Why you must head north to find the perfect family holiday destination

Sarah Barrell
Scandinavia is a great place for a family holiday - regardless of the season - (C)Shaun Egan/ AWL Images ltd ((C)Shaun Egan/ AWL Images ltd (Photographer) - [None]

Mary Poppins may be quintessentially English, but her life maxim applies to how we Brits see Scandinavians: practically perfect in every way. When it comes to holidays, however, most of us don’t put our money where our hygge-heavy preconception is.

But why not? With crystal-clear lakes, dramatic mountains, and large wild animals to wonder at, along with delicious, simple local food and a homespun hospitality that’s both genuine and world class, Scandinavia and the Nordics should be a firm family favourite. If you want almost limitless daylight hours for children to roam free, less need for sunblock, and far more to explore than just the beach and the kids’ club, a Nordic family holiday offers ample choice.

Heart set on the beach? Denmark has 4,350 miles (7,000km) of coastline, characterised by superlative stretches of blond sand, while islands lining the forest-fringed lakes and shores of Sweden and Finland mean a secret bay is only ever a paddle away. And for something completely different, there’s nowhere like the wild fjords of Greenland, the Faroes, Iceland, and Norway for a well-organised wilderness experience.

In winter, this polar-crowned region transforms into some of the most adventurous-yet-accessible active holiday terrain, its Arctic temperatures tempered by the Gulf Stream. From audiences with Father Christmas, aurora-hunting and reindeer feeding in Lapland, to ski resorts that focus firmly on families and include standard extras like husky sledding and all manner of cross-country pursuits – this is Frozen-style fun in spades. And all of this is within distance of bone-warming hot tubs, natural hot springs, and saunas.

In summer, for an expertly regulated rustic adventure that’s safe and meticulously systematised – yet conversely libertarian, wild and outdoorsy – nowhere delivers like the Nordics. And year-round you’ll find intelligent museums that celebrate marauding Vikings, Moomins, Tomtens and primary-coloured building bricks. 

Who knew Denmark had beaches like this? Credit: getty

Nordic travel can be costly, but as a family you’ll likely be booking packages well ahead of travel dates, so you’ll avoid last-minute price escalations, and you can be judicious on dining out – one of the highest spend factors while travelling in the region. Pack a picnic and those pristine shores, lakes, mountains, fjords and forests are yours to explore, gratis.

Its traditional architectural landscape is of turf-roof cabins, off-grid clapboard cottages, regal castles, seaside villages centuries unchanged, but a trip to the Nordics can feel like time travel to a utopian future. This region champions gender equality, and big government funded by high taxes that foster a muscular welfare state and education-for-all. And yet this is also a place where butter is good for you, and eating pastry is a national pastime only equalled by a consumption of candy, alcohol and coffee: ingredients, some might say, for a flawless family holiday. 

Denmark

Two-wheel tours: Zooming through Zeeland

Biking culture is big in Denmark, and even though there’s over 7,450 miles (12,000km) of signposted trails, you’re never far from a hire shop with all manner of kit from trailers to tandems. The extensive and mostly flat national cycle network comprises roads with little or no traffic, forested trails and countryside paths. The Danish Cycling Federation’s route planner (naviki.org/en/naviki/) can direct you to the most gentle terrain and quietest roads. Saddle Skedaddle (skedaddle.com) has seven-night, self-guided trips looping from Copenhagen through the castle-studded coast and countryside of East Zealand from £935pp, including B&B hotel accommodation, luggage transfers and detailed maps and trips notes. 

Copenhagen is a great starting point Credit: getty

Copenhagen: The classic coast & city break

Compact, with great public transport, lots of waterside action plus the legendary Tivoli Gardens amusement park (tivoli.dk): the Danish capital is an easy win with small children. Teens should get a kick out of cool galleries like V1 and Last Resort, while Christianshavn offers a window into alternative living with hippie houseboats, vegan cafés  and eye-opening, nonconformist creative pursuits. Danish children return to school in August, so cottages go up in availability, down in cost – around £300 per week sleeping four (cottage-rental.com). Try the Danish Riviera between Copenhagen and Elsinore (where Shakespeare made Kronborg castle Hamlet’s home), for turn-of-the-century hotels, and superlative stretches of sand. 

