Strictly speaking, Scandinavia consists of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. In broader terms, Finland and Iceland are also included when talking about the Nordic Countries. All countries share history and boundaries to varying degree.
Cities to visit
There is a constant and long-standing rivalry between Copenhagen and Stockholm over which city can claim the title as Scandinavia's unofficial capital. Depending on how you count, both cities are the largest, most visited, and the target of most investment. However, after the completion of the Øresund bridge in 2000, and subsequent integration of Copenhagen and Sweden's third largest city Malmö, this region (the Øresund/Öresund region) is by some accounts emerging as a main urban centre in Scandinavia, famous for its fairytale parks and castles and its liberal attitudes, while Stockholm arguably grabs the title as the most beautiful city.
The name Scandinavia comes from the Skandage body of water that lies sandwiched between Norway, Sweden, and the Jutland peninsula of Denmark. Strictly speaking, the term covers only those three countries, but here we use it in its broader sense to cover all of Nordic Europe (Norden).
The Scandinavian nations share many cultural traits including similar flags and many related languages. The region is known for its natural beauty and more recently its liberalism. Denmark, Finland and Sweden are EU members. Oil and gas rich Norway, and, the only island nation (to the west), Iceland, are not.
The Nordic countries all enjoy a relatively strong economy. Norway and Iceland have in particular profited from an abundance of natural resources. Sweden and Finland also have their share of natural resources, but are in the international marketplace mostly famous for strong brands like Volvo, IKEA, Spotify, Skype, Ericsson and Nokia. Although Denmark has developed sophisticated business in a number of industries, it is above all the leading agricultural country in Scandinavia. Strong economies and relatively small social differences translates into high prices for visitors.
Elaborate welfare states are a common characteristic of the Nordic countries. Most things are generally highly organized and tourists should expect everything to proceed according to plans, rules and timetables. According to Transparency International, the Nordic countries are the least corrupt in the world (matched only by a handful of countries including Canada, New Zealand and Singapore).
Scandinavia was covered by an ice sheet around 10.000 BC. As the ice pushed the land down, it is still rising from the sea, at a rate near 1 cm a year. While the north Germanic peoples populated southern coastal areas, Finns and Sami migrated from the Ural Mountains. From around AD 700, Norse sailors known as Vikings ventured across the Atlantic and European rivers, reaching as far as present-day Canada, Morocco and the Caspian Sea. Christianity did not get a grip on Scandinavia until around AD 1000. The 16th to 19th centuries, Denmark and Sweden fought for domination of northern Europe in 11 wars. Norway, Finland and Iceland regained independence during the early 20th century.
Denmark borders on Germany, while Finland and Norway border on Russia, but otherwise the Nordic countries are separated from their neighbors by the Baltic, the North Sea or the Atlantic itself. An abundance of land, water and wilderness is a common characteristic of the Nordic countries (except Denmark where most of the country is farmland or settlements). For example, Sweden is one of the largest countries in Europe in area but only has some 10 million inhabitants. The landscapes and nature do, however, vary across the Nordic countries. Denmark is a flat lowland like the Netherlands and Northern Germany. Iceland is both volcanic and arctic. Norway and Sweden share the Scandinavian peninsula which is highest on the Atlantic coast and gradually becomes lower until Sweden meets the Baltic sea. The Scandinavian mountains, running from Southern Norway and past Tromsø in Northern Norway, are steep and rugged on the Atlantic side, gentle on the Eastern side. Finland is relatively flat, somewhat colder, and characterized by lakes scattered over the entire country. Large parts of Sweden and Finland (as well as parts of Norway) are covered by deep pine tree forests that are essentially the western branch of great Russian taiga. Galdhøpiggen in Norways Jotunheimen national park, is with its 2.469 meters the tallest mountain north of the Alps, while Kebnekaise, 2104 meters tall, is the highest mountain in Sweden.
The northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland, as well as most of Greenland, are within the Arctic.
Due to the high latitude, winter days are really short. Likewise summer nights are very short and in the northern most part there is even midnight sun in the summer. While central parts of Scandinavia (the Oslo-Stockholm-Copenhagen triangle) are more densely populated, vast areas in the north or in the mountains are hardly populated at all. Because of this, space, light and nature are key characteristics of the four northern countries, with the exception of Denmark.
