The Nordic countries include Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. These countries have cold (or at least cool) winters, attracting travellers who want to practice winter sport or experience a real winter environment. While the summer is the high travel season for most of the Nordic countries, the winter offers sights and events unique to the Nordic countries during the winter. And if you are looking for cold, dark and desolate Arctic landscapes, Nordic countries are likely the most accessible place in the world for this — as compared to far northern Canada, Alaska or Siberia.
Greenland and Svalbard in the Arctic, politically associated with Denmark and Norway respectively, have snow and ice all year round. The advice here does not apply to them.
Nordic summer (late May to early September) is mild with long daylight, and the most comfortable season for visitors. The winter is a more challenging – and exotic – experience, with snow, ice and limited daylight. Nevertheless, the climate is far from uniform throughout the Nordic countries, which is no surprise as the region spans 16 degrees of latitude from southern Denmark to northern Norway (going 16 degrees south from Denmark would land you in far southern Italy).
The northern half of Sweden and Finland, as well as Norway’s mountains and Norway’s interior, are usually covered by snow from December to April, with a few year-round glaciers. Indeed, in the far north, the mercury can drop below freezing any time of the year. The first lasting snow may fall already in October or November. The northern Fennoscandian inland has average day temperatures of about -10°C (15°F) in January, and temperature records of about -50°C (-60°F). Ski resorts in the north have their peak season later, during the winter holidays in February and especially at Easter; in northern Finland the skiing season usually ends in early May – people change focus to summer activities even though there is snow left.
In the southern areas of Sweden and along the south coast of Finland, the winters are very different from each other, with knee-deep snow, slush, or bare ground all being possible. Average day temperatures are slightly below freezing in e.g. Helsinki. Oslo and its hinterland enjoy relatively stable winters and offers skiing (cross country and alpine) as well as other winter activities. Also inland Sweden at comparable latitudes and the inland of southern Finland have relatively stable winters. Even in coastal southern Finland it’s not unusual to have day temperatures around -20°C (0°F) for a week in January–February, with lowest ever recorded day temperatures below -30°C (-10°F), and there are opportunities for winter sport every winter, although the season is shorter and less predictable than farther north.
Despite their relatively northern location, Denmark, southernmost Sweden, the Faroe Islands, coastal Iceland and coastal Norway usually have a temperature above zero throughout the year and if you expect snow you may get disappointed. If snow falls at all, it usually melts away within days.
The temperatures vary a lot from year to year as well. You can get temperatures only slightly below freezing even in places like Inari in midwinter, while you might get −30 °C (−20 °F) in Helsinki 1,000 km to the south (or -40° C/F in Inari) the same dates another year. Weather forecasts are quite reliable a few days in advance, so checking them is certainly worthwhile. Periods with stable weather are quite common in the inland in winter.
In cloudy days in late autumn and midwinter there is usually little difference in temperatures between day and night. When the sun climbs higher on the sky during late winter, differences between day and night are significant, and in March-April snow often thaws during day and freezes during night. Clear sky amplifies this effect.
The mercury does not say everything about temperature. Moist air feels much colder, so -30°C in Helsinki (which is very rare) is probably worse than -40° in Kautokeino. Both are still extreme compared to weather in more densely populated countries. Wind in low temperatures is even worse, with −25 °C (−13 °F) in 10 m/s (20 knots) feeling like -40°. Coastal areas are usually windy and moist, but they seldom have extreme temperatures. In the fells and high mountains, high winds are quite common also in winter.
“ It’s 10 o’clock in the morning, turn the flash on! ”
—Al Pitcher, New Zealand comedian, residing in Sweden
The farther north, the longer daylight in summer, and shorter in winter. At 60 degrees north (around Oslo, Stockholm and Helsinki) the sun is up for 6 hours a day at the Winter Solstice on December 21–22. In the extreme north, it is below the horizon for weeks – this period is known as the polar night or locally as mørketid (literally “dark period”) or skábma/kaamos. There will however not be plain darkness for the whole 24 hours, but a few hours of twilight during midday. As in the summer when the midnight sun shines at these latitudes, it’s easy to get confused about the time of the day. Dawn and dusk last for more than an hour.
