If Scandinavia is on your hitlist, you might be wondering which of the Nordic capitals should you visit?
Copenhagen is the site of cool Scandi-dramas like The Bridge and Borgen, famous for its colourful harbour and classic Danish pastries. But maybe Stockholm, the chic Swedish capital, where you can island-hop whilst gorging on fika, Nordic design and Abba. But wait – what about Oslo where you can re-trace the steps of Jo Nesbo’s hero, Harry Hole (if you’re a crime geek like me). Or last but not least, Helsinki has plenty to offer too – from stalls selling fresh fish to Soviet-style architecture, wading through knee-deep snow whilst a sparkling sun dazzles in the blue sky. It’s a tough choice. In a way, they’re all sort of similar – built on water, featuring harbours and docks, waterways and ferries among their main attractions, with coffee and buns or sandwiches forming the staple diet and a tonne of ridiculously gorgeous tall, blonde inhabitants. They all also have the same huge disadvantage of being insanely expensive – I thought Stockholm was bad (beer averaging 8 euro, a meal out costing 10 euro as an absolute bare minimum, without a drink…), but I now know it’s the ‘cheap one’. A lot of people seem to struggle to choose between visiting Copenhagen or Stockholm… or maybe Oslo. Or Helsinki!? So, what should it be?
Well, fortunately for you, your friendly Scandinavia correspondent – that’s me by the way – is here to help.
I’ll start here, because it’s the place I lived in for the past 6 months and so I know it pretty well. For a lot of people, it also seems to be the forerunner for a visit. I have to step away from my bias from living a long and boring winter there, and say, I can see why it’s a great place to visit. Set on a series of islands, Stockholm is damn good-looking. And not just its quaint old-town (Gamla Stan), its ubiquitous water and its lashings of nature. Swedish people are also known to be pretty darn good-looking too, and contrary to popular belief, they’re friendly and rather cool.
What about things to do, I hear you cry? Well, as with all of Scandinavia, it depends on what time of year you visit. I’ve heard great things about summer – swimming in the many lakes, midsummer festivals, outdoor music scene and relaxed evenings drinking overpriced beers. But unfortunately for me, I was there in the winter of dark, dark days, freezing temperatures and most things being closed. However, this is a trend in all 4 cities, so there’s no point in being biased. There are actually plenty of great tourist attractions in Stockholm. Worth seeing (or doing) are: the Vasa museum, Skansen, the TV tower, the fika-tram, Gamla Stan, the archipelago by boat, and the Moderna Museet, for example. The Medieval museum is also really great, considering it’s free.
Stockholm is super easy to get around by tram and t-bana. If you stay in the centre, you could probably walk more or less everywhere, but you’d probably be better off getting an SL card and topping up a few 100 kronor. Price-wise, I think it’s the cheapest of the four (on a par with Helsinki…). Beers and drinks out are prohibitively expensive. Much better to buy boxed-wine from Systembolaget and drink at your place. A 3l box will set you back around 20 euro, and is by far the best value option. It’s possible to eat a decent meal for 10 euro, but only if you know where to go. The coffee and fika places might seem cute, but will ask for your first born child in exchange for a latte and a bun.
In short, if you go in summer, you’re sure to love Stockholm. And even in the winter, you won’t get bored in a week’s visit. Living there for the entire winter is another matter – I don’t recommend it.
I visited Helsinki for a weekend without terribly high expectations. People told me it’s much like Stockholm, but with fewer stand-out sights. I actually didn’t find this to be true at all though. Whilst Helsinki is by the sea, much like Stockholm, it’s less built around islands, and mostly has a more usual harbour-side city feel. The Russian influence is felt quite strongly, and the city has a different look and atmosphere to Stockholm. You can almost start to believe you’re in Eastern Europe for a minute. Until you want to order a coffee and realise it costs an hour’s wages. Also, be warned, Helsinki is outrageously cold. When we went in late March it was as cold as when I visited Reykjavik… 2 jumpers, a thick coat, scarf, hat and gloves barely even keep the cold at bay.
In terms of things to see and do, realistically there are fewer than in Stockholm. However, there are a few really cool must-sees. The Rock Church is pretty spectacular, the various Russian-esque churches and cathedral are imposing, Suomenlinna island is well worth a visit, and the central market is excellent. Eating in Helsinki can be really fun, as you can go and grab a tray of little fried white fish for only 10 euro (this starts to seem reasonable if you spend enough time up North…). The Finns aren’t renowned for their sociability (Swedes sarcastically say ‘Finns dream of being warm and sociable like the Swedes’), but they do like to drink and party, and in my opinion they are actually more lively than their cousins. However, watch out for Sundays when a lot of things are shut, or with very limited opening hours, and it can be tricky to find something to eat or drink in the morning or evening.
Price-wise, food in Helsinki is very similar to Stockholm. Budget between 10 and 30 euro per person for a low-range meal. Beer in a pub or restaurant might be very slightly cheaper (i.e. 7.50 instead of 8 euro), whilst in their equivalent of Systembolaget (simplistically known as ‘Alko’), even the boxed wine isn’t affordable. The handy 3l box shoots up to around 30 euro for a box, rather than 20 in Sweden. Fortunately the city is very, very walkable, so you won’t need to splash out on transport at all.