Aarhus: cultural city break + beach bolthole 

European Capital of Culture and European Region of Gastronomy in 2017, Denmark’s “second” city is Jutland’s jewel. A clean, green “Viking City”, history-rich Aarhus has low-key charm, its cobbled medieval streets interwoven with canals. But there’s a cool contemporary buzz, too – not least in the thriving street food scene (aarhusstreetfood.com). Three miles (5km) south, sea breezes rustle through ancient stands of beech at Marselisborg Forest where sika and fallow deer take chestnuts and acorns from your hands. Check into Hotel Marselis (helnan.dk), set between the beeches and the beach: a grand old seaside hotel with bikes to borrow and an indoor swimming pool should the weather turn. Family rooms from £189 a night.

Aarhus was the European Capital of Culture in 2017 Credit: getty

Billund: Capital of Children

In Billund everything really is awesome. It’s home to Lego House (legohouse.com), an inspired, mega laboratory for Lego play constructed out of giant versions of the colourful Danish-born bricks, and the original Legoland (legoland.dk/en/). Surrounding Jutland is packed with family fun including Lalandia (lalandia.dk), Scandinavia’s largest waterpark, and the safari park at Givskud Zoo (givskudzoo.dk). Such is the density of family-friendly attractions, Billund is called Capital of Children – where local council planning meetings include input from under 16s. Airbnb (airbnb.co.uk) does a roaring trade here. A two-bedroom cottage in nearby Ny Norup, with Engelsholm castle and lake as a backdrop, costs from £70 per night; fly direct from London (ba.com, ryanair.com).

Vejle: the cosy coast 

Sitting pretty at the top of a fjord on Jutland’s east coast, Vejle is fringed with forest and farmland, home to a (rare) Danish hill. It’s a hub for summer activities, with local families flocking to the beaches flanking the fjord. The town has a monster crop of 10+ family-friendly museums, and is a hub for hygge – regularly voted the cosiest place in Denmark in national polls. Vejle is day-tripping distance from Billund’s Lego attractions, too. Feline Holidays (feline-holidays.com) has cosy rental choices – a four-six-bed cottage costs around 3,500kr (£468) a week. Fly to either Billund or Aarhus with Ryanair (ryanair.com), or DFDS (dfdsseaways.co.uk) sails Harwich-Esbjerg (about two hours away).

Billund is home to the original Legoland Credit: getty
Sweden

Lulea: Edge-of-the-Arctic adventure

A forest-fringed city on the edge of the Arctic, Lulea is gateway to Lapland, and the Treehotel (treehotel.se), Sweden’s unique hamlet of futuristic tree houses. Low-rise red-painted buildings make Lulea a tranquil city stay, where ships sail among 700 islands in the Gulf of Bothnia. Go cross-country skiing and skating, downhill skiing at nearby resorts, ice road driving, visit a Sami reindeer herder, try dry suit Arctic swimming and, in the first week of February, Scandinavia’s largest Sami market is in nearby Jokkmokk. Best Served Scandinavia (best-served.co.uk) has five-day trips from £1,585 per adult, £830 per child including flights, transfers, B&B accommodation plus a full-board night in the Treehotel, and guided wilderness/northern lights activities. 

The Ice Hotel: and Arctic activities

Scandinavia’s original Icehotel 365 now offers sub-zero stays year-round (plus regular “warm” room options). Autumn-spring brings aurora-spotting opportunities, while summer’s icy overnights combine with rafting trips on the nearby River Torne under the midnight sun, biking and fishing, and tackling Icehotel’s Treetop Adventure: rope bridges, ziplines and obstacles 59ft (18m) up in the spruce. Sunvil (sunvil.co.uk) has three-night packages costing from £1,120 per person, B&B including flights, transfers, activities (Icehotel cold rooms recommended for children 6+). 

Icehotel 365 now offers sub-zero stays year-round

An island of your own: Ockelbo

Birthplace of Sweden’s iconic orange canoes, and increasingly home to summer houses owned by Stockholmers who can’t afford the capital’s pricey archipelago, Sweden’s central lake-studded Ockelbo farming region is unmapped by British travellers. Come here to pick wild blueberries, go moose spotting, and rent a traditional cottage. Stilleben (stilleben.nu) is a beautifully designed guesthouse from which to explore, complete with a lakeside sauna and family cottages to rent. Go canoeing on river Testeboan, or take a speedboat to Stilleben’s off-grid private island Kabin – a traditional Swedish homestead, best for children 8+. Two-nights in a cottage sleeping six cost from SEK9,805 (£815); Kabin (sleeps four) from SEK8,680 (£720).

