Rick Steves' Travel Blog
I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick
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Twenty years ago, I visited the historic but cutesy town of Sigtuna (half an hour north of Stockholm) and wrote it off as a tourist trap. I just revisited with my Stockholm friend and guide, Håkan Frändén, and reassessed the place. Sigtuna is great. I’d recommend it…and it comes with some sassy rune stones. Check this one out.
Cities all over northern Europe have loaner bike programs. Some cities lend themselves to biking, while others don’t. Some programs seem designed exclusively for locals, while others work well for foreign visitors, too. Stockholm is the best of both worlds: great for biking, and with a system that’s very tourist-friendly.
The Stockholm City Bikes have no locks, so you can only joyride or go from point A to point B (rather than parking it while you’re visiting a sight). And many of the stations are around town are either completely without bikes (a pain if you’re looking to borrow one) or already full (problematic when you need to drop one off). Fortunately, the Stockholm City Bikes app — which is free, easy, and fun to use — lets you know exactly how many bikes and open spaces are available at each station.
As I worked on the Stockholm chapter for the upcoming 2015 edition of Rick Steves’ Scandinavia guidebook, I proposed merging this “be a temporary local” experience with the best biking joyride route…and suddenly, Stockholm has another great activity. This video clip is your intro to a cheap and breezy experience next time you’re in the Swedish capital.
For some reason, the Swedish town of Kalmar got me in a good mood. We have a great chapter on it in my Scandinavia guidebook, but almost no Americans visit. Here’s a little clip on the fun of language faking — which comes in handy even in a place like Sweden, where virtually everyone you meet speaks English.
One of my favorite towns in Scandinavia is Kalmar, on Sweden’s east coast. This clip captures the fun of being in a perfectly Swedish scene surrounded only by Swedes… and then being struck by the fact that scenes like that are commonplace all over the world.
Part of the fun of traveling in Europe is using massive and inspiring infrastructure — like this bridge that connects Denmark and Sweden. In this clip, my train is in an erector set-type tunnel under an-eight lane highway crossing the Øresund Bridge. Behind me is Copenhagen (not Stockholm, as I say), and up ahead is Malmö, Sweden.
What are your favorite “infrastructure” experiences?
This little clip — shot just minutes before catching my train to Sweden — explains why the Copenhagen station, back in 1969, gained a special place in this traveler’s heart.
For me, a fun part of any visit to Copenhagen is dropping in on the alternative community of Christiania.
In 1971, the original 700 Christianians established squatters’ rights in an abandoned military barracks just a 10-minute walk from the Danish parliament building. A generation later, this “free city” still stands — an ultra-human mishmash of idealists, hippies, potheads, non-materialists, and happy children (600 adults, 200 kids, 200 cats, 200 dogs, 2 parrots, and 17 horses). There are even a handful of Willie Nelson-type seniors among the 180 remaining here from the original takeover. And an amazing thing has happened: The place has become the third-most-visited sight among tourists in Copenhagen. Move over, Little Mermaid.
“Pusher Street” (named for the sale of soft drugs here) is Christiania’s main drag. Get beyond this touristy side of Christiania, and you’ll find a fascinating, ramshackle world of moats and earthen ramparts, alternative housing, cozy tea houses, carpenter shops, hippie villas, children’s playgrounds, peaceful lanes, and people who believe that “to be normal is to be in a straitjacket.” A local slogan claims, “Kun døde fisk flyder med strømmen” — “Only dead fish swim with the current.”
Stepping into this squatter town of 800 people, you feel like you’re entering another world. As you walk in, the sign welcomes you to Christiania. When you leave, the flipside of that same sign says, “You are now entering the EU.”
Tourists are entirely welcome at Christiania, because they’ve become a major part of the economy. Visitors react in very different ways to the place. Some see dogs, dirt, and dazed people. Others see a haven of peace, freedom, and no taboos. Locals will remind judgmental Americans (whose country incarcerates more than a quarter of the world’s prison inmates) that a society must make the choice: Allow for alternative lifestyles…or build more prisons.
