The 52 Places Traveler: Keep Oslo Weird

Scenes from Oslo: Clockwise from top right: "#Huglife" installation by Broslo above Karl Johans Gate; the Norwegian Parliament Building; a detail from the door of the Oslo Cathedral; houses on Maridalsveien road, near Kontrast restaurant.

Our columnist, Jada Yuan, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2018 list. This dispatch brings her to Oslo, Norway; it took the No. 26 spot on the list and is the 21st stop on Jada’s itinerary.

Against the bright sky of an Oslo summer evening, three bodies twirled and popped in unison beneath towering Roman columns. Another passer-by, likely drunk, motioned that I should approach very quietly, very carefully. “They are a big, big dance group,” he whispered. “They were on American TV. They are my heroes!”

Did he know the name of their crew? He did not.

Soon enough, though, the hero dancers had come over to say hi. They were Suleman and Bilal Malik, twentysomething twin Norwegian-Pakistani brothers who grew up in Oslo, and their Norwegian-Thai childhood friend Nasir Sirikhan. They are called The Quick Style, and they had paused at the monumental columns of Deichmanske Bibliotek, the country’s biggest library, because they had to perform at a friend’s wedding in an hour and couldn’t remember the routine. “We always used to rehearse outside,” Mr. Sirikhan said. “It’s nice. It’s the feeling as when we started dancing.” (And yes, I looked them up: They won the 2009 edition of “Norway’s Got Talent,” were on Jennifer Lopez’s “World of Dance,” and now run a dance school in China.)

Austin, Tex., has the slogan, “Keep Austin Weird,” and I kept thinking a tweaked version would apply pretty well to Oslo. Glorious surprises seemed to lurk everywhere in this grand Nordic city: an art installation of giant inflatable balloon-bears hanging over the shopping area of Karl Johans Gate; outrageously good food; two of the most idiosyncratic sculpture parks I’ve ever visited. As I texted a friend, “So many nude and phallic sculptures to see, so little time!” Here are some highlights of Oslo, the Great Bizarre.

Climbing through the steep, forested hills of Ekebergparken Sculpture Park on the east side of the city, if you look down, you just might spot a beautifully rendered bronze statue of a woman squatting, pants around her ankles, to urinate.

A 2002 self-portrait of the outspoken Swedish artist Ann-Sofi Siden, it’s called “Fideicommissum,” which is the name of an obsolete, centuries-old Swedish aristocratic law by which property could be handed down only to male heirs. Ms. Siden made her first version of the sculpture as part of a commission for Sweden’s Wanas Castle, which dates back to the 15th century; she’d been wandering the grounds looking for inspiration and had to go. “So in the middle of everything, she’s squatting down, peeing, looking at this property, realizing that ‘this property would never, ever be given to me’,” said Vilde Horvei, a research assistant at Ekebergparken.

The sculpture also turns out to be a fountain — just one that dribbles a thin stream. “Every detail is a copy of her,” Ms. Horvei said. “I had a gynecologist who was very interested in figuring out if — yes, you can see it.” I, of course, looked. That is one realistic bronze vagina.

Ekebergparken is best known for containing the hill that likely inspired Edvard Munch to paint “The Scream.” (Marina Abramovic has an installation on the same spot where you can scream overlooking the city.) But the park, built to service the city’s working class, has actually been in operation for 130 years — barring World War II when it was a Nazi minefield, and, later, cemetery. Only in the past five years did it acquire a public-private artistic council dedicated to creating a world-class sculpture collection they hoped would be “feministic in all its diversity,” as Ms. Vilde put it. “We are always keeping an eye out for the feminine,” Ina Johanessen, the park’s chief executive further explained, “whether in concept, content, or it is a female artist.”

The park is open for free all year, 24 hours a day — although if you want to see “Ganzfield” and “Skyspace,” James Turrell’s disorienting light sculptures set in an old reservoir, be sure to reserve a spot on a free tour on Sundays. And stick around for Fujiko Nakaya’s “Pathfinder #18700 Oslo,” which at very specific times fills the forest with mist.

You also don’t want to miss Ekebergparken’s polar opposite: The Vigeland Park. It’s a very famous, very impressive and, as Ekebergparken’s Ms. Horvei put it, “very masculine” collection of sculptures from Gustav Vigeland inside Frogner Park in the posh west side of town. Paths are wide and manicured, as at Versailles, and contain more than 200 of the Norwegian master’s bronze, granite and wrought iron renderings of the human form — including a delightfully bizarre one of a man being attacked by four babies. The culmination is a 56 foot-tall monolith of intertwined bodies. (Think the Washington Monument, but covered in naked people.) In total, it is the world’s largest sculpture park made by a single artist. It’s also free to visit and open 24 hours a day.

