Nordic countries

The Nordic countries are a group of countries with close cooperation in the north of Europe. They include Scandinavia, a region specifically comprising Denmark, Norway and Sweden, but the term "Nordic" is broader and also includes Finland and Iceland.

At almost 1.2 million square kilometres (463,000 square miles), the countries together form one of the largest regions in Europe, but are home to only around 24 million people, accounting for a mere 4% of its population. The northernmost part of the region is within the Arctic.

Countries

Map of the Nordic countries
Denmark
Scandinavia's smallest country features hundreds of islands, rolling farmland, endless beaches and a more continental vibe.
Norway
Famous for deep fjords, steep mountains, countless waterfalls, wooden churches, the Northern Lights and millennial maritime traditions. Norway's topology and nature are characteristic for their regional diversities.
Sweden
Scandinavia's largest country by area and population is home of endless forests, clear blue lakes and the beautiful archipelagos along its coasts.
Finland
Hundreds of thousands of islands and lakes to explore in this bridge to the east. The most remote and perhaps the most conservative of the Nordic countries, with a language unlike the Scandinavian languages.
Iceland
Spectacular scenery of volcanoes, glaciers, geysers, and waterfalls on this North Atlantic island.
Åland islands
An archipelago and autonomous territory of Finland in the Baltic Sea, where the Swedish-speaking population has its own distinctive culture and sense of quasi-national identity.
Faroe Islands
An autonomous territory of Denmark in the Atlantic Ocean with a very distinct culture and sense of national identity. Especially known for its dramatic natural scenery and unique bird life.
Greenland
An autonomous territory of Denmark; geographically part of North America. The indigenous people, the Inuit, are also culturally close to native America, but there is a strong modern Nordic influence.
Svalbard
An archipelago in the Barents Sea north of Norway, famous for its harsh climate, coal mines and satellite installations. The only part of Norway where polar bears actually live.

Cities

Urban Scandinavia includes many historic cities by the Baltic sea. Pictured: the Nyhavn canal of Copenhagen, Denmark

Other destinations

Nordic Flags

Understand

Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden
Vikings and the Old NorseHistorySami cultureWinterRight to accessHikingCuisine

Rising land, fjords, and other traces of the Ice Age

The Nordic countries were covered by ice during the last Ice Age, until 10,000 BC. The ice has set its mark on the scenery. The Earth's crust was pushed down, and is still rising in modern times, up to one centimetre each year in northern Sweden and Finland. The post-glacial rebound constantly moves the coastline. Places that were navigable water some centuries ago are now far inland. The ice has set other traces in the scenery, such as enormous rocks in otherwise flat terrain. The fjords of Norway were also created by glacial erosion, though at a longer time scale.

Strictly speaking, Scandinavia covers only Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The term Nordic countries also includes Finland and Iceland. Greenland is geographically a part of North America, but is politically linked to the rest of the Nordic countries by being both an integral part of the Danish Kingdom and a member of the cooperative political entity called the Nordic Council.

The Nordic countries share many cultural traits including similar flags and many related languages. The region is known for its natural beauty and more recently its liberalism. Denmark, Finland and Sweden are EU members. Oil and gas rich Norway, and, the only island nation (to the west), Iceland, are not (but they are part of EFTA and the Schengen area).

The Nordic countries all enjoy a relatively strong economy. Norway and Iceland have in particular profited from an abundance of natural resources. Sweden and Finland also have their share of natural resources, but are in the international marketplace mostly famous for strong brands like Volvo, Saab, Ericsson and Nokia. Although Denmark has developed sophisticated businesses in a number of industries, it is above all the leading agricultural country in Scandinavia. Strong economies and relatively small social differences translate into high prices for visitors.

Elaborate welfare states are a common characteristic of the Nordic countries. Most things are highly organized and tourists should expect everything to proceed according to plans, rules and timetables. According to Transparency International, the Nordic countries are the least corrupt in the world (matched only by a handful of countries including Canada, New Zealand and Singapore). The Nordic countries enjoy a relatively low crime rate are and are usually listed among the most prosperous countries in the world.

History

See also: Vikings and the Old Norse, Nordic history

Where are the Vikings?

