The best of Scandinavia

Of course, visit Norway. Why not see the neighbors while you’re at it?

Scandinavia - Sweden, the land of lakes

Photo: Pixabay
Central Sweden is known for its thousands of peaceful lakes (and sometimes sunsets that use Norway’s national colors!).

David Nikel
Trondheim, Norway

Taking a trip to Norway is a once-in-a-lifetime trip for many. But if you’re traveling all this way, it only makes sense to see the rest of Scandinavia, too. Tagging on a couple days in one of the capitals or seeing a very different part of the Nordic lifestyle will make for a more complete trip and set Norway in context with its neighbors. For while often lumped together as one, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark offer three quite distinct experiences despite their shared history, culture, cuisine, and to a certain extent, language.

Easy travel options
It’s as simple to reach the capitals Stockholm and Copenhagen by plane from Oslo as it is to travel to any other Norwegian city, thanks to multiple daily departures from both SAS and Norwegian. They’re great places to start, too, as both offer an urban vibe that you don’t find anywhere in Norway, even Oslo. Yet they still ooze Scandinavian charm. Fans of Scandinavian design will feel especially satisfied. While Sweden and Denmark are both pricey by American standards, they are noticeably cheaper for visitors than Norway across the board. It can be a smart way to extend your Scandinavian adventure.

The land of water
Although Norway is known for mountains and fjords, Sweden is the land of lakes. Take a close look at the center and north of the country on a map and you’ll soon see why! Arranging a holiday around the Swedish lakes takes a bit of planning, but the aquatic theme extends to the capital Stockholm, whose stunning archipelago numbers tens of thousands of islands. The city itself is comprised of individual districts, each with its own distinct feel.

Take a tram, a ferry, or even a long walk to Djurgården. This large and tranquil island is home to many of the city’s top attractions, including Skansen open-air museum, the doomed 17th-century warship Vasa, and the ABBA museum. The latter is a must if you have even a passing interest in pop music!

Scandinavia - Stockholm

Photo: David Nikel
Stockholmers make the most of their waterside location.

But it’s the old district of Gamla Stan that most captivates visitors with its narrow alleyways and colorful architecture evoking daydreams of a medieval adventure. It’s easy to get ripped off in the restaurants around here, so better to choose the district for a post-dinner stroll instead.

From Oslo, Gothenburg is just a three-hour train or coach ride away and is a more peaceful alternative while still offering great shopping and food experiences. From Trondheim, Åre is a popular day trip destination in the winter for skiing and in the summer for hiking or biking.

The land of bicycles
Speaking of biking, if you like the idea of exploring a city or even a country on two wheels, then look no further than Denmark. Capital city Copenhagen is known as one of the world’s better cycling cities with outstanding infrastructure and a mind-boggling number of cyclists. Rush hour in Copenhagen has to be seen to be believed. But these opportunities aren’t limited to Copenhagen. As the land is largely flat, the entire country is ideal for exploring on a bicycle. The capital is a wise place to start though, especially with a family, with attractions such as the Tivoli theme park and gardens at the very heart of the city.

Scandinavia - Öresund Bridge

Photo: Pixabay
The famous Öresund Bridge links Sweden and Denmark.

Thanks to the marvelous Öresund Bridge, a stay in Copenhagen can easily include a quick trip to Sweden too. Malmö is just across the water. The café-lined cobblestone square Lilla Torg and 16th-century fortress are good reasons to hop on the train to enjoy two Scandinavian cities in two countries in one day. Crossing the border is a breeze, thanks to the Schengen agreement, although you will probably be asked to show your passport as a quick ID check, since security has tightened in recent years.

History meets modern architecture
Also easy to reach from Oslo on direct flights, Aarhus is a fascinating alternative. Although it’s Denmark’s second-largest city, Aarhus is small enough to comfortably explore on foot.

The striking contrast of old and new is the most memorable thing about this coastal city. The open-air Old Town museum is a simply stunning piece of living history, while modern architecture, such as the art museum and Mosegaard, showcase the best of modern Nordic design. If you’re traveling with kids, fly into Billund for a trip to the original Legoland park, next to the factory where more than 1,000 Lego bricks are produced every second!

Scandinavia - Esbjerg

Photo: David Nikel,
The white men of Esbjerg, Denmark, are worth a visit.

Beyond Scandinavia
Technically a Nordic country rather than Scandinavian, Finland is a top choice to extend your trip to northern Europe. Helsinki is another destination for design enthusiasts, and from there it’s simple enough to hop on a ferry to the Estonian capital Tallinn to start a Baltic adventure. But that’s a story for another time.

David Nikel is a freelance writer based in Norway. He runs the popular website and podcast and is the author of the Moon Norway guidebook, available now in all good bookstores.

This article originally appeared in the May 18, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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David Nikel

David Nikel is a freelance writer based in Norway. He runs the popular website and podcast and is the author of the Moon Norway guidebook, available now in all good bookstores.