Scandinavia, you had me at hello. (Dinner at Noma and everything else.)

Three weeks ago I booked a (fairly) last minute trip to Denmark and Sweden. Well, it was an idea for a while, but I finally bit the bullet. And, in all seriousness, planning three weeks ahead of time actually feels like eons after a year of Southeast Asian travel where I booked (at most) one hostel night in advance — and even then, it was solely to ensure I had a non-horrendous place to sleep upon arrival. Scandinavia was decidedly non-horrendous. Spectacular, actually.

The story begins with an invitation to Copenhagen. Not just any trip to Copenhagen, either: I went with a foodie and fellow traveler who asked me to dinner at Noma.

For those of you who haven’t heard of it (I hadn’t!) Noma is considered to be the best restaurant. In the world.

Now, that is a giant statement. (And please Google who decides these things because there are people who do, but I don’t know who they are.)  I love food. Local food, organic food, mostly plants. (Thanks Michael Pollan.) I’ve been lucky to eat wonderful, nutritious, sometimes spectacular food in my life, but I didn’t know what to expect, and was slightly skeptical that any one kitchen could turn out the “best” food on the planet.

Ready. Set. Noma!

Ready. Set. Noma!

But here are my exact words after our five hour, 26-course, Nordic culinary adventure at Noma. (To complete the picture: It was 12:00 a.m., I was wrapped from head to toe in wool, nearly skipping down the cobblestone streets, head buzzy with biodynamic wine and frigid Baltic air.)

“I didn’t know that food could be a life-affirming experience.  Somehow, Noma makes me believe in food as a means to authenticity and truth. That was amazing.”

We ate reindeer moss from northern Denmark dipped in crème fraîche.  A delicate bowl of sliced chestnuts, roe, and butter. Steak tartare with ants (for acidity, of course.)  Each dish was clean and bright; the tastes of earth and sky. I am not a food critic and there is so much more to say, but it’s been done many times over already, and more eloquently than I ever could.  Also, I purposefully didn’t read about it ahead of time since I wanted to be surprised, and I highly recommend this strategy. So in case you go, forget everything I’ve said.

But I was convinced. From the Scandinavian simplicity of the dining room (exposed beams, warm lighting, open kitchen) to the inexplicably relaxed and articulate head chef, Dan (think Mark Ruffalo circa 2001), who delivered many of our dishes to the table, Noma was an experience I will remember for the rest of my life.  I now understand what a meal can be, and my experience at Noma was a singular one.  The food was not over-thought or overworked, and so I left feeling inspired instead of intimidated.

Amazing.

Noma aside, we spent a few sparkling days in Copenhagen. In the clear, crisp early spring weather, all the Danes were outside, bundled in jackets and blankets, but with faces turned radiantly towards the sun.  The city was emerging from winter, blossoming.  We took a short canal trip, went to the Design Museum (oh, the art of chairs!) and did a day trip north to Kronberg, the castle that inspired Hamlet.

A wonderfully sunny day at Kronberg, in Helsingor, north of Copenhagen.

A wonderfully sunny day at Kronberg, in Helsingor, north of Copenhagen.

Next up, we hopped on a train to Sweden. Up the western coast to the town of Gothenberg for a very quick overnight.  The rainy weather (and perhaps a bout of sudden onset post-Noma depression) made me want to crawl into bed, but we rallied and visited the Gothenberg Museum of Art, which turned out to have an exceptional collection. We wandered in the waning hours of the day among Monet, Renoir, Rodin, and Degas.

Then, up bright and early for the quick flight to Stockholm. Consider this your warning: I loved Stockholm. As in, I feel as if part of me belongs there and must return, rent a beautiful flat in the city, eat cardamom pastries, and teach yoga while writing a novel.

Our apartment in Stockholm. Love.

Apartment in Stockholm. Love.

Stockholm reminded me of all the best parts of my favorite cities: the hills and landscapes of San Francisco, the symmetry and romance of Paris, and the austere optimism of Krakow. It’s a city built on and over water; islands and neighborhoods are connected by bridges yet miraculously I never noticed any traffic.

Sunset over Stockholm.

Sunset over Stockholm.

Public transport was clean, varied, and reliable. It was chilly, but runners and walkers and babies in traditional prams were out and about.  Women were dressed uniformly in black and grey, but with bright eyes and smiles.  And come evening — as in Copenhagen and Reykjavik, where I visited last year — storefronts, bars and restaurants glowed with the warmth and ambiance that can only exist in a place that is cold almost all the time. It is a magic place. I will be back.

Travel doesn’t get much more different than backpacking through the jungles and beaches of southeast Asia and eating at the best restaurant in the world in Copenhagen. I can hardly believe that in the space of twelve months, my life has included adventures that are so wildly different, and so wonderful — it feels like I’m checking off bucket list items before they’ve even come up to the surface in my mind. Scandinavia won me over effortlessly and completely.  It was the loveliest of times.

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