To take use of the precious daylight in winter, try to already be outdoors before the first daylight; about an hour before sunrise. Snow and ice conditions are usually best for winter sport in the morning, and most ski lifts close at sunset. For ice skating and cross-country skiing, many fields/routes in cities and at ski resorts have electric light, and for skiing in the wilderness, also moonlight (sometimes even starlight – and polar lights) can be used.
After spring equinox (March 21) days are longer in the Nordic countries than further south. The skiing season still continues in the north and in the mountains – in some mountainous areas skiing is possible even in June. The long days and often bright sunshine combined with plenty of snow offer an unusual experience.
Approximate dates for Polar night (winter darkness) by city
|City||Start darkness||End darkness||Notes|
|Bodø, Rovaniemi||n/a||n/a||No polar night|
|Svolvær, Kiruna, Levi||December 7||January 5|
|Tromsø, Karigasniemi||November 27||January 15|
|Alta, Utsjoki||November 25||January 17|
|Nordkapp||November 20||January 22|
|Svalbard||October 26||February 16|
Christmas, called jul in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, jól in Icelandic, and joulu in Finnish, is the biggest holiday of the year. As in much of the world, Christmas starts showing up in the streetscape already in November or even earlier — for instance the American Black Friday that marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season has in the 2010s become common here too. In Advent there are Christmas lights in the “Christmas street” in many towns, many shops have special Christmas displays (often really nice), most every choir gives a Christmas concert and people go on Christmas parties of their workplaces and clubs. There are Christmas markets with traditional handicraft in many towns.
December 13th is Saint Lucy’s day in Sweden and Swedish speaking Finland. In many towns there is a ceremonial coronation of a young woman chosen to be Lucia, who then “spreads light in the winter darkness” the rest of the month with candles in her hair, singing with her company e.g. at retirement homes and at many public occasions. Child Lucias perform in preschools, schools and homes.
The main Christmas holiday is Christmas Eve, Danish juleaften, Norwegian julaften, Swedish julafton, Finnish jouluaatto, Icelandic Aðfangadagur, December 24, as families gather. There are services in the churches, and many people visit graveyards and light candles on the graves. In Turku, Christmas Peace is declared at noon, broadcast on television in Finland and Sweden and with a live audience of thousands. Finns go to Christmas sauna in the afternoon as opposed to later in the evening as usual. In the evening, a traditional Christmas dinner is eaten, a bit different in each of the Nordic countries. Most establishments are closed on December 24th (at least from noon) and 25th, like most transport.
Unlike many other parts of the world, here Santa Claus comes through the door late on Christmas Eve (and at many of the Christmas parties) and personally hands out gifts. And on Iceland there isn’t just one Santa, but 13 “Yule lads” (jólasveinarnir or jólasveinar) that start arriving already halfway into December. In addition to handing out gifts (or rotten potatoes, if the kids have behaved badly during the year) they are according to tradition also up to all kinds of shenanigans including stealing stuff.
December 25th is not as burdened by tradition as in English-speaking countries. The Church of Sweden and the Evangelical Church of Finland hold a julotta, a nativity mass in the morning, with high attendance in otherwise secular countries. There are concerts in some churches in the evening. In Finland the day is otherwise spent peacefully with the family. In Sweden, the evening of Christmas Day is usually dedicated to nightlife in small towns, as the young adult emigrants celebrate homecoming.
December 26th is an official holiday, and the day for many sport events. Many families go to visit their friends for dinner or coffee.
The days from December 26th to New Year’s Eve (called romjul/mellandagarna) is vacation for many: schools are closed, and many workplaces are closed or run on reduced staff. Many retailers run a sale on Christmas shopping surplus.
While a White Christmas is a common trope associated with the Nordic countries, none of the Nordic capitals are guaranteed to have snow in late December. In Helsinki and Reykjavík it is a toss-up chance, and in Copenhagen it is rather unusual. Farther north, and up the mountains, the chance for snow is greater.
Other holidays and events
December 6th: Finland’s Independence Day.
December 10th: Nobel Day, with Nobel Prize ceremonies in Stockholm and Oslo.
December 13th: Sweden and parts of Finland celebrate Luciadagen, S:t Lucy’s Day.
December 31st: New Year’s Eve. People either celebrate New Year with family, with friends or in a restaurant. Only a few restaurants are open, and most of them require advance booking. Fireworks are arranged by many municipalities and by individual parties, so the view and sound in big cities can be impressive (beware if you have pets). Check where to get a good view of the municipal ones.
