Scandinavia's Viking days may be long gone, but its legacy of maritime exploration (and plunder) continues to capture our imagination. Tap into the region's seafaring heritage by visiting excellent museums in Stockholm, Oslo, and just outside Copenhagen.
Scandinavia's entrance into civilized Europe was swift and dramatic. On June 8, 793, a fleet of pirates came ashore on the northeast coast of England and sacked the Lindisfarne monastery, slaughtering monks, burning buildings, and looting sacred objects. Their victims called them "Normanni," "Dani," "Rus" — or worse — but the name they gave themselves came from the inlets and bays (vik) where they lived: the Vikings.
Strategically located along one such Danish inlet is Roskilde, about 30 minutes from Copenhagen — home to Denmark's Viking Ship Museum. Here, you'll see a ship like the one Leif Eriksson took to North America a thousand years ago, two longships, a wind-powered coastal trader, and a small row/sail hybrid that was used for whaling and hunting seals. These five ships were all deliberately sunk during the Viking era to block the entrance to this strategic and rich city, and finally raised from their salty grave in 1962.
Along with the ships inside, outside you can watch the creation of replica Viking ships — and for less than $20, sail around Roskilde's fjord in one of these replicas.
In Norway you'll find another Viking Ship Museum, along with three more nautical museums, clustered in Bygdøy, a park-like peninsula just across the harbor from downtown Oslo. This fine museum shows off two finely crafted, majestic oak Viking ships dating from the ninth and 10th centuries, and the scant remains of a third vessel — icons from those days of pillage and plunder. Gazing up at the prow of one of these sleek, time-stained vessels, you can almost hear the screams and smell the armpits of those redheads on the rampage. You'll also see remarkable artifacts that give insight into Viking culture, including a horse cart and sleighs ornately carved with scenes from Viking sagas.
The adjacent Fram Museum holds the 125-foot, steam- and sail-powered ship that took modern-day "Vikings" Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen deep into the Arctic and Antarctic, farther north and south than any vessel had gone before. The Fram was well equipped with instruments that enabled the explorers to bring back important new data from the polar frontiers. You're welcome to walk on board, explore the boat, and imagine yourself among the crew of the Fram's 1893 maiden expedition, who — pumped for a salty adventure — ended up spending three years adrift in the Arctic ice.
In an adjacent A-frame is Amundsen's Gjøa, the first ship to sail through the Northwest Passage. Together, the exhibit spins a fascinating tale of adventure, scientific exploration, and human determination…all at subzero temperatures.
The Kon-Tiki Museum next door houses two ships built by the larger-than-life anthropologist, seafarer, and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl. In 1947, the Norwegian explorer and his crew constructed the Kon-Tiki raft out of bamboo and balsa wood. They set sail from Peru on the crude and fragile craft, surviving for 101 days on fish, coconuts, and sweet potatoes. About 5,000 miles later, they landed in Polynesia. The point of this expedition was to show that early South Americans could have settled Polynesia. (While Heyerdahl proved they could have, anthropologists doubt they actually did.) In 1970, Heyerdahl's Ra II made a similar 4,000-mile journey from Morocco to Barbados — on a vessel made of reeds — to prove that Africans could have populated the Americas.
Also in Bygdøy, the Norwegian Maritime Museum takes a wide-ranging look at Norway's maritime heritage through exhibits, art, and a panoramic film soaring over Norway's long and varied coastline. If you like the sea, this museum is a saltlick.
Stockholm's Vasa Museum is my favorite maritime museum anywhere, with the chemically petrified, ultimate warship housed in a state-of-the-art museum.
This impressive ship sank just minutes into her maiden voyage: It was 1628, and the Swedish king was eager to expand the reach of his domain with a formidable new ship. Unfortunately, his demands to build the ship 172 feet tall, but narrow and laden with an extra row of cannon, made it extremely unstable. As it sailed out, all the sailors went to one side on this top-heavy boat, waved at their loved ones…and about 1,000 yards from its dock the most expensive ship in Europe tipped over and sank to the bottom of Stockholm's harbor, where it sat in the mud for over 300 years. In 1961, with the help of steel cables and huge inflatable pontoons, the Vasa rose again from the deep.
Detailed models show life on board and evoke the instant when the hopes and aspirations of this mighty ship and her crew were dashed. Artifacts on display humanize naval live in the 17th century. This awe-inspiring ship is a time capsule from an era when Sweden was a European power and was gearing up to expand its empire.
The Vasa may have been a flop, but there's no doubt about the seafaring strength of the Scandinavians — from the Vikings to intrepid Arctic explorers and daring Heyerdahl and his Kon-Tiki. Don't miss the opportunity to delve into the fascinating maritime history as you visit Scandinavia's great cities.