Discover the capitals of Northern Europe

Whether it’s the volcanic landscapes of Iceland, the fjords of Norway, the beaches of Denmark, or the lakes and forests of Sweden and Finland, northern travel is so often defined by outdoor experiences. Yet the capitals of the five main Nordic countries offer a fantastic mix of culture, history, food and family activities to serve as the perfect base for a Nordic vacation.

Functional public transport systems help visitors navigate cities whatever the weather to enjoy the best of Nordic design, historic sites and Scandinavian cafe culture.

Whether you’re curious about the status of the Nordic region as the so-called happiest place in the world, curious about the history of the Viking Age, or simply looking for a pleasant city break, the Nordic capitals offer something to suit all tastes.

Copenhagen, Denmark

Known as the home of hygge, Copenhagen is full of family attractions, castles and gardens, as well as a thriving restaurant scene. The latter particularly attracts foreign visitors as the city is home to an astonishing 15 Michelin-starred restaurants.

To conduct your own study of the Scandinavian way of life, take a table in one of the many cafes or restaurants with terraces. There are plenty of them because while Copenhagen isn’t exactly a hot climate destination, it has the mildest climate of all the Nordic capitals.

For families, the Tivoli Gardens amusement park is a must. Generations of Danes have spent a day here, whether exploring the thrills of the rides or simply strolling through the gardens.

Copenhagen’s historic highlights include the Baroque residence and formal gardens of Frederiksberg Palace, Rosenborg Castle and the National Museum with the legendary Viking ship Roskilde 6.

Helsinki, Finland

While the city itself is relatively compact, nearly half of Finland’s 5.5 million people live in and around the capital region of Helsinki.

Famous for its Nordic design classics such as Iittala glassware and Marimekko print and fabrics, Finland is a major destination for anyone interested in art and design. Make the Helsinki Design Museum your first stop to give context to your adventures in the city’s vibrant design district.

Contemporary architecture is also a feature of any city break in Helsinki, whether you visit the buildings deliberately or simply admire them as you wander your way elsewhere. The striking wooden facade of Oodi Library and the fascinating Temppeliaukio, better known as the Cave Church, are particular highlights.

Reykjavik, Iceland

With Icelandair flying direct from 14 US and Canadian airports and four other routes offered by low-cost airline Play, most North American travelers can reach Reykjavik with relative ease.

Said to be inspired by the steam rising from hot springs, early settlers named the bay Reykjavíkwhich means Smoked Berry in Old Norse. This is very fitting considering the recent volcanic eruptions very close to the capital area.

Despite Iceland’s reputation as a visually stunning place to visit, many buildings in the capital value function over form.

There are a few exceptions, notably the imposing Hallgrimskirkja church. Although actively used as a place of worship, the church is open daily to tourists who can visit the observation deck for stunning views of downtown Reykjavik.

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Elsewhere, the eye-catching modern architecture of the waterfront Harpa Concert Hall looks fantastic when lit up for evening events. Sculpture nearby sun traveler remembers the Vikings who colonized Iceland over 1,000 years ago.

Oslo, Norway

Norway’s capital has undergone a dramatic transformation over the past 20 years. The waterfront district has slowly transformed from industrial horror to cultural capital, including a waterfront promenade, a modern library, the opera house, a museum dedicated to artist Edvard Munch and the new colossal national museum.

Yet it is Vigeland Sculpture Park that remains the city’s main tourist attraction and one of the best free things to do in all of Scandinavia. More than 200 sculptures represent the life’s work of sculptor Gustav Vigeland, in a large park in west Oslo.

Vigeland’s sculptures are far from the only outdoor attraction in the Norwegian capital. From the peaceful islands of the inner Oslofjord to the forest that shrouds the city, Oslo is surrounded by nature’s playground.

Choose between a boat trip to Hovedøya, a charming island with historic sites, nature trails and rocky beaches, and explore the hiking trails of the vast Nordmarka forest with stunning views of the town and fjord below.

Stockholm, Sweden

Built on several islands, Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, is full of historical and cultural attractions.

Start by exploring the narrow streets, shops and public squares of the old town of Gamla Stan. To dig into the stories hidden in the streets, the Stockholm exhibit at the nearby city museum is a must-see.

In many cities, public transit is just a way to get from one part of town to another. In Stockholm, the entire metro network doubles as an art gallery. Almost all stations in the network are decorated with sculptures, mosaics, paintings or other artistic installations by more than 150 different artists.

Elsewhere in the city, the ABBA Museum and the Vasa Warship Museum are extremely popular places to visit. If you prefer to relax, consider joining one of the many passenger ferries to the many islands of the Stockholm archipelago.

Other Popular Nordic Cities

Beyond the five capitals, there are many Nordic cities worthy of inclusion in a travel itinerary. Gothenburg in Sweden and Bergen in Norway still offer plenty of cultural and natural attractions if you prefer to explore smaller towns.

Reykjavik is a popular winter destination for Northern Lights hunters, but you could also consider Tromsø in northern Norway. Tromsø is also a hotspot for Northern Lights sightings, but offers plenty of other attractions, from the Arctic-Alpine Botanical Garden to the cable car and mountain trails.

Other Nordic cities outside of the top five countries include Torshavn in the Faroe Islands and Nuuk in Greenland. Both places are home to less than 20,000 people, but with capital status in their respective island nations – both part of the Kingdom of Denmark – they have a lot more to do than you might think.

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