Escape: Adventures in Sweden and Norway
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It was love at first bite. Upon waking from a jet-lagged slumber and making my way to the hotel breakfast, I’m greeted with still-hot croissants and cinnamon buns, freshly cured salmon (gravlax) topped with sprigs of delicate dill, softly scrambled eggs and homemade bread alongside lusciously tart lingonberry jam. Filling my plate, I head to the outdoor patio where lush greenery and the gently lapping Baltic Sea set a naturally enchanting ambience. If first impressions mean anything, Scandinavia is going to delight.
Forget the stereotypes embedded into your brain about Sweden and Norway—IKEA, ABBA, sky-high prices, freezing-cold temps and happy-go-lucky inhabitants who are all tall, blonde and blue-eyed; Northern Europe surprises with so much more and is, literally, a breath of fresh air. Clean and modern with a culture that’s utterly content, the land of long winter nights and endless summer days is also full of contrasts: wide open spaces that seamlessly unite with bustling big cities; traditional, potato-filled fare alongside award-winning gastronomy; and a heritage that holds tight to its history but is effortlessly hip.
And now, thanks to nonstop, affordable flights from Oakland International Airport to Stockholm (via Norwegian), it’s easier than ever to visit this tourist-friendly piece of paradise.
Sweden: More Than Meatballs
Stockholm, often called the “Venice of the North” and known as Scandinavia’s most scenic, sophisticated city, isn’t only safe and easy on the eyes, but buzzing with cozy cafes, cobblestone streets and brilliant design. Comprised of 14 islands and more than 50 bridges, the photogenic metropolis will have you falling in love with more than just the meatballs.
Hotel Skeppsholmen—sited on a petite island with countryside surrounds—offers guests both solitude and easy access via foot or ferry to the bustling city center. Built in 1699, the boutique property is steeped in antiquity (think stone staircases and wooden shutters) with funky furnishings and a lively restaurant to boot.
Come spring and summer, when the sun shines on Swedes for hours on end, the city wakes up with plenty of ways to soak up every drop. A two-wheeled, professionally guided tour with Stockholm Adventures is the perfect way to get acquainted with the capital and appreciate just how bike-friendly and beautiful it really is; in addition to cycling through and learning more about popular sights like Gamla Stan (Old Town) and the Royal Palace, you’ll also explore Stockholm’s hidden jewels.
Trade the pedaling for provisions with a walking Nordic Experience Food Tour, courtesy of Food Tours Stockholm. After 10-plus stops over the span of four hours, you’ll have sampled everything from reindeer mousse, pickled herring and Swedish meatballs, to beef tartar, cardamom buns and a fika, where residents press pause to enjoy a cup of coffee alongside sweet treats; suffice it to say, when the tour concludes, you’ll be stuffed to the brim—with not only Swedish sustenance but knowledge of the country’s robust food culture.
Island hopping doesn’t exactly come to mind when you think of Stockholm, but with 30,000 in the surrounding archipelago, you’d be remiss to skip a visit to at least one. Fjäderholmarna is 20 minutes away by boat and greets guests with handicraft shops, cafés and clapboard cottages. Lunch at Restaurant Rökeriet is worth the splurge—their in-house smoked prawns and salmon, patio replete with seascape views, and frothy beer from neighboring Fjäderholmarnas Brewery is an experience to savor.
Whether it’s boats or booze that razzle your berries, there’s likely a museum here dedicated to it. Learn all about the land’s most famous pop group at ABBA the Museum; stroll the world’s oldest open air museum, Skansen, which doubles as a zoo and offers a peek into Swedish days of yore; get drunk on knowledge about the country’s bittersweet relationship to alcohol at the Museum of Spirits; or visit Vasa Museum, which is built around the 17th century royal warship that sank on its maiden voyage.
Norway: Powered By Nature
A quick, one-hour flight or more scenic, albeit longer, five-hour train ride transports travelers from Stockholm to Norway—a land abounding with natural beauty, thanks to its steep, snow-peaked mountains, glacier-formed fjords and lush forests.
Arriving in Oslo, one will immediately notice the lively waterfront, pastel-splashed structures and laid-back vibe. If spending a day or two in town, visit Vigeland Park, where passersby can peruse more than 200 life-size human statues donning nothing more than their birthday suits; get lost wandering through the various neighborhoods (my favorite being the up-and-coming, artsy enclave of Grünerløkka); and dine at the colorfully eclectic Dattera til Hagen, whose cheeseburgers provide a comforting taste of home.
For those tight on time, Norway in a Nutshell—the country’s most popular round-trip, packaged tour—allows visitors to experience the nation’s dramatic landscapes with little navigation needed. Departing from Oslo, journey on the famous Flåm Railway (dubbed “the most beautiful train journey in the world”) to the pint-sized village of Flåm. Nestled on the tip of a UNESCO World Heritage-listed fjord, rest your eyes at the farm-turned-inn Fretheim Hotel, and spend your days paddling through the glassy water alongside seals on a Njord Sea Kayaking Adventure, or getting up close and personal with the striking scenery—while learning about local folklore—on a Heritage Fjord Safari.
A ferry, bus and train ride later and you’ll reach Bergen, Norway’s second largest and seriously good looking maritime metropolis that’s surrounded by seven mountains. Founded in 1070, the picture-perfect destination is full of small-town charm with big-city appeal. A stay at Thon Hotel Rosenkrantz puts you within walking distance to places like Bryggen, a harborside district lined with colorful wooden warehouses that have been converted into museums, shops, restaurants (including the nicest McDonald’s I’ve ever laid eyes on) and pubs aplenty. What’s more, the hotel offers guests complimentary breakfast and dinner (Monday through Thursday). Whether you get lost in Bergen’s beauty or while wandering the winding alleyways, one thing is certain: You may never want to be found.
By Megan Wiskus