“You’re going to Norway?” they all gasped with barely concealed incredulity. “Ooh, it’s awfully expensive there!” – they added with a sharp intake of breath. Moreover, I’d heard this reaction so often prior to departure from Edinburgh that I began to have night sweats worrying I’d be bankrupted by my trip to the land of the midnight sun.
I needn’t have fretted. The Norwegians are a considerate folk who understand just how far the average tourist’s budget can be stretched before it becomes stressed to breaking point. It is, in fact, possible to budget for a five-day week for three in Oslo and still come home with change in your pocket.
A little prior research on the wonderfully comprehensive Visit Oslo website revealed that travelling en famille as a Scotcard carrying senior with his seventeen-year-old son and career nurse wife entitled us to few concessions. Anyone over sixteen is, with very few exceptions, priced as an adult, while senior citizens don’t qualify for concessions before their sixty-seventh birthday. I fall short on that count, so our party effectively consisted of three adults. Our entourage therefore set off with pencils duly sharpened and calculators very much at the ready.
We flew economy with Norwegian Air International and, given that we left it late to book the direct flight from Edinburgh, we got a reasonable deal. It’s much cheaper to fly indirect to Oslo via Stavanger from Aberdeen, but it’s worth the extra cost to spend a comfortable hour and forty minutes in the air, rather than a waste almost a whole day in transit and transfers.
Of course, one of the great bugbears for the budget traveller is the added cost of airport transfer, but Oslo has it covered. A two-tier, fast track provision takes you directly from the airport terminal to the heart of Oslo by rail for as little as 80kr/£8 (one-way). The superior option, branded as Flytoget, is 190kr/£19 (also one-way), is a bit more comfortable and a little faster, but not enough to justify the extra expense.
More importantly, it is impossible to get lost in the airport or get on the wrong train. The signage is crystal clear, and the approachable station staff are more than happy to help you navigate the automated ticketing machines. We subsequently found that almost everyone in a customer-facing role in and around Oslo is prepared to meet and greet in English very readily. I did, however, occasionally detect a weary acceptance that this courtesy is seldom rewarded with a few words of phrasebook Norwegian from the likes of us.
We were fortunate enough to have stayed with relatives, and so were spared the cost of accommodation. Nevertheless, Oslo is a capital city that aspires to status as an international destination and as such, recognises the need to be inclusive. The full range of value options includes everything from campsites on the outskirts of town to budget hotels and rented apartments in central locations. In general, British holidaymakers will find those costs more expensive than they would in the UK, but not by much, and arguably provided at consistently higher standards of comfort and service.
Oslo comes into its own as a culture and heritage centre that rewards the visitor with dozens of interesting museums, galleries, expositions, exhibitions and curiosities crammed into its ergonomic environs. It is incredibly easy to get around them all on public transport, and relatively cheaply too with the extraordinarily convenient Oslo Pass. You can buy one of these access-all-areas tickets, at the Ruter travel centres at Akker Brygge pier, Oslo-S train station, Oslo Visitor Centre, and most of the main campsites and larger hotels. The pass allows you to hop on and off buses, trams, trains (and even boats) throughout Zones 1 and 2, which pretty much covers all of central Oslo.
The real revelation of the Oslo Pass, however, is the number of significant attractions that are included in the cost of the ticket. Also, the combination of Oslo city centre’s relatively small footprint, the frequency of transport and the clustering of interesting places makes it possible to painlessly visit several places of interest in a single day.
The best and most obvious example of this added value can be found on the Bygdøy peninsula, which is fifteen minutes by bus or boat from downtown Oslo. This leafy, largely suburban area on the opposite bank of the Oslo fjord, is home to five major visitor attractions consisting of the Maritime Museum, the Kon-Tiki centre, the Fram Polar Ship Museum, the Viking Ship Museum and the astonishing open-air Norsk Folkemuseum, translated rather confusingly, as the Norwegian Museum of Contemporary Culture.
