Nordic vs. Scandinavian: A Complete Guide to the Proper Use of the Terms

Nordic flags

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In northern Europe, the words "Scandinavian" and "Nordic" are not used as interchangeably as they are in other parts of the world. If you ever call someone from Finland or Iceland Scandinavian, it's likely that you will be corrected and given a brief history lesson. Knowing the difference between the terms Scandinavian and Nordic is a hard distinction to make for anyone that is not a resident of these countries, so it's important to go back to the basics to clarify each expression.

The Difference Between Nordic and Scandinavian

In short, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark are all Nordic countries with Scandinavian roots, but typically, you will only find Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish people referring to themselves as Scandinavian.

Scandinavian, Nordic, or Baltic?

Scandinavian Countries

Geographically speaking, the Scandinavian peninsula is the area shared by Norway, Sweden, and a part of northern Finland. From this perspective, the Scandinavian countries would, therefore, include only Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. However, culturally and historically, the north of Europe has been the political playground of the kingdoms of those three countries, with Finland once being a part of the Kingdom of Sweden and Iceland once belonging to Denmark. Therefore, you can see why so many non-Scandinavians naturally connect Scandinavia to Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland.

Linguistically, Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish have a common word called skandinavien, which refers to the ancient territories of the Norse people: Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. This definition is considered to be the most commonly accepted definition of Scandinavia at the present time, but can easily change as you travel across different regions.

Nordic Countries

Adding to this state of linguistic and geographical confusion, the French invented the term le pays Nordiques or "Nordic Countries." This has become a common term to bring together all five of the northern European countries under the same umbrella and is accepted by all five countries.


Sweden is known for its many lakes. It's also the biggest of the Scandinavian countries by landmass and population. The most popular cities in Sweden include Stockholm (the capital) and Malmö.


As the northernmost European country, Norway is known for its frequent midnight sun. The country is also filled with gorgeous fjords and landscapes.


Iceland is popular for its otherworldly landscapes, access to the northern lights, and the Blue Lagoon (one of the many amazing hot springs in the country). Many impressive landscapes were used as filming locations for "Game of Thrones."


Finland is still under the radar for most tourists but its surprisingly mild climate and diverse regional landscape make it an ideal Nordic vacation destination. Finns are known to be very kind and you should make sure to enjoy the nation's saunas before you leave.


If you like to bike Denmark will be your ideal Nordic country. Biking is integral to daily life so much of the country is very cyclist-friendly. Copenhagen is the most well-known city and is ideal for travelers who like to walk as much of the city is catered to pedestrians. Public transit and walkways in the city are also highly accessible for wheelchair and mobility aid users.

Baltic Countries and Greenland

The Baltic countries are the three young Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. All three countries lie on the Baltic sea (hence the name) along with Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Poland, and Russia. Greenland is a territory that is closer to America than to Europe but belongs politically to the kingdom of Denmark. Neither the Baltic countries nor Greenland is considered Scandinavian or Nordic.

However, there is a close relationship between the Nordic countries and the Baltics and Greenland. The Baltic republics have been strongly influenced, both culturally and historically, by the Scandinavian countries and the same applies to a part of Greenland's historical and cultural heritage.