Which Nordic capital should you visit?

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.

If you ask any other nordic citizen about Norway, they’ll tell you “it’s cool up there, if it wasn’t so expensive”, which coming from a person that happily pays 15 euros for a sandwich seems somewhat frightening. Prices are around 20-25% higher than in Stockholm, and about 15% higher than in Copenhagen. Say thanks for that to the Norwegian oil drillers! No wonder why many Swedes and Finns happily roam to Norway to get a better-paid job, even seasonally.

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!


33 thoughts on “Which Nordic capital should you visit?

  1. Helsinki of course. We speak many languages, we are helpful, friendly, have awesome hobbies, huge and easy possibilities to explore our countryside easily and find hidden gems, etc. etc. etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I loved Helsinki actually. I think it has the most character, and the people I met were really cool. Didn’t get to experience much nature though as it was soooo cold!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I liked both Stockholm and Helsinki in slightly different ways – I love the way train announcers in Sweden sound perfectly calm even when the train is 3/4 of an hour late, and the way a woman got off her bike in Stockholm specially to educate me in how to cross the road – but ideally I would like to spend a week or so on the ferry travelling between them, though only when the sea’s calm.
    I am unfairly biased against Copenhagen because on the way to Helsinki the train broke down in Denmark and I missed my connection to Stockholm from Copenhagen and somehow ended up stranded in Malmo, and on the way back I got on a train there that didn’t have the right coaches on it and I ended up sleeping in a couchette compartment with three American students and their massive rucksacks and a lonely woman on the top berth who didn’t dare to come down.


    1. Thanks for the comment! I also got stranded-ish in Malmo because our accommodation in Copenhagen cancelled at the last minute. It sounds like you had some adventures there though. Which was your favourite of the three?


  3. The best only one I’ve been to is Stockholm, last September, which I loved. As a huge fan of The Bridge I was thinking about Malmo, too, and a venture into Copenhagen some time.


    1. If you liked Stockholm and you’re a fan of the Bridge you’ll love Copenhagen/Malmo. Actually you never really see Malmo in the show, but it’s a nice little city anyway, and Copenhagen is really interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post!
    My favourite city is Oslo because it combines the city with nature, mountains and even lakes just a tram or T-bane ride away. I also like its modern architecture. Oslo might be expensive, but I find that the hotel prices are very reasonable here (check out Comfort Xpress Central Station – just 600 NOK per night).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a great post! I was just on another blog, reading about Stockholm (I’ve never been) and wondering to myself how it differs from the other Scandinavian capitals (which I have been to). I scrolled down to ask away in the comments and at the bottom I found a wordpress suggestion pointing me here! Looks like you’ve got yourself a new reader 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi,
    I am from India. I am travelling to Europe from 15th of September to 13th of October.
    Due to my visa issue I mite have to skip either Helsinki or Stockholm,
    which one would u recommend as a must go.
    Plz help me as ma really confused.
    PS: either of the countries I visit, is going to be my entry port so that will be in mid September, so will it be like really cold?


  7. New Year is about to arrive and everyone is planning some vacation. I would like to travel to Copenhagen. It is the capital and most populous city of Denmark. I didn’t know much about Denmark before I booked a flight to Copenhagen a couple of weeks ago. But it was a wonderful visit and I will definitely recommend to everyone.


  8. You have to think what places you can easily also visit during your trip. Copenhagen and Helsinki is then clear winners.From Copenhagen you can easily visit central Europe, from Helsinki you can visit Tallinn, Riga and St Petersburg. Also Karelia is interesting, Finland has like you said cultural differences, finns have obvious reasons to not advertise it because of its war history. Helsinki is absolutely best visit during summer, from may to september should be very nice.


  9. Finland was NEVER a part of the Soviet Union! WE HAVE FOUGHT FOR OUR FREEDOM and you dare to say that Helsinki has “Soviet-style architecture”. I’m a Finn and I’m very offended.
    Russian Imperial-era architecture is NOT TO BE CONFUSED with Soviet architecture. Finland was part of the Russian Empire in the 19th century but Finland was NOT a part of the Soviet Union!!!!!


