Exploring the Nordic Countries in Winter

Winters can be harsh in the Nordic countries but if you are adventurous, you’re in for a memorable travel experience.

In this Pxley story I’ll provide an overview of a winter itinerary [4-5 days for each country] you can use for your travels in Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland. There is no correct order to visit the countries mentioned in this story. Plan according to what best suits your taste. Keep in mind that the Nordic countries are considerably more expensive to visit than most parts of the world. Credit cards are widely accepted.

As I have mentioned in some of my travel stories, I prefer traveling during the off-season because, among other benefits, I enjoy experiencing a region at a relaxed pace.

In addition to warm attire for exploring the Nordic countries in winter, refer to the section on Travel Tips to make your journey a pleasant one.

Northern Lights

Breathtaking. Inspiring. The Northern Lights [aurora borealis] are an experience to behold. Nothing substitutes being there to witness this amazing show. To the naked eye, in contrast to a modern DSLR camera, the aurora might appear white or gray. This is due to the rod and cone cells in our eyes. If the intensity of the auroras are strong, you will see a range of colors—green, purple, magenta, yellow.

Keep in mind that the Northern Lights are unpredictable. They are best visible from September through March. There needs to be solar flares from the sun that enter the Earth’s atmosphere to collide with gas atoms. In addition, you need a clear night. Therefore, check an aurora forecast available on the web.

Booking Your Stay

The minimalist design aesthetic of the Nordic region is reflected in its hotels too. You can opt for a treetop hotel or a glass igloo or an eco-friendly cabin situated next to a glacier. Depending on where you are situated during your travels in the Nordic countries, a glass igloo [built with insulated thermal glass] allows you to sleep cozily under the beautiful Arctic sky and witness the Northern Lights from your bed. As always, it is a good idea to research and book your stay early.

Visiting Finland

If Finland is not in your itinerary as you plan your visit to the Nordic countries, you might be tempted by Finnair’s free stopover for up to five days. Check the airline’s website for details. You can spend three days in Helsinki and two days in Finnish Lapland, depending on what you wish to explore. Get the Helsinki Card if you plan to visit a lot of museums. In addition, you get free use of the city's buses and trams, plus discounts at a variety of shops, cafés, and restaurants.

Helsinki is a walking city. If your hotel is located at the city center, you can get to the waterfront by walking along the tree-lined boulevard from Esplanade Park. Explore the Market Square at the South Harbour. The Old Market Hall, located at Eteläranta, next to the Market Square, is a must-visit. Open 365 days a year, Kappeli Café [designed by Hampus Dahlström] has something for everyone—cold beer, live music, fine art, cold-smoked reindeer with wheat beer foam, and more. If you like books, historical monuments, and Finnish art, I recommend the National Library of Finland, Akateeminen Kirjakauppa [Academic Bookstore, designed by Alvar Aalto], and the Ateneum [one of the museums of the Finnish National Gallery].

Helsinki Christmas Market

If you happen to be in Helsinki in December, make the most of the sunlight hours—sunrise between 9:00-9:30 am and sunset around 3:15 pm. Visit the Christmas Market that starts on December 1 [a day known as Little Christmas in Finland]. If you’re feeling cold, drink some hot mulled wine, called glögi in Finnish. From the market, you will see the Helsinki Cathedral, an excellent example of Neoclassical architecture.

Helsinki is close to Nuuksio National Park. Catch a train from Helsinki to Espoo and then to the national park independently or on a guided tour. When one speaks of a winter wonderland, Lapland is the place to be. You can witness the Northern Lights, ski downhill, or take in a more solitary and personal experience by skiing cross-country on well-maintained ski tracks.

Visiting Sweden

Stockholm in winter won’t be any colder than parts of Maine or Vermont. However, if you’re in Swedish Lapland, expect it to be colder. Spend 4-5 days in Stockholm and Swedish Lapland, allocating time to explore a city and time in the subarctic wilderness.

In Stockholm, one of the fun and informative things to do is a walking tour of Gamla Stan [Old Town dating back to 1252], filled with cafés, bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, Stockholm Cathedral, museums, and the Royal Palace. Take the Stockholm Underground [subway] to learn about public art in Sweden. A free subway art tour with a paid subway ticket provides you the opportunity to know why there is art in the subway and how the art was chosen.

