The “First Cousins” Capitals: Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm

Akershus, Oslo, Norway, fortress, church, sunset, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

It has been an interesting exercise to try to think of the Scandinavian countries and come up with a good and succinct outline of what makes them different from each other without requiring a degree in history, architecture, and other similar fields.  So I decided to not be that ambitious and limit this to taking a look at the Scandinavian “first cousins” capitals – Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen – and see what I came up with…

All of these first cousins felt very manageable for a first time visitor.  There was nothing daunting or complex about getting around which made it easy for me to walk aimlessly to see what I would discover.  Everyone spoke English which certainly facilitated the visit though I am OK attempting to communicate in any number of languages I can dabble in.   I visited them all more or less around May or June making my comparison even in terms of weather.  Clearly the time of the year I visited made them all come across as “alive” since everyone by then had finished thawing off from their winter “slump”.  Everyone was out and about enjoying the weather – and their cities.

Oslo

In Norway, they were actually having a warm spell in early May (I carried a coat through Europe because I was supposed to need it when I got to Norway; it was hotter than anywhere in Europe at the time!).  Everyone was out at the parks and streets just hanging out.  The outdoor cafes were all packed, everyone enjoying a beer or four.  I partook even if I was a little horrified at the cost of everything.

Akershus, Oslo, Norway, fortress, church, sunset, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Looking towards Akershus Fortress at sunset

My favorite meal was a bucketful of fresh shrimp and beer sitting at a water-side restaurant (maybe by the Herbern marina) right around Aker Brygge, a modern shopping, entertainment, and office district near the Nobel Peace Center.  Of course, my favorite activity overall was taking a brief boat ride down Oslofjord but that is a different story!

It was neat to walk right by boats selling their catch to local restaurant buyers right across from City Hall.

Olso, Norway, fisherman, boat

Buying seafood right from the boat!

Oslo probably felt the smaller of the three cousins (I actually have not looked up population statistics) and the more relaxed, perhaps because of its size, perhaps because people just wanted to enjoy the newly found warmth by chilling (!) outdoors.  I loved scenes like the Akershus Fortress and the massive ski jump off in the distance!

Stockholm

As a capital city, Stockholm didn’t have a presence that screamed “big city”.  And I liked that.  It sits comfortably by the water built on and surrounded by islands.  It is quite easy to move about even if unfamiliar with it – its vast waterfront makes it hard to get lost.  I have previously written about this city by the water so I will not elaborate here.

We headed first to the area where the Royal Palace sits, “Stadsholm”, an island itself.  This is all part of old town or Gamla Stan.  Gamla Stan is full of charming architecture and beautiful streets.  From there, one can easily cross to a small island where Parliament sits (Riksdag) and exit it on the other side to enter the pedestrian shopping street (Drottninggatan) and move on to parks and other areas of town.  Almost across the water from the Royal Palace, of course, on another island, one finds the Vasa Museum (a must-see in Stockholm).

Gamla Stan, old town, Stockholm. Sweden. architecture, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Charming architecture in Gamla Stan

Riksdag, Parliament, Stockholm. Sweden. architecture, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Riksdag (Parliament)

Stockholm, and the people, there felt very relaxed, none more so than the students celebrating being done with school atop a party bus, one of the city scenes I shared in another post.  I could see myself lounging a few days, weeks, or more in this capital.  Of course, likely not during winter.

Copenhagen

During my visit to Copenhagen (three days), we toured around all the main areas of town you are always told to see and visit.  These included palaces, museums, the maverick community of Freetown Christiania, and other key sights.  As with many cities, my favorite part of Copenhagen was exploring the smaller side streets and finding that little jewel of a restaurant (as happened to us, with Restaurant and Café Nytorv which sits at about 150 years old).

