Scandinavia has long fascinated people from around the world. Usually defined as the trio of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, the region covers vast expanses of land and sea, stretching from the Arctic Circle in the north to Denmark’s border with Germany in the south. Modern images of snow-dusted, fairy-tale streets, looming fjords, vast frozen forests, and quaint, bicycle-friendly Scandinavian cities pepper the collective imagination of the world — not to mention images of the legendary Vikings of old, whose wanderlust, raiding and sailing prowess ensured that the Scandinavian cities of today are scattered far and wide.
Today’s Scandinavian descendants of the Vikings may have given up their broadswords and warships—thankfully, for the rest of us—but a more sedate life seems to agree with the Scandinavian people. That’s evidenced by the fact that year after year, the best Scandinavian cities and countries show up in the top rankings of lists of the world’s happiest people. In terms of measures like satisfaction with governance, social support, income, life expectancy, freedom and lack of corruption, the trio of Norway, Sweden and Denmark are invariably in the top ten. The 2019 World Happiness Report saw Scandinavia’s Nordic neighbor Finland come in first place for the second year in a row, but Denmark and Norway were right behind in second and third, respectively, with Sweden coming in seventh.
But what is it specifically about this region of interlocking yet distinct cultures that draws so many visitors to its lovely and varied Scandinavian cities year after year? And which ones are the best Scandinavian cities to visit? Here, presented in no particular order, are a few.
The capital of Sweden is never far from the top of any list of the best Scandinavian cities to visit, and with good reason. This vibrant, eclectic metropolis of 1.5 million rests on a set of 14 islands and is the largest city in Scandinavia. As such, it boasts a variety of distinct districts, each with its own particular vibe. The old town or Gamla Stan is a meticulously preserved maze of winding, narrow medieval streets that draws legions of tourists with camera at the ready all year round. A short distance away, trendy bohemian types flock to the Södermalm district to sample the impressive array of cutting-edge restaurants, enjoy the city’s elaborate coffee culture with a cup of slow-roasted joe and a kanellbullar (Swedish cinnamon roll) or shop at the area’s numerous boutiques. You can thank the trend-setters at the forefront of the city’s tech boom for helping to make Stockholm one of the best Scandinavian cities to visit; the shops, restaurants and nightlife are geared toward the youthful tech developers based here, the same ones responsible for creating Candy Crush, Minecraft, Spotify as well as many other popular games and apps.
Stockholm is also among the best Scandinavian cities to visit because of its incredible collection of world-class museums — among the most museums of any city in the world. Some of the must-see museums when visiting Stockholm are the Skansen Open-Air Museum, in operation since 1891 and designed to demonstrate what Scandinavian life was like before the Industrial Revolution. Also well worth a visit is the Vasa Museum, which houses a restored ship that sank in Stockholm harbor in 1628, making it the only preserved 17th-century ship in the entire world. As if that weren’t enough, you can also free your inner “Dancing Queen” with a trip to the Abba Museum, celebrating the life and music of the beloved Swedish disco-era quartet.
Stockholm is one of the most interesting Scandinavian cities to visit not only for its high-brow culture, vivacious club scene and hip coffee shops, but also for the plethora of outdoor activities available there. In addition to the 14 main islands that are home to Stockholm proper, there are around 25,000 other islands in the region, providing a generous set of options for residents and visitors alike to enjoy outdoor fun. A boat tour among the islands reveals islets occupied by the massive summer homes of the well-to-do, but there are also islands that have been left in a natural state. A sedate boat ride through the archipelago is well worth the price of admission, but there are also plenty of more active ways to enjoy the islands as well, like trekking, kayaking and much more.
Finally, Stockholm distinguishes itself among the best Scandinavian cities to visit with its incredible attention to parks and public spaces. Despite being occupied since the Stone Age, having been a city since the 13th century, and seeing hordes of young people moving here to seek their fortune in recent years, city planners nonetheless have assiduously managed to preserve plenty of parks and green spaces. What’s more, visitors who rank Stockholm among the best Scandinavian cities to visit often remark on how sparkling clean the city is, even standing out among other Scandinavian cities, which almost invariably have a reputation for cleanliness.
