Best Family Vacation to Scandinavia and the Baltics
Every year our family tries to take a trip abroad, and when it came to choosing this year’s destination, it came down to two things: 1) When we can travel? and 2) Where can we go on frequent flyer miles? Choosing the time was easy. Baseball season lasts through the end of July, so we would have to travel in August. However, it always seems that 90% of the world is on vacation in August, which is a problem for us because we don’t like to go where there are crowds. We also don’t like to travel anywhere hot and humid (because we can have that at home), so southern Europe was off the table. Frequent flyer miles are always tricky, so once we found our destination, I could start playing around with those.
I began researching our options seven months prior to our departure and found we would have to choose somewhere in Northern Europe, middle to late August. I realized there is a direct flight from Chicago to Helsinki (always book a direct flight with kids when possible), and since we had never visited that region of Europe, it was decided. The plan was to fly to Helsinki, visit St. Petersburg, Tallinn, and Stockholm. However, as politics changed between the U.S. and Russia, we decided now was not the best time to travel to St. Petersburg. Changes were made and the new itinerary was set. We would visit: Helsinki, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Bergen, Norway Fjord Country, Oslo and Tallinn. It was extremely ambitious for us as we have always stayed in one country for a two week period in the past, worried that it might be too much for our kids to always be on the go.
Eventually I will be writing destination and attraction reviews for the cities we visited, but with the start of school, the most I can do at this time is a brief overview. A “best of” list if you will. So here it goes…
Our favorite place to visit in Helsinki, hands down, was Suomenlinna, a sea fortress spanning multiple islands at the entrance to Helsinki’s harbor. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was built by the Swedes in the mid-1700s to protect their territory (which at the time included present day Finland) from Russia.
We enjoyed every minute (all 240 of them) of our visit. There is a ferry (click here for schedules) that runs regularly from Helsinki’s Market Square (Kauppatori) to Suomenlinna. The journey is beautiful. Gliding through the tranquil water you have a chance to see hundreds of sailboats, cruising among numerous tiny islands. Upon arrival, you are deposited just outside the information center where you can pick up maps (highly recommended), visit the main museum, or find a guided tour in Swedish, English, Finnish, or Russian (only English and Russian during the winter). We opted for the map and touring on our own.
There are six museums on the property: The Suomenlinna (history of the fortress), the Ehrensvärd (a residence of the commandant’s), a submarine museum (you can see what life was like inside a real submarine), a military museum (the history of the military at the fortress), a toy museum (contains early 20th century toys), and a customs museum (this one has a rotating theme). Each museum charges a separate admission, or you can buy a combination ticket. We opted for the military museum, which for our children was the perfect choice.
After this, we wandered the expansive grounds. There is a main path for exploring (the Blue Route), but half the fun was getting lost. Here are some of our favorite spots:
There are many restaurants and cafés scattered throughout the grounds, but hours of operation vary. If you decide to visit, the best option might be to pack a picnic because there are beautiful surroundings everywhere you look. It is possible to find a sandwich at one of the many restaurants near the ferry terminal, or you can grab food at the Market Square before boarding the boat.
Plan to spend most of the day on the island. There is so much to explore, you won’t be disappointed.
Stockholm was probably my favorite city to visit as it was simply stunning. The city is made up of fourteen islands and there is water everywhere you turn. There is a beautiful medieval old town at its core and meticulous parks and gardens abound. I even made a point to wake up early one morning to enjoy the city before the throngs of tourists arrived from the cruise ships and it was worth every lost minute of sleep.
There were many favorite sights to visit in Stockholm, but if we had to pick just one it would be the Vasa Museet. The museum houses the only preserved seventeenth century ship in the world, the Vasa. The ship was salvaged from Stockholm’s harbor in 1961 after spending 333 years under the sea and is 98 percent original. It is truly magnificent.
The museum’s main focus is obviously the ship, but there are four different viewing levels and many different exhibits explaining the who, what, and why of the ship. There is an amazing exhibit about the reconstruction of the faces of the passengers based on their skeletal remains. Amazing what they can tell from a person’s bones! There were many hands on activities for the kids to explore, a movie screening, guided tours if you wanted them, or a MP-3 guide for your phone if you wanted it.
Be warned: there will be a ton of tour groups, especially if you arrive at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning like we did. Not our smartest travel moment. We ended up waiting about 50 minutes for admission. Try to arrive when it opens and beat the cruise ship groups, you will thank me for this advice.
