Have you ever visited a city and felt like something was missing? You’ve toured the touristy areas, you’ve seen the sights, but somehow you’re not sure how it all fits together, what’s between those landmarks and what ‘lies East’. Or maybe, you haven’t captured the atmosphere of the city, how it grew and the way the locals actually live, work, and play.
Basically, you haven’t scratched beneath the surface.
This is what happened to me in Oslo.
It was my second time in the city but I still had pretty much everything left to discover. My first visit had been in winter to celebrate New Year’s Eve with a group of friends, and given the snowy/freezing weather, the lack of daylight (night fell around 2-3pm) and our
lazy festive mood, aside from a day of sightseeing along the Aker Brygge harbour area to take in the Museum of Modern Art, the old sea fortress, and the opera house, I had spent most of my time helping watching my friend prepare reindeer steaks (really!) and chocolate mousse for our NYE meal, and drinking aperitifs by the fire.
So, I was glad to have a second opportunity to explore the city, and I spent my first day back in ‘the North’ completing my rounds of Oslo’s must-sees.
I made the most of the splendid weather by walking around Vigeland Park, one of the world’s largest sculpture parks, which features sprawling green lawns and more than 200 sculptures by Gustav Vigeland representing the ‘human condition’ at various stages of life.
Basically, it’s both a great place to relax and an open-air museum.
I then walked to Bygdøy Peninsula to visit the Viking Ship Museum – which, as its name suggests, houses three Viking ships unearthed by a local farmer. The ships were used as graves, and the stories of the bodies they guarded and of the objects found inside are shrouded in mystery and rather fascinating.
Yet, after all this sunny sightseeing, it seemed like I hadn’t really got a ‘feel’ for the city.
We tend to think of Scandinavian countries as the (slightly annoying) ‘perfect students’ who top the livability, happiness, and other ‘social progress’ rankings – modern, proper, rich, expensive…and, well, maybe a bit too square. But was there another side to Oslo?
I decided that the best way to find out was to join an alternative bike tour of Oslo with AlternativOSLO.
AlternativOSLO is the smallest company offering city tours of Oslo, and the only one that proposes bike, tram, and walking tours. As it provides a more personal treatment and focuses on off-the-beaten-path areas, it seemed like the perfect fit for me and I was quick to say yes when the owner suggested I join the Akerselva Bike Tour scheduled for a few days later!
I was well-inspired to grab my rain coat on a last-minute impulse, as it started pouring down as soon as I met our guide Graciela outside Oslo’s main train station. From there, we caught our bikes and jumped on a train to Maridalsvannet, Oslo’s drinking water reservoir and the start of the Akerselva river.
The concept of the tour was simple: follow the course of the river over 8km from source to mouth, passing through industrial history, waterfalls, recreation areas, fishing spots and forests along the way, and taking in some of the bordering neighborhoods. Cycling down the Akerselva is also a journey through time, from the 19th-century factories to the modern buildings on the banks of the Oslo Fjord.
Did you know that before the Norwegians discovered oil, Norway was a rather poor country whose economy was dominated by the wood industry? Tree trunks were transported on the Akerselva and processed in factories around the river, and those factories and mills also used the current from the river as a power source. The workers were housed in nearby residences, eating and sleeping in collective areas.
After a few kilometres of cycling next to the Akerselva, we left the river and Oslo’s industrial past behind to explore the young, bohemian boroughs of St Hanshaugen to the West and Grünerløkka to the East.
These areas are home to design collectives, music venues, and Nordic microbreweries. Stops included the trendy Vulkan Mathallen covered market to sample local cheeses, squats converted into ‘art factories’ and street art, as well as preserved, stuck-in-time little streets. Unfortunately, my camera was drowning by then, so the photographic evidence kinda dried out (pun intended).
Rejoining the river, we reached central Oslo via Grønland, an ethnically diverse immigrant area with markets and restaurants, to end up at the very modern iceberg-shaped Oslo National Opera House, our last stop on the tour.
After a last group picture, we all headed home for a well-deserved hot shower!
Overall, the Akerselva Bike Tour was a great way to connect different offbeat sights and to learn more about the other sides of Oslo thanks to the wealth of information distilled by our guide. Although by no means physically challenging (the biking was almost 100% downhill!), the 4 hours of cycling still provided a bit of a workout and a fun way to spend a half-day… and I won’t spoil it all for you, but Graciela’s anecdotes really brought the city to life for me!
Disclaimer: I received a small discount from AlternativOSLO to take part in the Akerselva Biking Tour. However, I only partner up with companies I am genuinely excited about, and all opinions are solely my own!
What do you think of Oslo’s different facets? Do you like to dig deeper when exploring a city? Have you been on an alternative tour? Let me know in the comments below!
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