As is the case with Stockholm, Denmark’s capital and biggest city was built on islands, in this case two larger islands named Zeeland and Amager. Copenhagen is a cosmopolitan hub for culture, business and technology, and in recent years has distinguished itself as having one of the most innovative and compelling culinary scenes in the world. Any competent guide to Copenhagen will list dozens of varied and eclectic restaurants for you to sample while there, but one of the things that makes Copenhagen stand out as one of the best Scandinavian cities for cuisine is that around every corner there is some undiscovered gem of a restaurant or cafe just waiting for you to discover on your own. Home to the so-called New Nordic cuisine, which the fashionable love for its trendy emphasis on local, seasonal, farm-to-table ingredients, Copenhagen is a foodie’s dream, helping to elevate it among the best Scandinavian cities to visit.
And this forward-thinking, green-oriented viewpoint isn’t isolated among the city’s chefs and restaurateurs. Copenhagen takes the bicycle culture that all the best Scandinavian cities are known for and shifts it into 15th gear. The daily commute sees streets inundated with bikes, and Danish families make for adorable postcard photos on weekdays as you’ll commonly see bicycling moms and dads leading a row of kiddos like ducklings on wheels pedaling off to school.
Copenhagen is often referred to as the most beautiful of all of the ever-stunning Scandinavian cities, a high honor indeed. As you wander the charming, circa 12th-century old town, stroll along its canals, and take in its incredible architecture, you’ll quickly see why. What many visitors notice right away about Copenhagen is that although it is second only to Stockholm for largest city in Scandinavia at 1.2 million people, Copenhagen still retains a small town feel. This is due in no small part to the city’s pocket neighborhoods, amazing parks and pedestrian — and bicycle-friendly streets. Add to that the world-class draws of the Strøget, the longest shopping street in Europe, and the legendary Tivoli amusement park, along with a couple of “blue flag” city beaches indicating they’ve met the stringent requirements to be certified as clean by the non-profit Foundation for Environmental Education, and it becomes apparent why Copenhagen is never far from the top of anyone’s list of the best Scandinavian cities to visit.
The third-largest city in Scandinavia, Norway’s capital of Oslo is always a perennial favorite on any list of the best Scandinavian cities to visit. The city is home to some 600,000 residents with a metro area encompassing around 900,000, and boasts some of the most arresting architecture of all the Scandinavian capital cities. Its glittering glass-faced skyscrapers reflect off the ever-present water and tower over humble, elderly buildings dating nearly to the city’s founding.
Among the cultural highlights as you walk through the city’s compact, pedestrian center are the cathedral and Norway’s parliament building, as well as the globally recognized Wartime Resistance Museum, offering a sobering and inspirational look at the risks taken by everyday Norwegians to come to the aid of persecuted Jews and fight Nazi control through subterfuge during World War II. Also well worth a visit while here in one of the best Scandinavian cities is the Munch Museum, where you can view the artist’s famous painting “The Scream.” While you’re on the museum tangent, one absolute must is to take the ferry over to the Bygdøy peninsula, which boasts five museums including the Norwegian Folk Museum and the Viking Ship Museum, featuring a number of amazingly well-preserved Viking vessels. The peninsula itself is a delight all on its own, with its trees, natural park land and Huk Beach, which draws locals and visitors alike for picnics, beach activities and clothing-optional sunbathing.
Oslo is also home to a burgeoning microbrew culture, and locals revel in the eclectic and international cuisine on offer in the city’s restaurants and bars. Another favorite activity for locals and visitors is to hit up the bargain-hunting scene in Oslo’s many flea markets and antique stores. You can find tons of used and vintage clothing, as well as all manner of tchotchkes and bric-a-brac.
But one of the main reasons Oslo always figures so highly on any list of the best Scandinavian cities to visit is its proximity to a wide variety of outdoor activities. The pride and joy of Oslo natives and outdoor enthusiasts is the Holmenkollen ski jump, a freestanding structure that gives the illusion of floating in the air when viewed at a distance. Also worth a trip is to explore the islands of the Oslofjord, the fjord that stretches up from the North Sea creating the inlet where Oslo is located. However, once you leave the activity and energy of the city behind, you find that the fjord is also home to number of small islands, accessible by boat with trip times ranging from 10 minutes to an hour and half. Journeying by watercraft among the jaw-dropping greenery of the area directly surrounding the city is worth the price of admission all by itself, and help to make Oslo one of the most special of the Scandinavian capital cities.
The Swedish city of Malmö may not be the largest city in Scandinavia, but it is one of the most popular, and makes its way onto most lists of the best Scandinavian cities for a variety of reasons. The city’s population is a mere 316,000, but the metro area of Malmö is home to over 700,000, giving its younger-skewing populace—nearly half of the population is under 35—a lot of elbow room. What’s more, its location at the very southwestern tip of Sweden just across the Öresund from Copenhagen makes it an easily accessible and cosmopolitan burg that punches far above its weight.
