For comparatively unpopulated countries, the Nordic nations’ influence on global music has been enormous, with an extraordinary diversity and creative output in a multitude of genres. Scandinavia is a bastion of quality classical music and folk traditions; household names like ABBA, A-ha and Björk have sold tens of millions of albums internationally; and the region’s contribution to the metal scene is legendary. There’s an excellent range of music festivals throughout, covering everything from chamber music to cutting-edge electronica.
Classical & Traditional
Grieg and Sibelius are the big names in Nordic classical music and both helped – by their music and by their enthusiastic collaboration with other artists and writers – create a romantic nationalism that was an important factor driving eventual Norwegian and Finnish independence. Across the region, classical music is loved and cared for, with state-of-the-art concert halls, festivals and musical education. Finland, in particular, produces an astonishing number of top-grade classical performers and conductors.
Traditional music includes a range of folk styles. Particularly noteworthy are the Icelandic rímur, chants from the sagas that have preserved an ancient form of oral storytelling, and Norwegian folk, which incorporates the distinctive Hardanger fiddle.
The Sámi of Lapland use a traditional form called the yoik (joik). Part chant, part poem, part song, it is an a cappella invocation or description of a person or place that has huge significance in Sámi culture. In recent years, Sámi artists have incorporated yoiking into various styles of modern music with great success. Artists to look out for include Wimme, Mari Boine and Ulla Pirttijärvi.
Pop & Beyond
Bursting onto the scene in the 1970s, ABBA brought Swedish music bang into the international spotlight. Their phenomenal global success paved the way for spiritual followers like Roxette and Aqua and set the trend for Scandinavian artists to sing in English. Singing about love, dancing and normal suburban life, ABBA won the hearts of a generation and beyond.
With the path to stardom from Scandinavia now an easier one, the region has cranked out pop and rock success story after success story in the decades since. A-ha, Europe, Ace of Base, the Cardigans, the Rasmus, the Hives, Robyn and Mando Diao have made it big worldwide. Björk, who almost deserves a musical category to herself, brought lonely Iceland into the picture and has been followed by bands like Sigur Rós and Of Monsters and Men.
Jazz is strong across the region, particularly in Norway and Denmark with a thriving local scene backed by international festivals. Electronica has also been a strong suit, with '90s dance-floor legends like Darude backed by more recent arrivals such as Avicii, Eric Prydz, Kygo and Galantis. Reykjavík, in particular, has a brilliant scene. Hip hop has also gained traction across the region, especially in Finland and Iceland.
The Heavy Stuff
Though its influence isn’t quite what it once was, with many millennials preferring Norwegian electronica or Finnish hip hop, Scandinavian bands have been immensely influential in the harder rock and metal scenes, with several metal subgenres basically invented here.
Norway started the trend in the 1980s, with a thriving black metal scene and outrageous antics. It has continued to produce quality bands, with famous names on the black and death metal side of things including Emperor, Burzum, Mayhem, Darkthrone and Dimmu Borgir.
Finnish metal bands have achieved notable international success, with HIM’s ‘love metal’ and Nightwish’s gloriously symphonic variety the most prominent. The 69 Eyes, Apocalyptica (who are classically trained cellists), Children of Bodom and Finntroll all represent different genres. Lordi memorably brought the scene to Eurovision, winning in 2006 with Hard Rock Hallelujah.
Sweden has produced legends like Bathory, who moved from hard black metal to a more melodic style based on Viking mythology, Sabaton, Hammerfall, Dark Tranquillity and Therion. Denmark has a thriving scene but its bands haven’t, in the main, had quite the same international profile. They can, however, claim Lars Ulrich, the Metallica drummer. The Faroes chip in with Týr’s Viking metal and Iceland’s most famous metallists are Sólstafir.