Many tourists from English-speaking countries wonder where in Scandinavia they can see real Vikings. Unfortunately, they have not been around for a thousand years. Viking is not the name of a separate tribe or nation – it is simply the old Norse word for "sailor", "pirate" or "navigator of the fjords" depending on etymology. While most Swedish, Norwegian and Danish people were farmers or fishermen who remained in Scandinavia (therefore, by definition, not Vikings), some men (and in a few cases women) joined expeditions of trade, exploration and piracy, reaching as far as present-day Canada, Morocco and Caucasia, taking part in the foundation of great nations such as Russia, France and England. As the pagan Scandinavians were converted to Christianity around AD 1000, the Viking raids declined. While Viking history is not very visible in the landscape, there are still traces from the Viking age, such as runestones and burial mounds, everywhere in Scandinavia. Some good places to see Viking age artifacts are the Swedish History Museum ("Historiska museet") in Stockholm, Birka in Ekerö, the Settlement Exhibition Reykjavík 871±2 of the Reykjavik City Museum ("Minjasafn Reykjavíkur") in Reykjavik, the Viking Ship Museum ("Vikingeskibsmuseet") in Roskilde, Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, and Old Uppsala in Uppsala.

The Viking Age heritage has been contorted throughout history. It was romanticized during the 19th century when the idea of horned helmets was invented (a horned helmet would be very impractical in combat). Most Scandinavians are proud of their Viking roots, though they don't take them very seriously.

Scandinavia was covered by an ice sheet around 10,000 BC. As the ice pushed the land down, it is still rising from the sea, at a rate near 1 centimeter a year. While the north Germanic peoples populated southern coastal areas, Finns and Sami migrated from the Ural Mountains. From around AD 700, Norse sailors known as Vikings ventured across the Atlantic and European rivers. Christianity did not get a grip on Scandinavia until around AD 1000; and reached Finland somewhat later. The Nordic countries were joint in the Kalmar Union throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, but since Sweden broke away in the 16th century, they fought eleven wars against Denmark, during the following 300 years, until the idea of Scandinavian unity was revived in the 19th century. Norway, Finland and Iceland gained or regained independence during the early 20th century. Since the end of World War II, the five Nordic countries have prospered as democratic welfare states. Though they have taken different paths in the international community, with Norway and Iceland rejecting the European Union, and Finland being the only Nordic country to adopt the euro, the brotherhood between the Nordic nations is only tainted by friendly rivalry.

Geography

Denmark borders on Germany, while Finland and Norway border on Russia, but otherwise the Nordic countries are separated from their neighbours by the Baltic, the North Sea or the Atlantic itself. An abundance of land, water and wilderness is a common characteristic of the Nordic countries (except Denmark where most of the country is farmland or settlements). For example, Sweden is one of the largest countries in Europe in area but only has some 9 million inhabitants. A surprising example of the relative size of Scandinavia is the fact that there is an equal distance from the southernmost point in Denmark to either the Nordkapp at the northernmost point of Norway or to Syracuse in southern Sicily.

The landscapes and nature varies much across the Nordic countries. Denmark is a flat lowland like the Netherlands and Northern Germany. Iceland is both volcanic and Arctic. Norway and Sweden share the Scandinavian peninsula which is highest on the Atlantic coast and gradually becomes lower until Sweden meets the Baltic sea. The Scandinavian mountains, running from Southern Norway and past Tromsø in Northern Norway, are steep and rugged on the Atlantic side, gentle on the Eastern side. Finland is relatively flat, somewhat colder, and characterized by lakes scattered over the entire country. Large parts of Sweden and Finland (as well as parts of Norway) are covered by deep pine tree forests that are essentially the western end of the great Russian taiga. Galdhøpiggen in Norway's Jotunheimen national park, is at 2469 m (8,100 f) the tallest European mountain north of the Alps, while Kebnekaise, 2104 m (6,902 f) tall, is the highest mountain in Sweden.

Climate

See also: Winter in the Nordic countries

The Scandinavian countries are known for their distinct seasonal changes due to fluctuations in temperature, wind and precipitation. Add to this that the amount of sunlight varies greatly between summer and winter; the northern parts of these countries have up to a few months of no sunlight in the winter, and a few months of constant sunlight in the summer. Understanding variations in daylight and temperatures across seasons is essential for any visitor the Nordic countries.