Malmö’s story is one of adaptation and redemption, founded as it was on shipping and industry and thriving that way for centuries before suffering a series of economic crises that threatened its very existence beginning in the 1970s. However, by the 1990s the city’s leaders hit on a plan to reinvent the city as a hub for architecture, design and tech businesses, starting with the construction of the Öresund bridge connecting Malmö with Copenhagen and the rest of Europe. Biotech and IT companies followed the construction of architecturally innovative housing and office designs in a revamped waterfront district, and the youthful influx that followed brought with it tons of innovative restaurants, bars and coffee shops. Malmö is also proud of its ecologically-minded ethos that emphasizes bicycling and green space throughout the metropolitan area, making it an important player among the major Scandinavian cities despite its smaller size.
One other surprising and delightful aspect of Malmö is the city’s beach culture. Boasting what locals refer to as the “Scandinavian Copacabana,” Malmö is home to several miles of pristine city beach offering a variety of experiences for beachgoers. With balmy summertime temperatures reaching into the low 80s and even peaking for a record high of 92ºF (33ºC) in recent memory, Malmö may surprise many people unfamiliar with the broad variety of Scandinavian climate by being one of the best Scandinavian cities to visit for beach fun.
We’ll head from the balmy sunshine of Malmö to the rainier climes of Bergen, Norway — colder and wetter, but nonetheless another one of the best Scandinavian cities to visit. In fact, this second-largest city in Norway is also the wettest in the country, and a raincoat is an essential packing item no matter what time of year you visit. However, if you go in spring and summer, you are likely to catch some sunshine as well, as you rub elbows with all the tourists passing through on their way to the far north fjord country.
While Bergen is no longer one of the Scandinavian capital cities (Oslo is now capital of Norway) it takes second place to none when it comes to beauty. Quaint wooden houses stand watch over the waterfront area, and the city itself seems to have sprung up organically from the awe-inspiring natural landscape. The city’s roofs blend seamlessly with snow-dusted trees and sharply ascending hills that loom over it as if it were a living painting.
One of the tourist highlights for visitors to Bergen is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Bryggen wharf. Home to buildings that date back to the 1700s, the gorgeous waterfront area alone makes Bergen one of the top-rated Scandinavian cities to visit. But for people truly interested in the amazing history of this area, stepping off the wharf and into the alleyways behind the wooden facade provides an excellent snapshot of what life must have been like at the time of Bergen’s founding. This is where Germanic merchants of the Hanseatic League plied their trade starting in the 1400s and beyond, and stepping through here can transport the visitor to that earlier time.
Although Bergen’s climate is admittedly often gray, the city’s burgeoning street art culture is anything but. Wandering the town you’ll see plenty of imaginative and eclectic examples of graffiti-style street art with a unique Norwegian twist. There are plenty of cutting-edge museums as well for people who prefer a more traditional art experience. Top it off with Mount Fløyen keeping watch over the city and accessible via funicular, and Bergen makes for a great destination for anyone interested in learning more about the best Scandinavian cities to visit.
Another one of the outstanding major Scandinavian cities that often falls off the radar is Gothenburg, Sweden. It isn’t the largest city in Scandinavia, and Gothenburg residents will tell you straight up that their town has long sat in the shadow of Sweden’s larger and better known capital Stockholm 250 miles to the east. However, with Gothenburg’s unabashed embrace of its blue-collar origins as a gritty shipping port, and having the foresight and innovation to take that history forward into an eclectic, artistic, and tech-oriented future, this spunky city is emerging in its own right as a solid bohemian alternative to upper-crust Stockholm.
Gothenburg is still one of the most important of the major Scandinavian cities in terms of the volume of shipping containers that pass through here, as well as being the home to Volvo manufacturing headquarters. But with a huge student population and burgeoning film, music, and tech industries, Gothenburg is quickly becoming one of the most popular Scandinavian cities to visit for tourists as well as container ships.
Tourists revel in wandering the cobblestone streets of the Haga district, along the city’s winding canals, and riding vintage trams to hang out at Gothenburg’s plethora of hip, young music clubs. Visitors are also pleasantly surprised that they can dine at top-notch restaurants featuring a stunning variety of cuisines from around the globe, including Armenian, Nepali, Turkish and more—and of course, being on Sweden’s western coast—some of the best seafood in the world. And that coast also offers nearby respite from the bustling city’s vivacious crowds, with plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities like boat rides to isolated islets, wandering the forests, and visiting tiny fishing villages.
