An Action-Packed Nordic Sampler
By Julie Snyder
It was, I’ll admit, an ambitious itinerary. Five Nordic countries in 17 days. 1,524 miles by plane. 611 miles by ship. 465 miles by train. 72 miles on foot. Rather like travel speed dating.
I called it a Scandinavian Sampler. My husband, Joe, called it the Scandinavian Slog. (Such a jokester, that Joe.) We learned we should call it Scandinavia Plus.
Scandinavia, we were told by our Finnish Airbnb host, refers to the original Viking lands—Sweden, Norway and Denmark. The Nordic country moniker embraces Scandinavia plus Iceland, Finland and their associated territories: Greenland and the Faroe Islands (Denmark) and the Åland Islands (Finland).
Our attraction to the Nordic countries began in the gloomy fiction of writers like Hemming Mankell, Per Petterson, Jo Nesbo and of course Stieg Larsson. What we expected: vast, brooding landscapes, endless gray days, tall, trim blondes and lots of herring. What we found: vibrant cities and verdant countryside, sunny temperate days, an eclectic ethnic mix and lots of herring.
Our self-designed tour launched in mid-August after children had returned to school and the summer lingered. First up was Reykjavik, Iceland. Next, we flew to Helsinki, Finland, then cruised to Stockholm, Sweden on an overnight ship, rode a train to Copenhagen, Denmark, took another overnight cruise to Oslo, Norway, continued through Norway by train to Flåm, and finally ferried through the fjords to Bergen.
First Stop: Reykjavik, Iceland
What can one say about an island nation smaller than Ohio that’s a dramatic mélange of mountains, glaciers, lava fields, and thermal waters? That, with less than 400,000 residents, is the least sparsely populated country in Europe? That recently held a “funeral” for its first glacier lost to climate change? That vigorously defends the gray-green moss carpeting its endless lava fields? That only has two seasons, winter and summer? That’s home to 30 active volcanoes, one of which erupts every four or five years? That counts a respected phallological museum among its tourist attractions? That rebounded from a financial crisis in the 2010s to become a global tourism darling?
We said, “Why don’t we have more time here?”
Our Fave Five
Harpa Concert Hall
An asymmetrical patchwork of glass and prisms that dance with the light on rare sunny days and dazzles at night from its own light force, Harpa Concert Hall anchors prime real estate on the Reykjavik waterfront. We wandered around the interior, necks craned to view the hexagonal glass cubes inspired by the basalt columns of lava sprinkled all over the country. Besides being the cultural heart of the country, the architectural marvel hosts a smorgasbord of visitor-appealing events, from “Iceland in a Box,” a video journey to the country’s natural attractions, to the humorous “How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes“ and noontime concerts featuring local and global talent.
Sculpture and Shore Walk
A windy waterfront ramble treated us to an expansive city-and-fjord panorama. We began at the Old Harbour where Whales of Iceland showcases 23 manmade, life-size whale species, jazzed up with virtual reality and other interactive features. The 3-mile walk wanders by fishing boats, historic structures like the Höfði House, site of the 1986 summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, and the jaw-dropping Harpa Concert Hall. Several prominent sculptures dot the path and we favored the “Sun Voyager“ a minimalist, Viking-like steel ship, especially haunting at sunset.
We couldn’t help but notice the Church of Hallgrímur, one of several unusually shaped structures piercing the Reykjavik skyline. (Another is Perlan Planetarium, swelling skyward like a perfectly rounded breast.) The dual-purpose concrete building is both a monument to Hallgrímur Pétursson, the most renowned sacred poet of Iceland, and a parish church.
After 40 years of phased construction, the church was consecrated in 1986. Eye-catching features abound—bronze doors inlaid with red mosaic; a baptismal font with a base of Icelandic basalt and a bowl of Czech lead crystal; and a handsome 5,000-pipe concert organ. But no feature is as eye-catching as the church’s winged concrete steeple, soaring 240 feet skyward and reminiscent of basalt column cliffs formed when volcanic lava cools (a popular inspiration in Icelandic art and architecture). A commanding statue of the Viking Lief Erikson, a gift from the U.S., stands in front of the stunning structure.