For the first few years, junkies were tolerated. But that led to violence and polluted the mellow ambience residents envisioned. In 1979, the junkies were expelled — an epic confrontation in the community’s folk history now — and since then, the symbol of a fist breaking a syringe is as prevalent as the leafy marijuana icon. Hard drugs are emphatically forbidden in Christiania.
Pusher Street was once lined with stalls selling marijuana, joints, and hash. Residents intentionally destroyed the stalls in 2004 to reduce the risk of Christiania being disbanded by the government. Now there’s a small stretch of Pusher Street dubbed the “Green Light District” where pot is being openly sold. Signs announce three rules here: 1. Have fun; 2. No photos; and 3. No running — “because it makes people nervous.”
This fall, I’m excited to travel with you through the Holy Land during an hour-long public television special. We’ll meet the people, explore the sites, and listen to both the Israeli and Palestinian narratives with open eyes and honest curiosity.
We can travel there together thanks to public broadcasting. Stations across the country will air Rick Steves’ The Holy Land: Israelis and Palestinians Today beginning in September and throughout the fall. Check your local listings or contact your station directly to inquire about airdates. Shalom, salam…and thanks!
Frederiksborg Castle, in the town of Hillerød near Copenhagen, is the top castle in Scandinavia by far, and a great example of how Scandinavian sights are really well-presented. Whenever possible, use the included audio tours. (By the way, in the clip, I accidentally call this place “Christiansborg.” Frankly, I’m overwhelmed by the many kings that are the cleats upon which you tie down an understanding of Danish history — and I sometimes get my borgs mixed up. While Denmark does have a Christiansborg, this one is named for a Frederik, not a Christian.)
If you have just one day for the most exciting side-trips possible from Copenhagen, here’s a plan for a wonderful day.
Leave Copenhagen by train at 8:00, arrive in Roskilde at 8:30, and wander through the town to be at the cathedral when it opens at 9:00. At 10:00, after an hour in the cathedral, stroll down to the harborfront to tour the Viking Ship Museum. They can call a taxi to take you back to the station for a 13:00 train back to Copenhagen. (Buy a picnic lunch at Roskilde station, and munch it on the train.) In Copenhagen, catch the next train to Hillerød (around 14:00), from where you catch the bus to Frederiksborg castle — arriving at 15:00. This gives you two hours to enjoy the castle before it closes at 17:00. Browse through Hillerød before catching a train at 18:00 back to Copenhagen. You’ll be back at your hotel by 19:00, having seen the highlights of Zealand.
Frederiksborg Castle sits like a fairy tale on an island in the middle of a lake in the cute town of Hillerød, 50 minutes north of Copenhagen. This grandest castle in Scandinavia is often called the “Danish Versailles.” Built from 1602 to 1620, Frederiksborg was the castle of Denmark’s King Christian IV. Today it houses Denmark’s Museum of National History, taking you on a chronological walk through the story of Denmark from 1500 until today that comes to life thanks to the excellent iPod tour that comes with your admission. The countless musty paintings are a fascinating scrapbook of Danish history — it’s a veritable national portrait gallery, with images of great Danes from each historical period of the last five centuries.
Vik literally means “shallow inlet,” and “vik-ings” were the people who lived along those inlets. Roskilde — and its award-winning Viking Ship Museum— are strategically located along one such inlet (half an hour west of Copenhagen). Centuries before Europe’s Age of Exploration, Viking sailors navigated their sleek, sturdy ships as far away as the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Americas. This museum displays five different Viking ships. These vessels were deliberately sunk a thousand years ago to block an easy channel into this harbor, and were excavated only in modern times.
Roskilde’s imposing, 12th-century, twin-spired cathedral houses the tombs of nearly all of the Danish kings and queens (39 royals in all). It’s a stately, modern-looking old church with great marblework, paintings, and woodcarvings. The nave is ringed by chapels, each one with a king’s tomb. This rather austere tomb holds the body of one of Denmark’s least austere monarchs, King Christian IV.