Despite the high latitude central parts, the Nordic countries have a relatively mild climate, at least much warmer than would be expected at this latitude. Northern parts have subarctic climate, while southern parts and coastal areas enjoy a temperate climate. Denmark and coastal areas of Southern Norway, Iceland and Western Sweden experience only occasional frost and snow during winter. Summers in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland are pleasantly warm with day temperatures 15 to 30 degrees C. In the mountains and along western coasts, the weather is generally more unstable. Finland has the most stable sunny weather in summer. In general, the further inland, the bigger the difference between summer and winter. The Baltic side is generally colder in winter than the North Sea side. Western Norway and the Atlantic Islands have the smallest difference between summer and winter.
See Scandinavia for winter for visiting Scandinavia for Christmas, New Year and winter sports.
Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are closely related and mutually intelligible to varying degrees, especially in writing, although some spoken dialects (mostly prevalent in Norwegian) can be quite incomprehensible. As these are all Germanic languages, if you speak German or Dutch, you will find many cognates, and even English speakers will be able to recognise the odd word once they get their heads around the phonetic spelling: eg. English school is Swedish skola and Danish/Norwegian skole, while first becomes först/først. Icelandic and Faroese, while also related, have been kept in a linguistic freezer since the 13th century, and are largely unintelligible to other Germanic speakers.
The real outlier is Finnish, which belongs to the Finno-Ugric family and is entirely unrelated to the other Nordic (and Indo-European) languages. Finland, however, maintains a roughly 5% Swedish-speaking minority, and all Finns learn Swedish in school. As Finnish is related to Hungarian and Estonian, speakers of those languages will recognise several cognates. The Saami language also belongs to the Finno-Ugric family and is an official language in some municipalities of Lapland.
The Nordic alphabets use a few special letters: å, ä and ö in Sweden and the phonetically identical å, æ and ø in Norway/Denmark (and others in Icelandic). As these are letters in their own right, proper spelling of Nordic names is much appreciated by Nordic peoples.
However as far as most foreigners are concerned, communicating in Scandinavia is easy, as virtually everybody under 65 speaks at least basic English, and younger people tend to be fluent. Most students also study a third major European language, such as German, French and increasingly Spanish. Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark have some of the world's highest English proficiency rates among countries where English is not an official language. Foreign language television programmes (as well as locally-produced programmes with segments which use foreign language) and films are usually shown in their original language with subtitles, with only children's programmes sometimes being dubbed into the local language, and even then DVDs and cinemas also offer the original language with subtitles, and it is widely believed that this links to the high English proficiency among young children here.
All Nordic countries are part of the Schengen agreement. Please see the article Travel in the Schengen Zone for more information on the entry requirements and proedures. However, please be also aware as well that Norway and Iceland are not members of the European Union. This means that whilst there are no passport control stations when travelling from any other Schengen country to these two countries, both these countries each maintain their own customs rules which you need to clear upon arrival. This has particular implications if you are planning to make a connection to a Norwegian or Icelandic city via another Norwegian or Icelandic airport respectively: you need to pick-up your bags at the first (not final) port of entry into Norway or Iceland, clear them through customs, re-check them again and be screened at security.
There is no requirement to carry ID or passport when travelling around in the Nordic countries, neither for citizens nor for tourists. The police or custom officials generally don't conduct ID searches, however many hotels and hostels may require ID to check-in, the same goes for car rental companies.
In 2015-2016, Sweden introduced temporary ID checks at its borders due to the ongoing migrant crisis in Europe, making it necessary to carry some kind of identification papers when entering the country. The Schengen agreement was de facto not in effect at this time, however these ID checks were later abolished.
Due to the large distances and the water surrounding most of the Nordic area, airplane is often the most effective way of getting to the Nordic countries. All the main cities have international airports, and even smaller cities like Haugesund and Ålesund serve some international flights. Almost all European airlines service Scandinavian airports. Copenhagen Airport, Kastrup, is widely considered a main hub in Scandinavia, although airports in most of the countries have good connections too.
