Finland, the country where I quite want to be

We took yet another ferry back across the Baltic Sea from Tallinn to Helsinki. This one wasn’t overnight as the crossing only takes 1.5-3.5 hours: we had time to spare so opted for the 3.5 hour ferry which was cheaper than the others. (Funnily enough the 1.5 hour ferry is sometimes the cheapest, but we’d heard that it was a smaller vessel and the crossing could be rough enough to toss it around so we avoided it just in case.)

We had one week in Finland (17-23 September). Rather than split it over two cities like we have been doing for most of this trip we decided to spend it all in Helsinki so we could take some time out to organise ourselves. Our next stop would be Russia where we have a faster paced itinerary so Helsinki was an opportunity to relax and regroup before the next stage of our adventure began.

Yellow Fiat in Helsinki

And, it was lovely. A few fellow travellers we’d met in the Baltics warned us that there wasn’t much to do in Helsinki but this actually worked to our advantage because it took the pressure off to see and do lots of things. We stayed at a beautiful self contained Airbnb apartment on an island just to the west of central Helsinki, spent a lot of time just hanging out, and we cooked all of our evening meals there too. This saved us from the other point the backpackers warned us about; that Helsinki was expensive. But thanks to Airbnb and quite a bit of self catering we saved a lot of money. We didn’t find Helsinki outrageously expensive anyway, in fact I think it was probably slightly cheaper than Denmark and Stockholm. (Except for alcohol, which of the Nordic countries was cheapest in Copenhagen supermarkets.)

Lobster dishes at an antique shop

So what did we get up to apart from relaxing, organising and commissioning a beautiful engagement ring? Here are the top 10 things we enjoyed doing in Helsinki:

  1. Wandering around the design district.
  2. Admiring buildings and architecture such as the central train stationFinnish National Theatre and Helsinki Cathedral.
  3. Going to a Finnish sauna.
  4. Learning about the history of Finnish design at the Design Museum.
  5. Admiring a very cool exhibition called Camouflage at Kiasma, Helsinki’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
  6. Visiting the Finnish Museum of Photography.
  7. Alex also enjoyed the Computer and Game Console Museum (but note that unfortunately there isn’t much English signage).
  8. Browsing the Old Market Hall.
  9. Checking out the graffiti wall and old power station buildings at Suvilahti. (Although the rest of this area felt slightly dodgy… saw a few drunks (or worse?) being carted off by uniformed men and women in the middle of the day…)
  10. Taking arty snaps of the Sibelius Monument.

Sibelius Monument

We found almost all of these spots thanks to the excellent Like A Local Helsinki map. I highly recommend picking up a copy if you visit! (You can also get them in Tallinn.)

Cheap eats in Helsinki

  • UniCafe (for lunch). Filled with students but non-students are welcome. Pick up a tray and cutlery then follow the aisle collecting along the way: 1 glass of water, 1 glass of milk or cordial, bread or crispbread with spread, a plate of salad, 1 hot main, wholemeal grains (brown rice, brown pasta or boiled potatoes), and depending on which main you pick this will cost about €6 (just under for a soup main and a little more for the premium main of the day). The mains change daily and we ended up eating here twice.
  • Kitchen & Co (for lunch). Each day 3 different soups and 3 different salads are on offer and they cost €8.50-9.50 including really lovely breads. We had the delicious and filling bouillabaisse (which seems to be available almost every day).
  • Cafe Regatta. A super cute cafe on the water near the Sibelius Monument. There’s plenty of outdoor seating but I couldn’t pass up the tiny and cosy interior which is filled with the delicious smell of freshly baked cinnamon buns. There are free refills for the tea and coffee and they actually give you  €0.05 back with each refilled cup!

Cafe Regatta

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After Helsinki we took our last European ferry (on this trip ;) overnight to St Petersburg in Russia. We spent three days there before taking a rather plush overnight train to Moscow, which is where we are at the moment. I’ll write more about these cities later, but tomorrow is our last day in Moscow before we take the first official leg of our Trans-Mongolian journey: 80 solid hours on a train sharing both day and night with two complete strangers, with no access to a shower (only a toilet and washbasin), and possibly no access to powerpoints either. It certainly will be an interesting experience! After that we stop off at various points in Siberia and Mongolia before arriving in Beijing on the 12th of October. I’m not sure if we’ll have internet access between now and then so… wish us luck and we’ll see you on the other side!

