By Jim Ferri
Many travelers would love to travel to Scandinavia.
But for some there always seems to be a reason to put off the trip. It’s too long a flight…the cities are so far apart…the languages are incomprehensible. And, of course, the most famous of all: it’s way too expensive.
I’ve harbored each of those excuses at one time or another. And from experience, I can tell you they’re all inaccurate.
The Facts About Travel in Scandinavia
Just because Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Copenhagen are way up north on the map doesn’t mean they’re difficult to reach. On today’s modern planes, flights to Northern Europe have never been shorter.
It now takes the same time to fly from New York to Copenhagen, Oslo or Stockholm as it does to Paris. Helsinki is about an hour further, the same time it takes to fly to Rome. And as for that language barrier, it’s almost non-existent since most Scandinavians speak perfect English. Much better than me, anyway.
Finally, there’s that expense factor, which isn’t as accurate as many expect.
Yes, Scandinavia can be pricier than other areas of Europe, but there are ways to economize without sacrificing quality. First of all, flights to Europe, in particular on a low-cost carrier such as Wow and Norwegian, have never been cheaper.
Furthermore, the dollar now buys about 30% more in Scandinavia than it did just three years ago.
The one caveat, of course, is that with a new administration in Washington it’s anyone’s guess as to whether that will remain true. Nevertheless, it likely will stay less costly than it was decades ago.
Cutting Hotel and Food Costs
During several trips to Scandinavia, I’ve found that the Internet and common sense can significantly mitigate one’s costs.
It’s well worth your time, for example, to search the Internet for good two- star hotels. Although the rooms in two-star hotels are usually smaller, in Scandinavia they’re clean and comfortable. For example, the Danish chain Cabinn City, near Copenhagen’s Central Station and Tivoli, are $92 double in mid-June. As with any online-booked hotel, just be sure to read non-biased reviews before booking.
You can also cut your food costs without sacrificing quality. At a nice, upscale restaurant in Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, I enjoyed a very good sampler plate of four entrees (more than I could finish), with wine for about $30. For the same price in Oslo, I had a quite good meal with wine at the pasta restaurant Vapiano. In Bergen, I had an excellent dinner of venison along with half a carafe of good wine at Holberg-Stuen, a popular local restaurant, for $50.
And don’t just think of restaurants. Dine in food markets/halls to mix with locals and cut costs. I enjoy the Östermalm Food Hall in Stockholm. At a food stand in Helsinki’s Market Square, I enjoyed reindeer meatballs, wurst, potatoes and a beer for $12.
Planning Your Trip
You can cut costs while enjoying a good sampling of Scandinavia. Plan to spend 14 days in Northern Europe, not including your flights there and back. Fly first to Helsinki and then travel west.
Arrive in Helsinki the morning of Day1 and depart via air for Stockholm on the afternoon of Day 3. The morning of Day 6 fly from Stockholm to Bergen, Norway. Spend 1½ days in Bergen, departing on the morning of Day 8 for a ferry cruise on a fjord. The cruise connects with a trip on the world-famous and spectacular Flam Railway. This is followed by a rail trip across the “Roof of Europe,” the barren yet beautiful Hardangervidda Plateau. You’ll arrive in Oslo late that night. Spend Day 9 in Oslo, departing by air for Copenhagen the afternoon of Day 10. Spend Day 11 in Copenhagen, and depart for home on Day 12.
“What?” you ask. “I thought you said it would be a 14-day trip.” Yes, I did – but I left two days for you to insert wherever you’d like to linger a bit longer.
Following the above itinerary, I spent one additional day in Oslo, the other taking the train to Copenhagen. The trip was eight hours long, but it was quite enjoyable since I enjoy train travel. It all worked out quite well.
Finally, plan to buy the special city tourist cards that provide reduced transportation rates. Most also provide for free admission to many of the sites you’ll want to see. And, of course, they’ll save you some time.
Now, some good things to enjoy along the way.
Helsinki (Day 1)
Helsinki anchors the Scandinavian Peninsula to Russia and the Continent. It’s a mix of east and west that’s quite evident in its architecture.
