Scandinavia – home of the Vikings – is ripe with experiences that tantalize all the senses. Yet, its somewhat remote location has meant that Scandinavia has largely escaped becoming a tourist trap. The Vikings, depicted often only as aggressive warriors on missions to take over the medieval world, were also skilled artisans, tradespeople, storytellers and farmers. Today, you can experience their legacy. A visit to any country in Scandinavia gives visitors a taste of modern societies built on a love of art, culture, nature and family.
In fact, traveling across Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland (which is formally a “Nordic country” and not officially part of Scandinavia), you find hints of their Viking past mixed with a very exciting present. Whether you seek adventure in the great outdoors or prefer taking in landscapes on a beautiful canvas, Scandinavia has something for visitors of all ages. Summer guests can bask in the midnight sun. Brave winter travelers, who aren’t afraid of the cold and darkness, may be rewarded with the spectacular aurora borealis (northern lights). No matter when you travel, you won’t regret taking the less-traveled roads to tick off bucket list items found only in Scandinavia.
Part One: Denmark – where art and creativity come alive
Discovering what makes Copenhagen so cool
From the moment you land at Copenhagen’s Kastrup airport, you sense you’ve landed in a country where people appreciate interesting architecture, culture and a great beer. From the airport, you can easily access the center of town by train. Across the street from the main railway station, Copenhagen welcomes you with its premier 19-century amusement park, Tivoli. After Tivoli, pass through Rådhusplassen (City Hall Square) to experience one of the world’s finest pedestrian streets, Strøget. With countless cafés, shops and lovely surprises, like Caritasbrønden and Strokespringvandet fountains, you may find yourself needing to return many times to enjoy everything Strøget has to offer.
At the end of Strøget, walk around Kongens Nytorv square and you will discover the picturesque Nyhavn canal. First-timers can expect an “aha moment” when they experience firsthand the scene they may have seen many times in pictures. Nyhavn offers visitors and locals the opportunity to try a variety of food and drinks, often while taking in music from live musicians. Even in chillier months, outdoor restaurants offer heat lamps and blankets, so guests can enjoy the canal’s unique ambiance as they savor a local beer or taste Denmark's traditional red hot dogs.
“Your first time in Copenhagen? Experience an aha moment at Nyhavn."
From Nyhavn you can catch a boat tour of the city. Tours may include views of Amalienborg Palace; The Little Mermaid statue; Freetown Christiania, an autonomous, anarchist commune; and the Black Diamond – an architectural masterpiece and extension to the Royal Library.
Denmark boasts design that even the most sophisticated critics appreciate. With architect and furniture designers Poul Henningsen and Arne Jacobsen, silversmith and designer Georg Jensen and Hans J. Wegner among the most famous, you may have seen Danish design without even realizing it. If you don’t have time to check out a museum, you can see some examples of modern Danish design simply by heading into Illums Bolighus (furniture store) on Strøget. If you have time, don’t miss Copenhagen’s many museums, starting with Design Museum Denmark and The Louisiana Museum. Danish design goes far beyond traditional art. Even dining in Copenhagen you experience how aesthetics reach beyond art and architecture. For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, try farm-to-table Michelin star winner, Noma.
Skagen and art on the edge of the North Sea
At the northern tip of Denmark, where the Skagerrak and Kattegat seas meet, you’ll find an unassuming town that has captured the imagination of artists for more than a century. Skagen sits on the northern tip of Jutland (Jylland, in Danish), about a half hour from Hirtshals ferry terminal. Although there are multiple options for accommodations in the area, Brøndums Hotel has long been linked with the 19th century painters and other artists drawn to Skagen for the special skylight. Today, especially in the off-season, you may find people enjoying the retirement of their dreams, walking local beaches and enjoying a nice meal.
A country focused on children
It’s not a surprise that people from all over the world can make associations between childhood and Denmark. “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Little Mermaid” are among Hans Christian Andersen’s most famous fairy tales. Almost 200 years after Andersen wrote them, parents still read these stories to their children and film, theater and artists still adapt his ideas for modern audiences.
Children can thank Denmark for more than fairy tales. LEGO® is Danish. What were once thought of as plastic building blocks used to build rectangular houses now push the envelope of our imaginations, creating zoo animals, cities and even a replica of Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, all on view at LEGOLAND® amusement park in Billund in Jutland. New in 2019 is a theme hotel, LEGOLAND® Castle Hotel, designed to look as if it were made from LEGOs.
Northern Europe’s largest music festival in Roskilde
Finally, if you are a music lover and want to hear Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, Chance the Rapper, Travis Scott and the Cure, plus bands from all over the world (Zambia, the UK, Italy, Japan and Jamaica, and even Behemoth from Poland, plus Denmark — of course), make sure you make your way to the Roskilde Festival running from June 29 through July 7, 2019. Part concert, part artist and activism festival, the eclectic lineup is sure to have something for everyone. (If you attend, remember to protect your ears.)
Norway – Where embracing nature is a way of life
No matter where you visit in Norway, you are sure to have an adventure. As more than 75% of the population live within 10 miles of the coast, and much of that coastline includes rugged hills and fjords that drop a thousand feet straight down into the North Sea, it’s no wonder that Norwegians have a unique relationship with the natural environment. It’s common for families with even very young children to go hiking in challenging terrain during a rainstorm. One of the most common sayings in Norwegian is, “Det finnes ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlige klær.” It means, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes.” (First time visitors, take note: you may want to pack galoshes).
