The Capital Cities of Scandinavia

Scandinavia is a big region, consisting of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and depending who you talk to, Finland. We spent the better part of three weeks exploring the capital cities of these very different Nordic countries and came away with an appreciation of these locales (and a considerably lighter wallet – Scandinavian countries are expensive for visitors). You may not have three weeks to explore so hopefully this guide will help you decide where to visit and allow you to make the most of your time in these amazing places.

For our itinerary, we started in Stockholm, flew to Copenhagen, then on to Oslo and finally Helsinki. We flew Norwegian air to each destination for the purpose of saving time (vs. taking a train or ship). The order of our destinations was predicated on the cost of the flights so we crisscrossed a bit to save money. If you want to take it slower, definitely consider the train or a ferry/cruise ship.

We spent the majority of our time in the Gamla Stan and based on all the cities we visited on this trip, Stockholm had the best Old Town. Complete with beautiful architecture, cobblestones and royal residences, if Old Town ambiance is your ideal, Stockholm’s Gamla Stan will deliver. Stockholm’s many islands also allows for a lot of exploration by boat and there are many options for guided tours, water bus/ferry or you can even rent your own low-speed boat.

Very close to Gamla Stan is the Vasa Museum, which is really a sight to behold. If photography interests you, be sure to spend some time in the Fotografik museum (which also has a decent café). If you’ve got a full day to kill, the open air exhibit at Skansen will let you get your walking in, and it’s a great place for the kids too. Be sure to take an easy trip by ferry to Drottningholm Palace, which is still a private residence of the Swedish Royal family. The palace is quite grand albeit more subdued than some other palaces in Europe. For a nice walk, head to the garden and take the path to the Chinese Pavilion.

Another great day trip from Stockholm is to the tiny, ancient town of Sigtuna, which reputably has the oldest main street in Sweden. Be sure to visit the ruins of St. Olaf’s, St. Lawrence’s and St. Peter’s medieval churches, stroll the old street, and indulge in an ice cream.

Stockholm has a decent metro and tram network that is also connected to the ferry system, so if you plan to use the services for a few days, get a metro card that you can top up and use across all modes of transportation. Lastly, you can’t leave Stockholm without ingesting their delectable meatballs (best we had on the whole trip was at Osterlanggata 17) and herring. We were excited for the meatballs and skeptical of the herring; both turned out to be wonderful!

Copenhagen has the most bohemian vibe of all the cities we visited, and that’s not even taking the Christiania Free Town in to account. Another town with a great public transportation system, you can get almost anywhere by metro or bus. As of summer 2019, the city was adding more metro stations to make the service even more convenient.

The city’s old town, Nyhavn, is as pretty as a postcard, but packed with tourists, buskers, and tour guide operators. Fortunately, there’s also a slew of bars, restaurants and cafes and people watching is a major pastime here. In addition to Nyhavn, there is a TON to do in Copenhagen, which made it our favorite city in Scandinavia.

Whatever museum interest you, it can be found here. On a rainy day we spent an afternoon at the National Museum of Denmark, which is a former royal palace. The Viking and Bog body exhibits are fascinating, and during our visit, we were treated to a special exhibit on Genghis Khan and the Mongolian people. The exhibit is really well done, and the costumes of the Mongolians are extraordinary.

If the weather is nice, walk or take the bus out to Christiania to see how the residents of this Free Town live. Be warned, pictures are discouraged, and although illegal, marijuana and hash vendors sell their wares on Pusher Street. Don’t be tempted to make a purchase as the police frequently raid the street. A stroll through the Free Town isn’t for everyone; it’s interesting, edgy and a bit grungy. If pristine neighborhoods are more your style, Free Town probably won’t appeal to you. Instead, find your way to the Church of Our Savior and climb the spiral steeple for an unparalleled view of Copenhagen.
Continue your walk towards Holmen along Krudtløbsvej, making your way to the island of Refshaleøen. Here you will find Reffen, the best food stall area we’ve ever experienced. With dozens of stalls serving every kind of street food you can imagine, craft beers, cocktails and gelato, you might be tempted to come for lunch and stay for dinner. Adjacent to the water, you can take a ferry here and find a water-side picnic table, or grab a spot in the sand around a firepit and listen to a live band. There’s even a skate park and a place for the kids to play.

If you want to get out of town for the day, take the train to Frederiksborg Castle which is about an hour away. Of all the castles we’ve seen in Europe, this one has some really spectacular rooms that rival Versailles. The chapel, Grand Hall and the Privy Passage to the Audience Room would have made Louis XIV weep. If you’re traveling with kids, you will definitely want to take them to Tivoli, which is predominantly an amusement park, but the grounds are nice for the adults, and there’s a food hall if you don’t want to eat at a hotdog stand (but do try a hotdog in Copenhagen – they love their pølser and they are pretty delicious!). After a long day of sightseeing, treat yourself to a meal at La Vecchia Signora; in addition to the most velvety pasta you will ever eat, dine in the courtyard amongst 200 year old timber buildings.