Aarhus is the main port for Denmark and the second-largest city in the nation, but it distinguishes itself as one of the best Scandinavian cities to visit in many other ways as well. While Aarhus is a smaller entrant among Scandinavian cities with a population of just 264,000, this charming, easily walkable town boasts historical buildings hearkening back to a number of eras, lovely wooded areas, and a strong connection with its Viking roots, including a great Viking Museum.
However, despite the connections Aarhus celebrates with the bloody history of Viking culture, what most visitors comment on when it comes to listing this town as one of the best Scandinavian cities to visit is the friendliness of the its residents. Smiles abound, and a vivacious, youthful culture means that the there is an openness to a variety of music clubs, international cuisine, and music festivals. Visitors also delight in wandering the open-air museum, the Den Gamle By, where actors in period costume wander neighborhoods playing out different periods in Denmark’s history. Aarhus is also home to one of the top-rated botanic gardens in Europe, helping to place it among the major Scandinavian cities despite its diminutive size.
While the armies of Sweden were once very busy, having spent centuries defending and conquering, the Sweden of modern history is admired for its peaceful nature.
Odense, Denmark is the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, and that fairy-tale connection carries over into the present day. With a population of just 172,000, wandering the streets of Odense can feel very much like you are in one of Andersen’s whimsical tales. Museums honoring him abound, there’s an entire neighborhood devoted to him, and even the pedestrian crossing indicators cast a silhouette of the famed author of “The Little Mermaid” and “The Ugly Duckling.”
But Odense has much more to offer to in terms of joining the ranks of the best Scandinavian cities to visit than just its most famous native son. The city is home to Denmark’s best zoo, and green spaces dominate, making for an outdoor, family-oriented charm that permeates the cityscape. The Kongens Have or King’s Garden is the crown jewel of the city’s parks, with a gorgeous white castle in the background and frequent concerts and other public activities taking place in the summer months.
You’ll also find an overwhelming array of galleries and museums dedicated to art and architecture of all kinds, including one devoted to the environmental and social justice-oriented Danish sculptor Jens Galschiøt. There is also a quirky museum that allows the visitor to walk through replicas of Danish living rooms in the styles of each decade of the 1900s, allowing for a glimpse at some of the most intriguing—and often puzzling—design choices made popular by Danes over the years.
In fact, Sweden has been at peace since 1814, choosing to remain neutral during World War I, World War II and the Cold War. Considering the pressure they faced from all sides during this chaotic time of history, this is a great achievement and shows their fortitude as a people.
This commitment to peace and harmony runs deep in the Swedes of today. They’ve been heavily involved in the peacekeeping initiatives of the United Nations. And in fact, Sweden is considered to be among one of the safest places in the world to visit.
Their harmonious approach to life is also evident in the everyday warmth, humbleness and friendliness of their people.
Conclusion: And the best city in Scandinavia is…
So what is the best Scandinavian city to visit? We’ve talked about a lot of them, and seen that each one mentioned is beautiful in its own right and has plenty to offer anyone interested in experiencing the wonders of Scandinavia for themselves. From the Norwegian fjords, to the snowy winter wonderland of Stockholm straight out of holiday postcards, to the pristine beaches of the Scandinavian Copacabana in Malmö, to Copenhagen’s hipster bicycle culture, the reasons for visiting Scandinavian cities are as diverse as the geography itself.
That’s why the only reasonable conclusion anyone can come to when discussing which ones are the best Scandinavian cities to visit is this: it depends.
That may be a bit of a letdown for people who were looking forward to a knock-down, drag-out fight among the Scandinavian nations. But after examining the incredible variety of climates, atmosphere, and cultures each of these Scandinavian cities has to offer, it’s hard to argue that you could single out any one of them as “the best.” It all depends on what you’re looking for!
Suffice to say that given the huge variety among Scandinavian cities throughout this vast and awe-inspiring region, the best Scandinavian cities to visit depend entirely on you and what kind of journey you seek. No matter which of the Scandinavian cities you choose (and hey, why choose only one?) just be assured that as soon as you step off that plane you’ll be greeted with friendly smiles, a green, ecologically-friendly ethos, and some of the happiest people on the planet!
Scandification. Discovering Scandinavia.
Scandification explores and celebrates the magic of Scandinavia. Stay tuned and we’ll bring the essence of Scandinavia to you.