10 really cool things to do in Northern Europe
Oh the joys of our time in Northern Europe! Delicious crisp air, hearty fare and lots of gorgeous natural & man-made sites. We got to Helsinki on September 13th, went to St. Petersburg from Sept. 16-18, then hung out at a cottage close to Stockholm from Sept. 19-26.
Here are our 10 favourite experiences:
1. Immersing in beautiful design: Helsinki is the “world design capital” for 2012, and there were lots of cool events happening while we were in town. If only I had a home, the poor credit cards would be maxed out with gorgeous furniture, homewares and other totally not necessary but oh so pretty things.
2. Riding bikes in Helsinki: As some of you might know, I am quite frightened (actually terrified) of biking on the road…or even around really aggressive cyclists like on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco for that matter. But in Helsinki, they’ve done such a great job of creating bike sidewalks that it is a real pleasure to get around the city on two wheels. Not only are the bike sidewalks completely off the road and raised like a sidewalk, they have their own traffic signals so cyclists and pedestrians know who has right of way. Plus we got to wear super cute bike helmets that came with our rental!
3. Eating at Spis in Helsinki: I wasn’t expecting much and I was expecting expensive, but instead I was blown away by our first meal in Scandinavia. This is a tiny restaurant near the Design Museum, with maybe 15 seats, and we had the 5 course “surprise” menu with tasting sized pours of wine to accompany each dish. I don’t remember exactly what we ate but at least two things were “transcendent”. I literally said “transcendent” to Elvin over and over again until the deliciousness faded from my mouth. It’s been a long time since I’ve had transcendent, despite all the super yummy and even Michelin-starred gluttony we’ve been engaging in this past year.
Checkout Elvin’s pictures from this meal at HipGeo: http://www.hipgeo.com/yuppieeaters/j_4iamwq
4. Skirting Russia visa requirements: We were pleasantly surprised to discover that tourists arriving via several seaports in Russia (including Saint Petersburg) and staying for less than 72 hours can avoid getting a visa to visit. This was perfect for our purpose as we only wanted/had time to see Peter the Great’s city in Russia this trip. We boarded the St. Peter Line at 6pm in Helsinki and arrived at 9am in St. Petersburg. About 57 hours later, we left for another overnight ferry back to Helsinki. The only small hiccup came at our hotel, where they were required to have an “itinerary” of our stay from the cruise line, but this was quickly resolved with them contacting St. Peter’s line for a faxed itinerary.
5. Seeing the waterworks at Peterhof: Wow!! You have got to go and see this amazing palace, built by Peter the Great, a quick 40 min hydrofoil ride away from the heart of St. Petersburg. Beyond the over-the-top golden splendor, there are so many amazingly gorgeous fountains all across this sprawling site, include some trick fountains that only spring up when an unsuspecting person walks by…oh what a person with a lot of money and a sense of humor can do!
6. Walking around St. Petersburg: We were both in the midst of reading a really exciting and Pulitzer prize winning biography of Peter the Great, which made walking around St. Petersburg all the better. We recognized sites described in the book, why and how the city was formed, as well as statues & paintings of famous people. The city is marvelous and gorgeous…full of canals, wide boulevards and impressive buildings. We loved strolling around in the brisk autumn air.
7. Renting a cottage on the Stockholm Archipelago: By this point in our travels, we were getting a bit run down from being constantly on the move. I was craving a home, being able to cook healthier and more familiar foods, and some time to relax and catch-up on stuff. Stockholm was a perfect place to rent a cottage for a week. It is a very beautiful place, with 24,000+ islands dotting the approach into Stockholm’s harbor, and many Swedes spend the summers in a family cottage, so there is a lot of choice for the Fall off-season. Also, eating out here is very expensive (Pizza Hut is $25 for a personal pan pizza), as are regular hotels.
We found a very comfortable place on an island with no bridges, so we had to learn how to operate a small boat to get us to and fro! Super cute and fun! We got to pick crisp green apples and sweet pink plums from the front yard, light our fireplace day and night in the sprawling open living room, and enjoy expansive water views. It was a very nice respite and reminded us of the Olympic Peninsula or San Juan Islands…near our old home in Seattle. Also it was deliciously cool…my accursedly itchy heat rashes and bug bites have finally gone away – hooray!!
8. Sauna and salt water: On our second last day, we finally decided to try out our Swedish sauna. Nearly every cottage has a little hut near their dock where people can enjoy a steamy hot sauna and cool off with a dip into the cool salt water. Our sauna had a simple wood burning stove. On this cool 10 degree Celsius day, it was able to get our little cedar wood lined room up to steaming hot temperatures after about 45 min of roaring fire. Pouring water on the hot rocks on top to make steam helped to heat the room up much more quickly than waiting for the fire’s heat to do the work alone. With sweat dripping down our faces, we took turns dipping into the cold sea water…which felt wonderful! Not too cold at all, and then back into the hot hut to warm up again.
9. Vasa Museum in Stockholm: Sometime in the early 1600′s, a giant warship sank less than an hour into her maiden voyage off the coast of Stockholm, thanks to faulty design. Luckily for us, the not too salty water and lack of shipworms in Sweden allowed this wooden vessel to stay mostly intact until it was raised 333 years later. With painstaking effort, the Vasa’s pieces were put back together…98% is original. Today it is housed in a really great museum…super interesting artifacts, historical context and the giant intricately carved ship.
10. Hanging out with old friends: This was by far our favorite experience of our entire time in Northern Europe. We were able to spend time with our friends Apurva and Shefali, who flew up from London to visit with us for the weekend, as well as Martin, Anneli and their kids who live in Stockholm and stopped in for dinner on Saturday. It was sooooo good to see familiar faces and to hear about all the new news. It can be a bit lonely traveling for so long, even if you get to do it with your best friend.