Finding Hygge in Copenhagen

Finding Hygge in Copenhagen
Tivoli Gardens Christmas Market

Imagine you’re curled up inside in a big blanket sipping a cup of hot chocolate by the fire while a bitter cold, windy winter evening rages outside. Call this feeling what you will – comfort, coziness, zen, Gemütlichkeit the Danish word is hygge. Difficult to translate but easy enough to understand.

Last week we spent a long chilly weekend in Copenhagen in search of hygge, not difficult to find during the Christmas season, the hyggliest (is that a word?) time of the year. Here are the best ways to achieve this warm feeling in the delightful Danish capital:

  • Start your day with a Danish. I’m not actually sure if this is a breakfast food here or more of a dessert, but loading up on one of these sugary choices in the morning proved a sure way to get a happy burst of energy for the day.
    Jelly & chocolate/marzipan danishes

    Chocolate danishes & coffee
  • Tour the city by boat or bike. Heated canal boats provide a scenic view of the city complete with interesting guided tour commentary. Or to work up your own heat and hygge, be like most Danes and get around by bike.
    Nyhavn harbor
    Bikes galore

    If you’re on foot though, be sure to duck into shops or pubs for hygge along the way. Copenhagen has an extensive pedestrian area perfect for shopping (Black Friday has even migrated here), and is home to many quaint seafaring pubs.

  • Explore Danish history. While the wind whistles outside, you can peacefully enjoy learning about Denmark at the National Museum. Artifacts from the Ice Age to present day tell visitors fascinating stories of life, beliefs, values, and change over an extraordinary number of eras.

    After freezing outside during the noon changing of the guards at Amalienborg Palace, you can also find hygge inside the accompanying museum. Browse recreated studies and royal collections that reveal the history of generations of Danish royalty.

  • Get lost in fairy tales. Hans Christian Andersen – author of The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and many other well-known tales – hails from Copenhagen, so it’s only fitting that you should have a chance to interact with these stories here. From the comfort of the H.C. Andersen Fairy Tale House, you can walk through the famous writer’s life story and his works, listening to the tales along the way.

    Tivoli Gardens also has a ride named for the story of The Flying Trunk, where visitors can enjoy flying along in their own magic trunk through some of the most famous stories. Don’t get hung up on the sad endings to most of these stories; focus on the joy of hearing a good childhood tale told.

  • Eat street food on Paper Island. Inside a converted factory, hygge-seekers drink beer from plastic cups and choose grub from an exceptional variety of international street food stands. Groups of convivial food lovers chat around long wooden picnic tables, industrial spools, and even Plexiglas-covered foosball tables. This is one of the cooler places to socialize and eat well.


  • Go out in the Meatpacking District. If you can stand to make it out in the cold at night to the rather isolated old Meatpacking District, it makes the hygge all the more worthwhile. The factory buildings now house a hip array of bars, some even retaining pieces of the old meatpacking equipment, for a cool nightlife scene.

    Meat packing district
  • Enjoy Gløgg and Aepleskiver at the Christmas Markets. Don’t be distracted by the ice cream stands at the markets: Those are for Scandinavians only! You’re not at that level of winter expertise, so go for hot drinks like the pirate-sounding Gløgg, the Danish equivalent of Glühwein or hot mulled wine, with nuts and raisins added. Aepleskiver, balls of apple dough sprinkled with powdered sugar, are also a popular treat. (For more on Christmas Market drinks in general, see A Toast to Christmas Market Drinks.)

  • Huddle around a bowl of hot embers. While many Christmas Markets can be found in Copenhagen, our favorite was the largest one in Tivoli Gardens, full of good food, carnival rides and games, and general good cheer. Stands of hot coals scattered throughout the pine-scented gardens make for an ideal gathering place to warm up while enjoying the festivities.

    Warming up over hot coals
  • Be a Danish kid. Kids amble around stiffly at this time of year, bundled up against the cold in insulated snowsuits, boots, and pointy hats. Babies even get zipped into an extra layer of what resembles a fitted sleeping bag.

    Better yet, grow up in Denmark and become an adult. Lifelong acclimation to the Nordic winter apparently means you can walk around in a jean jacket or a sweatshirt. We even saw a middle aged man out for a jog in nothing but a t-shirt and shorts in near-freezing temperatures!

*Travel tip: All of the attractions with entrance fees mentioned here, including canal tours, plus public transportation are free with the purchase of the Copenhagen Card. It’s worth it if you plan to visit at least a few sights per day.

