Scandinavia & the Nordics: A Guide to the Nordic Countries

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Are you among those who are a bit curious about those weird Northern European lands filled with weird, blond, blue-eyed, people and with crosses on their flags? Scandinavia, the Nordics, or why not the Land of Vikings — the region has been called many things over the years. Here’s everything you need to know about the Scandinavian and Nordic countries; where and who we are, what the culture is like here, and how we look and behave. Basically, a handy guide for those who want to get more acquainted with Scandinavians and the Nordic countries in general.

ℹ️ You’ll get to know the Nordics with help from data-driven insights and my personal experiences from having grown up here and traveled around the region my entire life. To paint a more vivid picture of the places and people, I’ve also included lots of photos from my own life and travels. Lastly, I’m including plenty of links to further reading throughout this article if you’d like to dig deeper.

The Countries of Scandinavia and the Nordics

Map of Scandinavia and the Nordics

map scandinavia europe world globe detailed 2022
Map of Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway, Denmark) and the Nordics (Scandinavia + Finland, Iceland, Faroe Islands, and Greenland) in Northern Europe

Scandinavia & the Nordic Region — What’s the Difference?

Locally and technically speaking, Scandinavia refers to the countries of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (all speaking the Scandinavian languages and home of the Norse people during the Viking Age). The Nordics includes Scandinavia plus Finland, Iceland, Faroe Islands, and Greenland, along with the island regions of Åland, Jan Mayen, and Svalbard.

To make it a bit more complicated, for most of the English-speaking world, Scandinavia can more commonly refer to Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and additionally Finland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands as well, but this is not a common view locally speaking.

map broader scandinavia europe world globe detailed 2022 2

The Nordic countries are today tied together culturally, historically, financially, and politically; specifically when it comes to the following areas and compared to the rest of the world:

Democratic and political rights
General transparency and low levels of corruption
Trust between each other and toward the government
Population feels safe
Social unity
Gender equality
Distributing incomes via taxation
Similarly high Human Development Index
Similarly high Quality of Life ranking

ℹ️ The Nordic countries are more commonly called Norden locally, which literally means “the North”. In the Nordics you would similarly refer to a Nordic person as Nordisk which means “of the North”. This infers that Nordic means “of the North” as well.

Alright, let’s take a closer look at each of the Nordic countries next, with a map and some quick facts about each country.


🇸🇪 Sweden

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Quick facts – Sweden 🇸🇪
sweden nordicperspective com

👑 Official name: Kingdom of Sweden
🆔 Meaning: “The land of the Swedes
📍Location: Northern Europe
🏛 Capital: Stockholm (pop: 2 428 987 in 2022)
💬 Languages: Swedish, Sami
👫 Population: 10 502 959 citizens (Oct 2022)
❤️ Life expectancy: Men 81.7 years, Women 85 years (2022)
💰 GDP per capita: $60 239 USD (2021)
🗺 Total Area: 173 860 sq mi
Consolidated: Around 970-1100, gained independence in 1523
ℹ️ The most populous Nordic country and biggest economy, home of Ikea, Pewdiepie, Spotify, the Skarsgårds, and Midsummer

Sweden is the most populous country in the Nordic region, and the largest economy as well. It borders Norway and Finland by land in the north, and Denmark across the Öresund strait in the south.

canola fields scania karl andersson nordicperspective
Canola fields in Skåne, Sweden.

From the beautiful rolling hills and canola fields of the southern region of Skåne, to the deep forests and jaw-dropping Icehotel in the northern region of Norrland—Sweden offers a multitude of unique experiences.

icehotel jukkasjarvi sweden
Icehotel, Jukkasjärvi, Sweden

It’s also known for consumer-brand exports such as IKEA, Volvo, and H&M, as well as tech innovations such as Spotify, Minecraft, The Pirate Bay, and Skype.

If you’re hungry for more in-depth information about Sweden, I’ve written plenty of articles that describe the country in more detail.

For an extensive list of more things Sweden is known for, go read my epic guide to Swedishness.

