Such is the new-you power of the Nordics, even a short Scandinavian city break will see you transformed: cardamom bun in one hand, bike handlebar in the other. Before you can say ‘Arne Jacobsen’, you’ll have bought a new home’s worth of designer furnishings, plus Ganni and Malene Birger pieces to pack into the new wardrobe. And suddenly, somehow, you’re several inches taller and blonde.
OK, we can’t guarantee that last bit, but here we’ve sussed out the must-see sights and must-browse boutiques beyond the tourist tick-list, from Stockholm to Reykjavik, plus the luxury stays to ensure you have the best of Scandinavian weekend breaks.
A hotbed of contemporary art and couldn’t-be-cooler style, Denmark’s officially happy capital demands some serious window-shopping (and kroner-dropping). When you’ve waved to the Little Mermaid statue, ‘whee’-ed your way around Tivoli Gardens’ rides, and your arms are aching under the weight of well-stuffed totes, here’s where to hit next.
A confection of colourful historic townhouses lining a lantern-lit canal, Nyhavn has a fairy-tale feel even before you find out Hans Christian Andersen lived at number 20. It’s a popular hang-out spot today, with locals and tourists alike, so pick a waterfront café and spin a few yarns of your own over a slice of coconut-laden dream cake.
Danish Design Museum
Architecture buffs and decor fiends, feast your eyes and find wishlist inspo at the Danish Design Museum. Perfectly at home in an – antique outdoors, modern within – building designed by Ivar Bentsen and Kaare Klint, the museum’s permanent collection includes pieces by Arne Jacobsen, Poul Henningsen and Jacob Jensen. There’s a roster of timely temporary exhibitions, but the museum’s sci-fi-esque corridor lined with iconic chairs is the stand-out star.
Cofoco – that’s the Copenhagen Food Collective to the uninitiated – has spearheaded the city’s casual culinary scene, with 16 restaurants and two hotels across the city. Options range from a French brasserie to nonna-approved trattorias, but New Nordic is where the group excels. Case in point: Vaekst, in the vibrant Latin Quarter. Keeping step with its quirky surroundings, there are hanging plants and festoon lights enough to please the most avid Instagrammer, and a greenhouse makes a two-storey-spanning centrepiece. This isn’t simply green-thumbed set-dressing, though – the lunch and dinner menus are packed with fresh Scandi produce, crafted into elegant and inventive dishes. Plus, the collective is powered by its own solar farm, so don’t be too surprised if a halo appears above your head as you tuck in.
Forgot to book 19 years in advance for Noma’s last hurrah? No worries. Copenhagen’s culinary scene is a constellation of Michelin stars and trailblazing talents. Take Ark, for example, a fully plant-based fine-dining restaurant and the first vegan eatery in the Nordics to score a green Michelin star for its sustainable practices. On the multi-course menus, ethical Danish produce and foraged delicacies are spun into plates of prismatic colour that’ll win over the most devoted carnivore. And its responsibly sourced interiors rack up further eco brownie points.
A city’s best watering holes tend to fall into two categories – radar-evading local secrets, and places raved about for a reason. Old-town gem Ruby falls into the latter category, serving up award-winning cocktails from a prime canalside spot. Plush armchairs, pendant lights and polished Scandi furnishings give the storied townhouse an air of an impeccably designed pied-à-terre. And the seasonal cocktail menu is just as sophisticated, with a Rémy Martin-splashed old fashioned here, and a yuzu- and saffron-infused negroni there.
Ruby’s rebellious little sister Lidkoeb calls up-till-late ‘hood Vesterbro home. Inside this historic pharmacy turned hip hangout, mixologists prescribe the city’s cool kids an endlessly inventive menu of elixirs – packed with fresh-pressed apples, honey and ginger, the signature Five Finger Death Punch is almost medicinal. Need something stronger? Slink up to the top floor and you’ll find a dedicated whisky bar, all dark leather and dim lanterns, where the team of connoisseurs will walk you through a collection of more than 200 labels.
Or sink into the smoke haze at Café Intime, a classic Copenhagen bodega in Frederiksberg, where the candlelight is low, art nouveau lamps look like they might’ve hung there since the Twenties, and each night local musicians grace the grand piano.
Among Vesterbro’s edgy galleries and artisanal coffee shops, the striped bistro awning flutters alluringly; beyond that, a leafy courtyard bar beckons – with a wine collection 150 labels strong. Is that a Parisian accent we detect deep in Denmark’s coolest neighbourhood? Coco Hotel’s gallic flair has already cemented it as a favourite stay of the fashion-week crowd. But, put down the Gauloise and step away from the beret – the hotel’s bold design and bikes to borrow are decidedly Danish. But if you only have a weekend, where’s the harm in double-dosing two of the Continent’s most cosmopolitan cities?