    1. Hi Tommi, I never said that Finland was part of the Soviet Union, I was just trying to illustrate the similarity in some of the architectural styles. Thanks for the comment!


  10. Hi, really enjoyed this! I was wondering, between Oslo and Helsinki which city has the best vegan culture and which city has fewer tourists (I much prefer a more low-key vibe). Thanks (:


    1. Hi Oscar, thanks a lot. My impression is that both cities are pretty vegan friendly, there are lots of vegan restaurants and options in both. I also don’t think either of them are too overly touristy unless you go during a particularly crowded time like midsummer or Christmas or something. If you like a quieter vibe, then visiting during winter is good, although cold of course! Maybe Helsinki is the less touristy of the two.


  11. Hi, super helpful post! Going there in winter – staring with Stockholm for Christmas and ending with Copenhagen for New Years. Could spend 2 days in either Oslo or Helsinki – which one would you recommend? Leaning toward Oslo for some reason but curious to get your thoughts. Thanks!


    1. Spend 2 days in Tallinn! You can take a boat directly from Stockholm. Unlike Stockholm, restaurants and stores stay open for Christmas and the entire (small) city is a Christmas market.


  12. Hello , we are planning to go to iceland in first week of april and want to visit one more country , we confuse which one to go , oslo , copenhagen or stockholm . Need advice please .


    1. Hi Seema, Iceland is really amazing, although will still be pretty cold in April! To be honest, it depends on what you are looking for in your second destination – all of those are worth a visit. If I was you I’d check which flight is the most affordable and convenient. But if I had to choose 1 of those 3 to visit it would probably be Stockholm because it’s very beautiful and it’s easy to get around the city by tram/train to see everything the most easily. You can also take ferries between the different islands which is amazing. So if the flights are convenient, maybe choose Stockholm. But any of them would be nice!


  13. Hi Alexa

    Thanks for your informative post. I’ll be going in April and I still can’t decide on which city, Stockholm or Copenhagen. I’m not into night clubs and drinking but I do love food (who doesn’t), art and fashion. As long as the food is good and service is good, I don’t need the extra frills. In terms of shopping, I enjoy independent boutiques over mass market, fast fashion. I guess that’s the same with food actually, independantly run businesses over franchise. Which city would you recommend?


    1. Hi Kimberley,

      That’s so hard to answer because both are such amazing cities to visit. One thing to consider about food is that both cities have quite expensive food, but Copenhagen is REALLY expensive for eating out, and even quite expensive for grabbing a sandwich etc. Both times I’ve been in Denmark I mostly ate from bakeries and 7-11! Stockholm isn’t cheap but you can eat out for normal prices if you know where to go. Stockholm has a really nice cafe scene with good coffee and pastries/buns etc. Stockholm is also slightly smaller and easier to get around and see a lot – there are also some really nice museums which sometimes have free opening hours (you’d have to check). The Moderna Museet is really nice for art. Of course Copenhagen has plenty of museums too.

      Basically you can’t go wrong with either one. Copenhagen is a bit more cool and quirky with interesting areas like the hippie Christiania and the beautifully coloured Nyhaven area. Stockholm is a tad more cosy with nice cafes and lots of water because it’s set across several islands. I’m not personally very into fashion and shopping so I can’t give you reliable info, but for cafes/restaurants and art I’d probably suggest Stockholm.

      Hope you’ll enjoy your trip!!


  14. Hi alexa i am travelling to alpe de huez for tomorrowland winter and afterwards covering nice monaco and cannes to which me and my future wife would be going for a honeymoon after that we might travel to amsterdam for a day but then we have four days left for lapland and all we have planned to stay in rovaniemi but due to extreme cold in march we have kept two days for that place i would love to know from you out of the four cities which you told which one is more happening and has a good nightlife among oslo copenhagen stockholm or helsinki which one do you recommend thats beautiful and vibrant too ?