Average temperature and precipitation by month, Helsinki
Average temperature and precipitation by month, Copenhagen

Climate also varies considerably across countries and regions, the contrast between Norway's coastal areas and the interior of the Nordic countries is striking. As a rule of thumb, winters are colder further inland, further north and at higher altitudes. In summer the situation is roughly vice verse: summers are warmer and drier the further inland or east/south one travels. Norway's Atlantic coast gets the most precipitation.

The northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland, as well as most of Greenland, are within the Arctic. Due to the high latitude, summer nights are very short and in the northern most part there is even midnight sun in the summer (and no sun at all around mid winter). While central parts of Scandinavia (the Oslo-Stockholm-Copenhagen triangle) are more densely populated, vast areas in the north or in the mountains are hardly populated at all. Because of this, space, light and nature are key characteristics of the four northern countries, with the exception of Denmark.

The Nordic countries have a mild climate, at least much warmer than would be expected at this latitude. Northern parts have subarctic climate, while southern parts and coastal areas enjoy a temperate climate. Denmark and coastal areas of Southern Norway, Iceland and Western Sweden experience only occasional frost and snow during winter. Summers in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland are pleasantly warm with day temperatures in the range 15–30°C. In the mountains and along western coasts, the weather is generally more unstable. Finland has the most stable sunny weather in summer. In general, the further inland, the bigger the difference between summer and winter. The Baltic side is generally colder in winter than the North Sea/Atlantic side. Western Norway and the Atlantic Islands have the smallest difference between summer and winter.

Talk

Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are closely related and more or less mutually intelligible in their standard forms, especially in writing, though some spoken dialects can be harder to understand. As these are all Germanic languages, there are many cognates of German and Dutch, and even English speakers will be able to recognise the odd word once they get their heads around the phonetic spelling: e.g. English school is Swedish skola and Danish/Norwegian skole, while first becomes först/først. Everyday words such as "open", "room", "bus" and "taxi" are virtually identical to English. Many grocery items also, for instance "bread" is "brød/bröd", "milk" is "melk/mjölk".

While Icelandic and Faroese are also Nordic languages, they have been in a linguistic freezer since the 13th century, and are largely unintelligible to other Germanic speakers, though many cognates will still be recognisable. Icelanders and Faroese learn Danish at school, and can talk with their Scandinavian kinsmen in a Nordic tongue. Nordic people who have regular contact with their neigbours usually also know how to adjust their speak into "Scandinavian" so that it is more easily understood by the others.

The real outlier is Finnish, which belongs to the Finno-Ugric family, thus not a Nordic language or even belonging to the Indo-European language family at all. Finland has a roughly 5% Swedish-speaking minority, Finnish and Swedish languages have equal legal standing, Finnish speakers study Swedish at school and about 45 % of Finnish-speakers are conversant in it. English is still better mastered by most. As Finnish is related to Hungarian and Estonian, speakers of those languages will recognise several cognates. The Saami language also belongs to the Finno-Ugric family and is an official language in some municipalities of Lapland and Finnmark and also a recognized minority language in Sweden. The people of Åland speak Swedish.

Communicating in Scandinavia is easy for English speakers. The Nordic countries have some of the highest levels of English proficiency among countries where English is not an official language. Public information (such as in public transport or government offices) is often printed in English in addition to the official language of the district. Tourist information is often printed in other languages as well, typically German or French.

Virtually everybody born since 1945 speaks at least basic English, and younger people tend to be fluent. Most students also study a third major European language, such as German, French and increasingly Spanish. Foreign language television programmes are usually shown in their original language with subtitles, with only children's programmes sometimes being dubbed into the local language, and even then DVDs and cinemas also offer the original language with subtitles.

The Scandinavian alphabets contain some special letters: Å/AA, Ä/Æ and Ö/Ø (different languages use different versions). In contrast to diacritic letters in many other languages, these are letters in their own right, ordered at the end of the alphabet; see the phrasebooks for details.