Design fans, prepare to fall in love with the Darling. These two self-contained apartments, in the heart of Copenhagen’s old town, have been spectacularly styled by the taste-making duo behind Dansk Magazine and Darling Creative Studio. In each residence, you’ll find iconic Danish statement pieces worthy of all the terms of endearment – get very cosy on a Hans Wegner chair, then pen a declaration of your feelings at a Finn Juhl desk; come bedtime, pillow talk is backed up by bespoke Helene Blanche wallpaper. Almost everything is available to buy, but personal touches – fresh tulips in the Tage Andersen folding vase, slippers pre-matched to your shoe size – make this feel more ‘home’ than ‘show home’.
Tiny but mighty, Iceland’s dynamic capital packs a cultural and culinary one-two punch. Museums burst with Viking artefacts and modern art, and visitors are starting to take notice of the city’s best New Nordic restaurants. Plus, the Golden Circle’s thrilling Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall,and Strokkur geyser are in day-trip distance.
Bathing culture is a big deal round here – when naturally heated waters regularly reach 40 degrees, daily dips just make sense. There are 17 geothermal pools across the city, but the Sky Lagoon in Kópavogur has won our hearts with its swim-up bar. Post-paddle, follow the locals to a hot-dog stand (they’re made from lamb meat here, with either sweet mustard or apple-based ketchup), then indulge in our favourite Icelandic idiosyncrasy: ísbíltúr, or an ice-cream-parlour road trip.
Seafood fans should flock to Messinn for their simple but special pan-cooked and served fresh-caught fish, paired with butter-fried potatoes and a symphony of seasonal veg. Wholesome and hearty, it makes for fine museum- or gallery-flitting fuel.
For a pull-out-all-the-stops dinner, Dill Restaurant, on main drag Laugavegur, is a no-brainer. At the helm chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason draws inspiration from his homeland’s wild landscape. Ingredients are locally farmed and foraged and sustainability is a central tenet. Just be sure to book early – this is a bijou spot with a rep as the country’s best restaurant, so bagging a table can be tricky.
Skúli Craft Bar
Hop to it, beer buffs. Pint-sized Skúli Craft Bar has 14 Icelandic beers on tap, plus an impressive collection of bottles and cans from indie breweries around the world. And in a city notorious for bank-breaking bevs, happy hour here takes the edge off in more ways than one.
For an induction into a true Icelandic institution, scout out the oddly ‘Transport for London’-esque roundel serving as a sign for Kaffibarinn. Decades’ worth of the city’s buzzy young things have made this snug spot their stamping ground. These days, it’s a cosy café during the week, but from Thursday to Saturday, Damon Albarn’s one-time haunt is the domain of indie-electro DJs and their dance-floor-glued devotees.
Exeter Hotel is your hip home base right at the heart of Reykjavik’s revived harbourfront district. Fittingly for a converted warehouse, industrial interiors are a cool collage of dark wood, concrete and smoked chrome – volcanic bay views complete the moody picture. Really though, this hotel’s a big softie, championing small Scandi brands and local artists. The pier across the street is your jumping-off point for whale-watching or lagoon-bathing, and day trips to glaciers and geysers start here. On your return, expect a proper adventurer’s welcome: an industrial supply of bagels and pastries courtesy of the on-site bakery, followed by a hearty street-food-style supper and an evening spent defrosting at the craft-beer-loaded bar. And any residual chill can be seen off by a stint in the sauna.
To live like a local in Reykjavik, you need just two things: a tolerance for subpolar temperatures, and a key to one of Kvosin Hotel’s centre-of-the-action suites. A historic townhouse turned boutique hotel, each apartment-style hideaway here is extraordinarily spacious for downtown, each with a well-kitted-out kitchenette and oodles of Scandi cool. Home-from-home touches abound – the smell of coffee and fresh-baked cookies wafts up from the lobby, and reception is ready to supply little Smiths with snowman-building kits. But if you prefer your ice in a glass, grab an Icelandic G&T at the local-favourite bar – the owner is a certified spirit specialist, so you’re in good hands.
A mediaeval city with Christmas-card good looks, flanked by seven forest-blanketed hills and guarding the gateway to the fjords – Oslo might have ousted Bergen as Norway’s capital back in the 13th century, but when it comes to beauty, the city still takes top billing. Boat tours through the country’s jaw-dropping fjords set off from the harbour, and a funicular ferries hikers up to scenic mountain trails.
But before you head for the hills, have a wander around Bryggen, the city’s harbour district with a rich Hanseatic history. Here, clapboard houses in Crayola hues line the waterfront, and beyond them lies a labyrinth of cobbled alleys and wooden walkways, with the promise of hidden-away cafés and shops selling traditional handicrafts.