    1. Hi – I think Copenhagen probably has the best nightlife, maybe followed by Oslo? I found Stockholm a bit quiet when I lived there, other than on ‘big’ nights like New Year when a lot is going on. All these cities are quite beautiful – I am sure you’d enjoy any of them. Maybe Copenhagen is a good place to start though as there is probably the most stuff to do there. Have fun!


      1. Thanks for the prompt reply feels great to have someone sharing there good experiences and letting know people around well i have travelled to lofoten islands in last december and that has been the best trip so far 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  15. Hi Alexa,

    Are you also going to live through the summer in Stockholm? I have lived in Stockholm for 4 years now. Every year I was reminded of the fact that climate-wise Stockholm isn’t easier in the summer than it is in the winter. Please warn future travels of the hazards of being up here in the summer:

    1) The days are LONG. This sounds wonderful when you are in the middle of winter, but when summer comes, 11pm sneaks up on you when you think it’s 7pm. If you didn’t hurry and fall asleep then, it will be full daylight at 3am.

    2) It does get hot and humid in Stockholm. Ever year. And always to the disbelief of its residents. If you are here for the one week when it’s hot, you will notice that no one has air conditioning. Two summers ago I went on a business trip to Shanghai, where walking outside was like being in a sauna. Then I returned to Stockholm and was dismayed to find that it was actually less comfortable (even though it was less hot).

    I hope all summer travelers shell out for a hotel with good dark curtains and air conditioning. It’s worth it.

    3) Don’t come after July 15th (midsummer). After that EVERYTHING closes until August. Including ice cream shops.

    And finally, everyone raves about the food scene in Stockholm. I find it disappointing. There are restaurants that I like, but they are not worth the price.

    Sorry for ranting on your blog. I actually like living in Stockholm. It’s not great for people who want to see “sights” I think, but great for those who just want to stroll and look at the buildings and hop into expensive coffee shops every hour.

    Now I started a job in Espoo, next to Helsinki. I was looking for recommendations for which city is nicer for a family to settle down and live. But I guess that comes up less often. Maybe I will leave a rant after another year 🙂


    1. Wow, thanks for all the advice and tips – super helpful. I no longer live in Stockholm but it’s a lovely place and so worth a visit. I haven’t lived anywhere else in Scandinavia though so I don’t know where is best for living. A job in Finland sounds very exciting though.


  16. I was born in Stockholm, grew up in Oslo and have lived 4 years in Helsinki. Copenhagen is the biggest and most continental city in Skandinavia. However, the big thing about Oslo, which you completely fall to mention, is its unique closeness to (wild) nature, – Its surrounded by islands and vasts forests.


  17. Why do you say that Copenhagen is the largest city? It has only 86.25 km² of area and 613.288 inhabitants vs 960.031 and 187.16 km² of Stockholm. In any case, I have always read that Stockholm is the capital of Scandinavia, for the cultural and artistic life, for the size, because it is considered the European silicon valley etc … I loved it but I found it “off”, without particularly important squares, Gamla Stan was half empty, few people around. Paradoxically, I found more movement in Helsinki. I was thinking of going back for Christmas and got the same impression: just a Christmas market in tiny Gamla Stan open 11-18, which closes before Christmas Eve. In Copenhagen the markets are many and they keep open even until 21 … In short, it seems to me that in Stockholm there is a bit of a “hit of life”. I don’t know if it’s just an impression. We Italians are used to having everything open all the time, not everything closes at 5pm!


    1. Thanks for commenting and all the information! It was also hard for me living in Sweden where everything closes so early. During evenings and at night it’s a very quiet city!


  18. I’m Scottish and looking to apply to several architecture practices in the Scandinavian capitals for my work internship, by which time I’ll be 20 years old. I will be living in Scandinavia from January-June 2022. Any advice or tips for an architecture student on what city would be the best for a 6-month stay?


    1. Honestly you’re best to base it on where is the best practice for your internship as that’s the most important thing. All those cities are suitable for a 6-month stay so you can’t go wrong.


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