Image credit: Nicho Sodling
Scandinavia’s cities have plenty to offer, writes Joanna Booth
From cruises around Norway’s famous fjords to husky-sled rides through the snow-clad landscapes of Lapland, it’s easy to fixate on holidays in Scandinavia’s rural regions.
But that would be to neglect a gaggle of gorgeous cities, prime spots for city breaks or worthy of a day or two’s pause as part of a longer trip. Make sure you know what’s on offer in each of the region’s capitals to tempt clients.
5 of the best Nordic cities
Getting there: SAS flies direct from Heathrow, Manchester and Edinburgh; Norwegian from Gatwick and Manchester; British Airways from Heathrow; and Ryanair from Stansted.
We say: It’s as if someone dropped a particularly beautiful plate – the Swedish capital is constructed over multiple shards of land on Sweden’s west coast.
The inner city is built over 14 islands connected by 50 bridges and with a ratio of 30% green space and 30% waterway you might be surprised there’s enough left over to fit in all the ochre-tinted historic buildings, design shops and vibrant cafes and clubs to satisfy its two million inhabitants.
If that wasn’t enough, the Stockholm archipelago of nearly 30,000 islands and islets is just 20 minutes from the city centre, so visitors can hop on a ferry and discover their own peaceful spot.
They say: “There’s a willingness to try anything new and fresh that runs through every facet of life, be it fashion, design, food or new lifestyles,” says Stockholm Visitors Board’s Tina Larsson. “The atmosphere is friendly, relaxed and sophisticated.”
Highlights: Discover Stockholm’s past in the medieval Cathedral, baroque Royal Palace, and the beautifully preserved Vasa, a 69-metre war ship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628.
More modern attractions span everything from the cheesy to the cutting edge, with both the Abba Museum and huge contemporary photography centre Fotografiska.
Cycling is popular and a ride on the ‘Tunnelbana’ metro is both an efficient way to get around and an experience – it’s been called the world’s longest art gallery due to the sculptures, mosaics, paintings, inscriptions and reliefs inside.
Where to stay: Stockholm’s grand dame, the 19th-century Grand Hotel, overlooks the palace and old town, and has a Michelin-starred restaurant. For an art nouveau look, 92-room Miss Clara opened last year in a former girl’s school and is a member of the Design Hotels group.
Getting there: Norwegian flies from Manchester, Gatwick and Edinburgh; SAS from Heathrow, Manchester and Edinburgh; BA from Heathrow; and Ryanair from Stansted.
We say: Despite the fact Oslo is by far the biggest of Norway’s cities, visitors still get the benefit of the country’s natural beauty. The city sits at the head of the Oslofjord and is backed by forested mountains, so a 20-minute metro ride is all it takes to access hiking trails in summer and skiing in winter.
The steel tick of the Holmenkollen ski jump is visible on the horizon from the city centre and, in turn, is a great spot for impressive views of Oslo’s pretty neoclassical core and more avant garde waterfront below.
They say: “Oslo has long been the little brother of the Scandinavian capitals. However, we have seen a great change in the past seven years, having undergone massive architectural and cultural developments, with the Opera House and the Tjuvholmen area as prime examples,” says Visit Norway country manager Catherine Foster.
Highlights: Horned hats at the ready for the Viking Ship Museum, which is home to two 9th-century ships and other paraphernalia. Gloves might be more the thing at the Fram Museum, where visitors can board the famous ship Fram and learn about Norway’s polar explorers.
The open-air Norwegian Museum of Cultural History is home to 155 historic buildings, with the super-modern marble and glass Opera House providing a sleek, modern contrast.
There’s a museum dedicated to Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, which from May to September is hosting a major exhibition comparing his works with Van Gogh’s. Families will love the TusenFryd amusement park with rides and a waterpark.
Where to stay: New hotels include the 108-room, pared-down design hotel HTL Karl Johan, which opens in May, and the more-stylish-than-it-sounds Comfort Hotel Xpress Central Station, which opened last year with 168 rooms.
Getting there: Finnair flies from Heathrow and Manchester; British Airways from Heathrow; and Norwegian from Gatwick.
We say: An established design district, a thriving street food scene, urban festivals showcasing the best of music, arts and theatre – Helsinki may not be the best known Scandinavian capital but that hasn’t stopped it developing into one of the coolest.
They say: “Helsinki’s design and architecture pays homage to its history of Swedish and Russian influences, which has created a unique blend of east and west.
Iconic buildings include Alvar Aalto’s Modernist Stora Enso design, nicknamed ‘the sugar cube’, and the Temppeliaukio Church built into solid rock,” says Visit Finland’s Eva Kiviranta.
Highlights: Helsinki’s gourmet scene is booming. The Old Market Hall reopened last year after a major redevelopment with restaurants and cafes as well as food stalls, and the Teurastamo, a former abbatoir, has been transformed into a food quarter with restaurants, food shops, a barbecue area, cookery school and a public sauna, and an area that hosts night markets and street food festivals.
The Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art looks to the cutting edge of Finnish creativity. For views, the Finnair Sky Wheel opened last year on the pier. Kids will love the vintage rides in the Linnanmaki Amusement Park. Many tourists take walking tours of the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, set on an island in the harbour.
Where to stay: Design Hotel Klaus K takes inspiration from The Kalevala, a Finnish 19th-century fable, with elements of the tale woven through the hotel, which opened 30 loft rooms last year. The historic Hotel Kamp is undergoing a renovation which will be completed this month.
Getting there: SAS flies from Aberdeen, Birmingham, Heathrow, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Manchester; BA from Heathrow; easyJet from Bristol, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Luton, Stansted and Manchester; and Norwegian from Edinburgh and Gatwick.
We say: Copenhagen manages to be both cutting-edge and cosy, historic and futuristic, all at the same time. Colourful 17th-century houses nestle together on the canal in Nyhavn where you can sit outside with a beer, while opposite you’ll find Noma, the standard bearer for the avant-garde Nordic cuisine movement and one of the world’s best restaurants.
They say: “Often referred to as the happiest people in the world, the Danes are known for their urban cycling culture, eco-conscious lifestyle, modern arts and design, and some of the best cuisine the globe has to offer,” says Visit Denmark’s Kathrine Lind Gustavussen. “Denmark has over 1,000 years of history to explore but Copenhagen is also one of the most modern cities in Europe.”
Highlights: Slice Copenhagen to suit a certain client or let them taste the full range, from family-friendly vintage amusement park Tivoli Gardens to mural-plastered, marijuana-scented hippie hangout Christiana.
There’s grand history at the roccoco Amalienborg Palace, Rosenborg Castle and Christianborg, the parliament building and former palace. Visitors can find out more about renowned homegrown design at the Danish Design Centre or just by shopping – recommend Designer Zoo and Illums Bolighus.
Alongside Tivoli, families will enjoy the zoo, and The Blue Planet, an aquarium with a design so sleek it will appeal to architecture buffs too.
Where to stay: Recently renovated and known as the White Lady, the d’Angleterre is the address for historic luxury. Famous for his Swan and Egg chairs, Danish architect Arne Jacobsen was responsible for the whole design of the Radisson Blu Royal Copenhagen, a mid-century modern classic.
Getting there: Icelandair flies direct from Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow; Wow Air from Gatwick and Dublin; easyJet from Belfast, Bristol, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Luton and Manchester; and Flybe from Birmingham.
We say: Iceland is certainly having a moment – UK visitor numbers in January and February were up 30% year on year. And although visitors are getting out and about, Reykjavik is the obvious gateway and a brilliant year-round city, with the pull of the northern lights in winter to match summer’s long, light days.
Despite the fact it’s only town-sized by international standards (population: 120,000), there’s more than enough to do to keep eager city-breakers satisfied.
They say: “Reykjavik is not for the ones that plan to the last detail – it’s an escape from ordinary routine,” says Ingvar Örn Ingvarsson of Promote Iceland. “Full of life and fun, it packs a punch in terms of experiences to be had. If you don’t like the weather, go to a concert; if you prefer staying out, go whale watching; if you are tired, you can hit the geothermal pools; then choose from an abundance of restaurants.
And you could fit all of that into a single day as no time is wasted on typical city problems like waiting for transport.”
Highlights: All major sights are within easy walking distance in the downtown core, known by its postcode as 101, where street art and cafe culture make a lively hub of activity and creativity.
When it comes to sights, visitors can discover Viking remains in a longhouse at the snappily titled Reykjavik 871 +/-2 The Settlement Exhibition, and the broad sweep of the island’s history at the National Museum. Signature buildings include the soaring Hallgrimskirkja church and the ultra-modern Harpa concert hall, which overlooks the harbour.
Most visitors will also head out of the city for a few excursions, including whale-watching trips from the harbour, northern lights in winter, the Blue Lagoon hot springs and southern Iceland’s geysers and waterfalls. Regent Holidays now offers helicopter tours from the city.
Where to stay: Newly-opened four-star Apotek Hotel is a former pharmacy designed by Gudjon Samuelsson, the former state architect who built some of the most celebrated buildings in Iceland including the Hallgrimskirkja church.
SuperBreak offers a range of Reykjavik hotels, with its most popular options including the basic but good-value two-star Guesthouse Borgartun and the well-located three-star Centerhotel Klopp.
New for this summer, Taber Holidays is including a free 72-hour Stockholm Card for all guests booking a four night short break in the city. The package, from £875, also includes a full-day excursion to the island of Sandhamn in the archipelago, flights from Heathrow and accommodation.
Riviera Travel has a new six-day tour combining Stockholm and Copenhagen, from £869, with flights, accommodation, sightseeing tours and high speed rail travel between the capitals included.
The most popular add on to Reykjavik stays with SuperBreak is its Ultimate Iceland package. The summer version includes airport transfers, a day’s whale watching, a Gullfoss geyser tour and Blue Lagoon admission for £189. In winter, whale watching is swapped for a northern lights tour, for £160.
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