Nyhaven Street is filled with
cafes and bistros.
A smorgasbord of cool capitals awaits you in northern Europe
Text and photos by Toby Saltzman
Many travelers are reluctant to visit Scandinavia for the simple
reason of its reputation. Ask anyone who has never been to this
northern neck of the world, and you're sure to hear of glum and
gloomy cities deprived of sunshine and culture.
But speak with those who know any of the four Scandinavian countries,
and they're sure to clarify this misconception. Yes it's true: There's
not much light to speak of in winter. Yet, during the crisp cold
months, spectacular late-night Northern Lights brighten up the skies
like a magical fire. And in summer, the sunlight lingers easily
Contrary to another stereotype, Scandinavians are far from dull.
Their capital cities may be impeccably neat, but take a closer look
and you'll see a polite northern reserve expressing itself in avant-garde
architecture, cutting edge design and vibrant arts - not to mention
a busy, rolling jazz scene. If anything, we found Scandinavians
have plenty to boast about, although on our first trip we were somewhat
taken aback by their sense of inferiority. Never mind that their
capital cities hug stunning harbors, spread across picturesque canals,
or have quirky juxtapositions of medieval and modern architecture.
Every tour guide we met spoke in metaphors, as if to elevate their
city to a worthier status: Welcome to Copenhagen, Venice of the
North. Welcome to Stockholm, Venice of the North. Welcome to Helsinki,
Daughter of the Baltic. Welcome to Oslo, Medal of God.
To be true, "Oslo" does translate to its moniker. But all the capitals
merit accolades without comparisons. Three boast distinctions as
"European Cultural Capital" of the year - Copenhagen in 1996, Stockholm
in 1998, Helsinki for the year 2000 - and Oslo, marking its 1000th
birthday in 2000, will celebrate year round.
Castle guards the crest
of the fiord leading to Oslo.
Scandinavia is a smorgasbord of regional delights. Each capital
has a unique culture, a calendar brimming with festivals, and its
own exhilarating style of sauna, not to mention aquavit, herring,
vodka, smoked reindeer and schnapps. As for gastronomy, there's
more to Scandinavian cuisine than meatballs.
The sea is intrinsic to Scandinavian character and, indeed, tourism.
The majority of North Americans - unless they attend conferences
- arrive by cruise ship. Meeting delegates often extend trips, hopping
planes for a few days in each capital.
Whichever way you arrive, knowing a little history will enhance
your trip immeasurably. Centuries ago, the North and Baltic Seas
were wild horizons where Vikings waged battles with sails unfurled
from towering masts. Tales of valiant warriors wove enduring tapestries
of romance. Over time, they carved domains spanning from strategic
ports on the Baltic Sea north toward the Arctic Circle. Over time,
the battle-scarred history of medieval and modern Europe was reflected
in countless castles, strongholds and fortresses in Denmark, Norway,
Sweden and Finland. Around 1070, shrewd Norsemen would chug large
quantities of schnapps around blazing fire pits while masterminding
a plot to control the world (flat as they imagined it then) with
a trade union dubbed the Hanseatic League. The world's proven round
since then. The League is long gone. The countries exist in harmony.
Vikings rule the Baltic Sea in spirit alone. And visitors are more
likely to be seen sipping schnapps or aquavit at an outdoor café
- or quite possibly enjoying a glass of champagne in the hallowed
Nobel Prize hall.
