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.
- The Countries of Scandinavia and the Nordics
- The Scandinavian People
- The Scandinavian Languages
- Nordic History: Vikings, Norse Mythology, Nordic Unity
- Common Questions
The Countries of Scandinavia and the Nordics
Map of Scandinavia and the Nordics
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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 is known for its spectacular volcanic landscape, relaxing hot springs, and vomit-inducing fermented shark specialty.
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
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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
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 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 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 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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
- Norse vs. Norwegian vs. Nordic: Differences Explained
- Is Finland Scandinavian? (The Full Answer)
- Is Scandinavia a Country? The Scandinavian Connection Explained
- How Nordic People Understand & Talk To Each Other (+ Graphs)