We also happened upon the Copehagen Carnival (in June!) which made the main pedestrian street, Strøget, a lively corridor.  It may have lacked the wildness of Rio’s Carnival or Nawlins’ Mardi Gras but I certainly give it an “A” for enthusiasm and effort!Carnival, Copenhagen, Denmark, parade, colorful, fun, Canon EOS Rebel

The Danish capital definitely felt the more developed of the “first cousin capitals”, the more urbanized, the more identifiable as a capital.  While it sits on the water’s edge like the other two, it lacked the splendid fjords of Oslo or the charm of the many islands in and around Stockholm.  Granted it may have more diversity of older and modern architecture than but it often was not impressive.  For example, the buildings composing the royal palace/residence at Amalienborg were not imposing, nor terribly interesting from the outside, nor graced with gardens or green spaces (Rosenborg Castle fares much better.)

Amalienborg Palace, Copenhagen, Denmark, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, royalty, architecture

Amalienborg Palace

While it was interesting to visit Copenhagen and walk its old streets, I hate to say, it did not wow me.  I didn’t feel an urge, say, to live there for 6 months, nor linger longer (though that may be precisely what I should do to “get” Copenhagen?).

Have you visited these first cousins?  Which one did you like best/least?  What influences your answer?

The Livable Capitals: Santiago, Bern and Berlin

Santiago, Andes, snow, winter, skiiing, Cihle

As I listed the capital cities I have visited, I kept thinking which would could be the “most livable.”  Livable, for me, means not an intense place, not one with millions of tourists ruining summer months, with character, and some great redeeming feature (the ocean, the mountains, a great river running through it, an amazing spot in history, etc.).  There were several candidates (and some definite ‘nevers’…) but the top three I landed on were:  Santiago, Bern, and Berlin.

Santiago (Chile)

This may be cheating a little but I have lived in Santiago already.  Twice.  Sort of.  I lived there for 3 months over 20 years ago staying at an apartment in the area called Providencia near Tobalaba.  Then I spent a whole year traveling back and forth, spending 60-65% of the year down there (though this second time I stayed at a hotel, the awesome Marriott on Ave. Kennedy).

And I would happily do it again because Santiago is such a livable place.  Traffic aside, it has everything I would want in a place to live.  Quiet enough for a city, arts and culture, great food, neat things to do on day trips (beaches, skiing, wineries, hiking, etc.), friendly locals, interesting architecture and neighborhoods, and the magnificent Andes as a backdrop – my favorite feature of this city.

Andes, cordillera, Santiago, Chile, view, Marriott hotel, photo

A wonderful view to wake up to every day!

I would likely live in Vitacura or Las Condes: not too far from the city center towards the mountains but near the river, a nice mall, and close to many of my favorite eateries.  I used to go running along Americo Vespucio towards the river then meander through neighborhoods.

Santiago, Andes, snow, winter, skiiing, Cihle

Granted, that was not the prettiest of winter days but imagine the great skiing further up in the Andes!

Hopefully, my job would be towards that part of town to avoid the pretty nasty traffic though – I commuted from that area to “el Centro” and that was, on a very good day, a 45-min commute each way.

Bern (Switzerland)

I am not as familiar with the next two cities as I am with Santiago as I have only spent all of a day in each – severely limiting knowing, for example, in what of town I would want to live in.  In my one day visit to Bern its compactness and its location struck me.  Bern is hugged by the Aar River (I wonder if so named to make sure it sorted first in lists of rivers….) and surrounded by hills that look down upon it.  Its old quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and this capital city of around 200,000 inhabitants has been included in the top ten best quality of life cities as recently as 2010 (do I choose them well or what??).

Aar River, Bern, Switzerland, old town, architecture, charm, capital

The Aar River along the old historic center of Bern

I think Bern would be a great place to spend a year or two, anchored in central Switzerland.  It may not be an easy place to fly in and out of which would be a drawback for getting back to the States but nothing that a good connection in Zurich, Munich, or –heaven forbid- Charles de Gaulle in Paris wouldn’t fix.

I enjoyed walking its old streets, enjoying the architecture and its details, and sitting at an outdoor café sipping some good beer!Bern, Switzerland, old town, architecture, charm, capital,

Perhaps the compactness of the town would get to me after some months but I think I could get used to it quite easily – plus there would be so many places to spend time visiting in a radius of less than half a day’s drive.  A little more ambitiously, it would not be much of stretch to launch weekend trips elsewhere to places like Bavaria, Austria, northern Italy, and –for sure- the rest of Switzerland itself!