Only five hours of daylight in winter? That doesn’t stop the folks at family-owned Fridheimer—an agronomist, a horticulturist and their five children—from growing tomatoes grow all year round. Lots of tomatoes—Fridheimer has more than an acre of plants under cultivation. Nutured by green energy, pure water and organic pest controls, contented crops yield a ton of the fruit each day. The proof is in the tasting and we had our chance in the greenhouse cafe where, no surprise, tomato soup with a selection of toppings highlights the menu. A bonus for horse-loving summer visitors: the on-site equestrian center puts on horse shows May through September.Golden Circle
If your time in Iceland is brief as ours was (we lost a day due to flight cancellation), a Golden Circle Tour packs a historical and geological wallop into a single long day. The first destination, a deep rift valley now protected as Thingvellir National Park, was the setting for the 10th-century gathering of the island’s entire population. Called the Althing, it was a forerunner of the country’s parliament. The two-week summer ritual continued until 1798 when the parliament moves to Reykjavik. The 25-mile-wide valley is part of a fissure zone where the North American and Eurasian continental plates are separating almost an inch each year.
The next stop was Gulfoss, a pair of falls that thunder over Hvítá River. At the mouth of a basalt gorge, the cascade falls first 32 feet, turns abruptly and drops another 65 feet in a torrent of spray and rainbows into a dark chasm.
After a photo (and petting) opp with a small herd of Icelandic ponies, we landed at Geysir thermal area. Here Strokkur hot spring erupts every few minutes, dousing those venturing too close on the windward edge of the caldera. Steam from a dozen or so less volatile geysers swirls in an otherworldly miasma.
Our Golden Circle Tour included several hours at the Blue Lagoon. I know that the pool’s mineral-rich milky waters are generated by a geothermal power station whose hulking silhouette mars the horizon. But when you’re chin deep in a buoyant 100-degree pool, sipping on a cold beer (free with entry along with a mud mask), the source of this decadence is irrelevant.
Baejarins Beztu Pylsur
The City’s Best Hotdog, as the name translates, has been selling sauced-up dogs in the heart of Reykjavik since 1937. Here the traditional pork-and-beef wiener recipe is jazzed up with lamb. Long a local favorite, the tiny red stand gained global attention when former U.S. President Bill Clinton dropped by in 2004. We expect that he went for einu með öllu—topped with everything, from fried onions, ketchup and remoulade to several kinds of mustard. Who could resist? Not us. Darn good dog. Elsewhere, Joe sampled locally raised lamb and found it fork-tender and full of flavor, while I took the boat-to-bowl path to an excellent langoustine bisque, Iceland’s most popular soup.
Second Stop: Helsinki, Finland
The Finns, as we were reminded several times during our visit, are known for their “sisu“—grit, fortitude, determination in the face of adversity. We didn’t think it would take much sisu to live in Helsinki during the summer months. The city, with its handsome, often elegant assortment of architecture, was sunny, temperate and humming with tourists and locals in motion. Ah but winters are a different story: long (up to five months), freezing, dry, windy, mostly cloudy and dark—just five or six hours of daylight. No wonder so many grand old buildings in Helsinki conceal shopping centers. Evidently, the Finns don’t mind the weather. The country topped the World Happiness Report for the second year in a row, followed by its Nordic neighbors, the Danes, Norwegians, Icelanders, and in seventh place, the Swedes.
Our Fave Five
Sibelius Park and Monument
It is only fitting that the stunning monument to beloved Finnish composer Jean Sibelius be cradled by an urban forest. Five of Finland’s domestic species of trees—birch, spruce, pine, rowan and aspen—inspired “The Tree Cycle“ for piano. Yet nature in this setting is second fiddle to the kinetic musical sculpture created in his honor—600 steel tubes bundled like a pipe organ gone mad. Designed by Finnish sculptor Eila Hiltunen, the Sibelius Monument’s textured tubes sing in the wind. When Passio Musicae was unveiled in 1967—ten years after the composer’s death—it ignited a debate about abstract art. Traditionalists were appeased when a bust of Sibelius was added to the memorial site. Though the breeze was gentle on the crisp, sunny day we visited, the towering memorial whistled for us.
Helsinki’s main square since the 17th century, Senate Square is crowned by Helsinki Cathedral, itself crowned by five green cupolas. Steep steps at the church entrance are a popular spot to linger and take in the panorama of surrounding neo-classical architecture. In one corner of the square stands the city’s oldest stone building, Sederholm House, built in 1757. The square is also home to the Government Palace, the National Library and the main building of the University of Helsinki. Towering over the bustle is a statue of Alexander II, a reminder that Finland was part of Russia for just over a century until it achieved independence in 1917.