January 6th: Epiphany. National holiday in Sweden and Finland. Russia has its winter vacation around the same time, so many shops in Finland are open and resorts have a peak.
January 13th: Twentieth Day Yule, Knut’s day in Sweden and Finland. While in most traditions Christmas ends with epiphany, in Sweden and partly in Finland and Norway it lasts twenty days. Not a big holiday, but some have “looting” parties where edible Christmas decorations are consumed. Christmas is definitely over.
Shrove Tuesday: the day before lent, 40 days before Easter (i.e. February or early March). Celebrated by sledging (children and university students) and eating fastlagsbulla/semla buns (everybody). Lent itself is observed by few.
Schools are closed one week for the winter holiday during February or March (vinterferie, sportlov, hiihtoloma), with children, teenagers and families crowding ski resorts and local venues instead. Some choose to fly south. The dates vary between provinces.
Easter, Swedish påsk, Danish/Norwegian påske, Finnish pääsiäinen, icelandic páskar, is also a major holiday, with crowded ski resorts. Passions performed. Christian services; the Orthodox Easter Vigil is especially elaborate. Unless you are in the north, the conditions may not be very wintry any longer, especially if the holiday takes place in April.
Except for the Atlantic islands you can get into the Nordic countries from Central Europe overland by car, train or ferry. Flights connect most larger cities in Europe to the capitals, and there are also some charter flights to other destinations, for example the “Santa Claus” flights from the UK to Rovaniemi.
For visitors from farther away, Helsinki can be reached directly from New York City and is a major entry point from Asia. Copenhagen Airport, Stockholm Arlanda and Oslo Gardermoen are connected to various airports in North America, the Middle East and Asia and Icelandair as well as Wow Air fly from some North American airports to Keflavik International Airport. Iceland used to be the worst-connected country but in the 2010s many airlines started flying to Keflavik in order to serve short and medium distance routes on both sides of the Atlantic. Otherwise you need to transfer in some European hub — all European airports big enough to serve long-distance flights will have flights to the Nordic countries.
The connections to the Nordic countries are not much affected by the winter. Snow is swiftly removed from airfields and the Baltic ferries are built to go through ice when needed. Some air-routes may only operate seasonally, but increasingly airlines and airports want to use capacity year round and you can actually get better deals in winter in many cases – and late winter is the season for several airports in the north.
If you are from a warmer climate and arrive unprepared on an especially cold day, you may have a tough first time. Also if there is slush and you cannot get indoors soon you may have a problem. What preparations you need varies substantially between your arriving in Helsinki with a line of taxis and a train station integrated with the airport, or in Kiruna without having booked transport and having to walk a kilometre to a bigger road to hitchhike from there. Do check what you have to cope with with the clothes you bring.
What you need also depends on what you are going to do. In cities you can get along with somewhat deficient clothing by going indoors every now and then to get warm (at least in daytime), many tour operators have clothing to lend or rent, and if you have local friends they may also be able to lend you some. But if you want to enjoy the outdoors independently you will need to get adequate clothing yourself.
In any case good clothes will make your stay much more comfortable and will allow you to enjoy outdoor activities also when it is cold (including visiting Christmas markets and watching fireworks or polar lights). You will not regret bringing a cap, gloves, a good scarf, warm sweater, long underwear, coat, and boots or good shoes. With those you will probably at least get along in warmer winter weather, and if you do not have to be outdoors for longer times also when it is quite cold. For the outdoors or in cold weather you will want to upgrade as soon as possible.
If you enjoy nightlife or the outdoors, remember that a clear night usually is much colder than the day, often with a difference of 10°C (20°F) even with no general change in weather.
You can travel by road or rail, or longer distances by plane. Public transport mostly goes on all year round. A car is handy if you need to travel off the beaten track (and know how to cope with the conditions), however any town and ski resort can be accessed at least by bus. Ferries cross the Baltic Sea and connect Denmark to Sweden and Norway, and Finland to Sweden.
Snowfall and ice can occasionally and temporarily mess up all modes of transportation. As the Nordic countries are well-prepared for winter, traffic in general continues despite snowfall and ice. Some roads and some railway lines might be closed for a few hours or one or two days due to wind and snow, especially in Norway. Travellers are advised to get last-minute weather and road reports. A few roads (mountain passes) in Norway are closed from the first heavy snowfall until spring.