Besides the regional airlines, there are also serveral major international airlines which offers direct routes to Scandinavia. Emirates, Gulf Air, Air Canada and Singapore Airlines fly to Copenhagen, Air China to Stockholm, while PIA (Pakistan), Thai, Qatar Airways, US Airways, Delta, and Continental Airlines all service serveral intercontinental routes to Scandinavia.
Alternative low cost airlines in the region include Blue1  in Finland, Norwegian  in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, Cimber Sterling  in Denmark and Wow Air  in Iceland. All of these airlines has routes to one of the London airports, and hence London is a good entry point, if you can find a cheaper flight there, which is often the case. Many of the low cost airlines mainly service routes between the cold Scandinavia and the sunny Mediterranean, hence you can also often find bargin flights from Spain, Italy, etc.
Denmark is well-connected to the German rail network. The direct connection to Copenhagen is, however, by the Puttgarden-Rødby ferry. Sweden is connected to Danish railways via the Øresund bridge between Copenhagen and Malmö or to the German capital by a bi-daily night train during the summer, bypassing Denmark via the Trelleborg - Rostock ferry. Due to the barrier provided by the Baltic sea, the only other connection to the European mainland, is via Moscow or St Petersburg in Russia. For interrail pass holders most of the ferries crossing the Baltic and North seas offers discounts (25-50%), but only the Scandlines ferries are completely included in the pass (see By ferry section).
Norway is served by ferries from Denmark and Germany. To Sweden, there are ferries from Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Iceland is connected to Denmark and the Faroe Islands by ferry. To Finland there are ferries from Estonia and Germany.
¹ Arrives in Nynäshamn, about 1 hour south of Stockholm by suburban train
Denmark is directly connected to the continental road network. From Denmark it is possible to cross to Sweden over the Öresund bridge. There are also many ferry connections from Denmark, most of them takes cars. The only overland alternative to the Öresund bridge is to enter via Russia to Finland or Norway. Save a few short stretches of regular road, you can drive all the way to Stockholm or Oslo on highway from the German ones, but keep in mind that the tolls on the two Danish highway bridges you need to pass to get to Sweden are heavy, and you could easily be saving money taking a more direct route with a ferry. Most roads in Scandinavian are toll free, with the exception of Norway . Some of the longer bridges and tunnels levy tolls to pay for their construction and some of the larger cities (most notably Stockholm) have introduced congestion charges when driving in the centre.
Speed limits are uniform, 50 km/h in cities and 80 km/h (70 km/h in Sweden) on rural roads unless otherwise indicated. In Finland, the speed limit within the city limit is 40 mph. Most expressways in Finland have a speed limit of 100 km/h year round except larger expressways such as Turku-Helinski and Tampere-Helsinki, which are 120-130 as marked. Motorways range from 100 in Norway, 110 or 120 in Sweden,´to 130 in Denmark, again unless other speed limits are signposted. Speeding in city zones are considered a severe offence, and there are many unmarked automatic speed traps installed in such zones and also in rural areas. Traffic fines are considered especially expensive in Norway.
Winter driving skills are essential through parts of the year, when roads are treacherously slippery. Winter tires are mandatory during some winter months.
Major coastal cities of the Baltic Sea are often connected with ferry lines, e.g. Turku-Stockholm and Helsinki-Tallinn, and ferries are a natural part of many journeys for Scandinavians. The larger long-distance ferries are in effect cruise ships, with behemoths like the Silja Europa featuring 13 decks stacked full of shops, restaurants, spas, saunas etc. Longer routes are nearly always scheduled to sail during the night, so you arrive fresh to continue the often long journeys required in Scandinavia. If you travel by ferry to Norway or pass through Åland, there are Tax Free sales on board, since Norway is not part of the EU and Åland is subject to special regulations. For the same reason some of these lines, especially Stockholm-Helsinki ferry, are known as party boats, since alcohol escapes the normal heavy taxation.
In addition to major lines listed below, the Hurtigruten ferries, running all along Norways amazing jagged coast line, and through spectacular fjords, from Bergen in the south to Kirkenes in the Arctic north, docking in many small hamlets and villages on the way - offers a unique and very Scandinavian experience.
See also: Rail travel in Europe
Trains are an adequate way of traveling around Scandinavia. International connections between Denmark, southern Sweden and southern Norway are good, but up north services are sparse and there is a short gap in the network between northern Sweden and Finland, although most railpasses allow free use of the connecting bus service. Iceland has no trains at all.
