Downtown Oslo has probably never struck you as a beach destination but on the southern edge of the little island of Tjuvholmen, a 10-minute walk across one of two bridges from Oslo’s monumental 1930s City Hall, an arc of shingle and coarse sand shelves gently into the chill blue-black waters of the Oslofjord. Assuming you don’t mind cold, you can swim here in summer and fish from the shore, too. Indeed an underwater reef has been cultivated in order to nurture a range of marine life, even lobsters. As Peter Groth, chief executive of Aspelin Ramm, one of the developers of the island, puts it, “Twenty years ago, having a bathing beach here would have been completely unthinkable. It’s fantastic that people can again go swimming in the Oslofjord.”
Compared with the other Nordic capitals, Oslo has never been much of a tourist destination. Even the Oslo-based stockbroker-turned-bestselling crime novelist Jo Nesbo conceded recently that it was, until now, “a rather boring town”. But this year there are two compelling reasons to visit the Norwegian capital. The obvious one is the programme of exhibitions devoted to the paintings of Edvard Munch, the 150th anniversary of whose birth falls in December. The other is the near-complete transformation of Tjuvholmen.
Until the start of the millennium, the islet was a dirty, noisy, no-go industrial area, much as most of the city’s waterfront had been until the 1980s, when Norway’s new-found oil wealth began to flow into the capital, prompting the launch of a still-ongoing project called Fjord City, intended to reclaim and renew its docklands and port area. As far as tourism is concerned, its signal achievement to date has probably been the Opera House that opened in 2008, a superb, white marble-clad structure of sloping planes that seems to rise out of the water like an iceberg. If its exterior is sensational, its interiors are more stunning still.
That year, work also began on the transformation of Tjuvholmen into what Groth calls “a living town within the city”, a place of shops, restaurants, galleries, apartments, abundant public art and a 90m-high glass observation tower that vaguely resembles a hypodermic syringe and from which there are views across the city, the fiord and its 40-odd islands.
So far, so interesting. But last autumn, Oslo’s major contemporary art collection, the Astrup Fearnley Museum, relocated to an arresting building on the island: three discrete structures designed by Renzo Piano, unified by a great arcing roof intended to echo the sails of the yachts in the adjacent marina. It is thanks to the museum that you approach the beach via a sculpture garden with works by among others, Louise Bourgeois, Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor, Ellsworth Kelly and Franz West, whose giant quasi-nautical installation of an anchor, lifebuoy and coiled rope stands where the sand starts.
Then, earlier this year, a hotel opened next door, putting the island firmly on the radar of tourists considering an art-themed city-break. Its name, The Thief, harks back to the island’s former reputation as a place over-run with crooks (tjuv means thief in Norwegian), rather than the expense of a weekend here, because though Oslo can be eye-wateringly pricey, the hotel’s rates are not unreasonable. Especially given the very high quality of its rooms, which are elegantly furnished with dark wood walls, Antonio Citterio chairs and desirable Scandinavian textiles, and technologically well-equipped with Samsung Galaxy tablets, motion-sensitive lighting, Geneva sound systems and Nespresso machines.
Still, I hope the name doesn’t tempt fate. “There isn’t another hotel anywhere with an art collection as highly insured,” a passing staff member quipped, as I peered at a Peter Blake hanging in a corridor. Oslo is, after all, where, one Sunday in 2004, armed robbers casually removed Munch’s “Madonna” and “The Scream” from walls in the Munch Museum.
The Thief is filled with seriously good work. There’s a crouching Antony Gormley by the entrance, a Warhol in the restaurant and an enormous Richard Prince (from the “Cowboys” series) dominates reception. Each lift has a different blinking computer animation, commissioned from Julian Opie. Though the works I most appreciated were the ones in my room: a stormy abstract etching by Ornulf Opdahl, within sight of the blissfully comfortable bed, and the compelling time-lapse video installation that was playing on the television when I checked in: a plate of fruit, arranged and lit like a Dutch vanitas painting, that decomposes over a period of perhaps five minutes. It’s by Sam Taylor-Wood, I learnt when I inquired, one of eight video works available on every TV.
Some of the art belongs to the hotel’s co-owners, the brothers Olav and Frederik Selvaag, while the rest is on loan from Astrup Fearnley, and will change periodically, according to the eye of the hotel’s curator, Sune Nordgren, latterly the director both of the Baltic gallery in Gateshead, England, and Oslo’s National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design.
