Expeditions / Scandinavia

After my trip to Svalbard, I flew south to Bergen, Norway. There I met Lauren and much of her family: her parents, sister, aunt, and grandparents. Our group of eight would travel together over the next two weeks, through five countries and seven cities. Upon our arrival in Bergen, we took a taxi to our lodgings at the Klosterhagen Hotell. After checking in, we walked around the area near our hotel. Bergen is a beautiful, very clean city on the Byfjorden. It boasts cobbled streets, beautiful architecture, and cute, old neighborhoods with buildings dating back hundreds of years. The highlight of our first night in town was Nordnesparken, a park on the water from which we watched a spectacular sunset. We ate a delicious dinner of grilled salmon at Cafe Opera and returned to the Klosterhagen for the night.

Sunset from Nordnesparken
Sunset from Nordnesparken

The next day, we ate the hotel breakfast, which was quite excellent. We set out for a day of touring the city. Unfortunately, though it is one of the prettiest cities I have ever visited, Bergen is known for its terrible weather. True to this reputation, it rained hard almost all day, and everyone’s shoes were soaking wet by the end of it. We walked about fifteen minutes to Bryggen, Bergen’s Hanseatic Wharf. The Hanseatic League was a confederation of guilds and merchants that dominated the economy of Northern Europe from the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries, and Bergen was at the heart of it, largely due to the vast amounts of fish oil that were traded there. Our first stop was the Hanseatic Museum, which is housed in a merchant’s home from 1704. It was very interesting to see the living and working conditions from the early eighteenth century, and I learned much more about making and trading cod liver oil than I ever wanted to know.

Bryggen's waterfront
Bryggen’s waterfront

Leaving the museum, we walked around Bryggen’s narrow streets. There are several artisan shops, cafes, and restaurants in the area. Our favorite shop sold beautiful woodblock prints of Scandinavian scenes. Next, we visited Rosenkrantz Tower, part of the Bergenhus Fortress. Rosenkrantz tower dates to the middle of the 16th century, and there are interesting historical exhibits on every floor. The roof provides good views of Bergen. We also visited Haakon’s Hall, which was built in the mid-1200s. The hall is impressive, but as an attraction it’s a little disappointing; there are no exhibits or information available other than a brief brochure.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around Bergen, though the rain continued. One of Bergen’s most popular attractions is Fløibanen, a funicular that takes visitors to the top of the mountain Fløyen to provide beautiful views of the town and the fjords. Unfortunately the rain and clouds convinced us that the trip wasn’t worth our time or money. After a delicious dinner of grilled halibut at Naboen, we returned to the Klosterhagen for the night.

The next morning we woke up, ate breakfast at the hotel, and walked with our luggage down to the harbor. There we boarded one of Fjord1’s express ferries. The boat departed, and we zipped quickly (and relatively quietly) out of the fjord. The boat ride was one of my favorite parts of this trip. It was fast and comfortable, and we got amazing views of the fjords and towns of western Norway. I alternated between sitting at a table inside and watching through the large windows and standing outside on the deck to take pictures. It was fun to be outside, but the boat moved so quickly that it was too cold in the wind to be outside for long. The weather was cloudy, but the rain stopped when we left Bergen, so we got some breathtaking views.

A view of the fjords
A view of the fjords

Our boat arrived in Aurland in the middle of the afternoon. Aurland is a beautiful if sleepy little town nestled in an absolutely gorgeous fjord. We stayed at the Vangsgaarden Gjestgiveri’s fjord cabins, which are small but cozy cabins right on the waterfront with full kitchens. The afternoon was spent exploring the tiny town of Aurland—the highlights were its small but pretty church and graveyard and the glass-blowing workshop—and shopping at the grocery store. Back at the cabins, we cooked a dinner of spaghetti.

