Where is Scandinavia? A Guide to the Scandinavian Countries

Where is Scandinavia? It’s a question we hear often and it’s harder to answer that one might think.

What is referred to as Scandinavian changes depending on the context, and on who you ask. If you’re talking about geography, culture, or language, the answer may be different.

When you throw the word “Nordic” into the mix, things get even less clear as you tackle Nordic vs Scandinavian in different contexts; when do you use “Nordic,” and when do you use “Scandinavian?” Some people seem to use them interchangeably, while others assign specific meanings to each word.

While we can’t pretend that everyone agrees on the definitions and origins, we’ve gathered the various terms and the context in which they’re applied to try to make sense of this Northern mess.

Here is the definitive answer to “Where is Scandinavia?” and “What countries make up Scandinavia?” Sort of.


What does the word “Scandinavia” mean?

Why are these countries called “Scandinavian?” The origin of the word “Scandinavia” arose in the early 18th century as a result of Danish and Swedish universities championing the shared history, mythology, arts, and culture of the three countries of: Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.

The base of the movement was Scania, also known as Skåne, the southernmost province of Sweden; this gave rise to the term “Scandinavia.”

Remember: until 1814, Denmark and Norway were actually united under one kingdom (hence their joint love of hygge). After that time, Norway and Sweden were under one kingdom until Norway’s independence in 1905.

“Scania” and “Scandinavia” are considered to have the same etymology.

Which countries are part of Scandinavia?

The meaning of Scandinavia is a group of countries in northern Europe that includes Denmark, Norway and Sweden, sometimes also Finland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands.

In Danish and Swedish, it’s known as Skandinavien; in Norwegian, Faroese and Finnish it’s Skandinavia; in Icelandic it’s Skandinavía and in Sami it’s known as Skadesi-suolu/Skađsuâl.



Scandinavian Geography

We’ve started with the easy one: the geography of Scandinavia!

When referencing the geographic region of Scandinavia, there are three Scandinavian countries: Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Greenland, which is a Danish territory, and the Faroe Islands, which is a self-governing part of Denmark, are also included in the list.

Finland and Iceland are not considered part of Scandinavia geographically.

The Arctic Circle is partially contained within the Scandinavian countries, as well as the US, Canada, and Asia (Russia specifically).


What are the seven Scandinavian countries?

Plot twist! There are not seven Scandinavian countries, but this is a popular misconception. When people refer to “seven” they typically mean the Nordic states (of which there are five), plus Greenland and the Faroe Islands.


What are the five Nordic countries?

The five Nordic countries are Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Finland. The Nordic countries share a Nordic identity, are in the region of Northern Europe, and all have the Nordic cross as their flag


Map of Scandinavia




What is the The Scandinavian Peninsula?

The Scandinavian Peninsula is made up of Sweden and Norway. The peninsula is about 1,150 mi (1,850 km) long and extends southward from the Barents Sea in the north, the Norwegian sea to the west and the Gulf of Bothnia and the Baltic Sea to the east.

Kattegat and Skagerrak separate the peninsular from Denmark. Norway lies to the west, and Sweden lies to the east. The peninsula has an area of 750,000 sq km (289,500 sq mi).

The landscape essentially consists of a mountainous ranges, created by glaciation shift about 2,600,000 to 11,700 years ago. Sweden has comparatively gentle slopes of of a low gradient down to the Baltic Sea, while Norway’s mountains continue close to the coastline, and are deeply cut by beautiful fjords.

Why is Denmark part of Scandinavia?

The Kingdom of Denmark is not located on the Scandinavian Peninsula, which is primarily composed of Norway and Sweden. However, Denmark is still considered part of the broader Scandinavian cultural and geographical region due to historical, linguistic, and cultural connections.

The Baltic Sea connects Denmark with the rest of the Scandinavian region, facilitating trade, travel, and cultural exchange.

Denmark consists of the Jutland Peninsula and a large number of islands, both large and small. The geography of Denmark is characterized by its flat landscape, coastal areas, and numerous water bodies.

What continent is Scandinavia in?

Scandinavia is part of Europe, and is usually referred to as northern Europe.

How many countries in Scandinavia?

Geographically, there are 3 Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Sweden, and Norway). Culturally, there are 6 Scandinavian countries Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland, and The Faroe Islands.



Scandinavian Culture

This is probably the most widely used context for talking about Scandinavia, and also the least clear. When people refer to Scandinavian culture, they’re referring to shared history, traditions, literature, and design.

Because Scandinavian design has become so popular around the world, the term often used when talking about minimalist and mid-century design aesthetic traditions.

Because the histories of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Finland are so intertwined, as well as things like holidays and traditions, this group of five countries is often referred to as culturally Scandinavian.

The political systems across all these countries, especially their welfare models, are similar, though not identical. When referring to the “Scandinavian” or “Nordic” welfare model, all five countries are generally included.

Finland’s design and architectural history is closely tied to that of the rest of the region, and it would be a mistake to leave Finland out (and designers like Alvar Aalto, for example) when discussing Scandinavian design.