Viking it up in Stockholm

From Gothenburg we continued on to Stockholm (4-8 Sep). After so much rushing around in Gothenburg I was a bit museum’d out and content to spend time just catching up on the kind of general admin that accumulates while you’re travelling (email, photos, etc), but Alex was keen to get out there and devour as much as possible, so we took time to do the things that interested each of us the most at our own pace.

Stockholm is not as expensive as Oslo and probably more on par with Denmark, but you get more SEK than DKK for your £ (at the moment, anyway). I was particularly impressed by how easy it was to get around the city: the public transport system is frequent, fast and efficient. We didn’t find quite so much evidence of cutting edge Scandinavian design in Stockholm as we did in Copenhagen (but perhaps we didn’t look in the right places), so it was more about the Vikings this time: from history and artefacts to, best of all, food (see Eats below). :D

Gamla Stan, seen from City Hall tower

10 top things to see and do in Stockholm

  1. Cycling tour. As usual, something like this is a great introduction to a new city and you can’t get much more Scandinavian than riding around on bikes that require back pedalling to brake.
  2. Gamla Stan. Wander around aimlessly and just enjoy the beautiful streets. This is particularly nice in the evening when there’s still some life around but it’s much quieter.
  3. Stockholm City Hall tower. Climb up to the top to take your postcard perfect photos of Gamla Stan.
  4. Monteliusvägen. If you visit Stockholm during a month when the City Hall tower is closed, you want to save some money, or you just fancy a walk and another nice view, get off the T-bana at Slussen and head to the left to climb up the hill for a very picturesque stroll.
  5. Vasa Museum. If you only go to one museum in Stockholm make it this one. Catch one of the guided tours and watch out the amazing documentary film about the ship’s reconstruction, then you can spend an hour or two pouring over the detailed exhibits and trying to take a photo that does the Vasa justice (good luck!).
  6. Fotografiska. When we visited Stockholm’s museum of photography we caught two excellent exhibitions of works by Christer Strömholm and Sally Mann. It’s open until 9pm every day (except Midsummer’s Eve and Christmas Eve), which is a bonus.
  7. National Historical Museum of Stockholm. This is where you can go to get your historical Viking fix: weapons, glassware, jewellery and coin hoards, even a skeleton. The museum has lots of other exhibits too, and it’s free on Fridays between 13:00-17:00!
  8. Nobel Museum. Alex did this one by himself and he raved about it and said it was inspirational.
  9. Thorildsplan T-bana station. Check it out if you’re a fan of retro gaming. :)
  10. Östermalm’s Saluhall. A very fancy market hall that I don’t recommend buying anything from, but it is nice to wander around and some of the stalls give out free samples.

Thorildsplan T-bana

If we hadn’t already been to the Norsk Folk Museum in Oslo and Old Bergen we probably also would have visited Stockholm’s famous open air museum, Skansen. And if we weren’t a bit roller-coastered-out from doing three other Scandinavian theme parks in the previous two weeks we probably would have gone to Gröna Lund too. (Although I’m not sure if I would have been brave enough to ride on Insane!)

Gröna Lund at night

Eats & drinks

  • Nystekt Strömming. A fried herring stand out the front of Slussen station that may look no more appealing than a miscellaneous kebab stand but is well worth it for a cheap, tasty and very Scandinavian meal.
  • There’s another takeaway-with-picnic-tables stand roughly in front of Ringvägen 4 that does cheap and tasty Thai food.
  • Örtagården. An all-you-can-eat, mostly vegetarian buffet overlooking Östermalm’s Saluhall. 99SEK for lunch and you probably won’t need dinner.
  • Cafe Art. A nice underground cafe in the middle of Gamla Stan. Recommended by Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet it was nonetheless very quiet when we were there. Excellent service.
  • Drop Coffee. A lovely and bright cafe next to Mariatorget T-bana station. Great tea and cardamom buns  (I’m sure the coffee is excellent too) and free wifi.
  • Airfur. Sweden’s first and only restaurant dedicated to Viking food! We went despite expecting it to be cheesy but it’s not at all: the staff are great and seemed like they were really enjoying their roles, the food is excellent and the extensive list of different meads is as impressive as the drinks are strong and delicious. The decor is fantastic – we saw originals of the authentic glassware at the National Historical Museum. It was one of the priciest meals we’ve had on this journey but it’s well worth it if you want to treat yourself.