We chalked up four out of five of them in a single day between 11.00 am and 17.30, taking the number 30 bus from town to the peninsula, and returning to Akker Brygge by ferry across the fjord. The Oslo Pass is activated from the moment it’s first scanned, and becomes a remarkable electronic passport into Norwegian history.
At the folk museum, dozens of original log-built farm dwellings and outbuildings dating from as far back as the 17th century have been dismantled and translocated to this huge site. The result is a picture book vision of pastoral life in Norway’s remotest regions. The sense that you’ve accidentally wandered into the setting for a Nordic folktale is enhanced by the presence of numerous, fair-skinned youths and lasses wandering around in period costume, telling stories and providing interpretation.
The re-creation of past times extends to a reconstructed village featuring narrow streets, tiny, walk-in, furnished cottages, and a vintage deli that’s open for business. But it’s the hilltop church that is the crowning glory. The old stave church may only be based on the limited original materials saved from the 13th century original in Hallingdal, but it’s an impressive piece of architectural preservation nonetheless. It’s structure is quintessentially Nordic, yet there is something vaguely oriental about it too. The origins of the pagoda-esque design remain obscure, and continue to be a topic of debate amongst architectural historians.
Our enquiries on Bygdøy continued with the exhibition of a quite magnificent Viking burial ship, retrieved from the earth, virtually complete, at Gokstad in Sandefjord municipality. It’s on permanent display in an enormous whitewashed hall, that features cleverly placed ramparts, designed for shooting photography rather than firing crossbows. From there, we wandered down to the Kon-Tiki museum, stopping on the way for cheap eats at Bygdøy kiosk (70 kr/£7 pp), by far the least expensive lunch option we found in Oslo.
The Kon-Tiki visitor centre is a massive tribute to the heroics of Thor Heyerdahl who set out to prove that the impossible was perfectly feasible if you are hard-headed enough to pursue your dreams. Heyerdahl famously sailed the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans in papyrus and balsa wood vessels in order to demonstrate that this was only what the ingenious, and doubly heroic, ancients had done millennia before. He was the last great explorer of the twentieth century to take real risks, and the reconstructions of the rafts Kon-Tiki and Sun Ra show clearly what it means to live life on the edge with few material resources.
The Fram Polar Ship is an ice-breaker for anyone who is new to polar exploration, but since we hail from Dundee, home of Captain Scott’s ‘Discovery’, it all had a rather familiar look about it. The Fram is smaller than Scott’s vessel but it’s still a big ship, and visitors are free to step on board and wander above and below deck. We managed to squeeze in a quick tour of the boat before taking time to study the impressive, larger-than-life bronze figures of Roald Amundsen’s team, standing firm outside and looking southwards with steady, purposeful gaze.
The advantage of the Oslo Pass becomes clear when it’s understood that none of these visitor centres are free, with admittance charges consistently set between £10-14 for adults. Without the pass, we’d have easily spent more than 1300kr/£130 per person in a single day on transport and admissions. Fortunately, a 24, 48 or 72-hour Oslo Pass can be bought anytime before you plan to use it. In this example, our grand day out on Bygdøy with a 72-hour pass, a kiosk pit-stop, and a packed lunch, cost us only 248kr or £24.80 per person. The more you use the pass the better value it is, and we made full use of our access to the insider’s Olso.
Our hosts genially suggested that we eat out on our return to their apartment, and it was difficult to argue for a takeaway pizza in the face of the rich choices available in Oslo eateries. We sat down at the popular Café Skansen near the iconic City Hall, and tucked into a shared mixed starter of goat’s cheese, olives, salami, bread and baby leaf salad. Main courses included gigantic melt-in-the-mouth sole, delicious dressed crab densely packed in its shell, a belly full of freshly caught mussels, and beautifully burnt neck of pork. It was quite pricey, with main courses averaging around eighteen pounds, but I have to say that we were extremely well-fed with no niggling disappointments or complaints from anyone.
