I spent three and a half weeks travelling around these Nordic countries last month and thought I’d try and keep this blog a little more updated putting out a few random musings and tips while they’re still fresher in my mind instead of leaving it 6+months and trying to plow out a ridiculous amount of words down the line like I had previously!
My route was..
Helsinki -> Turku -> Aland Islands -> Stockholm -> Bergen -> Odda -> Copenhagen -> Oslo -> Svalbard, spending 2/2/2/5/1/2/3/4/3 nights in each place.
Part of me wanted to take it slower and spend more time outside of the capital cities, maybe get a better feel of just one or two countries, but, like a lot of things for me outside of travel too, the urge to get a little taste of everything came out strongest.
I arrived in Helsinki late on a Sunday afternoon. I think if you’re going to spend two days in Helsinki Sunday and Monday might be the worst two you could pick, lots of restaurants are closed on Sundays meaning the remaining ones are also harder to get into while on a Monday a lot of museums and other sites of interest are closed. Neither of those things are going to make or break my time there though, there’s no shortage of good museums across the rest of the Nordic countries and i’m not the kind of person who can appreciate going to them every other day the whole trip. I enjoyed ambling around the harbour, running around the south coast of the city and the ferry trip to fortress on the island of Suomenlinna is well worth doing. I tried to replicate some past photos of me sticking out the end of a cannon but I was struggling to get my feet in and the Asian guy I asked to take a photo was beginning to look impatient so I had to settle for this..
From there I got a 2-3 hour bus to Turku. Despite being told by a Russian girl working for red cross how terrible of a place this was to live as well as her bemusement why anyone would ever visit here, I think its a nice place to spend some time before going to the Aland islands or setting off on the epic 250km bike trip around the archipelago next to it. There’s a well preserved castle, aesthetic churches, a long stretch of river full of boat bars which can make for a good bar crawl or place to watch a sunset, there’s some cool bars within the city that have been converted from a bank, school, pharmacy and public toilet too! I think the school was the most impressive one and tried my first shot of salmiakki there, a salty liquorice shot. It was gross. I tried some salmiakki ice cream too. It was even worse.
After that I got an early ~6 hour ferry with Tallink Silja to Mariehamn, the capital of the Aland Islands. The ride on the way is very impressive passing different islands the entire journey and making buying the cheapest €15 ticket, to sit on the comfy sofas on the top deck as opposed to your own cabin, a great deal. Mariehamn had a nice relaxed, older feel to it compared to the other mainland cities I visited with some of the colourful older style buildings i’d associated with Scandinavia. With so many islands connected together it seemed the perfect place for a bike ride and I took something very close to this route and back. https://gyazo.com/47bce7c4cba47a8ab3acb7801c9d5de8
The whole ride was very scenic, had plenty of cycle paths and wasn’t too hilly, limited places to stop for food/drinks but a couple of good ones particularly http://smakbyn.ax/en/. I’d have liked to make it around to lumparland and a full circuit but couldn’t find any clear indication of ferry times from Vardo and was running low on time. At around 90km total is was comfortably the furthest I’d ridden but I enjoyed it a lot and can see myself doing some longer ones in future.
I’d read there was a casino on the island and even though I have an ever growing dislike for them I got curious and thought i’d take a look. It was tiny and in fact not even strictly classified as a casino, the max bet was somewhere between 10-20USD and the blackjack rules were probably the worst I’ve seen, if you and the dealer got the same total between 17-19, the dealer won instead of a push, I haven’t checked out wizard of odds to see how bigger dog this makes you but I imagine its far worse than any change in price of blackjack or lack of doubling down opportunities.
Next I got a ~7 hour ferry to Stockholm, the top deck was only a few benches on the Viking ship this time and it was a while before any further surrounding islands so I paid in coins for the 11 euro upgrade to a cabin to give my chafed, sunburnt body a rest.
I hadn’t appreciated how many separate islands Stockholm was spread over before arriving and the difference between each one as well as the water and views between them really adds a lot to its appeal for me. Along with Amsterdam and now also Copenhagen, one of my favourite cities to just wander around. I went to the Saturday bar crawl, it wasn’t one of the better ones I’d been on, the bars they chose to go to were empty and it seemed like they just chose the place that gave them the best deal instead of a fun place to go to. The last stop was a club in a metro station which was different and decent but I wouldn’t recommend the crawl too much to others.
The Offspring were playing in a theme park on Djurgaden while I was there and so I spent the day acting like a teenager again! The rides were pretty good and on Eclipse you could see right over Stockholm, I didn’t feel like risking taking my phone out for a picture this time round unfortunately. The minimum cost of entry to the concert was shockingly cheap at £8.50(£17 if you arrive later on), there can’t be many places in the world you can see a concert for the same price as 1.5 beers!
After that I flew to Bergen, Norway. I booked most ‘internal’ flights last minute, this one 3 hours before it took off, and they mostly cost £60-90. The city has a very pretty old town in Bryggen, impressive views in nearby Fjorfjellet and apparently some decent nightlife making it a decent city break in its own right but I was using it more as base to find a fjord tour and my way to Trolltunga.
