TRAVEL Capital Scandinavia

Stockholm, Oslo, and Copenhagen provide a capital vacation tour.

If I have any criticism of Scandinavia, it’s that it’s almost too nice. The cities are immaculate: Men pull fat 15-pound salmon from the rivers in the heart of Stockholm and claim the water is perfectly all right to drink. The streets are safe: The entire nation of Sweden recorded a total of 12 murders last year; a midnight walk along the wharf in Oslo is as safe as a stroll at noon; the police are almost invisible. Everything is good-looking: There are no bad cars (even taxis are Volvo and Mercedes); no bad clothes (kids may wear old jeans, but they fit perfectly); no ugly people (some are beautiful, the rest merely attractive – it gets a little intimidating when even the park drunks are good-looking); and no fat people (be forewarned: If you worry about your weight, Scandinavia can be damaging to your psyche). An occasional excess of niceness is easily overlooked, however. Ten minutes in O’Hare airport with a fat woman in a lime-green knit pantsuit coughing in your ear will put it out of your mind forever.

While the term “Scandinavia” throws a cloak of camaraderie over Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, there is rivalry. They’ve each conquered or tried to conquer the others. Today, the impending sale by Sweden to Norway of 40 percent of Volvo (Sweden’s largest corporation) is nearly as much a patriotic issue in the two countries as an economic one. The three peoples revel in jokes and mild put-downs of one another. Says the Swede, for example: “The Swedes make it, the Danes sell it, and the Norwegians boast about it.”

The three capital cities – Stockholm, Oslo, and Copenhagen – form a tight seaside triangle, each an hour from the others by plane. A “capitals tour” might seem the tritest of touristry, but is in fact a fine introduction to the delights of Scandinavia. It can be done in two weeks – fast but not frenetic – and provides a satisfving samole of one of the most beautiful parts of Europe. It really doesn’t matter which way you circle the triangle. I did it Stockholm to Oslo to Copenhagen.


The capital of Sweden is the largest and most cosmopolitan city in Scandinavia. It makes me cringe to say that this is a city of contrasts, but this is a city of contrasts: To walk from the 20th-century gleam of downtown Stockholm to the 13th-century shadows of the Old Town is to stroll through a pretty good chunk of civilized time. Any walk in the center city of Stockholm on a sunny day is a pleasure. Built on twenty islands scattered through the waters of Lake Malaren, the city is graced with broad bays, narrow channels, winding waterways, and hundreds of bridges. The central city, old and new, is quite compact, easily walkable. In the middle of it all is the Old Town, medieval core of Stockholm, with the Royal Palace (a surprisingly unimpressive building), the cathedral (a 13th-century structure, highlighted by “St. George and the Dragon,” a massive wood sculpture), the House of Nobility (a red-brick marvel in mid-17th-century Dutch Baroque, considered one of Europe’s finest buildings) and narrow cobblestoned streets flanked by rows of buildings housing shops, artists’ studios, galleries, and private residences, many of which are under renovation. The central square, at the steps of the old Stock Exchange, is, in summer, an open air market. The Old Town is also one of the city’s two nightlife areas (the other being downtown Stockholm), dotted with restaurants and bars; this is in keeping with the heritage of the Old Town: It is said that in medieval times there were 700 bars for the 7,000 residents of Stockholm, which explains why one old alleyway is still called “Fighting Street.”

From the docks at either Slussen or Nybroplan, you can hop a ferry to Skansen, a kind of Swedish Williamsburg featuring 150 buildings of historical interest from all over Sweden. In many of the buildings, traditional trades and handicrafts – pottery making, glassblowing, butter and cheese making – are demonstrated. Skansen is a retreat for city dwellers, the site of open air concerts, folk dancing, and various festivals.

Or visit the small island of Skeppshol-men (again, just a bridge away from the heart of the city), which is home to many of Stockholm’s museums, most notably the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities and the Museum of Modern Art (which just happens to have, in its men’s room, one of the world’s great collections of international graffitti. Wit in all languages; personal favorite: “Toto, 1 don’t think this is Kansas.”) While you’re being artsy, take an easy subway ride on Stockholm’s fine Underground to Milles-garden, an open-air museum devoted to the works of Swedish sculptor Carl Milles. And while you’re down in the Underground get on the newest line, the Blue line, where each station is an art museum; Stockholmians are proud of these subway stations, and rightly so.

