Europe 2017 – Final Thoughts & Tips

Four weeks in Europe – six new countries (7 if I count Iceland) – what a great experience!!

I thought I would share some final thoughts and a few tips & recommendations that may help someone planning on visiting any or all of these countries.

World Figure Skating Championships

Kristin, Justine & I spent 10 days in Helsinki as we were there to attend the World Figure Skating Championships. The skating was fabulous and it was a thrill to once again attend this event. The highlights of the championships for us – all four World Champions were amazing and so deserving of their championships!

Men’s event – What a Quadfest! It is absolutely amazing the way this sport has advanced! It was a privilege to watch Yuzuru Hanyu perform his flawless freeskate program.

Women’s event – World champion Evgenia Medvedeva is unbeatable when she skates cleanly – and she always skates cleanly! She is a joy to watch. But the highlight for us – two Canadian women on the podium. Silver medallist Kaetlyn Osmond (from Edmonton) and Bronze medallist Gabrielle Daleman accomplished a feat that has never occurred before – it was thrilling to be there!

Pairs event – Sui Wending and Han Cong skated beautifully and it was great to see them accomplish their goal! It was so inspiring to watch Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford complete the event despite the obvious pain from injury that Eric was dealing with.

Dance event – Ah….to have Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir back on the ice competing – and better than they have ever been before. A fabulous short dance and despite a slight stumble in the free dance, Tessa & Scott once again captured the hearts of everyone in the rink with their amazing ability and artistry on their way to capturing another world championship.

So enough of the skating – although it really was the main event for K, J & I…..

And it was the springboard for an amazing vacation!

Helsinki, Finland

10 days in Helsinki – it worked well for us as we had a reason to be there. Otherwise, I wouldn’t suggest this would be an appropriate use for valuable vacation time. Helsinki lacks the character of the other European cities we visited on this and previous trips. It does offer a bit of east meets west with influences from Russia and Scandinavia. We spent our time in downtown Helsinki (when not at the arena) and found the area to be clean, busy with people going about their day’s activities, easy to navigate and offering all the amenities that we wanted. The people were very friendly and easily fluent in English. We used the metro train and some of the local trams and found them quick, reliable and easy to use.

I think that the harbourfront, with its Market Square, and the grand Esplanade would be fun places to visit in the summer months!

Our favourite sights –

Fun places to eat and drink –

  • Cafe Roasberg – our favourite place to stop in – for brunch, lunch, coffee, wine. Conveniently located near the train station and great food and drinks
  • Stockmann Department Store – the entire lower floor of this prestigious department store is dedicated to food and drink. We stopped in many times to buy snacks and drinks.
  • Old Market Hall – the soup we had at a kiosk here was exceptional
  • Friends & Brgrs – great burgers and fries
  • Cafe Bar 9 – a great pub in the Design District. Beware – portion sizes are huge!
  • Ateljee Bar at the top of the Solo Sokos Hotel Torni – great views of the city

Tallinn, Estonia

Our day trip to Tallinn was great. We felt that this afforded lots of time to tour the Old Town. We have heard that this area can be crazy busy during the height of cruise ship season, but it was great on a Tuesday in early April. The Old Town offers a great look at a well-preserved medieval town with cobblestone streets, gabled houses, historic buildings and churches and old city walls.

Our favourite sights –

Great meals –

  • Restoran Wirulane – the soup, bread and beer were fabulous
  • Vanaema Juures – thoroughly enjoyed our traditional Estonian meals – and most especially the dark rye bread

St. Petersburg, Russia

Our trip to St Petersburg was amazing! The history and architecture are so interesting – with absolutely beautiful palaces!

We took advantage of the Russian Visa-free program. It only allows for a maximum of 72 hours in Russia but for our purposes on this trip, it worked very well. We didn’t need to go to the time and expense of obtaining a visitor’s visa.

We travelled from Helsinki on the St Peter Line Ferry, which included 3 nights of overnight accomodation – the journey to St P, one night in port in St P and the journey back to Helsinki. We could have booked a hotel in St P for the middle night but are glad that we chose the option of staying on the boat that night. It was economical (only 15 euro per person extra) and saved significant time in not having to travel to and from the hotel (not to mention the hassle of hauling luggage there for one night). The St P Line provides a shuttle bus to the main city that operates all day and evening – we used it to return to the ship later in the evening. It was very easy – the mini-buses park directly across the street from the entrance to St Isaac’s Cathedral.