It’s also a compact place that’s easy to explore on foot. Start your city tour at Helsinki Cathedral, the white neoclassical building that’s become a symbol of the city. Climb its steps that face the city’s historic Senate Square, and you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful view of the area and the city beyond.
Walk down the steps and through the historic 18th-century quarter in front of you; After a block or two, you’ll come to Market Square on the harbor, the hub of the city’s waterfront. From the market turn west and walk up the Esplanade, one of the prettiest boulevards in Europe.
The Esplanade is lined with some well-known shops such as Louis Vuitton, as well as cafés and coffee bars. You’ll also see the store for Marimekko, the fabrics popularized by Jackie Kennedy and still popular today. (Marimekko has its annual sales in June/July and January.)
Be sure to see the Sibelius Monument, dedicated to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, with its soaring stainless steel tubes. Nearby, visit the Temppeliaukio Underground Church and the Kiasma, the city’s museum of contemporary art.
If there’s time also spend a half-day at the harbor sea fortress of Suomenlinna (the largest in the world, courtesy of Sweden’s occupation).
For foodies, the gourmet food and wine festival Taste of Helsinki takes place June 15-18, 2017. The city’s Baltic Herring Festival (Silakkamarkkinat), an ancient tradition in Helsinki, takes place October 1-7, 2017.
Depart Helsinki on the afternoon of Day 3 for the three-hour flight to Stockholm.
Stockholm (Day 3)
If your closest contact with Sweden has been Volvo, IKEA, Absolut, or those little meatballs, a visit to Stockholm will provide some pleasant surprises.
Stockholm is a beautiful city built on fourteen islands with ten centuries of history and culture.
First and foremost, leave a good bit of time to wander about Gamla Stan, the old city. Here you’ll find a web of cobbled streets and alleyways, boutiques and antiques, restaurants and cafés. You’ll also find the Nobel Museum and the Royal Palace, the largest in Europe. Although the Royal family no longer lives there, the changing of its guard is one of Stockholm’s most popular attractions. (The Royal Family now resides in Drottningholm Palace, about seven miles outside of town.)
Certainly visit City Hall, the venue for the Nobel Prize Award dinner that’s held every December. Take the 45-minute guided tour, during which you’ll likely be impressed by Golden Hall, where more than 18 million pieces of gold and glass mosaics cover the walls.
Also be sure to visit the Vasa Museum. It’s unlike any other museum anywhere, a celebration of the ignominious launch of a warship in 1628. (It sank after sailing barely ¾ mile on its maiden voyage). You’ll find the museum on the harbor shore, almost hidden behind the Nordic Museum, reached via tram #7. It’s fascinating.
Walk along Strandvägen, Stockholm’s answer to New York’s Fifth Avenue. Then head over to the Östermalm Food Hall, that’s not far away. It’s a great Old World food hall set inside a beautiful old medieval brick building. Good for lunch and a few samplings.
At day’s end, watch the sunset from Södra Blasieholmskajen on the east side of the harbor near the National Museum.
Bergen, Norway (Day 6)
Bergen is a charming small city, quite easy to walk about in a day. Its claim to fame is its history as a port of the powerful Hanseatic League in the 13th century.
See the old colorful Hanseatic Wharf, and the offices and living quarters of the men who worked here. Today they’re listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are home to dozens of shops, galleries, and restaurants.
For a beautiful view of the city and its fjord take the nearby Fløibanen funicular to the top of Fløyen, 1050 feet above sea level.
If you walk instead toward the ocean and you’ll reach the Bergenhus Fortress. Inside are the Royal Residence and banquet hall built in the 13th century, when Bergen was the capital of Norway. Built to protect the harbor, the fortress has been in use as recently as World Wart II.
At the head of the harbor adjacent to the wharf, you’ll find the fish market, a lively place. It’s one of the few places where you’ll find a polar bear, albeit stuffed, standing at its full height. It’s also a good place to grab a bite to eat whether you want fish or just a sandwich.
In addition to the Hanseatic Wharf, the most well known of Bergen’s museums are a clutch of galleries about a 15-minute walk away. Numbered one through four, they are called Kode and house international art treasures ranging from classical to contemporary.