Tuesday morning dawned sunny and clear. In the morning, we took a walk down the road to the north, out of town. Our goal was a farm up on the hill above town, but we never reached it. The road up to the farm isn’t well marked, so instead we got a beautiful walk along the water. After lunch, we took a bus to Flåm, the town at the end of the fjord and to the south of Aurland. Flåm is more touristy than Aurland, as it’s a stop for the massive cruise ships that roam the fjords and the terminus of the Flåm railway. We walked around the town, and followed the road towards a waterfall just outside of town. We walked far enough to get a good view of the waterfall, and we got to see herds of cows in the fields and a group of shepherds running their flock along the road. When we returned to town, we boarded a zodiac for a fjord safari. Our guide steered the small, speedy boat through the Aurlandsfjord, stopping to highlight points of interest including a pod of porpoises frolicking in the glassy water. Then we turned into the Nærøyfjord, a stunningly beautiful and very narrow fjord that is a UNESCO heritage site. The Nærøyfjord’s steep walls are blanketed in waterfalls, and a few tiny farming towns lie in the few areas where the steep walls give way to flatter land. At the end of the safari, we took a ferry back to Aurland, cooked a dinner of hamburgers, and went to bed.

Aurland
Aurland

When we awoke the next morning, we packed our bags, straightened up the cabins, and boarded a bus to Flåm. Once we reached Flåm, we boarded the Flåm Railway, which bills itself as one of the most beautiful railways in the world. For the most part, the ride lives up to its reputation—it is a scenic trip that winds through steep mountains and past flowing waterfalls with some great vantage points back down the valley. The Flåm Railway ends at Myrdal, where we transferred to a train to Oslo. The second train ride was almost equally beautiful; we flew past glaciers, alpine lakes, and charming mountain towns, arriving in Oslo in the afternoon. We walked through downtown Oslo to our lodgings, two apartments rented via Airbnb. We did the walking tour of downtown Oslo, visiting Karl Johans Gate and seeing City Hall (where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded), the Grand Hotel (where Nobel Peace laureates are housed), the Parliament Building, the harbor, the Royal Palace, and the cathedral (which, unfortunately, was closed).

At the end of the walking tour, we made our way back to our apartments and cooked a dinner of roast chicken and pasta. We decided not to eat out because Oslo is ridiculously expensive. The exchange rate wasn’t particularly egregious, but prices in Oslo were, at minimum, twice as high as they would be in New York or London. We spent the next day visiting Oslo’s many museums. The entry fees are fairly high, but there are student discounts, and we all purchased the one-day Oslo pass, which is a great deal if you’re planning on visiting multiple museums (it covers entry to all the museums and all public transportation, including the tram, subway, buses, and ferries).

First, we took the ferry out to Bygdøy, a peninsula with beautiful upscale neighborhoods and several museums. We went to the open-air folk museum, which has a collection of buildings from different eras of Norway’s history. We didn’t spend a lot of time there because a similar museum in Stockholm is larger and better, but we stopped by a beautiful stave church from the 1200s, old farmhouses and schoolhouses with soil and grasses growing on their roofs, and an apartment building from the late 1800s laid out and furnished according to the stage directions from Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Our next stop was the Viking Ship Museum, which contains three ships build during the eighth century. the ships were used as tombs, so they were buried with numerous gifts. Two of the ships are remarkably well preserved—almost completely intact—while one is missing about half its structure.

Next, we took a bus to the Fram Museum. The Fram’s main attraction is the Fram itself, a wooden ship designed by Colin Archer to Fridtjof Nansen’s specifications specifically for arctic exploration. Nansen was a remarkable man. He developed the theory that the polar icecap drifts across the ocean, and he planned an expedition to prove it. He would sail north and intentionally allow his ship to be frozen into the polar sea ice. The natural drift of the ice would carry the ship across the North Pole and far enough south to escape from the ice when it began to thaw in the summer. Many of Nansen’s contemporaries thought his plan suicidal. But the Fram was designed to be immensely strong and with a unique shape that would prevent it from being crushed in the ice. Though he didn’t reach the pole, Nansen set the farthest north record, at over 86 degrees of latitude. After retiring from his scientific and exploration careers, Nansen devoted his life to the League of Nations. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his work helping persons displaced by World War I and the Armenian Genocide. The Fram also served a number of other expeditions to both poles, including Roald Amundsen’s successful attempt to reach the South Pole. It still holds the records for farthest north and farthest south points reached by a wooden ship. In addition to the ship, the museum contains neat exhibits on several polar explorers, their expeditions, and polar exploration in general. In an annex, the museum houses the Gjøa, the first ship to transit the Northwest Passage.

Catching the ferry from the stop just outside the Fram Musem, we returned to the harbor in time for lunch. After lunch, we went to the Nobel Peace Center, which celebrates the winners of that prize. The Center is probably not worth the price of admission (though if you’ve bought the Oslo pass and have time, it might be worth a look). It has a decent exhibit on the current winner (the European Union) and a nice-looking section with brief biographies of all the prize winners, but it doesn’t contain anything you can’t read in Wikipedia.

