What is the Capital of Scandinavia?

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Scandinavia is a fascinating region of Northern Europe, known around the world for its natural beauty. But does it have a capital city?

The three capitals of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway all vie for attention within the region. But which of Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Oslo has the biggest clout on the world stage?

Cityscape of Stockholm, Sweden’s capital city.
Stockholm proclaims itself as the capital of Scandinavia. But what do you think?

Of course, it's a ridiculous question really. It’s like asking what is the capital of Europe. Brits would say London, the French would claim Paris, Spaniards Madrid, Italians Rome, and Germans Berlin.

Brussels has a claim as the home of the EU political class, but the biggest European city in terms of population is actually Istanbul, which also has historical claims and a strategic position as the gateway to Asia.

However, Governments, city councils, tourist boards and the like continue to argue over the capital of Scandinavia. So we’re going to join in!

With that in mind, where does one begin? After my visit to Copenhagen earlier this month, I've now spent time in all three. Here’s what I think about each of the three contenders.

Stockholm, Sweden

Sweden's capital city Stockholm ranks first in terms of population of the city (984,748) and urban area (2.1 million), as of 2023.

Gamla stan, a historic area of Stockholm. Photo: David Nikel.
Gamla stan, a historic area of Stockholm. Photo: David Nikel.

In my opinion, the biggest factor in Stockholm's favour is this: the city simply feels like a capital.

It's large, historical, and I would say the most naturally beautiful of the three cities. If you like water, you'll love Stockholm. Built on 14 islands, the city offers endless watery views and the opportunity to tour the archipelago by boat.

As for the economy, Stockholm is dominated by finance and high technology. The Scandinavian publishing giant Bonnier is based here too.

Stockholm is the self-proclaimed Capital of Scandinavia:

There are many reasons why Stockholm is the natural Capital of Scandinavia. One is that Stockholm is positioned at the heart of the region, and enjoys the benefits of a world-class transport infrastructure. Another is that Stockholm is the largest city in the largest country in Scandinavia. It is also where you find the most multinational companies, the largest stock market and, not least, the most visitors.

The Swedes are considered to be the most arrogant of the Nordic population, so it's perhaps no surprise they were first to come out with an advertising slogan like this.

Copenhagen, Denmark

As of 2023, the population of Denmark’s capital city Copenhagen is a little smaller (city 653,664, urban area 1.36 million). But the city competes well with Stockholm in other areas.

Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo: David Nikel.
Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo: David Nikel.

It held the title of European Green Capital for 2014, and is of course the home of world-famous Danish design like the egg chair.

Where Copenhagen really shines is transport. Every year over six million vehicles cross the Öresund Bridge, which links Denmark's capital with the Swedish city of Malmö. The combined urban area has a population of 2.5m.

On top of this, Copenhagen Airport is the busiest airport not just in Scandinavia, but the whole Nordic region. It's the main hub of Scandinavian Airlines, and has a considerably higher percentage of international traffic than its rivals in Oslo and Stockholm.

Copenhagen also leads the way with bicycle-friendly city planning. According to the local tourist board, city residents cycle an estimated 1.44 million km every single day. Also, almost half of all trips to work or school in the city are on a bicycle.

Finally, Copenhagen is home to the headquarters of the Nordic Council, so there’s some definite political clout there too.

Oslo, Norway

Norway’s capital city Oslo is the underdog, albeit one whose bark is a lot louder these days. It’s population has grown fast.

The future of Oslo
Karl Johans gate in downtown Oslo, Norway. Photo: David Nikel.

So much so, that as of late 2022 the city itself has more than 700,000 residents, making it an equivalent size, if not slightly bigger, than Copenhagen. However, the wider urban area is home to just over 1 million, which is less than both Stockholm and Copenhagen.

Oslo has a lot going for it these days. It's one of Europe's leading maritime centres and an important base for many Norwegian energy companies.

In the fDi Magazine report “European Cities of the Future 2012”, Oslo was ranked number one among large European cities in economic potential, and ranked 2nd in business friendliness, behind Amsterdam.

With the opening of the National Museum and MUNCH in 2022, Oslo enjoys a growing reputation in the arts. In addiiton, new premium hotels have begun to attract a new kind of tourist to the city.

Our Verdict on the Capital of Scandinavia

I think it’s fair to say that each of the cities has a claim. But, you can probably guess where I'm going with this one: Scandinavia doesn't need a capital.

The flags of the Scandinavian countries
The flags of Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

Germany has several major cities with different strengths: Government and hi-tech in Berlin, media in Hamburg, finance in Frankfurt, etc. Likewise, the Scandinavian region has three thriving cities drawing different kind of visitors, businesses and opportunity into the region.

If you extend the definition to include the other major Nordic cities, Helsinki and Reykjavík, the collective strength increases further.

Rather than arguing about which city is better than the other, let's celebrate the unique strengths of each, and this wonderful region as a whole.

What do you think is the capital of Scandinavia? Does it even matter? Join the debate in the comments below.

About David Nikel

Originally from the UK, David now lives in Trondheim and was the original founder of Life in Norway back in 2011. He now works as a professional writer on all things Scandinavia.

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20 thoughts on “What is the Capital of Scandinavia?”

  1. Bergen is the capital of Scandinavia, the largest city in the region long before the individual states were formed. Bergen’s birthright is to rule the nordic, the largest and most important city in Scandinavia for more than 800 years.