It's moot whether Scandinavians invented awards. What's certain is
that they have brainy reputations, if only because they dedicate the
award of every scientist's or intellectual's dreams. And for some,
just the heady thrill of standing on that Nobel podium makes the entire
trip more than worthwhile.
lakeside restaurant is a highlight of Copenhagen's Tivoli
Straddling picturesque canals, the capital of the kingdom of Denmark
is a bit of a fantasy land - from the bronze statues of the Little
Mermaid in the harbor and Hans Christian Andersen in the city square
to the magical rides and illusions of the Tivoli Gardens. Built
in 1833, this amusement park - a medley of merry-go-rounds, roller
coasters, whimsical buildings, pubs and bistros scattered around
a lake inhabited by white and black swans - is an enchanting place
to rendezvous for a mid-day aquavit and matjes herring or late-night
dinner followed by dazzling fireworks. The colorful medieval warehouses
fringing Nyhavn Canal, once a rough sailors' quarter, today house
cafes and jazz clubs that overlook flotillas of tour boats by day
and swing-till-dawn jazz by night.
Stroll the Stroget - a string of pedestrian streets that form a
shopping promenade - during an outdoor music festival and you'll
see that Danes live to laugh outdoors. Even the guards outside the
Royal Amalienborg Palace, home of the Royal Family since 1794, crack
grins as you approach.
Copenhagen is quite serious, though, when it comes to art. No wonder
- the city is home to some excellent galleries. While the new, contemporary
Luisiana Museum of Modern Art deserves all its rave reviews, we
personally loved the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, which mixes classical
sculptures with some of the world's most beautiful Impressionist
art. While there, be sure to visit its superb new French Gallery,
which owns one of three existing complete series of Degas Bronzes.
Ny Glyptotek Gallery
features exquisite art including one
of the world's rare complete
collections of works by Degas.
Dream excursions from Copenhagen:
A day trip to Elsinore Castle, where Shakespeare's Hamlet brooded
whether "to be or not to be", will bring you through Denmark's verdant
countryside and quaint villages. It's easy to reach by car on your
own, but guided tours are offered as well.
Stockholm is more beautiful than ever. To its credit, in spite of
the tenets of Swedish modern, nothing blemishes the architectural
integrity of its medieval core or the harbor lined with quaint buildings
in ochre and rust brick. Spanning 14 islands linked by bridges,
the city's medieval heart is Gamla Stan, situated where the Baltic
Sea meets blue Lake Malaren. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Gamla
Stan straddles four tiny islands dominated by Kungliga Slottet,
Sweden's baroque Royal Palace.
It's delightful to explore Gamla Stan's treasury of narrow buildings
on winding, cobbled lanes whose boutiques, galleries and intimate
konditoris (cafes) bustle with people on fikapaus (coffee breaks).
Copertino's - a restaurant buzzing with locals stopping in for take-out
meals to munch as they walk - served me a delicious tuna salad topped
with sweet white asparagus and tea in a glass, and my husband a
sandwich thick with gravlax and a robust beer. While strolling past
a troll store, where a woman was busy crafting these peculiar dolls,
we followed a seductive scent to the waffle maker, and left licking
monster ice creams.
Palace outside of Stockholm is a
UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Stockholm is home to 70 theatres, including the ornate Royal Opera
House, and 55 museums, the most notable being the new $56 million
Moderna Museet designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo to house
avant-garde art. For a real Swedish treat, try the smorgasbord at
the Museet's café, overlooking the beautiful cityscape, or at the
Grand Hotel, which looks out onto the lake. Lovers of Viking lore
will adore the Titanic of Viking vessels: the Vasa, the world's
oldest identified ship, which sank on its 1628 maiden voyage before
leaving the harbor. We spent a gorgeous day sailing to Drottningholm
Palace on a local ferry. Holding court on manicured grounds reminiscent
of the Palace of Versailles and decorated with priceless antiques,
the Royal Family's 17th century, baroque-rococo estate deserves
its World Heritage decree. Before leaving Drottningholm, we stopped
in at a lakeside bistro for a lovely salad and fish lunch. By now,
we realized it was more fun and economical to make lunch our main
meal and dinner a light snack.
Dream excursion from Stockholm: Sunrise over Sweden's archipelago
of 30,000 craggy islands and narrow fiords is spectacular. For a
delightful tour, take an early morning boat excursion around the
little isles and rocky skerries. You'll step onto quaint islands
where fishing harbors and winding streets look like they're still
in the 19th century.