We walked by Akershus Fortress to the Norwegian Resistance museum. The Resistance Museum is a fascinating exhibit on Norwegian Jews and the resistance against Nazi occupation during World War II. Our last stop of the day was the National Gallery. Because 2013 marked the 150th anniversary of Edvard Munch’s birth, the National Gallery and Munch museum were doing a joint exhibition of his work. The Munch exhibit was fantastic, and we also saw the museum’s highlights from its permanent collection, which included some beautiful nature paintings by Norwegian artists and a handful by other masters (Monet, Manet, Cezanne, and Picasso). We took the tram back to our apartments, ate a dinner of snap peas, bratwurst, and sauerkraut, packed our bags, and went to bed.

Lauren and I woke early the next day to go see Frogner Park. A 75-acre park containing a unique collection of statues created by Gustav Vigeland and 14,000 roses, it is the most visited attraction in Norway. Unfortunately, a combination of major construction on the tram line and inaccurate information from Rick Steves meant we reached the park about half an hour later than we planned. Even so, we could tell from our 15 minute sprint through the park that it is incredibly beautiful, and if I return to Oslo I will be sure to spend more time there (probably including a picnic lunch).

Frogner Park
Frogner Park

Returning briefly to our apartment, we grabbed our bags and walked to the station to board the express train to the airport. A few short hours later we landed in Tallinn, Estonia. We took a cab to our hotel, the Tallink Express, a slightly seedy place. When we arrived, a drunk man who spoke only Russian (and that in quite a slurred manner), followed us into one of our rooms and closed the door behind him. Jeff kicked him out, and Caety asked the front desk to call security, which swiftly dealt with the situation.

Things got much better after we ditched our welcome party. The hotel is only a five minute walk from Tallinn’s old town, which is well-preserved, clean, and beautiful. We took the Rick Steves walking tour, seeing several churches (including the very impressive Alexander Nevsky Cathedral), a couple of bakeries, the gorgeous town square, and two overlooks that gave us spectacular views of the town.

Tallinn
Tallinn

After the tour and some shopping in a few of Tallinn’s numerous amber shops, we wandered back to the main square. We ate a delicious dinner at Balthasar, the garlic restaurant, which was delicious. After dinner we walked back up to one of the overlooks from the walking tour and were rewarded with awesome views of Tallinn at night. Next we intended to go out for a few drinks, but the bar we’d intended to visit (a medieval alehouse) was closed. So instead we walked back down to old town’s main drag and had some excellent beer and great music at Clayhills. We returned to the hotel and went to bed.

Tallinn at night
Tallinn at night

Saturday morning brought an end to our brief stay in Tallinn. We entered the hotel cafe to find the breakfast buffet mobbed by a huge group of loud and extremely rude Russian tourists courtesy of two tour buses parked outside. After negotiating our way through the breakfast to the actual food (which was terrible), we walked to the LindaLine docks to a catch a ferry to Helsinki. The cruise across the Baltic Sea was smooth and uneventful, and we arrived in Helsinki a little before noon.

We checked into our hotel, the Rivoli Jardin, which is very nice and in an excellent location. Only a few blocks from the hotel lies the Esplanade and town market, which sells a mix of wares, souvenirs, jewelery, and food. Next, we did a walking tour of the city, beginning with the market. We walked up to Senate Square, which is dominated by a beautiful Lutheran cathedral. We walked up the tree-lined Esplanade. We saw the overwhelmingly massive Stockmann’s department store, Finland’s Harrods. Then we returned to the hotel for a break, venturing out later for dinner at Strindberg. I had the Swedish Hash Bellman, a mix of beef, potatoes, and onions in a delicious cream sauce. It was the best meal I had on the entire trip.

Sunday dawned clear, warm, and beautiful. We took a 10 o’clock ferry out to Suomenlinna, an island fortress built by Sweden during its period of Finnish rule to counter the Russian military buildup at St. Petersburg. Thought to be virtually impregnable and known as the Baltic Gibraltar, the fortress was seized by Russia in a seige in 1808 during the Finnish War. Today, the fortress occupies four islands in Helsinki. There is some fascinating history, but the main reason to visit is for the incredible views of old stone walls, rolling green hills, and blue ocean. We spent about two hours there, walking from the ferry dock to the King’s Gate, and back.

