What do hunting lodge-themed restaurants, the reckless pillaging that led to the global financial crisis and those feral hipster beards all have in common? Vikings: they did all that stuff first.
Beowulf, Of Monsters and Men, all those pro athletes ripping off Thor's hairstyle… The current zeitgeist is replete with trends that can be traced back to the Norse medieval era. Alas, lazy clichés about the Vikings' viciousness and aversion to bathing are mainly what people know about this brief but lively era, but the Vikings were not exceptionally filthy considering that one bath a week was considered extravagant for the time. Moreover, their reputation for brutality is highly exaggerated. Apparently all it takes is one little 8th-century abbey sacking (793 to be exact, on the island of Lindisfarne) to get a 13 century-long reputation for unbent cruelty. The Vikings were much more.
From roughly the late 8th century to the mid-11th century, while Europe was between empires or flailing its way through a Charlemagne-induced identity crisis, the Vikings were enjoying a full-tilt party. Explorers, colonists, traders, warriors or pirates depending on who you asked, their advanced and formidable longships allowed them to freely roam all corners of Europe, present-day Russia, parts of North Africa, as far east as Baghdad and even bits of North America – 500 years before Columbus.
Relatively brief as their heyday was, the Vikings left a lot of physical and cultural history behind. Here's a selection of the best places to relive some Viking fever.
Proof that the Vikings visited and hung around continental North America - a full five centuries before Columbus - was discovered on the northern peninsula of Newfoundland in 1960. It's believed that the Vikings landed at L'Anse aux Meadows around the year 1000 and used it as a base for shipping timber to Greenland and a gateway for possible colonization, but the effort, and the site, was abandoned after only a few years. How far south the Vikings roamed in North America is still unknown, though some speculation suggests they may have made it all the way to modern day New York City. L'Anse aux Meadows is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
If you're still incredulous about how the Vikings managed to nimbly travel so far and wide 1000 years ago, a visit to the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo should remove those doubts. The highlight of the museum is the truly enormous Oseberg ship, dating from around the year 800, discovered in a large burial mound near Tønsberg, south of Oslo. The oak ship, widely regarded as one of the greatest relics from the Viking Age, is over 21 m (70 ft) long and 5 m (16 ft) wide. Formidable and seaworthy as it looks, its design suggests it was a coastal ship. The Viking Ship Museum is part of the Museum of Cultural History, which contains archaeological finds from Tune, Gokstad (Sandefjord), Oseberg (Tønsberg) and the Borre mound cemetery.
This replica Viking chieftain village and archeological site is located on Vestvågöy, one of the Lofoten islands well into Norway's Arctic Circle. Archeologists have uncovered the foundation of a mammoth 6th-century longhouse, 83 m (272 ft) long and 9 m (30 ft) high, the largest Viking-era building ever found. A replica of the longhouse has been built nearby along with a blacksmith's hearth and two Viking ships and their boathouses. In summer it's possible to row around in the ships along with other wholesome activities like axe throwing. There are also Viking reenactments to get the kids all riled up. Star Trek: The Next Generation fans will want to stop in the nearby village of Borg for postcards.
Established in the early 8th-century, tiny Ribe is believed to be the oldest town in Denmark and one of the oldest in all of Scandinavia. It's more bus tour attraction than town these days, but the concentration of historic building, houses, the cathedral and Denmark's oldest town hall (1496) are compelling enticements. There's also a Viking museum and a Viking cultural center, boasting the intriguing opportunity to be a 'volunteer Viking' as well as worrying activities like 'warrior training for children.'
West of Copenhagen, the main draw at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde are the five massive reconstructed Viking ships dating from 1000 AD, excavated from the nearby fjord. There are also two replicas and temporary exhibits. If the medieval nautical bug bites, you can buy a traditional, handmade wooden boat here.
Seriously, just hang out in Iceland. Historic Viking sites are negligible, but Viking heritage is all around in the form of the Icelandic language, which is effectively the same language spoken by the Norwegian Vikings that settled the island in the 9th century. Iceland is also the last bastion of the old Norse patronymic (and sometimes matronymic) naming system, where, instead of enduring family names, one's surname is based on the given name of the father (or mother). So, singer Björk Guðmundsdóttir is the daughter (dóttir) of Guðmundur. Makes for an interesting telephone directory. You can also literally immerse yourself in some Viking culture by bathing as they did in the piping hot geothermal pools, with the added involuntary bonus of some uncomfortable Viking-like grunts and growls as your privates adjust to the water temperature.
Leif Pettersen is a Lonely Planet author, freelance travel writer and polyglot. He's also the closest thing we have to a real Viking. He’s visited 48 countries (so far) and can be found @leifpettersen.