For years, Oslo has been known as the ugly duckling of Scandinavian capital cities. Its cuisine and night-life were considered less sophisticated than that in Stockholm or Helsinki, and its arts and culture were largely ignored.
Yet, as the 1994 Winter Olympics takes place in nearby Lillehammer, Oslo is finally earning recognition as a vacation destination. From 1990 to 1993, the number of tourists arriving in Norway grew from about 3.5 million to 4.5 million, says Harald Hansen of the Norwegian Tourist Board. Some of that growth occurred in Oslo as well, Mr. Hansen says, adding that the number of visitors to Oslo rose from 18 to 20 percent between 1990 and 1993.
The city is a maze of intriguing contradictions. A thriving seaport, Oslo's central harbor is home to Aker Brygge, a futuristic glass-cubicled shopping and office arena. Across the harbor sits Akershus Castle, a reminder of the city's medieval roots.
There are more boats than cars in Oslo, and nearly 80,000 bar stools for the city's 450,000 residents -- despite the fact that one drink can cost up to $10.
In any season, outdoor recreation is a mainstay for Oslo residents and visitors alike. A sprawling city in which more than 75 percent of the land is dedicated to parks, forests and beaches, Oslo is a great place for boating, swimming, bicycling and skiing.
Still, I was drawn to Oslo's eccentric and eclectic displays of art and history.
Although Oslo's twin-towered City Hall is relatively modern -- it was completed in 1950 -- it showcases a colorful mural that depicts the city's history over hundreds of years.
Traditional Norwegian heroes and villains are granted equal space. The mural incorporates chilling scenes of Nazi storm troopers terrorizing the city during the German occupation of Norway during Wold War II.
Near City Hall is the Resistance Museum, which provides even greater insight into the Nazi occupation. The museum, housed in a 17th-century building that served as a political prison during World War II, displays nearly every conceivable detail regarding the period. Interactive exhibits allow visitors to relive historical moments.
The museum is located on the grounds of another Oslo attraction -- Akershus Castle. A Renaissance-style palace built in the 14th century, the castle was a fortified royal residence for hundreds of years. It was later converted into a prison. The castle has since been fully restored and is open to the public.
Oslo also has a Royal Palace, located at the foot of Karl Johans Gate, a major downtown thoroughfare. Though it's not open to the public, the palace is in a lovely park, and visitors can walk close to it and view the daily changing-of-the-guard ceremony. The ceremony is a modest event. The park is much more popular as a place for strolling or as a shortcut to other parts of the city.
Park lovers also enjoy the Vigeland Sculpture Park and Museum. Set in Frogner Park, itself a sprawling green and wooded refuge that invites visitors on all but the chilliest of winter days (even in February, when the average temperature is 25 degrees Fahrenheit), the park is an homage to Gustav Vigeland, the world-famous Norwegian sculptor.
Vigeland's bronze figures, which line a pathway throughout the park, are chubby, pot-bellied creatures in all shades of emotion -- from happy smiles to screaming temper tantrums.
A central feature in Vigeland Park is the sculptor's most controversial creation. Vigeland created a monolith, 60 feet high, in which he carved figures from a single piece of granite. Surrounding this monument are stone-carved figures engaging in all of life's activities, from eating and sleeping to loving and hating.
Edward Munch, another world-famous Norwegian artist, brought his own macabre spirit to his paintings, many of which are housed at the Munch Museum. His stark, expressive quality was inspired by Van Gogh and Gauguin and evokes nightmarish feelings.
Investigating Norway's explorers in nearby Bygdoy, an island across Oslo's central harbor, offers perhaps a more light-hearted activity.
The Viking Ship Museum celebrates Norway's illustrious past. Designed in the shape of a cross, the museum displays three ancient ships that were discovered 100 years ago in Oslofjord. The ships, named Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune, date to 800-900 A.D., and served as burial vessels for royalty and nobility. When discovered, the ships were nearly perfectly preserved.
The ships were more than elaborate coffins, having been equipped with furniture -- such as ceremonial sleighs -- that were intended for use in the afterlife. Elaborate jewelry and textiles were also found.
At the Kon Tiki Museum, also in Bygdoy, a more recent Norwegian legend is on display: a flimsy looking balsa-wood raft, copied from Peruvian boats dating to 500 A.D. and constructed by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl.