The complete guide to traveling Scandinavia
With its picturesque forests, a thousand lakes, northern lights, Viking heritage, and the dream of countries filled with tall, blonde, singing people, IKEA, and immaculate fashion, Scandinavia is the perfect destination to combine breathtaking nature with art, architecture, food, and history.
Scandinavia typically refers to the three countries Norway, Sweden, and Denmark and even though the Scandinavian countries share a history, have similar culture and languages they differ enough not to skip any of the three countries on your travels in northern Europe.
As Copenhagen holds the busiest and most well-connected airport in Scandinavia, Denmark is a good starting point. However, all three countries are connected by land (or in some cases bridges or tunnels) making it easy to travel between and within the countries by train or car.
SCANDINAVIA TRIP COSTS
There is no way to sugarcoat this. Scandinavia is expensive, Norway especially, being the second most expensive country in the world. If you plan wisely, your costs can be reduced significantly.
Travelling by car or train gives you more flexibility, but it is time-consuming due to the vast countries, so if you are short on time, I highly recommend flying.
Renting a car is no budget option but gives you flexibility and the ability to reach places that can be hard to reach with air travel or train. The distances in Norway and Sweden long so remember that you not only have to pay for the car rental, but you will also use a lot of fuel and it doesn’t come cheap!
If you want to save money on travel costs you are most likely to do so with a combination of flights and trains. The costs of travelling by train or plane can be very similar for long distances, but if you are flexible, the prices for the train tickets can be as low as 20 Euro instead of 100 Euro.
If you travel by train, make sure you are flexible on the time of the day you want to travel as well as the day you want to travel, buy an interrail pass (note that the interrail passes are usually just available during the summers), take the night train and save both time and money. There is no need to buy your train or plane tickets far in advance, the prices go up and down depending on availability.
There is also the option of buses for long distances, they are usually the cheapest option, but you will need a lot more time than if travelling by train or plane.
Except for the capitals most of the cities are walkable and in the capitals, especially Copenhagen, why not rent a bicycle and move on two wheels like the Scandinavians? You´ll get both an authentic, sustainable, and cheap experience!
If you prefer public transportation make sure to buy 24-hour passes or multiple days passes instead of single rides as they tend to be pricey.
FOOD AND ALCOHOL
The restaurants keep a high standard – and high prices. Lunch will usually set you back 9-15 euros while you are unlikely to find the main course for dinner for less than 22-28 euros. Due to a high tax on alcohol, your party nights in Norway and Sweden might be limited. Expect to pay 7-10 euros for a beer and 15-23 euros for a cocktail in a bar. If you buy the alcohol in the specially designated shops for alcohol the prices will be lower, but still high.
In Denmark however the prices on alcohol are lower and more similar to those of the southern European countries, but depending on where you go it might still be pricey. The cheapest bars in Denmark are called Bodegas, small places, nothing fancy, usually with pool tables or boardgames, where a beer usually is around 2 euros, any cheaper than that and you´ll have to make your own.
To cut your costs, buy your groceries in the local supermarkets or markets and your costs for food will be remarkably lower than if you eat in restaurants. There is a lot of money to save here.
If you are travelling in Norway and Sweden in the summertime and/or are well equipped it is good to know that you are allowed to sleep under the stars or put up your tent anywhere, as long as it is not on private property. In Sweden and Norway, there are also so-called wind protectors, small wooden shelters on strategic places in nature for everyone to use for camping. Camping and using wind protectors are for free, which is amazing, but respect nature and don´t leave any trace, except maybe your footprints. Remember that in the summer the temperatures can differ between 15-30 degrees Celsius or 59-86 degrees Fahrenheit, and temperatures in the winter are cold to freezing, so be prepared!
So if you don´t want to sleep in a tent or in the grass? Scandinavians are very friendly and there is always the option of couch surfing or renting cabins, but if it isn´t for you hostels are usually cheaper than both Airbnb and hotels. The hostels are of a good standard and normally with cooking facilities.
Sustainability is big in Scandinavia and you can refill your water bottle anywhere for free. The tap water is not only free and drinkable but also delicious! So make sure to bring your own water bottle and save both money and the environment.
All major cities in Scandinavia offer city pass that gives you discounts on everything from transportation to museums to food and even shopping!