Helsinki is probably not the most iconic or exciting and trendy Nordic city, but don’t knock it. It’s got a cool atmosphere, a more lively street culture even when it’s cold (Stockholm goes to sleep for 6 months a year) a nice mix of Russian and Nordic, and a better street food scene (please no more hot-dogs, Swedes). There are fewer sights, so you might want to make a shorter trip, but it’s very much worth considering.
If you’re a Nordic drama fan, like me, Copenhagen is likely to attract you as it’s the setting for Borgen, the Killing and the Bridge. If you’re a fan of the latter, it gives you the opportunity to cross the spectacular Øresund bridge which links Copenhagen with its Swedish sister, Malmö. This also means you can get both cities (and countries) for the price of one. Malmö isn’t worth a long trip on its own, but you can happily spend a day or two there, to see the incredible Turning Torso, wander around Lila Torg and marvel at the fact that a pint is about 50 cents cheaper than in Stockholm. It’s quite a cute city and if you’re in Copenhagen you can take a bus over for about 10 euro. Copenhagen generally is more European than its counterparts over the sea, and has a more German or Dutch flavour. One huge cultural difference is that there is no alcohol monopoly in Denmark, so you can actually buy a cheap beer from the supermarket!
As for attractions, Copenhagen has bags of them. Christiansborg – the parliament and home to Borgen, Christiania – the free, hippy district where you can sample the finest herbs Copenhagen has to offer, the excellent free National Museum, beer tasting at Carlsberg brewery, beautiful Nyhaven, the Round Tower, and of course the famous Mermaid. In terms of things to do and see, Copenhagen probably has the slight edge on its competitors. Like Helsinki, it’s fairly walkable (if you like to walk a lot), so you can avoid spending too much on transport.
In terms of prices, though, Copenhagen is simply shocking. It does have one big advantage which is (as mentioned) that you can buy beer or wine for reasonable prices at the supermarket. But whilst you can find a good meal out in Stockholm or Helsinki without re-mortgaging your home, forget it in Denmark. We had one, single, solitary dinner out and it set us back well over 60 euro, at a so-called budget place, which was listed on Booking.com as a ‘cheap and cheerful’ option. It was in fact a really lovely little wine bar with a great menu and awesome food. But the bill was less awesome, and we had to resort to the kitchen for the rest of the week. Even our fall-back, budget-traveller option of sandwiches and crisps for a picnic lunch each day was costing around 10 euro each. If you’re on a particularly low budget, don’t even go near Copenhagen.
Oslo shocks you immediately with its new-cool-fashion-trendy glass and iron style in the center. The main street, heading from the central station to the royal palace, is filled with posh shops and – guess what – expensive cafes.
Like all other nordic capitals, also Oslo has its ‘Open Air Nordic Museum’ which is essentially a park with ancient traditional buildings, shops, factories and actors showing what life was like 100/200 years ago. If ships float your boat… you’re definitely in the right place: you will find a Viking Ship Museum and a 19th century polar ship – where else did we see a museum containing a ship? there’s two here! In fact, they’ve gone one step further, merging the open-air museum with a ship museum: in Oslo we have the open-air naval museum (open only in summer) featuring real ships and a real submarine.
Northern countries invest a lot in design and modern art – and Oslo is no exception for great art museums (the obvious highlight being the Scream, by Munch). The other particular strong-point of Scandinavia is feminism, and they show this off a bit, with their female beefeater-style guards in front of the Royal Palace.
The Harbour area along the bay is also well-worth a stroll, and is probably the best-looking place in Oslo, with an array of nice shops, cafes and restaurants, and is one of the best spots to stop for something to eat, if you don’t look too closely at the bill.
And the winner is…?
I have to say that it’s actually super hard to advice readers on which of the 4 cities to pencil in for your Nordic experience. On the one hand, they’re all very similar! If you pick any of the four, you can’t really go wrong, and you will probably have a similar experience. They are all terrible options for budget travellers, because prices are eye-watering across the board. Stockholm is the cheapest by a very tiny margin, Oslo the most expensive overall.
However, I’d say that on the basis of how much there is to visit and keep entertained for a whole week, Copenhagen comes out as the winner. Even if it’s not summer, there is a lot to see, and plenty of activities that don’t rely on the elusive warmth, daylight or sunshine that you won’t see a lot of in any of these cities unless you go in midsummer. It’s also worth considering that it’s an easy hop over to Malmö to fit a second city into your trip, which gives Copenhagen a very slight edge over its competitors. The one really big disadvantage to Copenhagen is just the prices of food, so be ready with your packed lunch. But otherwise, you won’t regret a trip to this cultural capital.
If you’re planning a trip to any of these cities, feel free to ask me for detailed advice on what to do, or how to keep the budget low.
Or, if you’ve visited one or more, which was your favourite and why? Let me know in the comments!
*Thanks to GF for some of the photos and info on Oslo!