Whirlwind Scandinavia: Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark in ten days

Four countries in under two weeks by plane, train, boat, and bus, visiting every Scandinavian capital, plus a tour of Norway's fjord country, from Helsinki-Stockholm-Oslo-Flam-Bergen-Copenhagen

Whirlwind Scandinavia
This may have been our most ambitious trip to date -- the goal was to see the capitals of Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, all while also trekking through the fjords of Norway (the do-it-yourself "Norway in a Nutshell".. more on that below) -- and to do it all in 10 days.  As always, it was a bit rushed, and there are a few things we might do differently next time (including even possibly omitting the last stop in Copenhagen), but in the end we're happy with the itinerary that we mapped out.  What really stood out was how we went from Point A to Point B:

  • Flight from NYC to Helsinki
  • Overnight cruise from Helsinki to Stockholm
  • Train from Stockholm to Oslo
  • Train from Oslo to Flam
  • Boat from Flam to Gudvangen
  • Bus from Gudvangen to Bergen
  • Flight from Bergen to Copenhagen
  • Flight from Copenhagen to NYC via London

Whew!  I'm tired just typing it out.  But it was far from tedious -- the transit times were part of the vacation itself (particularly the "party boat" from Helsinki to Stockholm, and the world-famous Flam railway through the heart of the fjords).  

Sunset over the Baltic, en route from Oslo to Stockholm
We had serious doubts as to how feasible this was, and whether or not it was too ambitious to see enough of Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark in less than 2 weeks, plus soak up the incredible ambience of the fjords.  Well, it worked out pretty darn well, and though we certainly never lingered in one place for very long, it was more then feasible.  That being said, you probably won't be able to see Finnish Lapland, the aurora borealis, or northern Norwegian cities like Tromso with this kind of itinerary.  If, however, your goal is a bucket-list tour of Scandinavia, with the notion in mind that you might not make it back here again, you definitely can do it all in less than 2 weeks.

JFK to HEL via Finnair in Business, booked during a fare sale where we grabbed two round-trip tickets for about $5500 total.  Not cheap, but very reasonable, and I'm always a big believer in lie-flat seats for the redeye into Europe so that you don't waste the first day jetlagged into a state of uselessness.  We bought AARP memberships right before the tickets, which gave us access to an easy discount of $200 per ticket for business class travel on any flight booked through British Airways originating in the US (and you can join AARP at any age!), then used the Citi Prestige airfare credit for another $250 off.  $650 off, right off the bat, for doing very little leg work.

Helsinki - Day 1 and 2

Nothing like ice-cold Jaateloa on an even colder day!
We arrived on Friday morning and checked into the F6, an upscale Choice hotel just off of the main square (for those unaware, Choice hotels in Scandinavia and Japan are light-years away from their US counterparts).  This was our favorite hotel of the trip, and was booked directly through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal for just under 24k points (there was no award availability through Choice directly).  We started our trip with Rick Steves' walking tour of Helsinki (starting with a cappuccino at historic Kappeli) and finished off the day with at the rustically Finnish (and slightly touristy) Zetor.

On Saturday morning, we indulged in the breakfast smorgasbord at the F6, which certainly wasn't the biggest of the trip, but was very cosy, and the dining room had a very hip 60's living room feel.  We walked over to the Seurasaari museum early in the day, passing by the Temppeliaukio "Rock Church"and after strolling around Finland's modest version of the Skansen, headed back to the hotel for a little downtime.

The Sibelius Monument in Oslo

Saturday night transfer: Helsinki to Stockholm

The overnight cruise from Helsinki to Stockholm is an excellent option for people transiting between the two cities, particularly if you're short on time (but even if you're not!).  You're basically covering transportation, lodging, food, and entertainment all-in-one, while getting to unwind and watch the sunset/sunrise over the Baltic sea.  It's a win-win-win-win-win situation.

You have two options: Viking, which tends to be a little less expensive and more laid back, and Tallink Silja, which is more expensive and a bit more upscale.  We went with Viking, which was several hundred euros cheaper for a comparable room, and didn't regret it for a moment.  We had dinner and drinks, caught a show, gambled a bit, then called it a night.  When we woke up the next morning, we were already sailing through the archipelago just outside of Stockholm as the sun rose over Sweden.