Bryggeloftet & Stuene
Say somewhere is so good you never want to leave and it’s usually a safe bet there’s some hyperbole at play. But Bryggeloftet & Stuene, a refined harbourside spot run by the same family since 1910, has a proven record of pulling people in for the long-haul – it’s amassed a small army of devoted local regulars, and waitress Inger has been greeting them all since the 1980s. Cosy and convivial, the restaurant specialises in finely spun Norwegian classics that make cockle-warming use of fresh, local ingredients – don’t miss the specialty fish soup, so moreish it’s amassed its own fanbase.
Beer-focused hangout Børskjelleren is the place to get acquainted with Norway’s budding craft scene, including Bergen’s own Hansa Brewery. Board and pool games, and buzzy DJ nights lend the place a laidback local feel. Plus, it’s in the same building as the Bergen Børs Hotel, so your bed could be close by after one craft pint too many.
Bergen Børs Hotel
For a luxury stay right by Bergen’s historic main square, bank on Bergen Børs Hotel. Once home to the city’s stock exchange, the 19th-century Renaissance Revival building has received a minimalist Scandi makeover courtesy of Swedish design studio Claesson Koivisto Rune. Assets include a notable New Nordic restaurant, a second cathedral-like dining spot, complete with vaulted ceilings and century-old frescoes, and a cocktail bar in the former chamber of commerce to further spike your interest rate.
With a cobbled historic heart and endless eye-candy islands, avant-garde galleries and sleek Scandi boutiques, Stockholm is an aesthete’s paradise. Here are our hot tips for the times between fika (coffee and cake) stops in spice-scented bakeries.
Take an arboreal breather in Djurgården. A riverine 30-minute walk from Östermalm Downtown or breezy 10-minute ferry ride from the city centre, this royal-owned island is home to strollable parks and some of Stockholm’s best museums – explore Sweden’s history in miniature at open-air Skansen, take a swashbuckling tour of a well-preserved 17th-century ship at Vasa, or take a chance on the Abba Museum.
The quaint good looks of this 1880s food hall will have seasoned Instagrammers salivating; for everyone else, the 17 counters of Swedish delicacies should do the trick. There’s a clutch of cafés and wine bars that make excellent people-watching pit stops – Paula’s is our pick. But the real joy here is in sourcing straight from the city’s finest independent producers, filling a tote with a smorgasbord of artisanal cheeses, charcuterie, crusty loaves and fresh-baked buns.
Rosendals Garden Café
A farm-to-fork favourite on leafy Djurgården island, head to Rosendals for sandwiches, soups and salads starring produce fresh from the organic garden. The greenhouse café is a destination in itself – and allows for the most alfresco seating you’ll experience during Stockholm’s chillier times – and further temptations await at the farm shop and bakery next door.
Lilla Ego means ‘little ego’, but this laidback local hang-out has plenty to feel big-headed about. A curated menu of modern Swedish plates, as pretty as they are palate-pleasing, has made it a hit in artsy residential ’hood Vasastan. The ambience is as chilled out as they come, but book ahead or you risk being left out in the cold.
In the world of the 16th-century apothecary, magic and medicine converged. These days, your chemist might be less inclined to prescribe moon essence or mummy powder, but a maverick spirit lives on at Pharmarium, a cocktail bar set in a historic pharmacy. Sophisticated interiors sport mid-century furnishings, checkerboard tiles and apothecary drawers (of course). And alchemy is afoot behind the bar, as the team of mad-scientist mixologists craft elixirs with house flower, herb and berry extracts.
Hotel J is reached via the 30-minute steamboat crossing from Stockholm’s old town. Before it Saltsjön Bay stretches prettily into the distance, with private yachts bobbing in the pine-scented breeze. By the time you disembark by the hotel’s redbrick façade, all thoughts of urban hubbub will have faded. The hotel nails its nautical colours to the mast, with rooms decked out in blue stripes, sandy oak and sail-weight white cotton. Landlubbers can cosy up around the bar’s open fireplace, set atmospherically in a 19th-century summer house, or test out their sea legs on the restaurant’s waterfront terrace. And when the siren song of the bay calls, the hotel can arrange a sailing boat (and skipper) from the neighbouring club.
At Ett Hem, interior-design icon Ilse Crawford has crafted a seriously stylish Stockholm den in upmarket Östermalm. Sourcing from across the Continent, she’s dressed this arts and crafts townhouse with expertly curated vintage and designer finds. Handpicked art and period features pepper each suite, and in the living room you’ll find modernist chairs and an enticing brass bar, all set for evenings soundtracked by soft piano and the crackle of the open fire. For now, though, do as the hotel name suggests and make yourself ‘at home’, snaffling a slice of cake from the kitchen table, selecting a volume from the library and settling on a sofa in the glasshouse.
And check out more Scandinavian stays for chilled-out weekend breaks…