A thousand years after Scandinavian raiders went a-Viking throughout Europe, their story continues to fascinate. The Viking legacy remains in the thousands of runestones scattered throughout Scandinavia, as well as in archaeological sites and museums where you can learn about how they lived, fought, and sailed the seas even beyond the boundaries of the known world.
The best-preserved Viking ships ever found are on display in a specially built museum on Oslo’s Bygdøy Peninsula. The three ships housed here were discovered between 1867 and 1904 in burial mounds in the Vestfold region along the west side of the Oslo Fjord. The first to be found was the Tune Ship, which dates from around 900 A.D. and is the most badly damaged of the three. Much more complete is the Gokstad Ship, the largest of the three ships at 24 meters (79 feet) long, with space for 32 oarsmen. Constructed around 890 A.D., it is a solid vessel built to withstand high seas. Both the Tune Ship and the Gokstad Ship were used as grave ships for men of high rank.
Less robust than the Gokstad Ship, the Oseberg Ship was a pleasure craft rather than a vessel made for long, rough journeys. It has a classic curled prow and would have been manned by 30 rowers. The oldest of the three ships, it was built around the period 815 to 820 A.D., and was used as a grave ship for a high-ranking woman who died in 834.
A large number of valuable objects, including gold, silver, and jewelry, would have been buried in the mounds along with the ships, but these were unfortunately plundered by grave robbers long before the ships’ discovery. However, numerous other objects of wood, leather, and cloth were uncovered during excavations and are also on display in the museum.
For more information, see the Viking Ship Museum’s website.
In 1962, the remains of five Viking ships were excavated from the seabed of the Roskilde Fjord near Skuldelev in Denmark. The ships had been deliberately sunk in the 11th century to form a blockade during a time when Roskilde, then the capital of Denmark, was under threat of attack from the sea.
Unlike the Viking ships in Oslo, which were all constructed for and buried with people of high rank, the Skuldelev ships represent a range of Viking shipbuilding, from cargo vessels to warships. Because the ships lay underwater for nearly a thousand years, they have suffered serious degradation; archaeologists have painstakingly pieced together the remains like giant jigsaw puzzles. About 75 percent remains of the most complete ship, and only about 25 percent of the most badly damaged.
The ships are on display in a waterfront museum in Roskilde, with large windows that provide views of the fjord outside, where the ships would have sailed. Adjacent to the exhibit hall is Museum Island, where you can watch boatbuilders, ropemakers, and other maritime artisans at work. Berthed along the island are a large number of traditional Nordic boats, including reconstructions of all five of the Skuldelev ships.
For more information, visit the Viking Ship Museum website.
On an island in Lake Mälaren, west of Stockholm, lie the ruins of Birka, founded around the end of the 8th century. At that time, Mälaren was not yet a lake but rather a protected inlet of the Baltic Sea, making it an ideal trading hub for the entire region. Birka became a bustling town, attracting merchants and goods from all over Europe and beyond. Artisans of all kinds settled here, producing everything from bronze goods to textiles to jewelry. The community thrived for roughly two hundred years until, for reasons still unknown, the site was abandoned in the 10th century.
Birka is not a museum but rather an archaeological site, where work is still ongoing as researchers seek to understand more about this settlement and life during the Viking Age in general. The best way to visit is on a boat excursion with Strömma Kanalbolaget; the trip is a scenic one and includes a guided tour of Birka on arrival, which gives a much better understanding of the site than if you explore on your own, since visible archaeological remains are hard to spot without the help of an expert. Strömma operates from Stockholm from early May to late September, and from Mariefred and other stops along Lake Mälaren during the peak summer period.
Finds from the site are displayed in a small museum, along with a model of what the community may have looked like. Nearby is a reconstruction of a Viking village, with several houses you can enter to get a sense of the living conditions of the time.
For more information, see Strömma Kanalbolaget’s Birka page.
Lofotr Viking Museum, Borg, Norway
In the 1980s, the largest Viking-era longhouse ever found was uncovered near the village of Borg in the Lofoten Islands of northern Norway. Dating from the beginning of the Viking Age, the dwelling measured 83 meters (272 feet) in length and belonged to the local chieftain. Earlier dwellings had existed on the site as early as the 6th century and were rebuilt several times, reaching their fullest size in the 8th century. Additional buildings from the 11th through 13th centuries were found during subsequent excavations.
