When we generally hear about or think of Scandinavia, we instinctively think of Nordic mythology and the rich history of the Vikings. However, it might surprise you that there’s a debate revolving around the differences that distinguish the Scandinavian and Nordic regions and the similarities that combine them.
In our article, we will get in-depth about what Scandinavia is, the countries it includes, what binds these countries together, the difference between the Scandinavian region and the Nordic one, and Scandinavian cuisine. And don’t worry! We won’t forget to recommend at least one must-visit landmark in each Scandinavian country on our list.
What Is Scandinavia? And Which Countries Does It Include?
Scandinavia is a northern European region with shared geographical, cultural, and political history. The region’s location in Northern Europe has distinguished terrain and natural phenomena. Perhaps the most prominent part of Scandinavian history is the Viking era, which has been increasingly incorporated in film and TV adaptations in recent years, drawing more attention to the origins of these vicious warriors.
Scandinavia includes the two countries of the Scandinavian Peninsula and Denmark. While this is the literal definition of the term, it can still be either narrowly or broadly defined. The narrow definition includes only the Scandinavian Peninsula, meaning Norway, Sweden, and a small part of Finland. The broad definition consists of the previous three countries, in addition to Denmark, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands.
Scandinavian and Nordic countries implement some of the highest standards of educational, societal, judicial, and healthcare systems in the world, which has led to increasing numbers of official refugees to the area from around the world. These standards are commonly referred to as the Nordic Model.
Is It the Scandinavian Region or the Nordic Region?
We’ve learnt the meaning of Scandinavia, both the broad, literal and narrow meanings, but we also often hear the term Nordic Region. So, what’s the difference? The Nordic region comprises the same countries in the broad definition of Scandinavia. People in either region don’t differentiate between the two as all these countries have deep cultural, political, and historical ties.
Whichever you choose to call it, Scandinavian, Norse, or Nordic Mythology, in the past years, the rich history of this European region has fascinated people worldwide. Deities such as Odin, Frigg, Freyja, Thor and his magical hammer Mjölnir, and even Loki are all gods and goddesses in Norse mythology, which we saw portrayed on screen. However, screen adaptations represent only a small part of the world’s interest in Norse mythology.
Several books properly explain Norse mythology, accompanied by original texts from old Norse texts. Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is at the top spot of the list. The book recounts the main events that define Norse Mythology, introduces Norse deities, and gives impeccable detail and explanation to the region’s complex history.
The Best Time to Visit Scandinavia
Scandinavian countries are famous for their frigid winter season, which answers our question right away. The best time to visit Scandinavia is during the summer season, from June till the end of August, and you can add in September for a bit of a chill. If your holiday goal is to feel the cold down your spine, you can visit during the early winter season because Scandinavian winters can reach -52.6 degrees Celsius, and the sun is scarce for most of the day.
Must-Visit Landmarks in Each Scandinavian Country
It’s difficult to pinpoint one landmark only in each Scandinavian country that you must add to your itinerary. This is why ConnollyCove created complete travel guides for every Scandinavian country. So, for this article, we will briefly suggest notable spots from every country, and we invite you to check our detailed guide for each country.
Sweden is the largest of the Nordic countries and, together with Norway, forms the Scandinavian Peninsula. With a cultural history that dates back to 12,000 BC, every spot of the country invites you to explore its beauty and culture. Besides the capital Stockholm, you must visit Lapland, a true winter wonderland that will steal your breath away and is equally breathtaking in summer. Gothenburg is another city to visit in Sweden, where you can enjoy the spectacular views from the Skansen Kronan fort, overlooking the historical street of Haga Nygata.
Norway’s history takes us back to around 11,000 BC when explorers found traces of habitation along the country’s extensive coastline. Many tourists visit Norway to observe the Northern Lights, an enchanting spectacle you wouldn’t want to miss. In addition to the various spots across Norway where you can observe this natural phenomenon, we recommend visiting Stavanger and Bergen to round your Norwegian experience.