It is therefore reasonable to include both Iceland and Finland when discussing Scandinavia as a cultural region. It would also be correct to refer to “Nordic culture.”


Are the Finns Scandinavians?

The term “Scandinavian” typically refers to people and things originating from the Scandinavian Peninsula, which includes the countries of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Finland is often not considered part of the Scandinavian Peninsula, as it is located to the east of the peninsula and has distinct cultural, historical, and linguistic differences from the Scandinavian countries.

Finland is sometimes referred to as a Nordic country, along with Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland. The term “Nordic” encompasses a broader group of countries that share certain cultural and geographical characteristics, including a history of close cooperation, social welfare systems, and similar political and economic models.

What is the Scandinavian population?

21 million people



Scandinavian Language

If you’ve ever studied comparative linguistics, you’ve likely heard the term “North Germanic languages.” This refers to a branch of Germanic languages, a sub-group of Indo-European languages. North Germanic languages include Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Faroese, and Icelandic.

So what language is spoken in Scandinavia? The term “Scandinavian languages” refers exclusively to the three languages that are mutually understood (in theory) by speakers of each language: Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian.

Finnish is part of the Finnic group of the Uralic languages, which also include Estonian and Hungarian. Swedish is also an official language of Finland and Swedish-speaking Finns constitute 5% of the population; this dialect is called Finland Swedish.



Lingering Questions

Is Finland part of Scandinavia?

That depends! Politically and geographically, Finland is part of the Nordic region but not the Scandinavian region. Linguistically, Finland falls into a peculiar category: the country’s majority official language is unrelated to Scandinavian, and even Indo-European, languages. It does, however, have a significant minority of Scandinavian (Swedish) language speakers, so much so that Swedish is a minority official language.

Culturally, Finland can certainly be considered Scandinavian. From the history to the welfare model to the design traditions, Finland is solidly tied to the rest of the Scandinavian countries.

In terms of design, important Finnish brands such as Artek, Marimekko, and Friends of Industry all fall squarely into the Scandinavian design heritage.


Is Iceland part of Scandinavia?

That depends! When discussing Scandinavia as a political or geographic region, Iceland is not included. It is, however, part of the Nordic region.

In terms of language, Icelandic is part of the North Germanic language sub-category, also called the Nordic languages.

Iceland was part of Norway, then the Kalmar Union, then Denmark, before gaining recognition as a sovereign state in 1918 (while defense and foreign affairs were still managed by Denmark), then declaring full independence in 1944. Iceland therefore has significant historical and cultural ties to the region.

The main elements of Icelandic design align with general Scandinavian design: minimalism, functionality, and a focus on craftsmanship.

Icelandic design falls under the umbrella of Scandinavian design. It is therefore correct to call Iceland culturally Nordic or Scandinavian.


Are the Faroe Islands part of Scandinavia?

Yes! The Faroe Islands are a self-governing entity that is part of Denmark, and therefore by any definition are considered part of Scandinavia. Faroese culture and language, however, may be considered separate from Scandinavian culture and language, though the language is part of the North Germanic languages.


Are the Netherlands part of Scandinavia?

No! Though this is a common misconception, the Netherlands are not part of Scandinavia. The Netherlands do share some historical and culture elements with Scandinavia, and are in the Northern region of Europe, so it makes sense that people would sometimes make this mistake.

What is the richest Nordic country?

The Nordic countries are known for their relative levels of “happiness” (we prefer to think of this as contentment) and wealth. While there are a few different economic indicators of wealth, the Nordic country with the highest GDP (gross domestic product) per capita is Norway. The Nordic country with the highest GDP in general is Sweden. All of the Nordic countries fall into the top 20 countries in the world with highest GDP per capita.

The combination of high taxes, high employment, and small wealth gaps has created an overall healthy economic situation for the Nordic countries compared to the rest of the world.


Nordic vs Scandinavian: What about the word “Nordic?”

When beloved Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, a proponent of pan-Scandinavism, wrote his 1839 poem “I am a Scandinavian,” he noted that he wanted to capture “the beauty of the Nordic spirit.”

Essentially, ever since the words “Scandinavian” and “Nordic” have existed, they have been used interchangeably by some. Most remarkably, these Scandinavia vs Nordic definitions arose many people’s furies, despite the nuanced nature of “Scandinavia” when used in various contexts.

The word “Nordic” can be used specifically to refer to the geographic and political Nordic region, which includes Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Finland. These are also known as the norse countries.





So…what’s the gist?

If you’re speaking of a specific current geographic or political context, “Scandinavia” means the region that includes Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and the Faroe Islands. If you’d like to include Finland and Iceland in that same context, use the word “Nordic.”

When speaking of a cultural region including shared history and design, the words “Scandinavian” and “Nordic” are interchangeable.


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Rebecca Thandi Norman

Rebecca Thandi Norman is a co-founder and Editor-in-Chief at Scandinavia Standard.