Flam and the Trip to Oslo (Day 8)
The next morning depart Bergen a little after 8:00 via railway, bus and ferry to the town of Flam. Don’t worry about the connections – on these Norway in a Nutshell tours everything works like clockwork.
The ferry ride up the beautiful Aurlandfjord leaves you in the town of Flam where you’ll board the Flam Railway. It will take you to Myrdal to connect with the train to Oslo.
The Fläm Railway – described by some as “take-your-breath-away” trip – is one of the most beautiful in the world. While the ride from Fläm to Myrdal is only 12½ miles, it takes 50 minutes to go from sea level to 2,800 feet, on switchbacks and through 20 tunnels on some of the steepest “normal” tracks in the world.
En route from Myrdal to Oslo you’ll cross, as noted earlier, you’ll cross the Hardangervidda Plateau, the “Roof of Europe.”
Oslo (Day 9)
Oslo is a laid back, quiet city, revitalized in recent years by North Sea oil money.
The most visible fragment of this rebirth is the spectacular Oslo Opera House on the harbor. It’s often compared to an iceberg for the way its jagged shape seemingly rises up out of the water.
Visit the nearby Nobel Peace Center, a fascinating small state-of-the-art museum. Close by is Aker Brygge, a former shipyard transformed into a hip and attractive car-free area filled with shops, restaurants, and cafés.
Anchored to it by a small bridge is Tjunholmen, the city’s newest glittering borough. It’s composed of two small islands chockablock with galleries, restaurants and Oslo’s Museum of Modern Art.
Look out from Tjunholmen, and you’ll find it hard to believe the city has more than 600,000 residents. That’s because it’s spread out over an expanse four times the area of Paris with a huge amount of green space throughout it.
A prominent piece of this green space is Frogner Park, home to the incredible – and to some, disturbing – Vigeland Sculptures. Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland’s 212 life-size nude sculptures show the breath of humanity in all stages of life. It’s the most popular attraction in Norway.
From the park, you can take the #30 bus out to Bygdøy Peninsula, a museum-loaded spit of land on the far side of the harbor.
Here you’ll find four of the city’s popular museums. First is the Norsk Folkemuseum, with more than 150 buildings from all over Norway. Further along is the Viking Ship Museum, the closest you’ll ever get to the Viking civilization. In the Kon-Tiki Museum, you’ll learn about the famous voyage across the South Pacific; the Fram tells the story of Norwegian polar exploration.
Copenhagen (Day 10)
You can do a lot in Copenhagen in a day or so since everything is fairly centrally located.
If you’re starting out from Central Station, head towards Stroget. It’s Copenhagen’s famous shopping street and the longest pedestrian street in the world. Along the way, you’ll pass Christiansborg Palace with its copper-clad steeples, the seat of the Danish Parliament.
It’s only about a 10-15 minute walk from Stroget to picturesque Nyhavn where 18th-century gabled townhouses line a harbor-side promenade. Hans Christian Andersen lived in several during his lifetime.
Continue on to Amalienborg Palace, home of the Danish Royal Family. Only about a 10-minute walk away, the palace is actually four identical rococo buildings, quite stately and palatial-looking.
The world-renowned 100+-year-old statue of the Little Mermaid sits on the edge of the harbor about a 15-minute walk from Amalienborg Palace. You can also reach the mermaid via Bus #26 (Langelinie stop), with stops at Central Station, Nyhavn, and Rosenborg Castle.
Rosenborg Castle is a 15-minute ride from the Little Mermaid, and it’s well worth the trip. The former summer palace, it’s another step back in time in a city that sometimes seems lost in time.
Rosenborg is a beautiful castle, surrounded by beautiful parkland, its design influenced by the Renaissance architecture of the Netherlands. It’s now the home to the Royal Treasury that contains both regalia and jewels.
No visit to Copenhagen is complete without a visit to Tivoli Gardens. Although it’s now a bit commercialized, it’s still magical in the evening under its twinkling lights. If you have a late train or flight, have dinner there, since Central Station is just across the street. You can leave your luggage at the station, so there’s no need to drag your belongings with you.