Scandinavia travel guide
The word “Scandinavia” evokes many images. Endless fir forests, awe-inspiring fjords, wilderness, and lately, perhaps, crime fiction and noir thrillers such as Borgen, Wallander and The Killing. It’s all these things, of course, but this hardly does justice to the region’s vastness and diversity. To the North is the Arctic Circle, where polar bears roam, the summer sun lasts 24 hours, but an implacable dark descends in a winter lit, if you’re lucky, by cosmic northern lights. Although not in Scandinavia, Finland, where Russia's cultural orbit is felt, also has a Nordic feel with vast expanses of lake and forest inhabited by wild bears stretch beyond sight. Nomadic reindeer herders range from mountain to forest and the naked sauna is a national pastime.
The western coasts are wild and wet. Plunging cataracts and cruise-ship-dwarfing fjord cliffs defy your sense of scale and the wind whips angry seas. Head south toDenmark’s countryside, though, and you’ll find a pastoral, almost English beauty of rolling fields and woods. It’s a gentler landscape ideal for touring by bike.
Scandinavia is also a region of extreme seasons quite unlike Britain’s tepid climate. Winter in the region thwarts all but the most determined city-break tourist. It’s a winter sports heaven, though, when ice grips great tracts of wilderness tight for half the year and you can snowmobile to ice hotels or trek wild trails by husky sled.
During summer’s brief lease, the days stretch on and every Scandinavian country explodes in a celebration of light, music, culture, Baltic beachcombing, lakeland fun and some legendary fishing (especially in Norway during the salmon runs). This is the time to explore remote coasts and sleepy islands by car, canoe, ferry or historic Baltic schooner, and to plan mountain and trail hikes. It’s also when frivolous midsummer festivals and cavorting take over and a husband can win his wife’s weight in beer at the World Wife Carrying Championship.
While most regional towns and even cities in Scandinavia tend to be small, relatively sleepy and often achingly pretty, the capital cities are compelling destinations in their own right. Stockholm offers grand Venetian charms around its many canals and islands as well as the world’s only ABBA museum, whileCopenhagen has chic sophistication and fine dining.
For a region that subsisted largely on herring and rye bread, only occasionally looking to France and Italy for some culinary cues, the food has changed out of all recognition. Local chefs, such as René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen, have transformed the way they find and use what’s on their doorstep, and the world is now beating a path to their kitchen doors.
Putting together an itinerary to sample the best of the region is quickest via the network of airports. Doing so overland poses its challenges but promises greater adventure too. Determined independent travellers willing to stitch together an itinerary that takes in several countries will feel like Phileas Fogg taking in rail, road and ferry travel over some incredible landscapes. The Oslo to Bergen railway or the Norwegian coastal steamer route are just a few examples. Happily, all these mini-adventures will generally run to timetable, thanks to innate Nordic good sense and organisation.
When to go
Mid-May to August is the obvious period in which to go, when daytime temperatures rise into teens and 20s Celsius, greenery abounds and everyone makes the most of the “midnight sun”. It’s also when the vast majority of food, culture and music festivals happen and the seasonal attractions and camping grounds re-open. Oddly, and happily, the height of summer is also when many hotels cut their rates (and surprisingly many businesses including restaurants close so everyone can head off to their summer houses). Spring and autumn are when the cities really come into their own and a series of often excellent cultural and food festivals take place.
Rail travel in Scandinavia is first-rate, usually reasonably priced and with some good regional and cross-border intercity services. Some journeys are wonderfully scenic trips in their own right, such as the Bergen railway which crosses the “roof of Norway” on Northern Europe’s highest altitude line. Eurail (eurail.com) offers great deals on unlimited rail travel around Scandinavia if you are planning extensive rail travel and are prepared to plan and book ahead. It also offers family tickets and discounts on some ferry routes in the region.
Car hire works well and all the major international firms operate here. The ScanRail Drive (eurorailways.com) deal offers a five-day rail pass with two days of car hire.
Much of the region is dependent on ferries and there are extensive services throughout Scandinavia including many car ferry routes. At weekends, ferry fares go up. Sweden has the largest fleet of ferries serving the islands of the Stockholm archipelago.
Know before you go
Travel around Scandinavia is generally safe, hassle-free and requires little in the way of special planning or completion of red tape. Your European Health Insurance Card will be accepted most of the time for free emergency treatment although in some cases charges may apply, so travel insurance is a must.