There are few places I feel more at home than in Northern Europe. The deep spruce- and pine-scented forests coupled and cool winters are as reminiscent of my homeland of Canada as anywhere.
Where it gets complicated is that Northern Europe is, in many ways, nothing like the world where I grew up. I’ve fallen in love, not only with the natural attractions of the Baltics and Scandinavia, but with its cities.
The medieval charms of Riga and Tallinn are like nothing I’d experienced before, nor were the hilly comforts of Bergen or infinite sophistication of Stockholm and Copenhagen.
From glacier-spotting in Iceland or fjord-hopping in Norway to summer lakeside saunas in Finland or soaking up the sun on the Baltic Sea in Lithuania, Northern Europe is both exactly and nothing like you expected it to be. Experiences here don’t always come cheap, but they’re ones that won’t leave you anytime soon.
When to visit Northern Europe
Compared to areas further south, there’s a little more subtlety in attempting to figure out the best time to visit Northern Europe. While conventional wisdom would say to avoid the colder months for fear of turning into a popsicle, the bonafide northerner in me would scoff at that and want to remind visitors that winter is one of the most magical times of the year in the Baltics & Scandinavia.
In general, summers in Northern Europe are warm & bright while winters are cold and (in the dead of the season) dark. Of course, the wide spread of this region means that there will be quite a difference, at any time of the year, between southernly locations like Lithuania and northernly areas like Lapland in Finland!
Overall, one of the the best times to visit most countries in Northern Europe is in the shoulder seasons of spring (May to early June) and the fall (September to October). In both of these seasons, the days are still relatively warm to mild while escaping the crowds (and the bugs!) of summer.
If you can handle the colder temperatures and ever-shrinking daylight hours, visiting Northern Europe in winter can be quite an treat. Warming up in a Finnish sauna or watching the Northern Lights dance in the sky in Norway slot in among the most unique experiences you can have anywhere in the world—especially if you’re from a warmer country!
Where to go in Northern Europe
Depending on whom you ask, Northern Europe takes on any number of definitions. On top of the usual Scandinavian countries that normally round out the list, I’ve also included the three Baltic States—Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania—in here.
Although there’s historical precedent to toss these countries in with Eastern Europe, they’re politically closer to their Nordic neighbours these days, obvious enough that even the UN’s bound them together as Northern European nations.
One of the happiest nations in the world, Denmark takes its pursuit of hygge (a lifestyle of contentment) quite seriously. As a visitor, that concept will not likely be lost upon you as you leisurely stroll through the country.
Most visits carve out time for the capital city of Copenhagen, truly one of Europe’s urban gems. While Copenhagen doesn’t have the flash of many other European cities, there’s an understated elegance and easiness here that connects travellers to it almost instantly.
The humble charms continue into the Danish countryside, scattered with castles, white-sand beaches, and lakeside villages embracing the simple Nordic aesthetic. Thanks to its compact size and efficient transportation system, travelling around Denmark to experience its most compelling places to visit is a cinch, making it a fantastic choice for a quick and satisfying European break.
The most northerly of the Baltic States both culturally and geographical, the pint-size country of Estonia seems to be on a path to becoming one of Europe’s hottest travel destinations, driven in part, no doubt, by the delightful medieval charms of its capital, Tallinn.
Even if the bulk of its tourists venture here to catch a glimpse of Tallinn, this former outpost of the Soviet Union (let’s be honest, it never really fit the part) delivers a ton of surprises for travellers beyond its classic old European appeal.
Estonia’s seafaring past is painfully obvious as you traverse its Baltic coastline where over 1,500 islands await. Along the way, beaches will beckon you in happenin’ towns like Pärnu as will quieter moments in traditional villages in further-flung places like Saaremaa Island.
Ready to plan a trip to Estonia? Get started with these travel planning resources from our Estonia Travel Guide:
- One Day in Tallinn: A Complete Itinerary
- Best Things to Do in Tallinn: Top Attractions & Places to Visit
- Where to Stay in Tallinn: The Best Hotels & Areas for Travellers
Greeted by pine forests and crisp fresh air, I couldn’t help but instantly feel a special kinship to Finland, a wholly underrated slice of Scandinavia. Unlike other Northern European destinations that bowled me over, Finland soothed me and bestowed a sense of calm & comfort like no other place in the region.
You could hardly do better than to start exploring Finland with its cultural & political capital, Helsinki. While the city’s not without its detractors—who claim it to be a dull place with little to do—I’ve confident enough to exclaim they’re not exactly on point with their criticism, and that Helsinki’s a fantastic city to start sinking your teeth into Finland.
Beyond the capital, however, is where you’ll start to find Finland’s most magical moments. Whether its witnessing the Northern Lights in Lapland or sweating out some kalakukko in a traditional sauna around Kuopio’s Lakeland, Finland will get under your skin in the best way possible.