Suomenlinna
Suomenlinna

Returning to the mainland, we visited Uspenski Cathedral, built by the Russians but now Finnish Orthodox. Though impressive, Uspenski is not nearly as ornate as Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn. Next, we did a mostly forgettable tram tour of the city. At 5 PM, we set sail on the Silja Serenade, officially a passenger ferry but much more like a massive cruise ship. We watched Helsinki disappear into the distance and explored the onboard shops, restaurants, and pool area. At 8, we sat down for a smörgåsbord. Though the feast included typical Scandinavian fare (mostly herring in varying degrees of horribleness), it had a huge selection of other types of food as well. Some was quite good, and some not good at all. Stuffing ourselves with food, wine, and beer, we left the buffet for one of the ship’s bars, where we remained until turning in at around 11:30.

The Serenade entered the archipelago surrounding Stockholm the next morning. Unfortunately, the view was obscured by thick fog, and we could only see the islands closest to the ship, drifting in and out of view in surreal ways. At 9:30, the Serenade put in at Stockholm. We took a bus to the central train station, where we stored our luggage. We took the tram to Skansen, Scandinavia’s oldest, largest, and best open-air folk museum. It contains a number of buildings from various time periods and regions of Sweden. It’s a living history museum, with people in the dress of their respective eras explaining, and sometimes recreating, the occupations and lifestyles of Swedish history. My favorites were the printer’s home, the apothecary, the bakery, and an old farmstead from northern Sweden, one building of which dated to the 1400s. Skansen also contains a small zoo with animals native to Sweden. We saw sheep, cows, goats, reindeer, elk, seals, peacocks, an otter, a fox, a lynx, and a family of brown bears. The cubs played and wrestled on a log while mom kept watch.

Brown bears at Skansen
Brown bears at Skansen

Our next stop was the Vasa Museum, which contains a seventeenth century warship dredged from the depths of Stockholm harbor. The ship is beautiful and remarkably complete; it sank twenty minutes into its maiden voyage because the ship’s designer made it too tall and narrow. A light wind caused the ship to roll enough that water gushed into the open cannon ports. She capsized and sank into the mud beneath the cold, brackish water of the Baltic Sea, which preserved her until she was recovered in 1961. The museum is well-designed and very informative.

We ate a delicious dinner at Vapiano, an Italian restaurant with a unique service method. Retreiving our luggage from the train station, we checked into our hotel, the Omena Hotel Stockholm. It’s an automated hotel with no onsite staff except housekeeping. That means it’s quite nice, reasonably priced, and has a great location. However, the lack of personal attention is noticeable.

In the morning, we took the subway out of Stockholm to Drottningholm Palace, Sweden’s Versailles. An enormous and stunningly beautiful palace that mixes baroque, rococo, and neoclassical styles, it was built in the seventeenth century and is still used by the royal family. The palace is massive and imposing, with sprawling gardens behind and a lake in front. We got a guided tour of the palace and then took the subway to the waterfront near Stockholm’s Gamla Stan, the island containing Stockholm’s old town.

At the harbor we caught the Royal Canal Tour, operated by Stockholm Sightseeing. It was a great 45 minute tour of some of the nicer parts of the city’s waterfront (including the beautiful upscale Strandvägen), the Royal Canal as it twists through beautiful parkland, and the inner part of the archipelago. Next Lauren, Caety, and I visited the Royal Armoury which has an interesting collection of weapons, amror, and royal garments from different eras of Swedish history. We also visited the treasury, housed in the same palace, which has a small but impressive collection of jewelery and royal regalia.

The Rick Steves self-guided walking tour of Gamla Stan begins at the palace, so we did that next. It is a short tour and not one of his best, especially because the churches on the tour were closed. However, we did see a few very pretty streets and squares, and we got a great view from one of the bridges. At the end of the tour, we joined the rest of the group at Vapiano, the Italian restaurant  we’d visited the night before. A short subway ride took us back near our hotel, where we ate dinner at a bar and grill near Drottninggatan. I had a tasty blue cheese burger, and several people ordered the Swedish meatballs. We tried Swedish meatballs in Norway, Finland, and Sweden. There was some disagreement as to which were the best. I voted for Sweden, but some people thought Norway’s were better.

