8 Must-See Places in Scandinavia
Although most Americans continue to flock to Europe’s well-trammeled corners, there’s never been a better time to visit Scandinavia thanks to more direct—not to mention affordable—routes from most major cities. But the Nordic appeal lies in more than just convenience. Whether you're looking for adrenaline-spiking natural adventures (see Norway’s Lofoten Islands) or cultural treks through the continent's coolest design capitals, we’ve rounded up eight must-see Scandinavian attractions that rival any place in Italy, France or Spain.
Tucked deep among the fjords on Norway’s southern coast, Bergen looks like the quintessential Nordic fishing village, despite the fact that it’s the country’s second largest city. Colorful wooden houses, many of which have been converted to hip restaurants and shops, line the docks of Bryggen, a 12th-century wharf that was once dominated by the Hanseatic League and has since become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. See what the nets haul in daily at the storied fish market before taking in the panoramic vistas aboard the Fløibanen Funicular up Fløyen Mountain. But the real reason to come here are the fjords themselves. While hikers are welcome, day cruises can take you close enough to see them without breaking a sweat.
Ring Road, Iceland
Often called the Land of Fire and Ice, Iceland has some of the most varied—and awe-inspiring—terrain in the world. The best way to see it: On a leisurely car ride along the Ring Road, a rambling byway that circles the island and connects you to the country’s best sites, including Reynisfjara, a black-sand beach that’s home to resident colonies of puffins, and the spectacular Goðafoss waterfall. But don’t just stick to the pavement. Detour to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula to hike an active volcano and glacier, or take to the waters of the Blue Lagoon, the famous geothermal spa that’s nestled within a lava field.
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The former home of Hans Christian Andersen is as charming as a scene from one of his children’s books. Your social following will thank you for snapping the colorful buildings that line the canal at Nyhavn, and there’s plenty more to fill your feed, including the 19th-century amusement park at Tivoli Gardens, the shops on Strøget, and the museum at Amalienborg, the winter palace of the Danish royal family. Food lovers should also head to Jægersborggade to order the reasonably priced tasting menu at Manfred’s or sample the certified organic delights at Relæ—that is if three Michelin–star Geranium is out of reach.
The hometown of suburban-status marker Volvo hardly seems like a place for cutting-edge food, art, and design, but that’s just what you’ll find in Sweden’s often overlooked second city. For context on the onetime industrial hub’s renaissance, begin your urban wanderings on the cobblestoned streets of Haga, a 17th-century neighborhood that epitomizes Gothenburg’s café culture--don’t miss the giant cinnamon buns at Café Husaren--and whose quaint wooden houses are now filled with cute shops of every kind. Make your way back to city center to explore the waterfront restaurants (the inventive tasting menus at Bhoga have earned it a Michelin star) and see rotating photography exhibitions at the Gothenburg Museum of Art.
The Northern Lights
Some 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Tromsø, Norway offers some of the best views of the Northern Lights in all of Scandinavia. There’s no better time to see them than at the end of January, when the former fur trapping center hosts its annual music festival. What to do when your eyes aren’t trained skyward? Embark on an expedition to spot orcas and humpbacks near Whale Island. Nature lovers will find stiff competition in the remote wilderness of Swedish Lapland, where you can see the aurora borealis on horseback after an afternoon of dog sledding or a woodland jaunt aboard a reindeer-driven sleigh. You’ll be hard pressed to find more atmospheric accommodations than the Icehotel, which is rebuilt each year using frozen blocks from the Torne River.
Scandinavia isn’t a place synonymous with beaches, but there are good ones where you can work on your tan and your swimming form (cold waters, be damned) on the tiny Baltic Sea island of Bornholm, just a 35-minute flight from Copenhagen. Known as Denmark’s sunniest locale, it’s a well-kept secret among Danes who come for the laid-back farm-to-table restaurants, picture-perfect fishing villages, and serene forest landscapes. Book a room at the minimal yet stylish Nordlandet hotel, a simple seaside inn whose jewel is an elegant Nordic dining room overlooking the sea, then set off to discover the island’s striking round churches, which date back to 1150.
There’s more to Sweden than IKEA and ABBA. Comprised of a series of islands that are easily accessible by boat, Stockholm rivals many of Europe’s most iconic cities in both atmosphere and culture thanks to its medieval streets, stately palaces, and world-class museums (occupying a restored 17th-century ship, the Vasa is a must see). With its 16th-century churches and castles and abundance of noteworthy attractions Gamla Stan, or Old Town, will likely dominate much of your itinerary, but make your base Östermalm, the trendy neighborhood known for its hip restaurants and design shops, as well as the much-praised Ett Hem, a 12-room boutique hotel designed by Ilse Crawford that’s like an Instagram come to life.
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Adventure seekers will find plenty of thrills in the arctic seas around this northern congregation of Norwegian islands. Get your adrenaline rush surfing the frigid crescents off Unstad, or go for a midnight kayak trip with the sun as your backdrop, spotting porpoises and schools of herring along the way—just don’t forget your wet suit. Angling enthusiasts might also charter a boat to try their hands at catching halibut, haddock, and skrei, the massive cod that call these waters home. After a day on the waves, retire to one of the red fishing cabins, known locally as rorbu, that line the region’s scenic harbors. Prefer more traditional lodgings? You’ll find larger hotel options (Thon is a standout) in the bustling port town of Svolvær.
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