The Ultimate Guide to the Scandinavian Capitals

Northern Europe’s Nordic nations are some of the priciest places to live and visit in Europe. However, budget airlines, such as WOW, Icelandair, and Norwegian are tempting many international travelers with cheap stopover and connecting flights across the Atlantic. Popular itineraries often overlook the capital cities for the countries' natural wonders or a chance to see the northern lights. Take a look at why these five Nordic capitals are worth a trip in their own right. 

Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen/Oyster

Copenhagen/Oyster

Known for its bustling cycling lanes and minimalist design, Copenhagen is one of Europe’s hippest metro areas. Copenhagen’s design stores, boutiques, and cafes offer some of the world’s chicest designs paired with an unpretentious bohemian feel. 

Danish cuisine is much more dynamic than outsiders might think. Even casual options, such as smørrebrød, which literally translates to "butter and bread," can be topped with prawns, smoked salmon, cheese, and a variety of other delicious options. On the pricier side, Copenhagen is home to 15 Michelin-starred restaurants. One of the more prominent, two-star Noma, was ranked best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine four times since 2010. There are plenty of quaint cafes that won’t break the budget as well, especially in the Vesterbro neighborhood.

Between breaks for coffee and Danishes, there is plenty to fill a lengthy visit to Copenhagen. For a taste of the alternative scene, head to Christiania, a self-governing residential enclave that is well-known for its street art and cannabis. There are also numerous cafes, music venues, and shops within Christiania, not to mention a lovely lake and a couple treehouses for hanging out. On the other end of the spectrum, the palaces of Amalienborg serve as the residence of the Danish royal family. The grounds can be explored, as can the nearby King’s Garden. Copenhagen’s art scene is thriving as well, with world renowned collections at the Danish National Gallery and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, just outside the city, not to mention various independent galleries around the city.

The compact city is best explored by bicycle -- it doesn’t take very long for a visitor to reach this conclusion. Copenhagen was planned with sustainable living in mind, so do as the Danes do and get on two wheels. Donkey Republic has bikes in over 100 locations around Copenhagen, and can be used after downloading and joining the mobile app. Another option, Bycklen, is available year-round, 24/7, and can be accessed around the city after making an online account. These electric bikes even come with a touchscreen navigation system to help you get to points of interest in the city!

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Helsinki, Finland

Sami C/Flickr

Sami C/Flickr

Helsinki doesn’t get as much praise as the other cities on this list, but this manageably sized capital city has its own unique atmosphere. There may not be many sights besides the Lutheran Cathedral -- a massive domed cathedral which serves as Helsinki’s unofficial symbol, but that is part of the city’s charm. 

Finland boasts the highest number of saunas per capita, totaling roughly one sauna for every two people, which means there must be over 2.5 million saunas for just 5.5 million people. Most Finns prefer to alternate between the sauna and plunging into one of the country’s thousands of frigid lakes, which is best done in the countryside. Though it’s easy to reach the wilderness via a short train ride, Helsinki also offers sauna options. But instead of the pine fringed lake, you will have to substitute in Helsinki’s harbor instead. The Original SkySauna includes gender-specific saunas, along with two heated and one harbor-fed pool. Additionally, there’s a rooftop bar, which will be packed whenever there’s a glimpse of sunlight. Another unique sauna experience awaits on SummerSauna, a ferry equipped with a sauna for up to ten people.  

Thousands of islands lie in Finland’s lakes and off its coast, with several connected to Helsinki by short ferry. The most famous of which is Suomenlinna, a once mighty sea fortress out in the Baltic, established during Swedish rule in the 1700s. In the early 1800s, Sweden surrendered the fortress to Finland, which soon after surrendered to Russian forces. The massive compound is open to day trippers and is inhabited by a small population of bohemian types and artists.

Despite an average summer temperature in the mid-60s, Helsinkians take full advantage of the long summer sun, which usually means swimming in the brisk Baltic. Pihlajasaari island is quite popular with the locals and unknown to most visitors, but drinking a glass of Karhu beer on its white sand beaches makes for an excellent city break. 

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Oslo, Norway

VisitOSLO/Flickr

VisitOSLO/Flickr

Though many travelers rush to Norway’s magnificent fjords, Oslo has plenty going for it. Oslo receives less visitors than Copenhagen and Stockholm, which is great for those who take the time to explore Scandinavia’s edgiest capital. 

For a look at the city’s superb art scene, head to Astrup Fearnley Museet, a strikingly modern sail-like structure perched on the Oslofjord, which houses an impressive contemporary art collection. Look out for Rod Bianco, an innovative gallery that exhibits the work of current and lesser known artists. Before Oslo became a contemporary art and design mecca, Edvard Munch’s impressive works brought attention to the city. His works can be seen at both the Munch Museum and National Gallery.

