Cruising the Viking homelands for two weeks took my husband and me to breathtaking scenery along the magnificent Norwegian fjords and across the Baltic Sea.
We overnighted in Stockholm, Oslo, and Bergen, which I have written about separately (with Bergen coming soon). I loved the eight destinations below because of the quaint cobblestone streets in the old towns, the medieval charms, and the Scandinavian cultural riches in each destination. The enchanting royal palaces, Gothic cathedrals, captivating mountain views, and cascading waterfalls are unforgettable. Let’s explore together.
The Swedish-speaking city of Mariehamn is the capital of Åland, an autonomous territory under Finnish sovereignty. The scenic archipelago spans over 6,700 islands and is situated halfway between Finland and Sweden. The city’s Viking heritage is celebrated annually with the Viking Market, one of the most significant events in Scandinavia. The city center, founded in 1861, lies between two harbors and features a variety of restaurants, cafés, and shops.
Explore Mariehamn’s maritime heritage at the Åland Maritime Museum. Visit the medieval church at Lemland. Historians discovered 12th-century wall paintings depicting the life of Saint Nicholas during a renovation project in the 1950s.
Visit the Pellas Museum, the birthplace of Captain Sven Erikson, the last captain of the Herzogin Cecilie. The Herzogin Cecile was a German-built four-mast windjammer built in 1902 and one of the fastest sailboats ever made.
Gdańsk is famous for Gothic cathedrals and glowing amber. In medieval times, Gdańsk was one of the most prosperous cities in the Hanseatic League, a merchant powerhouse of the Baltic. Visit the city’s rich history in the remarkably restored Old Town, an impressive mix of Gothic, Baroque, and Renaissance trends. Along Long Market Street, see the royal residence of Green Gate and the 15th-century Artus Court, a merchant’s palace. See Neptune’s Fountain and St. Mary’s Church that took over 159 years to build.
The most remarkable structure is the Gdańsk treadwheel crane, a 14th-century human-powered machine that loaded and unloaded cargo. At the Amber Museum, learn about the fine gemstone, amber’s medicinal uses, and the history of the old trade routes.
Visit the world of the Teutonic Knights, the famous medieval German military order, when you step into Malbork Castle. Completed in 1406, Malbork was the world’s largest brick castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. See the grand exhibition halls decked with armor, sculpture, ceramics, and dazzling Baltic amber.
Don’t miss Stutthof Concentration Camp, east of Gdańsk, the first camp built outside German borders. See the prisoners’ barracks and pause to pay your respects at the camp memorial.
Pro Tip: Round out your visit with traditional Polish pierogies and a glass of Goldwasser.
Bornholm Island, Denmark
Bornholm is nicknamed Sunshine Island and Rock Island for its weather and geology.
The village of Rønne was founded as a fishing village on Bornholm around the year 1000, playing an essential role in the maritime trade of the Baltics. Swedes, Germans, and Soviets have ruled the island throughout its history. Today, Ronne is home to talented artisans who craft long-case grandfather clocks and create glass-blown pieces. Explore the cobblestone streets for merchant crafts in the red-roofed houses.
We headed north along the coastline to the abandoned clifftop fortress of Hammershus, the most extensive castle ruins in Northern Europe. The agricultural museum Melstedgard was once a farm, where, today, you can see Bornholm’s old-fashioned farm techniques and food culture. See farm animals up close and sample a taste of farm-made products.
Venture through Almindingen, one of Denmark’s most extensive forests, on your way to medieval Osterlars Church. We explored the 14th-century frescos and carved altarpieces inside the historic round, whitewashed church.
Don’t miss seeing the sleek modern Bornholm ferry that travels the sea to neighboring towns.
Our ship docked at Warnemunde Cruise Center, and we chose to visit the Hanseatic city of Rostock, Germany, a fishing village boasting spectacular Medieval architecture. We visited the 13th-century Town Hall, originally built in the Gothic style but transformed in the 18th century by adding a baroque façade and ancient banquet hall. We saw the Gothic St. Mary’s Church with its cross-shaped basilica and learned about the astronomical clock, constructed in 1472 by Hans Duringer.
The Cultural History Museum of Rostock is housed in the Cistercian Abbey and Convent, supporting a chapter of nuns since the Reformation in 1562.
