. The ship is made of oak and can be both sailed and rowed by 30 oarsman. The ship was built around 820 AD and was used as a burial ship in 834 AD, parts of the ship date back as far as 800 AD, making it the oldest of the three ships in the museum. Each of the ships was discovered as part of burial mounds for nobles of the Viking period.
The Gokstad is equally impressive in size and is the 9th oldest surviving ship in the world. In addition, several sleighs and carts that were discovered with the ships are on display in the museum. Despite the trek from, downtown Oslo the museum is well worth it. Check out my video of the ship to truly appreciate its size!
To get to the Viking Museum take the 30 bus from in front of the Town Hall building, also nearby the museum is the Folk Museum. Its 33 NOK for a one-way ticket if you purchase it before you get on the bus from a vendor like 7 Eleven, or 55 NOK if you purchase it on the bus. Note if you are taking the bus from the city center get a day pass or a round trip ticket as there is no where near the Viking Museum to buy the reduced price ticket.
The National Gallery
One of the top things to do in Oslo is visit the National Gallery. Unfortunately, we were in Oslo on a Monday the last time we were here, which is the only day of the week the museum is closed. It cost 100 NOK to enter and is in my opinion well worth the price. The gallery has the best selection of artwork I have ever seen. Besides the great selection of Nordic artists, the gallery has several pieces of Pablo Picasso, one Henri Matisse, one Claude Monet, and perhaps the most well-known Edvard Munch a Norwegian Expressionist who painted The Scream. The downstairs exhibit room has a temporary exhibit, The Great Graphic Boom which featured most notably the works of Andy Warhol.
Where to Eat and Drink in Oslo
At the recommendation of Carrie’s colleague Roberta, we dined at Sentralen on the last night of our recent trip to Oslo. Roberta, who has lived in Oslo for years is very familiar with the culinary scene in Oslo and made the necessary reservations.
The restaurant’s seasonal menu uses Norwegian ingredients and sets out to create a social and informal atmosphere around each table that allows guests to share dishes. Unsure of what to order as everything sounded delicious, we ordered nine different dishes, all perfectly prepared and unbelievably good! What adds to the experience is that the restaurant is set in an old bank dating back to 1901. The grand main lobby remains exactly as it was when it was a bank and if you climb the staircase to the second floor you can see the vault door is still in place.
We started with the smoked beet tartare topped with egg yolk, spiced with tarragon and horseradish. Not to miss out we also ordered the beef tartare! Both were exquisite!
Unsurprisingly Norway is well known for their excellent fish dishes so we ordered the Skrei (Norwegian cod) served with pickled rutabaga and smoked veloute and ceviche of halibut served with grape, cucumber, and dried roe.
My personal favorite was one of the last dishes we tried, the glazed beef ribs with a chipotle seasoning.
One of the most unique dishes we had that night was the Norwegian svele, a batter based cake similar to an American pancake, which was served with horseradish-sour cream and roe. We enjoyed all of the sensational food with a light bodied red wine. If you are in Oslo and looking for that one splurge meal then consider Sentralen!
This hard to find spot in downtown Oslo is one of the best cocktail bars I have ever been to. The drink list is inspired by the unique characteristics of each region of the country. I had the Birch, a martini-esque cocktail infused with, as the name suggests, birch and topped with an olive stuffed with Tingvollost, Kraftkar Blue Cheese, otherwise known as the 2016 world champion of cheeses. It did not disappoint. Neither did the modern industrial interior and knowledgeable and friendly staff at Himkok. Not a bad way to spend a Monday evening in Oslo. I hear they have an outdoor patio-something to check out in the warmer months.
If you’re looking to try some traditional Nordic food without spending your entire travel budget then Olympen is the place for you. This former beer hall, located in the East side of Oslo, retains the simplicity of its previous life as a local beer hall in the layout and the prices but brings a world of class with enormous, beautiful chandeliers and delicious seasonal dishes. I had white fish with lobster cream sauce, served with the typical side of potatoes. It was heavenly.
The restaurant is also renowned for its extensive beer list featuring everything from small to large Norwegian producers. Unfortunately, I was staunchly observing my no “beer” policy that week and didn’t even glance at the list so as not to be tempted.
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All Photography by Albert and Carrie Bond
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