Happy 2nd Sunday of Advent and God Jul from Copenhagen!


Rafting Across the Pacific and Other Impossible (But True) Voyages of Thor Heyerdahl

The Kon-Tiki raft
The Kon-Tiki raft

I almost overlooked the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo completely because, although it’s a highly-rated attraction, I had never heard of the incredible expeditions of Norwegian researcher Thor Heyerdahl.

Every aspect of the story of his first mission to raft from Peru to Polynesia is more impossible to believe than the last. And yet, it succeeded. And was followed up by more, equally against-all-odds expeditions. And even though some of Heyerdahl’s theories are no longer or only partially supported, his incredible death-defying sense of adventure in the name of science and humanity is beyond inspiring.

Let’s start with the first voyage of the Kon-Tiki. Heyerdahl noticed similarities between South American and Polynesian cultures, and theorized that ocean travel in the direction of east to west had occurred in the past. He believed there to be truth in a Peruvian legend about a man who had sailed west on a raft to a faraway land.

To prove that this was possible, Heyerdahl studied materials and traditions in Peru and built a balsa wood raft in 1947 to complete such a voyage.

Yes, you read that correctly. Balsa wood. The same lightweight material used to make dollhouse furniture. The raft was essentially a cork bobbing along with the ocean. Even gathering the light wood proved death-defying, as the only available sources left were deep in the forests. One of the six men involved in the project was bitten by a poisonous spider during this early phase.


But bobbing along sounds a bit exaggerated. At least the crew were experienced sailors who could steer the raft, right? No and no. Thor Heyerdahl himself was completely inexperienced at shipbuilding and sailing, and the raft was specifically built to be at the mercy of the currents, i.e. unsteerable.

More unbelievable still? Heyerdahl was not a strong swimmer and was afraid of water.

The U.S. army proved to be one of the only organizations crazy enough to donate supplies to the expedition, by all accounts considered by most (for obvious reasons!) to be a suicide mission.

But succeed the voyage did, despite a particularly perilous run-in with a whale shark, the largest fish in the sea. It seemed that the raft was doomed to capsize until crew member Erik Hesselberg attacked the monster of the deep with a harpoon.

After 101 days, just one day more than estimated, the raft of foolhardy adventurers washed onto the shores of the Polynesian Islands, proving that it could be done.

While it was the adventure of a lifetime, Heyerdahl didn’t stop there. After turning his research to Easter Island, bringing its culture and history to the attention of the western world, he returned to the sea.

The Ra II
The Ra II

In the late sixties to early seventies, he constructed more vessels to prove seemingly impossible theories. The Ra and Ra II, ships built of papyrus (!), were built to traverse the Atlantic. The second attempt, Ra II, succeeded in completing the voyage from Morocco to Barbados.

Heyerdahl specifically selected an internationally diverse crew for the Atlantic venture to show that people from different cultures could cooperate to successfully complete the project. Along the way, the crew discovered and collected samples of pollution in the ocean, presenting their findings to the United Nations upon completion in an effort to improve environmental sanctions.

Continuing in the spirit of humanitarianism, Heyerdahl chose to burn his last boat, the Tigris, whose passage through the Red Sea was blocked by warring nations in 1978. The reed boat’s mission was to prove the possibility of navigating the sea, as Heyerdahl theorized cultures from Mesopotamia and modern-day Pakistan and western India had done in the past. Burning the boat, as Heyerdahl spoke out to the UN, was intended to protest the inhumanity committed by civilized cultures:

“Our planet is bigger than the reed bundles that have carried us across the seas, and yet small enough to run the same risks unless those of us still alive open our eyes and minds to the desperate need of intelligent collaboration to save ourselves and our common civilization from what we are about to convert into a sinking ship.”

At the center of Heyerdahl’s incredible life and work seemed always to be the pursuit to understand the world’s people and improve our common home. And while newer studies contradict Heyerdahl’s anthropological theories as to the travel patterns and intercultural exchange of the past, I’d like to think he would appreciate the ongoing nature of the research and the continuing quest for seeking knowledge about our world and its peoples. After all, isn’t that what science and discovery is all about?


Figure of Thor Heyerdahl in the Kon-Tiki Museum
Figure of Thor Heyerdahl in the Kon-Tiki Museum

How to Make the Most of a Trip to Norway

When I arrived in the Bergen airport and saw photos of beautiful scenery next to words like Honest and Pure, I thought, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get it.” But being in the middle of sheer untouched nature is more beautiful than words or pictures can convey. For me, this was truly the trip of a lifetime and has become my favorite place in the world so far.