If you’re more curious about the Swedish people, I’ve written an article that describes how Swedes behave and what Swedish culture is like in general:


🇳🇴 Norway

stavkyrka norway
Quick facts – Norway 🇳🇴
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👑 Official name: Kingdom of Norway
🆔 Meaning: “The Northern way
📍Location: Northern Europe
🏛 Capital: Oslo (pop: 1 019 513 in 2022)
💬 Languages: Norwegian, Sami
👫 Population: 5 553 840 citizens (Oct 2022)
❤️ Life expectancy: Men 81.1 years, Women 84.8 years (2022)
💰 GDP per capita: $89 203 USD (2021)
🗺 Total Area: 148 729 sq mi
Consolidated: 872, gained independence in 1905
ℹ️ Highest GDP per capita in the Nordic region, home of fjords, glaciers, and oil rigs

Norway is ranked as the richest country in the Nordics per capita, not the least due to its massive oil and natural gas resources scattered around the Norwegian sea.

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One of my personal favorites in Norway: Geiranger Fjord

The country is filled with fjords, mountains, and natural wonders that will leave you truly speechless, and I’ve spent countless hours just driving around amazed by the scenery.

geiranger fjord camping norway
Our campsite right next to the fjord in Geiranger.

It’s known for its hugely successful skiers, the mega-star footballer Erling Haaland, and of course its beautiful coastline that is filled with history.

On top of the natural beauty, the capital Oslo offers architectural wonders, and awesome people, and is great to explore on foot as well.

opera house oslo norway

🇩🇰 Denmark

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Quick facts – Denmark 🇩🇰
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👑 Official name: Kongeriget Danmark, Kingdom of Denmark
🆔 Meaning:The Danish march
📍Location: Northern Europe
🏛 Capital: Copenhagen (pop: 2 135 634 in 2022)
💬 Languages: Danish, Faroese, Greenlandic
👫 Population: 5 920 767 citizens (Oct 2022)
❤️ Life expectancy: Men 79.6 years, Women 83.4 years (2022)
💰 GDP per capita: $67 803 USD (2021)
🗺 Total Area: 16 580 sq mi
Consolidated: Late 8th century
ℹ️ The smallest Scandinavian country, home of Lego, Mads Mikkelsen, hygge, smørrebrød, and bikes

Denmark is known as the land of Lego, Smørrebrød (open-faced sandwiches), and Hygge (getting cozy), as well as being the most continental Nordic country in culture and location.

den lille havfrue
Den lille havfrue (“the little mermaid”)

It’s a small country when considering the total area of mainland Denmark, but if you count the semi-autonomous countries of the Faroe Islands and Greenland (which are technically part of the Kingdom of Denmark), it’s suddenly quite vast.

Nonetheless, the capital Copenhagen is the largest city in the Nordics, and offers a superb mix of canals, harbors, boardwalks, pedestrian-only streets, royal palaces, and of course the free city Christiania.

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Nyhavn, Copenhagen

🇫🇮 Finland

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Quick facts – Finland 🇫🇮
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👑 Official name: Suomen tasavalta (Finnish), Republiken Finland (Swedish), Republic of Finland
🆔 Meaning:The Land of the Finns
📍Location: Northern Europe
🏛 Capital: Helsinki (pop: 2 135 634 in 2022)
💬 Languages: Finnish, Swedish, Sami
👫 Population: 5 569 431 citizens (Oct 2022)
❤️ Life expectancy: Men 79 years, women 84 years (2022)
💰 GDP per capita: $53 982 USD (2021)
🗺 Total Area: 130 678 sq mi
Consolidated: 1809, Independent from Russia 1917
ℹ️ The only Nordic country that doesn’t speak a language with Norse roots, home of the sauna, Moomin, Angry Birds, and Santa Claus

Finland is known as the “Land of a Thousand Lakes” and the home of Sauna, Moomin, Nokia, and of course the annoyingly succesful Angry Birds.

lahti finland
One of the lakes in “the Land of a Thousand Lakes”

Being half-Finnish I’ve spent every other summer and winter break growing up visiting and enjoying the uniquely Finnish way of life with my Suomalainen family.

The Finnish language is the odd one out in the region, as the only language without any Old Norse roots, and for being extremely different from its neighbor’s languages.

finnish kci sled ville fi flickr min

That said, Finland was part of Sweden for close to 500 years before falling into Russian hands, and when it finally gained independence in 1917 it forged strong bonds with its western neighbor that are even stronger today.