Berlin

Berlin is clearly a major city and those can be a little too much in terms of livability but, in my short visit there, I got a sense for the variety of neighborhoods and cosmopolitan vibe of the place.  That, coupled with the deep and painful history this city has had, would draw me in as a place I could live in.

Berlin, Germany, history, architecture, Brandenburg gate

The iconic Brandenburg Gate – one of the many reminders of the city’s deep history

There seems to be a lot of turning over old areas into new districts to draw people in (I presume, a younger generation) and it would be interesting to see how Berlin continues to morph over the next 20 years.

Berlin, Germany, river, beach chairs

Berliners seeking some sun by the river – OK, it isn’t the Caribbean but let ’em enjoy!

Berlin, Germany, dark sky, architecture

Newer and older residential buildings

Living in Berlin would give me ample time to explore its arts scene while also geeking out on its Cold War, WW II, WW I, and imperial history.  Of course, German beer and food would not be far behind but that I could find anywhere in Germany too.  I just hope I don’t become “ein Berliner” after eating all that food!  (Thanks, JFK, for the idea.)

The Power Capitals: Washington, D.C., Beijing and London

White House, Washington D.C., DC, center of power, President's residence, US flag, photo

When I was a kid (some would argue I am still one), I was fascinated with knowing capital cities and flags.  Not really sure why, perhaps it was an early predictor of future sanity.  I was pondering the other day that there are countries that I have visited whose capital cities I have not than I thought.  So I started thinking which capital cities have I visited and could there be some common thread to some of them.  That led me to think of a new series to briefly chat about the capital cities I have visited.

White House, Washington D.C., DC, center of power, President's residence, US flag, photo

The White House, literally and/or figuratively, the world’s center of power

In this group, I’d thought I’d include some capitals that represent power centers.  While I could add a few others, those fit better within future categories I will be sharing.  For this post of power centers, I have chosen to include:  Beijing, Washington, D.C., and London.

Entrance to the Forbidden City Beijing, China bicycles cars pollution

Entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing just north of Tiananmen Square

These are certainly global power centers for financial and political reasons.  But they could not be any more different from each other.  The following statements, of course, are up for discussion and challenge but they sort of indicate how I “feel” these power centers:

  • Whereas London exudes history, D.C. has it but as a secondary or tertiary theme to its power center persona, whereas Beijing seems hell-bent on destroying its fascinating history.
  • Whereas Beijing is exotic to me, D.C. exudes a vibrancy that is uncommon for me and that thrills me, and London exhibits a self-assured calm that almost makes it familiar, yet not exotic nor vibrant.
  • While London feels cozy as you spend time in its neighborhoods (despite its incredible size), Beijing feels large and cold.  And D.C. … well at times it feels just like a large political amusement park until you explore what’s behind “public D.C.”.
  • All three can feel impersonal, but I think once you get to know London and D.C.  that changes with the only difference being that D.C. seems more transient than London does, making London more of a place where one can grow deep roots.

Where I would live?  I would say D.C. hands down.  In fact, in any list, this would be on my top three places to live.  I feel the energy and it transcends the political activity-related energy.  I love walking the treed streets of the city, admiring architecture new and old, and discovering places to hang out (London does offer some of this.)

Where I would learn the most?  I would say Beijing with its long history and fascinating culture.

Where I felt people warmth?  London would have an edge on D.C. but, in reality, none, I’d venture say, excel at people warmth.  Not sure if that is related to the power center nature of the city, the culture of the country/city, or some other factor (like it just takes time to feel it).

Any big gripe on any of these?  The pollution in Beijing is about the worst I’ve experienced.  I got sick from it, putting a big damper on my time there.  And no “nearby Rio de Janeiro” (as Sao Paulo has) for me to go “heal.”  🙂

Where would I love to return?  Sure, I’d enjoy going back to London but D.C. would be it.  Beijing… Been there, done that.  I’d rather learn about China through other places.