From January to March thick ice can disturb ferry traffic between Finland and Sweden and Estonia, although the large cruise ferries mostly keep their schedules. Minor ferries (in lakes and the archipelagos of the Baltic Sea) may be substituted by ice roads or hydrocopters or services interrupted for all winter or in bad conditions. Most of Norway’s fjords don’t freeze over, occasionally ferries in the inner part of Oslofjord are hampered by ice.
Old chronicles report anything from oxcarts to entire armies having been able to cross the frozen Baltic Sea in the winter in years past, but those events were rare even then, and occurred during a period when global average temperatures were one or even two degrees lower than today. With increasing global warming, locals have problems with winters without good ice.
Ice thick enough to carry any ordinary car does occur yearly in the Bay of Bothnia, where you for a few weeks every winter can drive between the mainland and Hailuoto across sea ice on a 9 km official ice road; at about the same latitudes, there are also ice roads between the Swedish mainland and islands in the Luleå archipelago. Official ice roads are in use yearly also on the Finnish and Swedish lakes. In the archipelagos of southern Finland ice roads are made every year, but official ice roads on sea ice are opened only in good winters, and likewise the unofficial ice roads are strong enough for larger loads only every few years. In Norway there are ice roads across some rivers. Check with locals before heading out on ice roads, at least unofficial ones, there may be less obvious dangers.
Iceland has one Ring Road that circles the island and is passable year round and almost entirely paved, but outside that and the region around Reykjavik, you get gravel roads that are a challenge even in summer. Rivers may have to be forded or you might have to drive over ice depending on the weather and the Interior of Iceland is an inhospitable mix of glacier, lava and wasteland with barely any infrastructure operating during the winter. There is a good reason why rental cars usually have limitations on what roads you can and cannot take them on. Buses also tend to have a sparser schedule during the winter low season and preparedness is all the more important if breaking down means waiting for days in miserably cold weather instead of just waiting for days for somebody to come.
Traffic is heavy around Christmas, the late February winter break vinterferie/sportlov/hiihtoloma, and Easter.
If you are going to drive back from the north, note that the sun will be low in the south all the time with daylight. That means having the sun in your eyes most of the return drive. Make sure you have good sun glasses and a clean windscreen.
Thinking of winter in the Nordic countries, you might imagine snowy scenes and in the northern half of the region you’re indeed pretty much guaranteed to see snow from December to March at least. The Nordic countries do span a very long distance from north to south, and the further south (and west) you go, the more oceanic the climate is. In southern Scandinavia there really is no permanent snow cover. Snowy surroundings give Christmas decorations and New Year’s fireworks a different feel compared to a snowless environment.
In addition to snow, ice is another attraction caused by sub-freezing temperatures. When lakes and (later in the winter) the sea have frozen over, it can be quite an experience being able to “walk on water”. Nevertheless see the ice safety article if you want to do more than just looking at it from land — the bay being spotted with ice fishers does not guarantee the ice will carry you!
Cold night temperatures usually mean high barometric pressure and clear skies — fantastic for stargazing (if you get out from the light pollution of the towns). North of the Arctic circle you can experience the polar night in midwinter and even in Denmark there are probably longer nights than you are used to. At the latitude of Helsinki, Stockholm and Oslo the night will last for 16 hours in mid-winter. In the cities stars are faint because of the lights, but in minor towns you do not have to walk far for an amazing view.
In addition to the stars, in the northernmost part of the countries, northern lights (Aurora Borealis) appear regularly. In the south they occur more seldom, are fainter and are usually masked by light pollution. In northern Lapland and Finnmark northern lights occur every other night on average in season (with the chance to actually see them somewhat lower) and many businesses arrange tours to watch them. There are even accommodations built for northern light watching at some locations. Some tricks, like being out at the right hours, increase your chances of seeing them.
There are also some spectator sports going on during the wintertime, including ice hockey, figure skating, ski races, ski jumping etc. If you happen to visit at the right times, why not go see a sports game or event you might not be able to see live at home?