Stockholm
Stockholm

Shortly after returning to the hotel, Jeff, Linda, Caety, Lauren, and I went to the Icebar. Operated by the Ice Hotel, which is a hotel made entirely out of ice blocks, the Icebar is based on the same concept. The walls, ceiling, bar, and glasses are all made out of blocks of ice chopped from a frozen river, and the room is kept at -7°C (23°F), so guests are provided with parkas and gloves upon entry. The bar offers vodka drinks, ranging from not very good to excellent. I had a drink of lemon vodka with cranberry juice and lime liqueur (quite good) and another with vanilla vodka, cinnamon, and apple juice (delicious). We hung out at the bar for about 45 minutes and then returned to the hotel.

Our train left Stockholm Central Station at 8 the next morning, but we traveled first class, so it wasn’t too painful. The journey to Denmark was about five hours, but the first class offered free snacks, coffee, tea, and Wi-Fi. The train zipped through the Swedish countryside, arriving in Copenhagen around 1:30 in the afternoon.

Leaving the train station on foot, we made our way to the townhouse where we stayed. It was a quirky place, with a narrow, winding staircase providing the only access to its four floors. The bottom floor housed the kitchen, dining, and living areas. Each of the upper floors had two bedrooms. Despites its idiosyncrasies, it was a nice place right in the center of town.

After a quick visit to the grocery store, we took a bus out towards Christiania. Near the bust stop, we saw the Church of Our Savior, which has a gigantic tower encircled by a winding staircase. Lauren, Caety, and I made the trip to the top. It so happened that we made the climb right at sunset, so we were rewarded with incredible views of the sun dipping below the horizon with Copenhagen laid out in all directions beneath us.

Copenhagen from the Church of Our Savior
Copenhagen from the Church of Our Savior

We continued on to Christiania, a self-declared autonomous region of Copenhage that looks and feels like a giant hippie commune. The area has three rules for visitors: no running (makes people think the cops are coming), no cameras (a lot of marijuana is bought and sold openly), and have fun. We took a quick walk through the neighborhood, which was indeed fun to see. Then we returned to our townhouse for a dinner of homemade tacos and bed.

We began the next day at the National Museum, which has a huge exhibit on Danish prehistory, beginning with the Stone Age and continuing through the Renaissance. Currently the museum has a special exhibition on Vikings, which was quite good. Next we visited Christianborg Palace. It’s a beautiful palace with some overwhelmingly grand rooms and a remarkably cozy library, but it only dates to 1920 because it burned down in the late 1800s. Then we returned to the house for lunch.

Christianborg Palace
Christianborg Palace

After lunch, we walked over to Rosenborg Palace, which houses the crown jewels. Denmark has an impressive collection including crowns, jewelery, swords, and a special wine vintage with some bottles dating to the early 1600s. The wine is only used by the royal family for certain special events. At the current rate of consumption, they have enough for 300 years. In addition, the palace is quite nice in its own right.

We walked back to the house, but only to change and drop off our backpacks. We took a bus to Tivoli Gardens, the world’s second-oldest amusement park and the inspiration for Disneyland. Our first stop was the Star Flyer, a 260-foot high tower with rotating swings which, apart from being a thrilling ride, offers great views of Copenhagen. After the ride, we ate dinner at Tivoli Biergarten. The food was surprisingly good (I had pork schnitzel, but most folks had the bratwurst, which was also good), and Lauren and I shared a liter of the Paulaner Salvator, a very good beer that the monks who ran the Paulaner monastery drank as a food substitute during lent in the eighteenth century. They still use the original recipe.

We also went on the Golden Tower, a 200 foot tall drop tower, and the Demon, an extremely exciting roller coaster. We rode the simply named Roller Coaster, the world’s oldest wooden roller coaster, which was also fun. We rode it twice, once near the front and once at the very back. The back of a roller coaster usually moves faster on the downhill slopes, while the front goes faster on the uphills, so the back feels a lot faster. That is very true of the Roller Coaster, and it’s also true, though to a lesser degree, on the Demon. Next we rode a silly children’s ride that supposedly simulates diamond mining. Then we rode the Flyer once more. The sun had set, and this time we got to glimpse the stunning sight of the lights of Copenhagen beneath the night sky.

