Scandinavia (Sweden & Norway)

Grab your popcorn folks, ‘cuz this is a long one!

The hubby and I spent 2 weeks in Sweden & Norway last June, and it was a whirlwind of beautiful scenery, adventure, and culture. If you’re interested in visiting Scandinavia, you should definitely read this! If you aren’t interested, you should read it anyway because it will still be enjoyable.

One thing to note: Scandinavian food is EXPENSIVE. Make sure you budget for this. I would say it’s similar in price to food in NYC or Paris. We liked to buy snacks and lunch stuff at grocery stores because lunches are as expensive as dinner at restaurants. If you plan to eat out a lot, you’ll want at LEAST $50-75/day/person allotted for food. Hotels tend to be smaller, but that’s pretty much the norm for Europe in general.

We began our adventure in Stockholm. This city is AWESOME. I have never seen so many Teslas in my life. Every single road is bike friendly, and EVERYONE has a bicycle. Public transit, walking, and cycling are the ways to get around here.

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The weather was nice in early June. 65-70 degrees during the day, down to about 50 degrees at night. Compared to our sweaty, nasty southeast US summers, it was lovely!

So, I’m blonde and fit and by no means short. If you think you’re tall, just wait until you visit any city in Scandinavia. Seriously. You will feel like you have shrunk. EVERYONE is at least 6 feet tall and 90% of the population is blonde. Michael and I looked like shrimp. It was highly amusing.

My top 3 of Stockholm were, in no particular order:

The world’s oldest open-air museum, Skansen. This place is AWESOME. There’s an incredible small zoo, a marketplace that sells handmade Swedish goods and a Williamsburg-like area with old buildings and re-enactments of how villages used to run. It’s kind of hard to explain it all. Check out http://www.skansen.se to see everything they have. Here are some pictures. I apologize in advance for the number of animal pictures that will be in any and all of my posts. As a former zookeeper/veterinary technician, I just can’t help it!

 

 

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Old-timey clock-in-clock-out machine.

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The most hilarious zoo exhibit of all time…..

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The domestic cat!!

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Me, after the insane amount of walking on this trip.

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Playground with rope sheep and mushroom stools!

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Y’all. They had an open-air walk-through lemur exhibit. They were everywhere, and this baby came right up to my camera and grabbed it! AH!

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I was sad that I couldn’t fit in the snake slide. It was very amusing to watch children, however.

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We got to see some seal training. He was very cute:)

Ok, moving on. Another favorite was the Vasa Museum. This was located very close to Skansen, which worked out nicely for us! The Vasa was a Swedish warship that sunk on her maiden voyage in 1628. She sat in the Stockholm harbor until the 1950s, when she was SLOWLY recovered and has been on display ever since. The ship is GIGANTIC and the history behind it is fascinating. It is definitely a must-see when you visit Stockholm.

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Michael and I love theme parks, and we tend to hit as many as we can when we travel, assuming we have time. Stockholm has a really cool park called Grona Lund that we were excited to try out. Even better, they have a music festival series every summer with famous bands and artists weekly. We saw that Beck was going to be playing while we were there, so we planned our trip to Grona Lund around that. This was one of the best days of our trip! We rode all of the rides (some were SO different from rides we have here, and we absolutely loved them). We got worn out pretty quickly and had 3 hours before the concert started, so we figured, why not sit down front and center and save a spot? We were literally the first people there. We met some locals and talked about Stockholm and Beck. Since we were front and center AND came from America, we were interviewed by the Grona Lund Concert Series people and put on YouTube! Check it out, it’s pretty fun!

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A whole day at a theme park, plus front and center for Beck. Um…YES PLEASE. Suffice to say, this was a great way to end our visit to Stockholm:)

Next, we headed off to Lillehammer, Norway! We took a bus from Stockholm to Oslo (inexpensive, easy and great way to travel!) and rented a car in Oslo that we would keep for the next several days. We drove about an hour and a half to Lillehammer.

Does Lillehammer sound familiar to you? It should! This was the home of the 1994 winter Olympics. You know, the one with the infamous Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan shenanigans? Yep. This small town is absolutely stunning. We came here to see the Olympic Park, but mostly 1. for Michael to do some sick mountain-biking and 2. for me to have a real, authentic Scandinavian spa experience.