Some individual attractions are either only open in the winter or at their best in the winter. In the Nordic countries you can find two Santa theme parks; the Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi and Tomteland in Mora (and according to Danish tradition Santa lives in Greenland). If you travel around middle Sweden around Christmas, you may want to check out the straw goat in Gävle, that is, unless it has been burned down which sadly is the case all too often. In the far north, there are snow and ice hotels which certainly are attractions in themselves even if you don’t stay overnight.
Outdoor activities are limited by daylight and snow cover, as well as deep frost, but snow and ice enable winter sports and ski touring, and the darkness allows magical experiences of travelling in the wilderness under thousands of stars, with polar lights dancing in the sky. Hiking is much more demanding than in the summer, especially in midwinter, and longer hikes require the use of skis. It is however easy to find guides who are used to people for which this is a new experience. If you have acquaintances, many know how to enjoy wintry weather and can give you some nice experiences.
In the interior, in the very north and particularly in the uplands, snow cover persist through April and in the high mountains well into June. In areas with deep snow hiking can be particularly difficult during the late spring and early summer melt season. Winter hiking by foot may be possible in areas with no or very little snow. Snowshoe hiking is an option but is not widespread in the Nordic countries and is best for shorter hikes in forest areas – most Nordic hikers use cross-country skis instead (more on that below).
You don’t need to get out into the wilderness, it can be fun to experience cities and towns covered in snow if you come from a place that doesn’t see snow that often. There are plenty of ice skating fields in many cities, both for ice hockey and free form skating, some with equipment for rent. In the countryside there may be a ploughed area on a lake. Open ice long-distance skating is possible in some areas, depending on ice and snow conditions, with a few routes ploughed (cf Vikingarännet in Sweden). Especially in the countryside, ice fishing is a common pastime. In Finland it is included in the right to access in most waters, when practised with the typical equipment.
Make snow sculptures. This is easiest with new snow at only somewhat below freezing (big flakes, which stick together easily), but with some help from water and suitable equipment it is possible also when it is cold. There are competitions arranged in some towns, and you might see a lot of snowmen regardless.
Organized activities in the northern parts of the Nordic countries include husky and snowmobile safaris, which are arranged all over Lapland and Finnmark, in some places you can also ride behind a reindeer. Speaking of reindeer, the Christmas themed theme park Santa Park and the Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi (Finland) are popular in the winter. One interesting experience in Kemi is going on an icebreaker cruise, which then allows passengers to disembark on the ice in the middle of the Bay of Bothnia.
If you want to experience the silence and darkness in earnest, rent a cottage away from cities and bigger roads, at a suitable distance from the nearest village and neighbours. As many summer cottages were built as homes or otherwise for year-round use, there are bargains to be found in many regions, at least if you can handle a more primitive one. Make sure outdoor lights can be switched off (or do not interfere too much with stargazing), and have a kerosene lamp and candles for more cosy lighting in the evening, and a lantern with a candle for a walk in the nightly forest. If you prefer organized adventures, there are loads of businesses arranging kinda similar experiences with controlled levels of exoticness. If you on the other hand like the extreme (and can handle it) choose a cottage where you have to ski in with everything you need, with wood stove for heat and for making food, outhouse, and a sauna for getting clean (and a hole in the ice for swimming).
Many locals like to spend dark evenings at home, with candle light and general cosiness. Many go to their cottage in weekends as described above, with skis, skates, sleighs and ice fishing equipment for activities.
Ice swimming (vinterbad, avantouinti) is quite popular at least in Finland, with clubs in many towns and holes in the ice at many cottages.
Downhill sports and cross country skiing
The very word “ski” is of Nordic origin and so it should not surprise that Sweden, Norway and Finland have many options for all sorts of skiing. Sweden, Finland and Norway’s eastern interior offer stable, cold weather during winter. Norway’s Atlantic side has less stable temperatures, but often sees heavy snowfall in short periods, notable in Troms county and Western Norway. Alpine ski resorts like Myrkdalen (Voss), Stranda, Røldal and Sogndal often have deep snow. Norway alone has more than 200 alpine ski resorts throughout most of the country. Nordic mountains do not reach the altitudes of the Alps or the Rocky mountains, but the cooler climate means that slopes and trails can be at lower altitudes. In Norway in particular there are alpine slopes close to or within major cities like Oslo, Tromsø and Trondheim.