I could have spent the entire trip walking along Oslo’s five-and-a-half-mile-long harbor promenade. And I would have, if it hadn’t rained torrentially for most of my trip.

One sunset stroll took me past a dozen fishermen sitting on bait buckets to the Akershus Fortress, a medieval castle once used as a royal residence, where you can wander among cannons for free until 9 p.m. — or come by at 1:10 p.m. to follow the changing of the royal guard. The guards march through city streets to the Royal Place, the actual home of King Harald V and Queen Sonja, where you can also wander the grounds for free and pretty late.

Another day, I was overjoyed to hang out with a friend, Sam Chamberlin, the brother of my first New York City roommate, who randomly happened to be in Oslo. Sam makes boats for a living in Maine, so we, of course, had to visit the Viking Ship Museum on the city’s Bygdoy peninsula — after he awoke early to walk along the water and through a working dairy farm with free public paths next to the king’s summer residence. (I overslept and took a bus.) The giant Viking-era ships were impressive, but we both agreed that we would have spent all day at the nearby Norsk Folkemuseum. It’s huge and open-air, featuring actual houses with grass roofs, or on stilts, that you get to walk through to see how Norwegian people lived from the 1500s until now.

The green asparagus I had eaten at Kontrast, chef Mikael Svensson’s Michelin-starred restaurant, were, he told me, from a farm on the other side of the Oslo Fjord. The wasabi leaves that had topped it, along with a buttery sauce of fermented mackerel, came from a friend of his who is growing weird herbs in his garage. “The whole menu you had is never going to exist again,” he said, because he only works with fresh, local ingredients. “Asparagus season is like three weeks and then it’s over. You had the very last asparagus that there is, and then we have to wait a year.”

Mr. Svensson grew up cooking with whole animals in the Swedish countryside and is part of a larger wave of young Oslo chefs who traffic in bold experimentation and hearty flavors rather than the minimalism of, as he calls it, “boring New Nordic” cuisine. The orange marigolds that topped my dessert of milk ice cream and sea buckthorn curd had come from the restaurant’s rooftop garden, where we spoke. The tender king crab I ate had spent no more than an hour out of water before getting to my table. With its topping of fresh rosehip and sauce of rhubarb juice and brandy, it had appeared on my plate like a red and white flower, floating in a tiny red pond. (The 10-course tasting menu is 1,450 kroner, about $178.)

Beyond the Folk Museum, the place where I could have spent all day was the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art. It’s right on the Oslo Fjord in a glorious neo-modernist building designed by Renzo Piano, and its permanent collection includes Jeff Koons’s “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” and Anselm Keifer’s monstrous, Bibically-themed installation of lead books. But I was most taken by an eclectic exhibition in which visitors could wander from a fluorescent sculpture by Robert Irwin to free-standing walls arranged like dominoes and hung with paintings from Takashi Murakami and Richard Serra. Even the colorful chairs we all plopped down in from time to time turned out to be sculptures by the late Australian provocateur Franz West. (Download their app for a free audio guide.)

— Oslo has some of the least intuitive restaurant hours that I have experienced on this trip so far; many places of note are closed Sundays and Mondays. Maaemo, the one restaurant in the city with three Michelin stars, is closed Tuesdays, too. Le Benjamin, though, is open on Sundays and where all the restaurant people go. “No one eats on Mondays,” Mr. Svensson said.

— Food halls are a way to stave off hunger and try out a billion sumptuous options. Vippa has a hippie vibe and Ethiopian and Mexican fare. The more upscale Mathallen Oslo, next door to Kontrast, is where you get gelato, duck confit sandwiches and reindeer sausage. They’re both closed Mondays. I recommend drinking your calories; Sam and I loved the plant-filled cocktail bar Torggata Botaniske.

If you’re planning on cramming in a lot of attractions, consider an Oslo Pass. Prices start around $49 a day (395 kroner) and it pays itself back in unlimited entrance fees to 30 museums, public pools, and public transport. (Again, check what is closed Sundays and Mondays — a lot!)

Among other stops, I used my pass to run into The National Gallery for 30 minutes before closing and pose in front of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” Can’t say I’m proud of it, but I do think I got my money’s worth.

Jada Yuan is traveling to every place on this year’s 52 Places to Go list. For more coverage, or to send Jada tips and suggestions, please follow her on Twitter at @jadabird and on Instagram at @alphajada.

Previous dispatches:

1: New Orleans

2: Chattanooga, Tenn.

3. Montgomery, Ala.

4. Disney Springs, Fla.

5. Trinidad and St. Lucia and San Juan, P.R.

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