Stockholm’s most popular tourist attraction is a strange one: the battleship Wasa. In 1625, by order of King Gustav II Adolf, the Wasa, a huge three-masted battleship, was built. After three years and enormous expense, construction was completed and the ship launched in the Stockholm harbor. It was an occasion of great national pride for the Swedes, and they gathered to cheer as the Wasa made her way majestically through the harbor. Then, a sudden gust of wind caused the ship to heel, taking in water through her lower gunports; before the horrified eyes of King Gustav and the assembled multitudes, the Wasa sank. A trial was held to try to pin the blame, but the cause of the catastrophe went undetermined and no one was punished. The Wasa was eventually forgotten at the bottom of the harbor. Some 230 years later, in 1956, an archaeologist named Anders Franzen determined that the Baltic waters of Stockholm were of such salt composition as to discourage the Teredo Navalis, a marine termite that has consumed most wooden wrecks through history. The Wasa might still be down there, Franzen said. From a small boat he began plumbing the depths when one day his grappling iron came up with a splinter of wood – he had found the Wasa. Franzen somehow aroused nationwide interest in the raising of the ship and three years later the Wasa resurfaced. Today, in its own museum, undergoing painstaking restoration in an environment of controlled humidity, the Wasa is a testament to the strange passion of Swedish pride that brought back to life a great national blunder. Weird, and worth seeing.

There are three first-class hotels in Stockholm. The Sheraton is the newest, the Grand the most centrally located, and the Diplomat the most elegant. They are all expensive (a double will cost upwards of $75). There are plenty of less expensive hotels, however. If you prefer to stay in the Old Town, try the Reisen; a good middle-priced hotel right on the water is the Strand; perhaps the best of the medium-priced hotels, but a little off the beaten track, is the Hotel Birger Jarl.

The finest restaurant in Stockholm, and one of the finest in all of Europe, is the Operakallaren; a meal at this historic spot, located inside the opera house, is a trip in itself (be sure to contemplate the stunning, and once-scandalous, Oscar Bjorck oil paintings). The Restaurant Diana is probably the best of Stockholm’s several cellar restaurants – a delightful underground brick cavern. The Solliden offers a good smorgasbord lunch when you visit Skansen. The Cattelin in the Old Town is a good, solid, non-touristy restaurant.

Oslo and Bergen

After the hustle-bustle of Stockholm, Oslo feels amost like a small town. It isn’t. The city centers on Karl Johansgate, the broad boulevard which descends from the palace to form the main downtown artery. Adjacent to Karl Johansgate is a large central park (called the students’ park because of the proximity of the university), which is a kind of city crossroads. For people-watching, this is surely one of the world’s great parks and one of Oslo’s most engaging attractions. In the surrounding area are historical buildings, the Oslo Cathedral, and many of the national museums.

Across the bay are the Norwegian Folk Museum, the Maritime Museum, the Viking Ships Museum and the Kon-Tiki Museum, all of which provide an interesting overview of Norway’s nautical heritage. However, unless you’re particularly interested in boats or maritime history (or get a special charge out of seeing Thor Heyerdahl’s famous Kon-Tiki rafts), the ferry ride over and back will probably be the best part of the excursion.

Perhaps the two most intriguing sights in Norway are the museum-monuments to two of the country’s greatest artists. On one side of town (an easy subway ride from the city center) is the Munch Museum, housing all the works bequeathed by the artist Edvard Munch to the city of Oslo in 1940. The massive collection includes over 23,000 paintings, drawings, lithographs, and sculptures, too much to show except on a rotating basis. Munch led a stormy, and often tormented life; his stunning work creates a kind of visual autobiography here.

On the other side of town (an easy bus ride from city center) is Fogner Park, the home of sculptor Gustav Vigeland’s most extraordinary work. In 1924 Vigeland told the city that if it would purchase land for the park, he would fill it with sculpture. Over three decades he graced the park with 150 pieces of sculpture. The arrangement produced what may be the world’s most fascinating open-air museum. The sculptures are located in three groups: the Bridge (bronze), the Fountain (bronze) and the Monolith (stone) – if sculpture moves you, you can spend a whole day at the Bridge alone. There is also an indoor Vigeland museum adjacent to the park.

