Scandinavia includes the northern European countries of Norway, Sweden, Finland, as well as the North Atlantic island of Iceland. The history of this area is intimately associated with fishing and other maritime pursuits, the Vikings being an excellent example. Ethnic characteristics include the Aryan features of blonde hair and blue eyes. Visitors typically find that these countries exhibit many differences from the rest of Europe, especially their embrace of modernity. However, the past is also proudly displayed and a visit here can be extremely rewarding.
This is my take on the "best" that Scandinavia has to offer. Look for a photo album in the near future.
1. Fjordland & Bergen, Norway
The Fjords of Norway offer some of the most breathtaking scenery, certainly in Europe, and arguably in the world. It is an inhospitable land, which extends above the Arctic Circle. Norway’s coastline is extremely rugged with myriad indentations where the sea encroaches. This coastal landscape was carved by glaciers which are still evident. Some fjords are up to 100 miles long and extremely deep. Numerous waterfalls can be seen throughout Fjordland.
Coastal steamer is probably the best way to see the fjords although there are a number of cruise ships which traverse the coastline during the late spring and summer. Most of these steamers leave from the city of Bergen and passage can be booked, much like a cruise ship, for up to 12 days with meals and a cabin included. The steamers operate year round since the coast usually remains ice-free in the winter.
Villages which are a particular delight to explore include Trondheim which is an interesting city with a Medieval past, exemplified by its timbered houses and Gothic Nidaros Cathedral, Bodo, which offers excursions to the Lofoten Islands and access to the Saltstraumen Eddy, a noisy whirlpool created by tidal forces in the narrow channel, Narvik, with its dramatic Gondolbanen (cable car), Hammerfest, and Honningsvag, the world’s northernmost village.
Bergen is a fascinating port city on the western coast of Norway, with many sights and much history, particularly Viking history. It also serves as the primary gateway to Fjordland.
While in Bergen, be sure to stroll through Bryggen, the remains of the Medieval, Hanseatic League (an alliance of trading guilds which comprised the countries bordering the Baltic Sea) town which evolved into the modern city of Bergen. Bryggen is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Also visit Troldhaugen, the summer villa of composer, Edvard Grieg, and Mariakirke, St Mary’s Church, one of the most beautiful and possibly the oldest church in Norway. Hakonshallen is all that remains of the royal residence. Guided tours of this and the Rosenkrantz Tower are offered approximately every hour.
2. Copenhagen, Denmark
Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, is the largest city in Scandinavia, yet retains a walkability that makes it charming to visit. As a matter of fact, its Stroget is the longest and oldest pedestrian street in Europe. There are canals and narrow streets as well as the hustle and bustle of an active port.
The most important sights for the tourist visiting Copenhagen are several castles/palaces: Christiansborg Palace, which is the seat of political power in Denmark and has been for many hundreds of years (it houses the Danish Parliament, the Supreme Court, the Prime Minister’s offices and the royal reception rooms), Rosenborg Castle, which is the repository for the Danish Crown Jewels and the Treasury, and also encompasses the King’s Garden and the Botanical Gardens, and Amalienborg Palace, which is the current home of the Danish royal family and which has a Changing of the Guard ceremony at noon when the family is in residence.
The symbol of Copenhagen, however, is the Statue of the Little Mermaid, sculpted in 1913 on rocks just offshore, which is reminiscent of Hans Christian Anderson, the famous native son who authored so many children’s stories. Another attraction, geared for the child in all of us, is Tivoli Gardens, a combination amusement park/flower garden in the center of town.
An interesting excursion lies only about 30 kilometers west of the city where visitors will find the city of Roskilde, once the most important city in Denmark. Its cathedral, Roskilde Domkirke, is the final resting place for many Danish monarchs. Also in the city is the Viking Ship Museum, which has on display five Viking vessels which have been painstakingly pieced together.
3. Stockholm, Sweden
Stockholm, Sweden, is a city built on fourteen islands within Lake Malaren. Because of the proximity of the Baltic Sea, it is a major port. It is both a modern city with tall buildings as well as a place which has preserved much of its Medieval history. Stockholm’s Old Town, Gamla Stan, is thoroughly pleasant to walk, with narrow streets, open squares and numerous bridges. Be sure to check out the Royal Palace, Kungliga Slottet where, besides a visit inside to see the sumptuous rooms, there is the obligatory Changing of the Guard, which takes place at noon each day except Sunday (1:00 PM). There is also an associated parade during the summer months. Also in the Old Town, visit the Great Church, Storkyrkan, which contains a particularly stunning sculpture of St George and the Dragon. A walking tour of Gamla Stan should also include stops at several squares, such as, Tortorget (Great Square), and Jarntorget (Iron Square).
North of the Old Town is Norrmalm, the business and commercial district. Here one finds elegant shopping areas and pedestrian-friendly streets in a pleasant, very modern atmosphere.
To the east is Ostermalm, which contains the world’s first National City Park, Djurgarden. Major attractions in the park include Skansen, an open-air museum consisting of more than 150 buildings, many of which provide demonstrations of Swedish handcrafting. There are also concerts and folk-dancing. The park also contains Vasa, a royal warship from the 17th century, which has been lovingly and carefully restored.
Other sights in the Stockholm area include Drottningholm Palace and Theater, the Swedish royal residence, and Millesgarden, the villa of Sweden’s greatest sculptor, Carl Miller.
While in Stockholm, be sure to sample Sweden’s famous smorgasbord, a long table loaded with many delectable dishes, especially seafood.
