Oslo forest sognsvann

Oslo: The City in the Forest

We headed to Oslo for a short break in mid-June with two main aims. The first was to get to the Bislett Games Diamond League athletics after a two-year Covid enforced delay. The second was to explore some of the forest that engulfs Norway’s capital city. Oslo is more or less surrounded by forest on three sides, with the waters of the Oslofjord bounding the fourth. During our stay, we found that there was also a huge amount of wildlife to be seen in the city centre itself. This, almost as much as our woodland walking, made us feel that Oslo really is the city in the forest.

Oslomarka: Balancing People and Nature

‘Oslomarka’ refers to the area of forested hills that surround the city, providing lots of recreational opportunities for the capital’s inhabitants. Norwegians are passionate about getting outside and there are numerous walking and cross-country skiing trails throughout. The area is also extremely easy to access using public transport. The city’s metro lines and buses all take you directly to walking or skiing trailheads. This means it is a no-brainer for people to leave the car at home.

Oslo city in the forest Nordmarka
Oslo’s forest is full of walking and skiing trails

Because the forest is seen as so important to Oslo, in 2009 a law called Markaloven was passed that set out regulations for land use within Oslomarka. Unusually, the emphasis was on ensuring people could continue to use the forest for recreation and agriculture, rather than taking nature protection as its starting point. This is because the Norwegian lawmakers recognised that if people can’t access and connect with nature, they will have little respect for it. Consequently, they won’t be concerned with protecting it. Future development and use of the forest are strictly regulated, but access is guaranteed.

A Walk in Nordmarka

There are many options for accessing the forest, but we plumped for a walk in the Nordmarka area, the section north of the city centre. With a bit of research we found a route with metro stations at each end. To get about, we bought 24-hour travel passes, valid on all of Oslo’s transport network. Despite Norway’s (in our opinion, inaccurate) reputation as an expensive country, these were quite a bit cheaper than the London equivalent. The trip started right in the centre of the city at Jernbanetorget with the metro to the end of Line 1 at Frognerseteren. From there, we planned to walk to Sognsvann station, nine kilometres away.

Nordmarka forest walk
Walking routes are well marked by Norway’s trekking association, DNT

The metro took us into the heart of Nordmarka, and as soon as we stepped off, we found our first way markers. A few steps more and we were listening to a singing redwing, something only a lucky few get to hear in the UK. These thrushes only breed in the UK in tiny numbers and are restricted to northern Scotland.

Singing redwing

For the next hour or two we followed a mixture of wide and small forest tracks, surrounded by the songs of more redwings, blackcaps and willow warblers. We also saw a few wood ant nests and dragonflies, all getting active as the day got increasingly warmer.

Wood ant nest
A huge wood ant nest
Ullevålseter to Sognsvann

Halfway round is the Ullevålseter lodge or ‘hytte’, serving drinks and snacks. This is in a beautiful open meadow in a break in the forest. We decided to stick to our packed lunch and sat by a nearby pond to rest and eat. As we sat, we watched a pair of spotted flycatchers repeatedly dart out from the trees to hover over the pond and catch insects.

May lily
May lily was one of the many flowers we saw

Then we heard a song we didn’t recognise and saw a beautiful summer plumage fieldfare. These members of the thrush family may also occasionally breed in Scotland, but they are common breeders in Norway. As an added bonus, we also got brief views of a pied flycatcher and a gang of swifts screamed overhead.

Fieldfare adult

Setting off again, there were almost too many different route options for the second half of the walk. Picking one, we found ourselves on a busier section of the trail, with plenty of locals using the forest to run, walk and cycle despite the heat. Before too long we reached the northern end of Sognsvann lake, which has a fully accessible gravel path around it. This is further evidence of the importance Norwegians place on being able to access nature. Despite the lake’s popularity, we saw a stunning black-throated diver, completely unperturbed by nearby swimmers. In Scotland, these are shy breeders on remote lochs, but here they seem to be far less bothered by humans.

Nordmarka black-throated diver
Black-throated diver on Sognsvann

At the southern end of the lake, it was only a short distance to the metro station for the 20-minute journey back into town. It was noticeable heading both into and out of the forest how many school parties were heading out for day trips to Nordmarka. We saw a number of school groups of primary age children. All were using the metro, and all experiencing the wonders of the forest at an early age. Oslo really does make the most of this amazing resource on its doorstep.

The Forest in the City

Our trip to Oslo was short and sweet, but we did have the following morning to explore the city itself. Before long, it was clear that a number of species we think of as shy and/or almost entirely rural were living in the heart of the capital. I’ve written about the UK’s more surprising urban wildlife, and so it shouldn’t have been so surprising to find some real gems in the middle of Oslo, but somehow it still was.

City tree sparrow
Oslo city tree sparrow

Oslo’s Spikersuppa and Pride Park was our first stop. This green area next to the Norwegian Parliament buildings has an ice-skating rink in winter. It is also Oslo’s ‘rainbow place. This celebrates the city’s diversity and openness, and commemorates those who have fought for gay rights over the years. Within no time at all there we saw numerous fieldfares and were then even more surprised to see tree sparrows amongst the expected house sparrows.

We had time for one more stop after this. We headed to the city’s Botanical Gardens, a 20-minute walk away. This beautiful area is home to the Natural History Museum (earmarked for a future visit). It also includes a large expanse of native and overseas planting. Fieldfares were once again everywhere, with lots of harried parents feeding youngsters. We also saw more tree sparrows and were surprised to see a stock dove as we sat outside the garden’s café. It was even more amazing to hear two separate lesser whitethroats from shrubs right by a busy city road and inner-city school!

Juvenile fieldfare
A juvenile fieldfare

Sadly, we had to end our visit there with a train to catch, but this was a great end to the trip. We will definitely be back to explore more of this incredible city in the forest.

Further Reading

The Visit Oslo website is an indispensable guide to the city and surrounding areas. As well as providing inspiration for things to do, it is a one-stop shop for eating, transport and accommodation information.

Ruter run the booking and information services for Oslo’s transport systems, including bus, tram and metro. They offer a variety of cost-effective tickets, and their route maps are useful for planning a trip into the forests surrounding Oslo.

If you would rather let someone else do the planning, Oslo Hiking provide a range of guided walks in the forests around the capital. All the walks start in the city centre and utilise public transport, so are a brilliant option for those not wanting to stride out alone.

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