Stockholm - Day 3 and 4

It's impossible to capture the scale and presence of the
Vasa in a single frame!
We stayed at the At Six, a luxury brand under the Nordic Choice label, by redeeming 18k Expedia+ points.  The hotel was upscale though a little sparse.  It was, more importantly, just over the bridge from Gamla Stan, the historic old town and de facto city center.  We stopped in for a traditional fika at Sundberg's Konditori, the oldest bakery in Stockholm, before strolling around the Royal Palace to watch the changing of the guard (a bit less impressive than the version at Buckingham).  We then toured the city by water taxi, stopping in for an hour or so at the incredible Vasa museum to gawk at a towering, salvaged Viking ship in pristine condition.  The scale and detail of it is something to behold, particularly when you're there in person, craning your neck up at a 400-year-old wooden warship roughly three times the size of a brontosaurus.  We headed back out under the early evening sky, and after dinner at a little Italian place in the old city, we called it a night.

Parliament, as seen from the Vasabron bridge looking towards Gamla Stan
In the morning, we overslept our prepaid breakfast (thanks, jet lag), and walked over to the Skansen, which is like Scandinavian version of Colonial Williamsburg.  It was a great way to spend the early part of the day, as there's a lot to explore in the wide open spaces and mountain niches of Stockholm's popular open air museum (including some great views of the city).  We headed back to our hotel to gather our things, then trekked over to the Central Station to catch our train to Oslo.

Monday night transfer: Stockholm to Oslo

We booked the high-speed rail X2000 on SJ.se about 3 months before the trip, and opted for "1 Klass", which got us lounge access at Stockholm Central as well as a slightly comfier train car.  The difference in price was negligible.  

After an uneventful 5 hours (arguably the least scenic portion of the trip, but hey, there's Wi-Fi!), we pulled into Oslo Central around 9pm.  We hoofed it down Karl Johan's gate and arrived at the Hotel Christiania Teater, another Ascend/Nordic Choice property we booked with 20k Choice points transferred from American Express.  Sleep.

Oslo - Day 5

The opportunity presented itself to switch hotels the next day so that we could experience at least one night at The Thief, also an Ascend/Nordic Choice hotel, and considered to be one of the best hotels in Norway (it's the flagship hotel for the Nordic Choice brand, and also cost only 20k Choice points to book).  So we left the Christiana Teater early after another excellent smorgasbord, and cabbed it across town to the trendy Tjuvholmen district, where we checked in to The Thief, dropped off our bags, and started the day.

Vigeland's monolith
We took a long walk from Tjuvholmen to Vigeland Park, the world's largest sculpture park to exclusively feature the work of a single artist (in this case, Norwegian legend Gustav Vigeland).  The centerpiece of the park is the Monolith, a 50-foot wonder carved out of a single piece of stone and depicting dozens of clamoring human figures piling atop each other.  From the Monolith, you have sweeping views of the park, populated with Vigeland's life's work -- including arguably his most famous sculpture, "Angry Naked Baby" (technically it's called "Sinnataggen", but we think "Angry Naked Baby" is both funnier and apt).

In the afternoon, we walked back into town and headed over to the Norwegian Home Front Museum atop Akershus Fortress, an installation dedicated to Norway's resistance against the Nazis during World War II.  It's a moving and uplifting experience, and enough to instill a little Norwegian pride into natives and tourists alike.  Afterwards, we descended from the fort and strolled along the Aker Brygge waterfront, grabbed dinner, and headed back to The Thief for the evening.

Wednesday morning transfer: Oslo to Flam, and the do-it-yourself Nutshell

This was the start of the most scenic portion of the trip, from Oslo to (ultimately) Bergen with a tour through the fjords.  This is usually referred to as "Norway in a Nutshell", and from Oslo, it would be an all-day affair as follows:

Now, you can visit the official Norway in a Nutshell page here, and have them do the leg work for you, or (and I can't recommend this enough), just book it yourself!  Not only is it both easy and significantly cheaper (as much as half), but you can customize the trip to avoid the "Nutshell crowd", as well as stretch it out over several days.

Finse, in between Oslo and Myrdal

Step 1 + 2: Oslo to Myrdal, then Myrdal to Flam
Booked online in advance at NSB.no.  Simply choose Oslo as your starting point, and Flam as your destination.  To really avoid the crowds, pick the earliest departure of the day -- we went with the 6:25 am train, though this is not available on all dates.  (The Nutshell Crowd will be on the 8:30 am train.)  You'll be given two tickets -- one for the Oslo-Myrdal portion, which starts off slowly but starts to get really scenic as you approach Myrdal, and then a separate ticket for the Flam Railway from Myrdal down to Flam (as you enter the train, grab a seat on the left side for the best views.. the train simply reverses course in its tracks rather than turning around, so don't make the same mistake we did and sit on the right assuming the train would turn around before heading back down to Flam!)  