There’s a ton of different options for tours from Bergen, I think booking a few days in advance is smart if there’s something specific you want as some of them fill up fast, particularly tours including the longer boat journeys straight out of Bergen. I got my second choice and did the ‘Norway in a Nutshell’ tour. The tour started with ~1/3 of the same train journey to Oslo before switching up to Flam and heading back to Bergen via bus+train. The Fjords were as impressive as i’d expect but the train journeys were much more than that, the quickly changing landscapes between lakes, rivers, waterfalls, lush fields and mountains were more enjoyable than the Fjord itself for me, I think the full Bergen-Oslo train could be worth adjusting your trip to accommodate, although at the same time, every bus, train and boat journey in the country was that impressive its seems hard to go wrong. Catching shots between the moving train and trees popping out of nowhere makes it hard to do it justice but here’s a couple.
I decided to make it a full 15 hour day of travelling and take the last bus that day to Odda, the most common town to hike Trolltunga from. The hike is challenging and pretty long at around 11km each way but the total elevation gain isn’t too much and mostly at the beginning, so I think its more doable for people than it might first appear. The views along the way are very good but once you reach the top and it completely opens up the hike will certainly feel worth it! The queue to get a picture on the tongue at the top was very long however and I gave up trying to find someone to take one for me after the first couple of people were unwilling and settled for a picture on the baby tongue instead.
The next day I decided to head to Copenhagen and stayed at http://www.copenhagendowntown.com/ . The hostel is well run and equipped, rooms were decent and it had a very lively bar with as reasonable prices as you could expect, would definitely recommend it even if there seems to be lots of good options in this city. I wasn’t sure if I’d make it here on this trip but i’m glad I did as it turned out to probably be my favourite city. I’m not usually the most snap-happy person but it seemed like every time I turned my head I wanted to take a photo. One place you definitely shouldn’t take photos is the island of ‘free-spirited’ Christiana right next to downtown Copenhagen. The whole history/ongoings of the place is pretty amazing to me, the idea the police can do very little to control what goes on here and apparently would face pressure from certain people from all the Nordic countries in trying to do so just baffles me. I was almost nervous in heading there at first but seeing how many tourists where already there made me feel like it had to be safe and I enjoyed passing through the narrow graffiti filled streets a lot. I also managed to catch the lucky Liverpool victory against Bournemouth here and was happily surprised how many Danish people showed up in Liverpool shirts with plenty of love for Daniel Agger.
From there I flew to Oslo. The city had less appeal to me than the others, it came across more modern, business-like and less unique from other European cities in my short time there. One place I went to that is certainly unique was the Astrup Fearnley art museum. It would be an understatement to say theres a lot left to interpretation in this art and there’s also quite a morbid theme surrounding a lot of it. As someone with a very limited knowledge and appreciation of art this made it difficult, even if still interesting, looking and listening through most of it and some other people’s interpretations. In Damien Hirst’s work it was very hard for me to not just see a bunch of dead animals. If you saw a banana skin on the floor in a museum, would you think it was disgusting? A health hazard? Art? More interesting than the shoes in front of a mirror to the left? Less impressive than the genitalia smiley face to the right? Strange place, strange field.
I stayed at Anker hostel in Oslo, it was cheap and well located but not anything special or really that social but I got luckier with people I met here and there was a good bar crawl leaving from the hostel one night that went to some more fun bars than in Stockholm. I caught some of the Man U v Newcastle match here at bohemen. I’d be surprised if there’s a better place to watch a match in Oslo and even though the game was 0-0 it was interesting to me just how into the game the locals where, everyone very much was desperate to see Man U win or lose, no-one sitting on the fence like i’d expect most people to be outside of England.
After that I headed to my final stop Longyearbyen, Svalbard. I came to the most Northern part of Europe with some faint hopes of seeing a polar bear and wanted to catch the last of this season’s midnight sun. This is certainly a place you want to make plans in advance as a lot of the activities and flights will fill up, I’d have liked to stay a little longer but when looking at flights back out on the 24th my only options to anywhere were the 26th or 30th. After talking with a couple of residents here, it seemed like only the longer excursions had any real chance of catching a bear at this late stage in the summer and so instead of one of the boat trips I spent an afternoon being dragged around by some dogs and a full day kayaking+hiking to Hjortfellet. I did a good job of fucking this photo up by missing the 1309km to the North Pole opposite sydpolen
With it being the end of over 4 months of sun there was very little snow near Longyearbyen and so instead of a dog-sledding tour on snow it was on a buggy with wheels, partly on road and partly on grass. It was still enjoyable but I couldn’t help but think it would be a lot better on snow. It was a funny contrast with the dogs going from super loud and restless whenever the buggy stopped to instantly silent and happy once they started moving. It was easy to drive the ‘dog team’ although when manoeuvring around a corner on a hill, I still nearly managed to tip the buggy over with the Father/Daughter in front in it! The trip to Hjortfellet started with a 30min kayak across the bay overlooking some glaciers in the far distance and then a climb to the 950m summit. The climb was fairly difficult, more so than Trolltunga, with a lot of scrambling on steep parts and loose rocks along the way. Pretty sure the dogs were not all black when they started 🙂
The whole first two days I was there the sky was completely covered by clouds and the level of light just stayed constant the whole time. It still felt cool it being light the whole day but it wasn’t quite the midnight sun I hoped to see. The Sun was due to set for the first time on my last night at 5 past midnight and it cleared up nicely. It still didn’t get close to dark with the sun just about hiding under the horizon, for less than 2 hours but it was a nice ending to my trip.
I’m now in Tokyo and will be spending most of the next 6 weeks seeing what Japan has to offer.. time for me to catch a train to Fuji!