So without further ado, here are some of my tips for making the most of a trip to Norway:


Fjord cruiseNorway in a Nutshell

Norway in a Nutshell is a popular customizable package of transportation tickets (trains, buses, and a fjord cruise) that takes travelers through some of the most beautiful landscapes in Norway. You can book hotels through Norway in a Nutshell or on your own, as well as choose your starting and ending points.

We did the standard trip and customized it to do the travel in 3 days from Bergen to Oslo. I highly recommend breaking it up this way if possible because I know I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate all of the beautiful scenery during one marathon day of travel.

Our white water rafting trip - Picture by Voss Active

This way we were also able to add an afternoon of white water rafting in Voss with Voss Active plus some walks in the fjord valley of Gudvangen surrounded by waterfalls. I highly recommend the rafting if you like adventure sports and don’t mind getting drenched in cold water! The wet suit really helped to control the temperature and this was tons of fun.

I also definitely suggest spending at least two days each in Bergen and Oslo. There’s so much to see in both of these very different cities!

BergenVisiting Bergen

Bergen is a charming fishing town full of colorful houses set into the mountainside.

Bergen Card

If you plan to use public transportation and visit at least three tourist attractions in 24 hours, the Bergen Card is a good deal (also available for longer time periods). The card covers public transportation costs and admission to most of the museums, as well as discounts on several restaurants, shops, and activities.

View after riding the Fløibahnen

  • The Fløibahnen funicular (50% discount with the Bergen Card) is open late into the day and provides fantastic mountaintop views of the city. There are also nice areas for hiking at the top of the mountain and a restaurant/gift shop.Norwegian Fisheries Museum

    Fishing game

  • Appropriately located in Bergen is the Norwegian Fisheries Museum (free admission with the Bergen Card), a super-interactive museum that gives an overview of the history of the fishing industry in Norway (yes, this is actually very interesting!). It begins with a quote from the late 1800s with something to the effect of there always being more fish in the sea as it was thought to be a limitless resource, continues through effects of war on the fishing industry, changes in technology and international regulations, information on various fish, and an explanation of modern fish farming. The use of hands-on activities and creative games (real and computer-based) makes the content extremely engaging for children and adults alike.

Fantoft Stave Church

Church interior

  • Fantoft Stave Church is a little under a 20-minute light rail ride from downtown Bergen (free admission and transportation with the Bergen Card) and is a stunning recreation of a traditional wooden church. Few medieval stave churches remain in Norway – imagine how long a wooden building would exist when the only source of light was from candles – and this is a beautiful example with a few pieces of the original church remaining included in its design.

Magic Ice

  • Magic Ice (15% discount with the Bergen Card) is a pricy but unique experience. It’s new to Bergen (we were actually there on its opening day) and can also be found in Oslo. This is a bar constructed of ice with striking ice sculptures carved into the decor. When we visited, some of the ice sculptures celebrated the work of Edvard Munch, the Norwegian artist who painted “The Scream”. Admission includes warm gear to wear in the bar and a drink served in a glass made of ice. This is very cool (literally and figuratively) to say you’ve done once but could easily be skipped, especially as you probably won’t actually stay in a room at -5°C (23 °F) for such a long time.

Other must-do’s in Bergen?

Seafood platter at the Fish Market

Fish Market

  • Have lunch or dinner at the Fish Market. This is admittedly touristy, but seafood is the main thing here and the eating area atmosphere is like being in a cozy crab shack. The wooden tables under the tarp awnings proved a comfortable and convenient place for us to escape the intermittent rain.Bryggen

    Bryggen buildings

  • Nearby is Bryggen, Bergen’s old wharf area where long wooden buildings are currently being reconstructed according to their original design.
  • If you love sushi, visit Sumo. We had the freshest fish I’ve ever tasted at the one on Vestre Torggate, though there are several locations in Bergen and one in Oslo.
    Beers at Enhjørning
    Beers at Enhjørning
    Decor at Apollon Platebar
    Decor at Apollon Platebar

    Apollon Platebar
    Apollon Platebar
  • There is also no shortage of fun, funky bars to visit here. Enjøningen, located in the Bryggen wharf area under a large wooden unicorn (the translation of the bar’s name), has a nautical feel, live music, and a shuffleboard table in the back. Apollon Platebar is both bar and record store, ensuring a crowd of hipsters and a good beer selection.Skillingsbolle

    Fire hose symbol
    Skillingsbolle oddly resembles the fire hose symbol
  • Don’t leave Bergen without trying a Skillingsbolle, a tasty cinnamon bun named for its original one-schilling price that can be found in most Bergen bakeries and cafés.

