My husband Val and I are devout European travelers but we’d never been to Scandinavia and the Baltics though it had been on our “must do” list for quite a while. We finally succumbed to a flyer for a cruise that would permit us to cover much of what we hoped to see in the area and included two days in St. Petersburg (though not Riga, Latvia, my husband’s birthplace which remains on our must do list, now accompanied by a list of Scandinavian/Baltic areas to which we want to return.)
Because I really dislike the whole cruise mentality of “stand in line to jump off the ship, run around to see everything in too little time, and then worry about getting back to the ship in time to sail,” I agreed to the cruise idea with the proviso that we tack several days in one place onto both the beginning and the end of the cruise, permitting us to spend a decent amount of time in at least two of our desired destinations.
Since the cruise originated and ended in Copenhagen, we decided to spend additional time—3 days—there. The cruise itself included one day in Stockholm but we added another 3 days there, taking a reasonably priced SAS flight from Copenhagen at the conclusion of the cruise and flying home from Stockholm.
The plan worked beautifully. It provided us the somewhat in depth look at a couple of prime destinations I wanted to see while permitting us a taste of several others and husband Val got to satisfy his cruise craving and his love of traveling without much packing and unpacking and no driving. Unfortunately it also complicated our choices of travel going forward since it added about 5 or 6 places to our list of destinations to which we really want to return—now competing with such standbys as Paris, Barcelona, Tuscany, Positano, South of France, etc, etc, etc. Sigh.
We really enjoyed all the destinations on this trip—Copenhagen, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, Oslo, Tallinn, Gdansk, and Helsinki—all of which were completely new to us. The first three were the largest with the most to see and were, as expected, spectacular. But the others, though smaller and with fewer specific attractions, were also wonderful and afforded some great sights and “being” opportunities. We’d return to them all—and certainly hope to.
I got lots of help with the cruise aspects of this trip from the Cruise Forum on this site. Someone there named Percy provided a detailed report about how to maximize time in each port. His tips were invaluable and I will report back on that forum. But since my concentration is on the sights and food in the cities, I thought that the report actually makes more sense to post on this forum. I hope some of the information I share will also help build the library of info on these destinations which is certainly less filled than those for Paris, London, Tuscany, etc.
I’ll not provide a day by day account of everything we did or saw, but rather hit some of the highlights of each place with more personal impressions than listings of everything covered. As usual, I’ll also provide a rundown of our dining experiences.
We were blessed with very good weather on this trip—something that always adds to the enjoyment and the good impressions of places. We left on August 20 and returned on September 6. We had rain only on a couple of days and never for an entire day. Several times we had extremely threatening sky conditions but no rain ever materialized—a photographer’s dream. Temperatures hovered in the 60s and low 70s, perfect for walking around.
So, enough preliminaries. On to Copenhagen.
The town in our prior experience to which we most likened Copenhagen is Amsterdam. The northern European architecture seemed similar, the many canals are similar—though Copenhagen’s are generally wider than Amsterdam’s, the sort of drink a lot, smoke a lot, leave everyone alone if they’re not bothering you vibe also seemed similar, and most of all the number of bicycles seemed similar. In fact, if anything I’d guess that Copenhagen has more bicycles than Amsterdam. Our Rick Steves guide said that the Danish tax on cars is 180% of cost which accounts for the number of bikes. It also means that they use bikes not just for personal transport but for family transport. Many bikes are equipped with a box-like contraption on the front into which two or more children of some size (or groceries or drunken friends) may be placed for a ride.
This heavy dependence on bikes, cuts down enormously on car traffic. We were able to look out our hotel window several times and see one of the busiest streets of the city downtown area, totally devoid of traffic. Amazing. Shows what prohibitive taxing can accomplish. Don’t know how it works for long distances in the countryside or during the winter, though.
Square Hotel—Our selection of this hotel, enhanced our experience in Copenhagen. It put us pretty much in the center of everything and made planning our days much easier. It’s across the street from the City Hall and from Tivoli gardens. Can’t get much more central than that. We also liked the hotel itself and I’d recommend it highly. It’s pretty much a modern business hotel. Though Trip Advisor reviews complain of small rooms, we didn’t find our standard room unbearably small and it was well laid out with a bed, loveseat and desk. The bathroom was nicely appointed in that modern sort of way so many hotels use. Depending upon how you book, you may or may not have breakfast included with your room. As with everything in the Scandinavian countries it’s pricey but it’s a really good, plentiful buffet in a beautiful, open, airy top floor room with great views over the city which makes for a great start to the day.