If you’re planning your vacation during the colder months of the year, Denmark is a warmer destination than the Scandinavian Peninsula. Danish history stretches from around 12,500 BC up to the establishment of the Kingdom of Denmark, and today, this Nordic country encompasses Greenland and the Faroe Islands. In Denmark, you must visit the capital, Copenhagen, Billund, and the vibrant Aarhus.
Widely referred to as the Land of Thousand Lakes, Finland has more than 180,000 lakes across the country. Records of habitation in Finland date back only to 9,000 BC, but the country reached the front row of industrialisation rapidly by the mid-20th century. Today, Finland is an ideal follower of the Nordic welfare model. The capital, Helsinki, Tampere, and the Finnish Lakeland are among our top three recommendations to visit in Finland.
Floating in the middle of the ocean —literally— Iceland is a marvellous vacation destination. With its chilly summer and abundant natural plateau, this Nordic Island country has only been occupied since 874 AD. Iceland only gained independence in the mid-20th century and began the industrialisation process after WWII. From hidden caves, glaciers, hiking spots, and hot springs, Iceland has something to offer for every type of traveller.
Many basics of modern Scandinavian cuisine still derive techniques from the time of the Vikings. Due to the region’s frigid weather and mild summer season, techniques such as smoking, salting, and drying worked perfectly to preserve food for long periods. The Vikings travelled extensively and reached the continent’s end, and preservation methods meant they had food for the long journey or as sustenance during war times.
What we mean here by Scandinavian cuisine is that of the Nordic nations, namely Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland. These nations incorporate elements from nature around them into their diet: meat includes deer, elk, and even whale meat, in addition to usual veal, pork, and poultry. Seafood comes from both fresh and saltwater sources. There’s a variety of fruits and vegetables on Nordic tables, many of which are pickled. Various rye bread forms also have a place at the table, besides cheese, milk and, most notably, fermented milk.
The Smörgåsbord: The Charcuterie Board‘s Nordic Cousin
A Charcuterie board is a wooden or marble board that displays a compilation of different types of cheese, biscuits, cured meats, fruits, patés, vegetables, dipping sauces, and condiments where guests pick and mix their own little flavours. The Nordic nations have a Smörgåsbord, which highly resembles a Charcuterie board, in the variety of displayed foods and the pick-and-mix style of service.
There are two differences between a Charcuterie board and a Smörgåsbord. A Smörgåsbord is on a larger scale, almost like a buffet, and it can either be presented individually or divided into a number of courses over meal time. Also, the ingredients and style of a Smörgåsbord differ from one Nordic nation to another. These ingredients include cured meats, boiled eggs, cheeses, pickled or salted seafood, cold meats, salads, soups, meatballs, and desserts.
Surströmming: The World‘s Stinkiest Fish
Do you like salted herring? Well, Surströmming takes this delicious fish a step further. Fishermen catch small Baltic herring, especially for this unusual dish, and then the producers use enough salt to lightly season the fish while preserving it from rotting as it ferments. The fermentation process takes up to six months; by then, the tin of fermented fish radiates a strong acidic smell.
The Swedish dish, which dates back to the 16th century, is not for the faint-hearted. A tin of Surströmming has one of the most pungent smells in the world, pungent enough to be described as the smell of decomposition. Although its smell can initially make your stomach lurch, many have loved the herring’s unique taste and eventually became fans.
Some Scandinavian Dishes Worth Trying
Every country around the world has a must-try or signature dish. Despite the similarities between the dishes of Scandinavian countries, we bring you one dish from each country that we hope you get to try.
Traditional Swedish cuisine boasts classics such as pickled herring, fried herring, crayfish cooked in dill soup, and blood pudding. Dishes such as Falukorv Sausage, a fine smoked beef sausage made with either pork or beef and served with mashed potatoes, resemble sausage and potatoes from other countries. There are other dishes that nearly all Swedes love and enjoy in their respective seasons.