Aurland, on the way up to Stegastein from Flam

Flam - Day 6
Most of the Nutshell crowd proceeds almost immediately from Flam to Gudvangen via boat, but we decided to slow down and enjoy the afternoon/evening in Flam, and it was the best decision of our trip.  We dropped off our stuff at our hotel, the very popular and charming Flamsbrygga in the center of town, whose only downside is that the gorgeous views of the fjords from your balcony are blocked during the day by the massive cruise ships that dock from 8am until about 5pm.  Then, we rented a "Twizzy" electric vehicle and drove up into the mountains to grab some stunning views of Aurland from the Stegastein Viewpoint.  This was far superior to taking a tour bus up to Stegastein, and the little Twizzy was a blast to drive (well, I wouldn't know, because I made my wife drive -- but she didn't complain!)  We then drove back down to Flam and had dinner at the Aegir Brewpub, a viking-themed restaurant with incredible food and wonderful ambience (our best dinner of the trip), before turning in at the Flamsbrygga for the evening.

Looking down on Aurland from the Stegastein Viewpoint

Day 7: Continuing the do-it-yourself Nutshell..

Step 3: Flam to Gudvangen

Sailing along the Naeroyfjord
Once again, booked online in advance at VisitFlam.com.  The Nutshell Crowd won't be on the boat before 1pm, so take advantage of having stayed in Flam the prior evening and catch one of the earlier boats to Gudvangen.  You have an option of booking the standard sightseeing ship, or the new modern one for a premium -- opt for the latter (they alternate hourly departures).  The newer boat was incredibly comfortable, with tons of indoor seating and room on multiple viewing decks outside to really take in the scenery.  I grabbed a coffee from the snack bar and stood on the aft deck, watching all the little villages that dot the edges of the fjord and rise into the mountains.

Step 4 + 5: Gudvangen to Bergen 

(The Nutshell crowd will take the bus from Gudvangen to Voss first, then a train from Voss to Bergen)
We had planned on taking the 9am boat to Gudvangen, then spending 1-2 hours at Viking Village Njardarheimr before catching the bus to Voss (check out the schedule on Skyss.no, but know that you can just bring exact change with you and pay for your tickets on the bus).  However, our plan was complicated by a) us missing our 9 am ship, because someone (ahem) thought it was leaving at 9:30 instead, and b) the bouts of rain throughout the morning, which did add an ethereal quality to the fjord cruise.  So we ended up having to pay for another pair of tickets for a later boat, and once we arrived in Gudvangen, we skipped both Njardheimr and the scenic bus tour in favor of a more direct commuter bus from Gudvangen to Bergen.  But even the "non-scenic" bus route was something else, and you really start to imagine how spoiled you would be if you lived here year-round.

Brygge by nightfall

Bergen - Day 7 (cont'd) and 8

We arrived in Bergen in the afternoon, and checked into our hotel, the Clarion Havnekontoret in the heart of the historic Brygge district.  This was, once again, booked using 20k Choice points transferred from Amex, and the hotel was fantastic.  Not only do they serve the traditional breakfast smorgasbord, but they also offer an afternoon snack and an evening supper.  As a bonus, the bus to Bergen airport stops right in front of the hotel.

We strolled through Brygge (or is it "the" Brygge?) and had dinner at the Bryggeloftet & Stuene restaurant, which is more than 100 years old and looks out onto the waterfront.  We had planned to grab drinks at the Magic Ice Bar afterwards, but got inexplicably got lost, and decided to wander the streets of Bergen instead and take in the atmosphere.  There was a lot to go around.  Day 7 ended back at the Havenkontoret.

View of Bergen from the top of Mount Floyen

The next morning, we decided to hike up to the top of Mount Floyen.  If you like, you can catch the Floibanen funicular to the top instead, then walk back down to town, but we really wanted to work off the morning's smorgasbord (and the lines for the funicular can be quite long).  From Brygge to the Floyen scenic overlook at the top of the mountain was about an hour's walk at a very brisk pace, and was (obviously) uphill the entire way.  But look at that view!

We gathered our things in the afternoon and caught the bus in front of the hotel over to BGO, where we were scheduled for a 4 pm flight to CPH.  The airport is small, modern, and efficient, as we'd come to expect from Norway.  We flew SAS, and it was less than $100 per ticket.  In just over an hour, we were already on the ground in Copenhagen.

Copenhagen -- Day 8 and 9

Absalon on horseback, looking towards Christiansborg Palace
We finished off our last two nights at another Ascend hotel, the Skt. Petri, for (as always) 20k Choice points per night, transferred from Amex.  This was actually the #1 ranked hotel in Copenhagen on TripAdvisor when we visited, and although we didn't love it, there were several bright spots.  It's in a decent location, walking distance to most of what you'd want to see in Copenhagen on a short stay, and the breakfast smorgasbord was easily the best of the trip.  Not sure if we would pay cash to stay here, but you can't beat free.