Copenhagen does both old and new very well, the latter especially well IMO. The Radhuspladsen (square in front of the city hall) was a good place to start to see the old with a major square surrounded by an old brick city hall with towers, fanciful dragon statuary, internal Moorish arches, and a complimenting old brick Palace hotel, also with towers facing it. The square gets lots of use by pedestrians and folks stopping for coffee or polser—the hot dogs sold in stands apparently staffed by former homeless folks. It also anchors one end of the famous Stroget shopping street which features 7Elevens (big presence in Scandinavia for some odd reason) and Burger Kings as well as the more upscale Royal Copenhagen china shop and Georg Jensen silversmiths and even some covered passages like those I so love in Paris.
Besides the city hall and the Palace hotel, the square is surrounded by brick buildings fronted with lots of modern neon signs all lit up at night, adding the touch of “new” that balances the old. A statue of beloved native son Hans Christian Anderson is just to the right of the city hall building and across from the entrance to Tivoli Gardens—and much better than the tiny Little Mermaid statue on the banks of the harbor that gets all the play and pictures for Copenhagen in tourist books..
Other great old places that we enjoyed visiting in Copenhagen were the Amelienborg Palace (really pretty both exterior and in with a lovely park and gardens nearby), Sankt Peders Church, Church of Our Lady, Marble—Frederick’s—Church with its beautiful dome which is one of the largest in Europe, Christianshaven canal area with its Church of Our Savior featuring an exterior ramp up its steeple.
We loved the old stock exchange with its steeple featuring 3 intertwined dragons but were not so impressed with the Christiansborg Palace which is where the Parliament meets and the Prime Minister offices and where we had a rather humorous experience. We entered the main square of the palace just as a group of the Queen’s guards in blue uniforms and bearskin hats were assembling. They had a drummer and fife player and we and several other tourists began to assemble assuming we’d be seeing a changing of the guard or similar ceremony. We waited, and waited, and waited and watched the leader of the group consult his watch several times. I finally walked over to another group of gawkers who were talking with a less ceremonial looking security guard/local policeman in Danish. When they finished, I asked if he spoke English and asked what was going on. Without skipping a beat he told me that they were awaiting the arrival of the Crown Prince whereupon they would be bringing out a prison to be executed. After my initial shock, I realized that my leg was being pulled for the amusement of the locals. They loved it and so did I. But it certainly speaks to the Danes and their monarchy. What a wonderful, laid back institution that a guard in the Palace compound can feel perfectly free to concoct such a joke and not worry that anyone will be offended at the lack of ceremony, proper respect, etc, etc.
Turns out the Prince was expected for some kind of ribbon pinning ceremony inside the Palace. As his car arrived at the gate, the guards snapped to attention, saluted and began to play their fife and drum stuff. They played until exactly the point that the car disappeared behind the gigantic gates to the interior of the palace and stopped in mid toot. It was the first of two highly disappointing “guard changing experiences” I was to have on this trip, salvaged only by my great amusement at the security guard’s joke on me.
Another old place that we found wonderful in Copenhagen is Nyhaven. It’s the area on one of the canals which is connected to what was once a primary harbor and it’s lined with lots of old merchant houses and plenty of old, tall masted sailing ships. So it’s ready made to be the new “happening” place with lots of bars, cafes and restaurants. We were there on a warm, sunny Saturday and it was packed with folks enjoying the area. It helped, too, that we had one of the best meals of the trip there—an all herring lunch. More on that as I get into food.
But if Copenhagen does old really well, I think they do new even better. From Nyhaven we took a canal cruise that took us past several fairly newly constructed buildings including the Opera House with its large, cantilevered plane of a roof, and the Royal Library, which is incredibly beautiful reflected in and getting reflections from the water. We also walked by a series of modern office buildings on the shore across from the library which were amazing in their angles and reflections and terraced waterfalls alongside. The area is somewhat reminiscent of the new area springing up across the Simone de Beauvoir bridge from the Bercy area, by the Mitterand library in Paris.
