Instant expert: The Vikings (dreamstime)
Article Words : Wanderlust team | 06 March

Instant expert: The Vikings

With the British Museum's Viking exhibition now open, we give you the low down on the Medieval Era's most prolific travellers and name the best Viking sites around the world

Have the Vikings returned to Britain?

Essentially yes, but with much less social uproar and ultra-violence than last time. From 6 March to 22 June, the British Museum will host a new exhibition, Vikings: Life and Legend (£16.50; britishmuseum.org), about the seafaring Scandinavians – its first for over 30 years.

Do I really want to spend a day with these savages?

Steady on. The modern image of the Viking has become a clichéd caricature of barbarity, but the exhibition aims to dispel the myths and educate people on the reality of this innovative bunch, who successfully colonised a huge chunk of Europe (and elsewhere) from the late-eighth to the 11th century.

OK, so what’s on show?

Excavated weaponry, armour and stolen treasure, as well as Viking skeletons recently found in a mass grave near Weymouth. The star attraction is the remains of the Roskilde 6, a 37m-long Viking ship dating from AD 1025.

And what about horned helmets?

I wouldn’t count on it. The idea of Vikings wearing these spiky hats into battle is romantic fiction – they would have been far too cumbersome and hazardous, not to mention precious.

Interesting. So where can I see Viking stuff in situ?

You're spoilt for choice. The UNESCO World Heritage site of Jelling in Denmark is one of the best places, with two grave mounds (one believed to belong to Gorm the Old), two runic stones and a church dating back to AD 1100. Just two hours to the north is Lindholm Høje where archaeologists have uncovered Denmark's largest Viking and Iron Age graveyard.

Other options include the reconstructed Viking-era village at Foteviken and the Royal Mounds at Uppsala Högar, both in Sweden.

Don't miss the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo where the world's best preserved wooden Viking ships are on display.

So it's all in Scandinavia then?

Not at all. Excavations at Hedeby in Northern Germany have uncovered a settlement which prospered between the 8th and the 11th centuries and are well worth exploring. Further east you'll find Viking sites across Russia where they established an extensive network of trade routes.

Gnezdovo in Smolensk Oblast features a Viking-age citadel and over 3000 burial mounds. Finds include Arabian coins and a Byzantine dish, testament to the reach of 11th century Viking traders. An exquisite axe-head inlaid with a gold serpent, discovered in Russia's Kazan region, is on display as part of the British Museum’s exhibition.

And to the west?

The Vikings left their mark in Iceland, Greenland and even in North America, beating Columbus to the continent by 500 years. Venture to L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada, to explore the remains of the only confirmed Viking settlement in the New World. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 1978, it corroborates references to North American settlements found in the Vinland Sagas.

Anywhere in the UK?

Pop into York’s Jorvik Centre, then head for Lindisfarne Island, just off the coast of Northumberland: it’s where, in AD 793, the Vikings first landed in Britain, which for many historians signalled the beginning of the Viking age.

Elsewhere in the UK there's The Braaid on the Isle of Man where visitors can see a stone circle and the remains of a Viking farmstead.

There are sites across Scotland too. In Govan Old Church in Glasgow you'll find stone crosses and hogback grave markers decorated with the figures of warriors and interlace carving. The Northern Isles are also peppered with Viking archaeology. Shetland was part of Scandinavia until the 15th century and there are spectacular sites at Jarlshof and Unst were excavations have revealed a large concentration of longhouses.

Sounds great! Anything else I should know?

For a true Viking experience you can't miss Up Helly Aa the fire festival that takes place in Shetland on the last Tuesday in January each year. Watch as processions of locals in full Viking regalia march through the streets of Lerwick carrying flaming torches before setting a replica Viking longship ablaze.

Top tip:

A week in Denmark is the ultimate Viking getaway, time enough to visit Jelling, Bække, Ribe, Trelleborg, the Silkeborg Museum, the Ladby ship-burial and more.