Though the park doesn’t officially close until 11 PM, most of the rides and almost all of the restaurants and cafes close around 10. We rode the Golden Tower again, and the Demon several more times, as those were the only rides still open. At 10:45 we walked over to Tivoli Lake for the nightly light show. The show was quite cool, but it’s probably not worth staying for unless you like the rides that are still open past 10. When the park closed, we walked back to the house, stopping for ice cream on the way.

On the final full day of our trip, we slept in a little and then caught a train to Roskilde. From the train station we walked to Roskilde Cathedral, which was by far the most impressive church of the trip. Dubbed “Denmark’s Westminster Abbey,” Roskilde Cathedral dates from the 1100s and is the burial place for the royal family. The church itself is enormous and beautifully decorated. Several chapels and crypts extend from the main hall, and each contains marble sarcophagi or covered coffins.

A beautiful stroll through a wooded park took us to the shoreline and the Viking Ship Museum. The museum boasts five ships recovered from Roskilde Fjord. They were sunk to form a defensive barrage. None of the ships is nearly as well-preserved as those in the similar museum in Oslo, though some are larger and the types of ships represented are much more varied. Instead of emphasizing the restored ships, the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum is mostly about how the ships were made. A team of craftsmen at the museum creates reconstructions of the Viking ships using the same tools and materials as the Vikings. Exhibits illustrate each part of the process. One of the larger reconstructions, the Sea Stallion, sailed from Roskilde across the North sea to the United Kingdom, around the west coast of Ireland, and back. It took five weeks.

We got to sail in a Viking ship ourselves. A museum staffer guided us in the use of our wooden oars, and we rowed out into the fjord. Then we lowered the sail. There was only a very light wind, and it pushed us slowly back towards the dock. As we sailed, we noticed countless jellyfish drifting through the fjord beneath us. The brackish water isn’t salty enough for stinging jellyfish, so our guide pulled one out of the water and let us hold it. It was slimy, but not really unpleasant to hold. After about an hour on the water, we returned to the docks.

We caught the train back to Copenhagen. Jeff, Linda, Lauren, and I started the Rick Steves walking tour. We’d already seen many of the sights on the tour, but it was good to learn more about them. We had to cut the tour short to make it to dinner at Ristorante Italiano. I had a very good pizza with prosciutto, arugula, parmesan, and mozzarella. After dinner, we walked to an ice cream stand, and then returned to the house, where we had a few beers and bottles of wine to celebrate the last night of the trip.

Reviews from this Trip

Bergen, Norway

  • Klosterhagen Hotell (lodging): 9/10 (Excellent). A reasonably priced, clean, and very comfortable hotel with a friendly staff and an excellent free breakfast. It’s a cozy boutique hotel with some quirky rooms (ours was on the top floor with a peaked a roof and two skylights). The staff is friendly and helpful. Location is a little inconvenient, but it’s still walking distance from most of the attractions in Bergen.
  • Cafe Opera (dining): 9/10 (Excellent). Reasonably priced, which can be extremely difficult to find in Norway. Good food all around; we went there twice, for both lunch and dinner. The salmon, cod, and reindeer all got good reviews. The baked feta appetizer is absolutely mouth-watering, and the chicken sandwich for lunch was pretty good.
  • Hanseatic Museum (history): 7/10 (Good). Interesting mostly because it is housed in a merchant’s home dating to 1704, so it provides fascinating insight into how people in that era lived and worked. You’ll learn far more about dried cod and cod liver oil than you ever thought there was to know.
  • Rosenkrantz Tower (history): 8/10 (Very Good). Part of a fortress built during the mid-1500s. The roof has nice views of Bergen, and there are interesting historical exhibits inside.
  • Haakon’s Hall (history): 6/10 (Above Average). The royal hall built in the mid-1200s. There is some interesting history, and the hall itself is impressive, but it takes no more than a few minutes to see and the history is not presented particularly well.
  • Naboen Pub & Restaurant (dining): 10/10 (Outstanding). Delicious food and nice atmosphere. Not cheap, but not outrageously expensive either. There is a more reasonably priced Swedish menu available, and you can choose to eat in the main restaurant upstairs (nice, quiet ambiance) or in the pub downstairs (classic pub feel with a different food menu).
  • Fjord1 (transportation/sightseeing): 9/10 (Excellent). Fjord1 operates express boats between the towns that dot Norway’s fjords. We took the boat from Bergen to Aurland, and it was highly enjoyable. The moves very quickly and quietly, and there are lots of windows and a cafe on board. Outside decks at both the front and the back offer great views and photo opportunities.