Get in

The Skärgården Archipelago runs along much the Bothnia coast, Åland and Gulf of Finland. It consists of thousands of rocky inlets, like this one seen from the Stockholm–Tallinn ferry.
Norway is rightly famous for spectacular fjords like Geirangerfjord

By plane

Due to the large distances and the water surrounding most of the Nordic area, air travel is often the most effective way of getting to the Nordic countries. All the main cities have international airports, and even towns like Haugesund and Ålesund serve some international flights. Almost all European airlines service Scandinavian airports.

San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C, New York, Bangkok, Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo
New York, Delhi, Bangkok, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Singapore.
Seattle, Minneapolis-St Paul, Orlando, Boston, New York, Toronto, Halifax

Besides the regional airlines, there are also several major international airlines that offer direct routes to Scandinavia. Emirates, Gulf Air, Air Canada and Singapore Airlines fly to Copenhagen, Air China to Stockholm. Also PIA (Pakistan), Thai, Qatar Airways, American Airlines, Delta, and United Airlines all service several intercontinental routes to Scandinavia.

Alternative low cost airlines in the region include 'Norwegian in Norway, Sweden and Denmark and Iceland Express on Iceland. Both of these airlines have routes to one of the London airports, and hence London is a good entry point, if you can find a cheaper flight there, which is often the case. Many of the low cost airlines mainly service routes between the colder Scandinavia and the sunny Mediterranean; hence you can also often find bargain flights from Spain, Italy, etc. should you wish to experience a real Nordic winter.

By train

Denmark is well-connected to the German rail network. The direct connection to Copenhagen is, however, by the Puttgarden–Rødby ferry. Sweden is connected to Danish railways via the Øresund bridge between Copenhagen and Malmö or to the German capital by a bi-daily night train during the summer, bypassing Denmark via the TrelleborgRostock ferry. Due to the barrier provided by the Baltic sea, the only other connection to the European mainland, is via Moscow or St Petersburg in Russia. For interrail pass holders most of the ferries crossing the Baltic and North seas offers discounts (25-50%), but only the Scandlines ferries are completely included in the pass (see By ferry section).

Copenhagen, (Denmark))
Malmö, (Sweden
Aarhus, (Denmark)
Helsinki, (Finland)
Helsinki, (Finland)
DB Deutsche Bahn, 5 hours (day)
SJ Berlin Night Express, 8½ hours (night)
DB Deutsche Bahn, 8½ hours (day)
VR Finnish Railways, 14½ hours (night)
VR Finnish Railways, 3½ hours (day)

By ferry

See also: Baltic Sea ferries

Norway is served by ferries from Denmark and Germany. To Sweden, there are ferries from Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Iceland is connected to Denmark and the Faroe Islands by ferry. To Finland there are ferries from Estonia and Germany.

Oslo (Norway)
Gothenburg (Sweden)
Trelleborg (Sweden)
Malmö (Sweden)
Helsinki (Finland)
Gedser (Denmark)
Trelleborg (Sweden)
Helsinki (Finland)
Trelleborg (Sweden)
Helsinki (Finland)
Stockholm (Sweden)
Stockholm (Sweden)
Nynäshamn¹ (Sweden)
Nynäshamn¹ (Sweden)
Nynäshamn¹ (Sweden)
Karlskrona (Sweden)
Karlshamn (Sweden)
Ystad (Sweden)
Trelleborg (Sweden)
Rødby (Denmark)
Color Line, 19½ hours
Stena Line, 14 hours
TT Line, 10 hours
Finnlines, 9 hours
Finnlines, 27 hours
Scandlines, 1¾ hours
TT Line and Stena Line, 6 hours
Tallink Silja line, 26 hours
Stena Line, 4 hours
Many operators, 2-4 hours
Tallink Silja line, 17 hours
Tallink Silja line, 17 hours
Stena Line, 10 hours
Stena Line, 13 hours
Polferries, 18 hours
Stena Line, 11 hours
DFDS, 15 hours
Polferries, 6½ hours
Unity Line, 7 hours
Scandlines, ¾ hours

¹ About 1 hour south of Stockholm by suburban train

By car

Denmark is directly connected to the continental road network. From Denmark it is possible to cross to Sweden over the Öresund bridge (which is a toll road, see official site for prices – around €45 at time of writing). There are also many ferry connections from Denmark, most of them takes cars. The only overland alternative to the Öresund bridge is to enter via Russia to Finland or Norway. Save a few short stretches of regular road, you can drive all the way to Stockholm or Oslo on highway from the German ones, but keep in mind that the tolls on the two Danish highway bridges you need to pass to get to Sweden are heavy, and you could easily be saving money taking a more direct route with a ferry. Virtually all Scandinavian roads are toll free, but some of the larger cities (most notably Stockholm) have introduced congestion charges when driving in the centre, and some of the longer bridges and tunnels levy tolls to pay for their construction.

