Discovering Karl Johan, Oslo’s Main Street

Things to Do, Travel Tips — By Anne-Sophie Redisch on March 22, 2010 at 3:41 pm

A walk along Karl Johan, Oslo’s Main Street, is a nice and easy introduction to the city. Named for a 19th century king of Norway and Sweden, Karl Johan stretches from Oslo Central Station to the Royal Palace; about 1.5 kilometres packed with things to see, do, eat, drink and experience. It’s lined with a mixture of old and new buildings, representing Neo-Classicism, Neo-Gothicism, Historicism, Swiss dragon style and glass/steel; it all works rather well. With shops, boutiques, cafes, hotels and offices, it’s a busy, lively street with cafes bringing their business out on the sidewalk during summer. Tables outdoors can be hard to come by after 3 pm on nice summer days, when everyone meets for after-work beers. Karl Johan is also Oslo’s major venue for the 17 May celebrations – Norway’s National Day.

Karl Johan

With that, let’s start our stroll!

Your first meeting with Oslo will likely be the central railway station. Leaving that large, rather ungainly structure, Karl Johan greets you right outside the door. Along the pedestrianised first half, you’ll soon pass the 170-year-old bazaar halls of Kirkeristen. Today the old bazaars house cafes and shops selling handicrafts, antiques and groceries. And, oddly, nuts of every kind.

Within the enclosure behind Oslo Cathedral is Trattoria Cappuccino. Only open in summer, it’s a popular lunch spot for offices nearby. Also, pram-pushing mums and dads on parental leave meet for long, cosy coffee breaks under the canopy of the large trees. Continuing along Karl Johan, you’ll soon reach Egertorget Square, full of shops, cafes and restaurants. Street musicians entertain during summer, many from the Americas.

Parliament is next, the entrance flanked by two large stone lions. (The small hill in front of Parliament is locally known as Løvebakken – Lion’s Hill). From here, Karl Johan widens and is no longer for pedestrians only. Cars are never really intrusive though. This is a street for people. On your right side, you’ll now see the fabulous Louis XIV-style Grand Hotel, where visiting rock stars, film stars, world politicians and Nobel Peace Prize winners stay. They all wave from the small balcony facing Parliament. At street level is Grand Café with large windows and excellent prawn sandwiches. In the 1880s, a famous band of artists, writers and academics, the Kristiania Bohéme, used to hang out here. The large mural on the back wall of the café depicts the lot of them.

Recognize the dark-clad man with a top hat to the left? That’s Henrik Ibsen. Grand Café was his second home and the famous playwright would stop by twice a day to enjoy a beer and a newspaper. So punctual was he, you could set your watch by him. Today, his table is displayed in the café.

On your left is Spikersuppa, a small park with a covered outdoor café and fountains in summer. In winter, most of Spikersuppa is transformed into an outdoor ice skating rink, prettily illuminated at night with music emanating from loudspeakers. Next is the National Theatre, another of Oslo’s landmark buildings and back to the your left is the University of Oslo law faculty.

Royal Palace

Continue walking up to the Royal Palace and try to make the King’s Guards smile. Seems their duty also consist of being the subject of numerous photos with people trying to kiss them. They’re not allowed to speak or smile. Or kiss back.

Photos courtesy of Mahlum (Wikimedia Commons), Grand Cafe ( and toffiloff on flickr

Tags: Grand Cafe, Grand Hotel, Karl Johan, National Theatre, Norway, Norwegian Parliament, Oslo, Oslo Royal Palace, Outdoor Ice Skating Rink, Scandinavia, spikersuppa, University of Oslo