We sensed we were in for some eye-popping architecture in Helsinki when we encountered a quartet of globe-bearing giants on the facade of the Central Train Station. It’s all here, whether you’re a fan of Baroque Classicism, neo-Renaissance, neo-classical Empire, Modernist or Art Nouveau. Visit the Museum of Finnish Architecture for a refresher of 20th-century trends, part of their permanent collection. Two of the most unique buildings we encountered were just across the street from our Airbnb: Kamppi Chapel, a giant spruce-covered, bowl-shaped urban refuge; and Amos Rex, an eclectic underground art museum whose galleries bulge into Lasipalatsi Square above. Not far away, copper-domed Temppeliaukio Church, aptly called the Rock Church, was blasted out of a giant block of granite.
Even More Awesome Architecture
We were most captivated by the designs of famed Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, a marvelous marriage of structure and nature. The Carrera-marble clad exterior of Finlandia Hall, perhaps his most famous work, mimics the rock formations paralleling its base. One of its marble-and-glass walls undulates in harmony with adjacent trees, and a marble wave crests at the base of the concert hall spire. The Alvar Aalto Museum is a three-hour drive away in Jyvaskyla, but in Helsinki, the Alto House and the Aalto Studio invite visitors.
Ateneum Art Museum
We dipped into the National Museum of Finland, whose attractions include a beautifully painted cupola and front-door bullet hole incurred during civil war nearly a century ago. But the Ateneum Art Museum was the cultural prize, offering an infusion of soul-enriching artworks—haunting landscapes, humble domestic scenes and characterful portraits. The 1897 building boasts a grand central staircase that spins off into glorious galleries.
Third Stop: Stockholm, Sweden
Sweden arrived in a patchwork of islands as we finished breakfast on our cruise ship. Cozy cottages peeked through the trees as we wove through the archipelago. Construction cranes were everywhere, evidence of the jostling city‘s current investment in infrastructure and housing. We explored Drottninggatan, a lively pedestrian shopping street in Norrmalm. We strove for a hint of hipness as we strolled down Gotgatan Street in arty Sodermalm. The parks were the perks in exclusive Ostermalm, while the waterfront wooed us along Strandvagen.
By the time we left, cool and sleek seemed apt descriptors for the people, the design and the ambiance.
Our Top Three
Gamla Stan—Old Town—where Stockholm was founded in 1252, occupies an island and three islets, an easy walk from City Center. Even though we set out early on a Sunday morning, cobbled lanes and narrow alleys through a maze of well-preserved medieval and 17th-and-18th century buildings were already teeming with tourists. We had a coffee in the sunshine in Stortorget, the main square, before exploring the Nobel Prize Museum. We wandered on to the Storkyran—Stockholm Cathedral—where a larger-than-life statue of St. George and the Dragon dominates the lavish Baroque interior. Departing the church, we learned that the Changing of the Guard at the Royal Palace was imminent. The parade of dozens of blue-uniformed bugle-blowing guards on horseback clippety-clopping over the cobblestones was as regal as it gets.
After exploring Old Town, we boated to the nearby island of Djurgarden. Once the game park for the royal family, it’s now a pleasure palace with art galleries, museums, and amusements. We thought we were headed to the Vasa Museum, where life-size stylized masts of a salvaged 17th-century warship extend skyward above the copper roof. But instead, we found ourselves in the Viking Museum where we learned that the Norseman‘s life wasn’t all plunder and pillage. If Vikings aren’t your thing, nearby Skansen is the world’s oldest open-air museum and showcases five centuries of Swedish history. More Swedish history is just down the road at the Nordic Museum, the largest museum of cultural history in the region and housed in an impressive Danish Renaissance structure. The Djurgarden tram line ferries visitors from the city center to Djurgarden on weekends in heritage cars dating back to the 1920s.
Abba The Museum
Yes, ABBA The Museum is about the most touristy thing one can do in Stockholm, but how could I pass it up? (My husband, however, had no problem doing so.) I followed Bjorn, Benny, Frida, and Agneta on their journey from unknown singers to international superstars swathed in glitzy garb who have sold nearly 400,000 million albums. Mamma Mia, the movie, got lots of play in a temporary exhibition that even included Donna’s dilapidated jeep. I drew the line at singing karaoke and dancing in an Abba music video.