Speed limits are uniform; 50kph in cities and 80kph (70kph in Sweden) on rural roads unless otherwise indicated. Motorways range from 100 in Norway (only when signposted, otherwise 80), 110 in Sweden, 120 in Finland to 130 in Denmark, again unless other speed limits are signposted. Keep in mind that while many Scandinavians routinely exceed speed limits, fines are heavy and if you don't benefit from the high Scandinavian wages, they will feel even more steep, so you will in essence probably be gambling with your holiday budget. Speeding in city zones is considered a severe offence, and there are many unmarked automatic speed traps installed in such zones.

Winter driving skills are essential through much of the year, when roads are treacherously slippery, winter tyres are mandatory and speed limits are reduced.

Get around

By ferry

See also: Baltic Sea ferries
Silja Serenade, a typical Helsinki-Stockholm ferry

Baltic Sea cruises

"Our level of drunkenness was normal for a cruise of this kind." The managing director of shipping company Tallink gave an interesting quote after his and the entire board's drunken rampage on one of Tallink's cruise ships in 2006. (The accusations against the VIP's included sexual harassment against female staff, beating up a bartender and causing a fire by putting a fish in a toaster.) The director's explanation clearly shows the main PR problem about the cruise ships on the Baltic Sea: they have a reputation as trashy booze boats, far from the glamour of other international cruises. This is largely due to the fact that the tickets can be dirt cheap – sometimes less than 50 SEK – and that tax-free alcohol shopping is among the main attractions. Still, some of the ships are really pretty, and it is an easy and cheap way to get a glimpse of a country on the other side of the Baltic Sea. Also, not all cruises include obnoxious drunks trying to toast fish. Stockholm is the main port in Sweden for the cruises, and the main destinations are Helsinki, Åland and Turku in Finland, Tallinn in Estonia and Riga in Latvia. Ships are operated by Viking Line, Tallink-Silja, Birka Cruises and MSC cruises. To get the cheapest tickets, try to go on a weekday in low season, share a four-bed cabin with some friends and make sure to keep your eyes peeled for last minute offers.

Major coastal cities of the Baltic Sea are often connected with ferry lines, e.g. Turku–Stockholm and Helsinki–Tallinn, and ferries are a natural part of many journeys for Scandinavians. The larger long-distance ferries are in effect cruise ships, with behemoths like the Silja Europa featuring 13 decks stacked full of shops, restaurants, spas, saunas etc. Longer routes are nearly always scheduled to sail during the night, so you arrive fresh to continue the often long journeys required in Scandinavia. If you travel by ferry to Norway or pass through Åland, there are Tax Free sales on board, since Norway is not part of the EU and Åland is subject to special regulations. For the same reason some of these lines, especially the Stockholm–Helsinki ferries, are known as party boats – alcohol is heavily taxed on shore.

In addition to major lines listed below, the Hurtigruten ferries, running all along Norways amazing jagged coast line, and through spectacular fjords, from Bergen in the south to Kirkenes in the Arctic north, docking in many small hamlets and villages on the way, offer a unique and very Scandinavian experience.

