4 dream trips in Northern Europe: Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Estonia
Buy coffee, go to work, sit in traffic, repeat. Sometimes, that can feel like our modern-day destiny — but that’s only because we forget that we’re responsible for living outside the box. For taking our own wild left turns. For expanding our worldviews and challenging our preconceptions. For booking that ticket and saying yes to a dream trip.
In Northern Europe, horizon-expansion comes with the territory. Sleek, modern cities that feel not-quite-familiar fade into untamed terrain. Ancient villages dot an even more ancient landscape, and it’s all just a flight away. (And maybe a few clicks.)
So when you’re ready for that wild left turn, come aboard. Here’s what’s in store.
The Diamond Circle
You’ve heard of the Golden Circle. Consider the Diamond Circle, its northern counterpart, a less-traveled upgrade…
The Diamond Circle
You’ve heard of the Golden Circle, that nearly 200-mile tourist loop that starts in Reykjavik. Consider the Diamond Circle, its northern counterpart, a less-traveled upgrade. In 162 miles, you’ll experience Goðafoss, the “Waterfall of the Gods”; Lake Mývatn, Iceland’s fourth-largest, set in a surreal volcanic landscape; the boiling mud pools around Mt. Námafall and the alien formations of Hjóðaklettar (Echo Rocks); the “Shelter of the Gods” in Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon; and Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall. Every stop is an opportunity to see something you likely didn’t know existed.
You could take a tour from Akureyri, but you’ll be happier — and you’ll grow more as a traveler — driving yourself, at your own pace. The entire loop only takes about four hours to zoom around, but it’s a solid two days if you give the land its due appreciation.
The Westman Islands
A quick day trip from Reykjavik, the Westman Islands aren’t in your average guidebook…
The Westman Islands
A quick day trip from Reykjavik (eight miles off the coast, to be exact), the Westman Islands aren’t in your average guidebook. The weather can be a bit unpredictable, and that’s taken them off the usual “destination” list. But hit a sunny day, and your first view is the sea cliffs hugging the harbor, volcanic peaks breaking up the horizon. Of the 15 islands, Heimaey is the only one that’s inhabited — by humans, at least. There are plenty of puffins.
Grab the ferry, Herjólfur, and stay overnight if you can. Between climbing the “Pompeii of the North” — the volcanic cone of Eldfell is still warm at the summit from the 1973 eruption from which it was formed — wildlife (baby pufflings!), island cliffs, and its storied Norwegian-Irish history, there’s more than a single afternoon’s worth to tackle.
Photo: Shutterstock/Erik Mandre
In the 1930s, the 1,000-year-old ice of a nearby glacier started melting. And melting…
In the 1930s, the 1,000-year-old ice of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier started melting. And melting. And melting. Jökulsárlón Lagoon has grown four times its own size since the 1970s, making it Iceland’s deepest lake. It’s strewn with diamond-esque glaciers pearlescent blue in color, and you can hop on a Zodiac boat to get up close and personal to — and even taste — the ice.
The lagoon is just south of the second-largest national park in all of Europe, Vatnajökull National Park. The entire area is transforming rapidly due to climate change, and each visit is different from the next. And just like the lagoon, you’ll be a different person on your second visit, too.
On the western side of the island, this peninsula packs an incredible amount of scenery into just 55 miles…
On the western side of the island, Snæfellsnes Peninsula — just 55-miles long — manages to pack in gold and pink beaches, basalt columns, lava tubes, caves, rifts, hot springs, glaciers, craters, ancient churches, mountains, and lighthouses. In 55 miles.
Snæfellsjökull Glacier, which sits on top of a dormant volcano, was the inspiration for Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. It’s widely believed the area is a vortex, and you might be able to feel it when you’re here. Kirkjufell Mountain is the other main draw to the area, and experienced hikers can climb to the top (a deceptively tough 1,519 feet). Everyone else will have to settle for the incredibly scenic waterfall at its base.