🇮🇸 Iceland

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Quick facts – Iceland 🇮🇸
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👑 Official name: Island, Iceland
🆔 Meaning:The Land of Ice
📍Location: North Atlantic Ocean
🏛 Capital: Reykjavík (pop: 131 136 in 2022)
💬 Languages: Icelandic
👫 Population: 376 248 citizens (Oct 2022)
❤️ Life expectancy: Men 82.2 years, women 84.9 years (2022)
💰 GDP per capita: $53 982 USD (2021)
🗺 Total Area: 39 682 sq mi
Consolidated: 930, Independent 1918
ℹ️ Closest to Old Norse out of all Nordic languages, home of volcanoes, phenomenal landscapes, geysers, and Björk

Iceland is known for its spectacular volcanic landscape, relaxing hot springs, and vomit-inducing fermented shark specialty.

iceland landscape sunset church mountains

If you want to learn how the Vikings spoke, the Icelandic language is the closest to Old Norse out of all the North Germanic languages.


🇫🇴 Faroe Islands

church saksun faroe islands karl andersson nordicperspective
Quick facts – The Faroe Islands 🇫🇴
Flag of the Faroe Islands

👑 Official name: Føroyar (Faroese), Færøerne (Danish), Faroe Islands
🆔 Meaning:The Sheep Islands
📍Location: North Atlantic Ocean
🏛 Capital: Tórshavn (pop: 21 078 in 2022)
💬 Languages: Faroese, Danish
👫 Population: 54 000 citizens (Oct 2022)
❤️ Life expectancy: Men 79.9 years, women 84.5 years (2022)
💰 GDP per capita: $66 321 USD (2021)
🗺 Total Area: 540 sq mi
Consolidated: 1030
ℹ️ Part of the Danish Kingdom, home of the puffin, breathtaking cliffs, sheep, and cozy grass roofs

The Faroe Islands are home to puffins, cozy grass-roofed houses, and gorgeous coastal landscapes.

When we spent time on these islands a few years back we were taken aback by how spectacular the landscapes were, how untouched the islands felt, and how warmly the locals welcomed us.

And due to its location in the North Atlantic Ocean, the climate is volatile and harsh and never gets truly cold or warm.

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My son running from the attack hail in Vestmanna, Faroe Islands

🇬🇱 Greenland

Quick facts – Greenland 🇬🇱
Flag of Greenland

👑 Official name: Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenlandic), Grønland (Danish), Greenland
🆔 Meaning: “The Green Land
📍Location: North Atlantic Ocean
🏛 Capital: Nuuk (pop: 19 023 in 2022)
💬 Languages: Greenlandic, Danish
👫 Population: 56 466 citizens (Oct 2022)
❤️ Life expectancy: Men 68.3 years, women 73.7 years (2022)
💰 GDP per capita: $54 570 USD (2021)
🗺 Total Area: 836 330 sq mi
Consolidated: 1262, Self rule 2009
ℹ️ Part of the Danish Kingdom, home of glaciers, tundra, and polar bears

Greenland is known for its beautiful glaciers, vast icy tundras, and polar bears, as well as being the site of a peculiar diplomatic exchange between Denmark and Canada, where the countries take turns claiming an island located in between the two while leaving a bottle of booze as a gift for the next expedition every time.


🇦🇽 Åland Islands

Quick facts – The Åsland Islands 🇦🇽
Flag of Aland

👑 Official name: Ahvenanmaa (Finnish), Åland (Swedish), Åland
🆔 Meaning: “Land of Water
📍Location: Baltic Sea, Northern Europe
🏛 Capital: Mariehamn (pop: 19 023 in 2022)
💬 Languages: Swedish
👫 Population: 30 129 citizens (Oct 2022)
❤️ Life expectancy: Men 80.4 years, women 85.5 years (2022)
💰 GDP per capita: $51 934 USD (2022)
🗺 Total Area: 610 sq mi
Consolidated: 1920, Self rule
ℹ️ Autonomous region of Finland, but culturally and ethnically Swedish. The least populous Nordic country, and home of the Åland Archipelago

Åland is known for its beautiful archipelago, and for being located in between Finland and Sweden.

It’s a culturally Swedish region within Finland that speaks Swedish and follows Swedish traditions more so than Finnish

This has been the case since the age of Vikings, when it was an important trading port on the way east. It was given to Finland by the UN after the first world war, and is commonly used as a textbook example of how to solve a territorial island dispute amicably.

