In the January 2017 issue of Viking, we talked with renowned author, television host and travel expert Rick Steves about his passion for Scandinavia. His wanderlust began with a family trip to visit Norwegian relatives as a teenager. Today, Steves is North America’s most respected authority on European travel, and he still makes it a priority to return to his homeland of Norway. Check out more from the interview here.
What excited you about Norway when you visited for the first time? When I was a kid, one of my best memories is taking an overnight boat with my parents from Copenhagen to Oslo and waking up to find us sailing up the pristine Oslofjord. I remember sitting on the deck and enjoying the Norwegian scenery glide by. Here I was, in the land of my grandparents, and it was a thrill.
What are some of your best tips for visiting Scandinavia? Recognize that each of the capital cities has a unique and distinct charm and are well worth visiting. Do your best to connect with what’s unique about Scandinavian culture—a civic spirit of cooperation, a pride in community, and a willingness to pay high taxes with high expectations from their government. City halls rather than churches mark the main square. And the murals at these city halls trumpet the accomplishments of a society that celebrates the collective good and honors citizens who have contributed heroically to their community. Waterfronts have gone from industrial wastelands to people-friendly parklands. National painting galleries, which show a folk tradition and a love of nature that survives to this day—are a great way to get prep before venturing into the countryside.
What has been your travel experience in the other Scandinavian countries? Are there some must-see places? When I travel to Denmark, I never miss visiting Copenhagen and the cozy, sleepy little island of Ærø. Copenhagen, Scandinavia’s cheapest and most fun-loving capital, has always impressed me by the way it manages to meld its improbable aspects into a tidy whole. You’ll see Hans Christian Andersen, a statue of his mermaid, Europe’s first amusement park (Tivoli), and meticulously decorated open-face sandwiches as icons of a capital city. On the island of Ærø, my favorite town, Ærøskøbing, is a ship-in-a-bottle kind of place that was once a prosperous home port to more than 100 windjammers. Here you can wander time-warp cobbled lanes out of the 1680s, past stubby little houses that lean on each other like drunken sailors. It’s an ideal place to unwind and recharge.
In Sweden, Stockholm is stately and ready to entertain. Equal parts water, parks and city, Stockholm is progressive and sleek, ethnically diverse and committed to being green and clean. But it also embraces its heritage, with military bands parading through the heart of town to the Royal Palace for the Changing of the Guard, and…an ABBA museum! An experience not to be missed here is a ferry ride through Stockholm’s famed archipelago—a sea of islands punctuated with colorful cottages. The ferry stops at many of them, but you don’t need to get off the boat.
What are some of your favorite places to visit in Norway?
In Norway’s fjord country, I really enjoy the Walaker Hotel in the village of Solvorn (on an arm of the Sognefjord). You’re surrounded by pastel-painted homes and barns, the mountains rocket so high above the inky fjord water that the sky seems small, and you can sit on the hotel’s old wooden deck with your fresh-berry-topped ice cream and just marvel at the peace and natural beauty in the long, lingering twilight. In Oslo, with each visit, I stroll away from downtown and up through Vår Frelsers Cemetery to pay my respects to great Norwegians (such as Edvard Munch, Henrik Ibsen, and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson), and then head past Gamle Aker Church (the oldest building in Oslo), making my way up the Akers River valley. After crossing the Akers River into the once industrial but now stylish Grünerløkka district, I hike along the river through a park. And as I walk past old Industrial Age buildings while immersed in gorgeous nature, passing a relaxed world of locals enjoying a peaceful moment with friends or dogs or a good book, I fantasize about living in Oslo. In Bergen, ride the funicular up Mount Fløien to enjoy the commanding view extending out to the layers of islands protecting Seattle’s (my town’s) sister city from the wild Atlantic. Then I take the funicular to a stop halfway down, get out, and stroll back to town along tidy streets of shiplap houses, lovingly tended in a storybook world of cobbles, gardens, and harbor views. When I reach the waterfront, I sit on a bench and ponder the historic capital of Norway’s salty, cod-filled Hanseatic League history.
What are your tips for visiting Norway on a budget? The first time I visited Norway I was surprised at the high costs. But you can deal with the high costs by going for the budget options (such as staying at a youth hostel, or booking a room in a private home or a place on Airbnb.com) and still be very comfortable. If you’re staying at a hotel, you can save on the cost of dining by taking full advantage of its bountiful breakfast buffet. When you’re out and about, buy lunch from a street vendor or at a food market (you’re never too far from a picnic-friendly park), or take advantage of a restaurant offering a daily special. Also, you can save around 12 percent by getting takeaway food from a restaurant instead of dining inside.
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