Though Munch and Vigeland were contemporaries and lived most of their lives in Oslo, they never met, apparently because of artistic jealousies. The story goes that a mutual friend finally arranged for them to have dinner together, at Vige-land’s home. As Munch and the friend approached the house, however, Munch suddenly turned and began walking away. The friend ran up to the house to get Vigeland, to see if he would implore Munch to stay. The houseboy answered the door. “I must speak with Mr. Vige-land,” said the friend. “I’m sorry,” said the boy, “but Mr. Vigeland is dining out tonight.”

The national sport, in fact the national passion, is skiing. In the hills on the outskirts of Oslo sits what must be the world’s most striking monument to skiing. A functional monument: the Holmenkollen ski jump, a gleaming white structure, rising 165 feet into the air. It looks frightening from the bottom but lovely from the top, where a fast elevator ride gives you a view of Oslo.

This glimpse of the natural beauty of Norway is only a taste of what you’ll see if you take the train to Bergen. Bergen, Norway’s second largest city, located on the west coast, is a highly recommended side trip. The city, in the heart of the fjord country, is beautiful, but the seven-hour train ride from Oslo to Bergen is the real reason this trip is worth taking – across the breadth of the country, over its mountainous spine and down through the incredible lake and fjord country.

Bergen is a busy seaside city. Its hub is the Bryggen (wharf) and fresh fish market. The market, with dozens of different kinds of fish and crustaceans at every booth, is great fun to wander in – learn how to squeeze live crabs and pick the best ones or watch the masterly knife work of the vendors as they kill, clean, and cut the fish to order. Then buy a bag of fresh shrimp, boiled on the boats in sea water, and some fresh fruit, and sit down on the pier for a Bergen-style lunch. To appreciate the beauty of this city, take a ride on the funicular (a cable train) up the side of the mountain, buy a beer at the top, and gaze down on Bergen.

The best thing to do in Bergen, though, is to set aside a full day and take a boat trip along the coast. The fjord country is everything you’ve ever dreamed it was since your fourth-grade geography class.

There are three wonderful old hotels in the heart of Oslo: The elegant Grand Hotel sits right on the park, the Bristol is a small and very smart hotel a block away, and the Continental is the one Oslo residents tell you they’d stay in. The new showplace hotel in Oslo is the high-rise SAS hotel, but you miss out on all the “old world charm.” There is a shortage of hotel accommodations in Bergen, so be sure to reserve ahead. Two of the best are the Norge and the Orion, both of which have good restaurants, bars, and discos.

Oslo’s most famous restaurant is the Restaurant Blom, a marvelous place filled with memorabilia. Now owned by the Oslo Artist’s Guild, Blom is a gathering place for various international dignitaries. The Holmenkollen Restaurant, near the ski jump, offers a sparkling nighttime view of Oslo.


I liked Copenhagen as soon as I learned that you’re not supposed to tip anyone for anything – it’s all built in. The city abounds with sparkling good taste and energetic intellect. If you’re a hot shopper or a barroom philosopher, this is the place to do both.

The Stroget, or Walking Street, is the visitors’ artery of Copenhagen, connecting two major city squares, the Kongens Nytorv and the Radhus Pladsen. The Stroget is for pedestrians only and is lined with stores of all kinds including incredibly elegant department stores (have you ever seen an American department store with a Chagall exhibit in its stationery department?), record stores (where you can listen before you buy), and porno shops (where you can browse before you buy). It’s touristy, but it’s still a good milling spot, and a block in either direction you’re in the natives’ Copenhagen.

Near one end of the Stroget is the famed Tivoli, Copenhagen’s wonderful amusement park. “Amusement park” is probably a misleading tag; it’s really more a fantasy land for all ages – a sophisticated Six Flags. There are carnival rides, but there is also a concert hall, an open air stage, a pantomime theater, a bandstand, and a jazz house. And a host of fine restaurants. But more than anything, Tivoli is enchanting simply to look at by night, ablaze with thousands of lights (none of them neon). The Danes are pleased to say that Tivoli is not for tourists but for the Danes themselves – of the 40,000 people who pass through its gates each day, only 20 percent are tourists.