Tivoli—is probably the most famous place in Copenhagen and with reason. It’s charming, utterly charming. I was expecting an old-fashioned version of the Disney Magic Kingdom. It’s more like Epcot but with even better, more gracious, less cutesy grounds and gardens. We went about 5 p.m. or so on a very pleasant, sunny day and stayed until about 10 or so, having dinner there.
The park is right in the center of the city. Pictures I took of places in the park displayed turrets from the city hall and the Palace Hotel across the street behind the scenery from the park itself. It all fits. There are many dining venues (possibly as many as 50 per one guide, but that seems an overstatement to me), some the most highly regarded of all those in Copenhagen, including the Paul with its Michelin star—unfortunately not open on the Sunday we were there. The lights are lovely and line many of the buildings including the fanciful Tivoli palace which houses Nimb restaurant which was open and where we did eat. There is lots of water and incredible plantings with beautiful flowers. Even the rides are cleverly disguised to fit into the overall gracious beauty vibe, e.g. the giant roller coaster is interspersed with gigantic red Japanese lanterns. The bandstand featured one of the best live big bands I’ve heard in a long time. It was a swell time.
Dining in Copenhagen
Overall, our food experiences in Copenhagen were positive. The lone non-descript meal was tapas across the street from our hotel on our first very tired night, but that night we selected for location not culinary acclaim. Here’s where and what we ate—other than the ill-fated tapas.
Europa—a popular café with outdoor seating on the Stroget across from the Royal Copenhagen and Georg Jensen stores. Three of us (we traveled with our most frequent traveling companions—Jan and Kevin) had the fish plate sampler. It was a great introduction to typical Scandinavian cuisine—one kind of fish covered with a lemon-based cream sauce and black and red roe, a tuna mousse, lox with asparagus spears and tiny shrimps with peapods and edamame. Pretty and great tasting, also at least nominally less caloric than some of our usual choices and apparently somewhat healthy. Kevin, the lone hold out had a sandwich of beef slices with melted cheese and veggies. We were all immediately happy.
Nyhaven Faegekro, outside café in Nyhaven along the canal—a perfect place for a perfect day and a great lunch. Again three of us opted for the same choice—the herring buffet. This is what the place is famous for and it didn’t disappoint us. All in all there were 11 different kinds of herring, among them—in cream, in mustard, in tomato, in something else red but not tomato and not beet, as rollmops in butter cream, smoked and fried and just with red onions. We were in herring heaven. Kevin—odd man out again—opted for the Nyhaven plate of shrimp, salmon, lox, chicken salad and beef slices with dill pickles. Again we felt pretty righteous for our selections since they seemed pretty healthy, but best of all they tasted great. Price for this wonderful treat was about $40 per person including beer or wine—very reasonable for these countries.
If Faegekro was reasonable, Formel B broke the bank. This was pretty much our big splurge for the trip. Kevin and I are the big time foodies in the group and we’d been eyeing Noma (newly awarded its 2nd Michelin star and voted third best restaurant in the world by some group) but when we went on the internet and read their tasting menu which included birch tree juice and a jaw-dropping price, Jan and Val nixed that idea completely.
Kevin and I countered with Formel B which turned out to be an inspired choice. It provided us a good look at cutting edge Scandinavian cuisine in a lovely setting and offered a tasting menu with 7 or 8 courses that pleased all four of us—and didn’t push our envelopes beyond the breaking point—to mix a metaphor.
There was a minimum of the silly theatrics that accompany tasting menus in restaurants chasing additional stars. But it was dear. Between the menu and the accompanying wine pairings it came to over $800 for the four of us. We’ve paid more for dinners, but we’re tiring of doing so and reweighing our priorities so these kinds of splurges are more carefully considered than they once were.
We started with an amuse of horseradish sorbet, carrot, raw baby shrimp and salty nuts. The breads were exceptional (the best was a wheat and other grain muffin-like roll with a caramelized butter top—yum) and served with a choice of basil or thyme and parsley butter. Next was the most theatrical presentation of the meal—salted Danish salmon with crushed potatoes and cooked oysters served in smoke captured in a glass bell cover. A lot of falderol but it tasted good.