The Princess Anastasia had undergone renovations in the off-season and the ship was well-appointed and clean. This is an economical way to do this trip – the fare includes both the transportation and the cabin for the nights. We didn’t prebook our dinners on the ferry and found there to be a good variety of food to choose from at prices that weren’t crazy. The restaurant staff were somewhat lacking in their service but it was early in the season so we will hope that they improve as time goes by. They were very friendly! We had prebooked the breakfast buffet for every day – it was relatively good and convenient, although there was a bit of wait to get into the room.

The St P line personnel gave us information that wasn’t entirely correct about the process for Russian customs, but they provided us with all the required documents. Just be sure to take them all with you and the custom officers will take what they need. It was a simple process.

As I discussed in my blog post on St. P, we booked a guided tour for our two days there. This was the best decision. We are so happy that we chose KURS-SPb Tours. From the moment we first contacted Katya by email until we bid good-bye to our guide and driver, everything was handled professionally and promptly! We were very lucky to only have the 4 of us on our tour, but I’m sure the small groups (with a maximum of 10 guests) would be equally as good. Our guide, Helena, was exceptional! The itinerary set by Katya was excellent – this was the only tour company that we found whose 2 days itinerary included a trip out of St P to Pushkin to visit the Catherine Palace. This was a something we didn’t want to miss and was accomplished efficiently. It also gave us the opportunity to see some of St P outside the central core.

Our favourite sights –

Catherine Palace (Tsarskoe Selo) – a lavish palace, including the Amber Room

St. Isaac’s Cathedral – one of the largest cathedrals in the world; beautifully ornate

Church on Spilled Blood – a riot of colour for both the exterior and interior; it is amazing and absolutely must be seen to be believed!

Hermitage Museum (Winter Place) – one of the largest museums in the world; occupies numerous buildings, the most impressive of which is the Winter Palace; having our own guide made this an exceptional visit – otherwise, we would have probably wandered aimlessly around

Great meals –

Teplo – this restaurant was recommended by Katya (who even made our reservation for us); food was excellent, staff was friendly and atmosphere was warm, quirky and fun!

Our guide, Helena, took us for a great lunch – but unfortunately, I can’t recall the name of the restaurant. Sorry……

Stockholm, Sweden

We travelled from Helsinki to Stockholm on an overnight Viking Line ferry. This ship (M/S  Gabriella) had also been recently renovated and was very nice. All areas of the service were excellent, with knowledgeable and efficient staff. The food choices were fairly good – although a bit pricey. On a whim, we visited the sauna on the boat – it was fun!

Stockholm is a great city – a very interesting mix of old Europe and modern new Scandinavian architecture and design. We had the better part of 3 days in the city, which gave us time to see the main attractions. More time could certainly let you explore more of this diverse city.

Harvey & I stayed at the Clarion Hotel Sign and would definitely recommend it. Conveniently located close to the train station, lovely large rooms, friendly staff and a great buffet breakfast included in the room rate. We had dinner one night in the lobby restaurant and it was excellent. A quick tip – there is an espresso/cappuccino maker on the second floor next to the business centre that is available at all times. Great to stop and pick up a hot beverage on your way in or out!

Our favourite sights –

Gamla Stan (Old Town) – the historic, well-preserved medieval centre – charming and photogenic – we loved strolling around here

Vasa Museum – showcases the ill-fated 17th century warship that has been restored after spending 333 years underwater; a very interesting exhibit

ABBA: The Museum – fun and interactive – great for ABBA fans

Royal Palace Apartments and Treasury – a good look into the history and life of the Swedish royalty

Food we tried –

Under Kastangen – in Gamla Stan; had a great lunch (soup and sandwiches) at this cafe/bakery on a side street; you order, they bring you your food and then you find a table (note that there are more table downstairs)

Bla Porten – had excellent soup for lunch at this self-serve restaurant next to the ABBA Museum

Cafe Cronan – in Gamla Stan; had an excellent lunch; great pasta dishes; salad and lingonberry juice included with all meals

Il Forno Italiano – a typical tourist trap restaurant in Gamla Stan – but the Swedish meatballs were very tasty and the service was good

Oslo, Norway

We travelled by evening train from Stockholm to Oslo. This was a good way to make use of time – had most of the day in Stockholm before we left. The train was quite economical and comfortable – with on-board wifi.