On our last full day in Scandinavia, we walked from the Skt. Petri to Christiania, the openly tolerated (and somewhat celebrated) hippie/anarchist commune and drug den along the outskirts of the city.  It's become a pretty big tourist destination over the years for various reasons, and although it seemed perfectly safe during the day, I probably wouldn't walk around there at night.  You're likely to see souvenir stalls alongside more unscrupulous characters and dealings, and the juxtaposition was interesting.  Just be careful what you photograph!

Freetown Christiania, Copenhagen's shanty town/skateboard park/drug den/tourist attraction

From Christiania, we walked to Tivoli Gardens, the second-oldest amusement park in the world (opened in 1845!)  It's Copenhagen's answer to Disneyland, with a little more whimsy, minus the price gouging and confusing ticket pricing, and was a great way to spend a few hours in the afternoon.  There's a great mix of rides for little ones adults alike, including a few daunting roller coasters (daunting enough to put me firmly in the "little ones" category).

If I had realized in advance that Copenhagen was the home of Noma (the four-time "Best Restaurant in the World" according to Restaurant magazine, for what that's worth), I would have made reservations months in advance just for the experience.  As it happens, you can't really just show up for dinner.  Better luck next time!  Instead, we settled on a nondescript Italian place a few blocks from the hotel.

Day 10 -- Last of Copenhagen, and Home

Ariel?  Is that you?
We woke up early, inhaled our final smorgasbord of the trip, and walked over to the famed Little Mermaid statue on the outskirts of town.  It's small, and a little underwhelming -- mostly worth seeing for the sake of saying that you saw it.  Even early in the morning, there was a gaggle of tourists lining up take photographs.  After that, there wasn't time for much else; we hustled back to the hotel in time to pack up our things and cab it to the airport.


CPH-LHR-JFK, with the first leg in BA's lame excuse for intra-Europe business class (essentially economy seats with the middle blocked off).  The coup de grace, however, was AA's spiffy 777 in business class from LHR to JFK.  The best J seat we've ever experienced, by a wide margin -- lie-flat reverse herringbone seats that were so cavernous I almost had to stand up to spot my wife next to me.  The service was mediocre at best (it's still American Airlines, after all), but the seats made it worth the price of admission.


Beware the Trollskogen!
Ten takeaways for Scandinavian visitors (from the perspective of a barely-informed Scandinavian visitor):
1. Finns do not consider themselves part of Scandinavia; they're closer to Estonia, both culturally and linguistically, than they are to Sweden
2. Best Swedish word of the trip: fika, the ceremonial coffee-and-pastry siesta (you follow your fika with a patar -- refill me please!)
3. Reindeer are as magical to Finns as "normal" deer are to Pennsylvanians
4. Every sunny day in Norway will be followed by a grey one -- this is actually written into law
5. Oslo is nice, Bergen has it's charms, but if you don't see the fjords, you're not really seeing Norway
6. Copenhagen feels more like Amsterdam than Oslo or Stockholm
7. There's an entire cultural institution dedicated to cosiness -- hygge -- and every other society in the world is worse off for not paying it equally reverence 
8. The cuisine is not exactly game-changing, but they make up for this by trying to make you eat as much of it as humanly possible for breakfast
9. For us, Starbucks is ubiquitous -- for them, it's Joe & the Juice.  I feel like they have the same overall love-hate relationship with their coffee behemoth that we do.
10. Why are you still reading this?  Get going!

Bring back booze!

Twice over the equator!
Linie aquavit would probably be the one, matured in sherry casks and "sent on a sea journey twice over the equator" to age.  It has a very fennel-and-anise flavor going on, herbaceous and slightly sweet.. an acquired taste for most, but one probably worth acquiring.  I think this is relatively available stateside as well, although Linie was definitely the consensus pick as to what to bring back from duty-free in Bergen.

Interestingly, there appears to have been an aquavit revival of sorts in the US over the past few years, with American distillieries starting to get in on the aquavit action after intermittent shortages have left import shelves barren.

Points redemptions:
24,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points at the F6 ($360) +
18,000 Expedia+ points at the At Six ($264) +
20,000 Choice points (from Amex) at the Christiana ($250) +
20,000 Choice points (from Amex) at The Thief ($450) +
28,000 Bank of America points at the Flamsbrygga ($280) +
16,000 Choice points (from Amex) at the Havnekontoret ($286) +
40,000 Choice points (from Amex) at Skt. Petri ($860) =
166,000 points @ ~1.65 cents/point = $2750 in free travel!

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