To properly see Oslo, it’s essential to take part in the flourishing cafe culture and sample some of the city’s pioneering cuisine. Grünerløkka, arguably Oslo’s most bohemian neighborhood, is an excellent starting point. Once a dive bar, the creative Pjoltergeist combines Icelandic, Korean, and Norwegian ingredients and techniques for its cuisine. Another option, Bass, incorporates a modern take on traditional Norwegian fare at its trendy corner location in Grünerløkka. Besides trendy eateries, Oslo’s artisan coffee shops are perfect for a cozy cup of joe, especially at long-running Fuglen or Peloton’s multipurpose cafe/bike shop. 

Despite Oslo’s forging of modern styles, there’s plenty of rich history in the city’s roots. Right on Oslo’s harbor sits Akershus Festning, a sprawling medieval fortress complex dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries. The fortress also includes a medieval castle and active military installations. Entering the fortress over the drawbridge before the crowds arrive can feel like a time warp. Another option, Vikingskipshuset, offers a look into the life of Norway’s Viking ancestors. Three restored longboats recovered from Oslofjord in the 1800s serve as the museum’s centerpiece. 

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Reykjavik, Iceland

Iraia Martínez/Flickr

Iraia Martínez/Flickr

Iceland’s skyrocketing popularity is largely due to its incredibly stunning landscapes, including fjords, glaciers, volcanoes, hot springs, and hundreds of waterfalls. If traveling to Iceland by air (like most people), the main airport is Keflavik, which is just 40 minutes from Iceland’s capital: Reykjavik. Many travelers stay in Reykjavik for at least some portion of their trip before embarking into the ruggedly beautiful wilderness. 

There’s plenty of reason to stick around this understated capital, especially on a weekend. The Icelandic are known to drink their way through the cold, dark winters, while continuing the drinking into summer to celebrate the long, sunny days and end of winter. Reykjavik’s unofficial pub crawl, known as the Rúntur, embodies this fully, drawing weekend partiers to the bars and clubs downtown -- many of which are on Laugavegur street. Some of the top spots are cafes by day before turning into dance halls by night, like Sólon. More laid-back options include the Lebowski Bar and Prikid. 

Reykjavik’s cultural scene also features plenty of concerts and music festivals. The shiny cubic Harpa hosts everything from symphony orchestras to headliners at the Airwaves festival, while Húrra offers a more intimate atmosphere, with a stage and dance floor worked into this compact bar. 

Besides the nighttime revelry, Reykjavik’s restaurant scene has tastefully modernized Nordic cuisine. If the thought of fermented shark makes your stomach turn, consider trying other classics, like puffin or reindeer burgers at Grillmarkadurinn, or New Nordic fare at the Nordic House’s DILL Restaurant. For a casual bite, head to Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur for the best hot dog in town (that’s the Icelandic version of stand’s name). The hotdogs are lamb based (as sheep are everywhere on the island), and they're topped with ketchup, mustard, fried onion, and sweet mayonnaise. Don’t be surprised to see the line stretching down the block during the Rúntur.

One last tip -- visit the Icelandic Phallogicial Museum. This quirky museum describes itself as “probably the only museum in the world to contain a collection of phallic specimens belonging to all the various types of mammal found in a single country."

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Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm

Stockholm

Stockholm is surprisingly navigable and intimate for being the largest metropolitan area on the list. Perhaps it’s because Stockholm is scenically situated on the waters of Lake Mälaren, spanning 14 islands that are connected by roughly 50 bridges and underground metro. Sweden’s capital is the perfect mix of old and new. On one hand, Stockholm boasts renowned industrial design and trendy bars, while on the other, narrow cobble stone lanes meander through Gamla Stan, the city’s old town. 

Stockholm enjoys a vibrant art and museum scene. The Moderna Museet is always a safe bet, featuring permanent pieces by Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol. However, a more unique experience awaits at the Vasamuseet. The museum remembers, in witty Swedish fashion, the unsuccessful voyage of the gigantic Vasa warship. At nearly 225 feet long and nearly 160 feet tall, the Vasa failed the Swedish crown, tipping within minutes and sinking with many casualties. In 1961, the Vasa was carefully salvaged and reassembled to what is on display today. Another tour of grandeur, though on a less cheeky and more serious scale, can be found at the Kungliga Slottet, which serves as the royal castle and houses numerous government buildings. The baroque-style interior can be visited on guided tours. 

For those who’ve never been, your impression of Sweden may have largely been shaped by Ikea and Swedish meatballs. Ikea has its merits, but Sweden’s design is best seen on display in Stockholm’s coffee shops, independent boutiques, and museums like the National Museum, Nordiska Museet, or the previously mentioned Moderna Museet. In regard to the meatballs, those are definitely worth sampling, as is skagen, pickled herring, and moose. 

Stockholm may be Scandinavia’s largest city, but the Swedes have a clear priority for a work/life balance. About 30 percent of the city comprises designated green space, which makes cross-country skiing and ice skating in winter and kayaking in the summer possible from the city center. As in Helsinki, there is an abundance of easy day trips to islands just offshore. The Stockholm archipelago totals 24,000 rocky islands and islets covered in pines and adorable red cottages. 

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