I started putting this list together a very long time ago and always end up adding a new town or city whenever I go back to Scandinavia.
We all know it can be cold and often dark in this region but these colourful places really transform and lift the whole landscape. The first time I really started to appreciate the use of colour so far north was in 2012 during a visit to the art nouveau town of Ålesund whilst working for Scandinavia Only, followed by Reykjavik in 2013 and the list carries on.
As well as highlighting the vibrancy of Scandinavia, hopefully this list will introduce you to some of the lesser known places away from the capital cities.
I have included places from across the whole of Scandinavia – Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands – and listed each place under the country they belong. I’d just like to say I’ve been to all the places I’ve listed apart from Greenland but wanted to include it because I’m dying to go and fantasise about visiting so much I sometimes think I’ve been but have to remind myself that it was but a dream. Alas!
I’ve never fallen so fast for a place. As soon as I stepped out of the airport and breathed in the cool crisp air of Longyearbyen, that was it. I was in love. One of the world’s most northerly towns happens to also be one of the most colourful. Taking the sting out of harsh winters you’ll discover a surprising amount of brightly painted houses and buildings to break up a landscape devoid of trees and little greenery. A splash of colour adds warmth to an archipelago that’s 60% covered by glacier and a known stomping ground for Polar bears.
Norway’s 3rd largest city has a vibrant café culture, and the best way to enjoy it is by parking up at Bakklandet, Trondheim’s colourful old quarter that lies on the eastern side of the Nidelva River. The streets are packed with history, which is what you would expect from a city that used to be the former ancient capital city of Norway. No visit to Trondheim is complete without taking a look inside the imposing Nidaros Cathedral, the northernmost medieval cathedral in the world.
This is another one of those high Arctic towns (in fact it’s the northernmost town of mainland Europe) that needs a splash of colour when the weather gets harsh in winter. With its harbour and eye-popping buildings, it’s one of the most charming places I’ve been. But who doesn’t love the setting of a tiny fishing village surrounded by fjord views and snow-capped mountains?
Not only is Ålesund in Norway one of the most colourful towns I’ve ever visited, but it’s also the prettiest. Just look at it! The combination of art nouveau buildings sitting harmoniously alongside the fjord carries the grace of a stained glass window. To get this panoramic view of the town and the Sunnmøre Alps you must walk the 418 steps from the town park to viewpoint Aksla.
Norway’s second largest city is everything people think of when they’re asked to conjure up quintessential images of Norway. Bryggen is the name given to the old wharf and wooden-clad boat houses that go back as far as the 12th century. Today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and features some of Bergen’s best-known restaurants, shops and bars. You’re no allowed to leave until you try the mussels, or any seafood of that matter.
After hearing so many stories from my friends about this small village surrounded by indescribable scenery, it had begun to take on a mythological presence in my imagination. That’s why I had to visit for myself whilst travelling between Oslo, Flam and Bergen. As I approached Balestrand, the brightly painted houses came into view and it looked just how I had imagined it to be – dwarfed by enormous mountains coated in glacial remnants. My friends were right, Balestrand is beyond beautiful.
Either walk along the harbour and take in the vividly bright wharf buildings or hop on the cable car up to the top of Mount Storsteinen for breathtaking panoramic views overlooking Tromsø at 420 meters (1,380 ft) above sea level. At this lofty height you’ll realise just how vibrant the city is as the buildings form a landscape of multicoloured dots.
© Thomas Rasmus Skaug / visitnorway.com
Everyone who visits Røros will say how special this town feels. It has retained much of its original character and is often described as an open-air museum of Norwegian traditions. The street pattern and farming properties in the centre of town are the same as were originally constructed in the 1600’s. Due to its authentic wooden buildings (some complete with turf-roofs!) and unique character of an early mining town, Røros was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1980.
Stavanger mixes old and new, with traditional wooden buildings home to fashionable boutique shops. Although the city is most famous as the gateway to Pulpit Rock, there’s plenty of stuff to keep you busy in the town itself. Don’t miss the Petroleum Museum, which is located in the harbour and provides deeper insight into an industry which until very recently was Stavanger’s main source of income.
The town of Henningsvær located on the Lofoten Islands is full of character and charm with old wharf buildings, brightly painted and battered by the harsh elements. With the addition of a few craft shops, galleries and more unusual architecture, there’s a touch of bohemia about the place – and an olde-worlde feeling. The drive to get into town is one of the best drives on the island (hopefully the weather is clear) as the road swoops low beside the sea. When we began exploring it seemed like we were the only tourists here; in fact, the whole town appeared deserted which gave it a strange, Twin Peaks vibe.
You don’t have to walk far to get an idea of how colourful Copenhagen is, but for the biggest splashes of colour head over to Nyhvan, a 17th-Century waterfront filled to the brim with cafes, restaurants and boats. It does get busy there so if you’re looking to escape the crowds and see a different side to Copenhagen, cross over the bridge and visit Freetown Christiania, known commonly as a hippy commune filled with vibrant houses and wall murals.
The main sight is the gigantic Kronborg Slot, made famous as Elsinore Castle in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but for me, the colourful medieval character, best appreciated by strolling through the narrow cobbled streets between the harbour and the bustling centre is what I enjoyed the most. It’s also ideally situated to catch the 30-minute ferry ride to Helsingborg in South Sweden which I highly recommend.