While Michael rented a mountain bike at the Hafjell Bike Park nearby and spent several hours riding in the middle mountain-y forests by himself, I indulged in an hour and a half of torture/bliss at our hotel, the Scandic Lillehammer.  I say torture because my weak American self isn’t used to “real” saunas. To start off the spa experience, you have to go through a whole multi-sauna interval thing. You rotate between humid, dry, super hot and less hot but still hot saunas. It’s good for your skin and your body unless you aren’t used to heat torture. I drank about 35 cups of water in the 45 total minutes I was in the saunas. Luckily, the spa specialist could tell I was weak and struggling so he shortened my times and checked on me every 2-3 minutes to make sure I hadn’t yet perished. He was incredibly nice. Why did I not ask to end the sauna part early? I wanted to prove that I can be a Norwegian! I can handle the heat! Did he have to help me walk to the massage/spa room at the end so I wouldn’t fall? Perhaps. But I made it through! And in the end, it was WELL worth it. The heat torture turned me into a pile of pliable goo. The next hour of massage, body scrubs, facials, scalp massage, hot stones, and aromatherapy was heaven. I’m not sure how I made it out of there to meet back with Michael. I think I sat in my robe and slippers in the locker room for a few minutes just to regain normal consciousness. Suffice to say, sometimes you have to suffer to be rewarded. If you find yourself in Scandinavia, especially at the Scandic Lillehammer, do yourself a favor and book a spa treatment. Thank me later.

We visited the ski slopes from the 1994 Olympics, which was super cool. Walking all of the steps down and then back up the slopes, however, was less fun.

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View from the bottom of the slopes.

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Gorgeous view from the top of the slopes!

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The torch! It was a bit too windy on the top of these rickety stairs for my comfort, but I had to go up there.

Our drive from Lillehammer to Bergen is one of the most beautiful drives in the world.  It was 7-8 hours, but totally worth it. One weird/cool thing about Norway; instead of blasting away mountains to make roads, they just tunnel through. I have never been under so many mountains in my life. One of the tunnels we went through was 13 miles long. 13 miles! It was insane. We drove along the fjords for several hours. We passed about 100 moose and reindeer crossing signs but saw nary a moose or a reindeer. I was a bit disappointed. We did, however, see hundreds of sheep on this entire trip. Sheep are everywhere in Norway. Literally everywhere. We came across a HUGE waterfall on the drive and stopped to check it out. We stopped several times just to look at the scenery. This is a huge benefit to self-driving vacations. I highly recommend it. Here are some pictures from the drive.

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Cruise ships on the fjord!

Bergen, Norway. This coastal town is one of the most popular tourist locations in Norway. We took a funicular (cable car) to the top of Mount Floyen (starts in the city), then did the “moderate” level hike between Mount Floyen and Mount Ulriken. We then took a cable car back down Mount Ulriken and caught a bus back into town. The “moderate” level hike was the most technical hike I have ever done and was about 10 miles. A wonderful thing about Norway; you can drink the waterfall/creek/running water anywhere. It tastes better than any bottled water I’ve ever had. So we were able to refill bottles pretty easily. There are multiple hikes around these mountains, we chose a more difficult one but there are hikes of all lengths and difficulties. I HIGHLY recommend this area for hike enthusiasts. The views were incredible and we only ran across a few people the entire time. The funiculars were crowded, but few people did the long hike we did. We also visited the Bergen Aquarium, which was small but very good, and walked around downtown which was gorgeous.

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Right outside our hotel, this lake is in the middle of the city. The city is coastal, but also surrounded by mountains! It’s quaint and unique.

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Pretty multicolored buildings along the harbor. It was cloudy and mild the entire time we were here, which is pretty common. This area doesn’t see a ton of sun, but it’s beautiful nonetheless.

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Houses and buildings are built up into the mountains. You can also see part of the funicular here that takes you to the top of Mount Floyen!

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View of Bergen from the top of Mount Floyen.

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Hikers build these along the hiking paths as guides to keep you in the right direction. We passed hundreds of them!

We returned our rental car at the Bergen airport and flew north to Bodo, Norway. From Bodo, we hopped on a ferry out to the Lofoten Islands. The ferry ride was rough; Dramamine was my friend. The seas were quite choppy, but ferry is one of the cheapest ways to get to Lofoten and we knew it would be worth it. We were looking forward to this part of the trip the most. Lofoten is becoming a more popular tourist destination but is still tiny, pristine and somewhat unknown. We wanted to stay in Reine after watching some documentaries on the town. If you image search Reine, Norway, you’ll see what I mean. It’s one of those breath-taking places that only seems to exist in photographs.

