Scandinavia had long been on my list of desired destinations in Europe but for some reason was relegated by the repeat allure of France, Italy, Greece and Spain. Having finally got there I realised why the three kingdoms that comprise Scandinavia are so tightly grouped. The cultural commonalities of Norway, Denmark and Sweden (it’s these three which are accepted as Scandinavia) are many but they are offset by a distinctiveness: two are members of the European Union (Norway did not join); they all have differing national languages (although the original union was largely because of their north German linguistic similarities); they all use different currencies, none of which are the euro. There are also differences in national wealth, with Norway being the richest of the three due to its oil, and they differ in their immigration policies.
Yet all three enjoy a reputation for being socially aware, and always rate highly on quality-of-life indexes. They are, to the casual observer, also very similar as a tourist experience – although geographically different they all enjoy fabulous scenery from fjords and harbour inlets to archipelagos. Food, fashion, climate, design and architecture, and lifestyle happily intersect and the reindeer motif and strangely appealing woolly jumpers are common to all.
To discover what unites the three countries, and what distinguishes them from each other, let’s take a truncated trip from Norway to Sweden via Denmark.
Bergen, Norway’s second largest city, actually hides its size extremely well if you stick to the area around the port, which encompasses an amazing array of brightly coloured wooden waterside buildings, most of which serve as restaurants, bars and arts venues. The impression is of a compact seaside village surrounded by spectacular mountain peaks with a wonderful alfresco life – weather permitting.
We were there in early May, which was sunny and crisp and perfect for walking and outdoor eating; in all these countries a feature of every outdoor table is the presence of throw rugs (or even animal hides) draped on every chair.
The Scandinavians are renowned for their outdoor pursuits and seem to be pretty stoic and spartan when it comes to trekking around their landscapes even in the depths of winter. Which brings me to the nearby fjords and the village of Flåm, one of Norway’s most popular tourist destinations after the stunning Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock), the most visited natural attraction.
While only a 2½-hour drive from Bergen, the best way to approach Flåm is via ship through the spectacular Aurlandsfjord, which features breathtaking views of cascading waterfalls, snow-capped peaks and spectacularly precipitous walls of rock on either side. At the end of the fjord, nestled into the base of towering mountains, the town of Flåm is the gateway to a worldrenowned railway that takes in the magnificent scenery from on high.
Copenhagen is famous for many things, including Danny Kaye declaring it “wonderful, wonderful” in the 1952 Hollywood musical Hans Christian Andersen. There’s also the “princess thing”, which includes Andersen’s Little Mermaid sitting on a rock off the Langelinie promenade and, of course, Australia’s Princess Mary. So a visit to the sites where both are to be found is a must. It’s easy to get up close to the mermaid version but as Mary and Frederik are resident in Amalienborg Palace, a glimpse of them is less likely in this sprawling home to the Danish Royals.
Apart from monarchs and their offspring, Copenhagen has a lot on offer and is the Nordic capital of cool. It’s not only home to Noma, more than once voted the world’s best restaurant, but myriad bars, chic eateries, fashion shops and the anarchist commune of Christiana.
It also enjoys nine centuries of history, the Tivoli Gardens, one of the world’s oldest amusement parks, and the hip Nyhavn area, with its canal-side culinary scene. The former seafaring neighbourhood is the perfect place to stop for a smørrebrød (Denmark’s famous open sandwich, made with rye bread) and a beer. After that wander along Strøget, Europe’s longest pedestrianised shopping strip.
Like its fellow Nordic neighbours, Denmark is renowned for its design ethos, which is elegant, minimalist, functional and beautifully crafted. It is home to the Utzon Center in Aalborg, set up to showcase the work of master architect and Aalborg native Jørn, including pieces originally destined for the Sydney Opera House but not used.
Sweden’s exports are prominent around the world but with its restaurant and bars booming and abundance of cultural attractions, there’s more to the country than flat-pack furniture, Abba and Volvos. Stockholm, the capital, occupies 14 of around 30,000 islands in the Swedish archipelago with the most visited, Gamla Stan, at its heart. This island is a magical collection of cobble-stoned streets, interesting shops and cafes and restaurants – with one, Den Gyldene Freden, dating back to 1722. It’s also home to the enormous baroque Royal Palace and the Nobel Museum.
Sweden has become hot, in the cool sense, recently. This may be a result of the TV police procedurals (such as Wallander) and crime novels (think Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series) set here. Or maybe because of its fashion scene (it’s the home of H&M and COS, among others). And its film industry has been recognised as among the world’s best ever since Ingmar Bergman rose to fame in the 1950s.
Take the Millennium walking tour around Södermalm and you’ll discover the hangouts made famous by Lisbeth and Mikael in the renowned The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy.
Apart from its cultural significance, Stockholm is home to a thriving culinary scene, and the locals do eat more than meatballs and open sandwiches. Crayfish is a national delicacy, along with the slightly less appetising herring. If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, try the local game: reindeer, moose and boar.
tourists, a boat trip is a great way to see a capital built on a series of islands. If you enjoy contemporary photography, don’t miss Fotografiska which, while relatively new, has attracted some of the world’s best exhibiting artists. After taking in a show, wander upstairs to its award-winning restaurant.
If shopping is on your list then a walk down the pedestrianised Drottninggaten (Queen Street) is a must. Here you’ll find the city’s largest department store, Åhléns City, and a plethora of smaller boutiques and high street brands as well as cafes and restaurants hidden away in courtyards.
At the end of this brief trip across the three countries, the lasting impression is of prosperity, wholesome living, social harmony, civility, bicycles and cleanliness. It’s safe without being sterile and the people, most of whom speak excellent English, are warm and inviting. Scandinavia is hot for good reason.