The birthplace of the world’s most well-loved writer of fairy-tales, Hans Christian Andersen, just had to be included in this list. Whimsical, colourful and quaint – Odense served as the backdrop to H.C. Andersen until he was 14 when his undying passion for acting and theatre moved him to Copenhagen to join the Royal Danish Theatre.
Stockholm’s old town, Gamla Stan is certainly a sight for sore eyes, here the Swedish royal family’s palace, Stockholm Cathedral and the Nobel Museum are all within a few minutes walk of each other. However, what I really, really, really love about Stockholm is its underground art exhibition spanning over 90 of Stockholm’s 100 underground stations.
During the summer, holiday goers and locals alike flock to Western Harbour to relax on the boardwalk and take in the glistening views of the Oresund. To see Malmö at its prettiest explore the old town with its cobbled streets, colourful houses and leafy parks. It’s cool to know that you’re only a 25-minute train ride away from Copenhagen too.
Lund is a charming city that could be seen as the Oxford of Sweden with its prestigious university and medieval appearance. Everything is within easy reach – the cathedral, university, museums, cafes, pubs, and the botanical gardens are all located within walking distance from the city centre.
I’d never seen houses that look so cute anywhere before. The small ones are called street houses, they’re one up and one down with a small kitchen, and those are the ones I couldn’t tear my eyes away from. Not a single flower out of place, unclipped bush, or façade that needed a new lick of paint, everything had been carefully attended to in spite of feeling like there was nobody around to do it. Ystad is the perfect day trip from Malmö or Lund.
Climb to the top of Hallgrímskirkja Church for epically photogenic views of Iceland’s capital city, and when you reach the top the 360 degree views are really spectacular. By foot the city gets even more fresh and jazzy as you are sure to stumble across street art and full length murals adorning many, many buildings.
The black beach town of Vik is the most beautiful town in the whole of Iceland. Located along the country’s southern shore, Vik is a great base from which to explore many of Iceland’s most famed attractions including Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and Vatnajökull National Park. Before leaving, make sure you head up to the little church at the top of the hill for stunning panoramic views of the town, as well as the unique rock stacks jutting of from the sea.
Iceland’s largest town outside of the Reykjavik area is dubbed the ‘capital of the North’ and is home to a modest 14,000 residents. On the edge of a fjord, Akureyri has a handful of decent restaurants, cafés, shops and museums. Akureyri is also North Iceland’s tourist hub, with the best selection of hotels and tour companies offering day tours and adventure trips of the surrounding area. The city’s most striking landmark (like Reykjavik) is its cathedral which sits on top a set of steep steps, from where you can enjoy great views across the colourful town and fjord.
Torshavn acts as the capital of the Faroe Islands, and with a large harbour it’s also the main point of contact with the rest of the world. If you’ve been to Copenhagen, it’s exactly like a mini version of the Nyhavn with its brightly painted townhouses and boat-lined harbour. It might be small but it has a surprising number of excellent cafes and restaurants to keep you fuelled for all the sightseeing you’ll inevitably be doing on a trip to the Faroes.
Situated on the island of Sandoy on the Faroe Islands, surround by stunning green vistas, you find the teeny tiny village of Dalur, the prettiest village in the Faroes (in my humble opinion). Located south on Sandoy you need to get here by car via the ferry which crosses several times a day. They say the route to the destination IS the adventure, and this proves true as you crawl up a narrow winding cliff overlooking the ocean to reach here, hoping another car isn’t coming towards you!
A nice day-trip from Helsinki is the town of Porvoo. Perhaps the most picturesque town in Finland, it’s worth visiting to admire the colourful wooden houses and stroll on the winding cobbled streets that offer restaurants and cafes to enjoy Finnish cuisine, crafts and small boutiques. For more insight into Finnish food, read my earlier post.
Rauma, located about 90 km North of Turku, is best known for its old town, or Old Rauma which it is most popularly known as. Its distinct local dialect and its high-quality lace gives this town a lovely local feel. Dating back to the 14th century, it is one of the oldest towns in Finland and is like stepping into a fairy tale: the colourful wooden houses, decorative gates and cobble stone streets create an atmosphere of the long-forgotten past.
© Elia Locardi / Visit Greenland
Nuuk has a population of just over 17,000, making it one of the world’s smallest capitals. For a long time Nuuk’s architecture was, and still is in areas, rather grey and unimaginative, focusing on function over aesthetics. But like a pendulum, a desire for colour once again is being introduced to energise the landscape of the town. Visitors will also see several huge wall murals to splash some vibrancy upon Nuuk’s Soviet-style apartment blocks.
© Mads Pihl / Visit Greenland
The capital of South Greenland is located on the coast with large commitments to the fishing industry. A dramatic approach from water captures the bay lined with shrimp boats and traditional wooden homes painted in blues, reds, yellows and greens, spread across the hilly slopes. You can do lots of activities from here like kayaking, guided hiking, whale watching and if you want to relax locally, there are a few hot springs to take a dip inside.
© Mads Pihl / Visit Greenland
If there’s one place I’m dying to visiting the most in Greenland, it’s Ilulissat. Every time I look at a photo of this place I get knocked out by wanderlust. Greenland’s 3rd largest town is popular on the tourist route due to it’s picturesque location dwarfed by mammoth icebergs, so beautiful you’ll probably never want to close your curtains or put your camera away for more than two seconds.
P.S. You might have noticed that I technically included some villages in this list but I didn’t want the title to sound too long and wordy so I hope you’ll look past that intentional discrepancy!
Have you been to any of these places in Scandinavia?
Source: The Culture Map