Winter in the Nordic countries
| Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden|
Vikings and the Old Norse • History • Sami culture • Winter • Right to access • Hiking • Cuisine
Weather and calendar
Nordic summer (late May to early September) is mild with long daylight, and the most comfortable season for visitors. The winter is a more challenging – and exotic – experience, with snow, ice and limited daylight.
The northern half of Sweden and Finland, as well as Norway's mountains and Norway's interior, are usually covered by snow from December to April, with a few year-round glaciers. The first lasting snow may fall already in October or November. Average day temperatures in January in the northern Fennoscandian inland are about -10°C (15°F), with records of about -50°C (-60°F). Ski resorts in the north have their peak season later, during the winter holidays in February and especially at Easter; in northern Finland the skiing season usually ends in early May.
Despite their northern location, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, coastal Iceland and coastal Norway usually have a temperature above zero throughout the year. If snow falls at all, it usually melts away within days.
In the populated southern areas of Sweden and along the south coast of Finland, the winters are very different from each other, with either knee-deep snow, slush, or bare ground. Average day temperatures are slightly below freezing in e.g. Helsinki. Oslo and its hinterland, like the inland in Sweden and Finland at comparable latitudes, enjoy relatively stable winters and offers skiing (cross country and alpine) as well as other winter activities. Even in coastal southern Finland it is normal to have day temperatures around -20°C (0°F) for a week in January–February, with lowest ever recorded day temperatures below -30°C (-10°F).
- It's 10 o'clock in the morning, turn the flash on! – Al Pitcher, New Zealand comedian, residing in Sweden
The further north, the longer daylight in summer, and shorter in winter. At 60 degrees north (around Oslo, Stockholm and Helsinki) the sun is up for 6 hours a day at the Winter Solstice on December 21–22. In the extreme north, it is below the horizon for weeks – this period is known as the polar night or locally as "mørketid" (literally "dark period") or "kaamos". There will however not be plain darkness for the whole 24 hours, but a few hours of twilight during midday. As in the summer when the midnight sun shines at these latitudes, it's easy to get confused about the time of the day. Sunrise and sunset last for more than an hour.
To take use of the precious daylight in winter, try to be outdoors at first light. Snow and ice conditions are usually best for winter sport in the morning, and most ski lifts close at sunset.
After spring equinox (March 21) days are longer in the Nordic countries than further south. The skiing season still continues in the north and in the mountains – in some mountainous areas skiing is possible even in June. The long days and often bright sunshine combined with plenty of snow offer an unusual experience.
|City||Start darkness||End darkness||Notes|
|Bodø, Rovaniemi||n/a||n/a||No winter darkness|
|Svolvær, Kiruna||December 7||January 5|
|Tromsø||November 27||January 15|
|Alta, Utsjoki||November 25||January 17|
|Nordkapp||November 20||January 22|
|Svalbard||October 26||February 16|
Christmas, called jul in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, jól in Icelandic, and joulu in Finnish, is the biggest holiday of the year. In Advent there are Christmas lights in the "Christmas street" in many towns, many shops have special Christmas displays (often really nice), most every choir gives a Christmas concert and people go on Christmas parties of their workplaces and clubs. There are Christmas markets with traditional handicraft in many towns.
December 13th is Saint Lucy's day in Sweden and Swedish speaking Finland. In many towns there is a ceremonious coronation of a young woman chosen to be Lucia, who then "spreads light in the winter darkness" the rest of the month with candles in her hair, singing with her company e.g. at retirement homes and at many public occasions. Child Lucias perform in preschools, schools and homes.
The main Christmas holiday is Christmas Eve, Danish juleaften, Norwegian julaften, Swedish julafton, Finnish jouluaatto, Icelandic Aðfangadagur, December 24, as families gather. In Turku Christmas Peace is declared at noon, broadcast on television and with a live audience of thousands. Finns go to Christmas sauna. A traditional Christmas dinner is eaten. Many people visit graveyards and light candles on the graves. There are services in the churches. Most establishments are closed on December 24th (at least from noon) and 25th, like most transport. Unlike many other parts of the world, here Santa Claus comes through the door late on Christmas Eve and personally hands out gifts.
