Take A Scand-alous Adventure: Visit Finland, Norway, & Sweden
Big statement heading your way in 3…2…I LOVE SCANDINAVIA! And if you aren’t a fan yet, please allow me to show you the week and a half I spent traveling through the cities, mountains, and fjords of three magnificent countries nestled at the top of the world. I will waste no time in painting a long, complex lead up. Simply this: I flew on a plane from LAX to Helsinki, where the adventures began. It all started with a Moomin.
Believe me, I understand how odd it is for me to start a fitness-based travel guide with the Moomins. If you aren’t familiar with this funny word I keep saying, then please allow me to explain. Moomins are little hippopotamus-shaped characters from a popular children’s comic strip and TV show that originated in Sweden & Finland. They are EVERYWHERE and on everything in Helsinki. I first noticed them at a cafe in the Helsinki airport that has giant statues of them watching your every move as you dine on sandwiches and coffee. Moomins. Not cows. Noted.
Alright, now that I have done my Scandinavian-duty to the region’s cultural connection to the Moomins, I can finally reveal the reason WHY I came to these countries in the first place. That answer is simple too: Trollhunter. Yes. TROLLHUNTER. This 2010 mockumentary set in western Norway is the siren song that lured me to the rocks of the Nordic countries. Captivated by the lush countryside, hearty mountain ridge lines, and the rainy wonder of the fjords, I feel like I started planning this trip from the moment the credits began rolling. Outdoor wonderlands are my calling card, and Norway may have just written the handbook on how to be the world’s greatest playground for endurance athletes. Please allow me to be your tenacious and slightly-salty guide on this journey through Europe’s cold dangly fingers (I made that up, if it gives you mild discomfort I apologize).
Helsinki & The Prison Hotel
We begin our voyage in the overcast, urban metropolis of Helsinki (or Helsingfors as King Gustav I of Sweden dubbed it when he forced a whole bunch of Finish people to relocate there in 1550). Sad story short, most of them died in 1710 from a plague that wiped out essentially all of the city…I’m glad I didn’t have to worry about that vaccine for this trip. Moving along…did I mention how cute the Moomins are? Good. After riding the express train from the Helsinki airport to the Central Railway Station (also referred to as VR, the train connects straight to the airport terminals and is a reasonable 30min ride into town), I disembarked with my bursting Osprey backpack and a dry bag stuffed (and I do mean stuffed) full of wetsuits, goggles, swim paddles, and floaty things. Scandinavian trains are clean, comfortable, and convenient. There was always a seat available and the stops are very straightforward. If memory serves, it was 9 euros roundtrip for the train ride to the airport.
From the city center it was easy to hop on a bus towards Katajanokka (a small island set off to the lower righthand side of Helsinki proper). Why was I going there? Well…I didn’t know it yet but I was going to stay the night in prison. I arrived at my stop, flopped off awkwardly through the slightly too small opening on the cable car, and looked across the street. A large, ominous brick wall met my gaze. A collection of black letters in bold font affixed to the exterior of the brick read “HOTEL KATAJANOKKA.” I laugh at myself now that it didn’t click until much later in the day what kind of property I had just ambled onto. Check-in was simple. The friendly front desk attendant appeared to be working alone at 6PM and, after handing me my room key and the wifi password, she instructed me about the complimentary breakfast the following morning. She even went as far to give me tips on calling taxis to the airport (apparently in Helsinki if you pre-book a taxi is it MORE expensive).
The next 30 minutes were more like a comedic reality show than I would like to admit. Riding the elevator up to the 4th floor and stepping into the hallway felt…strange. Something wasn’t quite right. I immediately wrote it off as “Katie, this is Europe. Just go with the flow.” The hallways had very odd metal fixtures everywhere, in places I wouldn’t expect them to be. The carpet was ornate and complex like a page out of a Magic Eye book. As I approached the door to my room I gasped a little. The door was quite literally made for people AT LEAST five inches shorter than me. I know I am tall, but not THAT tall. I had to duck to get through the door frame. Inside the room was a standard hotel room filled with cute touches like black and white art, a bright red velvet couch, and a shabby chic desk supporting the mini fridge and water kettle. I remember noticing how striking the windows were. They almost went from the floor to the ceiling and were made from older wood. It wasn’t until I walked up to one of them and peered out that it hit me. “Where the HELL AM I?” The yard outside was a starkly barren green field surrounded by very tall brick walls. And directly in the middle were about 10 old…OLD…wooden chairs affixed permanently to the ground. I scurried back to the desk where I saw an informational booklet about the hotel and thumbed through until I saw the words “PRISON HOTEL.” HAHAHAHA. It was so obvious. And I was so oblivious. I was staying in an art nouveau meets hipster chic, refurbished Finnish prison. Dope. Finding out the rich history of Hotel Katajanokka actually made my stay even that much more enjoyable. I was particularly pleased with the bath salts they provided and enjoyed a long, hot soak after exploring downtown Helsinki.
I spent far too little time in this quirky city. In all honesty, this trip was not originally planned to include Finland, but my flight had an opportunistic layover there. Carpe Diem every layover friends. It is sort of my specialty to take to the streets on foot and hit that internal ‘explore’ button. So that is exactly what I did. I highly recommend checking out the Helsinki Cathedral, grabbing a coffee by the water at Johan & Nyström, and/or enjoying a craft beer from Bier Bier in the downtown metro area. The following morning I was out the door at 4:30AM to make it back to the airport for the next leg of my journey. Sorry to report there were no ghosts. Just a few screams throughout the night.