Deer on a fork, Aifur

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Sightseeing in Gothenburg

We didn’t have any big plans for Gothenburg, it just seemed like a good place to stop off for a few days (1-4 Sep) between Oslo and Stockholm. Because we didn’t have anything specific in mind we, for the first time, invested in a couple of those 48 hour city cards that give you free public transport and museum entry.

As a result, we ended up going a little crazy with the sightseeing! Since everything was now “free” and it didn’t cost us anything extra to get around, we packed in an awful lot more than we normally would. This is kind of why we’d never done one of these cards before: if we’re based somewhere for 5 days we don’t really want to cram everything into 1 or 2, we’d rather space it out at a more relaxed pace. On this occasion however, it worked out quite well and we ended up visiting some rather cool places that we otherwise never would have considered!

Maritiman

A floating maritime museum comprised of 13 retired vessels that you can climb all over and explore inside, including a submarine and a destroyer. I’m not really into military stuff or boats but I did find the whole thing pretty cool!

Exploring a destroyer at Maritiman

Aeroseum

An underground bunker from the Cold War era that now houses a museum of aircraft. Maybe it’s because it was Father’s Day back in Australia that we were subliminally driven to visit these first two places as this normally wouldn’t be at the top of my list, but it was pretty cool too. Some of the craft are still airworthy and you can climb inside some of the others, including fighter jets and helicopters.

SAAB 91A Safir from 1945 (still airworthy!), Aeroseum

Universeum

The Universeum is a science museum slash aquarium slash zoo, with everything from live animals (including piranhas and free-roaming monkeys) to exhibits about what it’s like to live in space (you can try out a space hammock), fight crime (with interactive forensic exhibits) or have super powers borrowed from nature (don a Velcro suit and you can climb a wall like a gecko). Cool for adults and particularly fun for kids, it can be kind of pricey on its own but very good value with the city card.

Iguana, Universeum

(I love the Gothenburgian trend of adding “seum” on the end of words to create museum names. ;)

Liseberg Amusement Park

The third (and biggest) Scandinavian theme park we visited in the space of two weeks. I think we’re somewhat roller-coastered-out now (for the time being) but if you like big rides then you’d have an awful lot of fun here. The city card gives you free entry to the park but you still have to pay for rides. Since we were only there for 2 hours we opted for a book of tickets which was enough for the both of us to go on three rides. We chose Balder, a massive (and actually quite scary!) wooden roller coaster; Lisebergbanan, a very fun roller coaster built on the side of a small mountain; and the Ferris Wheel for some good old fashioned romance and views.

View from the ferris wheel at Liseberg

Trädgårdsföreningen (Garden Society of Gothenburg)

I’m not sure what the city card entitles you to here because entry to the gardens seemed to be free either way, but we might not have gone if we hadn’t seen it mentioned in the leaflet. The gardens are lovely, particularly on a sunny day, and if you go then visiting the greenhouse is a must.

Greenhouse, Trädgårdsföreningen

Paddan canal boat tour

Again not something we would have done if it hadn’t been included with the city card but I’m really glad we did, it was great! We had a fantastic guide who said everything with the same enthusiasm in both Swedish and English, and probably does the same thing several times a day, several times a week, but it never once got dry or boring.

Paddan canal boat tour

Stinsen sightseeing tour

We tried to do this first of all to get an overview of the city, but timing didn’t work out and it ended up being one of the last things we did. It was cute but not essential.

We also wanted to:

  • Get two shrimp boxes for the price of one at Kajskjul 8 but were gutted to find out the offer is only available in summer.
  • Visit the Volvo museum, which was supposed to be near the Aeroseum, but it turns out it’s not, which is why we couldn’t find it. :P
  • Check out the photography exhibitions at the Hasselblad Center, but we didn’t time the opening hours correctly.
  • See Gothenburg from the top of “the lipstick“, but in the end we prioritised other things.