The ski resorts open when temperatures start staying below freezing. Unless there is enough precipitation, some ski resorts use artificial snow. In the northern resorts, the winter sports season keeps on well into May. With warmer air, longer daylight and piles of snow, the late season might be more gratifying than December or January. Norway’s mountains and interior have a large number of ski resorts operating from November/December until late April, like northern parts of Finland. A small number of ski resorts (Stryn, Folgefonna, Galdhøpiggen) offer the unusual summer-skiing. Many ski resorts offer all kinds of other activities, like husky safaris, polar light viewing and ice fishing. Most are quite relaxed and family friendly.
There are smaller hills offering downhill skiing (and minor ski resorts) scattered all around the countries. While not necessarily worthwhile as destinations themselves, they can offer some downhill skiing at or close to a city destination. Hills suitable for children’s sledding are everywhere.
In addition to downhill snowsports, especially Alpine and Nordic downhill skiing and snowboarding, most ski resorts and many towns and villages have good opportunities for cross country skiing. Snowshoes are not used traditionally, but nowadays short snowshoe hikes are offered at some places. Skis are much faster once you have got used to them.
Cross country skiing includes skiing with light equipment on groomed tracks as well as ski touring in the deep wilderness. There are groomed tracks for cross country skiing around ski resorts, at many hiking destinations and in and near most big cities and many smaller towns and villages, often with artificial light to facilitate skiing in dark winter evenings (“lysløype”). These often have both tracks and a lane for free style skiing. Oslo has a particularly extensive network of tracks inside the city. If you are going to ski in less urban environments, have enough clothes for breaks (planned and unplanned) and make sure not to get lost.
There are large networks of tracks and wilderness huts, facilitating tours of several days, but venturing out on one’s own requires solid skills, as conditions can change en route. Guided tours, also of several days, are available in many areas. Skiing under the stars without light pollution, possibly with northern lights dancing in the sky, is an unforgettable experience.
While Denmark is nearly flat and Finnish mountains are rather modest, the tallest Nordic mountains are in Norway, and at the Swedish-Norwegian border.
Some major Finnish ski resorts (from south to north, most in Northern Finland):
Himos (Central Finland). 13 pistes
Tahko. 24 pistes
Vuokatti. Also features a skiing and snowboarding tunnel, so wintersports are possible year-round.
Iso-Syöte. 26 pistes, next to Syöte National Park.
Ruka. Among the country’s bigger ski resorts with 34 pistes and over 500 km of cross-country skiing tracks.
Pyhä. Features a 1020 m piste; near Luosto and Pyhä-Luosto National Park.
Luosto. Near Pyhä and Pyhä-Luosto National Park.
Ylläs/Äkäs. Two ski resorts with 63 pistes combined, including Ylipitkä and Jättipitkä which both have a length of 3000 m; near Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park.
Levi. 43 pistes, 1000 km of different tracks and 600,000 visitors every season, it’s Finland’s biggest ski resort and the only one to feature FIS Alpine Ski World Cup event every November; quite near Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park.
Saariselkä. More suitable for cross-country skiing though alpine skiing is also available, doubles as a popular destination to view the Northern Lights; by Urho Kekkonen National Park.
Some major Swedish ski resorts (from south to north):
Järvsö (Gävleborg county). 20 pistes, 8 lifts
Sälen (Dalarna). 37 pistes, also known as Kläppen, popular due to its relatively southern location.
Vemdalen (Härjedalen). The busiest ski resort in Härjedalen.
Storlien (Jämtland). 23 pistes, near the Norwegian border. The Royal family has a house here.
Åre (Jämtland). Huge ski resort with 89 pistes, the longest of which is 6,5 km, also featuring a FIS Alpine Ski World Cup event.
Hemavan (Västerbotten County). 47 pistes together with next door Tärnaby, heliskiing is also an option here; by the large Vindelfjällen nature reserve.
Abisko (Norrbotten County). A cross-country skiing destination, also a good place to see the Northern Lights.
Riksgränsen (Norrbotten County). 11 pistes, but best known for offpiste skiing, and the skiing season reaches until the end of June.
The most important alpine skiing resorts in Norway (per 2017, from south to north):
Hovden. Best free-style.
Røldal. Lots of snow and very good off-piste, open until May.
Norefjell. 1952 olympic venue, limited off-piste.
