The capital city of such a spectacularly beautiful country as Norway is something of a visual let-down at first - most of its architecture is post-1950s and its old city and waterfront area has burnt down 16 times in its history, meaning there are few of the classic and colourful wooden structures you normally associate with the country. Yet, this city of 1.5 million people has a lovely, natural setting, in its own (albeit low-level) fjord surrounded by islands, clean water and thousands of boats. It's clean and safe and almost everyone speaks English, yet, it has a distinct Scandinavian feel.
It's the low-key urban side of the city I find most impressive. There is an atmosphere of quiet sophistication here, characterised by the soft tone of voice with which people address you and the civilised hush you find in bars and restaurants. Places aren't ruined by loud music and there's a marked lack of shouting, making a break here genuinely relaxing.
If you approach them, locals take time when you ask them for help or directions. Although they are known for being reserved, I found Norwegians to be some of the most direct and helpful people in Europe. It's also a year-round city, with different atmospheres and attractions in winter and summer: in winter, go skiing or hole up in a snug restaurant; in summer, take a boat cruise or relax in the city's parks and outdoor cafes. Its latest draw is the new Renzo Piano designed Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, situated on the water at Tjuvholmen, a new section of the city's waterfront.
A comfortable bed
The best hotel in town is probably the Hotel Continental, which dates from 1900 and sits in a central location, opposite the National Theatre on Stortingsgata (www.hotelcontinental.no; 0047 22 82 40 00). Rooms are supremely comfortable and clean without being ostentatious; from 2,190 kroner (Dh1,450) per night including taxes, breakfast and Wi-Fi.
Over by the Akershus Castle is the First Hotel Grims Grenka, the flagship hotel of the Norwegian design hotels chain that operates throughout Scandinavia. A funky, modern property in an old building, it features striking interiors and a large rooftop terrace (www.firsthotels.com; 0047 23 10 72 00). Rooms cost from 1,315 kroner (Dh872) per night including taxes, breakfast and Wi-Fi.
Find your feet
Explore the waterfront first, starting at the hulking mass of Oslo City Hall. Its grand interior, featuring murals depicting the country's history, is open to the public. Farther along the waterfront, on its own promontory, is Akershus Castle, a collection of impressive historic buildings dating from 1299. Then make your way around to Aker Brygge and Tjuvholmen on the western side to get some sea air and perhaps a fresh seafood dinner or lunch, before turning up into town and the dramatic yet sedate central street - Karl Johans Gate - with the Royal Palace situated at one end in a pretty park. If you arrive by boat, the impressive modern Oslo Opera House (www.operaen.no) sits just by the docks.
Meet the locals
Grünerløkka is a newly trendy area north of the city centre featuring small cafes, restaurants and bars and a growing number of vintage and second-hand shops. Hop between cosy bars, restaurants and shops to tune into the city's civilised pulse. Nearby, DogA, the Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture, features an exhibition space, cafe and shop, and hosts events. Slightly self-conscious and serious, but interesting, is the House of Literature behind the Royal Palace (www.litteraturhuset.no), which features a large, open cafe full of people on laptops and a varied programme of talks and events.
Book a table
For a delicious fish lunch on the waterfront, you can't beat the ultra-modern Tjuvholmen Sjomagasin seafood restaurant. The excellent three-course lunch of the day features a main such as "red fish" in a butter sauce with chives and garden vegetables and caviar, from 325 kroner (Dh205) per person. For something more traditional, the grand Viennese Theatrecafeen at Hotel Continental is both historic and cosy. Fish soup from 169 kroner (Dh111) and cod with shrimps, horseradish, eggs, dill and pickled cucumber from 275 kroner (Dh182).
Explore Grünerløkka's independent stores and markets for clothing, toys, jewellery, arts and crafts and local foods. Pur Norsk on Industrigata 36 (www.purnorsk.com) is a Norwegian design and home decor store that also features a gift shop. There are several shopping malls on the outskirts of the city, but for upscale local and international brands in the downtown area, Eger Karl Johan on Karl Johans Gate features more than 300 brands; GlasMagasinet Stortovet, on Stortovet, is one of the country's oldest department stores.
What to avoid
Surprisingly, the Nobel Peace Center on the waterfront is disappointingly lightweight in its treatment of that most famous prize and its winners.
Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies from Dubai to Copenhagen from Dh3,060 return including taxes. Norwegian (www.norwegian.no) flies from Copenhagen to Oslo from 1,000 kroner (Dh660) return including taxes. DFDS Seaways (www.dfds.com) offers a very pleasant overnight ferry crossing between Copenhagen and Oslo from 1,053 Danish kroner (Dh650) each way for two people sharing a private cabin.