“There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes”
Oslo capturing Norway’s past and present
Bring good walking shoes to Oslo! With beautiful pedestrian promenades, such as Karl Johans gate, which takes you from the main train station (Oslo S), past Oslo Cathedral, the Stortinget (parliament building), the National Theater and toward the Royal Palace. Don’t stop there. Make sure you continue another 3 km (1.8 miles) past the palace to the magnificent Frogner Park, where you can enjoy an unforgettable stroll through Vigeland Sculpture Park. Gustav Vigeland’s works include a series of children and families in all sorts of interesting poses, including the iconic “Angry Boy” and "the Monolith." Fortunately, the park is open 24/7 and is free. Bring a camera or follow in the footsteps of selfie-taking locals and tourists alike.
No visit to Oslo is complete without a visit to Aker Brygge, featuring a breathtaking boardwalk about a 10-15 minute walk from the Royal Palace. Don’t miss the Nobel Peace Center, which not only holds a permanent exhibition about the Peace Prize and its laureates, but also has temporary exhibitions focused on various topics related to conflict resolution.
As you travel across Norway, you may encounter evidence of the Nazi occupation, especially on the coastline, where there are still remains from concrete fortresses, watchtowers and barracks. For insight into how Norwegians survived occupation during World War II, don’t miss Norway’s Resistance Museum, located in a 17th century fortress a short walk from Aker Brygge. Among other things, you can hear radio broadcasts from the Norwegian king while he was in exile, and see how Norwegians hid their radios and other contraband during the occupation.
Finally, make sure you catch The Viking Ship Museum on Bygdøy. Part of the University of Oslo, the permanent collection includes the Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune Viking ships.
Olympic gold still in Norwegian hearts
Norway is very proud of its reputation for developing world-class skiers. When it hosted the 1994 Winter Olympics, Lillehammer transformed itself from a sleepy college town to a skier’s Mecca. If you enjoy winter sports, make sure you test the slopes at Hafjell, Kvitfjell, Sjusjøen or any number of outstanding resorts across the country. Lillehammer is also home to Maihaugen, an open-air museum with close to 200 buildings from different eras, including a traditional stavkirken or medieval wooden church, with architectural elements that mix Christian and traditional Norse mythological beliefs.
Exploring Norway’s fjords
You almost can’t go wrong in picking a destination in Western and Northern Norway. There are hundreds of scenic small towns – many only accessible by ferry – that will quench your thirst for majestic views. The best way to experience coastal Norway is by boat. Hurtigruten cruise lines specializes in passages that run from Bergen to the North Cape, and even beyond to Spitzbergen. There’s simply no better way to experience Norway than by boat. Cruising along the coastline lets you see many beautiful cities, including Ålesund’s Art Nouveau district. Some cruising options include Geiranger, one of Norway’s most famous fjords. You can also visit Trondheim, which features Nidaros, a medieval cathedral. Trondheim, however, may be best known for its technical university, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, NTNU. Because of NTNU, Trondheim has grown into a leader in STEM research, based partially on its well-educated workforce.
For more adventure, explore the Lofoten Islands, where you can even experience commercial fishing expeditions. Finally, for a truly unique experience, head to the northern portions of Norway, to "Samiland." Here, you can learn about the indigenous Sámi people and their culture, try reindeer meat and even hear locals yoik (traditional singing).
If you don’t have a week or two for a full cruise to the North Cape, “Norway in a nutshell®” tours allow visitors the opportunity to choose among several 1-2 day trip options to ferry and railway combinations that include seeing various fjords and the historic Flåm Railway.
Beauty abounds in Bergen
Make sure you include time to see beautiful Bergen, a World Heritage City and European City of Culture. Bergen is simply spectacular! Surrounded by seven mountains, it’s considered the gateway to fjord Norway. In addition to a beautiful and historic wharf, Bryggen (which seafood lovers will enjoy), the city is filled with parks and historic buildings, and was the home of Norway’s most famous composer, Edvard Grieg. If you can time it right, don’t miss the Bergen International Festival, which annually hosts more than 200 concerts and other performances. It’s a delight for the ears and eyes.
Stavanger and Prekestolen
Norway has one of the most generous and well-functioning welfare states in the world. Besides taxes, which provide financial support for many Scandinavian state-run programs, one of the reasons Norway can afford so many benefits is that the country has vast oil reserves. In 1972, Norway’s parliament voted to make Stavanger the “oil capital,” and the city has prospered and grown ever since. Stavanger has a charming downtown with a lovely harbor, a large variety of restaurants and shops and “an old town” where residents live in small, historically accurate houses (with modern upgrades, like indoor plumbing). For a unique look at how one resource can change an entire country, and what it takes to work on an oil rig in the North Sea, check out the Norwegian Petroleum Museum – you can even hear and feel what the helicopter ride is like heading offshore.
Seeing fjords from the distance in a cruise ship is nice, but many Norwegians aren’t satisfied with seeing a fjord (and you shouldn’t be, either). Prekestolen, the Pulpit Rock, which sits 1653 feet (604 meters) above sea level, has long drawn adventurous visitors for a hike to the top. Walking takes about two hours each way, and can be quite strenuous (and challenging for people who are afraid of heights), although you are following a path for the entire hike. Make sure you check the weather forecast. Many visitors have made their way to the top, only to find the view covered by thick clouds. For the even more adventurous, challenge yourself to a day trip to Kjerag. At 3556 feet above sea level, Kjerag draws hikers and base jumpers from all over the world.
And this is just the beginning. In Scandinavia, Part Two, we’ll visit Sweden, Finland and Iceland. So get ready, armchair travelers. The adventure continues.
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