Other attractions that we visited on our trip included the massive Vigeland Sculpture Park and Museum, the Botanics, the Natural History Museum, the Ibsen Museum (and a guided tour of his rather sumptuous apartment), the Historical Museum, and the National Gallery, which is home to at least one version of Munch’s ‘The Scream’. I would, however, describe the closely related, much-vaunted Munch Museum as something less than the sum of its parts, and the National Gallery is definitely the place for revealing insights into Nordic Art. Our little gem of choice was the City of Oslo Museum in Frogner Park. It’s included in the Oslo Pass, and it comprehensively tells the story of the city from earliest times to the present day. It also included an endearing journey through 1970’s Norway that looked like a Scandinavian mirror image of my own teenage years in lava lamp Scotland.
Norway is often offered up as the leading example of a prosperous small country that has succeeded on its own terms. It’s also rather misunderstood as a suitably demure tourist destination for fussy maiden aunts of independent means. Yes, Norway is spotlessly clean, but it’s also hyper-modern, and Oslo is determined to be an international destination in its own right. It’s accessible, organized and anticipates your every need.
There is a Deli da Luca, Kafebrenniert or 7-Eleven on every corner tempting you with great coffee, cinnamon buns and surprisingly filling prawn baguettes. Beer, wine and spirits are expensive, but perhaps Oslo is doing us all a favour by helping us cut down on alcohol. A perfectly satisfying lunch stop, eating in or out, can be had for around twelve to fifteen pounds per head, but do look for the value on the menu.
One inexpensive option is the fast food of choice in Norway; the humble hot dog, known locally as pølse, which can be had in a bun or a wrap for around three pounds. It comes in dozens of permutations with any number of sauces to choose from, but it’s a consistently cheap and cheerful snack for folk on the go.
It is possible to be taken aback by the prospect of eating out every evening, but don’t be intimidated by first impressions. Careful examination of online menus almost always offers an affordable selection that is consistent with the cost of eating out in Edinburgh, Glasgow or London. Actually, Oslo is so user-friendly that I had to keep reminding myself that I was visiting an international capital city, where a metropolitan mark-up is only to be expected.
If you are visiting Oslo for the first time it’s worth micro-planning your time in advance. The impeccably detailed Visit Oslo website includes everything you need to know in order to design a bespoke itinerary that suits you and your pocket. There’s even a special section to guide you through Oslo on a budget, and visiting a combination of free and paid attractions, as we did, eases the burden on the bank balance considerably.
Certainly, Oslo offers the visitor agreeable choices, as opposed to difficult decisions. The Oslo Pass, for example, can even be used for a leisurely ‘hop-on-hop-off’ cruise around Oslo Fjord if, like us, you really value free time. This is perhaps the city’s greatest virtue, for there is nothing worse than travelling abroad and feeling that you are a prisoner of the beleaguered pound in your pocket.
Norwegian Air International Edinburgh to Oslo (direct): £315 pp return
Camping at Bogstad (9km north of Oslo) £20-33 per day
Budget Hotels in suburban Oslo start at around £80 per room per night
Two Room ApartHotel Accommodation in a central location is about £169 per night
Lunch: budget for £15 per person per day
Dinner: budget for £20-25 per person per day
Oslo Pass Prices and Categories:
24 hours: 395 NOK (≈ £39.50)
48 hours: 595 NOK (≈ £59.50)
72 hours: 745 NOK (≈ £74.50)
Children (aged 4-15)
24 hours: 210 NOK (≈ £21)
48 hours: 295 NOK (≈ £29.50)
72 hours: 370 NOK (≈ £37.50)
Seniors (aged 67+)
24 hours: 315 NOK (≈ £31.50)
48 hours: 475 NOK (≈ £47.50)
72 hours: 595 NOK (≈ £59.50)
© Mike Clark 2018