    Oslo, view from the Opera HouseVisiting Oslo

    Oslo, Norway’s capital, has a much more modern feel and is filled with culture.

Several exceptional sights are free and well worth a visit.

Vigeland Park

Sculptures at the park

  • You could easily spend a whole day in Vigeland Park, one of Norway’s most popular tourist attractions and clearly well-loved by residents as well. In addition to beautiful garden areas, an outdoor pool, and sprawling lawns, the main attraction of the park is its intricate sculptures by Gustav Vigeland. The sculptures alone could be studied endlessly, as they individually depict a spectrum of human emotions and work together to tell the story of life in all its joy and tragedy.Opera House
  • The Opera House is also fascinating to visit for its unique architecture. Visitors can walk straight up the roof from the water.
  • Acker Byrgge is a popular area on the water for strolling, shopping, and eating. It has an eclectic mix of shops and restaurants, with plenty of outdoor waterside seating in summer.Rådhus

    Nobel Peace Center

  • On our way to Acker Byrgge we passed the Rådhus (town hall) and Nobel Peace Center. We didn’t go inside either, but they can both be toured – the Rådhus for free in summer, the Nobel Peace Center for free with the Oslo Pass (see more on this below).Akershus Fortress
  • The Akershus Fortress is also not far away and can be visited for free throughout the day.

Oslo Pass

Similar to the Bergen Card, if you plan to use public transportation and visit at least three tourist attractions in 24 hours, the Oslo Pass is worth purchasing (again, also available for longer periods).

The museums we visited (described below) were all interesting and all located on the peninsula of Bygdøy, a little further out from the main downtown area but easily accessible by public transportation, including a delightful ferry (rides and admissions all covered by the Oslo Pass).

Kon-Tiki raft

  • All I can say about the Kon-Tiki Museum is wow! The stories told here deserve their own separate post – click here to read more. This museum focuses on Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl and his incredible against-all-odds missions embarked on in the name of scientific research. One of the main features is the balsa wood raft he built to successfully cross the Pacific Ocean from Peru to Polynesia. The museum is filled with original artifacts, incredible and inspirational stories, interesting cultural information about various parts of the world, videos, and more.Viking Ship Museum
  • The Viking Ship Museum is fascinating for the well-preserved state of two of its excavated ancient ships and many of the items they carried on board (even some designed cloth). These particular vessels had served as burial ships and had been laden with all the goods the dead were thought to need in the afterlife. The museum is relatively small but the ships and artifacts are thoughtfully displayed and convey a wealth of information on Viking culture."School in session" at the Norwegian Folk Museum

    Traditional buildings

  • You could dedicate a lot of time to visiting the Norwegian Folk Museum, as it has an extensive collection of indoor and outdoor exhibits. The majority of the museum consists of buildings representing various areas of Norway, where guides dressed in traditional clothing and performing tasks like whittling, sewing, and potato peeling answer questions and give explanations about what is presented. We didn’t have time to visit the entire expansive museum, but did get to see a one-room school house called to order, a stave church, houses and barns, traditional dress from all over Norway, and exhibits on Sami culture (for more information on this ethnic minority group, see Sami: Indigenous People in Sweden and Beyond).
  • I wish we had had time to visit the Fram Museum as well, whose main attraction is a ship built for research expeditions to the North Pole.

Food recommendations?

Shrimp on toast from Kafè Celsius

  • We really enjoyed shrimp on toast and seafood pasta at Kafè Celsius. The outdoor seating in the cobblestone courtyard areas was filled with people pleasantly enjoying wine and food here into the still-sunny evening.Kvikk Lunsj
  • Also be sure to pick up a bar of Kvikk Lunsj (“quick lunch”) anywhere in Norway. This popular candy consists of wafers dipped in milk chocolate, similar to a Kit Kat bar. You just might need that extra boost of energy for an exciting trip like this.

(For the fictionalized version of my visit to Norway, see Norway in a Fish Tale.)

Sami: Indigenous People in Sweden and Beyond

Sami flag (picture courtesy of
Sami flag (photo from

I have to say that there were very few surprises in Sweden. Furnishings are both functional and creative, weather chilly and snowy, most people tall and blond, and political protests considered regular occurrences. But I did learn about one surprising component that overlaps with Sweden’s culture and history: an indigenous people known as Sami.

