Parts of the Oseberg ship, a Viking longboat at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway, are thought to date back to 800 A.D.
With its multitude of islands, inlets, fjords and canals—as well as a millennium’s worth of maritime lore—there is no better way to experience Scandinavia than by sea.
Norway’s ancient seafaring heritage still beats in the heart of its bustling, modern capital. At the Viking Ships Museum, two wonderfully preserved 1,000-year-old wooden ships are living reminders of the fierce, intrepid raiders who sailed across the Atlantic centuries before Columbus. Viking items, and some of the goods they plundered, are also on display. Oslo’s more contemporary, artistic heritage is evident in City Hall, where stunning murals tell the story of Norway’s World War II Nazi occupation and triumph. At Frogner Park, the open-air showcase of 200 or so sculptures by Gustav Vigeland depicts the human cycle of life.
With its harbor lined with handsomely painted pitched-roof houses and the bustling Fish Market in its central square, the port of Bergen has been shaped by its sea-trading heritage. After enjoying a delectable smoked-salmon sandwich at the Fish Market, take a gander at the Seafarers Monument, which the locals have likened to a cube of goat cheese. Maritime history, boutiques and cozy pubs intermingle along the cobbled streets and narrow alleys of the Hanseatic Quarter. You can get a sense of life in medieval times at the Hanseatic Museum, a creaky merchant’s house where dried cod hanging from the ceiling is part of the décor.
Largely destroyed by fire in 1904 and rebuilt soon afterward, Alesund has a wealth of Art Nouveau buildings that make it a delightful showcase for early 20th-century architecture. For a wider perspective, drive up to Mount Aksla. From there you can see a network of islands spread out below. For an encounter with local marine life, head to Atlantic Sea Park, Scandinavia’s largest aquarium.
Geirangerfjord, a sparkling blue-green sliver tucked between jagged, near vertical peaks with waterfalls plunging over the sides, may be Norway’s most spectacular fjord. For a bottoms-up perspective, explore it by sea kayak, watching for gorgeous waterfalls and tiny farms perched on rocky ledges so precarious that children and animals are often tethered to prevent them from falling off. Get a top-down perspective on a thrilling drive up Eagle Road, to view your tiny cruise ship floating in the waters far below.
Fairy tales really do come true in Copenhagen. At least it seems that way in Tivoli Gardens, with its marching bands, beer gardens and an assortment of classic roller coasters. The fairy tale master himself, Hans Christian Andersen, is evident throughout the city. Andersen-themed walking tours visit the writer’s statue next to City Hall and, of course, the iconic Little Mermaid (frequently vandalized but always lovingly restored) gracing the harbor. Copenhagen has its modern, edgier side too. Nyhavn, once the seedy sailors’ quarter, overflows with trendy cafés, bars and clubs in brightly painted 17th- and 18th-century townhouses. Few pleasures on a summer’s day compete with sipping an icy Danish beer at a sidewalk café fronting the harbor where vintage sailboats bob.
A leisurely yet expedient way to enjoy Stockholm, which is spread over 14 islands, is on a hop-on hop-off sightseeing boat that calls at prime attractions. Stop at the Vasa Museum, a showcase for the best-preserved 17th-century warship in the world. The sunken Vasa, with its 50 carved statues and magnificent lion perched on its prow, is one more way to experience Scandinavia’s impressive maritime legacy.
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Photography courtesy of Hofi0006/Wikipedia
This article was first published in January 2013 in Traveler. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.