Whatever you do, don’t leave Copenhagen without taking a boat tour of the river and canals. The architecture is fabulous, and if you go in the evening on a warm night, you can see the locals sitting on their lawn chairs with cocktails in hand, watching the boats float by.

Oslo & Bergen:
We only spent two nights in Oslo so we didn’t get a great feel for the city, but from what we saw, it felt the most urban and modernized. There isn’t really an Old Town in Oslo, but with their great tram system, it’s not hard to get around to experience the main attractions. The main drag on Karl Johans gate is a crowded, touristy shopping area with the major chain stores like H&M and Benetton. At one end is a shady park with a fountain and metro station and further along is the royal palace which is open to the public. Speaking of parks, we spent a bit of time wandering around Frogner Park to admire the roses (14,000 of them) and the nude sculpture installation of Gustav Vigeland.

We spent one of our afternoons soaking up the sun in Aker Brygge, watching the boats come and go. There is a wide boardwalk here with dozens of outdoor cafes which are perfect for people watching while you sip on your Aperol Spritz. At the end of the boardwalk is the stylish Astrup Fearnley museum designed by Renzo Piano. Another tram ride away is the trendy neighborhood of Grϋnerløkka. A formerly rough part of town, the Løkka is having a renaissance and is “the” place to be. Expect to find all the hipster cafes and artsy boutiques your heart desires.

After two days in Oslo, we boarded the train to Bergen as part of the Norway in a Nutshell tour. To be clear, this is not actually a tour (although I am confident one could be found online if that’s your thing). Norway in a Nutshell is a train/bus/boat route through Norway that was designed to allow the traveler to see some of Norway’s most magnificent scenery. The tour traverses between Oslo and Bergen, and you can start on either end.

Starting in Oslo, we took the train to Myrdal (approximately five hours but the scenery will keep you occupied) where we changed trains and boarded the Flam railway. The ride to Flam is short but packed with waterfalls and deep valleys. About halfway to Flam, the train stops at a lookout point where passengers can get out to take pictures of the powerful falls, and be treated to a short show complete with Viking opera and a lady in red dancing on the rocks.

In Flam we boarded a two-hour ferry through Aurlandsfjord and Nӕrøyfjord and docked at Gudvangen. From Gudvangen we took a one-hour bus to Voss where we spent the night at Fleischer’s Hotel. The next morning we boarded the train for a the short ride to Bergen where we spent two nights. Bergen is a quaint but bustling town, with a lively waterfront and the UNESCO heritage site of Bryggen, a maze of old wooden buildings that once served as import and export offices, but now is home to a thriving network of artesian shops and restaurants. There’s also a funicular to take you to the top of the town for wonderful views, a restaurant, hiking trails, a park and a children’s playground.
Although the most obvious action is taking place around Bryggen and the harbor, don’t miss the chance to get lost in the back streets. It was during an aimless walk in the rain that we stumbled on to a darling residential area of traditional houses and cobblestone streets (and no tourists!).

About Norway in a Nutshell: you can pay a fee to have an agency book the entire voyage for you, or you can book the route on your own and save some money. It is possible to do the entire one-way journey in a day, but it is a long day and we found stopping overnight in Voss was perfect. Since we had already booked flights leaving from Oslo, we took the seven hour train back to Oslo from Bergen, but another option is to depart from Bergen by air or take a cruise back to Oslo. Whatever you do, be sure to stay at least one night in Bergen.

The last stop on our Scandinavian tour was Helsinki, and I will be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. I thought it would be small, modern, and lacking charm – gladly, I was very wrong. We loved Helsinki, and found it to be cosmopolitan, without losing its old town charm and ambiance. Throughout our five nights in Helsinki we tried to figure out what city it reminded us of, and finally determined it had the vibe of a Parisian neighborhood without the stuffiness.

The two main churches in Helsinki are both stunners: The Helsinki Cathedral with its bright white exterior and starry domes, and the Russian architecture of the Uspenskin Cathedral. The interiors are as different as their exteriors; the Helsinki Cathedral is stark and simple whereas the Uspenskin is ornate and extravagant. Both are worthy of a visit. Another church that is completely different is the Church in the Rock, or Temppeliaukion Church, which is modern and contemporary. The skylights make the copper roof glisten, and the acoustics are excellent. Try to catch a concert here if possible.

If you want to get away from the city but not travel too far, take the 15-minute ferry to Suomenlinna to visit the old fortress and walk amongst nature. Be sure to pick up a map to get the most of your time on the island. Another nice walk is through the Eira neighborhood which has a small beach. Here you’ll stroll amongst the mansions of the well to do and perhaps end at Loyly for a sauna and lunch.

If you have a lot of time in Helsinki, take the ferry to Tallinn for one of the dreamiest medieval towns I’ve ever seen.

The Scandinavia region is vast and diverse and has something to offer every traveler. We weren’t sure what to expect but were delighted with what we found and know we have a return visit in our future to explore the rest of this spectacular part of the world.


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