We arrived in Moskenes, just 20-25 minutes from our “hotel” in Reine. We rented a tiny little car and drive to our “hotel.” We stayed in a cabin/house on the water. We chose a shared house, with private rooms and a shared bathroom, kitchen living room, etc. We knew we wouldn’t be in the house that much so we were fine with that. You can also get your own cozy red cabins, which I will absolutely do next time!  We stayed at the Reinefjorden Sjohus, which I will recommend to anyone and everyone until the day I die. This place is fantastic. We were able to rent a motorboat for 24 hours, which we took to a remote “town” where we had a several mile hike to Bunes beach. We docked the boat, hiked to the beach, hiked back and boated back to our place. Unfortunately, it was raining like mad on the entire hike back so it was a bit miserable, but it was still beautiful.

I forgot to mention that there is no darkness at this time of year in northern Norway. In the south, we had a few hours of darkness each night. Here in Lofoten, it is light 24/7. It’s a very unusual experience! It does mess up your sleep a bit, of course, but most places have blackout curtains to help you.

We did the hiking trail at Bunes Beach, as well as another hiking trail that we drove to nearby. There are dozens of hiking trails in Lofoten, probably hundreds. Some are only accessible in the summer and only for experienced climbers with gear. The ones we did were easy/moderate. We were not fortunate enough to see any Orcas on our trip, but they can be seen from many months of the year from the place we stayed at! They play in the waters we boated in, which is both terrifying and amazing. I was really hoping to see a pod go through our area! Lofoten has some of the best overall whale-watching in the world, but you have to go north of Reine to do it. We only had 3 days, so we weren’t able to do as much as we would have liked to. I highly recommend an entire week in Lofoten, maybe half in Reine and half more north where you can do whale watching and see some more of the Viking culture. Reine is possibly the most beautiful place I have ever been. I cannot recommend it enough. Just look it up and you’ll see.

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This picture looks better in panoramic, but this is the view from where we stayed. Seriously. It was about 50 degrees day and night here, and there was still snow on the mountains. This is late June. The red cabins are sprinkled all over Lofoten. Do you not want to be here right now, sipping coffee and looking out at this?

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The town of Reine. They have a couple little restaurants, a little art museum, lots of boat docks and some homes. Fishing is the main industry here!

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Bunes Beach. The best place to see the midnight sun (if it’s not raining). A pretty beach surrounded by mountains.

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Yeah, I could camp here.

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My boat man!

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The village of Hamnoy. We ate at the cutest little lunch place here.

After taking the ferry back to Bodo, we flew into Oslo for the last 2 days of our trip. Oslo is the capital of Norway. At this point, we were exhausted. We only had one full day in Oslo, so we decided to hit up the Reptile Center (I can’t help myself) and the Oslo National Gallery, then see Jurassic World because it was release day and it was fun with Norwegian subtitles. I enjoyed seeing some artwork by Monet, Picasso, and Munch, who was a Norwegian native.

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“Spring by the Seine”- Monet

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“Guitar”- Picasso

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“The Scream”- Munch

This trip was incredible. Mild temperatures (colder/windier in Lofoten) and low crowding. We went right before high season starts (July-August) so we could avoid serious crowding, but late enough that the weather would be warm(ish). I would love to visit Lofoten again in the colder months because you can see the Northern Lights from your windows in any place you stay there. Of course, it will be dark 24/7 then as well.

We stayed at budget places, so the hotels were tee-tiny. That’s pretty common for Europe in general. We usually spend very little time in our rooms, however, so it’s not a big deal for us! Renting a car was perfect for us, but train and/or bus travel would be wonderful as well. You want to see the landscapes you’re traveling over, especially in Norway.

90% of Norwegians and Swedish folk speak English. 90%!!! Makes you realize how culturally unaware we are here. Most of them speak more than just 2 languages as well. Everyone was super friendly and helpful if we had questions. Fishing is the main industry of much of the area, so be prepared to eat a lot of fish. Alcohol isn’t prominent in Scandinavian culture, which was WONDERFUL for me. I love Italy, France, and Spain, but MAN do they love their wine. It was refreshing to be in a country that doesn’t ever push alcohol on you at all. Coffee is abundant and delicious. It was perfect.

Scandinavian cities feel incredibly safe. We never felt concerned about safety anywhere we went. The cities are also super clean compared to many other European cities.

Lastly, I will leave you with a painting my aunt Jennifer made of the panoramic photograph we took in Reine. It’s hanging in our living room and is our favorite piece of art in the house. It’s nice to have a constant reminder of our amazing vacation nearby. To see more of my aunt’s amazing work, please check out: http://www.jenniferspots.com/

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