Stykkishólmur is where you should stay on your visit. It’s a teeny town but, just like the peninsula it’s on, packs a small-but-mighty punch.
This is the “Capital of the North.” It’s Iceland’s second city…
This is the “Capital of the North.” It’s Iceland’s second city…with 20,000 people. Akureyri (ah-koo-rare-ee) is surprisingly urban despite its size, and surprisingly lush despite its location just south of the Arctic Circle. In summer, days are spent whale watching, horseback riding, or scoping out the centuries-old Laufas Turf Houses. In winter, it’s time for beer baths, aurora hunting, gallery hopping, and skiing some of the country’s best slopes at Hlíðarfjall. Goodbye, small town expectations.
Note: Beer baths? Yep. Yeast is believed to do wonders for the skin. Obviously, don’t drink it — though most baths offer a tap within arm’s reach.
Photo: Shutterstock/Harry Painter
A.k.a. the home of the Vikings. Harald Fairhair, Norway’s first king, built his first castle on the outskirts of town…
A.k.a. the home of the Vikings. Harald Fairhair, Norway’s first king, built his first castle on the outskirts of town, cementing this area as the “Way of the North” — Norway. At the Nordvegen History Centre at Avaldsnes, you can wander in the footsteps of the first Vikings, probably a few of which are your long-lost relatives.
Haugesund sits on the coast with access to several fjords, including the Åkrafjord — it originates from the southern end of Folgefonna National Park and the massive Folgefonna glacier, which you can and definitely should climb. Also add Langfoss Waterfall to your to-summit list — it’s the fifth-tallest waterfall in Norway, cascading over 2,000 feet.
Photo: Shutterstock/Thomas Mortveit
Far above the Arctic Circle, Lofoten is Norway at its most timeless…
Far above the Arctic Circle, Lofoten is Norway at its most timeless. The waters of the Norwegian Sea are turbulent (and the seabirds squawking), but the fishing villages quiet. The cliffs of this archipelago rise out of the choppy waters to become the land we walk on. The midnight sun takes over in summer, and the auroras creep in come winter. And thanks to the Gulf Stream, winter is warmer than you’d expect — Midwesterners could happily winter in Lofoten.
Check out the old fishermen’s cabins (rorbuer) in Reine for accommodations. Base yourself here, and then venture out for horseback riding under the Northern Lights, sea eagle safariing, or kayaking between the islands. No chains, no all-inclusives, no window tours — full immersion.
At 78° north, halfway between Norway and the North Pole…
At 78° north, halfway between Norway and the North Pole, rests Svalbard, the northernmost year-round settlement on Earth — and one of the world’s last great wildernesses (and Europe’s biggest). This is the land of polar bears, reindeer, walrus, and old, abandoned mining towns sporting crumbling statues of Lenin. Of ice-covered fjords and snow-capped mountains that, for half the year, only see the light of the auroras. This is where you expand your sense of adventure, your sense of your own capabilities.
There are three seasons here: “polar summer,” “Northern Lights winter,” and “sunny winter.” Daily flights are 90 minutes from Tromsø, dropping you in Longyearbyen, where most locals live (in rainbow-colored houses).
Norway’s largest and deepest fjord, the Sognefjord snakes inland for 127 miles…
Norway’s largest and deepest fjord, the Sognefjord snakes inland for 127 miles, with almost 10,000 feet between the water’s bottom and the mountain peaks above. Its most famous — and narrowest — arm is the Nærøyfjord, a UNESCO site thanks to its incredible beauty and history.
Here, you’ll spend your days hiking the cliffs of Jotunheimen National Park or the hills of the Aurlandsdalen Valley. You’ll kayak the waters or navigate them via RIB craft, stopping at teeny villages and ancient stave churches. Go from top to bottom on foot, or grab a seat on the Flåmsbana Railway, one of the most beautiful rail routes in the world.
