Scandinavia and the Nordic region is so often portrayed in global media as the poster-child for everything from modern design to welfare models and even happiness. In the decade before the pandemic, that image translated into economic benefit. Interest in visiting Scandinavia from U.S. travelers saw rapid growth, especially in Norway.
With Scandinavian culture so prominent it would be easy to think Denmark, Norway and Sweden are one and the same. But despite working closely together, the three countries are distinct from a tourism perspective.
So to get a true Scandinavian travel experience, you first need to define exactly what that means to you. Here’s an introduction on what to expect in the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
Design in Denmark
Denmark is truly the odd one out in Scandinavia. Unlike Norway and Sweden, the country is relatively small and extremely flat. In fact, Denmark’s highest point lies just 561 feet above sea level.
Second only to Sweden’s Stockholm in size, Denmark’s capital city Copenhagen is the major tourist draw. Danish style and design play a big role in its popularity. Copenhagen Fashion Week is the leading such event in the Nordic region, while the Design Museum is the best place to delve into the story behind the global popularity of Danish and Scandinavian design.
Monocle magazine recently named Copenhagen the world’s best design city for its notable architecture and urban planning: “Without resorting to branding wars or architectural gimmicks, Denmark’s capital is, put simply, designed for life.”
With generally milder weather than much of Scandinavia, Copenhagen is indeed a city designed for outdoor living. Strolling through lush parks and along harbor-front promenades is the best way to appreciate why the city is so frequently termed the home of happiness.
Of course, there’s more to Denmark than its capital. The country’s flat terrain and world-leading cycling infrastructure lends itself to a cycling break. For inspiration, check out the 510-mile-long Baltic Sea route, where you’ll find country lanes, calm beaches and cycle-friendly ferries. The route is split into 14 sections and is fully signposted, so it’s suited for pro-cyclists and keen tourists alike.
Nature in Norway
The natural landscape of Norway is without doubt the country’s number one tourist attraction. Norway’s terrain varies from high mountain peaks and plateaus down to the world-famous fjords that were carved out of land by glaciers.
One of the best ways to experience the fjords—and more than a thousand miles of Norway’s epic coastline—is on the coastal ferry, which doubles as a cruise. Both Hurtigruten and newcomer Havila run the popular 12-day roundtrip voyages from Bergen to Kirkenes and back. Depending on the time of year, the trip also gives passengers the experience of the midnight sun or a chance for a glimpse of the northern lights.
Of course, the big red flag when planning a trip to Norway is the cost. While every Nordic country is expensive to visit in relation to the U.K. or U.S., Norway tops the charts. High salaries drive up the cost of otherwise low-value goods and services such as fast food, but high-end experiences remain competitive.
The key to saving money is advance planning on food, transport and accommodation. Self-catering in wooden cabins beats full-service hotels both in terms of price and authentic Norwegian experiences.
The cities of Sweden
Although it shares the vast Scandinavian peninsula with Norway, Sweden looks and feels very different. The Scandinavian mountains line the Norwegian border, but the rest of Sweden is less towering peaks and more lakes and forests.
But perhaps the thing that best defines Sweden is its cities. At more than 10 million people, Sweden’s population is almost double that of both Denmark and Norway. Much of that population lives in the southern part of the country, in or very close to a handful of major cities.
Almost one million people live in the capital city, Stockholm, with the same amount within easy commuting distance. But despite its size, Stockholm is just as well known for its islands. Much of the city is built over fourteen islands, while the nearby archipelago offers tranquility to locals and tourists alike on thousands of islands, many of which are within a short ferry trip from the bustling capital.
The grittier side of Swedish cities has been thrust into the spotlight thanks to a series of Scandinavian crime fiction hits. Stockholm was the setting of the popular Millennium series of books and movies starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, while Malmö played host to many scenes in The Bridge.
Sweden’s smaller cities don’t escape the limelight either. With a population of just 20,000, peaceful Ystad was the charming setting for the anything-but-peaceful events of Wallander.