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Friends and fjords in Norway

From Copenhagen we caught an overnight ferry to Oslo where our friends Mae and Tulpesh met us at the port. Together we drove up to the mountains around Sjusjøen for a weekend at Mae’s parents’ traditional Norwegian cabin. This trip was a long time in planning: we first talked about doing it at least three years ago and it’s so great that we were finally able to do it! It was a short but very enjoyable weekend filled with catching up, eating Smash and tacos, eating lots of other food in general, enough Icelandic schnapps to give the three of us that drank it crazy dreams, hiking, picking wild blueberries and playing Uno.

The cabin!

At the end of the weekend we drove back down south, stopping for some delicious boller on the way. We spent the rest of the week (26 Aug – 1 Sep) staying at Mae and Tulpesh’s lovely apartment just outside of Oslo, although we did take one night out to do a slightly mad “day” trip to Bergen.

Oslo

We were so fortunate to be able to stay with Mae and Tulpesh. Not only because they’re lovely and it meant we got to spend lots of time with them (and their cats!) but it also saved us an awful lot of money. There’s no way around it: Norway is expensive. Accommodation, food and drink cost at least twice as much as they do in London. Deli de Luca became our standard go-to for reasonable lunches and as for dinner, we were spoiled by Tulpesh’s excellent cooking almost every night. (Interestingly though, intercity rail travel is significantly cheaper in Norway than the UK, so it’s not all bad.) We look forward to returning the favour when they eventually visit us in Melbourne! :)

Four things you can do for free in Oslo which are particularly great on a clear sunny day:

  1. Climb all over the Opera House – make sure you go inside too.
  2. Explore Frogner Park and see the uniquely human sculptures by Gustav Vigeland.
  3. Go for a stroll down Aker Brygge.
  4. Wander around the Akershus Fortress complex, which also gives you a great view of the harbour.

There are some excellent museums in Oslo, especially on the Bygdøy peninsula. Our favourites were:

  • Viking Ship Museum, Bygdøy. It features the two best-preserved Viking ships in the world and lots of other artefacts.
  • Norsk Folk Museum, Bygdøy. There are two parts: a particularly brilliant open air collection of buildings from different periods and locations, and indoor exhibitions about Norwegian costume, hunting and crafts.
  • Holmenkollbakken ski jump and museum. The top of the jump offers a fanastic view of the Oslo fjord.

If we’d had time we would have also visited the Kon-Tiki and FRAM museums on Bygdøy. If you plan on visiting several museums it would be well worth taking advantage of a 24, 48 or 72 hour Oslo Pass.

Oslo Opera House

Bergen

Bergen is a short flight or a 7 hour train journey from Oslo. We squeezed in a very brief visit by taking a morning train there; spending the afternoon, evening and following morning in Bergen; then taking a late afternoon train back to Oslo. It was a little exhausting but worth it for the train ride alone – which, personally, I think was even better than Bergen itself.

The ride is justifiably considered one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world. It’s also the highest altitude rail line in Europe and the train passes by every manner of scenery along the way: farmland, isolated cabins, small villages, green fields, tree-covered mountains, rocky mountains, small rivers, waterfalls, lakes of different colours, ice, snow and even a glacier. Book online in advance and it will only cost a fraction more than the Heathrow Express. (You use your booking number to collect the tickets from a machine at Oslo station, you don’t need to print anything.)

In Bergen itself we:

  • Browsed the Fish Market (touristy but worth a look).
  • Explored the shops and alleyways of Bryggen.
  • Rode the Fløibanen funicular up to the top of Fløyen mountain for a great view. If you have time there are several hiking trails up there too.
  • Visited Old Bergen. This is nice, particularly if the weather is good, but not essential (especially if you’ve already been to the Norsk Folk Museum in Oslo).

The Leprosy Museum and Bergen Aquarium are supposed to be quite good too and we were interested in the Bryggens Museum but didn’t have enough time. Of course, if you have more time (and money) you can also take one or multiple boat trips out to the nearby fjords.

Bryggen, Bergen

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Fairy tales, roller coasters and Danish design

Denmark (18-24 August) was exciting as our second new country on this trip after Slovenia. Like Slovenia, I had pretty high expectations after hearing so many wonderful things about Copenhagen but happily, once again, we were not disappointed. The only unfortunate factor was that of cost – we seem to be visiting countries in order of increasing expense! It was mainly food and drink that were pricey… I have to admit we did end up relying on hotdogs more than once for cheap eats in Denmark.