Photo: Shutterstock/Adam Major
The first capital of Norway has a thousand-year history that dates back to the era of St. Olav…
The first capital of Norway has a thousand-year history that dates back to the era of St. Olav. He was buried here, and Christians would pilgrimage from all across the country to the city’s impressive Nidaros Cathedral to pay their respects to the “Eternal King.”
Nowadays, it’s Norway’s third-largest city, with incredible art museums, local food, and a student-driven downtown vibe. Hang out on the water near Old Town (Bakklandet), kayak the Nidelva River, rest in a cozy pub, hike the St. Olav Ways, or make a day trip out to one of the nearby national parks.
This is the home of “New Nordic” everything…
This is the home of “New Nordic” everything. Copenhagen is leading by example when it comes to food trends, green energy, sustainability, and downright happiness (see the public trampolines downtown). It’s a model city, a haven for those on foot or two wheels, and it’s booming everywhere you turn.
Stroll down Strøget, one of Europe’s longest pedestrian thoroughfares. Mill around Nyhavn, that classic colorful harbor you’ve seen on Instagram. Stop at Reffen for some amazing street food, or go big at noma, one of the most famous — and most expensive — restaurants in the world. Learn about the world’s longest-ruling monarchy at Rosenborg Castle, or chill on the beach at Amager Strandpark. And, of course, tell the Little Mermaid goodbye before you depart.
Island of Funen
Nowhere is a “fairytale,” and the descriptor can be a bit overused. But if one place were to get close…
Island of Funen
Nowhere is a “fairytale,” and the descriptor can be a bit overused. But if one place were to get close, it’s the Island of Funen — the home of Hans Christian Andersen. It’s only a couple hours’ drive from Copenhagen, but it’s an entirely different side of Denmark.
Odense, the town where Andersen was born, is a maze of cobbled streets and thatched, soft-hued cottages (belying the sorrow in his tales). Renaissance castles and manor houses are a dime a dozen, the food is unpretentious and authentic, and the countryside rolls until it hits the sea. And, yes, more than one of those 123 manors and castles is listed on Airbnb.
The Funen Archipelago
Beyond Funen proper, the other islands of the archipelago are often overlooked…
The Funen Archipelago
Beyond Funen proper, the other islands of the archipelago are often overlooked — which is excellent for you. Grab the ferry to Svendborg, and then hop around Langeland, Thurø, and Tåsinge. Check out the sea captain’s village of Troense, the hills of Bregninge, countless windmills and farming hamlets, and the castle and sculpture park in Tranekær. You want away from the masses? You got it.
All of the islands are great for getting around on bicycle, and quiet nature areas — ideal for birdwatching — abound. Consider these isles the home of the Danish detox.
Photo: Shutterstock/Frank Bach
This is one of Denmark’s oldest cities. Between its Viking Ship Museum and the annual Roskilde Music Festival…
This is one of Denmark’s oldest cities. Between its Viking Ship Museum and the annual Roskilde Music Festival — one of Europe’s largest — 230,000 visitors hit town every year. For now, Copenhagen is clearly king, but could this hotspot just 19 miles west eventually crowd the spotlight? Maybe.
Other claims to fame: Some 40 Danish monarchs rest eternally in the tombs under the local cathedral. Ten minutes from the city center is the Boserup Forest, wild beech groves riddled with even wilder flowers. The Roskilde Fjord — so undeveloped the “trash” here is from Stone Age kitchens — is Denmark’s longest, at 25 miles. (And you thought you’d heard of everything.)
With 400 Danish islands to choose from, it’s a feat to narrow it down…
With 400 Danish islands to choose from, it’s a feat to narrow it down. Ærø will likely top your list — its 18th-century vibe and stretches of beaches do most of the talking, but its local and organic movement seals the deal.
