20 things that will surprise first-time visitors to Scandinavia

They don't all look like Agnetha from ABBA

Not everyone in Scandinavia fits the ice maiden and Viking warrior template. Heck, three-quarters of Abba didn't even make the grade. So let go of your conviction that everyone you meet is going to match the blonde-haired, blue-eyed stereotype and accept that for every Agnetha you meet, you're also going to encounter a Bjork.  

See also: Beyond Abba - one of the world's greatest musical cities

It's not all about the great outdoors

You already know that Scandinavia has some of the most breathtaking scenery on the planet. Norway's fjords, Sweden's island archipelagos, and Finland's lake-studded forests are justly famous, but Scandinavia's cities are worth a visit in their own right. From Oslo's cutting-edge architecture to Helsinki's art nouveau buildings and Stockholm's picture-book pretty old town, there is plenty to keep you busy. Don't forget to leave time for Copenhagen, Scandinavia's capital of cool, where hipsters throng neighbourhoods such as Nørrebro and Versterbro.  

See also: 24 hours in Oslo

It's eye-wateringly expensive

You will need the calculator function on your phone when you head to Scandinavia; keeping an eye on how much you're spending is a serious business here. This is the sort of place where you do the conversion calculations three times, because you can't believe a beer is costing you $9, or a metro ticket is costing you $6. As for getting a cab, don't even go there. Savvy travellers can cut back on costs – for instance, multi-day transport tickets instead of single fares will save you a packet - but even so, this is not a budget destination. Plan accordingly.

They really do like to get naked…

Pretty much everyone who goes to Scandinavia wants to give sauna a go, and pretty much everyone wants to know why they can't keep their swimsuit on while they do it. Many locals will tell you that wearing a swimsuit in the sauna is unhygienic. Others will say that getting naked together is a form of honesty, of stripping away extraneous differences. Mainly, however, Scandis like to strip off simply because they are used to it. When you grow up getting naked with friends and family, it's just not an issue. So relaxed are Scandis about getting naked that, until a few decades ago, it was illegal to wear a swimsuit in central Helsinki's main swimming pool. True story.

See also: World's largest sauna opens

…and that includes their feet

There's only one thing that upsets Scandis more than the idea of wearing swimmers in a sauna, and that's wearing shoes indoors. If you are invited to someone's house, take your shoes off as soon as you are inside the door. Keeping your shoes on is not just rude, it's positively uncivilised. Chalk it up as just another of the many things the Scandinavians seem to have in common with the Japanese (see also "naked communal bathing" and "a love of seafood".)

They eat their sandwiches with a knife and fork

The Scandis have a number of food quirks – not least their passion for pickled herrings – but at first glance, using cutlery to eat sandwiches seems to be one of the weirdest. On closer inspection, however, this one makes a lot of sense. The Scandi sanger -– smörgås in Swedish, Smørrebrød in Danish, smørbrød in Norwegian, voileipä in Finnihs – uses just one piece of bread rather than two, and piles it high with ingredients such as cheese, cold shrimps, smoked salmon, hard boiled eggs, meatballs or herring. Frankly, you would be hard put to eat them any other way.


See also: What is real Swedish food like?

You will find art in unexpected places

It's not that Scandinavia doesn't have museums. Of course they do. And if you leave Copenhagen without visiting Louisiana in Copenhagen, or don't check out the Moderna Museet during your Stockholm stay, you're missing out. However, that whole Scandinavian egalitarian vibe extends to cultural matters, which is why they are big on putting art where people can see it. Oslo, for instance, has several excellent sculpture parks (the best, the Ekebergparken, features works by the likes of Rodin, Dali, Turrell and Bourgeois), while Stockholm has turned its metro system into an underground art gallery.

See also: Ten essential destinations for design fans

Their tunnels have traffic lights and roundabouts

Thanks to all those rugged landscapes, the Scandis have become experts at skirting, spanning, and otherwise circumventing the mountains, rivers and oceans that lie between wherever they are and wherever they want to be. Northern Norway is famous for its intricate tunnel systems, which come complete with roundabouts and traffic lights, while Europe's longest road and rail bridge, the Oresund Bridge between Copenhagen in Denmark and Malmo in Sweden, has become a tourist attraction in its own right. Even more popular with visitors is the road over Norway's high-altitude Trollstigen Pass, notorious for its steep incline and a spine-tingling series of hairpin bends.

The midnight sun really is a thing

If you head to Scandinavia in summer, you can easily get the impression that no-one ever goes to bed. And why would they? For half the year, the sun barely shines; it's understandable that, when it does come out, everyone is determined to make the most of it. If you are a light sleeper, take an eye mask with you; you will be surprised how many hotels don't have blackout curtains. Be aware that it's not just revellers who take advantage of the long days; road crews, for instance, will keep working as long as there is light, even if that means they don't finish up until after 10pm.