And while most Ålanders see themselves more as Swedes than Finns, the country still enjoys a high degree of autonomy as a part of Finland.

The Nordic Flags (with so-called “Nordic Crosses”)

Almost all the Nordic flags have the iconic “Nordic Cross”—a rotated Christian cross to symbolize the region’s late conversion from the Norse gods of the Viking Age to Christianity in the 11th century—with the exception being Greenland.

Nordic cross flags of Northern Europe 2019
Different “Nordic Cross” flags in Northern Europe. Note that it’s used in many non-Nordic countries.

A red Nordic cross on a yellow background was also used as the union flag during the Scandinavian Kalmar union between 1397 and 1523, when most of the Nordics were united under one ruler, and one flag.

Greenland has ultimately opted for a different type of flag, as although the country has been under Scandinavian influence for most of the time since Erik the Red established the first Norse colony in Greenland in 986, the now mostly Inuit population is moving for independence from the Danish Kingdom it’s still formally a part of.

And speaking of Denmark, the Danish flag (“Dannebrog”) is claimed to be the oldest continuously used flag in the world according to the Guinness World Records!

dannebrog
Dannebrog

So we’ve covered the countries located up in the cold north, but how about the people? Let’s look at who the Scandinavians are next.


The Scandinavian People

The first people who settled in the Scandinavian region arrived some 14 000 years ago after the most recent ice age, one wave from the northeast, and one from the south.

Both of these groups of people were hunter-gatherers who mainly followed the herds of animals that entered the region as the ice retreated, and it would take another 8 000 years until this way of life changed when farmers from Anatolia and Syria arrive in the region.

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This is what the hunter-gatherers who came to the Scandinavian region looked like according to DNA analysis. The man on the left represents the wave of people from the south, and the woman on the left the wave from the northeast. Source: SVT

After a few millennia of farming and intermingling between the old and new arrivals, there would come a new wave of people to Scandinavia around 4 800 years ago from the steppes north of the Black Sea and the so-called Yamnaya culture.

After these three major influxes of people into the region, a common culture started taking form in Scandinavia, which would eventually become the Germanic and later Norse culture of the Iron and Viking Ages (around 400-1100 CE).

Over the past 1 300 or so years we Scandinavians haven’t changed all that much—studies have shown that we share around 65%-80% similar DNA to Scandinavians from the Viking Age—though we have seen more people continuously migrate to the region.

This is especially true over the last 40 years, as hundreds of thousands of immigrants have arrived from the Balkans, the Middle East, and the horn of Africa mainly.

So what do Scandinavians look like today? I’ll list some examples below of people you might have heard of that come from the region, but if you’d like to dig deeper I’ve also written an extensive article that goes into great detail about Nordic physical traits.

Famous Scandinavian Women

To get a better idea of what Scandinavian women look like and to get better acquainted with some of the more famous ones, I’ve included a small selection of the many inspiring women from the cold north below:

Famous Scandinavian men

Ordinary Scandinavians

You might think to yourself, “Alright all the celebrities are gorgeous, big surprise! How about regular folks?”

It’s no surprise that actors and artists are on average more attractive, and I don’t want to promote a skewed notion that all Scandinavians are perfect.

So let’s include some more everyday examples of “ordinary” folks from the region as well, mostly from photos I’ve taken myself in Malmö, Sweden, Copenhagen, Denmark, and Oslo, Norway, over the years:


The Scandinavian Languages

🇸🇪 Swedish

Swedish is an East Nordic language spoken by around 10 million people, making it the most common Scandinavian language. It is the main language of Sweden, and also a minority language in Finland where they still have some Swedish-speaking parts along the coast and the border to Northern Sweden.

The autonomous island region of Åland is also Swedish-speaking, situated in between Sweden and Finland (and officially part of Finland).

🇩🇰 Danish

Danish is an East Nordic language spoken by around 6 million people. It is the main language of Denmark, and is also spoken by many in the Faroe Islands and Greenland (both self-governing countries within the Kingdom of Denmark).

🇳🇴 Norwegian

Norwegian is a West Nordic language spoken by around 4.5 million people, which also makes it the smallest Scandinavian language. It is the main language of Norway.