FromToOperator
Copenhagen, (Denmark)Oslo (Norway)| DFDS Seaways, 16.5 hr
Grenå, (Denmark)Varberg, (Sweden) Stena Line 4.5 hr
Frederikshavn, (Denmark)Göteborg, (Sweden) Stena Line 2-4 hr
Hirtshals, (Denmark)Larvik, (Norway) Colorline, 4 hr
Hirtshals, (Denmark)Kristiansand, (Norway) Colorline, 4 hr
Hirtshals, (Denmark)Bergen, (Norway) Fjordline, 19.5 hr (via Stavanger - 11.5 hr)
Hirtshals, (Denmark)Seyðisfjörður, (Iceland) Smyril line, 69 hr (via the Faroe Islands - 44 hr summer)
Hirtshals, (Denmark)Tórshavn, (Faroe Islands) Smyril line, 44 hr (winter)
Strömstad, (Sweden)Sandefjord, (Norway) Colorline, 2.5 hr
Stockholm, (Sweden)Helsinki, (Finland) Tallink Silja line & Viking line, 16.5 hr (via Åland islands)
Stockholm, (Sweden)Turku, (Finland) Tallink Silja line & Viking line, 11 hr (via Åland islands)
Umeå, (Sweden)Vaasa, (Finland) Wasaline, 3.5 hr

By train

S220 Pendolino, Finland
See also: Rail travel in Europe

Trains are an adequate way of travelling around Scandinavia. International connections between Denmark, southern Sweden and southern Norway are good, but up north services are sparse and there is a short gap in the network between northern Sweden and Finland (most rail passes allow free use of the connecting bus service). Iceland has no trains at all.

The previous night train connection between Copenhagen and Oslo has been retired, and this route now requires a change in Gothenburg, on the other hand day time connections have become much more frequent after the opening of the Øresund bridge (8.5 hr). Between Copenhagen and Stockholm up to 7 X2000 express trains run directly every day (5.5 hr), and the daily night train only requires an easy change in Malmö (7.5 hr). Further north there are two daily connections between Oslo and Bodø (17 hr, via Trondheim) – the northernmost stop on the Norwegian railway network, and two daily night trains (regular and express) between Stockholm and Umeå/Luleå (16–20 hr) in the northernmost part of Sweden. In the summer Lapplandståget – Scandinavia's longest railway journey – will take you directly all the way from Malmö (& Copenhagen) in the south to Narvik in the north.

The ScanRail pass was retired in 2007, but visitors not resident in Europe can opt for the very similar Eurail Scandinavia Pass, which offers 4 to 10 days of travel in a 2-month period for €232–361. For residents of Europe, the all-Europe or single-country Interrail passes are also an option.

Major railway companies in Scandinavian include DSB and Arriva in Denmark, NSB in Norway, SJ and Veolia in Sweden and VR in Finland.

By bus

If you are not using a rail pass, long distance buses will often be a cheaper alternative, especially for longer journeys. But since highways are almost exclusively centred around the southern half of Scandinavia, journey times become increasingly uncompetitive the further north you get, on the other hand, rail services also get increasingly sparse in northern Scandinavia. There is no dominant company like Greyhound is in North America, but a host of local, regional and national bus companies, some of the major companies include GoByBus, Eurolines and Swebus, which all service routes in the Scandinavian triangle between Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm. In addition the major national intercity bus companies are Abildskou in Denmark, Nor-Way and Nettbuss in Norway. In Finland timetables and tickets to nearly all lines can be obtained through Matkahuolto.

By car

See also: Driving in Sweden, Driving in Norway
Road on the Faroe Islands

Think twice before driving a car in Scandinavia. Rentals are often expensive, fuel price is among the world's highest, and distances are long. In Norway, in particular, distances that seem short on a map can be very long and tiring if you need to drive along twisty fjord roads. Collisions with wildlife, particularly moose, deer and, particularly north of the Arctic circle, reindeer, are quite common and can be fatal, so watch out.

If planning on driving in Scandinavia outside the summer season, you will need to be familiar with winter driving conditions as well as having your car equipped accordingly – particularly with winter tires. Study the regulations carefully; you can get fined for not having winter tyres in some countries in certain periods and conditions (i.e. in Sweden approved winter tires are mandatory 1 December to 31 March if road temperature is below 0°C or there is snow/ice on the road) and driving with studded tires might either cost you a fee (e.g. in Norway it's 30 NOK per day in cities) or be limited to certain periods (e.g. in Denmark they are only allowed between 1 November and 15 April). Even more importantly, you and your travel mates can get seriously injured if you drive ill prepared; adjust your speed according to the conditions.

Some main routes are the E4 through Sweden, the E6 through Sweden and Norway, the E10 through Sweden and Norway, and the E45 through Europe.