Oslo is a nice city. It lacks the old Europe charm of Stockholm and Copenhagen, although it certainly plays up its Viking past. It is undergoing a major urban makeover with new developments occurring all around the harbour front. We felt the 3 1/2 days we spent there was ample to take in the sights and wander the streets.

Harvey and I stayed at the Thon Hotel Rosenkrantz Oslo. It was a great hotel – probably the second best hotel we have stayed at in Europe (hard to beat our favourite Hotel Antiche Mura in Sorrento). The hotel was well-appointed, the room was large and the staff were amazingly friendly and helpful! The buffet breakfast provided with the room rate was exceptional. And each evening, guests are offered a complimentary “light evening meal”. We tried this twice and found it to be tasty and ample enough to constitute dinner. As well, there is coffee/cappuccino/tea available in the lobby at all times – great to take as you leave or come back to the hotel. We would certainly return to this hotel if we came back to Oslo and will try out others in the Thon chain when we have a chance.

Our favourite sights –

City Hall – this spacious building is decorated inside and out with interesting murals and art

Vigeland Park – the world’s largest sculpture park made by a single artist; 192 bronze and granite statue groupings – 600 figures, all nude and unique; a fun place to stroll about

Viking Ship Museum – an impressive exhibit of three actual Viking ships, with information about the people who built and used them

Fram Museum – a very interesting exhibit about the Arctic exploration ships (Fram and Gjoa) and the explorers who manned them

Opera House – the stunning new opera house that is fun to wander over and through

Restaurants we tried –

Steamen – we had a great lunch in this nautical themed restaurant. Justine especially enjoyed all of the Titanic pictures.

The Scotsman – Although this may be a great place to have a brew and watch a soccer match, we weren’t impressed with it for dinner. The menu choices were limited and it took forever for the food (which you must order at the bar) to arrive. The food quality was good (but I wouldn’t say great).

Spuntino – in the redeveloped harbour area; the Italian dishes were great; the portion sizes seemed small, but perhaps we were just extra hungry that day.

Deli de Luca – we picked up deli sandwiches at the prominent chain deli/convenience store to have on our Norway in a Nutshell day. They were excellent.

Norway in a Nutshell

As I outlined in my blog post on this excursion, it was an excellent day. We enjoyed the sights, although with the caution that those of us that are used to the Rocky Mountains and the British Columbia coast may not be as impressed as some other visitors.

We purchased our ticket through Fjord Tours and found this to be convenient. We didn’t need to do the legwork of purchasing individual tickets for each leg of the 5 legs of the journey and the cost was only $6 Cdn more that if we had booked each separately.

The transition from one transport vehicle to another is easy; you need to transport your own luggage but there are no great distances so it wasn’t difficult.

There isn’t a lot of time between legs of the journey to stop for food, so we were very happy that we had brought sandwiches and snacks along with us.

Bergen

Bergen is the gateway to the fjords and the downtown area caters to the many tourists who arrive by plane, train and most especially, cruise ships. In April, the crowds were light! A day is ample time to explore the central core of the city.

Our favourite sights –

Just wandering around the historic Hanseatic district – with its colourful buildings and scenic harbour

Floibanen Funicular – awesome views from the top

The meals of the day –

Baker Brun – we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of baked goods and coffee/tea at this lovely bakery

Fish Me – delicious fish soup and bread for lunch at this busy restaurant component of one of the fish counters in the fish market

Pingvinen – a busy pub with great food and drinks

We flew out of Bergen – K,J&K to London, H&I to Oslo on Norwegian Air. It’s a quick and economical way to get where you want to go next.

Copenhagen

Harvey and I travelled from Oslo to Copenhagen on another overnight ferry, this time the DFDS Seaways. This ship was a little older than the others we had travelled on,but everything was excellent. We had booked a commodore cabin, which provided us with a few extras (slightly larger room, a window, sparkling wine & chocolates in the room, excellent breakfast away from the crowds). The extra cost is minimal and the perks justify it.