Odense

Odense (oh-den-seh) is the third largest city in Denmark but the centre is quite compact. It’s full of cute cobblestone streets lined with colourful houses and lovely to wander – Hans Jensens Stræde and Nedergade are two good examples. Pedestrian-only Vestergade is mostly full of shops and (somewhat pricey) restaurants but it’s also nice to explore, particularly the smaller streets that branch off from it.

The river that cuts through Odense runs all the way north to the Odense Fjord. You can walk or cycle along the path that follows it or even hire a canoe. (Unfortunately you can’t canoe continuously all the way – there are certain sections where you’d need to lift and carry the canoe up to a part where you could continue on by water.)

The best thing we did in  Odense was spend half a day at the Hans Christian Andersen Museum rediscovering the fables of our childhood and developing a newfound respect for the man that wrote them. If you have more time and are so inclined there are several other museums you can also visit in Odense.

Colourful houses, Odense

Legoland

It’s not geographically on the way from Odense to Copenhagen but we did do it as a day trip between the two. You can’t catch a train straight to Legoland, you need to take a train to a nearish train station and then a bus. The staff at the Odense train station were very helpful when we were buying our tickets and the tickets even come with little itineraries that list all the details for each leg of the journey.

I’ve not been to any other Legolands so I couldn’t tell you how this one compares, but I can tell you we had an awful lot of fun. :) Miniland is full of incredibly impressive recreations of famous cities and landmarks from around the world and the rides are fun, but probably a bit tame for big thrill-seekers.

Mount Rushmore, Legoland

Copenhagen

Copenhagen was awesome! We stayed at another brilliant Airbnb property and had a fantastic time exploring the city. My 10 favourite things to do in Copenhagen:

  1. Ride around town with Bike Mike. A great introductory overview of all the main sights with a good amount of riding in between the info stops.
  2. Marvel at the Danish Design Centre. There was a particularly impressive exhibition on when we were there called Hello Materials which was all about innovative industrial design and advances (both actual and potential) in many facets of design, including packaging and clothing.
  3. Visit the Design Museum Denmark. We couldn’t get enough of design-related shops and museums in Copenhagen. This one is more focused on interior and fashion design.
  4. Do some serious window shopping at Illums Bolighus. We spent several hours there!
  5. Spend a day at Tivoli Gardens. It’s one of the most enjoyable theme parks I’ve ever been to. We went in the early afternoon and stayed until closing (around 10 or 11pm). If you like rides it’s definitely worth forking out for a multi-ride ticket – it starts saving you money after only 3 main rides.
  6. Take some postcard-worthy photos at Nyhavn.
  7. Have smørrebrød for lunch. We were very impressed with Slotskælderen hos Gitte Kik. Two per person is plenty – you’ve been warned!
  8. Eat real Danish pastries. Lagkagehuset is a decent chain that also does delicious filled rolls which are good value. If you want to blend in with the locals, reserve pastry eating for the morning.
  9. Climb all the way to the top of Vor Frelsers Kirke spire.
  10. Nerd it up at Faraos Cigarer. This comic store is so big it spills into at least 3 different shops: the main one is for comics, graphic novels and manga (many of which are in English); another is dedicated to table top games; and the third is quite an impressive costume shop (mainly RPG-themed) including clothes, make up, wigs, ears and weapons.

Copenhagen from Vor Frelsers Kirke

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Iceland, Iceland, Iceland!

Alex and I were blown away by our short stay in Iceland last month. We spent 5 days there but easily could have spent more. It is possible to see some highlights in a long weekend from London as per the package holidays offered by companies such as Icelandair, but if you have enough time I’d recommend staying as long as you can, enjoying everything Reykjavik has to offer then hiring a car and getting out on the quiet, open roads to explore an almost primordial landscape.

When to go

Spring was a nice time to go because while it was brisk and a little windy it hardly rained and the skies were always blue and sunny. The days were getting quite long but not enough to freak out our body clocks. If you want to see the Northern Lights you need to go in winter, but of course you don’t get much daylight at all then.

