On the face of it, Scandinavia isn’t a very sensible place for a holiday. For one thing, it’s almost always going to be colder than the place you’re leaving behind. And when it comes to basics like food and accommodation, it’s probably more expensive too.

But if you don’t mind throwing a few warm jumpers in your backpack and paying a little extra for meals out – and honestly, it’s not that bad – you’ll be rewarded handsomely. Scandinavia is home to some of Western Europe’s wildest sights, from shimmering blue lakes and clattering herds of reindeer to snow-laden forests that look like they’ve been imported straight from Narnia.

It isn’t all fjords and pine trees, though; there are fairytale castles, Viking treasures and gritty, pretty cities that nurture some of the world’s most exciting art and design scenes. Then there’s that green, egalitarian approach to life that will leave you thinking that – somehow – Scandinavia just works.

Ready to take the plunge? Here are 7 ideas for short breaks in Scandinavia.

1. Gothenburg and the west coastSweden

In the space of a couple of decades, Sweden’s second biggest city has reinvented itself as one of Europe’s coolest city break destinations. It’s still a big industrial hub with a busy port at its heart, but the focus is increasingly on tourism. Why should you go? For the super-fresh seafood, for the locally brewed beer and laidback bars, and for the car-free islands that lie just offshore, where you can swim in cool, clear waters.

Cycling in Gothenburg
Ulf Bodin/Flickr

2. SkagenDenmark

Set on a narrow spit of land with breezy beaches on both sides, Skagen is Denmark’s northernmost town – and one of its prettiest, too, with mustard-yellow houses lining the streets. Since the Nordic Impressionists arrived here more than a century ago, attracted by the big skies and soft golden light, the artists have kept on coming. Now the town is dotted with galleries, workshops and antiques shops. Cycle a few kilometres northeast of town to the sandbar called Grenen, where Denmark ends, and you can watch two separate seas sloshing together before your eyes.

Gregen, Denmark
NWS/Flickr

3. Bergen and the fjords, Norway

Bergen looks like it was built for a photoshoot, but its beauty pales in comparison to the epic fjords nearby. You might find that the staggering views are rewarding enough (imagine soaring mountains reflected in mirror-smooth water), but otherwise there’s a whole host of adrenaline-pumping activities to keep you occupied. Anyone for paragliding?

Bergen harbour

Najwa Marafie/Flickr

4. StockholmSweden

Sprawling across low islands that are stitched together by passenger boats and bridges, with views of soaring spires around almost every corner, Stockholm sure is a looker. But beyond the medieval lanes of the old centre, the self-proclaimed Capital of Scandinavia is a slick, forward-thinking city, home to some of the world’s coolest tech and fashion brands. It’s pricey and pretentious, sure, but there’s a reason young Swedes flock here from all four corners of the country.

Stockholm B&W

MacPepper/Flickr

5. LaplandNorway & Sweden

Wood-fired saunas, shivering forests, reindeer meat and steaming cups of lingonberry juice: Lapland manages to roll Scandinavia’s most exotic bits into a single epic landscape. Challenging weather conditions and the area’s vast size can make exploring a slow process, but with a long weekend you’ll be able to get a decent flavour for life in the north. Watch the northern lights, try ice fishing or snuggle down for a night at the Icehotel. Come back in summer when the sun reappears, nourishing the valleys with meltwater, and the possibilities for hiking are endless.

Lapland, Swedenimagea.org/Flickr

6. Copenhagen, Denmark

When it comes to art, design, fashion and food, no other Scandinavian city can compete with Copenhagen. Yes, Noma is here, but most visitors experience a more laidback version of the city, where bottles of Carlsberg are still swigged at canal-side bars, and where pushbikes – not limos – remain the favoured mode of transport. Give the famous Little Mermaid statue a miss, and instead make time for the galleries, food carts and design shops. A weekend here is barely enough to scratch the surface.

Copenhagen

Nico Trinkhaus/Flickr

7. Österlen, Sweden 

Home to rolling fields of poppies and cornflowers, rather than the usual dense pine forests, Österlen is the gorgeous chunk of land in the far southeast of Sweden. It’s one of the best parts of the country to explore by car, with farm shops and orchards sprouting up at the side of the road, and powder-fine beaches hugging the pristine coast. Head to Stenshuvud Nationalpark on a warm summer’s day, squint just a little, and you might think you’ve landed on some languid Thai island.

Österlen, SwedenSusanne Nilsson/Flickr

Explore more of Scandinavia with the Rough Guides to NorwaySweden and Europe on a BudgetCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Header image via Ulf Bodin/Flickr.