Fourth Stop: Copenhagen, Denmark
We had a single mission in Copenhagen: learn how to pronounce hygge correctly, see it in action and perhaps experience it for ourselves. We were successful on all fronts. Per the Danish tourism board, this now globally popular term means “creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with good people.“ From outward appearances, Copenhagen has mastered the good life, if the good life manifests as a supportive social service network, cafes on every corner, plenty of parks for picnicking, bike-friendly avenues, a plethora of street festivals, lively outdoor concerts, cozy fireplaces for winter snug-ins, frolicking with family and friends, and a coffee-drinking culture.
We learned that it’s pronounced “hoo-gah,” is as Danish as ableskiver and can be learned. We plan to return to Copenhagen to continue our hygge education. First requirement: linger longer than three days.
Our Fave Five
Since 1834, Tivoli Gardens has captivated visitors from Hans Christian Andersen to Walt Disney, and attracted entertainers from Marlene Dietrich to Mariah Carey. The skyline swarms with amusement rides—towering Fatamorgana, the stomach-dropping Star Flyer, and the wooden Roller Coaster, one of the world’s oldest. Dining concessions proffered a vast menu, from sushi and steaks to pancakes and pizza. And there was a beer garden of course. And a lakelet with a family restaurant on a pirate ship. The most stunning structure was the Nimb Hotel—outside a Moorish fantasy, inside sleek Scandinavian design. Trees (nearly 900 of them) and gardens dazzled in a profusion of late summer green and color. Though the 20-acre site welcomes more than 4.5 million visitors each year, we didn’t feel crowded. Quite the opposite. In our sling chairs on the lawn in front of the open-air stage with no one in earshot, we sipped and snacked and peacefully awaited dusk when thousands of colored lights transform Tivoli Gardens into a fairyland.
When we arrived in Nyhavn, we recognized it immediately from Copenhagen postcards and travel guides. The neat row of rainbow-hued wood and brick buildings on the “sunny side“ of the canal and the monochromatic “shady side“ mansions date back to the 18th century when the area thrived as a maritime center. Today, masted wooden ships and canal boats line the waterway. Predictably a tourist favorite, Nyhavn’s collection of pubs, cafes, clubs, and restaurants throb with music and dancing long into the night, earning the nickname “the longest outdoor bar in Scandinavia.“ The world’s oldest functioning tattoo parlor is also in Nyhavn, operating since 1884. That’s one souvenir we did not bring home.
Just down the street from our rooftop Airbnb, the Round Tower stood watch over our neighborhood. “We have to climb to the top,“ I said every time we walked by on our way to someplace else. And every time I said it, there was a long line. On our last morning, the queue was short and I joined it. The tower was finished in 1637, a project of King Christian IV of Rosenbourg Castle Fame. Up the spiral cobblestone ramp we climbed, 7 revolutions around the tower’s hollow-core, 31 stone staircase steps and 23 wooden ones. A 360-degree panorama all the way to Sweden awaited on the viewing platform near the top of the 114-foot tower. Clinging to the filigree fence, we searched for the landmarks of our few days in Copenhagen. Above us, Europe’s oldest functioning observatory searched the sky.
StrØget, one of Europe’s longest pedestrian streets (almost ¾ of a mile) in the heart of Copenhagen, feels like a festival every day. Louis Vuitton and Georgio Armani live here, as do Danish design classics Royal Copenhagen and Geroge Jensen. Flanked by historic buildings and punctuated by plazas and ornate fountains, the street invites strolling. We lingered over coffee (we managed lots of lingering on this trip in spite of the ambitious itinerary) at an outdoor cafe while musicians performed nearby. We munched on smoky cashews from a street cart and ogled plastic block creations in the LEGO store display window. We browsed in a book bazaar next to the Church of the Holy Ghost. It was a completely satisfying afternoon.
Rosenborg Castle and the King’s Gardens
The 400-year-old Rosenborg Castle, a Renaissance masterpiece built by King Christian IV is distinctive on the Copenhagen skyline. But even the crown jewels and life-size silver lions couldn’t entice us inside on a brilliant blue-sky day so we opted to explore the King’s Gardens and leave the interior of the castle for a dreary day on a return visit. (Copenhagen is the one spot from our adventure that we’re quite sure we’ll get back to.) The King’s Garden was anything but dreary. Denmark’s oldest royal garden, it delights with borders of perennial herbaceous plants, paved walkways, acres of blooms and historical sculptures like the bronze-oxidized-to-turquoise statue of Hans Christian Andersen. (We preferred the hatted, more whimsical version of the author in City Hall Square.)
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.