Seljalandsfoss

Accommodation

We stayed at a super cool hostel called Kex. Kex means “biscuit” in Icelandic and it’s housed in an old biscuit factory. It’s cheap, has a great atmosphere, our bed was super comfy, the shared bathrooms are huge and very clean, they have a restaurant that serves great food (a buffet breakfast as well as other meals and bar drinks), the staff are very friendly and helpful and the location is excellent (everything is in walking distance). Plus the whole place just looks really cool! Interesting things all over the wall, retro furniture…

Common area, Kex Hostel

Budget

It wasn’t as expensive as we were expecting – I think other Northern European countries are more expensive at the moment. Food prices were about equivalent to London’s if not a little cheaper – but of course it all depends on where you go. We spent 1100-2000ISK per person on most meals (£5.50 – £10) although I did splash out on a very nice three course meal to celebrate Alex’s birthday one evening. :) In Reykjavik a pint of beer is around 800-900ISK (~£4) in a restaurant/pub or 200ISK (£1) at a supermarket. We didn’t need to spend any money on transport other than our flights and airport transfers because we either walked or were picked up for free by the tour companies we used. Most of our money went towards activities.

Icelandic krona

Things and places to eat

  • Get skyr from supermarket, cafes, etc. It’s technically cheese but it tastes like really thick and creamy yoghurt. Low in fat, super high in protein and you can only get it in Iceland.
  • Grab a cheap lunch at “The best hot dog stand in town” (that’s what the name translates into English). 320ISK (£1.60) for one with the lot.
  • Saegreifinn – 1100ISK (£5.50) for lobster soup and bread!
  • Tasty burgers – 1450ISK (£7) for a burger, fries and coke.
  • Fish and chips – about 2000ISK (£10) for fish, fancy chips and skyronnaise (a must).
  • 3 Frakkar for a fancy, uniquely Icelandic dinner. Whale, horse, smoked puffin, guillemot and fermented shark are all available. (Booking in advance recommended.)
  • Noodle Station. We didn’t get to eat here but it smelled amazing every time we walked past. 1080ISK (£5.50) for pho-style noodle soup.
  • Cute cafes: C is for Cookie, Cafe Babalú.
  • Icelanders love pizza.
  • There’s place called Ís-Land near Kringlan (a shopping centre) that’s supposed to serve amazing icecream, featuring all sorts of weird flavours including beer and whisky!

Icelandic Fish and Chips

Stuff we did/saw

  • Went on a cycling tour of Reykjavik – a great introduction to a lovely, friendly city.
  • Hiked across a glacier.  More money than we would normally spend on an activity but it was a fantastic experience.
  • Rode Icelandic horses.
  • Browsed the Kolaportið flea market.
  • Window shopped at cool design shops.
  • Admired Hallgrímskirkja, an unusual church. We didn’t go up the tower but I think we should have for an amazing view.
  • Visited 871±2 The Settlement Exhibition. Quite interesting, not too expensive and you can see it all in an hour.
  • Watched two volcano documentaries at Volcano House. (You could give this a miss if you’re running short on time – it’s interesting but a bit expensive for what it is.)
  • Swam and rubbed silica mud on our faces at the Blue Lagoon Thermal Spa. It’s quite near the airport so we did it on our last morning on our way out. (Note that most of the swimming pools in Iceland are filled with geothermal water and are a cheaper and less touristy alternative to the Blue Lagoon.)

Glacier hike

Other things you could do if you had more time

  • Go puffin watching.
  • Go whale watching.
  • There are lots of cool museums and art galleries in Reykjavik including the National Museum of Iceland and a Museum of Design and Applied Art a short drive/bus ride from Reykjavik.
  • Check out all the cool bars in Reykjavik. We went to one called The Lebowski Bar which serves almost 20 different kinds of white Russian.
  • Visit the Glacier Lagoon.
  • See the black sand beach at Vik.
  • See if you can visit an ice cave at Skaftafell National Park.
  • Do the Golden Circle (Þingvellir national park, Gullfoss waterfall and the geothermal geysir). Almost every tourist visiting Iceland does this though, which is exactly why I didn’t want to. Also, I was more interested in seeing a glacier than Þingvellir, and we got to see two big waterfalls on our way back from the hike anyway. Having said that, it would have been cool to see the geysir, and the friends I know that have done the Golden Circle did enjoy it very much, so it’s really up to you!

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