Sami memorabilia at the Stockholm Nordic Museum's Sami exhibit
Sami memorabilia at the Stockholm Nordic Museum’s Sami exhibit

Who are the Sami?

Sami are an indigenous people and ethnic minority from Sápmi, an area of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and an adjoining area of Russia. Outsiders have termed this area Lapland and, in the past, referred to the Sami people as Laps or Laplanders.

The reindeer remains an important symbol of this culture, which developed around nomadic reindeer herding. Only around a tenth of Sami still depend on the traditional livelihood today, partly due to conflicting government regulations regarding land and herding. Traditional crafts include carved wooden reindeer milking pots, round on the bottom to prevent being knocked over.

Reindeer tools and crafts at the Nordic Museum's Sami exhibit
Reindeer tools and crafts, including milking pot with handle

As with many other indigenous peoples, the Sami culture historically relied on a predominantly oral language and celebrates a close relationship with nature. The colors of their flag, in fact, which represents Sami throughout the international Sápmi region, symbolize the interconnectedness between the elements of nature.

And, unfortunately, as an ethnic minority group, the Sami were subjected to discrimination and dehumanization during darker times in history. Before the end of World War II, for example, Sami people were measured and examined as part of eugenics research. Even in later times, many families stopped speaking their native language at home and encouraged their children to assimilate with mainstream Swedish culture.

Poem in the Nordic Museum
Poem in the exhibit

The Nordic Museum in Stockholm has an interesting and, in my opinion, thoughtfully presented exhibit about Sami culture. Each section of the exhibit invites the visitor to reflect on the reciprocal exchange as well as controversy that occurs when cultures converge: Whose history? Whose land? Whose influence?

In addition, it includes voices, pictures and opinions of modern day Sami who identify with their sense of being Sami and Swedish in varying ways. One woman summarized her connection to each culture so: “Swedish is my nationality but Sami is my identity.”

Photos from Jokkmokk, Arctic Sweden (photo courtesy of
Sami folk costume from Jokkmokk, Arctic Sweden (photo from

Read more about the Sami on Sweden’s Official Site:

How to Get Through a Case of Stockholm Syndrome

Swedish fish in Stockholm

When this captivating city takes you hostage, there’s not much to do but identify with it and embrace its tastefully whimsical culture. Take a dose of each of the following to work through a traveler’s case of Stockholm Syndrome:

Meatballs for the People

  • Meatballs

Served with gravy, lingonberries and mashed potatoes, this is a tasty traditional dish. For a particularly fun experience, check out Meatballs for the People, a hip and cozy restaurant where you can choose from a varying selection of meats for your meatballs, such as moose or wild boar.


Fika to go at Arlanda Airport

  • Fika

In other words, a coffee break or the act of taking one. In Sweden this is a way of life, as you may have suspected if you’ve read the Millennium series. You can fika to take a break from work, to get together with friends, or even take your fika to go. Enough said.


Kungens Kurva Ikea

  • Compact living

There’s something so satisfying about practical and efficient design. Ikea’s impact and functional design in general can be seen inside every building in town. Visit the Nordic Museum to learn – among many other things – about the history of homes and interiors in Sweden, or take the free Ikea bus from the Central Station to shop at the largest Ikea in Sweden (second largest in the world).


ABBA: The Museum

  • ABBA

Or really any Swedish pop music (think The Cardigans or Ace of Bass). Listening to this upbeat fluff can pick up any mood. Stockholm is home to ABBA: The Museum, a cute and interactive experience involving history narrated by the 70s singers themselves, props and costumes (including men’s and women’s platform boots), and karaoke for hits like “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo.” As it says at the museum’s entrance: “Walk in, dance out.”


Fermented Herring Festival

  • Fish

This is a city of islands so fish (not just in gummy candy form) can be eaten at any time of day. If you thought you’d never be interested in eating fish for breakfast, you’ll be surprised by how appetizing a freshly smoked salmon can be. The same even goes for pickled herring and, of course, seafood stew for lunch or dinner. Go fish!



  • Say “hej!”

Pronounced “hey,” there’s probably nothing weirder or more disconcertingly freeing for an English speaker than addressing a stranger this way. In Sweden, it’s not as informal as it sounds and can even be used to say good-bye (similar to greetings like ciao or aloha). So “hej!” away.

Get well soon!


P.S. Later this week I write about the Sami, an ethnic minority group in Sweden, originally nomadic reindeer herders.