ℹ️ If you’re interested in the Scandinavian languages and how they compare, I’ve written an article where I dive deeper into how Swedish, Danish and Norwegian sound, which is easier to learn, and how useful each language can be.


Nordic History: Vikings, Norse Mythology, Nordic Unity

The strong Nordic connection comes from a mostly common history; we share the same origin story and can trace our common ancestors back to the first inhabitants of the region (of course mixed with wave after wave of immigrants over the years).

Though we have changed a lot over time and had our fair share of conflicts and disagreements, the Nordic people have essentially shared a similar culture and values from the Bronze Age up until today.

That’s a 14 000-year-old connection; no wonder we are hard to tell apart sometimes!

Historians generally agree that the Nordic Bronze Age culture was the cradle of all the Germanic tribes that would spread out across Europe, and contribute to the fall of the Roman Empire. And out of the Northern Germanic tribes came the Norse Vikings, who would yet again set out on raids and colonize large parts of Europe a few hundred years later.

Further Reading on the Norse Vikings

Further Readings on Norse Mythology

Scandinavian & Nordic Unity

Although the three Scandinavian countries do share a common origin, history, language group, and culture—and even agree on most modern-day politics—the Scandinavian region is not unified by a common governing body (such as the EU or the US, for example).

The countries each have their own separate governments, and despite being part of the same Scandinavian language group, the three languages aren’t really mutually intelligible (although especially Swedish is widely understood among young Danes and Norwegians).

That said, within the larger Nordic region (which formally includes Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and Åland) there is a regional co-operation agreement in effect through the Nordic Council (formed in 1952).

The Nordic Council of Ministers is made up of 87 elected representatives from all the countries in the council, and was formed to foster cooperation between the Nordic countries and “to make the Nordic region one that people want to live and work in”.

Common Questions

Is Finland Considered Part of Scandinavia?

Formally and locally speaking, Finland is generally not considered part of the Scandinavian region or the Scandinavian people (Sweden, Denmark, and Norway). However, the broader Scandinavian definition commonly used in the US sometimes includes Finland, Iceland, Åland, and the Faroe Islands when referring to Scandinavia and Scandinavians.

A small part of northern Finland is also technically part of the Scandinavian peninsula, bordering both Norway and Sweden above the arctic circle.

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The Viking Line ferries connect Helsinki, Finland, with Stockholm, Sweden.

It’s also important to note that Finland has been part of both Sweden and through it the Scandinavian Kalmar union (for a combined 500 years), so the Scandinavian ties are still strong to Finland, although sometimes with a bad connotation from the Finnish perspective.

When including Finland with the Scandinavian countries the terms Fenno-Scandinavia or Fennoscandia are sometimes used.

The Scandinavian Peninsula and Fenno-Scandinavia

ℹ️ I wrote an article diving deeper into whether Finland is Scandinavian or not, so if you want to find out more about Finland’s links to Scandinavia go check that out.

So why aren’t the Finns seen as Scandinavian?

The short answer is that the Finns do not share the same origin story that Scandinavians do, but instead have their own unique story of how they came to the Nordic region, and a separate cultural heritage from the Scandinavian.

I have written an article about Finnish heritage and the origin of the Finns, so go and check that out if you’d like to find out more about the fascinating Finnish history.


Source:

https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GGGR_2022.pdf

https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/rankings/quality-of-life

https://www.norden.org/en/information/official-nordic-co-operation

https://www.google.com/books/edition/_/n1TUAAAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0

https://sok.riksarkivet.se/sbl/Presentation.aspx?id=15413

https://www.kungahuset.se/kungafamiljen

https://www.scb.se/hitta-statistik/statistik-efter-amne/befolkning/befolkningens-sammansattning/befolkningsstatistik/

https://www.dst.dk/nyt/40193

https://www.ssb.no/befolkning/folketall/statistikk/befolkning

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By Karl Andersson

As a native Swede with a Finnish mother, Karl identifies as both Nordic and Scandinavian. He left Sweden at 19 to explore the world, and stayed abroad for almost 8 years—during which he backpacked, worked every job there was, earned a degree from UC Berkeley, and met the future mother of his children. He ultimately returned to his native Malmö with his love, where they now have 3 Swedish-American boys eager to explore the world.

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