The transformation of Tjuvholmen should be complete next year, but already it feels like a place with its own identity, thanks in part to the fact that 25 architectural practices have been involved in designing its various buildings, which gives the impression that it has grown organically. Along with a handful of commercial art galleries and some alluring shops, there’s a supermarket and proper bakery, which reinforce the sense that the island is a community, and even on a snowy evening, its bars and restaurants were buzzing.
Certainly there’s no shortage of modishly designed places to eat: Onda, right on the water; the fish specialist Tjuvholmen Sjomagasin; and Bolgen & Moi, which has an interior by Snohetta (the local practice behind the opera house and the 9/11 Memorial Museum pavilion in New York), as well as a mural and some collages by Magne Furuholmen, whom readers of a certain age may recognise as Mags from 1980s pop sensation A-ha. Today he’s a major player on the Oslo art scene, the subject of a 400-page tome found, among a selection of art books, in every room at The Thief, having created the installation that Al Gore unveiled in 2007 at the nearby Nobel Peace Centre (another institution worth visiting, incidentally, not least for the Chris Ofili murals in its restaurant, Alfred).
That said, guests could do a lot worse than eat at The Thief itself – chef Kari Innera (a protégée of Marco Pierre White), who presides over its restaurant, Fru K, has created a fascinating menu of rarefied dishes based on typical Norwegian ingredients (whitefish roe, pickled mushrooms, hearty cuts of North Sea fish, white and brown cheeses) and unexpected combinations. A starter of scallops, cured lamb and tapioca in a strong mushroom broth was a revelation. But then Oslo is full of surprises and unlikely juxtapositions, none more extraordinary somehow than that a once-grim industrial enclave should now have at its heart a beach you can actually bathe from.
Rooms at The Thief are from Nkr1,890 (£215)
In the artist’s footsteps
Edvard Munch: 150 years
While the art on Tjuvholmen is contemporary, the rest of Oslo is going mad for Edvard Munch on the 150th anniversary of his birth. Here are best places in and around the city to see his work:
National Gallery The optimum spot to appreciate Munch’s genius right now is Room T of the National Gallery, which contains 17 of his greatest works, including “The Girls on the Pier”, “The Dance of Life”, “The Sick Child” and of course “The Scream”. From June 2 to October 13, the museum will stage the most ambitious exhibition of his work yet: 220 paintings and a near-complete reconstruction of the “Reinhardt Frieze” (commissioned by theatre director Max Reinhardt for the Deutsches Theater in Berlin). www.nasjonalmuseet.no
Munch Museum Its collection runs to 1,100 paintings by the artist (along with more than 20,000 drawings and prints), highlights from which will be on display this summer. There’s also an eclectic programme of Munch-inspired concerts from June 7, curated by the hip and prodigiously versatile Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth. www.munch.museum.no; www.tineatmunch.com
Ekeberg The vantage point where Munch painted “The Scream” can be found in Ekeberg park, four miles southeast of the centre. As Sue Prideaux noted in her definitive biography (Yale, 2005), “What looks like a road in the painting was in fact a path, and the railing is a safety railing, though it looks like a bridge. It does not look very different today if one blanks out the industry around the docks.” There’s a restaurant in the park, a functionalist masterpiece designed in 1927 and a good stop for a lunch of open shrimp sandwiches or various sorts of cured herring. www.ekebergrestauranten.com
Asgardstrand Munch had many homes during his 80-year life, but only one is open to the public (May to September): a modest rust-coloured 18th-century wooden fisherman’s cottage that he bought in 1897 at Asgardstrand on the western edge of the Oslofjord, 60 miles south of the capital. Preserved as it would have looked during the dozen or so summers he lived here, it’s been a museum since 1947; an evocative place in a village where certain trees, houses and boulders remain just as he painted them in “The Girls on the Pier” and “The Storm”.www.munchshus.no
Hotel Continental The bar of this hotel, near the National Theatre on Stortingsgaten, is home to a collection of original Munch woodcuts, lithographs and etchings. However, the artist was more inclined to frequent the café at the Grand Hotel, across the square, where, legend has it, the waiters would trade him meals for drawings (though the maître d’ is said to have turned down the offer of his painting “The Sick Child” in exchange for 100 steaks). www.hotelcontinental.no; www.grand.no