Now fully excavated, the archaeological site is home to the Lofotr Viking Museum, with exhibits about the exciting discoveries that took place here. A reconstruction of the longhouse is located close to the site of the original building, whose floor plan is clearly marked. Items found at the site are displayed in the museum and include gold, glass, and ceramic objects. The museum hosts a variety of Viking-related events and activities during the summer months.
For more information, visit the Lofotr Viking Museum website.
Swedish History Museum, Stockholm
The permanent Viking exhibit at the Swedish History Museum (Historiska museet) highlights everyday life rather than the raiding and warfare more often associated with the Viking era. Themes include religion and mythology, Viking social hierachy, and the growth of trade networks. Items on display include jewelry, bits of clothing, household goods, weapons, farm tools, decorative items, and other objects. Many of the artifacts in the collection were discovered in the archaeological excavations at Birka.
Another highlight of the museum is the Gold Room, filled with treasures including a total of 52 kilos (115 pounds) of gold and 200 kilos (441 pounds) of silver. Many of the items date from Viking times, including numerous swords, statues of Nordic gods, and the oldest known crucifix made in Sweden, unearthed at Birka.
For more information, visit the Swedish History Museum website
National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen
Free to the public, the National Museum of Denmark traces the whole of Danish history. The section on prehistory contains an extensive collection of artifacts from the Viking era, including several large silver hoards buried in the 9th and 10th centuries, as well as weapons, runestones, and other objects.
For more information, see the National Museum of Denmark website.
Fotevikens Museum, Höllviken, Sweden
Located near the southern tip of Sweden, about 23 kilometers (14 miles) from Malmö, Foteviken is an open-air museum consisting of several houses built in the Viking style, using techniques and materials from that era. Costume-clad interpreters portray figures you might have encountered in a real village during Viking times.
Evidence of Viking-era occupation has been found in a number of locations around Foteviken. Near the entrance to the bay, archaeologists have discovered remains of a blockade consisting of stones, wooden stakes, and the remains of four ships. In 1134, a significant battle between rival contenders for the Danish throne took place at Foteviken. The reconstructed village at the Foteviken Museum is designed to show life a year after the battle, as Scandinavia was in transition from the late Viking period to the Middle Ages.
The annual Viking Week in late June includes a Viking market, crafts workshops, Viking games, and a reenactment of the Battle of Foteviken.
For more information, visit the Fotevikens Museum website.
Ribe Viking Center, Denmark
Denmark’s oldest town, Ribe dates from the 8th century and is located in the southwestern part of the Jutland peninsula. Here you’ll find the Ribe Viking Center, a living-history museum that recreates a Viking-age estate, with a longhouse, stable, fields, archery range, and place for ritual sacrifice. The town section of the site include an assembly hall, marketplace, smithy, and beadmaker’s studio. There’s a replica of a Viking ship docked along the river. Everywhere you’ll encounter “real” Vikings going about their daily lives. You can even try your hand at tasks such as grinding flour or baking bread. An international Viking market takes place in early May, and throughout the year there are plenty of special events and activities for both adults and children.
For more information, visit the Ribe Viking Center website.
Kongernes Jelling, Denmark
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Jelling was the home of Denmark’s first recognized king, Gorm, and his son and heir, Harald Bluetooth, in the 10th century. The site includes a pair of burial mounds, as well as two important runestones. The smaller was raised by Gorm in honor of his wife, Thyra. The larger stone, positioned midway between the two burial mounds, was erected by Harald to mark his achievements in annexing Norway to Denmark and converting the Danes to Christianity. The stone bears the oldest known depiction of Christ in Scandinavia. Adjacent to the monuments is a small whitewashed stone church, located on the site of three earlier wooden churches, the first of which was built around the time of Harald’s religious conversion in approximately 960 A.D.
Opened in June 2015, the free-of-charge Experience Center at Kongernes Jelling uses interactive, sensory exhibits to share the story of Viking life and history. Part of the National Museum of Denmark, the center strives to make the archaeological discoveries accessible and interesting for visitors of all ages.
For more information, visit the Kongernes Jelling Experience Center website.
Coming Soon: Viking Life Museum in Stockholm
In June 2015 it was announced that a new Viking life museum will open in Stockholm in spring 2017. The museum will be located near the popular Vasa Museum and will feature a 3-D ride in a Viking ship, as well as other interactive exhibits. Stay tuned for more information.