After strolling along the city wall and guardhouse that encircles a square kilometer area, we explored University Square and the university’s main building, the picturesque terra-cotta Hauptgebaude. Rostock University is the oldest university, dating to 1419. Centered in the square is the Fountain of Happiness, the Brunnen der Lebensfreude, with nude figures swimming, a boar on its back, two dogs, a lobster, three fish, and two swans, locally known as the Porno Fountain. The New Market Square features pastel-painted Renaissance merchants’ houses, a daily market, and several bars and restaurants.
Don’t miss Warnemunde Beach at the seaside resort and district of Rostock, one of the most expansive beaches on the German Baltic Sea Coast. Stretching almost two miles and bordered by a promenade, the beach is home to beach bars, a surf school, and a kids’ playground.
The Danish capital of Copenhagen is famous as the “City of Spires,” church spires, and palace towers. Amalienborg Palace is home to the Danish royal family, Crown Prince Frederik, Crown Princess Mary, and their four children. It consists of four identical classical palaces with rococo interiors around an octagonal courtyard. Frederik’s Church, or the Marble Church with the green copper dome, lies on the west side of the square, with King Frederik’s Statue centered in the courtyard.
Walking along the harbor front, we visited the Little Mermaid statue and Gefion Fountain, a depiction of a large group of oxen pulling a plow driven by Norse goddess Gefjon. Nearby, you’ll find Saint Alban’s Church, or the English Church, constructed from 1885 to 1887, the only Anglican church in Denmark.
Visit the modern Copenhagen Opera House, fourteen stories, among the world’s most modern opera houses, constructed at the cost of 2.5 billion DKK (Danish krone.)
Pro Tip: The Copenhagen Card provides free entry to 89 museums and attractions, free public transportation throughout the metro area, and free to bring two kids along ages zero to 11.
Founded by the Vikings in the late 900s, historic Aalborg is positioned almost 20 miles up the Limfjord at its narrowest point. The nation’s fourth largest city, Aalborg, was founded as a trading post. You’ll find the best-preserved Renaissance architecture, including the Jens Bang’s House, constructed during the Renaissance in 1624. Alborghus Castle, the seat of the modern-day governors of Northern Jutland, is the finest example of half-timbered mansions.
Stroll Utzon Park and visit the Church of Our Lady, which features one of the original church bells dating to the 12th century. Visit charming Old Town, see the Gothic 14th-century Budolfi Church and the historic baroque City Hall.
Learn about the fascinating Churchill Club, the first Danish resistance group formed in the city to provide support to the Allied Forces in their challenge to defeat Hitler.
Aalborg is known for its finest spirits aquavit, infused with herbs or spices.
A southern port of Norway, Stavanger (rhymes with “banger”) is home to Europe’s largest concentration of wooden buildings that date to the 17th and 18th centuries. A conservancy formed in the 1950s protects over 250 structures after developers threatened to destroy the historic houses. Stroll the cobblestone streets in the pedestrian district of Gamle Stavanger, or Old Stavanger, exploring the smoked sardines and herring canning museum to a present-day chocolate shop.
Profiting from an offshore oil drilling boom in recent years, Stavanger gained a cosmopolitan flair and was honored in 2008 as the European Capital of Culture. Browse the fascinating exhibits about technology, geology, and harnessing oil power at the Norwegian Petroleum Museum.
Take a helicopter ride to the famous Pulpit Rock, a huge flat rock that towers 1,928 feet above Lysefjorden, or take a cruise and hike to see the giant landmark.
The quaint village of Eidfjord is in the heart of Norway’s most scenic fjords. From the Norwegian Sea, the waters of the Hardangerfjord lead to the charming mountain hamlet. I took a seven-hour excursion to the picturesque coastal village of Flam, from the shores of Hardangerfjord to Sognefjord, crossing scenic mountain passes and driving through long tunnels along the way. I saw my first roundabout inside a tunnel. The Tvinde Waterfall cascading down the steep cliffside was spectacular.
Stop for lunch at the beautiful Stalheim Hotel, with its spectacular view over the Naeroy Valley. In Flam, we boarded the railway for a breathtaking ride, climbing nearly 3,000 feet through 20 tunnels and over numerous bridges. After changing trains on top of the mountain in Myrdal, we continued along more thrilling vistas to Voss, amid snowcapped mountains, forests, lakes, and rivers.
Take a scenic drive along the Eid River, famous for salmon and trout fishing. At the Fossli Hotel, follow the path to the thundering Voringsfossen Waterfall, dropping 600 feet to the canyon below. In Sima Valley, board a catamaran for a leisurely cruise past lush green hillsides to see the Kjeasen Mountain Farm, one of the country’s most isolated settlements. The house took 30 years to build, as materials were carried piece by piece.
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