Ready to plan a trip to Finland? Get started with these travel planning resources from our Finland Travel Guide:
- One Day in Helsinki: A Complete Itinerary
- Best Things to Do in Helsinki: Top Attractions & Places to Visit
- Where to Stay in Helsinki: The Best Hotels & Areas for Travellers
Many years ago, I set off for an adventure that seemed, at the time, to be usual and offbeat. That destination: Iceland. And it quickly imprinted itself on me as one of the coolest places on the planet.
Soon, my worst nightmares would come true. Everyone seemed to have intercepted my conversations upon returning home. From what I now gather, the Iceland of solitude that I experienced and fell in love with at first sight, seems to be lost.
I would normally hesitate to recommend a destination that’s become so over-popularized and over-Instagrammed in recent years. But given how unique Iceland is no world traveller would ever be satisfied without at least a quick romp here.
Much of what you’ve heard about Iceland from fellow travellers is probably true. Iceland’s a land of dramatic landscapes that you can’t find anywhere else in the world.
As you travel throughout the country, you’ll stumble upon everything from waterfalls cascading over the continental plates (or thundering seemingly in the middle of nowhere) and mountains perfectly reflected in lakes to ghastly volcanic rock formations and mineral-rich natural hot springs for your rejuvenation pleasure.
If you’ve been waiting for a new European country to come into your life and surprise you, it could well be Latvia. Home to one of Europe’s most beautiful unsung capitals, Latvia will quickly shed any negative stereotypes you’ve conjured up about old former Soviet bloc countries.
Besides the lovely city of Riga, whose quirky street art & design, architectural beauty & colourful façades are almost unmatched anywhere on the continent, Latvia is famous for its outdoor pleasures.
The country’s Baltic coastline may be small, but is mighty in its charms with its white-sand beaches competing with the best in the Nordic countries. Forests cover over half of Latvia, so don’t be surprised when places like Ķemeri National Park and Gauja National Park quickly skyrocket to your list of favourite experiences in Northern Europe.
Few places in Europe deal in the unexpected more than Lithuania. The southern border of the Baltics belongs, in many ways, in a category all to its own—neither fully Baltic, Nordic nor entirely Central European.
Although Lithuania shares much history with its close neighbours (especially Poland to the south which it was once politically attached to), this is a country that’s as unique as they come.
As you travel around Lithuania—from the cobblestoned ancient streets of Vilnius to the seaside charms of the Curonian Spit to its larch & birch forests—you’ll get a sense of how diverse this country really is in both looks and spirit.
With a long history of independence behind it, Lithuania is a place where ideas flourish. All around the country you’ll discover the legacy of ancient folklore blending seamlessly with strong subcultures infused with artistic expression & grand visions for the future of European society.
Although breathtaking landscapes are hardly out of the ordinary in Europe, Norway undoubtedly sits among the most eye-catching on the continent. Whereas much of Europe attracts visitors to its cities, Norway delivers its tourist brochures promise with its natural attractions more than its urban ones.
When crafting your Norway itinerary, use Oslo sparingly as a jumping-off point for grander things. Beeline instead to Norway’s second city of Bergen, the gateway to fjord country, to see what makes Norway so unique.
Only a handful of places on earth are lucky enough to have fjords, let alone the foresight to name them as such. These deep and narrow inlets, precipitated by sheer cliffs carved on millennia by glaciers, are simply breathtaking and could well form some of the most remarkable scenes you’ll ever encounter anywhere.
Once you’ve dazzled at the beauty of the fjords, don’t miss a chance to take your trip to the next level with a visit to Norway’s Arctic where you’ll have an opportunity to brush up with the country’s unique wildlife and, hopefully, catch the majestic Northern Lights dancing in the night sky.
Much like its neighbour Norway, Sweden defines the stereotypical Nordic travel destination with its varied sea-swept islands & shorelines, hip cityscapes, and chilly desolate north. Nearly anything you’d dream up for a Scanadinavian itinerary can be had in Sweden—and in spades.
Carve some time out for the chilled-out and undeniably cool capital of Stockholm. Much like snaking through your local Ikea, you’re bound to leave Stockholm with far more inspiration and ideas than you entered with. (Along with a grander appreciation for the simpler things in life.)
Besides hanging out in the laid-back cities of the south, head inland and upward to round out your story of Sweden. Scattered throughout the country are testaments to its past from Viking burial grounds to walled towns & fortresses along the coast that speak to a seafaring and hawkish history.
Transportation in Northern Europe
By air: One of the easiest and most common ways to get to Northern Europe is via air. The busiest international airports in the region include Copenhagen (CPH), Oslo (OSL), Stockholm Arlanda (ARN), Helsinki (HEL), and Reykjavik-Keflavik (KEF).
By train: Thanks to its maritime boundaries, there’s a limited selection of train routes into Northern Europe. The most common train link from Central Europe to Scandinavia is between Copenhagen and Hamburg (4h34m).
Until the new Rail Baltica high-speed line is built between Warsaw and Tallinn, the best option into the Baltics from Central Europe is the train between Bialystok (Poland) and Vilnius (Lithuania), taking over 5 and a half hours.
From the east, there’s also a train from Minsk in Belarus to Vilnius (2.5 hours), and a fast train between St. Petersburg and Helsinki (3.5 hours).