We had prebooked dinner at the Seven Seas Buffet. The buffet was good – but not great – and the included drink was actually just worth 5 euro, which really didn’t cover any of the wine, etc. on the menu. In retrospect, I wouldn’t choose this option and would try one of the other restaurants on the ship.

The shuttle bus from the ship drops you at the Norreport station. We were a bit confused but were able to locate the metro stop we wanted just around the corner. Our main problem was that the metro ticket machine would not accept our Visa cards (no problem anywhere else) and we had no Danish money. Luckily, the machine did accept our MasterCard.

Our hotel in Copenhagen was the Marriott AC Bella Sky. This modern sky-scraper hotel is the largest hotel in Europe. It is located away from the city centre but directly on a metro line with a 10 minute ride to the central core. We really enjoyed this hotel and would recommend it. The room was large and well equipped; the view was great; the staff were extremely friendly and helpful. Breakfast wasn’t included in the room rate we had booked, so we just hopped on the metro each morning and ate when we reached the city. Other than the restaurants in the hotel – and only two were open while we were there – there are no other restaurants next to the hotel. However, at the next metro stop (about a 2 minute ride) or a 10 minute walk is a large shopping mall, with multiple choices of places to eat.

Copenhagen is a delightful city. It has cobbled streets and charming colourful buildings blended with cutting-edge Scandinavian design and architecture. It abounds with royal castles, palaces, towers and churches. We had four days of touring around and definitely feel that we could return to see more (and revisit some of the sights that we saw).

We purchased 72 hour Copenhagen Cards. These cards included use of the entire transit system (including the train to Hillerod) and admission to all of the sights that we visited. It made touring easy and worked out to be a good buy.

Our favourite sights –

Rosenborg Castle and Treasury – a renaissance castle built in the early 1600s; the crown jewels are displayed in the Treasury

Amalienborg Palace – the current home of the Royal Family, one of the four mansions is open to the public and displays a look at the private studies of four kings; the changing of the guard was enjoyable with a military band performance

Christiansborg Palace – the birthplace of Copenhagen, the palace was rebuilt in 1928; the royal family use the palace for many formal occasions and the lavish royal reception rooms are open for viewing; the royal kitchen, royal stables and old ruins are also worth a look

Frederiksborg Castle – located in Hillerod, a pleasant 40 minute train ride from central Copenhagen; the castle serves as the Museum of National History with displays of Denmark over the years in beautiful rooms; the chapel is awe-inspiring; the gardens are great

City Hall – another lovely city hall building; also, great public water closets

The Stroget – Copenhagen’s grand boulevard; fun to stroll along, window shop and people watch

Nyhavn – picturesque canal filled with a museum of historic sloops and lined with colourful buildings; we took one of the canal boat tours, which offered a different view of the city as well as some interesting information

Carlsberg Brewery – a look into the history and current operations of the famous Danish beer; admission includes a couple of their brews; tip – take the free shuttle bus from in front of Vesterbrogade 6.

We visited a number of other sights that were enjoyable, including the Little Mermaid statue and the Tivoli Gardens. Both of these sights were somewhat underwhelming but as they are famous Copenhagen landmarks, we were glad that we went. The Tivoli Gardens would be enjoyable for any visitors who love amusement parks.

Eats and Drinks –

Kobenhavner Cafeen – we happened upon this restaurant on a side street and were very happy that we did. The food was excellent! But beware – the entrees are huge! We could have easily shared one.

Europa 1989 – trendy little cafe on the Stroget. The smorrebrod (open faced sandwiches) were wonderful.

Holm’s Bager – we picked up sandwiches and cookies at this modern bakery; they were delicious.

Friends & Brgrs – another location of the burger joint we visited in Helsinki; again, excellent burgers and fries

Milano Restorante and Pizzaria – this Italian restaurant is located in the food area of the Field’s Mall; quality seafood spaghetti that you wouldn’t expect in this environment

We hope you enjoyed our blogs about our trip. We would love to hear your comments and any suggestions you have for our future trips!

Until next time,

Cheers,

B&H

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