For current details, its best to get information from your hotel
concierge or from Sweden House in Stockholm (27 Hamngatan; tel:
46-8-789-24-25, fax: 46-8-789-24-91).
For extended archipelago tours, contact Special Expeditions (720
Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10019; tel: 212-765-7740, fax: 212-265-3770).
Approaching Europe's' northernmost capital by sea, past a military
fortress that thwarted Russian invasions, we could see the waterfront
Kauppatori market bustling with vendors hustling produce, fish and
handicrafts. Impeccably designed in the neo-classical style in the
early 1800s, Helsinki is a stroller's delight. The pastel President's
Palace, the brilliant white "wedding cake" Lutheran Cathedral, and
the ornate Uspensky Cathedral lead to a gracious tree-lined esplanade
bordered by shops chock-full of woolly Finnish sweaters, bright
Marimekko fashions, Lapponia jewelry, or ripply Alvar Aalto vases.
We couldn't resist sitting under a shady umbrella at the Esplanadi's
famous Kappeli Cafe for smoked reindeer sandwiches on crusty bread.
A trail of gardens leads to the stunning Opera House, the Anteneum
(Finland's finest art gallery), and the controversial new Museum of
Contemporary Art Kiasma. Designed by American architect, Steven Holl,
this weird and wonderful structure of odd angles and curves and windows
that create spectacular shades of light and shadows houses some curious
art. Taking in the building's profile, we couldn't decide if it looks
more like a berthed ship or a child's rendition of a one-dimensional
market bustles with vendors.
It was easier to grasp how the 250-year old Suomenlinna Island
fortress, a World Heritage Site could have figured during the Crimean
War as "the Gibraltar of the North." Finns, who are also some of
the world's top architects, love to praise or deprecate important
structures. We were surprised by the masses drawn to the famous
Rock Church (a boring semi-submerged building), and the Sibelius
monument (in spite of its tribute to the classical musical icon).
We personally preferred to meander around Seurasaari Island among
the indigenous log houses and grass-roofed wooden shacks culled
from Finland's remote rural areas. A stop in at the Hvittrask studio
home of architect Saarinen-Gesellius-Lindgren to see quintessential
Scandinavian furniture and art was a real treat.
Dream excursion from Helsinki: If you've got a few days,
by far the most sensational excursion from Helsinki is to Rovaniemi
and Lapland. But for a lovely day trip, take the high-speed train
(one and a half-hours west) to Turku, Finland's oldest city.
After viewing the city's murals and sculptures portraying Norwegian
valor with a patriotic guide, we sensed that people here truly view
their city as a "Medal of God." Oslo may be famed for being "the land
of the midnight sun" and having the world's highest ski jump on a
mountain overrun by mythical trolls, but it also boasts a noteworthy
arts and culture scene. The National Gallery houses excellent works.
Frogner Park, scattered with 192 of Gustav Vigeland's massive granite
and bronze sculptures depicting mankind in all stages of love, joy
and sadness, comprises the world's biggest one-man show.
Oslo, Norway commands the crest of a deep fiord surrounded by
lush wooded hills. The historic 17th-century Akershus Castle guarding
Oslo harbor evokes fairy-tale visions of Viking conquests and seaside
romance. A gracious home for Royalty, it houses on its grounds the
Resistance Museum, a poignant memorial to Norway's spirit of survival
in wartimes past. When Oslo celebrates its 1000th birthday in this
year 2000, Akershus Castle will be a hub of cultural celebrations.
to the spectacular
mountains and rivers of Norway.
Dream excursion from Oslo: If you've got a few days, by
far the most glorious voyage is to cruise the picturesque fiords
of Norway, stopping en route in Bergen, the medieval home of the
Hanseatic League, and 10th-century Trondheim, the country's capital
during the Viking period. If you prefer exploring by land, take
the train or join an overland expedition to the gorgeous glacial
countryside, where you can hike or try fly-fishing under a waterfall.