Oslo. Freeski park.
Hemsedal (Buskerud). All options in a high valley, stable winter.
Trysil (Hedmark). Variety of alpine slopes, well suited for families, Norway’s largest winter resort.
Geilo. Perfect for cross-country skiing and for families, limited off-piste options.
Voss. Offers everything, more unstable temperatures than the eastern interior.
Myrkdalen (near Voss). Lots of snow and fine off-piste.
Beitostølen. Opens early November.
Hafjell (Lillehammer). Few off-piste options.
Kvitfjell. Demanding Olympic downhill slope.
Stranda. Above the great fjord near Geiranger/Valldal, great off-piste, deep snow.
Oppdal. All options in a high valley, somewhat dated facilities.
Narvik. Wild mountains directly on fjord, limited offers for families and cross-country skiers.
Lillehammer offers excellent cross-country in addition to Hafjell near the city. Tromsø. has some mediocre alpine facilities, but superb mountainous hinterland.
At Folgefonna, Stryn and Juvasshytta (Jotunheimen) Norway also has ski resorts that are open in summer only.
Although skiing isn’t what Iceland is best known for, you can find ski resorts there too (though not as big as elsewhere in the Nordic countries). Bláfjöll and Skálafell are southwest and east of Reykjavik, and the major concentration of ski resorts are in North Iceland around Akureyri.
Many towns have Christmas fairs, often with local handicraft and food from small producers (bread, jam etc.). As in other Western countries, there are big sales usually from Boxing Day (some stores start even a few days before Christmas) and into January. In south-eastern Finland these sales are traditionally popular among Russian visitors (who hand out presents at New Year).
The Nordic countries are rather expensive destinations for shopping. Nevertheless, you will find a good selection of appropriate winter clothing and gear for winter activities, so if you plan to visit cold climates in the future but have a problem finding such stuff at home and find purchasing them online impractical, this is a good opportunity for getting them. Also, winter clothing and other gear are often sold at a discount at the end of the season, and some equipment cheaply even in season in second-hand charity shops (Emmaus, The Salvation Army, UFF etc.).
Eat and drink
The first seasonal specialty during the winter are the S-shaped saffron buns known as lussekatt(er). Lucia day is celebrated on December 13th in Sweden and Finland, and this day is associated with these buns. Just before Christmas, Þorláksmessa is celebrated in Iceland, during which cured skate is eaten.
Christmas food is the most traditional part of Nordic cuisine. The Swedish julbord is a Christmas buffet, as a variant of the well-known smörgåsbord. Norwegian Christmas traditions (including pre-Christmas parties – “julebord”) varies by region, and variation covers sheep (several varieties), pork, fresh cod and lutefisk (“lye fish”). In Finland you can commonly find Christmas ham (as in Sweden), herring, lye fish and different casseroles (most notably made of potatoes, carrots and Swedish turnips). And in Denmark; stuffed duck, roast pork, caramelized potatoes and sweet and sour red cabbage. The traditional Icelandic Christmas fare is somewhat different from the other Nordic countries including smoked lamb and a range of game birds.
Across the Nordic Countries, Christmas buffets are served on many different kinds restaurants. On one end there are the more affordable Christmas buffets of roadside diners, on the other hand more formal and expensive Christmas dinners that need to be reserved beforehand.
Coffee keeps Nordic people’s mood and body temperature up through winter. The German Glühwein is known glögg/glögi/gløgg and quite popular. It’s usually served warm (can be cold too) and may or may not contain alcohol. There are also special “Christmas” soft drinks for sale in supermarkets, the most iconic being the Swedish julmust (available as påskmust during the Easter season).
The New Year is commonly celebrated with a glass of sparkling wine like in much of the world. Many Finns eat potato salad accompanied by thin sausages (nakki/knackkorv or prinssimakkara/prinskorv) at New Year. Around this time of the year you start finding Runeberg tortes in Finnish shops and cafés. This pastry was presumably invented by Frederika Runeberg, the wife of the 19th century poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg, and they are traditionally eaten on 5 February, his birthday.
During January and February, Þorri season is celebrated in Iceland, and this means high season for some traditional Icelandic dishes (collectively known as þorramatur ) like hákarl (putrefied shark cubes), sviðasulta (brawn [head cheese] made from svið, sheep’s head), lundabaggi (Sheep’s fat) and hrútspungar (pickled ram’s testicles).