December 25th is not as burdened by tradition as in English-speaking countries. The Church of Sweden and the Evangelical Church of Finland hold a julotta, a nativity mass in the morning, with high attendance in otherwise secular countries. There are concerts in some churches in the evening. In Finland the day is otherwise spent peacefully with the family. In Sweden, the evening of Christmas Day is usually dedicated to nightlife in small towns, as the young adult emigrants celebrate homecoming.
December 26th is an official holiday, and the day for many sport events. Many families go to visit their friends for dinner or coffee.
The days from December 26th to New Year's Eve (called romjul/mellandagarna) is vacation for many: schools are closed, and many workplaces are closed or run on reduced staff. Many retailers run a sale on Christmas shopping surplus.
Other holidays and events
- December 6th: Finland's Independence Day.
- December 10th: Nobel Day, with Nobel Prize ceremonies in Stockholm and Oslo.
- December 13th: Sweden and parts of Finland celebrate Luciadagen, S:t Lucy's Day.
- December 31st: New Year's Eve. People either celebrate New Year with family, with friends or in a restaurant. Only a few restaurants are open, and most of them require advance booking. Fireworks are arranged by many municipalities and by individual parties, so the view and sound in big cities can be impressive (beware if you have pets).
- January 6th: Epiphany. National holiday in Sweden and Finland.
Schools are closed one week for the winter holiday during February or March (vinterferie, sportlov, hiihtoloma), with children, teenagers and families crowding ski resorts and local venues instead. Some choose to fly south. The date varies between provinces.
Easter, Swedish påsk, Danish/Norwegian påske, Finnish pääsiäinen, is also a major holiday, with crowded ski resorts. Unless you are in northern Scandinavia, the conditions may not be very wintry any longer, especially if the holiday takes place in April.
Except for the Atlantic islands you can get into the Nordic countries from Central Europe overland by car, train or ferry. Flights connect most larger cities in Europe to the capitals, and there are also some charter flights to other destinations, for example the "Santa Claus" flights from the UK to Rovaniemi.
For visitors from further away, Helsinki can be reached directly from New York City and is a major entry point from Asia. Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo are connected to various airports in North America, Middle East and Asia and Icelandair flies from some North American airports to Reykjavik. Otherwise you need to transfer in some European hub.
The connections to the Nordic countries are not much affected by the winter. Snow is swiftly removed from airfields and the Baltic ferries (except hydrofoils and the like) are built to go through ice when needed.
You can travel by road (see Driving in Sweden, Driving in Norway and Winter driving) or rail (see Rail and bus travel in Sweden), or longer distances by plane. Public transport mostly go on all year round. A car is handy if you need to travel off the beaten track (and know how to cope with the conditions), however most towns and ski resorts can be accessed at least by bus. Ferries cross the Baltic Sea and connect Denmark to Sweden and Norway and Finland to Sweden.
Snowfall and ice can occasionally and temporarily mess up all modes of transportation. As the Nordic countries are well prepared for winter, traffic in general continues despite snowfall and ice. Some roads and some railway lines might be closed for some hours or one or two days due to wind and snow, especially in Norway. A few roads (mountain passes) in Norway are closed from first heavy snowfall until spring.
From January to March thick ice can disturb ferry traffic between Finland and Sweden and Estonia, although the large cruise ferries mostly keep their schedules. Minor ferries (in lakes and the archipelagos of the Baltic Sea) may be substituted by ice roads or hydrocopters or services interrupted for all winter or in bad conditions.
Traffic is heavy around Christmas, Easter and the late February winter break vinterferie/sportlov/hiihtoloma.
- In the northernmost part of the countries, northern lights (polar light, aurora borealis) appear regularly.
- Snowy sceneries.
- Christmas decorations from late November to early January, if outdoors often in a snowy surrounding.
- Fireworks on New Year's Eve, likewise often in a snowy surrounding.
- Frozen over water bodies — however, see the ice safety article if you want to do more than just looking at it from land.
- The polar night north of the Arctic circle and further south longer periods of darkness each day than you might be used to. For instance at the latitude of Helsinki, Stockholm and Oslo there will only be six hours of sunlight every day in the mid-winter and if it's cloudy it'll stay fairly dark around the day.
- Cold night temperatures usually means high barometric pressure and clear skies — fantastic for stargazing.