Aurland and Flåm, Norway

  • Vangsgaarden Gjestgiveri (lodging): 8/10 (Very Good). We stayed in the fjord cabins, which are right on the water and boast excellent views of the fjords. Our cabins had 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom, and a full kitchen with a small living area. There was also an attic bedroom with 2 additional single beds, though the peaked roofs came down so low that the attic is very cramped.
  • Fjord Safari (activity): 9/10 (Excellent). Very fun combination of excitement, natural beauty, and cultural history. Take a zodiac through the Aurlandsfjord and the Nærøyfjord to see the beautiful glacier-carved fjords, countless waterfalls, and learn about the towns and wildlife of Norway’s fjord region.
  • Flåm Railway (transportation/sightseeing): 7/10 (Good). A beautiful ride up from the fjords and into the mountains at Myrdal.

Oslo, Norway

  • Norsk Folk Museum (history/culture): 7/10 (Good). Not nearly as large, old, interesting , or interactive as Skansen, its Swedish counterpart, the Norsk folk museum still contains a beautiful stave church dating to the 1200s and some good information.
  • Viking Ship Museum (history/culture): 8/10 (Very Good). Containing the three best-preserved Viking ships anywhere, this is a must-see for anyone interested in Vikings or Scandinavian history. The museum also houses the grave gifts buried with the ships. Though it’s fascinating to see the ships and artifacts, the museum is a little light on information.
  • Fram Museum (history): 10/10 (Outstanding). An incredible museum about polar exploration, this museum houses the Fram itself, a unique ship designed for arctic exploration (and you can go on deck). It also has informative exhibits about explorers and exploration and some fun interactive exhibits about polar exploration. In an annex is the Gjøa, the first ship to transit the Northwest Passage, more exhibits, and good film on polar exploration.
  • Nobel Peace Center (culture): 4/10 (Below Average). Not worth the price of admission. The exhibit on the current winner is the best part, and there is some information about past winners, and a decent gift shop. But none of the exhibits were anything special, and none contained unique information.
  • Norway’s Resistance Museum (history): 7/10 (Good). A fascinating look at the history of Norway’s Nazi occupation.
  • National Gallery (art): 8/10 (Very Good). This opinion is colored by the fact that I visited the museum during the 150th anniversary of Munch’s birth, and so the museum had a special (and excellent) exhibit on Munch’s art. We also saw the museum highlights, which contain about 7 paintings by Monet, Manet, Cezanne, and Picasso. There are also some excellent works by Norwegian artists; the best were nature paintings.
  • Frogner Park (parks): 9/10 (Excellent). I only spent about 10 minutes in the park, but it will be one of my first stops if I ever return to Oslo. It’s absolutely beautiful with lots of green space, and it contains a huge collection of sculptures by Gustav Vigeland and 14,000 roses of 150 different species. There’s a good reason it’s Norway’s most visited attraction.

Tallinn, Estonia

  • Tallink Express Hotel (lodging): 4/10 (Below Average). Reasonably priced and a great location (5 minute walk to beautiful old-town Tallinn). However, the rooms are definitely a bit worn; ours was cleaned but the mattresses and bedding were stained, and the pull-out couch was in such bad shape that it was impossible to sleep on. The provided breakfast is terrible, and our breakfast experience was made even worse by a massive crowd of extremely rude Russian tourists, whose buses stopped at the hotel for breakfast.
  • Balthasar Garlic Restaurant (dining): 9/10 (Excellent). Great food and service. I had some of both the chicken stuffed with goat cheese and prosciutto and the fried cod, which were both great.
  • Kehrwieder Chocolaterie (dining): 4/10 (Below Average). Cute place and nice atmosphere, but my hot chocolate was lukewarm and the dessert we got (a berry cake) was not very good.
  • Clayhills (dining): 9/10 (Excellent). A restaurant and bar in the heart of old town, we just visited Clayhills for drinks. I got the beer sampler, which was mostly fantastic. There were two sub-par beers, but the others were all great. Prices are very reasonable, and the night we were there they had a three-piece band with a singer who had a fantastic voice. Great beer and great atmosphere.