A Shrovetide (just before Lent begins) delicacy in this part of the world is a bun filled with at least whipped cream but usually also jam or almond paste. It’s known as fastelavnsbolle in Danish and Norwegian, semla in Sweden, fastlagsbulle in Finland Swedish and laskiaispulla in Finnish.
There are hotels built out of snow and ice in Jukkasjärvi (Sweden), Kemi and Kittilä (Finland) and Kirkenes (Norway). Even if you do not decide to sleep there, they are interesting sights.
Several countryside hotels have holiday packages, and since most venues are closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, they are probably the most exciting place to spend the Christmas holiday for foreigners in the Nordic countries.
Winter camping is the most adventurous option. It requires advanced equipment or advanced skills. There should be wilderness guides with the needed equipment and skill in most regions – probably not cheaper than the hotel, but you get the adventure.
A less extreme adventure is renting a cottage, with a stove for heat, a well for the water, a sauna, a hole in the ice and an outhouse toilet. You could of course get a cottage with electricity and a modern bathroom, if you prefer comfort over adventure – you would still get wintry landscapes away from city life.
All normal options are of course still available.
Crime is less of a risk than in much of the rest of the world. Scandinavians are heavy holiday drinkers, so do stay out of drunken brawls.
Nature and weather, on the other hand, pose greater risks. These are to be taken seriously especially when venturing away from towns for activities such as backcountry or off-piste skiing. Dangers include the cold itself, snow storms and avalanches. There are also risks with winter sports themselves, mostly from high speeds.
Staying warm is a common concern for winter visitors. In cities, cold air is more of a nuisance – for those not properly dressed – than a real danger, as you can get warm by going indoors. Proper clothing is however important for your enjoying your stay and for your not catching the flue. And carefully watching your children and others who are vulnerable is important; babies will not use energy on alarming you, and even quite big children might not recognize the feeling of cold or react sensibly on it.
For ordinary activities, such as strolls downtown, a big jacket (like warm parka or overcoat) is often most practical. Hood (or good headwear), mittens and scarf may also be needed. Indoor is generally well heated all year, usually to 18–24°C, and you have to take off winter clothes not to get uncomfortably warm; good winter underwear is thus often awkward in city settings (but light trousers alone are not enough even at freezing). Some cottages are heated to the same standard, but others are not; for a cottage weekend, check or have warm clothes also for indoor use.
Look out for situations where you cannot get indoors: when the nightclub closes there is nowhere to go but to your lodging, and all taxis may be busy. Similarly, if you get lost on your walk, you may have to be outdoor much longer than you planned. If you feel the situation is deteriorating, do get help in time (on a cold night frostbite can happen, and a lone drunk person is in lethal danger).
Snow itself is a good insulator, but when snow melts on your clothes, the water replaces insulating air pockets. This is a major concern when temperatures are around freezing and when going in and back out in snowy weather. Waterproof boots are needed in temperatures around freezing (0°C, 32°F) and when deep snow is melting and transforming into slush in above freezing temperatures.
For intense outdoor activity layering is important: many layers of clothing keeps you warmer and makes adjusting clothing easier. Too much clothes accumulates sweat. During intense activities such as running, walking swiftly uphill or cross-country skiing, surprisingly little clothing is needed even in quite cold winter days. Keeping toes, head, ears, fingers, and neck warm is most important – and at breaks you need something warmer such as a big parka or down jacket. For intense cold a quilted (down) vest can be useful, wear it under a wide anorak or on top of light sports clothes during breaks.
During prolonged outdoor activity frostbite may occur on unprotected skin and toes. In temperatures below -25°C (-15°F) this is a risk to take seriously, particularly with wind chill. At -15°C (+5°F) frostbite is unlikely, although possible in some situations, especially with wind chill. Downhill skiing and snow mobile driving create notable wind chill by themselves; 50 km/h corresponds to a fresh gale, which effectively turns -15°C into -30°C. Dress accordingly.
Hypothermia can occur also above 0°C because of wind, wet snow or rain, and is a risk factor particularly during backcountry skiing and activities on frozen lakes, such as ice fishing. Most people would go indoors before getting too cold, but if you are far from any house, get lost or have to wait for transport that is not always an option.