Unsung Oslo

A unique music festival is the perfect excuse to explore the city’s arty side

Unsung Oslo Festival goers at Øya
By Phil Harrison

There’s a certain kind of undersung European capital city which nevertheless manages to make you wonder whether London is really all it’s cracked up to be. Oslo is that kind of place. It’s clean, friendly and incredibly easy to get around. What’s more, whether you’re after high culture or the grandeur of nature, this city of just over half a million people punches way above its weight.

So it’s logical that it should now be home to an exceptional music festival. The Øya Festival (August 5-10 this year) started small but now punches well above its weight. It began in 1999 with an exclusively Norwegian line-up playing to a thousand or so people. Fourteen years on, remarkable exponential growth has rendered this four-day behemoth almost unrecognisable from its modest beginnings.

The festival’s line-up – which, at the time of writing, was still far from complete – is an immaculately selected mixture of this year’s reliable summer suspects (Kraftwerk in 3D, Tame Impala, Kendrick Lamar), a few wildcards (apocalyptic post-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Stoner metal legends Electric Wizard, for that all-important Norwegian church-burning vibe) and a smattering of local talent. Look out for Beach House, Azealia Banks, The Knife and Blur too. And, for dedicated, high-endurance pleasure-seekers, there are numerous associated gigs and club nights all over town during the festival too.

But the niche established by Øya is about more than just the music. Aspects of the festival sound almost too good to be true. There’s delicious organic food prepared by youthful Oslo chefs. Norwegian dance producer Lindstrøm is teaming up with Oslo's Maaemo restaurant to present a special brunch during the festival. And the whole thing seems proudly, almost obsessively green. It won the ‘Greenest Festival in Europe’ award in 2010 and the organisers have even produced a book exploring the environmental impact of music festivals, focusing on waste management, transportation, energy use, food and purchase routines.

So what’s the catch? Well, Oslo is many things but cheap certainly isn’t one of them. With beer setting you back an eye-watering £7 a pint, this probably isn’t a jaunt for hardcore British hedonists on limited budgets. Of course, the upside of this is that Øya hasn’t, and probably never will acquire the sort of Reading-del-Sol vibe that has come to characterise various other European festivals (hello Benicassim). Oh, and everyone here is gorgeous. Not the worst problem, perhaps. But prepare to feel a little pasty and inadequate at times.

So given that you probably aren’t going to Oslo to get hammered and bellow along to Beady Eye, what else is on the agenda? After all, four days is a whole lot of festival. As mentioned above, Oslo is incredibly user-friendly in terms of transport and location. On the western side of the city lies the Bygdoy Peninsula – its lovely beaches (with surprisingly warm water) and bucolic atmosphere are perfect for recharging batteries. It’s best accessed by boat – ferries depart regularly from Pier 3 at Oslo City Hall and are free with city bus passes. Appropriately, you can check out the Kon-Tiki and Viking museums while you’re there and get a real sense of Norway’s maritime heritage.

Arguably the cultural highlight of the city is the superb Edvard Munch Museum (Tøyengata 53). As far as monuments to existential despair go, Munch’s ‘The Scream’ is probably the definitive painterly article – and it’s even more harrowing and astonishing up close and seen as one piece of a Triptych. There’s another version of this iconic artwork at Norway’s National Gallery (7014 St. Olav’s plass) which will form part of the ‘Munch 150’ exhibition celebrating the 150th anniversary of the artist’s birth.  

Munch, and ‘The Scream’ in particular has now become a worldwide totem – a part of global culture as much as it's a part of Norway’s. So perhaps it’s fitting to end with an attraction that seems distinctively Norwegian. The Vigeland sculpture arrangement is located within Frogner Park and an 80 acre monument to the peculiar vision of Gustav Vigeland. The sculptures might not be to everyone’s taste but this outsized parade of angry cherubs, wrestling titans and huge, distinctly phallic monoliths will leave you in no doubt that this is a city boasting its own very distinct aesthetic. Like the Øya Festival, it’s simultaneously familiar and possessing a sensibility all of its own.


British Airways flies direct from London Heathrow to Oslo. Returns from £224.

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