Sweden + Norway: 10 Things Scandinavians Do Better Than Us

We visited Sweden and Norway in the fall of 2017, and I found myself marveling at Scandinavian culture. I always say that traveling is the best way to learn. One of the things I love to do when I travel is to look at the things I admire about the way other people live, and then try to bring that home and incorporate it into my own life. This isn’t possible with everything–some places have a uniqueness that is simply their own. Nonetheless, I believe there is inspiration to be gleaned in cities and countrysides across the globe. Below are 10 things that I think our Swedish and Norwegian friends do better than us:

01 Civility

After a full week in the two countries–often traveling in crowded places–not once did I observe a single person who was angry, upset, deliberately rude, or worked up in any way. This is possibly my most amazing take away. Scandinavians are super chill and calm. They are also very attentive and joyful parents, which was delightful to observe.

A beautiful rose from the garden of our gracious hosts Lily and Bert, at their home in the Swedish countryside.
02 Bicycles

Our first morning in Stockholm, we ate breakfast in a hotel dining room that looked out onto a busy street. I was completely mesmerized by how many people were riding bicycles! The bicycle traffic was non-stop. The only time you see that many bicycles in the United States is if there is a race happening. In Sweden there are so many bicycles and bike lanes and it looked like such a great way to commute. Good for the earth and clearly good for bodies–Swedes are very slender and fit! It really made me want to up my bike game.

colorful building with shop downstairs near parked bicycles
Photo by Maria Orlova on Pexels.com
03 Castles and Palaces

Granted, this is an easy win for them because we kind of missed the whole castle/palace era in the US. But Sweden and Norway have some of the most beautiful and historic palaces in Europe. The pictures below are from our tour of Drottningholm Palace in Sweden, which is an incredible palace built in the 1600s. My favorite space was the library built by Queen Luvisa Ulrika–a bold feminist move at the time. She was criticized for having “more knowledge of, and insight into, the sciences than a lady needs.” Luckily she was undeterred by this mansplaining. She also spoke six languages and had interest in architecture, history, art, drama, geography, mathematics, philosophy and biology. You go girl.

For more information on amazing palaces to visit in Sweden, click here.

For castle ideas in Norway, check out this post.

04 Cozy Dining Seating (+ Meatballs)

In Sweden and Norway, meals are for lingering. Tables at most restaurants, hotels, and homes include banquette seating piled with throw pillows, and blankets if you’re outside. Looking back, this was really my first introduction to hygge lifestyle, which is all about coziness, contentment, and connection. Now, a few years down the road, I am completely converted to all things hygge. I think I have Sweden to thank for the initiation!

And can we just take a moment and give a shout-out to Swedish meatballs? The ultimate comfort food. So good. One other thing I loved–perfectly portioned meals.

05 Snarky Fountains

I don’t know where I found the backstory to Gothenberg’s Poseidon fountain by Carl Milles, but after reading it, I simply HAD to see it. Apparently, when this fountain depicting Poseidon the sea God was first unveiled, there were concerns that his male anatomy was . . . too robust. Milles redesigned the sculpture, significantly reducing the size of Poseidon’s genitals, AND placing a giant fish in his right hand. The effect of this change is that from some angles (such as the entry to the concert hall), the fish looks like a giant penis. A delightfully wicked revenge. In any case, today this is one of the most iconic spots in all of Gothenburg. I loved this feisty fountain. I think the new Seattle waterfront could use a Poseidon statue.

The Poseidon Statue by Carl Milles in Gothenberg, Sweden (and me, obviously delighted.)
06 Viking Stuff

Just a few steps from Poseidon you’ll find the Gothenberg Museum, where they have an entire floor dedicated to Viking history. Vikings are awesome, and so obviously viking stuff is awesome. The museum’s display includes viking weapons, nordic statues, and even the only viking ship on displaying in all of Sweden!

If Vikings are your jam and you want to see the best preserved Viking Ships in the world, visit the Viking Ship Museum in Norway–more information here.

In addition to the Viking display, the Gothenberg Museum several other amazing collections. I highly recommend a visit.

07 Window Flower Boxes

If there is one thing I wish would really catch on culturally in the United States, it’s window flower boxes. They are so pretty. So simple. So elegant. In Sweden and Norway, flowers were cascading out of planter boxes everywhere I turned. Let’s do this. Who’s with me?

Beautiful balconies in Oslo, Norway
08 Sculpture Parks

If you find yourself in Norway, you must, and I repeat, MUST visit the Vigeland Sculpture Park. This expansive 110-acre park showcases more than 200 sculptures by the beloved Norwegian sculptor, Gustav Vigeland. I found the experience of visiting this park to be transcendent. Every sculpture captured some aspect of the human experience–beauty, truth, struggle. Taken together, it was mind-blowing. Highlights include the bridge, the fountain, and the monolith.

This incredible fountain is adorned with 60 individual bronze reliefs, and is surrounded by an 1800 square meter black and white granite mosaic.
09 Public Transportation

In the United States, cars are king. Our whole lives are built around cars, which is kind of backwards. In Sweden and Norway, walkability and public transportation are paramount. We could go anywhere in the country without a car, which is incredibly liberating.

architecture chairs city commuter
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
10 Overall Ingenuity in Daily Life

I was impressed with the general creativity and problem-solving I saw throughout both countries–in little and big things. While there was definitely a respect for the past and for the legacy that they had inherited, everyone seemed very open to innovation and trying new things. I mean–check out how our friend Bert was getting his lawn mowed!

To keep it real, here are 3 Things I Didn’t Like:

1. The candy. It’s gross. Especially those little black licorice things shaped like crocodiles. Ew. Very ill-conceived. Still recovering.

2. Pay-to-pee public bathrooms. I don’t like to pay to go to the bathroom. Ironically, this seems like the kind of terrible plan some greedy tycoon on Wall Street would come up with, and yet free public restrooms are the norm in the United States. In countries like Sweden and Norway that have solved so many other social problems, pay-to-pee bathrooms seem out of place. Although I will admit that some of them were incredibly innovative.

BUT–I experienced my first co-ed bathrooms here. Guess what? Totally fine. Here’s why–the individual stalls are super private with floor to ceiling walls and doors. Sinks for hand washing are in common areas. I’ll take one of those to an American public restroom with the slits you can see through any day. I don’t like strangers (or anyone!) peering at me at vulnerable moments, regardless of gender or anything else. Let’s fix our restroom design and stop thinking we need to fix the people that use the restrooms.

3. Separate bedding for shared bed. In the end, I didn’t like it. We’re cuddlers, and it was hard to stay warm and cuddle in this kind of set up. It was awkward having two twin mattresses pushed together.

Thank you Sweden and Norway! I loved visiting your beautiful countries and I learned so much from you!

Check out my posts on Prague, Rome, and Milan for more travel inspiration!