Copenhagen of course has its share of museums, cathedrals, and monuments, but somehow it’s not as conducive to sightseeing as its two capital counterparts. It is much more conducive to finding a cozy, buzzing vinstrue (wine bar), sitting down with a Tuborg, and soaking up the Danish atmosphere. The Huids Vinstrue at the Kongens Nytorv Square is such a place, and there are several others nearby.

One tourist tour you may wish to make is to the Tuborg or Carlsberg brewery, if only because they are two of the finest beers in existence and at the breweries you can drink for free. (One clever Dane ad-vised me that, if you’re so inclined, you can consecutively join each of the English, French, German, and Danish language tours and drink all afternoon long.)

At one time, Copenhagen’s most renowned attraction was its pornography trade. While it still exists, it is a fading fashion. The main strip is now rather dull and deserted.

Much more popular in Copenhagen these days is the Burger King across from Tivoli. I was drawn in by some primal American craving and discovered that a good old double cheeseburger, fries, and Coke are identical to those at my Lemmon Avenue Burger King. The only difference was that the tab was 19 kroner, which is somewhere around four bucks.

A worthwhile day can be spent outside Copenhagen by renting a car (or joining a tour bus) and driving north up the coast through the area known as North Zealand. Denmark is mostly flat, but this area is marked by gently rolling hills, cradling several huge castles. The most interesting is Kronburg at Helsingor, said to be Hamlet’s palace. Further up the coast is a town called Hornbaek, in the heart of what is almost mockingly called the “Danish Riviera”; it’s no joke, though – there are long stretches of beautiful white sand beaches, dotted with lovely little hotels, such as the Hotel Trouville, a terrific spot only an hour-and-a-half train tride from the heart of Copenhagen.

The new Admiral Hotel, carefully renovated within an old, old granary, is the most intriguing place to stay in Copenhagen these days; it’s completely computer-operated with a minimum of frills (no room service, for example) to keep costs down; a little far removed from the heart of the city, however. Closer in are some of the fine old hotels like the Plaza and the King Frederick.

In terms of atmosphere, one of the most remarkable restaurants you’ll ever find is St. Gertruds Kloster in Copenhagen. Inside the labyrinthine cellar of a 16th-century monastery, you’ll dine under brick archways in an almost eerie elegance. Restaurant Perlen, at Tivoli, sits right in the middle of the park with activity swirling past your table.

Getting there: The airline of Scandinavia is, of course, Scandinavian Airlines. The glowing reputation of SAS in the industry was well-confirmed as far as my travels went. Every flight I took arrived a few minutes early, except for one which merely arrived on time. SAS schedules, rates, and packages are varied and complex. But as an example, the economy fare, one-way, from Chicago to Copenhagen ranges seasonally from $424 to $516 (first class $829). There are conditional excursion rates that can reduce the round trip fare to less than $600.

While Scandinavia is at its most luxuriant in the summer, both Norway and Sweden have numerous ski resorts, splendid conditions, and the same Scandinavian cultural warmth in spite of the snow and ice. The wintertime air rates and ski packages are highly attractive bargains at present – if you’re a skier, check it out through SAS. For additional information on schedules, rates, and packages for all seasons, write:

Scandinavian Airlines

4544 Post Oak Place

Suite 224

Houston, Texas 77027

or call toll-free 1-800-392-1855. For additional information:

Norwegian and Swedish

Tourist Offices

75 Rockefeller Plaza

New York, NY 10019

Danish National Tourist Office

75 Rockefeller Plaza

New York, NY 10019

Cultural footnote: The three Scandinavian countries share certain customs; one in particular will likely follow your travels. The “skoal” is the Scandinavian drink-ers’ toast and an important element inalmost every dining occasion. Most oftenit seems to revolve around the Scandinavians’ favorite aperitif: Aquavit, a kind ofschnapps. Aquavit is ordinarily served ina small liqueur glass, often with a beerchaser. After the skoaler makes his spoken toast he says “skoal,” at which pointeveryone raises his glass and responds”skoal.” But before you drink, customrequires that you first look square into theeyes of each of your companions, thendrink, then, before returning your glass tothe table, again meet everyone’s eyes. Thesecond eye contact is very important; ifyou don’t do it you’ll be considered a badskoaler. Or a rude American.


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