With summer days that stretch to midnight and a relaxed harbour-front lifestyle, there's plenty to like about a visit to Oslo, as Brian Johnston discovers.
As Arctic cloudberries come into season, local buskers emerge to fiddle along the waterfront and the pale northern sun lingers in the sky until far into the night, Oslo blooms. Yachts skim its lovely fjord, parks provide green pleasures, and cafés fill with chattering people. This might be Scandinavia's smallest capital, but it offers many a fine museum, a venerable history associated with seafaring and a lively sophistication that belies its size. True, Norway is rather an expensive destination, but that makes cramming as much as you can into a long summer's day all the more attractive.
The sun will likely be long up before you sally forth for a walk around Oslo city centre, which was mostly laid out in the early 20th century and is anchored by significant buildings such as the royal palace, town hall and parliament. It might be too early for the beer gardens along Karl Johans Gate, Oslo's main shopping street, but when the shops open at 10am you can hunt for Nordic sweaters and designer home ware at department stores such as Paléet (paleet.no), which has nearly 50 shops under one roof.
By the time you've wandered past the palace you'll find yourself in Studenter Lunden park (Students' Grove) where university students congregate to socialize; now's the chance for a pre-lunch drink in one of the surrounding cafés. Have an early meal at Café Christiania (cafechristiania.no), decorated in old-world country style and offering brasserie lunches or a set menu matched with beers.
Finish the morning down on the harbour at hilltop Akershus Castle (forsvarsbygg.no), whose fine medieval-style apartments can be visited when not hosting government functions. The best thing about the fortress, however, are its ramparts and grassy terraces, where locals sunbathe and you can admire a panorama over Oslo Fjord.
On the water below the castle lies Aker Brygge (akerbrygge.no/english), a former shipbuilding district now turned upmarket, harbour-front residential and dining area. There's no shortage of cafés for a light lunch if you haven't eaten early, or you can buy bags of shrimp straight off fishermen and enjoy them as you stare out to sea – minding the seagulls as you do. Aker Brygge is a great place to linger, people-watch and stroll the promenades, so you may want to make a repeat visit in the evening.
Aker Brygge is the place to catch a ferry across the harbour to the Bygdøy Peninsula, where you'll have a difficult time choosing from several excellent maritime museums. You should perhaps concentrate on the Viking Ship Museum (khm.uio.no/english) with its three intact ships and displays of Viking gold, textiles, tools and a complete wagon; and the Fram Museum (frammuseum.no), which displays a late nineteenth-century exploration vessel and details the exploits of redoubtable polar explorers.
You've got two hours before closing time to wander the delightful Norwegian Folk Museum (norskfolkemuseum.no/en), also on the Bygdøy Peninsula. It brings together 160 historic rural buildings from across Norway, including a lovely wooden church dating from 1200, a pharmacy, townhouses and a variety of farm buildings. Staff in regional dress demonstrate crafts and farming methods, and you might encounter folk dancers.
With the sun still high in the sky, head back on the ferry to the city, past the extraordinary 1950s, art-encrusted City Hall and through town to Maaemo (maaemo.no). It might be tucked ignominiously behind the railway tracks, but this three-star Michelin restaurant provides the ultimate chance to sample New Nordic cuisine. It offers only a seasonal set menu, which runs to 20-odd courses and might include cured reindeer and Norwegian lobster.
It's a short post-dinner walk down to the harbour and the spectacular, avant-garde Den Norsk opera house (operaen.no/en), which sits like a great iceberg on the edge of the fjord and whose sloped roofs you can clamber over. However, you'll have to come earlier to take in a performance, as most start at 7pm.
Oslo has a lively nightlife, sees regular visits from international musicians and pop stars, has a top philharmonic orchestra, and boasts an impressive range of cinemas, with more choice of movies (shown in their original languages) than many a larger city. Events are detailed in What's On in Oslo(www.whatsonoslo.no), usually available in hotel lobbies. Head to chic but friendly Blå (blaaoslo.no) for live music, especially jazz and blues, or hit trendy cocktail bar Fuglen (fuglen.no), whose retro designer items are all for sale.
At midnight – at least in summer – the sun will still light your way back to your hotel. Hard not to be tempted into a detour towards the water, where the fjord glints and seagulls are still awake.