Scandinavia and the Nordic region are so often portrayed in the global media as the figurehead for everything from modern design to welfare models to happiness. In the decade before the pandemic, that image turned into economic benefits. US travelers’ interest in visiting Scandinavia grew rapidly, particularly in Norway.
With Scandinavian culture so strongly represented, it would be easy to think that Denmark, Norway and Sweden are one and the same. But despite the close cooperation, the three countries differ from a touristic point of view.
So, to get a true Scandinavian travel experience, you first need to define exactly what that means for you. Here’s an introduction to what to expect in the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.
Design in Denmark
Denmark is really the weird thing about Scandinavia. In contrast to Norway and Sweden, the country is relatively small and extremely flat. In fact, Denmark’s highest point is just 561 feet above sea level.
Denmark’s capital Copenhagen is the second largest tourist attraction after Sweden’s Stockholm. Danish style and design play a big part in its popularity. Copenhagen Fashion Week is the premier event of its kind in the Nordic region, while the Design Museum is the best place to delve into the history behind the global popularity of Danish and Scandinavian design.
Monocle magazine recently named Copenhagen the best design city in the world because of its remarkable architecture and urban planning: “Without resorting to brand wars or architectural gimmicks, Denmark’s capital is, to put it simply, designed for life.”
With generally milder weather than much of Scandinavia, Copenhagen is actually a city designed for the outdoors. Strolling through lush parks and along the harbor promenades is the best way to understand why the city is so often referred to as the home of happiness.
Denmark, of course, has more to offer than its capital. The flat terrain of the country and the world’s leading bicycle infrastructure are ideal for a bike tour. Take inspiration from the 850-mile Baltic Sea Route, which features dirt roads, quiet beaches, and bike-friendly ferries. The route is divided into 14 sections and fully signposted, making it suitable for both professionals and keen tourists.
Nature in Norway
The natural landscape of Norway is without a doubt the country’s number one tourist attraction. Norway’s terrain varies from high mountain peaks and plateaus to the world famous fjords carved out of the land by glaciers.
One of the best ways to experience the fjords – and more than a thousand miles of Norway’s epic coastline – is by taking the coastal ferry, which also doubles as a cruise. Both Hurtigruten and newcomer Havila lead the popular 12-day round trips from Bergen to Kirkenes and back. Depending on the season, the trip also offers passengers the experience of the midnight sun or a view of the northern lights.
The big red flag when planning a trip to Norway is of course the cost. While every Nordic country is expensive compared to the UK or the US, Norway tops the charts. High salaries drive up the cost of otherwise low-value goods and services like fast food, but high-end experiences remain competitive.
The key to saving money lies in planning your food, transportation, and accommodation in advance. Self-catering in wooden cabins beat full-service hotels in terms of both price and the authentic Norwegian experience.
The cities of Sweden
Although it shares the vast Scandinavian peninsula with Norway, Sweden looks and feels completely different too. The Scandinavian mountains line the Norwegian border, but the rest of Sweden has fewer towering peaks and more lakes and forests.
But maybe Sweden best defines its cities. With more than 10 million inhabitants, Sweden’s population is almost twice that of Denmark and Norway. Much of this population lives in the southern part of the country, in or near a handful of large cities.
Almost a million people live in the capital, Stockholm, and the same number is easily accessible for commuting. But despite its size, Stockholm is also known for its islands. Much of the city is built on fourteen islands, while the nearby archipelago offers tranquility to locals and tourists alike on thousands of islands, many of which are just a short ferry ride from the bustling capital.
The dark side of Swedish cities has been brought into the spotlight thanks to a number of Scandinavian crime hits. Stockholm was the scene of the popular millennium Series of books and films starting with The girl with the dragon tattoowhile Malmo hosted many scenes in The bridge.
Sweden’s smaller cities don’t escape the spotlight either. With only 20,000 inhabitants, the peaceful Ystad was the charming setting for the anything but peaceful events of Wallander.