I have seen the future. And it’s in Oslo.
Imagine a perfectly fine (but fairly bland) 20th-century European city. The kind of place with visually unexciting midcentury high-rise sprawl, and maybe a few more parks than the norm. The kind of place with little “Old World charm,” and whose most important landmark is a city hall that (let’s be honest) looks like a matching pair of brick bookends.
Now give that place loads of money. Like, more money than they know what to do with. Like, we-can’t-dig-a-hole-in-the-ground-without-hitting-oil kind of money. Then bless that city with a progressive electorate that’s unafraid to tax and spend heavily to create a hometown that will be better in 10 or 20 years than it is today…rather than just limping reluctantly into the future. Give them a visionary city council and developers and architects who are encouraged to view urban blight as a blank slate. Empower them to transform a dreary harborfront into the metropolis of their wildest dreams. And if you do all that, gradually, over time, you’ll create one of the most livable and forward-looking cities on the planet.
I’ve been to Oslo a few times over the last 15 years. And while the downtown core has barely changed, the harborfront feels like a different city. It always feels like Oslo is in a big hurry to prepare for an Olympic-sized event. But there’s no hard deadline…they just want to make their city better, without wasting time.
When I arrived in Oslo on my latest visit, I couldn’t wait to see what was new. I dropped my bag at the hotel, headed down to the harbor, stood in front of the City Hall, turned right, and started walking.
I walked past a former train station, now a museum about the Nobel Prize. In front were parked a pair of hipster food trucks, facing the newly remodeled fish market building.
I walked past the construction zone for the super-modern new National Museum, which will soon house masterpieces by Krohg and Munch.
I walked the length of the Aker Brygge development — where once-dilapidated brick warehouses now intermingle with sleek, glassy condos and offices to create a lively people zone.
And then — when I reached a point that had been a mess of construction cranes on my previous visit — I kept on walking. Arcing bridges carried me to the Tjuvholmen development: Human-built islands, interlaced with canals, connected by footbridges, all under the glassy canopy of eight- to ten-story condo complexes. Although each building has its own strong architectural personality, the entire ensemble enjoys a beautiful harmony. A row of little private moorings along a brand-new dock looks like a designer boat show. Bronze statues frolic in the spray of a soothing waterfall.
Even though this area feels positively posh, it’s open to everyone. Buried deep in the complex is an affordable-for-Oslo supermarket, supplying urbanites for a scenic fjordside picnic. (In this outrageously expensive city, rather than eat out, people invest in a disposable “one-time grill.” They set them up in a park, cook their own dinner, then dispose of them in designated grill recycling cans. On a hot summer day, packed parks smell like smoldering briquettes.)
Long wooden decks seem designed to catch sun at various times of the day and the year — inviting anyone who cares to, rich or poor, to find a sunbeam, bask, and enjoy. At the tip of the complex is a cutting-edge contemporary art museum, and a grassy little knob of land with a lively statue park.
Standing on one of these footbridges, surrounded by wood and glass and sleek curving lines and designer motorboats, I realize this is the closest thing to a Jetsons city I’ve seen in real life. A designer friend of mine who spent time in Hong Kong has raved about how well-designed that city is for a modern lifestyle. I called him from that bridge and told him to get to Oslo.
Tjuvholmen is just the beginning — it’s just one link in what developers boast will become the “longest promenade in Northern Europe.” Oslo’s Harbor Promenade — already largely complete — will connect the city with its fjord coastline, allowing pedestrians to stroll, unimpeded, in futuristic bliss, five miles from one end of town to the other.
On the next inlet over — near the train station — Oslo’s innovative Opera House is nearing a decade old. It was an instant sensation when opened. With its white, sloping roof angling from the seafront several stories high, the Opera House invites anyone and everyone to literally hang out on its rooftop…even if a performance is going on. It’s already a beloved civic symbol.
From up there, you can scan a horizon of busy cranes, assembling Oslo’s newest district: the Barcode Project, so named for its tall and skinny skyscrapers…again, each one different, but collectively harmonious. It’s already home to offices and condos, and will soon be joined by the new, purpose-built location of the museum devoted to Norway’s most famous painter, Edvard Munch — who, if he could see today’s Oslo, would not recognize the dreary fjord that spurred his existential scream.
In Oslo, even what’s old is new. And just inland from the harbor is one of my favorite hangouts in town: Mathallen, the “food hall” that fills a formerly dilapidated, 19th-century, red-brick factory along the scenic Aker River (closed Mondays).
The space is filled with a trendy food court, showcasing Oslo’s top chefs. (Yes, Oslo — best known for its bland, meatballs-with-lingonberries cuisine — has developed a thriving foodie scene.) You can enjoy a high-end Norwegian cheese counter with generous samples of pungent geitost, classic Scandinavian open-face sandwiches done in high style, gourmet gelato, a French wine bar, Spanish tapas, and a taco stand.
The dining fun continues outside, where overlapping al fresco tables completely surround the classic structure, serving up “global tapas,” fried chicken and ribs, and — my favorite — Vulkanfisk, with fresh and affordable-for-Oslo seafood plates. Enjoying a sizzling platter of garlic shrimp with this view is one of my favorite Oslo dining memories.
After gorging yourself at Mathallen, you can walk it off with a stroll up the Aker River Valley — once cloaked in smog from its many busy red-brick factories, and today completely repurposed, gentrified, and livable. An idyllic riverside park is laced with walking trails, characteristic footbridges, and Oslo urbanites tending their one-time grills.
A short detour from the river leads to the thriving Olaf Ryes Plass, with its own passel of tempting eateries ringing a grassy urban square. My favorite spot here for a coffee break is the eponymous Tim Wendelboe, whose celebrity-barista owner pulls delicate third-wave espresso drinks that rival anything back home in Seattle.
To top it all off, thanks to Norway’s heavy subsidization of electric cars, fleets of Teslas glide silently around the city. A new car in Norway is taxed to nearly double the sales priced. When that tax is waived for an electric car, a Tesla is suddenly very competitively priced. Electric car drivers also enjoy free parking, no tolls, and other environmentally friendly incentives.
I imagine it’ll be just a few years before Oslo gets flying cars, real hoverboards, and clothes that adjust their fit automatically with the press of a button. These days, a stroll through this city is like a steroid shot right in the imagination.
Am I naive to think other places could aspire to what Oslo has accomplished? Of course — few cities are blessed with such enviable affluence. And I’m well aware of Oslo’s many shortcomings and social challenges, which shouldn’t be overlooked. Still, in my supposedly progressive home city of Seattle — where the patchy light rail is still far from complete, and we can’t seem to dig a tunnel without the drill breaking down for two years — I wish voters could see what a city with its act together can do when it puts its mind and its money behind a bold vision. A visit to Oslo could be a preview of our future…but only if we have the stomach to make it happen.
I was in Oslo updating our Rick Steves Scandinavia guidebook; our forthcoming 15th edition (available June 2018) includes my favorite discoveries from this trip.
Like Rick, I have Norwegian ancestry. And like Rick, I love traveling in Norway…and blogging about it. Here’s a roundup of Rick’s many Norwegian blog posts over the years.