You can buy a one-day or five-day Stockholm Pass that gives you free entry to museums, a boat tour around the Fjäderholmarna Islands, a guidebook, etc. Note: Many museums in Stockholm have free entry but tickets are required for their temporary exhibitions.

Björkliden

One of the best places for viewing the Northern Lights is Abisko. However, a fifteen-minute drive from Abisko brings you to Björkliden that has low light pollution. You are in the Swedish Arctic and I recommend a dog-sledding experience. Warm clothing rentals are available at some hotels and hostels. Spend a day in the Sámi village of Jokkmokk or Rávttas and learn about one of the oldest cultures on Earth. As always, book your stay well in advance for Abisko and Björkliden.

Visiting Norway

Winter in the Nordic countries is dark and cold with a few hours of sunshine that provide wonderful opportunities to explore the outdoors. In Oslo, you can take the metro to Frognerseteren and get on the cross-country skiing trails as you disembark. [I'm not aware if one can do this in any other part of the world, which is why it’s so amazing!] The other option as you get off the train is to follow the signs to Tryvann that has 14 slopes to ski and snowboard on.

If you prefer to be indoors to avoid the cold, grab a cappuccino at one of the many cafes in Oslo and head to the Oslo Operahuset [Opera House] or the Viking Ship Museum. Designed by the architectural firm Snøhetta, a unique design feature of the Oslo Operahuset is the platform roof which is also a public space. You might enjoy SALT [across the harbor from the Oslo Operahuset], a unique “nomadic art project” with saunas, food, DJ music, and more. The world’s best preserved Viking ships are housed at the Viking Ship Museum. These ships were found in burial mounds around the Oslo fjord. Download the free audio guides for the museum.

Tromsø

Tromsø [pronounced trom-seh] is Norway’s Arctic capital. The best way to get to Tromsø is by air. Taxis can be expensive in Tromsø. I recommend using the bus. Use grocery stores for food supplies but remember that these stores are closed on Sunday.

Tromsø’s unique landmark is the Arctic Cathedral which is a parish church. Tromsø Cathedral, dating from 1861, is the northernmost cathedral in the world. Take a cable car ride to Fjellheisen for magnificent views of Tromsø and far beyond on a clear day. The Tromsø Library and City Archive is a good place to learn about the city of Tromsø and it’s free! From November to January, you can see humpback whales and orcas around Tromsø. Find a reputable tour operator that follows the guidelines recommended by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and the International Whaling Commission.

Visiting Iceland

It’s not always cold in Iceland. You’re not guaranteed to see the Northern Lights. The Icelandic government isn’t paying thousands of U.S. dollars to foreign men to marry an Icelandic woman. Now that we have busted these three myths, let’s explore Iceland in winter.

Base yourself in Reykjavík and take day trips, overnight trips, or week-long tours around Iceland. One of the most popular day trips from Reykjavík is to explore the “Golden Circle”—Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall, and the Geysir geothermal area. For a 360-degree view over Reykjavik, take the elevator to the top of Hallgrímskirkja Church, and then 32 stairs to get to the covered roof. You can also take in the views of the city from the Harpa Center, home to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra.

Glacier Lagoon

Winter is the perfect time to explore an ice cave, ice tunnel, and a glacier. These activities are thrilling but can be dangerous. Hence, I strongly recommend a trained guide.

The lake at the Jökulsárlón Lagoon [pronounced yo-kuhl-sarlon] is formed by meltwater from the Vatnajökull Glacier [pronounced vatna-yuhktl]. Large chunks of ice break off the glacier and float onto the lake. The newer chunks of ice are blue and chemical reactions from sunlight turn them white. Ice caves are formed during winter by meltwater running under or through a glacier. Ice caves are transient in nature, which makes their beauty precious and to be captured at that moment. For this reason and more, such gifts of nature strike a chord of impermanence that I have been always drawn to in my life and in my Pxley stories, such as Bhutan: A Magical Journey.

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