See

There is a constant and long-standing rivalry between Copenhagen and Stockholm over which city can claim the title as Scandinavia's unofficial capital. Depending on how you count, both cities are the largest, most visited, and the target of most investment. However, after the completion of the Øresund bridge, and subsequent integration of Copenhagen and Malmö – Sweden's third largest city – this region is fast emerging as the main urban centre in Scandinavia, while Stockholm arguably grabs the title as the most beautiful.

Northern Lights

See the Northern Lights (Latin: Aurora Borealis; Scandinavian: Nordlys/-ljus (Swedish: Norrsken)).

Aurora over Tromsø, Norway

Viking heritage

See also: Vikings and the Old Norse

Being a trademark and pride of Scandinavia, there are many opportunities to dig into the stories of the (in)famous Vikings. Each of the countries are often quick to take the honour of being the centre of Viking activities, where no such thing can factually be said. Actually, all countries "contributed" to the era, and there are many interesting places to follow into the footsteps of the Vikings and their times. Oslo and Roskilde both host brilliant Viking ship museums.

Royal Scandinavia

Denmark, Sweden, and Norway are all monarchies, although the royal families only have a ceremonial role. They remain part of society and are, more or less, popular among the population. They remain public figures often portrayed in the media and taking part in all sorts of events. Where ever they will show up, something interesting is likely going on. But more importantly, royal palaces and mansions are dotted throughout the region and make for some quality sightseeing, and knowing they are actual homes of some of the longest, continuously running royal families in the world just makes it better.

Nordic design

Scandinavia is famous for its design and architecture, which is often characterised by its minimal and functional approach. Copenhagen and Helsinki are the best places to experience it with some excellent, interactive museums and some live samples throughout the streets. Actually, the design and architecture are some of the strongest, most important assets of these cities, but elsewhere offer interesting opportunities as well.

Sami culture

The northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland are home to the Sami, an indigenous people.

Itineraries

View on Iceland's ring road in the south of the country

Do

King of the woods


Named elk by the British, moose by Americans, älg by Swedes, elg by Norwegians and hirvi by Finns, the Alces alces is the world's largest deer species. Hunting season during October is a national pastime, many rural homes boast an antler trophy, and moose meat is commonly eaten during autumn. Road warning signs are occasionally stolen as souvenirs; this is not only illegal, but dangerous to other travellers – each year, around 5,000 vehicles crash with a moose. Besides the wild populations, there are several moose parks around Sweden. Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish wildlife contains many other big animals, including reindeer, red deer, bears, boars and roes.

The great outdoors

The sparse population and the right to access makes Scandinavia a great place for outdoor activities.

Saunas

Family friendly amusement parks

Music acts

Scandinavia has a tradition of music across several genres, with church choirs in seemingly every parish, classical composers such as Edvard Grieg and Jean Sibelius, pop music acts such as ABBA, Björk and Swedish House Mafia, as well as a dominance of the heavy-metal scene. The countries, in particular Denmark, are known for its many music festivals during the summer months. The largest in each country are:

Buy

Finland is the only Nordic country using the Euro. Denmark's currency is pegged to the Euro within a narrow band.

Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden each has a national currency, all known as krona or krone (plural kronor/kroner), often shortened kr. The centesimal subdivision øre is used in Norway and Denmark (although Norway has abolished coins smaller than 1 kr). The national currencies are distinguished by the initials DKK, ISK, NOK and SEK.

Outside currencies are generally not accepted, except in border towns. Euro may be taken in some shops in the cities. ATMs are common, and most establishments accept credit cards (at least VISA and Mastercard), so carrying large amounts of cash is unnecessary.

Some suggested shopping items are traditional handicraft, and modern Nordic design. Neither is cheap, though.

Eat

Smørrebrød, the famous Danish open-faced sandwich
See also: Nordic cuisine

The cuisines of all Scandinavian countries are quite similar, although each country does have its signature dishes. Seafood features prominently on restaurant menus, although beef, pork and chicken are more common in many everyday dishes. Potatoes are the main staple, most often simply boiled, but also made into mashed potatoes, potato salad and more. Spices are used sparingly, but fresh herbs are used to accentuate the ingredients.