West coast: bikes boats and bather’s cottages

Gateway to Sweden’s west coast, buzzy Gothenburg has wooden rollercoasters at Liseberg amusement park, elk and pettable piglets at Slottsskogen Zoo, and mountain bike trails at Anggardsbergen nature reserve. Ninety minutes out to the coast, car-free, beach-fringed islands are blissfully quiet in August when Swedish children return to school, and fisherman host seafood “Big Five” safaris around craggy skerries. Stay at Victorian bather’s cottage Anfasterod Gardsvik on a forested hillside, and rent kayaks and motorised dinghies to explore Bohuslan archipelago’s secret bays. Real Holidays (realholidays.co.uk) has seven-nights’ B&B in Gothenburg/Anfasterod Gardsvik, from £2,950 for a family of four including return flights, transfers, four days’ car hire.

Check out the vast 17th-century Vasa ship in Stockholm Credit: getty

Stockholm: a show-stopping city break 

The interactive ABBA museum, Grona Lund amusement park, the vast 17th-century Vasa ship, and a hotel (nordicchoicehotels.com) with an icebar that does milkshake-fuelled happy hours for kids, makes Stockholm a city break star. Its elegant waterfront has swim spots, ferries to hop on, and a huge archipelago is within day-tripping reach. Utracks (utracks.com) has eight-day self-guided multi-activity breaks in Stockholm and surroundings, with gentle hiking and cycling, a Lake Marviken canoe trip, travel by steamboat, a farmhouse stay and a night lakeside camping from £990 per adult/£670 per child including B&B accommodation with some meals, bike and canoe hire, luggage and boat transfers, plus route notes and maps.

Norway

Scandi ski: Supremely family-friendly slopes

Small, compact and largely served by ski in/out accommodation, Norway’s slopes come with epic scenery – notably the fjord vistas of Voss, and the chocolate-box-beautiful Geilo region. But our vote goes to Trysil, Norway’s biggest ski area. Rent traditional, piste-side turf-roof cabins with saunas, eat food sourced from surrounding farms at wooden hut restaurants secluded in the spruce, and learn from the world’s oldest ski schools. A more-than-respectable mileage of piste means there’s something for everyone, plus pretty-much endless cross-country terrain. Two hour’s drive from Oslo, a week self-catering at Trysil Panorama (a four bed chalet) costs from £500-£1,600. skistar.com/Trysil.

Hunt for the Northern Lights in Tromso Credit: istock

Tromso: Dip a toe in the Arctic

A cultured town within the Arctic Circle, Tromso is a safe bet for families seeking a beginner’s polar adventure. With museums of Sami and polar culture, the Polaria Aquarium modelled on ice floes, and a mini version of Bergen’s Hanseatic Wharf, there are plenty of places to warm up between aurora-viewing and reindeer feeding excursions. Off The Map Travel (offthemap.travel) offers three-night trips from £1,295pp, including fjord-side hotel accommodation, dogsledding, and child-friendly Northern Lights hunting with campfire and hot chocolate, plus time to explore the city. A novel way to arrive is aboard Norway’s coastal Hurtigruten service; sailings offering Young Explorers programmes have free activities for 7-13 yrs hurtigruten.co.uk/inspiration/experiences/young-explorers-programme.

The Frozen Fjords: Let it go

With spectacular land always in sight, and regular ports of call where kayaking is on offer, a fjords cruise won’t frustrate young travellers. In cinemas this November, Frozen 2 will put the fjords firmly back in family favour. Sail with Disney Magic (disneyholidays.co.uk/disney-cruise-line), to meet Anna, Elsa and Kristoff, plus enjoy almost endless other entertainment for tots to teens. Seven nights from Dover from £1,656pp.

The Western fjords, around Alesund and Bergen are great for land-based exploration: Rondane National Park for kayaking, Kongsvoll for musk ox safari, the Wild Reindeer Centre Pavilion for Europe’s last wild reindeer herd. Exsus Travel (exsus.com) has 10 nights from £2,000pp. 

Try out kayaking in Rondane National Park Credit: getty

The Sørlandet Riviera: holiday like a Norwegian

The recent opening of the underwater restaurant in Lindesnes (under.no) has put Sorlandet on the map, but Norway’s southern reaches are something of a secret, kept by generations of summering Norwegian families who return annually to its bright briny coasts. Expect fresh and saltwater swimming spots, well-marked national cycle routes navigating coast and mountains, plus child-oriented rock climbing, kayaking, rafting and hiking. There are some novel places to stay, including a network of working lighthouses (family apartments from £70 per night). And with direct flights from the UK (London Stansted to Kristiansand: wideroe.no), it’s a sea-breeze to get to. visitnorway.com/places-to-go/southern-norway.

