The best things in Oslo, however, are free. The wintertime walks, the chance to deep-breathe clear, cold, crystalline air right in the city center, with the fresh snow neatly packed and the building spires looking sharp against the bright-blue sunny sky. Few cities are as lovely as Oslo, with its fairy-tale buildings in the gracious old city square, which is dominated by the Parliament and the Royal Palace, where eager visitors can often catch a glimpse of the king and queen. The skating rink in front of the Parliament is free, as well, although the DJs handling the sound system favor jarring transitions, moving from Bob Dylan to Britney Spears without warning. The remarkable Vigelandsparken (Vigeland Sculpture Park), with more than 200 works spread throughout its expansive grounds, does not charge for entry.

In summer, the focus moves from the ski slopes and trails to the harbor, which is perfectly integrated into the city center that grew up around it. Just as Miami focuses on its beaches, Oslo in summer focuses on its fjords and the islands that lie just a few minutes offshore, easily visited via commuter ferries that cost next to nothing. The waters are cool and clear and filled with small boats, day sailors, kayaks, and practically anything else that floats. Clothing is optional - a larger-than-life mural in city hall celebrates the tradition of nude summer sunbathing (on specially designated beaches) that has long been part of life here. The overall summer combination is hard to beat: a midnight sun that never seems to set, blue waters, green forests, pretty rolling hills, all close to a charming city with excellent restaurants and clubs.

Even in winter, the ferryboats that ply the waters of the Oslofjord offer a fresh way for visitors to see the forests and little villages that dot the region. The seafaring heritage is strong - as you're pulling away from the harbor, it is easy to see the museum holding the polar ship Fram, used by three great Norwegian explorers, including Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole, and the museum with the world's best-preserved Viking ships, the vessels that were the foundation of their power and wealth. The harbor on a cold, sunny morning is a wonderful place to walk and to enjoy the sun reflecting off the calm waters, to look at the old wooden sailboats that seem to be pining for the spring. The boats are overlooked by a thirteenth-­century fortress that now houses a museum detailing Norway's World War II resistance movement; by city hall, where the Nobel Peace Prizes are awarded each year; and by the handsome Nobel Peace Center, a converted railway station that has proved an instant hit with the public since its opening in June 2005.