Some of these other dishes include Kroppkakor or Palt, depending on which area of Sweden you’re in. This dish is a potato dumpling where you mix potatoes into the dumpling dough and fill it with ground meat. The difference between using either form of potato appears in the dumpling’s final colour; using raw potatoes will turn the dumpling grey upon cooking, while using cooked ones will turn the dumpling white.
When you visit Norway, you will notice how the long severe winter affected the country’s culinary choices. Norwegians, like their Nordic neighbours, have also used cooking and preservation techniques to help them combat long winters and enjoy their favourite dishes throughout the year. Some dishes such as Kjøttboller (Norwegian meatballs), Sodd (diced mutton soup), and Skillingsboller, the Norwegian version of a cinnamon roll, have similar varieties in other Nordic countries.
There are several dishes you ought to try when you’re in Norway. Such dishes include Norway’s national dish Fårikål, a heart-filling mutton and cabbage stew, and Fiskesuppe, which is a buttery and creamy fish soup to comfort your soul. Norway will present you with two national flatbread varieties: Lompe and Lefse. The former includes potatoes besides flour and salt and is traditionally salty, while the latter has many versions, including a sweet one, where it’s served with cinnamon and sugar.
One item of Danish cuisine that’s popular worldwide is Wienerbrød, or Danish, which refers to a variety of pastries made with laminated dough and either covered or filled with different cream, jam, nuts, or fruit varieties. This cuisine also shares popular dishes with its neighbours, such as pickled herring, a Swedish native dish, Kanelsnegle, or Denmark‘s version of cinnamon buns, and Medisterpølse, the Danish version of meat sausage, best served with sumptuous gravy and perfectly-cooked potatoes.
Our recommendations for must-try Danish dishes include some of the country’s favourites. Denmark’s national bread is Rye Bread, which is the main element of Smørrebrød, or open sandwiches. These delicate sandwiches have toppings that range from pickled herring, shrimp, mayonnaise, and even roast beef with eggs. Frikadeller is the Danish version of pan-fried meatballs that has a fishy alternative called Fiskefrikadeller, served with a special-made sauce called Rémoulade.
Finland’s national bread is the same as Denmark’s, Rye Bread, and it’s used in making rice pies known as Karjalanpiirakka, where rice porridge and butter form the base of the pie, and Finns enjoy it throughout the day. The country also has its versions of cinnamon-filled buns, known as Korvapuusti, and sauteed meat —in this case, reindeer— to make Finland’s favourite meat dish, Poronkaristys.
Kalakukko, or fish pie, is another popular pie in Finland, which is prepared from rye flour, filled with fish and your choice of bacon or pork, and then left to cook in the oven until the bread loaf absorbs all the rich fish flavour and cooks through the meat. There’s more fish in Finnish cuisine to satisfy your appetite. If you love thinly-sliced and cured salmon, you will love Graavilohi, and if you desire small fried fish to snack on, Muikku is a small freshwater fish, breaded and fried in luxurious butter that you can eat the entire fish at once.
Traditional dishes in Iceland have a scarce touristic audience due to some of the unusual flavours in these dishes. Like the rest of its Scandinavian neighbours, fish and seafood comprise a large portion of Icelandic cuisine, more so since Iceland is in the middle of the ocean. However, dishes such as Hákarl (fermented shark meat) and Svið, which is sheep’s head, are mainly popular among Icelanders only.
There are other dishes that can win visitors over to Icelandic cuisine. Some of these include Kjötsupa, a classic lamb meat soup; Plokkfiskur, which is a hearty fish stew; and dried fish jerky or Harðfiskur. Rye Bread is the most common bread in Iceland, as in other Scandinavian countries. Another must-try is Skyr, or Icelandic yoghurt, which is so popular that it’s exported to many countries worldwide.
Our journey through Scandinavia has come to an end for this article. As with the extensive travel guides we mentioned earlier, there’s more to each country we talked about here, and we cannot wait for you to explore it.