Famous pan-Scandinavian dishes include:

Bread comes in dozens of varieties, with dark, heavy rye bread a specialty, and Scandinavian pastries are so well known that the word "danish" has even been imported into English.

Lately there has been a focus on revitalizing the "Nordic kitchen" by focusing on local produce and generally raising the quality of gastronomy in the region, often coined as New Nordic Cuisine. This is influencing both everyday cooking as well as fine dining. As a result, especially Copenhagen and Stockholm have seen the development of excellent high end restaurants, including NOMA which has been awarded the best in the world 3 years in a row.

As in most of Europe, internationalized ethnic cuisines are popular in major Scandinavian cities. Especially Denmark and Sweden have many Middle Eastern and Asian diners. Norway has a large number of Asian cafes and restaurants.

Drink

Chilling out at the Arctic Icebar, Helsinki

Vikings were famously heavy drinkers, and despite continuing government efforts to stamp out the demon drink through heavy taxation, today's Scandinavians continue the tradition. Bring in your full tax-free allowance if you plan to indulge, since in Norway you can expect to pay up to 60 NOK (7€) for a pint of beer in a pub, and Sweden and Finland are not far behind. Alcohol in Denmark is significantly cheaper, although still more expensive than elsewhere in Europe. To reduce the pain, it is common to start drinking at home before heading out to party. The drinking age is generally 18 in all Nordic countries (but 20 in Iceland), but many bars and clubs have their own age limits.

Denmark is the only Nordic country where stronger alcoholic beverages can be bought in supermarkets. The other countries restrict retailing (excepts restaurants and bars) to government-operated stores. Vinmonopolet in Norway, Vinbuđin on Iceland, Systembolaget in Sweden and Alko in Finland. Age limits and closing hours are strict.

The main tipples are beer and vodka-like distilled spirits called brännvin, including herb-flavored akvavit. Spirits are typically drunk as snaps or ice-cold from shot glasses.

Sleep

Throughout Scandinavia, with exception of densely populated Denmark, Allemansrätten, or "Every Man's Right" in English, is an important underpinning of society, and guarantees everyone the right to stay or camp on any uncultivated land for one or two nights, as long as you respect certain norms, stay out of sight of any residents, and leave no traces of your visit when you leave. If you enjoy the great outdoors, this can help make the otherwise expensive Scandinavian countries, become quite affordable.

With so much incredible nature outside the doorstep, it should be no surprise that the Scandinavian countries have a well developed hostel network, named Vandrerhjem/Vandrarhem in the Scandinavian languages – literally translating into "wanderers' home" or "hikers' home". While the rules are often quite strict, it is much cheaper than hotels, and with almost 800 hostels available, you can find one almost anywhere. The respective national organisations are called Danhostel in Denmark, STF or SVIF in Sweden, Norske Vandrerhjem in Norway, SRM in Finland and finally Farfuglar in Iceland.

Respect

Nordic people are generally cosmopolitan and secular. They have some virtues in common:

Tobacco smoking is prohibited at indoor venues in all countries, and is considered to be a vice. While sober at work and behind the steering wheel, Nordic people tend to binge-drink alcohol during weekends, with a risk of drunk brawls.

Despite the liberal image of the Nordic countries, narcotics including cannabis are taboo among most, young as well as old, and treated with zero tolerance by the police. Possession of even personal use amounts is criminalized in all five countries.

Denmark, long more liberal than the rest, has also taken a harder line in recent years and tried to fight the drug dealing in Christiania, but attempts by the police to get inside of the area failed, and were met with harsh resistance from the people within that area. The area still stands, and is known as the part of Copenhagen where drugs are easily accessible.

The Nordic reputation to have relaxed view of nudity and sexuality is only partly true. While Nordic people accept homosexual and cross-gender expressions as well as public breastfeeding in public, they frown on adult skinny-dipping outside private, or designated nudist, beaches. In Sweden, Norway and on Iceland, hiring a prostitute is criminalized (and also in Finland, if he or she is victim of trafficking), and while pornography is legal (including strip clubs), it is taboo.

Due to the friendly rivalry between the countries, many appreciate any comments about their own country being better than their neighbours.

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Saturday, April 02, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.