There is so much to see and do in Copenhagen you will want to invest in a Copenhagen Card the second you step off the train. Available on-line and at every information desk, the card allows for free admission to 72 museums in and around Copenhagen, free transportation by bus, train, metro, and canal boat (highly recommend), discounts on restaurants and other attractions, and free travel for two children 10 and under. The cost varies depending on how long you plan to visit the city (24 hour, 48 hour, etc.), but it is worth every penny.
We used the card to visit Frederiksborg Slot, a 40 minute train ride from Copenhagen in the town of Hillerød. The card covered transportation to the castle from the city as well as a ferry ride around the lake on the Frederiksborg property. It did not cover admission to the castle.
Often referred to as the “Danish Versailles”, Frederiksborg is the largest Renaissance castle in Scandinavia. When you first see it, it takes your breath away. The palace is enormous and the grounds are meticulously landscaped. A tour through the castle allows you to explore the history of Danish royalty through paintings, furniture, and period decor. There are MP3 players available to rent for free (you have to leave your credit card with them) that provide you with a guided tour of the castle. The lavish beauty of the interior is equally matched by the stunning Baroque garden. Our kids usually hate touring “palaces”, but they loved the entire Frederiksborg experience.
The highlight of our short time in Bergen was a ride up the Fløibanen funicular to the top of Mount Fløyen. Be sure to ride to the top when the weather is clear or you won’t have much to see. The panoramic view of Bergen from above is simply stunning. There is a fantastic children’s playground, as well as a cafe, restaurant, and souvenir shop. There is an option to take a return trip on the funicular or a casual hike downhill to return to town. We opted for the walk (approximately 45 minutes), which was along a paved trail, winding in and out of a beautiful forest. Try to go early because the funicular line was very long in the afternoon.
Norway Fjord Country
We briefly toyed with the idea of taking a guided tour from Bergen to Oslo via the “Norway in a Nutshell” route, but quickly realized it would cost us close to $1000 for our family of five. Instead, we rented a car in Bergen and drove to the Stalheim Hotel, where we stayed for one night. The hotel is ten minutes driving from Gudvangen where you can hop on a ferry that will take you through the Naerøyfjord (the world’s narrowest fjord) to the cute town of Flåm. The ferry ride lasts approximately two and half hours and you can ride round trip or one way and then take a 15 minute taxi or bus ride back to your starting point. We only rode the ferry in one direction, from Gudvangen to Flåm, but the entire voyage was spectacular. I think my husband and myself took at least a hundred pictures. Our kids said it was one of the highlights of the trip despite their original complaints about a “two hour boat ride”.
Our favorite place to visit and explore in Oslo was the Norsk Folkemuseum. This outdoor open-air museum is quite unique in that one can travel through time and visit various buildings from regions throughout Norway that were relocated to this site beginning in the late 1800s. To reach the museum, you must catch the ferry to Bygdøy, which leaves approximately every 15 minutes from the waterfront. The main attraction is the Stave Church, relocated from Gol, built in the year 1200. The property is massive, filled with all types of buildings, from farms to contemporary apartment buildings. People are dressed in traditional folk costumes and offer demonstrations of life throughout Norwegian history. There was a man building a staircase with an ax (I kid you not) and he stopped to explain to us (in perfect English, no less) how it would have been built in the 1800s. He was laboring just as they would have then (no easy task). There were women baking and knitting, even a farmer and some farm animals. It all seemed very authentic. We were able to enter some of the buildings, others you could only view from the outside, but that didn’t take away from the feeling you had stepped into a time warp. There is also a museum on the property with various artifacts and exhibits. The kids loved running around and exploring and we found it fascinating that they had moved 160 structures and re-erected them on this one spot. Simply amazing.
Unfortunately, we only had one day in Tallinn, and it was pouring rain. While that took away from some of the city’s charm, it was easy to see that Tallinn would be beautiful on a sunny day. We took a two and a half hour ferry ride from Helsinki (easy to do, you can make reservations at the main tourist office), and spent the day exploring. Our favorite site was the Tallinn Town Hall. It is a beautiful building that overlooks the charming town square. The building was built in the early 15th century and its museum is ideal for getting an overview of Tallinn’s history. The exhibits are simple, but well done and climbing to the top of the tower provides a beautiful view of the city below. It was one of the few buildings the kids enjoyed exploring and didn’t try to rush through. Hopefully we can return on a future trip and spend some time exploring in the sun.
So there it is. These were the highlights of our best family vacation to Scandinavia and the Baltics. I can’t wait to go into more detail when I have more time, hopefully this will suffice for now.