  2. Realistically, only Copenhagen would the capital of Scandianavia. The metropolitan area encompasses more than 2 million people in Denmark and Sweden and it’s quite possible to live on the Swedish side and work in Copenhagen. Stockholm might be a sort of capital of the baltic sea (?), but it’s too out of the way to be a natural capital of Scandinavia, just like Bergen. Oslo/Gotherburg would be better contenders than Stockholm in real life, but both are far less important than Copenhagen, not just by population, but also in terms of economic and cultural weight. Even if Norway hasn’t been a part of Denmark since 1814, many Norwegians still consider Copenhagen the only real contender for a “world metropolis” in the two countries…

  3. FUnny how these discussions never include the third part, “neutral” Norway. Do Norwegians anno 2016 feel culturally closer to Sweden than to Denmark? Probably, yes. Do they also feel closer to Stockholm than to Copenhagen? No. Not. At. All.

    Copenhagen was Norway’s capital for 278 years. Stockholm: never was. And… there was always the sea – Danskebåten. ALL Norwegians have been to C., whether in the 30’s. 60’s, 2016 or long before. And – C was, still is, the Norwegian gateway to the world. Stockholm was, still is, a dead end street – OK, if you struggle a little, you,’ll find a gateway to Finland… Russia… The Baltics… But the World? No…
    So, Gothenburg, also along the NorwegiAn Road to the world, might have been a half serious candidate to this Capitol status::
    ALL Norwegians have been To G…

    Yet, for a Norwegian there’s only one serious candidate.

    Stockholm: hardly a parenthesis in Norwegian history.
    Copenhagen: the Kings’ Copenhagen…never really disappeared. There’s still magic in the air…

    • Interesting how you pretend you are a “represent” of Oslo. I can almost swar you are a typical stupid person With a lot of inferiority complexes. And where do we find these? In Denmark of course! Copenhagen is neither beautiful nor is it big. It`s actually the samlles Capital in the Whole Nordics minus Reykavik. Copenhagen is not more Capital of the Nordics than Reykjavik is, thats the brutal factts.
      There is no captial in the scandinaiva. Denmark is much more related to Germany than to the Nordics. It`s only fools that pretend there is a special Capital.

  4. It was shocking for me to see that ‘Stockholm, the Capital of Scandinavia’ writing on some walls in Stockholm, during my very first Scandinavia experience. When I searched for it, I found that this slogan is nothing more than the egoism of Sweden. According to The Economist Intelligence Unit’s where-to-be-born index, Norway ranked 3rd while Sweden is 4th, Denmark 5th, and Finland in the 11th place. (Iceland doesn’t exist in this ranking.)

    When it comes to Human Development Index, we see much more difference between Scandinavian countries in terms of this index’s criterias.
    1. Norway – 0.944

    4. Denmark – 0.923
    14. Sweden – 0.907

    24. Finland – 0.883

    I have been Stockholm and Copenhagen so far and I’m looking forward to go Helsinki and Oslo one day, but I think there can not be a certain capital city of Scandinavia, like there is no capital of Europe as dear writer said.

    Additionally, thanks for mentioning about our beloved city, Istanbul 🙂
    As some comments contain some histories of capitals, I want to tell some facts about our old capital.
    Capital of Roman Empire (from 330 to 395)
    Capital of Byzantine Empire (from 395 to 1204 and 1261 to 1453)
    Capital of Latin Empire (from 1204 to 1261)
    Capital of Ottoman Empire (from 1453 to 1923)

    Interesting fact is, when Istanbul became the capital of its last empire in 1453, the continent America were not discovered. Now, you can see the prestige of New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles etc. But even despite this history, we can’t say Istanbul is capital of Europe, Asia or somewhere else. Just capital of that country in particular times. If the biggest or oldest capital was called the capital of world, probably no one but the citizens of that country would accept that decision. Anyway, I agree with the writer: Scandinavia doesn’t need a capital. Cheers 🙂

  5. Geographically Gothenburg would be a great place for a capital. It’s in the middle of the most populated area in Scandinavia, the Oslo – Copenhagen “belt”. From Oslo down the west coast of Sweden and over to Copenhagen. Would be about 8-9 million people living in that area. If not more..

    Why they haven’t exploited that area for a speed train is beyond me.

    • If, Scandinavia hypothetically, would ever unite, then Gothenburg or any similar place in Southern Sweden would be the most geographical sensible location.

  6. Scandinavia is named after the region Skåne in southern Sweden, which used to be a part of Eastern Denmark. Skåne is called Scania in Latin. The reason why we have a region called Scandinavia in the first place is because Denmark, Norway and Sweden were all influenced by this region.

    Lund in Skåne was the capital of Denmark for a brief period of time (roughly 4 years) under King Erik Emmune. It’s also where Scandinavias oldest Archdiocese was established. You’ll find Scandinavias oldest university and school in Lund.

    Roskilde was the historic capital of Denmark, “Hafn” or Copenhagen grew because it was in between Lund and Roskilde.

    Historically there’s no better option than Lund – says Nikolaj from Copenhagen.
    Of course I would still go with Copenhagen! Copenhagen is where Europe meets Scandinavia, and Scandinavia meets the world.

  7. Gothenburg (Göteborg) is the Scandinavian logistics centre with excellent communication with the existing three capitals (Oslo, Stockholm, Copenhagen) as well as most populated areas in Scandinavia.

  8. I haven’t thought too much about it but I feel it’s obviously Stockholm. I’m a Finn living in Sweden most of my life, within proximity to Stockholm, so I feel I’m quite objective. Full disclosure: I’m a Swedish-speaking Finn that hates Sweden and Swedes and has spent 8 years outside of Sweden starting from adulthood because of this. My family moving to Sweden when I was a kid was one of the worst things that ever happened to me in my life and it was the start of my ending. It’s still ridiculous to claim otherwise. The city is the largest, has the most tourists visiting, is slightly better known by most people, globally, and most of all is situated in the center of the other potential capitals. I’m basically just re-hashing what’s already been pointed out. For the same reason(s) Riga is the capital of The Baltics. A “capital of Europe” is however a ridiculous concept, and I won’t even try that one.


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