OSLO & THE THIEF THAT STOLE MY HEART
My time in Oslo felt very much like this. A technicolor world I was free floating in, if only for moments. I came to the city thinking I was going to like it. I did not realize I would leave it having fallen in love. I traversed as much of Oslo as I could. Mostly on foot. I missed sleep because I wanted to see the people and life over the inside of my eyelids. And the cherry on top of the gorgeous architecture and local culture and nautical dreamscapes was my day/night with The Thief Hotel. I can easily say that will be my top five favorite hotel I have ever stayed at, in my life. I haven’t just sat in awe at something in a long time. Oslo gave that to me, and I will hold onto it for as long as it will stay in my embrace. 💙
For those looking to retrace my steps exactly, I have included an itinerary below of the hotels I stayed at, some of the eateries I visited, and the most convenient routes to and from. Oslo is a word class city and a 100% ‘must visit’ destination. I am already planning my escape back into that embrace.
lillehammer & nordsetter
My visit to Lillehammer was the most unexpectedly wonderful part of my travels. I had heard about the town of Lillehammer from an Instagram account actually. I was not aware at the time of their Olympic ties from 1994, so all I was operating from were the images of Midsummer (Midtsommer) fairytale things being posted by their tourism department. It looked like a place filled with magic, and I decided I had to see it for myself. After corresponding with Visit Lillehammer off and on for a month, I was given the suggestion to stay at Fjellstue Lillehammer (which I have since learned means “mountain lodge,” more on that in a second). It is rather easy to get to Lillehammer from Oslo (a 1.5 hour train ride for around 260 NOK or $30 USD). I suggest
purchasing all train tickets while traveling in Norway via their transportation app Vy (you can download it via the app store and purchase/store tickets directly in the app). This is also budget friendly as it is often cheaper to use the app and prebook tickets versus buying them directly on the bus or at the train station.
Though my time was brief in this unique island town, I learned the most about the Norwegian culture there. All it took was a frustrating miscommunication and a passing conversation for me to realize the thread that weaves through this entire country and its people: trust. Norwegians t r u s t. It doesn’t matter if you are from Norway, Scandinavia, an immigrant, or a traveler passing through. I was made fully aware of this when I strolled up to the front desk of the tiny Ålesund Airport Hotel to check out for my early AM flight, and no one was there. Not only was no one there, they had gated shut the desk area! I was left scrambling to find a person, anyone, who could take my key so that I could make my airport shuttle. I soon thereafter found a small green box and a sign (on a different floor in a strange hallway BTW) that said “For our early risers, please leave your key in the lock box and have a safe flight!” That was it. Key in box, checked out. Only 30 minutes later, as I was ordering a cinnamon roll and espresso from the airport convenience store did the “trust thing” slap me in the face. I noticed that the coffee machine was very far away from checkout and slightly out of sight. People could have been taking free coffees all the live long day and no one would have known. I made a comment about this to the cashier and said “I don’t think I would see this in the city where I live.” She smiled warmly, chuckled a little, and replied “Yes, you have to believe in people.” I am honestly holding back tears as I type this. You have to believe in people. I will carry that moment with me always.
Much like most things on my Scandinavian adventure, visiting Ålesund was not planned. Call it travel naïveté or just poor planning skills, but I leave things very last minute. And they are left there often. Some people dislike this trait about me, but you know what, it really worked out well for me this time. I had to find a way to get from my trail race in Stranda to my swimrun training session in Stavanger. Because Stranda is but a humble fjord town, flying out of there was not an option. And upon further investigation, I did not allot myself much time to travel between these two cities (thus ruling out a long and complicated bus ride). My friend Google presented me with an alternate solution. About an hour drive away on the coast was a small airport in a city by the name of…DOT DOT DOT…Ålesund! If you are tracing my travel guide step by step, I have included a map and some helpful bus routes below.
The buses that operate throughout this region are referred to as the FRAM Express. Despite the whole “rugged mountain wild fjord” vibe that Norway is known for, you can rest assured that 1) you will have cell service in even the most remote wilderness and 2) there is an app for that. FRAM has a very user friendly app you can download to pre-purchase tickets and check timetables/routes. Linked here. I highly suggest you pre-buy your tickets because they are about 10-20 NOK cheaper than using cash. Fair warning: bus rides can be pricey here. Whereas in Los Angeles I can buy a city bus ticket for around $2-3 USD, you should expect to pay closer to $6-7 USD for short distance rides in Norway. The ride from Stranda to Ålesund costs closer to $19 and takes about 2 hrs.
Final tip: there can be many names for bus stops in one town. I always checked with the driver to make sure they knew where I wanted to get off.
With my limited time, I felt like I still got to see some of the magic of the city on a tight schedule. If you loved the aerial view of Ålesund from earlier in the article, guess what?! You can take your own! Check out the Aksla Viewpoint where you will climb the most famous 418 stairs in Norway (actually, there are a ridiculous amount of famous stairs in Norway, but at least these have fancy numbers on them). At the top is a sensational view of the city center & surrounding islands, plus a little cafe if you need to refuel.
The architecture in Ålesund is rather unique, and a lot of it can be seen right in the city center. Spend an hour or so being a true tourist and stroll the cobblestone streets where you will find food, cafes, souvenir shops, and I kid you not, a place that claimed it “probably” had the best fish n’ chips in the world. Humble…..