4. Golden Circle & Reykjavik, Iceland
The Golden Circle is a fairly short scenic loop from the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik. It takes in several of the famous attractions of the island and can be done in a single day. Gullfoss (Golden Falls) is one of these attractions. The falls are 35 meters (105 feet) high and thunder in two cascades into a chasm. A Visitor Center is available for information.
Thingvellir National Park is perhaps the most important area along the drive. Here, visitors can experience Plate Tectonics (the theory that the surface of the earth is made up of plates which are riding on a conveyor-belt-like mantle and can collide or interact with one another in various ways) in action, for here the Eurasian Plate, which includes Europe and Asia, is separating from the North American Plate (USA, Canada, Mexico, and part of Central America). Visitors can actually walk down into the rift caused by this separation.
Incidentally, the Plate Tectonics idea explains why Iceland is so active geologically — it was formed from an upwelling of material from the mantle to fill in the void created by the separation of the two continental plates. A more recent example of this action was the birth of the island of Surtsey, just south of Iceland, which began in a series of eruptions that eventually lifted it above sea level in 1963. Other evidence is the fact that most of Iceland’s electricity is produced from geothermal power.
Thingvellir is also a religious site, a place which, in Icelandic lore, had to do with the Guardian of the Laws.
The third major attraction along the route is Geysir, actually the name for a now-dormant geyser which fascinated tourists until 1916 when it abruptly stopped erupting. The current attraction is Strokkur (The Churn), another geyser in the area, which boasts mud pots and steam vents and other geothermal features.
While in the area, be sure to spend some time in Reykjavik itself, one of the most expensive destinations in the world.
Another unique experience in the Reykjavik vicinity is the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa which can be visited year round.
5. Oslo, Norway
Oslo, Norway, is a rather small capital city, by European standards. It is most accessible by boat via the Oslofjorden, a rather dramatic entry through a narrow channel surrounded by woods. The city center is fairly compact, pleasant to walk, and contains several attractions, such as Oslo Dunkirk (Oslo Cathedral), and the distinctive Radhuset or Town Hall, as well as numerous museums.
A bit further a field, on the Bygdoy Peninsula, a short ferry ride from the city center, are more museums, a few of which deserve mention. Here the visitor will find the Viking Ship Museum, the Kon-Tiki Museum, and the Norwegian Folk Museum.
Another sight, just out of the city center, is Vigeland Sculpture Park, a tribute to Gustav Vigeland, Norway’s greatest sculptor.
A great side trip from Oslo is the “Norway in a Nutshell” trip via train, bus, and boat. The round trip begins early, in Oslo, with the Oslo-to-Bergen train. In Bergen, take the fast coastal ferry to Sognefjord and the town of Balestrand. From here another boat brings the visitor to Flam. Then it is onto the Flam-to-Myrdal train, a spectacular ride from sea level to the top of a plateau and the Myrdal Train Station. The last leg is the train back to Oslo. This entire trip, with an overnight stop in Bergen (see above), provides a wonderful introduction to the best of Norway.
6. Visby, Sweden
Visby, Sweden, was, during the late 12th and 13th centuries, the center for trade in Northern Europe, and the residence of the most powerful Hanseatic merchants. Even though its prominence did not last for long, its walls and medieval buildings evoke memories of its greatness. A walking tour of the city should include Maiden’s Tower and the Powder Tower, as well as the old Hanseatic Harbor and the ruins of several churches, the Cathedral of Saint Mary and the Dominican Monastery of St Nicholas.
Visby is on the island of Gotland, the ancient home of the Goths, Rome’s perpetual adversary. The island is worth touring as well.
7. Helsinki, Finland
Helsinki, Finland, does not have an ancient city center with Medieval buildings like many of its neighbors. However, being a more modern city, it has stunning and elegant 19th century Neo-classical architecture and is sure to please. It is also fairly compact and pleasant to walk, especially in the summertime. The architectural center of Helsinki is, without doubt, Senate Square, with its beautiful, white Lutheran Cathedral as its focus. There are numerous museums which are geared around someone or some aspect of Finland’s past.
There are other sights on some of the nearby islands which can be accessed via ferry from Market Square. The most important of these are the Suomenlinna Fortress, hose fortifications were erected to protect the maritime approach to Helsinki. Another worthwhile attraction is the Seurasaari Open Air Museum, which contains about 100 authentically furnished buildings, characterizing the history of Finland.
Saunas are an important part of Finnish culture and should be sampled while in the area.
For an interesting excursion, drive (or take a train or bus) west about 160 kilometers (100 miles) to the city of Turku, Finland’s oldest city (1229) and its former capital. Be sure to see its Cathedral which contains the tombs of many influential Scandinavians, and its Castle, which dates to the 13th century. There are also numerous museums for those so-inclined.
8. Odense, Denmark
Odense, Denmark, on the island of Funen, is the birthplace of fairytale writer, Hans Christian Andersen, so any visit here is all about Denmark’s favorite son. Stop in at his birthplace and/or at his house. Both are popular tourist attractions. Andersen’s plays are performed outdoors during the summer.
In the southern part of the city is the Gothic St Canute’s Cathedral, which has an impressive golden altar screen. Further south and out of the city proper is Egeskov Castle, which is considered by some to be the best Renaissance castle in Europe. Whether or not that statement is true, Egeskov is certainly in a romantic setting, in the middle of a small lake. Its extensive and beautiful gardens are a delight to stroll.