(Note; Anyone interested in following our upcoming trip to Italy in a few weeks, or in a more detailed record of our more recent trips can send me a Personal Message and I will be happy to share our family travel blog address) When our trip to Great Britain in 2007 ended, I knew right away that I wanted to get back to Europe with the family as soon as possible. At first I thought it would be a 2-year wait - the intervening year being dedicated to saving - but by the time late-fall arrived and airfares for the following summer began to be posted, I started entertaining the idea of not waiting an extra year and going the very next summer instead. Since airfare for a family of five is the biggest obstacle to travel abroad, I was drawn to the European locations that were the least expensive to fly to from Minneapolis. We happen to be one of the service points for IcelandAir with connections to several cities in northern Europe, but primarily Scandinavia. As silly as it sounds to me now, I was actually drawn to Scandinavia as a location for our second visit primarily because the airfare was a bit cheaper. I would soon learn that everything else was going to be more expensive! There was more to it than that, however. We now felt ready to handle a trip to a less-visited part of Europe - a part where we could hear foreign languages spoken, yet with the comfort of knowing almost everyone could communicate in English as well. Minnesota has a strong cultural/historical connection with Scandinavia. So that's how it got started... (continued...)
The initial plan for an itinerary was to stick close to the triangle created by the three capital cities of Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo, trying to do a couple of week-long rentals like we enjoyed so much the previous year. This proved impossible for two reasons; It did not account for Scandinavia's premier attraction - the fjords of Norway (located far to the west of that triangle) - and we also learned that the choices for rentals were very few and generally unimpressive. So the plan changed form entirely. We decided to buy rail passes and dedicate ourselves to public transport. We would change location every 1-3 days to see as many different locations as possible - shunning the day-trip method we used with a car and a central lodging hub we used before. Research revealed the wonderful ship/ferry option between Stockholm and Helsinki (as well as nearby Tallinn, Estonia). Having the rail pass gave us the realistic option of using the train to travel to the far north, above the arctic circle, and back in relative comfort. To save money on short-term lodgings, we became youth hostel members and used several hostels for the first time in our lives. We have since grown to prefer hostels for short stays. The children love them and clearly prefer them to hotels. After many iterations of possible itineraries, we finally settled on this; (continued...)
(continued...) Iceland layover for one night - Reykjavik; fly into... Copenhagen for three nights with a day trip by train Stockholm for two nights with a stop in Kalmar on the way Night train north to Narvik, Norway, above the arctic circle One night on the Lofoten Islands near Narvik Night train back south to Trondheim, Norway One night in Åndalsnes; Geirangerfjord cruise the next day One night in Ålesund; fly to Bergen the next day (actually cheaper than a bus) Two nights in Bergen; "Norway-in-a-nutshell" on the way to... Two nights in Oslo Night bus to Stockholm; next day in Stockholm, followed by... Night ship to Helsinki Three nights in Helsinki with day trips to Tallinn and Savonlinna
Fly home from Helsinki 6 countries, 6 currencies, 6 languages, 6 capital cities - All this in 3 weeks! We took trains, planes, buses and boats - including four nights on modes of transportation. As I look back on it now with more travel planning experience, it seems a little bit crazy. But you know what? We had a great time. Even though I would never choose to repeat that pacing again, we saw a lot of different places in a part of Europe that isn't small. I don't regret much of anything we did on that trip. There wer a few glitches, however. Our train north from Stockholm was delayed for about three hours in far-northern Sweden, causing us to miss our bus connection to the Lofoten Islands. We wound up spending the night in Narvik, instead - generally considered one of the least attractive towns in Norway. But the youth hostel there was great. And we even had one of the most memorable meals ever; A classic plate of hamburgers and fries in an "Italian" restaurant served to us by an Asian waitress in a town in Norway, above the arctic circle! (continued...)
(continued...) I learned that I can sleep well in a 6-person couchette on a night train, but sitting upright in a seat on another night train was awful. I also learned that sitting upright on a night bus was even more awful because of the constant chatter of the people around us who lacked the good grace to keep quiet. We'll never make those choices again. Sleeping on the ship was similar to the couchette on the train, and we slept well. Copenhagen had a great combination of the old and the new, which gave it an interesting vibe (the children really enjoyed Tivoli Gardens Amusement Park, too). But to me, Stockholm was the real jewel of the Scandinavian cities. There is something about seeing the city lit up at night, from a vantage point across the water, that takes your breath away. Oslo was more enjoyable than we expected and the museum island of Bygdøy was perhaps the best one-day multi-museum experience I've ever had (Froggner Park was delightful, too). Bergen was less interesting than I expected. That row of historic buildings you see in every Bergen photo is pretty much all there is. Adding Helsinki, Tallinn and Savonlinna was like a great 3-course dessert. Each was a little unexpected delight that we never would have experienced if we had not found out about the amazing overnight trip on the Silja ship connecting Helsinki with Stockholm. Seeing that Carnival-like cruise ship docked at port before we boarded was probably the most excited I have ever seen the children! In the end, we wound up spending about 1/3rd more for the three weeks here than in Great Britain - in part due to the higher (more normal) airfare; in part due to the high cost of the train passes and other ground transport; and in part due to the general high costs of everything there. But we have great memories from that trip...
We leave in 10 days for Italy! I have always suspected that, of all the locations Rick Steves covers, Scandinavia is the most infrequently visited. You may note that questions regarding Scandinavia are relatively few and answers to those questions even fewer - and by the same few people. The fact that no one commented here seems to be further proof of that. It's too bad, because Scandinavia is lovely and it's reputation for being expensive, while valid, is a bit overblown. You have options if you want to see it without going broke.