With their chic cities, dramatic landscapes and high quality of life, the countries of Scandinavia remain objects of worldwide fascination. Yet if you’re looking to dip your toe into Nordic waters, where do you begin?
To help you make up your mind, we asked two expert writers to expound on two of the region’s best-known countries, Sweden and Norway. Good luck as you consider your options up north.
Select sensational Sweden
Paula Hotti’s first trip abroad was a family holiday to Stockholm in her early teens. Later, she road-tripped around the country and lived for a year in Sweden’s second city, Gothenburg – only to fall in love with the charms of Sweden’s west coast.
Norway might have its Arctic archipelagos, meandering mountain roads and cascading waterfalls, true. But in Sweden, you can let your soul drift in seaside paradises, on epic hikes or under the magic of the aurora borealis.
If you venture to Sweden for the first time, start in the capital, Stockholm. Built on 14 islands, the city’s oldest quarter is Gamla Stan (Old Town), its centerpiece the Royal Palace. While the area dates back to the 13th century, and the majority of its buildings from the 16th and 17th centuries, Gamla Stan isn’t covered with cobwebs: it’s a vibrant neighborhood whose cobbled streets brim with cafes and boutiques that beg to be explored.
From Stockholm, it’s easy to jump onto a ferry and head to the archipelago that radiates from the capital. In 20 minutes, you’ll glide from trendy city streets to a calmer place, its pace of life set by the ripples of the Baltic Sea.
Although I adore Stockholm, my heart belongs to Bohuslän on the west coast. Bohuslän lies between Gothenburg and the Norwegian border, and its thousands of islands and cute coastal towns like Smögen and Fjällbacka make the area a summer haven – think hiking, biking and eating all fresh seafood you can manage. In winter, a light dusting of snow blankets the coastal cliffs. As the sea freezes, the summer idyll turns into a serene winter wonderland, with lighthouses and red huts dotting the white seascape. This is a place to stare out at the horizon and let your mind rest.
For the adventurous, Swedish Lappland is unbeatable. Among an abundance of hiking treks to choose from, the Kungsleden, or King’s Path, reigns supreme. Running for about 450km (280 miles) from Hemavan to Abisko, the trail is easily divided into shorter stints. The most regal scenery and highest elevations are at the end and the beginning of the trail. Abisko is also reputedly the world’s finest spot to see the aurora borealis – and I believe it, as this is where I witnessed the celestial phenomenon for the first time in my life.
For cities, there’s no real competition between Sweden and Norway. Stockholm exudes unbeatable Scandi-cool vibes, and you cannot even speak of the second cities Gothenburg and Bergen in the same breath. (Unless you love rain, that is: Bergen gets an average of two to three times more rain than Gothenburg per month.)
Designed by the Dutch in 1621, Gothenburg has canals, cuteness and character in spades. The city is also regularly hailed for its sustainability, only adding to its livable allure. In addition to its parks and leafy avenues, you will also find quaint neighborhoods tucked between Rosenlundskanalen (where a few restaurant boats moor) and the slow-flowing Göta River. Perhaps the most appealing is the formerly working-class suburb Haga, an epicenter of fabulous boutiques, restaurants and cafes, all in pastel-colored wooden houses.
Haga may be the best place in the country to enjoy fika, a dedicated time for coffee and cakes. There’s nothing cozier than snuggling up in one of Haga’s coffee shops, such as Café Husaren, which bakes Sweden’s arguably biggest cinnamon buns.
To sum it up, a sojourn in Sweden soothes your spirits. Life just tastes sweeter here.
Norway: nature in overdrive
A lover of cold, mountainous places, Lonely Planet author Kerry Walker was immediately smitten with Norway – and has made it her mission to travel the length and breadth of this ravishing country over the past decade.
My first visit to Norway threw me in at the Arctic deep end – and I’ve been obsessed with Scandinavia’s most gorgeous country ever since. What snow! What ethereal blues! What crazy witch hat–shaped mountains leaping out of jewel-like seas! Norway’s beauty is off the charts.
On that trip, I used Bodø as a springboard to explore the neverland of the high north. I crossed the Arctic Circle on foot in the frozen hush of night. I gazed up to the wizard-wand flashes of the northern lights. I heard the howl of huskies as I mushed over pearl-white slopes, feeling as if my sled would take flight any second. I hauled in skrei (Arctic cod) on an old clipper and cooked it over a campfire on a snowy beach. I huddled in a Sami lavvu tent, with reindeer gathered around outside. I bounced on a rigid inflatable boat past the whirlpools and rapids of Saltstraumen, the world’s most powerful maelstrom, as sea eagles screeched overhead. I will carry these memories with me forever.
Sweden is pretty, no doubt – but it can never match Norway for mind-blowing wilderness, with glaciers, thundering falls and pointy mountains that look like the figment of a child’s imagination. (It’s no wonder Norway inspired Disney’s Frozen.) This is an elfin fantasy land. A land touched by magic and sprinkled with fairy dust.
In a country that prizes friluftsliv (outdoor living) over all else, culture nods to nature here, too. In Oslo, you’ll be drawn to Edvard Munch’s paintings of swirling Nordic light and mysterious fjords (see his surreal work at the architecturally striking Munchmuseet, plus the view that inspired The Scream at Ekebergparken). The sea-faring, battle-hungry Vikings left their mark on medieval stave churches, none lovelier than the Unesco World Heritage one in Urnes on the shores of Lustrafjorden. And up in the Arctic, Alta wows with prehistoric rock art depicting hunter-gatherer life at the Alta Museum and the aurora-framing Northern Lights Cathedral.
But what about the food? Surely Sweden wins there? Nope. Norway is riding high on the culinary front, with chefs putting creative riffs on brilliantly fresh ingredients plucked from fjord, forest, field and mountain. The country now has restaurants right up there on the podium with Europe’s best, from two-Michelin-starred Renaa in Stavanger, where the food sings joyously of the seasons and foraged finds, to the Valentine Warner–hosted Kitchen on the Edge of the World at Holmen on the thrillingly wild Lofoten Islands. And now everyone is raving about Michelin-starred Under in Lindesnes, a restaurant dropped deep into the sea on Norway’s storm-smashed south coast.
But more than anything it’s the outdoors that pulls me back. Here, you can give civilization the slip hiking in Jotunheimen (“Home of the Giants”), a glacier-topped, mountain-rippled treat of a national park. Here, you can kayak and cruise in wonder across fjords of turquoise and sapphire blue, gawping up at rainbow-kissed waterfalls nosediving over cliffs and great fang-like mountains. Here, you can go on a summer musk-ox safari in the bleakly beautiful highlands of Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park and stomp past mainland Europe’s largest ice cap, the Jostedal Glacier, in Jostedalsbreen National Park. Here, you can strike out from the fjord-side city of Stavanger to literal rock stars like knife-edge Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock), Trolltunga (Troll’s Tongue) and Kjeragbolten, a mad boulder wedged between two heart-stoppingly sheer cliffs.
Wherever you go, there’s something exhilarating about knowing that no matter how many fjords you cruise, helter-skelter roads you drive and insanely steep mountains you climb, Norway has more to keep you coming back for a lifetime.
And you will, I promise you.