The City, London, England, United Kingdom, power center, capital city, financial center

London is a power center, especially in global finance

Of course, different strokes for different folks – what’s delicious to me may be bland to another so take it all with a grain of salt and share your impressions of any of these cities if you have visited them!  Regardless, these are fascinating cities to explore.

The Timeless Capitals: Rome, Athens, Cairo

Acropolis, Athens. modern Athens, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

I have traveled to a good bunch of countries and hope to add more over time.  Most of the time, that means I have visited their capital cities even if briefly.  Rare is the case where I have not visited a capital city of a country I have been to.  Honduras, Mexico and the Dominican Republic come to mind.  Tanzania does too, now that I think about it, since Dodoma -not Dar es Salaam- is its capital.  I thought it would be cool to do a series of the capitals I have visited…  Let’s start with the timeless!

The timeless capital cities

One cannot argue that there are cities that are timeless.  Many are not capital cities.  But as the theme is capital cities, I will pick three that are timeless fully aware that I am stating the obvious given the choices:  Rome, Athens, and Cairo.

Just thinking about the “youngest” one of these goes back a couple of thousands of years.  Mind boggling.  )Of course, there are much younger capital cities that I could call timeless too.)  Going to any of these can be daunting with all the possibilities to explore the ancient, the old, and the recent (say, last 200 hundred years??).

Athenas – Atenas – Athina

Athens may be the easiest to navigate in terms of this but it still requires time to learn all about it.  It also merits exploring the “recent” not just the old or ancient.  In any of these cities, one can get stuck just on the archeology or history “touring” and miss the vibrant cities they are now, their history notwithstanding.

Acropolis, Athens. modern Athens, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

The modern outskirts of Athens towards Piraeus

Acropolis, Athens. modern Athens, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

A juxtaposition of modern Athens and old Athens

Rome – Roma

Rome has such depth that one could just focus on the Roman Empire period, or just the food, or just the Catholic, or just the modern life – and spend weeks on any of the topics.  A first visit to Rome can really consume one in the key sights to be seen – and that is OK, no reason to stress about it.  But either carve out time for, or plan to return for, diving in to the other experiences.  And don’t worry, Rome is eternal so it will all still be around for your next visit!

Pantheon, Rome, Italy, Panteon, Roma, architecture, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, travel

The old: Pantheon

food, carbonara, Italian food, Rome, Italy,  food porn, Olympus

The food: Carbonara – my favorite dish to have in Rome!

Olympus, St. Peter's at night, St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican, architecture, night time

The Catholic: St. Peter’s Square at night

Tourist, Pantheon, Rome, Italy, Canon EOS Rebel, photo, travel

The visitor: Is this a Roman look-alike soaking in the incredible Pantheon?

Cairo – El Cairo – La Caire – Al-Qaherah – القاهرة‎

About Cairo, what I can safely state is that it is one complex city!  For someone not used to large cities in countries where one doesn’t speak the language or one is not familiar with the culture, it can be overwhelming.  I felt that way on my first day there during my first visit.  And then you start walking around, sensing the vibe, having contact with the friendly locals, and the city opens up differently than expected.  Yes, there are key sights to be seen – the “musts,” but in Cairo, as in other places, the best part is the “experiencing,” not just the touring (I am not an anti-touring snob, just a proponent of experiencing!).  I believe it totally change what Cairo is in our minds to become more immersed (to the extent one can in a one week visit…).

Pyramids, Cheops, Giza, Cairo, Egypt, travel, architecture, ancient Egypt

The “musts”: The Giza pyramids

Cairo, Le Caire, Egypt, shisha pipe, hookah, chilling, experience, travel, photo

The “experiences”: At the Grand Bazaar

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These cities are timeless for their longevity and history yet they could also be grouped into other categories in this series.  I preferred placing them in the timeless group as they serve witness to the development of civilization, to the evolution of how we humans operate, and to the great achievements of the past while yet being alive in this modern world – not just being city-museums.  So go and explore these timeless capitals!

tourists, Italy, Canon EOS Rebel, baby carrier

Tourists enjoying a timeless capital: Rome!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these cities if you have visited – or how you envision them if you have not!

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