What Exactly is Scandinavia?

When you hear the term “Scandinavia,” what comes to mind? Do you get images of Ragnar and Bjorn Lothbrook from the hit show “Vikings”? Or do you think about the Northern Lights, chilly weather, and epic fjords? However you picture it, there’s one thing for sure: “Scandinavia” is a bit of a catch-all term. So what exactly does “Scandinavia” mean?

What is Scandinavia?

Aerial view of mountain cottage and natural landscape in Norway, Scandinavia
Credit: Dreamnord/ Shutterstock

Is it a what or a where? Depending on who you talk to, this distinction is important. Let’s break it down both ways. Geographically, Scandinavia references Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. These latter two countries lie on the Scandinavian peninsula, the large swath of land in northern Europe that stretches all the way to the Arctic Circle. Norway and Sweden also share shortened winter days, with limited exposure to daylight.

Technically, Greenland and the Faroe Islands also fall under this geographic classification because they are Danish territories. But when we drill down, things get more complicated. You might be tempted to lump Finland and Iceland into Scandinavia, but you would be wrong. These two nations are not officially considered Scandinavian, but rather Nordic.

Wait, What’s the Difference Between Scandinavian and Nordic?

The village of Reine, Lofoten, Norway
Credit: IM_photo/ Shutterstock

To an outsider, it can sound like semantics. But in Europe, your location means a lot and can be a point of contention. While Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden are all Nordic countries, Finland and Iceland aren’t Scandinavian. This peculiar distinction is due to location: Iceland of course doesn’t geographically sit on the Scandinavian peninsula, and only part of Finland does.

To add another layer to this distinction, linguistically, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish are more closely linked as opposed to Finnish and Icelandic. Officially, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish all have a word known as “scandinavien” that references their shared heritage with the Norsemen.

But when we look at the term “Nordic,” all types of countries and cultures get through into the mix — including various places in Northern Europe, including Britain. If we haven’t overwhelmed you yet, it’s important to note that there is a Nordic Council. While not as comprehensive and binding as the European Union, the Nordic Council features elected delegates and is important politically. In truth, you can see Nordic influences in the United Kingdom in areas such as Shetland and Orkney.

How Did the Term “Scandinavia” Come to Be?

Aerial view of Stockholm, Sweden
Credit: Andrey Shcherbukhin/ Shutterstock 

Norway and Sweden were one kingdom until 1814, and they were known as Scania or Skåne. But more commonly, “Scandinavian” references a culture that is shared between the three countries. Because of clear linguistic differences, it is not accurate to lump Finland or Iceland in with Scandinavia.

What Makes the Scandinavian Countries Unique?

Waterfall into the ocean off of Faroe Islands in Denmark
Credit: Dmitry Pistrov/ Shutterstock

While the three nations do share cultural and linguistic commonalities, they are not a carbon copy of each other. In particular, Denmark is the home of “hygge” or comfort. A visit to the country isn’t complete without a cozy moment in front of a fire with your favorite beverage. Meanwhile, the nation is also home to a variety of groundbreaking chefs thanks to Copenhagen's metropolitan and modern Nordic foodie vibes.

Nature lovers will appreciate Norway’s untouched fjords and chances to get up close and personal with various wildlife — including whales. But if you’re looking for high-intensity activities, try your hand at skiing or hiking a glacier. Keep in mind that the city of Oslo was home to the Winter Olympics, so there are plenty of professional-grade ski runs for you to attempt.

Sweden is known for its quirky hotels, including those of the ice variety. But not to be outdone by Norway, Sweden is also known for its natural wonders. Immerse yourself in the wildlife with a scenic hike. And if you time your trip just right, you can catch an epic viewing of the Northern Lights — also known as the Aurora Borealis — during the winter season.

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