The previous night train connection between Copenhagen and Oslo has been retired, and this route now requires a change in Gothenburg, on the other hand day time connections has become much more frequent after the opening of the Øresund bridge (8½ hours). Between Copenhagen and Stockholm up to 7 X2000 express trains runs directly every day (5½ hours), and the daily night train only requires an easy change in Malmö (7½ hours). Further north there are two daily connections between Oslo and Bodø (17 hours, via Trondheim) - the northernmost stop on the Norwegian railway network, and two daily night trains (regular & express) between Stockholm and Umeå/Luleå (16-20 hours) in the northernmost part of Sweden. In the summer Lapplandståget - Scandinavias longest railway journey, will take you directly all the way from Malmö (& Copenhagen) in the south to Narvik in the north via Sweden.
The ScanRail pass was retired in 2007, but visitors not resident in Europe can opt for the very similar Eurail Scandinavia Pass , which offers 4 to 10 days of travel in a 2-month period for €232-361. For residents of Europe, the all-Europe or single-country Interrail passes are also an option.
If you are not using a rail pass, long distance buses will often be a cheaper alternative, especially for longer journeys. But since highways are almost exclusively centred around the southern half of Scandinavia, journey times become increasingly uncompetitive the further north you get, on the other hand, rail services also get increasingly sparse in northern Scandinavia. There is no dominant company like Greyhound is in North America, but a host of local, regional and national bus companies, some of the major companies include; GoByBus  and Eurolines  and Swebus  which all service routes in the Scandinavian triangle between Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm. In addition the major national intercity bus companies are Abildskou  in Denmark, Nor-Way  and Nettbuss  in Norway and Matkahuolto  in Finland.
Think twice before driving a car in Scandinavia. Depending on your country of origin, car rentals can be seen as expensive in Scandinavia, gasoline as very expensive and distances as extreme. In Norway, in particular, distances that seem short on a map can be very long and tiring if you need to drive along twisty fjord roads. Collisions with wildlife, particularly deer and reindeer, are common and dangerous.
Many Southern European visitors enjoy, however, driving in Scandinavia during summer time to explore rural areas and most roads aren't dangerous but the opposite: safe and of good standards. Denmark and Sweden have many major roads built as motorways (especially the E4, E6 and E20 roads), while Norway is slightly infamous for roads of lesser standards, however many road tunnels built in recent years have eased the communications by road in Norway.
In south and central parts of Scandinavia roads are in good or some times very good conditions. However, roads far north are of lesser standard. In Sweden, as an example, the E4 road connecting the north and south of Sweden along the Baltic Sea coastline, is considered a safe way connecting many major cites, while the E45 road is considered slightly more unsafe in comparison, connecting more densely populated ares in the midland, however also a major hub between north and south Sweden. The E6 road, connecting the north and south of Norway, has had increased standards in recent years but is still considered less safe than the E45 road in Sweden.
If planning on driving in Scandinavia outside the summer season, you will need to be familiar with winter driving conditions and equip your car accordingly. Winter tires are mandatory in some of the winter months.
Things to see
Things to do
Scandinavia, and in particular Denmark, is known for its many music festivals during the summer months. The largest in each country are:
Finland is the only Nordic country using the Euro.
Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden each has a national currency, all known as krona or krone (plural kronor/kroner), often shortened kr, all four with free-floating exchange rates. The centesimal subdivision øre is used in Norway and Denmark. The national currencies are distinguished by the acronyms DKK, ISK, NOK and SEK.
Other currencies than the national ones are usually not accepted, except in border towns. As ATMs are common, and most establishments accept credit cards (at least VISA and Mastercard), you don't need to carry a lot of cash. In fact, Sweden is the most cash-free society on the planet according to The Guardian, with 80 % of purchases made electronically in 2014.
Make no mistake, Scandinavia is the most expensive region in Europe. This is not a region for those who have shallow pockets. A lot of items that would normally cost €3 in the rest of the continent could easily cost €5 or possibly even more in this region. In fact, a litre of water can cost up to 10 times as much as it would cost in Eastern Europe. However, the price picture in Scandinavia varies a lot by country, where especially Denmark is considered as rather cheap and especially Norway is considered as rather expensive.