Helsinki, Finland

  • Rivoli Hotel Jardin (lodging): 9/10 (Excellent). Perfect location with beautiful rooms, a friendly staff, and a delicious breakfast. Unfortunately internet access is expensive.
  • Strindberg (dining): 10/10 (Outstanding). Absolutely delectable. My salad and entree  (the Swedish Hash Bellman) were the best meal I had on the entire trip. The dessert (the baked Alaska) was disappointing. The restaurant also includes a library bar with some interesting drinks and great ambiance
  • Suomenlinna (history): 9/10 (Excellent). Helsinki’s old maritime fortress has fascinating history and beautiful views. Be sure to visit on a sunny day, there’s lots of walking around outside.
  • Tallink Silja Line (transportation): 8/10 (Very Good). A fun way to get from Helsinki to Stockholm. Overall, the smörgåsbord was quite good, and we had a great time at the hot tubs, sauna, and bars. Would’ve been nicer if our approach to Stockholm hadn’t been through such thick fog because the Stockholm archipelago is beautiful.
  • Kappeli (dining): 8/10 (Very Good). Beautiful, historic cafe on Helsinki’s Esplanade. We had a great salad, a delicious hot chocolate, and tasty draft beer. The cafe has glass walls and gazebos and provides a perfect place to rest for a drink and a snack right on the Esplanade.

Stockholm, Sweden

  • Omena Hotel (lodging): 9/10 (Excellent). Fantastic value. The rooms are large, the beds are comfortable, and the location is great. Unusual in that there is no onsite staff. Access is controlled by electronic keypads (they email you a code and your room number). There’s an emergency 24 hour phone number, but you shouldn’t expect to see any hotel staff during your stay.
  • Vapiano (dining): 9/10 (Excellent). Great Italian food, delicious pastas and pizzas. The unique style of serving (you get a plastic card when you walk in, charge everything to it as you order at the various stations, and pay when you leave) is fun too.
  • Skansen (history/culture): 9/10 (Excellent). A fascinating living history museum containing buildings from many different eras of Swedish history with people dressed in the styles of their eras available to explain things and provide demonstrations. Also contains a small but very good zoo.
  • Vasa Museum (history): 8/10 (Very Good). Very interesting museum containing the only intact seventeenth century warship. You can’t go on the ship because it is too fragile, but the exhibits are well-designed and there are free guided tours in English.
  • Drottningholm Palace (history/culture): 8/10 (Very Good). Known also as “Sweden’s Versailles,” Drottningholm Palace is well worth the trip. It’s massive, and there is beautiful architecture, design, artwork, and gardens. Guided tours in English available.
  • Royal Canal Tour (sightseeing): 8/10 (Very Good). A fun, relaxing, and informative trip through Stockholm’s Royal Canal. Included in the price of the Stockholm Card (which is probably worth the cost if you’re visiting a bunch of museums; we bought the 48 hour pass).
  • Royal Armoury (history): 7/10 (Good). Interesting exhibits on armor and clothing worn by the soldiers and royal family of Sweden.
  • Royal Treasury (history): 6/10 (Above Average). Small but beautiful collection of crown jewels. Probably not worth it on its own, but it’s included in the Stockholm Card and is housed in the Royal Palace with the armoury, so it’s not out of the way.
  • Icebar by Icehotel (dining): 8/10 (Very Good). Touristy and overpriced, but ultimately a lot of fun. It’s a unique experience, and most of the drinks are very good.

Copenhagen, Denmark

  • Ristorante Italiano (dining): 6/10 (Above Average). Good food; the pizza was delicious, though the pastas got mixed reviews. Ridiculously over-priced.
  • Christiania (neighborhood): 6/10 (Above Average). Fun to see and explore with some good food. A short trip.
  • Church of Our Savior (church): 8/10 (Very Good). I didn’t actually go into the church, but the long climb to the top of the tower was definitely worth it, particularly if done at sunset.
  • National Museum: 7/10 (Good). Incredible collection of Danish artifacts going all the way back to the stone age with good explanations in English.
  • Christianborg Palace (history): 7/10 (Good).
  • Rosenborg Palace (history): 7/10 (Good).
  • Tivoli Gardens (attractions): 9/10 (Excellent).

Roskilde, Denmark

  • Roskilde Cathedral
  • Viking Ship Museum

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