WHEN TO VISIT
There is no right or wrong time to visit Scandinavia unless you are planning on only visiting the cities, in which case they will be more vibrant between April-September. If you choose to visit Scandinavia in the summer you will witness the lush green nature, you will see the waterfalls and the rivers in their full glory, you will swim and sunbathe, hike and ride a bicycle and of course, see the midnight sun! If you choose to visit in the winter you will experience fairytale-like winters, aurora lights, glistening frozen lakes, and cozy winter markets. If you plan to visit Stockholm in winter make sure you read my Stockholm in winter guide. Out of all the Scandinavian capitals Copenhagen will be the mildest to visit during winter as it’s the southernmost capital out of the three. Copenhagen in winter is actually not that cold and some winter you might not even get any snow.
Remember that the weather and temperatures are unpredictable and you need to be prepared for it. There is no guarantee that the winters are freezing and the summers are hot or vice versa.
MY TOP TRAVEL TIPS
- Even if Scandinavia can be done on a budget, you need to account for that it is not as cheap as South East Asia or Eastern Europe. Be prepared that things will cost and that cheap travel will take time.
- Try to take the night train when possible, the trains are of a high standard and is well worth saving a night’s accommodation and travel time.
- Bring your own water bottle for free refills everywhere.
- Both Sweden and Norway are big countries and require time, it can be done in a shorter time, but to get the most out of your Scandinavian trip I would recommend at least 3-4 weeks.
- Be aware that the weather and temperatures can change quickly and pack accordingly.
- Talk to people, even if they might seem shy and maybe won´t approach you, Scandinavians are super friendly and willing to go out of their way and beyond to show you their countries and all of what they have to offer.
Danes are often referred to as the happiest people on earth and it is easy to see why, with the Danish philosophy of “Hygge” – a word that can´t be translated, but described as way of life where you seek happiness in the simple and cozy things.
Copenhagen might be the coziest and liveliest of the three northern capitals, filled with great bars and nightclubs making the Copenhagen nightlife fantastic. You also find cozy and cool restaurants as well as plenty of outdoor activities.
But Denmark is so much more than just Copenhagen. You have the central region with Aarhus, Herning, and Viborg, with the white sand dunes of the North Sea as well as charming bays and inlets on the east coast. Here you will also find Legoland and dozens of art museums.
In northern Denmark you will find some of the countries most prominent architecture, thriving food scene and not to forget it is home to some of the best windsurfing and kitesurfing spots in Scandinavia.
Sweden with its ever-changing landscapes from the flat south to the mountainous north is filled with beautiful islands and beaches, spellcasting forests, medieval cities and castles, incredible art, and world-famous fashion.
Entering Sweden from Copenhagen is easily done by train to Malmö, where a one-way ticket costs 10 euros. Malmö being the third biggest city in Sweden, although fairly small and walkable, is a mix of an old fisherman´s village and an industrial manufacturing hub. It is charming and has a big cultural diversity. You will hear dozens of different languages, smell the spices of the Middle East, enjoy swimming, and having a look at Turning Torso, Scandinavia’s tallest building. Around Malmö, you have the coziest little beach towns with soft white sand and where time moves as if everyone is on vacation all year round.
From Malmö to the very north of Sweden the possibilities are endless, you can choose to go on the west coast of Sweden up to Gothenburg, stop for amazing seafood and continue your way up north or enter Norway. Or you can choose to go on the east coast, visit the capital, Stockholm, with its archipelago, forests, nightlife, shopping, and then continue your way to the incredible north. Of course, in between Malmö, Gothenburg, and Stockholm, there are amazing places to explore but you will really notice a difference in culture and nature if you travel further north instead. While the south of Sweden offers beaches and city life, the north is all about nature and it is nature you don´t want to miss out on!
While all three countries are like exotic fairytales, Norway is a category on its own. People sound happy even when they are arguing and most of their time they spend outdoors, summer as well as in the winter. And Norway is mostly famous for exactly this, its nature, its Fjords, its mountains, its forests, its coastline, its marine life. There is probably not one part of Norway that isn´t breathtaking. This doesn´t mean that Norway is only for the outdoorsy type, even if, if there is one place that could convert even the most big-city-life-traveler, it is Norway. It is the second most expensive country in the world, but it is well worth a visit and can be done on a budget with a bit of planning. Even if Norway is all about nature you shouldn´t miss out on exploring the capital, Oslo, which gives you a feeling of being in a village rather than a capital. It is very tourist-friendly, filled with restaurants, unique cafés, shops, and interesting museums as well as proximity to nature, you can even go surfing in Norway!