Potatoes are a delicacy in Finland

Europeans have always loved seasonal eating, feasting on strawberries and asparagus in May and mushrooms in autumn. Perched in the deep north of the continent, Scandinavia has a much shorter growing season, which helps explain why one of the highlights of the Finnish summer is the potato harvest. Finns flock to the markets to buy potatoes "one day out of the ground", prepared simply with dill. It is one of the gourmet events of the year.

See also: 24 hours in Helsinki

There are no surnames in Iceland

The reason Icelanders always address each other by their first names is that they don't have surnames. Instead, they identify themselves as "son of" (-son) or "daughter of" (dóttir). So if Jón has a son called Ólafur, for instance, he will be known as Ólafur Jónsson. If he has a daughter called Jóhanna, she will be known as Jóhanna Jónsdóttir. And yes, in the telephone directory, people are listed under their first names.

Swedes love to fika

Most Swedes will happily admit they fika every day. The fika is a cosy ritual, a coffee break at which old friends catch up or new friends get to know each other. Essential elements are a good cup of coffee (Scandinavians are connoisseurs) and some sort of bulle, or bun: cinnamon, cardamom and vanilla are all popular flavours.

The Vikings were actually pretty cool

Yes, there was plenty of rape and pillage, but the Vikings were more than just marauders. In addition to controlling a trade network that reached all the way to Eastern Europe, the Vikings were sophisticated craftspeople who created elegant jewellery and whose very ships were works of art, with sinuous prows and intricate carvings. Discover more about the hidden history of the Vikings at the Viking Ship Museums in Oslo and Roskilde, Denmark; the Viking Museum in Norway's Lofoten Islands, and Stockholm's Swedish History Museum. Denmark's Ribe Viking Centre, a living history museum, will be joined next year by a similar Viking Life Museum in Stockholm.

See also: How to hit the spa like a Viking

You need to get out on the water

Speaking of seafaring, you haven't really done Scandinavia until you've seen it from the water. That doesn't mean you have to sign up for a cruise: there are plenty of other options. Take a day trip in Stockholm's archipelago, hop on a boat to explore Iceland's spectacular Jokulsarlon Lagoon, or go kayaking through Norway's fjords. Up for something more adventurous? Norway's Hurtigruten boats carry both passengers and freight, and travel all the way up the Norwegian coast to the northern town of Kirkenes.

You can visit Santa Claus all year around

You don't have to wait until Christmas; head to northern Finland, and you can visit Santa at home for a change. The town of Rovaniemi has declared itself the "official" home of Santa Claus, and visitors will find Santa in residence and greeting visitors 365 days a year. The elves will probably be off-duty but, after having a chat with the big man, the littlies will be able to check in on his herd of reindeer.

Scandinavia has its own indigenous culture

Long before today's Scandinavians arrived in this part of the world, the Sami people were spread over much of the area. Distinct from modern Scandinavians in appearance, language and culture, the Sami and their herds of reindeer were pushed towards the deep north over the centuries, in much of the way European colonists pushed indigenous Australians away from the prime coastal lands. Only an estimated 50,000 Sami survive today; if you are heading above the Arctic Circle, sign up for an indigenous experience to learn more about these disappearing culture.

See also: Why Scandinavians are so happy

Read the menu carefully…

There are some countries where can point at a random dish on a menu and know whatever arrives is going to be pretty good. Then there is Scandinavia. The local food scene is a confusing mix of cutting-edge and parochial. Although you will find some of the world's most acclaimed restaurants here, including Denmark's NOMA and Sweden's Fäviken, you will also find plenty of restaurants that serve half a dozen types of pickled herring, and plenty of diners who think that's a pretty exciting offering. And while pickled herring turns out to be tastier than you might think, other dishes – such as Iceland's sour yogurt-ish skyr – are definitely an acquired taste.

…And handle the salted liquorice with care

Scandinavians have a serious sweet tooth: the Finns and the Danes consume more than 8kg of sweets per person per year, twice as much as the average European, and the Swedes aren't far behind. What they love more than anything else, however is salted liquorice. This peculiar Scandi sensation has an intensely sour taste that many non-Scandis find impossible to swallow. The locals think this is hilarious, and often offer these "treats" to unwary visitors. You have been warned.

Salted liquorice icecream.

See also: Why this country's food scene will surprise you

Scandi safari is a thing

There are no lions or leopards, elephants or hippos, but Scandinavia's dense forests are still home to some eye-catching wildlife. Plenty of operators now offer safaris; if you are prepared to spend the night in a hide, you may spot bears or – less likely - a lynx, a wolf or a wolverine. Less intimidating wildlife encounters include the chance to get close to beavers and elk.

They leave their babies outside

It can be disconcerting to walk down the streets of Stockholm, Copenhagen or Reykjavik and see fleets of prams parked on the pavements, but relax. It's not that frazzled parents are abandoning their babies. Scandinavians strongly believe in the healthy effects of fresh air, and typically leave their babies outside when they go into a café. In fact, parents putting their babies down for a nap will often wheel them outside to sleep in the open – yes, even in winter.

See also: The truth about Jon Snow's nude cave dip