City Life, Culture, and Happiness in Scandinavia
To say I have always been obsessively fascinated by the Scandinavian countries is putting it mildly. Ask anyone who knows me, and they will tell you that it is my dream to live in either Denmark, Sweden, Norway, or Iceland (which is technically not part of the Scandinavian group, but is often classified as such).
At any given moment, I am able to name at least 10 totally random, yet vastly interesting facts about these mystical countries that lie far in the North, beyond the borders of the bulk of Europe. In my mind, one enters through a Narnia-like doorway at the top border of Germany to access the mystical Nordic countries – much like the travellers to platform 9¾ in the Harry Potter novels. Indeed, it may be no coincidence at all that the trio of fairytale-like countries lie so close to the North Pole, the epitome of myth, fable, and folklore.
The land of IKEA and hygge; where education and healthcare is absolutely free (so don’t be surprised if the server at the restaurant has two degrees), and gender equality is not a term, because it just is. All this, as well as the breathtakingly beautiful natural phenomena and prepossessing landscapes, the interesting and isolated culture, and the unashamedly comfortable lifestyle, create a truly unique experience for many travellers. It really is no wonder at all that Hans Christian Anderson, my favourite author and imaginer of fairy-tales, found so much inspiration here.
So, for your next European trek, why not venture into the capitals of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark? It may be cold, but it promises to be the experience of a lifetime. Stockholm, Sweden The historical city of Stockholm is not only the most populous city in the Nordic countries and therefore bustling with people and activities, but is also cheerful, modern, picturesque, and a real foodie paradise. The city stretches across 14 islands where Lake Mälaren flows into the Baltic Sea. It is an area that has been settled since the Stone Age, in the 6th millennium BC, and was founded as a city in 1252.
A good way to get a great view of the city is by walking (or renting a bicycle like many of the locals often do) from Kungsträdgården park along Södra Blasieholmskajen, down to the waterfront near the National Museum, and across the bridge to Skeppsholmen. The hopon, hop-off bus or boat tours are also popular options for sightseeing.
Stockholm’s food scene is a blend of culinary influences, and includes traditional dishes such as the ever-popular pickled herring and meatballs. Centuries of fishing in the North Seas means the Swedes have truly mastered the art of cooking seafood. Seafood plays an essential role in the locals’ diets, and ordering any fish dish off a menu comes highly recommended. Another dish that comes highly recommended is husmanskost, considered to be Sweden’s comfort food. It’s a hearty blend of potatoes and root vegetables gathered from the fields and combined with meats like reindeer and moose, seafood from the North and Baltic Seas, and Arctic herbs, wild berries, and mushrooms. Dining out in the town revolves around two main activities: lunch and fika. Fika is partially to blame for the city’s love of sweet things, and involves frequent gatherings, several times a day, for coffee breaks, complete with sugary pastries such as the Swedish take on cinnamon buns. Copenhagen, Denmark One of the cities that so effortlessly exudes the Nordic urban charm is Copenhagen, which originated as a Viking fishing village founded in the 10th century, becoming the capital of Denmark in the early 15th century.
Cycling is a way of life here, whether it is sunny, rainy, or snowy. The locals cycle everywhere, and there are more bikes than people in Copenhagen. So naturally, the best way to get around is to saddle up and take in the phenomenal scenery from the seat of a bike.
From vile Vikings to ancient castles and palaces, cobblestone streets decorated with old, colourful houses, and a sculpture of the original Little Mermaid – Copenhagen is a modern day fairy-tale, with adventure around every corner. Interesting sights include the plethora of old, charming castles (Copenhagen and its surrounding regions are home to the world’s oldest monarchy) and the Tivoli Gardens, the second-oldest operating amusement park in the world.
Visitors are not only encouraged to take home mementos, but also the practice of hygge – a cultural phenomenon which has no direct translation in the English language but could be roughly translated into calm moments for yourself and others. A key element for surviving the long, dark Danish Winters, hygge is, in a nutshell, the concept of self-care through small, yet comforting indulgences. Oslo, Norway Oslo is one of Europe’s fastest-growing cities, with a population approaching 700,000, and new neighbourhoods with eye-catching architecture popping up frequently. Oslo might just be the “hipsterville” of Scandinavia. It’s a city centred on art, history, architecture, and museums. Of course, the Munch Museum is a must-visit for art fanatics, but then there is also the Norwegian Folk Museum, one of the world’s largest and oldest openair museums with over 155 traditional houses; the Ski Museum and Tower, which is basically a landmark; The Museum of Oslo; the National Gallery; and The Kontiki Museum.
Museums aside, the city also boasts an array of “boroughs” – affluent suburbs that offer fine dining, small hidden eateries, and bustling nightlife. Nestled between the Oslofjord and hundreds of square kilometres of forested hills, Oslo offers
the best of both worlds. Live music is a big part of the city’s identity, and every year Oslo’s clubs and arenas host thousands of concerts that showcase talent ranging from local bands to international superstars.
Not only do these magical Nordic civilisations have some of the best attractions in the world, they also have an abundance of happiness. According to the 2017 World Happiness Report, Norway and Denmark come in at number one and two respectively, with Sweden coming in at number 10. So, what makes the Scandinavians the happiest people on Earth? Lifestyle practices such as their increase of cardiovascular exercises during the dark Winter months? The hygge way of life? Their contentment and sophistication? The advanced socio-economic lifestyle and the high GDP per capita?
Researchers from the University of Warwick report that the mystery surrounding Nordic – and specifically Danish – happiness has less to do with socialism and more to do with science. Andrew Oswald and Eugenio Proto think they have found the answer in DNA: “The closer a nation is to the genetic makeup of Denmark, the happier that country is.” Though this research is not widely accepted, the findings state that the Danes and other close civilizations have a particularly high prevalence of one gene variant which is associated with good moods, and a resistance to depression.
However, there are some who think the question itself favours the content, and that the entire phenomena of “happy countries” is as big a myth as Santa Claus himself. One of which is Michael Booth, author of The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, who thinks that Danes might simply have low expectations.
The bottom line is that the people of the Nordic countries seem more than content in their ways. And perhaps after a Scandinavian city-hopping adventure, you too will have embraced the hygge way of life.