This winter's record snowfall and frigid temperatures in the Northeast have had most people fantasizing about shedding their snow boots and running away to a tropical island. So when I told people that my winter getaway would take me in the opposite direction—to Oslo—I got more than a few raised eyebrows. Why travel hundreds of miles closer to the Arctic Circle, to the most expensive city in Europe, in February? I set out to convince myself (and the brave friend who agreed to join me) that it's not crazy to visit Scandinavia in the dead of winter. And I was right.
It's Less Expensive Than You Think
Yes, Oslo is expensive. But lately, the relative strength of the dollar has made most international travel much more affordable, and Norway's petroleum-dependent economy has taken a hit due to falling oil prices. As a result the krone (NOK), which usually hovers around 5.25 to the dollar, has dropped to 7.5 or more to the dollar and is likely to stay there for a while.
Early each winter, many airlines post fare sales for travel throughout northern Europe between January and March, with round-trip fares from New York to major destinations averaging $400 or less; my ticket to Oslo for the first week of February was only $300 on Norwegian Air Shuttle. Once you get to the city, a seven-day metro pass is 240 NOK, or about $32. (Prices given are for Zone 1 tickets only, which are adequate for the casual visitor.) The pass is valid on all subways, trams, buses, and ferries.
You Can Relax with a Cup of Coffee
As one might expect of people who endure months of cold and darkness, Norwegians take their coffee seriously, and Oslo is filled with cozy cafés serving stellar coffee and pastries almost too pretty to eat. My java-loving friend had one must-visit shop on her list, though—Tim Wendelboe, the city's premier coffee roaster. This bare-bones storefront puts the focus 100 percent on the beans; they serve only coffee, only for take-away, but on Saturdays at 11 am, you can sign up for a one-hour “cupping,” akin to a wine-tasting, where a knowledgeable employee explains the roasting and brewing process and leads visitors through a tasting of six coffees.
Enjoy Eating, Drinking, and Shopping
Oslo's fine-dining scene reflects diverse cultures, but we wanted to keep our focus as local as possible. Kolonihagen, tucked away at the back of a courtyard and up under the eaves of an old house, is lauded for its farm-to-table ethos and modern, seasonal dishes. The 19th-century Restaurant Finstua at Frognerseteren serves traditional fare, such as Cognac-marinated whale Carpaccio with seaweed salad and roasted reindeer loin with mushrooms and spiced apples.
Alcoholic drinks are notoriously pricey throughout Scandinavia, but Oslo boasts many nightspots worth the splurge. Grünerløkka Brygghus is a lively gastropub with a wide-ranging selection of microbrews and its own in-house brewery. Farther down the hill toward the city center, Glød beckons visitors in from the cold to gather around its fireplace and sip a glass of wine. Music lovers flock to the cavernous Blå to see jazz and pop bands or to check out up-and-coming DJs from around the world.
Shopping in Oslo offers a range of experiences. The Frogner neighborhood is lined with boutiques selling elegant, minimalist fashions and accessories. In Grünerløkka, shoppers browse weekend flea markets for antique sleds and handmade woolen items, or visit shops like Fransk Bazar for vintage French furniture and houseware, and Velouria Vintage for chunky Aran sweaters or perfectly worn-in cowboy boots.
One surprise upon our arrival in Oslo was how pleasant it was to be outside. Temperatures during our stay were in the upper 30s to low 40s, which felt positively balmy compared to the subzero wind chills back in New York, and we had eight solid hours of sunshine each day. Norwegians are outdoorsy people, and Oslo offers many fresh-air activities, including municipal ice-skating rinks and an extensive network of cross-country skiing trails. Our focus was on the sledding run known as Korketrekkeren (“The Corkscrew”), which starts at the Frognerseteren metro stop and takes riders along 2km of hair-raising hairpin turns before ending at the Midstuen station, seven stops away. Sleds are available for rent at Akeforenigen, next to the Frognerseteren lodge, for about $13 per day; the fee includes a helmet. This ride, especially in late winter, when the snow is packed hard and smooth, is not for the faint of heart; with a vertical descent of 255 meters, you can reach ear-popping speeds.
Wealth of Culture
For a relatively small city, Oslo boasts an incredible wealth of cultural attractions that span more than a millennium of human achievement, ranging from the traditional (Munch Museum) to the quirky (Norwegian Museum of Magic). The Viking Ship Museum, situated in a quiet residential area across the harbor from the city center, features two remarkably well-preserved ships dating from the ninth century, plus artifacts from the Viking era. Across town, the Vigeland Park is the world's largest sculpture park devoted to the work of a single artist. Outdoor “galleries” display more than 200 bronze, granite, and wrought-iron sculptures by early 20th-century artist Gustav Vigeland.
Oslo's reputation as a leader in cutting-edge architecture and design was solidified with the construction of its stunning waterfront opera house. Aside from its role as the home of the national ballet and opera companies, the building itself draws crowds of tourists and locals, who have turned its dramatically sloping roof into one of the most popular gathering spots in the city. It's the perfect place to enjoy a glass of wine as you watch the sunset on the water.