Getting there and around is pretty simple: Grab a ferry from Svendborg to Ærøskøbing, rent a bike (free cycling maps are available all over town), and hit the pavement. Stop at Eriks Hale Beach for a quick dip, Rise Brewery for a tasting, and scope out the colorful bathing huts that have been around for centuries. Many of the buildings here date back to the 1600s (and if you see a red door, there’s a chance it was painted in ox blood).
Photo: Shutterstock/Nicola Borrani
Tallinn is timeless. It’s the “Silicon Valley of Europe,” but also has one of the best-preserved medieval old towns on the continent…
Tallinn is timeless. It’s the “Silicon Valley of Europe” (the birthplace of Skype, for example), but also has one of the best-preserved medieval old towns on the continent. For centuries, it was tossed back and forth by its neighbors, and now it’s an alluring and thriving destination with its own distinct personality.
As you wander its millennia-old streets, count the turrets, domes, and steeples. At what number do you lose track? Walk through the Viru Gate, and keep going until you hit Raekoja plats, Tallinn’s main square for the past 800 years. From here winds a web of eclectic pubs, niche storefronts, markets, and a long list of museums, like the KGB Museum. All this right on the shores of the Baltic Sea.
Photo: Shutterstock/Boris Stroujko
Saaremaa & Muhu islands
Estonia’s largest and third-largest islands are part fishing village, part national park…
Saaremaa & Muhu islands
Estonia’s largest and third-largest islands are part fishing village, part national park, each holding onto a simplicity you won’t find back on the mainland.
Kuressaare, Saaremaa’s largest town, has one spa for every 10 people. (That’s a hint.) Save the relaxation for after you visit a meteorite field (the Kaali craters), climb Panga Cliff, sunbathe on Järve Beach, and wile away hours at Viidumäe Nature Reserve and Vilsandi National Park. On Muhu, beeline for Pädaste Manor, the country’s best restaurant.
On either side of the Pärnu River, paths will take you past timber villas and neoclassical spas…
On either side of the Pärnu River, paths will take you past timber villas and neoclassical spas, leading you all the way to Pärnu Beach and Pärnu Bay, part of the Baltic Sea. This is Estonia’s escape town, a romantic spot that since medieval times has spread itself out to the size of Berlin.
Walk along the seawall at Pärnu Beach — a local hangout — and notice that you can see the iconic red St. Elizabeth spire from here. Another “red” landmark is the Red Tower, a vestige of the fortress that once surrounded the town in the 15th century.
Tip: If you’re the spa sort, go for a treatment that’s undoubtedly Estonian, like a kama-and-calendula-oil facial. Kama is as traditional an Estonian “dessert” as they come, a grainy mix you might prefer on your skin over your tongue.
Photo: Shutterstock/Boris Stroujko
This is where Estonian culture is born and bred…
This is where Estonian culture is born and bred. The oldest city in the Baltic States, its university goes back to the 1600s, fostering creativity and innovation for the past four centuries. Art museums, observatories, theatres, festivals — they all seem to blossom in Tartu.
Start in the massive Town Hall Square, dominated by the pink-and-red Town Hall building behind the Kissing Students fountain. The famous Leaning House you can probably find on your own. Up Toome Hill are the remains of the 13th-century Tartu Cathedral, and down in Supilinn (Soup Town, a former slum), you’ll find colorful wooden houses, street art, and amusing street names (hint: they’re all vegetables).
Lahemaa National Park
Lahemaa was the first national park in the Soviet Union…
Lahemaa National Park
Lahemaa was the first national park in the Soviet Union. It’s less than an hour outside of Tallinn, but totally wild: boar, moose, wolves, and bears wander the pine forests, lakes, and bogs. The forest floor is covered in wild cotton, and meadows pop with bright yellow canola flowers.
You could spend days navigating its trails, biking through the woods, visiting restored manor houses, or sea kayaking (Lahemaa translates to “Land of Bays”). Or sit on one of the boulders speckling the water — courtesy of long-gone glaciers — and be in the moment. That’s good, too.