Next came a gazpacho with Danish lobster, celery, pickled cucumber, poached quail egg and basil—the best dish IMO, then turbot with baby corn, popcorn, black currants, truffle and chanterelles, the least exciting course IMO. This was followed by quail breast and leg confit, garlic flan, ramsons and parsley sauce. You see a lot of ramsons listed on Scandinavian menus. It’s a form of garlic that is very popular there. The final meat course was rack of lamb with braised neck and sausages, new cabbage, broad beans and browned butter—my favorite meat/fish course but then I’m big on lamb.
I have to admit that by the time we got to dessert I was pretty well-sated and don’t actually recall the Spanish chervil sorbet that the menu lists, but I do recall that the white chocolate mousse with raspberries was not only pretty but tasty. I also recall that the wine pairings worked very well and introduced us to some wines that we would not have selected on our own.
The restaurant is stripped down, modern and at varying levels. We were seated in the lowest level near the glassed in kitchen but unfortunately our table was not near enough to watch all the action. The service was pleasant and knowledgable as you would expect from a place of this caliber. All in all, it was a lovely meal but we have come increasingly to wonder whether such extravaganzas are “worth it” especially in comparison to the many wonderful meals one can have at far lower price points. Perhaps I’m going over to the dark side—or the smart side, depending upon your viewpoint. At any rate, if you’re foodie inclined, Formel B is a worthy destination. It’s in town but a short cab ride from the center.
Lunch in Christianshaven on canal by bridge on a moored boat—very pleasant sort of bohemian place with large bar area and sandwich menu. Val’s financial records call the place Badudle but that sounds strange. It’s all I have for a name, however. We took a bus back from Dragor fishing village (a pleasant enough trip out of the city for a glimpse of the surrounding countryside) on a Sunday, stopped in Christianshaven area to see the Church of Our Savior and just soak up the vibe there. This place wasn’t in any of my guides but the food looked good and the setting couldn’t have been more perfect to just kick back and enjoy the people and the outdoor ambiance. Danes excel at open-faced sandwiches and we opted for a pile of small shrimp with tomatoes and mayo on top of black seeded bread with, of course, a glass of the ubiquitous Carlsberg beer. Quintessential Danish smorrebrod.
Nimb—in Tivoli in the Tivoli Palace. This was the most appealing restaurant among those in Tivoli open on Sunday evening which worked out to be the best time we could schedule our visit to Tivoli even though it didn’t provide the best food options. Unfortunately The Paul and Herman (both more highly rated than Nimb by foodies) are closed on Sunday evening.
The setting is quite interesting—the entire restaurant is open and there are two or three kitchen/food prep areas set among the dining tables. We, for instance, were directly next to the kitchen that was preparing our food. And everything is in the open—not behind glass. I think it must make things very hard for the chefs. Everything can be watched. They must constantly clean up so that things look neat. It’s a clever concept but in our experience it didn’t work out so well in execution. Everything was very slow. We watched the table next to us be served incorrect entrees. We had to tell our wandering server that the plates he was carrying were for us, etc. The food was ok but not spectacular—scallop and lobster terrine, mushroom soup, witch fish with tarragon and mayo, prime rib, tenderloin, wilted spinach.
The following day we were on board our cruise ship for our meals. It was a Princess Cruise and the food was very good, usually quite traditional, but nicely prepared and presented, if nothing cutting edge. We opted for the Chef’s Table one night. For $75 a person we were included in a group of 10 or 12 who were escorted by the chef, his first assistant and the maitre d’ on a tour of the kitchens with an explanation of how they cook for 3000+ passengers and about 1200+ crew daily in about 15-20 different venues (almost everything except produce is frozen), and a selection of nicely prepared appetizers including crab cocktails, etc. We were then escorted to a special table in the dining room and served the remainder of a very sumptuous meal with multiple main courses which they called “double impact surf and turf”-- lobster, scallops, prime rib, lamb chops and multiple accompaniments. It was all way too much, but it was undeniably good and certainly had impact. They then prepared cheese and desserts and presented each couple with a lovely coffee table book featuring the cooking of Princess Cruises. It was memorable and indeed “worth it” for the extra cost. It was one of the highlights of the cruise part of our trip IMO.
More to follow as time permits re: our other venues, their sights and food highlights.
Scandinavia & other Baltics: a whole new world
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