Iceland

Meet the gentle giants: Whale watching

Minke, orca, humpback and blue: just some of the 23 whale species found breeching Iceland’s waters. Sightings are seasonal, but there’s action year-round, notably minke, along with coast-hugging white-beaked dolphin and harbour porpoise. Summer trips from northern ports bring gregarious humpback displays, while orcas feed the herring-rich fjords of West Iceland in winter. Most excursions are child-friendly, but be mindful of Iceland’s notoriously changeable weather, and sailing durations. Regent Holidays (regent-holidays.co.uk) has a week’s Orcas and Auroras fly-drive in February half term, from £5,070 for a family of four, including hotel accommodation in a family room, flights and 4x4 car hire.

Iceland is one of the best places in the world for whale watching Credit: getty

Living geography: a volcanic classroom

From seething hot springs to smoking volcanoes, lava fields to black-sand beaches and glacial lagoons, Iceland has unbeatable wow-and-how? factor. Beyond the Blue Lagoon (bluelagoon.com), and Into the Glacier underground experience (intotheglacier.is), the recently opened LAVA Centre in Hvolsvollur (lavacentre.is) is the place to absorb explosive geological facts. Then there’s the pounding 195ft (60m) Skogafoss waterfall to get sprayed by, plus jeep safaris, fjord-side horse riding, and kayaking the sheltered waters of Stokkseyri. Discover The World (discover-the-world.com) offers seven-night self-drive tours in July-August, taking in Iceland’s weirdest geological wonders, from £4,553 per family (based on two children under 11), including B&B hotel accommodation, and car hire. 

Under the Aurora: Geysers and glaciers

Iceland’s eye-popping geology never looks more ethereal than under the aurora. Tours – which unlike mainland Scandinavia, mostly cater to older children (8+) – can be cost-effective. Weekends in Reykjavik, one of Europe’s most family-friendly cities, in autumn half-term often bring clear skies perfect for aurora viewing (the season runs October-March), plus urban comforts as back up. 

Don’t go DIY. You’ll need to leave the city to escape light pollution, and tour operators will have the low-down on when aurora activity is up, know the best places to study the skies, and come equipped with cosmic facts to engage children. Seven nights from £779pp, including hotel accommodation and car hire. all-iceland.co.uk

Go hunting for geysers and glaciers Credit: getty

Road trips: the best routes

Hit the road to get the best of Iceland. Short trips with plenty of stops reveal puffins, seals and reindeer, and perhaps Arctic fox. Summer affords easy-access road trips when families can tackle the north’s lake-studded Diamond Circle: fantastic for whale watching, Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall, and Jokulsargljufur national park. Southern Iceland’s ever-popular Golden Circle is year-round go-to from Reykjavik taking in Thingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gullfoss waterfall – easily combined with the East Fjords: boating through icebergs on Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon, and thundering Svartifoss waterfall in Vatnajokull National Park. Responsible Travel (responsibletravel.com) has 11-day round-island fly-drives from £1,500pp, including B&B accommodation and car hire.

Journey to the centre of the earth: Iceland’s wild west

The Snaefellsnes peninsular, as immortalised in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, is within reach of Rekyavik and the Golden Circle – but feels a world away. A mythical land of Verne and also, according to the majority of locals, resident elves, Snaefellsnes’ black-sand beaches are backed by Budir’s other-worldly lava fields, overlooked by the Snaefellsjokull volcano where Verne’s subterranean journey started. Discover The World (discover-the-world.com) offers flexible family fly-drive itineraries, staying at its three-bedroom self-catering Glacier Lodge cottage, from £434pp for three nights, including accommodation, car hire and an iDiscover digital travel guide with live weather updates, route and sights information.

You can see where Jules Verne got his inspiration Credit: getty
Finland

More than the aurora: Arctic activities

Most Finnish Lapland winter packages focus on places to stay and spot the Northern Lights, including the new Arctic Fox Igloos: 20 lakeside wood and glass cabins in Ranua Wilderness Park. Other polar pursuits include lessons from a local Arctic fisherman, horse-drawn safari, husky sledding, snow shoeing, plus moose, Arctic fox, lynx, elk, deer and polar bears at Ranua Wildlife Park (english.ranuazoo.com). 