- Winter sport: At sub-zero temperatures, some ski resorts use artificial snow if the natural precipitation is not enough. In the northern resorts, the winter sports season keeps on well into May. With warmer air, longer daylight and piles of snow, the late season might be more gratifying than December or January. Norway's mountains and interior has a large number of ski resorts operating from November/December until late April, like northern parts of Finland. A small number of ski resorts (Stryn, Folgefonna, Galdhøpiggen) offer the unusual summer-skiing.
- Another activity for those who like to spend time outdoors is hiking or cross country skiing. Cross country skiing includes skiing with light equipment on groomed tracks as well as ski touring in the deep wilderness. Dress up warm, and be sure not to get lost in the wilderness. There are groomed tracks for cross country skiing in winter resorts and in and near many towns and villages, often with artificial light to allow skiing in dark winter evenings ("lysløype"). Oslo has a particularly extensive network of tracks inside the city.
- On the other hand it can also be fun to experience cities and towns covered in snow if you come from a place that doesn't see snow that often.
- The Christmas themed theme park Santa Park and the Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi (Finland) are popular in the winter.
Sweden, Norway and Finland have many options for all sorts of skiing. Sweden, Finland and Norway's eastern interior offers stable, cold weather during winter. Norway's Atlantic side has less stable temperatures, but often sees heavy snowfall in short periods, notable in Troms county, Stranda, Røldal and Sogndal. Norway alone has more than 200 alpine ski resorts.
Norway's leading business daily ranks the Norwegian winter sport resorts that have the most complete offer (alpine skiing, cross-country skiing in groomed tracks and "summit skiing"):
- Voss - offers everything, more unstable temperatures than the interior
- Tromsø - mediocre alpine facilities, but superb mountainous hinterland
- Hemsedal - all options in a high valley, stable winter
- Sogndal - excellent summit skiing options, lots of powder snow, limited facilities
- Røldal - steep hills and heavy snowfalls, few options for beginners and families
- Geilo - perfect for cross-country skiing and for families, limited off-piste options
- Oppdal - all options in a high valley, somewhat dated facilities
- Narvik - wild mountains directly on fjord, limited offers for families and cross-country skiers
- Lillehammer - excellent cross-country and alpine near the city, no high mountains
- Trysil - great variety of alpine slopes, well suited for families, Norway's larges winter resort
Many towns have Christmas fairs, often with local handicraft. As in other Western countries, there are big sales usually from the Boxing Day (some stores start even a few days before Christmas) and into January. In southeastern Finland these sales are traditionally popular among Russian visitors (who hand out presents at New Year).
Eat and drink
- See also: Nordic cuisine
Christmas food is the most traditional part of Nordic cuisine. The Swedish julbord is a Christmas buffet, as a variant of the well-known smörgåsbord. Norwegian Christmas traditions (including pre-christmas parties - "julebord") varies by region, and variation covers sheep (several varieties), pork, fresh cod and lutefisk ("lye fish"). In Finland you can commonly find Christmas ham (as in Sweden), herring, lye fish and different casseroles. And in Denmark; stuffed duck, roast pork, caramelized potatoes and sweet and sour red cabbage. Different Christmas buffets are served on many restaurants. On one end there are the more affordable Christmas buffets of roadside diners, on the other hand more formal and expensive Christmas dinners that need to be reserved beforehand.
Coffee keeps Nordic people's mood and body temperature up through winter. The German Glühwein is known glögg/glögi/gløgg and quite popular. It's usually served warm (can be cold too) and may or may not contain alcohol. There are also special "Christmas" soft drinks for sale in supermarkets, the most iconic being the Swedish julmust.
Several countryside hotels have holiday packages, and since most venues are closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, they are probably the most exciting place to spend the Christmas holiday for foreigners in the Nordic countries.
Winter camping is the most adventurous option. It requires advanced equipment or advanced skills. There should be wilderness guides with the needed equipment and skill in most regions – probably not cheaper than the hotel, but you get the adventure.
A less extreme adventure is renting a cottage, with a stove for heat, a well for the water, a sauna, a hole in the ice and an outhouse toilet. You could of course get a cottage with electricity and a modern bathroom, if you prefer comfort over adventure – you would still get wintry landscapes away from city life.
Scandinavians are heavy holiday drinkers. Stay out of drunken brawls.