For such a small country (it only has about five million people), Norway has a phenomenally robust arts heritage. That legacy dates back well before the filigreed jewelry and impressive ships of the Vikings that once farmed the land and roamed the waters to a cadre of world-famous masters in various artistic fields at the turn of the century who helped shaped the country into what it is today.
Though Norway once felt like one of Europe’s out-of-the-way places, this northern gem is now more accessible than ever thanks not only to SAS’s expanded flight services, but also a host of new routes both within Europe and to/from North America by upstart rival Norwegian Air (and its fleet of new 777’s and 787’s) that call Oslo their home hub. In short, there’s no better time to visit this Scandinavian treasure, and when you do, there is plenty of artistic culture to explore.
Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Oslo is home to two of Europe’s most famous museums, each dedicated to a single artist: the Ibsen Museum and the Munch Museum. The Ibsen Museum is close to the heart of the town across from the imposing Royal Palace and its sprawling park. The museum is actually housed in the 19th-century apartment building that was the playwright’s home for the last 11 years of his life and where he wrote his two final plays.
While the ground floor and second floor contain small exhibits on Ibsen’s life and works, along with various props, costumes, prizes and archival footage and documents, the real reason to come here is to explore the painstakingly restored apartment where the playwright lived from 1895 until his death in 1906. The home includes authentic interiors and some of Ibsen’s personal belongings, and visitors are taken on a 30-minute tour that discusses his turbulent but accomplished life as they wend their way through the study, library, dining room and bedrooms.
In order to view the apartment, you must go on one of the guided tours, which start every hour on the hour from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and are limited to 15 people (winter hours are reduced until 4:00 p.m., so plan accordingly).
Photo Courtesy of The Munch Museum
Norway’s great modern painter has his own museum a short metro ride away on the eastern side of the city not too far from the main rail station. This impressive, contemporary arts center boasts a collection of nearly 30,000 artworks including nearly 1,200 paintings, and 8,000 drawings taken from Munch’s sketchbooks, plus several sculptures and photographs taken by the artist. This is a multimedia center, so the exhibits often include film screenings, concerts and lectures as well as special tours for families and children.
The main collection is also curated according to special themes from time to time, such as the current topic Through Nature, which looks at Munch’s work through the lens of natural history and pairs his paintings and drawings with artifacts and fossils from the Natural History Museum. The famous Scream is paired with a 47-million-year-old primate skeleton (the oldest ever discovered) called Ida meant to draw Darwin’s theories and a hint of sensationalism to the display. Though you can make your visit here quick, chances are you will spend hours examining the various phases of Munch’s career and learning about his meteoric rise to fame as well as his lifetime of artistic exploration and expression.
Photo Courtesy of Hotel Continental
While in Oslo, spend your nights at the historic, and recently-renovated Hotel Continental. This luxury property is one of the city’s premier hotels, and is just across the street from the National Theater and the metro. The newly renovated rooms have been outfitted with plush, classic wood furniture, neutral-toned fabrics, and bright, tiled bathrooms stocked with Molton Brown products.
In the evening, thread through the crowds strolling Oslo’s newly redeveloped waterfront district of Tjuvholmen and take your pick of trendy restaurants including Japanese-inspired Hanami, or go for a full-on Michelin-starred feast at Maaemo.
Photo Credit: Eric Rosen
The third master whose work merits a stop on your itinerary is the great 19th-century composer, Edvard Grieg, whose home was just outside the beautiful coastal city of Bergen.
You could just take the train or a quick flight directly from Oslo to Bergen, but block out a day to do the breakneck “Norway in a Nutshell” tour that includes a train ride from Oslo to the mountaintop town of Myrdal, from which you take a dramatically descending train track past peaks and waterfalls to the fjord-side town of Flam. From there, it’s a bucolic two-hour cruise along the fjords to the town of Gudvangen and a bus ride through the pristine countryside around Voss before a last train trip into Bergen. It is a long day, but the pictures you take will be the envy of all your friends back home.
Photo Credit: Eric Rosen
After a good night’s sleep, not only will you be ready to explore the medieval alleys of Bergen’s colorful Bryggen neighborhood (where the guilds used to have their offices) or taking the Floibanen funicular up to Floyen for stunning 360-degree views of town and past the fjords out to sea. Music devotees, however, should not miss the chance to take a tour of Grieg’s idyllic country retreat, Troldhaugen, which means “troll hill” in old Norse, and where he lived with his beloved wife (and gifted singer) Nina for 22 years.
Visitors can book guided tours at the central tourism office by the Bergen harbor and then catch one of the organized buses out to the villa. The ride lasts about 20 minutes during which your guide will tell you about the composer’s life and times.
There is now a contemporary visitor’s center with a small exhibit about Grieg and his work, but the main attraction is the beautiful 19th-century villa that sits atop a hill with commanding views of the lake and the woods. The tour explores the ground floor and hones in on various souvenirs and keepsakes as a way into the composer’s life. Guests see the parlor, dining room and veranda, and can even have a look at his very own Steinway piano which he bought in 1892.
During the summer, there is also a lunchtime concert series in the small concert hall down the path from the villa. These concerts last about 30 minutes and include excerpts a few famous works—such as the Piano Concerto in A Minor—but don’t expect to hear much Peer Gynt. Throughout the rest of the year, there are various concert series as well, so check ahead and try to plan your visit accordingly.
Photo Credit: Eric Rosen
Just down the path from the concert hall and overlooking one of the lake’s beautiful inlets is Grieg’s schoolhouse-red composer’s hut. You can peer into and see where the composer would spend his days away from the noisy house working on his music. He was easily distracted, so this was his inner sanctum, though he had a sense of humor as well, as evidenced by the note he would leave on his desk that said, “If anyone should break in here, please leave the musical scores, as they have no value to anyone but Edvard Grieg.” As the final part of your visit, pay your respects at the composer’s lakeside grave in a stone grotto facing his beloved lake.
Bergen is home to one of Scandinavia’s up-and-coming restaurants, Lysverket. It is helmed by a team of young chefs that earned their chops at Thomas Keller’s New York City restaurant Per Se, and their skills are shown off with locally-farmed and foraged ingredients alike. Even better, the restaurant is nestled into a corner of the Bergen Art Museum complex on Rasmus Meyers allé, so you can ruminate on masterworks by Picasso and Klee over dinner.
Even just a few days are enough to cover a lot of ground in Norway, and to explore the genius of three of the modern era’s great artists, each a master in his own field.