The Ranua Pick and Mix trip from Activities Abroad (activitiesabroad.com) allows for action-packed or very laid-backed trips, from £627 per adult (age 15+), £607 per child (age 4-14), including flights, transfers, two nights’ half-board accommodation (one in an Arctic Fox Igloo).

Seek out Santa: Finnish Lapland

Greenland asserts otherwise, but Santa’s home, at least for holidaying families, is Finnish Lapland. The theme park-style town of Rovaniemi is the ho-ho hub for Santa Park (santapark.com), Santa’s office and an Elf School, and Santa Claus Village (santaclausvillage.info). 

Further north, Ivalo is the place for Santa breaks around the remote Inari lake, immortalised in author Philip Pullman’s epic trilogy His Dark Materials. Meet Sami reindeer herders, a local husky dog whisperer, and forge across the ice on snowmobiles or cross-country skis before warming up in a sauna. Scan Adventures (scanadventures.co.uk) has five-night all-inclusive Inari Santa trips from £1,635 per adult and £1,195 per child.

Go on a bear hunt: Finland’s really wild show 

Forgo the snow season and you’ll reap rich natural rewards: in summer, when wildflowers bloom, Finland’s untamed northeast is the place to go brown bear spotting. Kylmaluoma National Park, near the Russian border, is one of the best places to see Europe’s rare brown bear in its natural habitat. The region also has ample places to go wild lake swimming, canoeing, rafting and fishing, plus a visit to a reindeer farm for feeding and lasso lessons. Explore (explore.co.uk) has seven-day group trips (10-16 people), from £1,760pp, all-inclusive.

Summer in the south: Moomins and more

Idyllic setting of Tove Jansson’s beloved The Summer Book, southern Finland is also home to attractions dedicated to her trippy hippo-like Moomin characters. The compact coastal capital (where Helsinki Art Museum houses a permanent exhibition of Jansson’s work) is jumping off point for the Pellinge archipelago, and Jansson’s summer house, the setting of her seminal seasonal book (slated to be made into a movie starring Julie Walters). The house itself (on Klovharu island) opens to visitors in July only, but there are plenty of other places to rent one of your own – try Finnish booking site: lomarengas.fi

Spend time with the Moomins Credit: JENNI VIRTA ILOINEN LIFTARI OY

Inland, Tampere is home to the Moomin Museum (muumimuseo.fi) while further southwest near Turku, Moominworld (moominworld.fi) theme park is the most obvious family offering, where neighbouring Naantali Spa (naantalispa.fi) comes complete with themed Moomin Story Rooms.

The Travel Experience (travel-experience.net/cycling.htm) offers southern itineraries including new week-long family-friendly coastal bike tours. From €996 (£880) including B&B accommodation, bikes and kit, GPX files, cycling maps, luggage transportation, and a 24 hour emergency service. 

Greenland

The big adventure: Inuit communities & icebergs

A terra incognita for most travellers, the world’s largest non-continental island is the ultimate Nordic family adventure. An Arctic terrain where nature’s raw power reigns, Greenland is not a cheap or “easy” destination, but it can’t be topped for glacial glazed mountains, pristine fjords, a unique blend of Inuit and Danish culture and, of course, those icebergs. 

Baltic Travel Company (baltictravelcompany.com) arranges trips visiting the world’s longest fjord, dog sledding, and spotting the Northern Lights, humpback whales, reindeer, musk oxen, and floating icebergs. Seven days from £1,595 per person, including return flights from the UK, via Copenhagen, B&B accommodation and select activities. 

Faroe Islands 

Summer school: unique stays

Recently closed for maintenance in a pioneering conservation move, the self-governing North Atlantic Danish territory is now open for business. Beyond new-Nordic cuisine and birdlife, it’s a boon for families after bucket list kudos. 

Tiny, treeless Stora Dimun, its smallest island, is a 20-minute helicopter flight from the capital, Torshavn. Home to just two families, schoolhouse accommodation (where visiting teachers educate island children), costs from 1,000kr (£120) per night (storadimun.fo). Six of the 18 Faroe islands are navigable by car/ferry with signposted “buttercup routes”, indicating scenic trails, and grass-roof cottage accommodation.

More info visitfaroeislands.com

Atlantic Airways (atlantic.fo) flies return to Vága (the sole international airport), from Copenhagen and Edinburgh from £150.