The three men around the table all agreed. “It’s Norway’s time right now,” said one, with obvious pride. “Did you know,” said another, “that the population of Oslo is the fastest-growing of any city in Europe?” “We are becoming a capital with qualities,” added the third. And as if to underline the gravity of their statements, a volley of cannon shots rang out across the water. It was in memory of Liberation Day, May 8 1945, when the occupying German forces retreated. A small celebration compared to May 17, which was this year the 200th anniversary since Norway declared constitutional independence.
It has taken a while for it to be “Norway’s time”, relegated to parochial backwater as it was for so long by its neighbours. But now Oslo, its capital, is a city on the move, both upwards and outwards. High-rise buildings, erected one after the other, have created a new horizon nicknamed “the Bar Code”. In the gaps between them, cranes twist and turn. Oslo’s footprint has pushed out in all directions, as a new wave of museums and galleries, international designers, star-sprinkled restaurants and concept stores bedazzle the visitor – and confuse the locals. “There used to be one city centre,” I was told, “now there are three.”
It all started with the Oslo Opera House, which opened in a former industrial area in 2008 (though one could argue it really started with the discovery of oil and natural gas in the North Sea in 1969, source of the massive wealth that has fuelled the city’s development). Designed by Norwegian firm Snøhetta (architects of New York’s National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion), its brief was to be above all else accessible to the people; and, despite apparent controversy at the time over its £424m cost, it is just that. A “carpet” of horizontal and sloping stone surfaces on top of the building has become the place for passeggiata in the summer months. By 2019, this area, known as Bjørvika, will be home to a new National Gallery, a new Munch Museum and a new home for the Deichmanske Library, which aims to be the next cultural gathering point for the city, comprising restaurants and shops as well as its vast stock of books in more than 35 languages.
Cut back to the conversation above, between three men making a difference to Oslo’s future. Peter Groth, CEO of Aspelin Ramm, and the Selvaag brothers, Frederik and Olav, are patrons of the arts, patriots and property developers. They masterminded the brilliant conversion of Tjuvholmen, or Thief Island, along with architect Niels Torp. With the last touches completed earlier this year, this neglected island – once home to the city’s low life (hence the name) – is now the place to come to enjoy the high life. Striking a balance between residences and public attractions, restaurants and galleries and Oslo’s first waterfront hotel, Tjuvholmen succeeds in being “a small town in the town”. The Astrup Fearnley Museum opened in 2012 inside Renzo Piano’s soufflé‑light structure, all glass dancing on water, and in doing so has fulfilled the Selvaags’ wish to put Oslo on the international contemporary art map. They have added a sculpture park next to it, where works by Anish Kapoor, Antony Gormley and others lead you down to a tiny shingle beach bordering the fjord.
Opposite rises The Thief hotel, with modern art to match its neighbour. Animated bespoke videos by Julian Opie accompany you in the lifts; Warhols decorate the excellent Fru K restaurant; one of Richard Prince’s Cowboys greets you in the lobby. But this 116-room design hotel, which opened last year, is also big on warmth. Dark interiors designed by Anemone Wille Våge envelop, with glints of gold and flickers of fire; beds are covered in Norwegian wool throws at one end and cushions to sink into at the other. Furniture and lighting come from Tom Dixon, Antonio Citterio, Patricia Urquiola and others of their ilk; the glittering whole entirely befits the most luxurious hotel to have opened in Oslo in over a century.
But from here one can climb the hills into the 19th century and head to Ekeberg Park, a view from which features in Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Abandoned for decades, it reopened in 2013 with 31 sculptures celebrating the female form, from Auguste Rodin’s Eva to Sean Henry’s Walking Woman, dotted between stately stands of birch, oak and pine. The sculpture park’s financier, Christian Ringnes, also refurbished the park’s Ekeberg Restaurant, a rare example of functionalist style from 1929 and the place for a superb chunky, saffrony fish soup, as well as for mesmerising views over Oslo. The next plan is to build a funicular gondola to bring people directly up from the Opera House.
Art in culinary form is also thriving, as witnessed by Michelin’s first-ever standalone Nordic guide, which was published in April. Maaemo is the hotspot, having gained instant fame when it was awarded two stars upon its debut, and was the only Norwegian inclusion in the San Pellegrino 2014 top 100 restaurants list. Situated in Bjørvika, in the shade of the Bar Code, it has just opened a test kitchen, where you can watch chef Esben Holmboe Bang creating his unforgettable set menu of 25 courses. Laid bare on the plate is the very soul of Norway, from an emulsion of raw Norwegian oysters with a mussel-dill sauce to “porridge of very sour cream with dried reindeer heart and cured wild game duck”. Local ingredients, often foraged, often humble, are its ethos; the result of the team’s passion and considerable expertise is food fit for the (Norse) gods.
Less local is the slick Japanese-fusion restaurant, Hanimi, Oslo’s take on London’s Zuma. It delivers soft-shell crabs or delicious sashimi of smoked halibut to a vibrant crowd, which spills out onto tables at the waterfront in Tjuvholmen. Nearby is the more home-grown seafood bar Sjømagasin, which serves the freshest of Norway’s blue mussels.
Traditionalists must try one of the open sandwiches at Theatercaféen, the place to be seen since 1900. But even this Oslo of yesteryear is changing to the beat of the emerging city. It is part of the Hotel Continental, which recently unveiled its new look, courtesy of British firm RPW Design, bringing this still-family-owned Leading Hotel of the World firmly up to date without relinquishing the famous collection of Munch lithographs in the lobby. Across the square, abutting Oslo’s most elegant street, is the Grand Hotel, where all Nobel Peace Prize laureates stay. But here Anemone Wille Våge, clearly the designer of the moment, has breathed new life into its Palm Court, an art-nouveau jewel of a dining room. Upstairs, a few of the suites have been recently refurbished in bold tones of purple and green.
Just near the Grand Hotel, by the parliament building – with its two arms symbolically stretched out to embrace the people – is Oslo’s main shopping district. There is Eger Karl Johan, a high-end department store that’s home to niche perfume boutique Heaven Scent; and Steen & Strøm, the Harrods of Oslo, busily going about a complete refurbishment, prompted by the arrival of a cluster of designer stores. The capital’s first Gucci opened in the summer of 2013, with Marc by Marc Jacobs and Bottega Veneta swiftly following suit. More luxury can be found on the waterfront in Aker Brygge, at the interiors/vintage store Milla Boutique. The shop has a cult following for its range of Bjørg jewellery (think silver anatomical hearts), its Voluspa scent, a unique stock of Missoni Home products and a showcase of curious monkey skulls designed by John André Hanøy.
Arcoss the bridge, back in Tjuvholmen, are the city’s best contemporary art galleries. The acclaimed Semmingsen relocated there in May, just next door to Galleri Pushwagner, where the screamingly bright pop art of one of Oslo’s greatest artists, Terje Brofos, can be had for a (not modest) price.
The “go now before it is too late” importunement is one to be delivered selectively, lest it sound like a cliché. Lucky, then, that of Oslo, one can say go now or go later – for this is not a city in which to reflect too long on things that have been, but one in which it is always possible to glimpse what can be.