Many Norwegians are travelling to the Swedish border region (close to Strömstad in the south and to Åre far north]) where shopping malls are built for the sole purpose of visiting customers from Norway who wish to buy everyday items such as groceries, clothes and more. In similar manner, Swedes travel to Denmark due to cheaper goods, however Swedes tend to only buy alcohol, cigarettes and other items in Denmark, i.e. goods not necessary for day to day life.
A pizza in Norway can cost more than €10 and traffic fines are considered especially high, although Norwegian wages are generally higher. Many Swedes work in Norway due to the higher salaries and then return home with saved money.
Some suggested shopping items in Scandinavia are traditional handicraft, and modern Scandinavian design. Neither is cheap, though.
The cuisines of all Scandinavian countries are quite similar, although each country does have its signature dishes. Seafood features prominently on restaurant menus, although beef, pork and chicken are more common in many everyday dishes. Potatoes are the main staple, most often simply boiled, but also made into mashed potatoes, potato salad and more. Spices are used sparingly, but fresh herbs are used to accentuate the ingredients.
Famous pan-Scandinavian dishes include:
Bread comes in dozens of varieties, with dark, heavy rye bread a specialty, and Scandinavian pastries are so well known that the word "danish" has even been imported into English.
Bars and Night life
Vikings were famously heavy drinkers, and despite continuing government efforts to stamp out the demon drink through heavy taxation, todays Scandinavians continue the tradition. Bring in your full tax-free allowance if you plan to indulge, since in Norway you can expect to pay up to 100 kr (€10) (as of 2015) for a pint of beer in a pub, and Sweden and Finland are not far behind. To reduce the pain, it is common to start drinking at home before heading out to party. The drinking age is generally 18 in all Nordic countries (but 20 in Iceland), but many bars and clubs have their own age limits.
The main tipples are beer and vodka-like distilled spirits called brännvin/brennevin, including herb-flavored akvavit. Spirits are typically drunk as snaps or ice-cold from shot glasses.
Scandinavia may have a liberal image, but drugs including cannabis are treated with zero tolerance by the police, and possession of even personal use amounts is a serious crime in all five countries, but small amounts usually do not result in jail time. Denmark, long more liberal than the rest, has also taken a harder line in recent years and tried to fight the drug dealing in Christiania, but the police's attempts to get inside of the area failed, and was met with harsh resistance from the people within that area. The area still stands, and is known as the part of Copenhagen where drugs are easily accessible.
Although hotels in Scandinavia, especially Denmark, can be very pricey at times, you can save a lot if you plan way ahead and are ready to pay in advance. The three largest popular hotel operators in the region (with the exception of Iceland) include Scandic, Radisson Blu, and Nordic Choice. International brands such as Hilton, Accor, can be found in big cities but have a minuscule presence.
Throughout Scandinavia, with exception of densely populated Denmark, Allemansrätten, or "Every Man's Right" in English, is an important underpinning of society, and guarantees everyone the right to stay or camp on any uncultivated land for one or two nights, as long as you respect certain norms, stay out of sight of any residents, and leave no traces of your visit when you leave. If you enjoy the great outdoors, this can help make the otherwise expensive Scandinavian countries, become quite affordable.
With so much incredible nature outside the doorstep, it should be no surprise that the Scandinavian countries have a well developed Hostel network, named Vandrerhjem/Vandrarhem in the Scandinavian languages - literally translating into "wanderers' home" or "hikers' home". While the rules are often quite strict, it is cheap, and with almost 800 hostels available, you can find one almost anywhere. The respective national organisations are called Danhostel  in Denmark, STF  or SVIF  in Sweden, Norske Vandrerhjem  in Norway, SRM  in Finland and finally Farfuglar  in Iceland.
The Scandinavian nations are distinct from each other. They have friendly rivalry against each other (especially Denmark, Finland and Norway against Sweden), so comparisons in favour of their own country will be appreciated.
Despite the region's liberal leaning, be aware that some of the royal families in Scandinavia are protected against defamation. Lèse-majesté laws are implemented for some of the monarchs. Don't say anything against them or you risk getting in trouble with the law. However, in Sweden no such laws exist.