Scandinavia’s buzzy cities are enticing, but the real soul of the place can be found in its glorious natural landscapes. Some of Europe’s real wild places are here. From soaring fjord walls in Norway to the volcanic brutality of Iceland, from the awe-inspiring colours of autumn’s forest palette to charming Baltic islands, from sparkling summer lakes to Arctic snowscapes, there’s a feast of distinct beauties, populated by a range of intriguing creatures.
Vast tracts of barely populated land away from the bustle of central Europe make Scandinavia an important refuge for numerous species, including several high-profile carnivores, myriad seabirds and lovable marine mammals.
The region is stocked with a very wide range of animals: domesticated reindeer, herded by the indigenous Sámi, roam in Lapland, while elk (moose) are common in the mainland forests and occasionally blunder into towns. Brown bears, lynx and wolves are the apex predators – humans excepted – pacing the Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian forests, while the lonely wolverine prowls the northern wastes and the mighty reintroduced musk ox ruminates in Norwegian highlands.
Birdlife is fabulous, with a wonderful array of seabirds breeding in salty clamour in Iceland and the Faroes. Other notable bird species seen in various parts of Scandinavia include golden eagles, white-tailed eagles, ospreys, ptarmigans, whooper swans and capercaillie.
In the sea, several types of whale roam the North Sea and Atlantic, and are easily seen on boat trips out of Norway or Iceland. Seals and dolphins are aplenty and the weighty walrus hangs out way up north in Svalbard. Up here, too, you’ll find the polar bear, in charge of its domain to the extent that by law you need to carry a gun, to be used as a last resort only, to leave town.
It is an indication of how the Nordic nations value their natural environments that the region has well over a hundred national parks, conserving everything from jewel-like Baltic archipelagos to glaciers and snowy wastes. As well as being crucial drivers of conservation, many of these parks also offer the best chance to appreciate Scandinavia’s deep nature.
Some of Europe’s best hiking can be done on the short- and long-distance trails in the national parks of Finland, Sweden, Norway and Iceland. These trails offer excellent facilities, including reliable waymarking, well-maintained campsites with firewood and shared cabins where you can sleep. Rules are strict so that the impact from visitors is minimised.
Standout parks for trekking include Jotunheimen, Jostedalsbreen, Hardangervidda and Rondane in Norway; Abisko, Padjelanta, Skuleskogen, Sarek in Sweden; Urho Kekkonen, Pallas-Yllästunturi, Oulanka and Lemmenjoki in Finland; Snæfellsjökull and Vatnajökull in Iceland (the wonderful hiking around Þórsmörk is perhaps soon to be national-park covered); and Mols Bjerge in Denmark.
Scandinavia’s diverse scenery encompasses gentle pastoral landscapes in the south to untamed canvases wrought by nature’s forces in the north. Wild, rugged coasts and mountains, hundreds of kilometres of forest broken only by lakes and the odd cottage, and unspoilt Baltic archipelagos make up a varied menu of uplifting visual treats.
Flat Denmark in the south doesn’t have the mountainous magnificence of Norway or the volcanoes of Iceland but has a charming coastal landscape across its hundreds of islands. Offshore Bornholm, as well as the Baltic archipelagos of Sweden and Finland, present a fascinating patchwork where charmingly rural farms alternate with low rock polished smooth by the glaciers of the last Ice Age.
Norway’s phenomenal coastline is famous for a reason; the fjords here take your breath away, while the northern mountains are heart-achingly beautiful. Inland, much of mainland Scandinavia is taken up with forests. The region has some of the world’s highest tree cover and the woods – largely managed for forestry, some wild – stretch for hundreds of kilometres. Mainly composed of spruce, pine and birch, these forests are responsible for the crisp, clean, aromatic northern air and are dotted with lakes.
Iceland, thrown up in the middle of the Atlantic by violent geothermal activity, offers a very distinct landscape, with bleak and epic scenery that is at once harsh and gloriously uplifting. The juxtaposition of frozen glaciers and boiling geysers make it a wild scenic ride.