If you ski, Oslo itself is ringed by 1500 ski trails, usually with
snow year round.
SCANDINAVIA'S DREAMIEST EXCURSION OF ALL
For a dream trip of a lifetime, take a couple of days to venture
north of the Arctic Circle to visit Rovaniemi and the breathtaking
frontier of Finnish Lapland. This is considered "the last wilderness
of Europe." Here you'll find an astonishingly different world, where
reindeer, not Vikings, shaped peoples' destinies. Lapland is where
we experienced one of the most thrilling nights in my travelling
In the chilling darkness of a September night, we drove through
the wilderness to a clearing where a Sami reindeer farmer and his
wife had warmed up their tent with a roaring fire and lined benches
around it covered with fluffy reindeer skins. After a scrumptious
dinner of grilled salmon chased down with an intoxicating cloudberry
liqueur, we donned thermal snowsuits and went outside to lie on
the ground just as the Aurora Borealis began to shoot neon lights
across the sky. Breathtaking!
the Scandinavian Capitals
on a cruise of the Baltic Sea.
This dream excursion included a visit to the indigenous Sami reindeer
farmers, sharing meals in their wooden tepees, canoeing on pristine
rivers, hiking through untouched wilderness on jagged terrain reminiscent
of Canada's Cambrian Shield, and dog-sledding with teams of fleet-footed
Siberian huskies, as well as ice fishing and golfing under the midnight
sun. And if you're a child at heart, you can sit on Santa's lap
in his home right on the Arctic Circle.
Oslo and Stockholm offer flight access to various parts of Lapland,
but the territory north of Finland offers the best tourist infrastructure.
Tours to Lapland are easily arranged at local tour offices in the
capital cities, or in advance by contacting the Finnish Tourist
Swedish Travel & Tourism Council:
Phone: 212-949-2333, Fax: 212-697-0835 Stockholm website: www.stoinfo.se
Norwegian Tourist Board:
Phone: 212-949-2333, Fax: 212-983-5260
Danish tourist Board:
Phone: 212-949-2326, Fax: 212-983-5260
Finnish Tourist Board:
Phone: 416-964-9159, Fax: 416-964-1524
Phone: 212-370-5540, Fax: 212-983-5260
Each Scandinavian capital offers economical "tourist cards" good
for unlimited bus and train travel, admission to museums and attractions,
and discounts on tours, canal or ferry rides, and rental cars. Call
the tourist offices for packages that combine discounts on air and
accommodations. Check with your travel agent for information on
renting a car in advance for a lengthy trip: it may be cheaper to
do so in Canada or the USA prior to departure.
woman in Lapland.
Guarded by fortresses and castles, Scandinavian ports are beautiful
to approach by sea. Stockholm has been ranked as one of the world's
most beautiful ports. Cruise lines offering a variety of Norwegian
fiord and Baltic Sea cruises lasting from seven to 14 nights during
June, July or August include: Celebrity, Crystal, Holland America,
Princess, Royal Caribbean International, Radisson Seven Seas, Renaissance,
Seabourn, Silverseas and Windstar.
Bergen Line's Norwegian Coastal Express plies the fiords at affordable
rates, offering both cruise-only tours and air / sea/ hotel packages
leaving from New York. You can expect a folksy mix of international
Phone: 800-323-7436 / 212-319-1300
Baltic Silja Line offers overnight cruises between Stockholm and
Helsinki. Phone: 416-222-7206
Just because Oslo, Stockholm and Helsinki share the same latitude
as Anchorage, Alaska (Copenhagen is slightly south), don't assume
that Scandinavia is always frigid. Warmed by trade winds, the region
has a temperate climate with four distinct seasons. Summer days,
endless during the season of midnight sun, can be hot; spring and
fall are crisp and fresh; winters are cold.
And, of course, the farther north you go…..