TOP 10 THINGS TO DO
1.The Northern Lights, Sweden and Norway
The Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis is on most people’s bucket list, and for a reason, it is stunning, and you will never experience anything like it. It is also not easily accessible. Your highest chance of witnessing this natural phenomenon is during wintertime, north of the arctic circle, in Sweden and Norway, the more north you go, the better the chance you will have.
2. The Royal Palace Drottningholm, Sweden
On the list of World Heritage Sites protected by UNESCO is the Royal Palace of Drottningholm in Stockholm, Sweden. The Palace has been compared to the one of Versailles and is the residence of the Swedish King and Queen. The southern wing of the Palace is reserved for the royal family only, but visitors are allowed in the rest of the Palace all year around.
3. The Fjords of Norway
There is no other word than stunning, to describe the Fjords of Norway. The Fjords are formations of ocean water between cliffs caused by the glacier and Norway has thousands of them, making Norway the “Fjord capital of the world”. Once in Norway they are fairly easy to reach and should definitely not be missed! Make it a few days adventure up the coast of Norway to see the most breathtaking ones or just a quick daytrip from Oslo. Neither will disappoint.
4. The little mermaid, Denmark
Copenhagen is like nothing else, the streets of Nyhavn look like they are taken from a fairytale with the canals, boats and tiny colored houses. Speaking of fairytales, you will find one of the biggest Nordic icons in Copenhagen – the sculpture of the little mermaid, based on a story about a little mermaid written by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen.
5. Christiania, Denmark
Following the canals between street musicians, the smell of Danish sausage, and never-ending bicycles you will eventually reach Freetown Christiania. In this self-proclaimed free state in the middle of Copenhagen, Denmark, no one owns their homes, the people police themselves, and all decisions are made by consensus. It has a mix of homes, cafes, art galleries, and workshops, many covered with colorful murals or accented by sculptures and if Copenhagen is like nothing else, Christiania is even more so.
Filled with cobblestone streets and ancient buildings, surrounded by mountains, fjords, and sea you can mix quirky shopping, lazy days at the seaside with hikes up the two most famous mountain viewpoints, Mount Fløyen and Mount Ulriken. You will enter the wilderness of the forest and do a few days hike or for the shorter and easier route, begin your hike right in the city center and hike your way to the viewpoints. Don´t worry if you´re lazy, you can go on the funicular train “Fløyen” and still enjoy the same views.
7. Lapland, Sweden
It will not get more exotic than this. You have dog sleds, reindeers, waterfalls, tipi tents, rivers, lakes, midnight sun, mountains and the northernmost indigenous people in the world, the Sami. Sami speak multiple traditional languages and try to secure their culture and heritage even today, which is clearly noticeable when visiting Lapland. And if this isn´t enough if you are visiting Lapland in winter you also have a great chance of seeing the Northern lights. If you feel like splurging it is also in Lapland that you find the world-famous Iglootel, a hotel completely made out of ice and snow.
8. Scandinavian food
In Scandinavia, you will find weird food, fermented, pickled, dried, salted, and even rotten, some of it is not for the weak and even the smell might get your stomach to turn, but for the brave, it is considered delicacies and is even exported to high-end restaurants all over the world.
If you want to play it safer, modern Nordic cuisine is one of the main reasons Scandinavia attracts tourists in the last ten years. Maybe it all began when Noma in Denmark was named the best restaurant in the world. However, since then the scene has only been growing and growing and Scandinavia is at the top of every foodie’s bucket list. Last but not least, DO NOT miss out on the seafood!
9. Briksdal Glacieer, Norway
The mighty Briksdal Glacier is part of the Jostedal Glacier national park. From an astonishing height of 1200 meters or 3 937 feet, you will see the wild glacier drop into the narrow lake surrounded by lush vegetation and smooth rocks – it will take your breath away.
Stockholm is the largest city in Scandinavia, but don´t be fooled thinking you will end up in a hectic place. It is made up of 14 islands and situated in the Stockholm archipelago. The archipelago itself is the largest one in Scandinavia, with 30 000 islands, where you will find the urban Swedes swimming and sunbathing in the summer. Stockholm is extremely pretty, filled with beautiful architecture, parks, and museums. Amongst the museums you will find the Vasa Museum, the Vasa ship capsized and sank in Stockholm in 1628. Vasa is the world’s best-preserved 17th-century ship and the most visited museum in Scandinavia. Don’t miss the picturesc old town or, gamla stan, with it’s narrow streats and cute little shops and cafes.
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