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Stockholm vs Helsinki: Which Nordic capital should you visit?

Both of these green destinations appear in the World Happiness Report, so a future Scandinavian city break ought to put a smile on your face. But, should you opt for Stockholm or Helsinki?

Stockholm skyline (Shutterstock)

Stockholm

Population: 972,647

Total area: 188 sq km

Famous for: Its island structure, orange-hued old town and being the birthplace of Swedish pop supergroup ABBA

Helsinki

Population: 648,042

Total area: 213 sq km

Famous for: World-class design, bursts of Art Deco architecture and the blindingly white Helsinki Cathedral

Helsinki vs Stockholm on... culture

Helsinki's seaside market (Shutterstock)

Helsinki's seaside market (Shutterstock)

The sprawling archipelago that makes up Stockholm is punctuated by royal palaces, 13th century architecture and scattered with Swedish history.

In the present, it is one of Europe’s premier museum destinations, while its gardens and coffeehouses are perfect for fika (coffee, cake and a chat).

Inside Stockholm's Royal Palace (Shutterstock)

Inside Stockholm's Royal Palace (Shutterstock)

Despite serving as capital for 200 years, Helsinki still has a coastal charm that lingers as you wander into the centre: a mix of avenues, stylish stores and coffee shops, as well as the spectacular cathedral.

The city feels well-organised, not surprising given the Finnish affinity for clean design.

Helsinki vs Stockholm on... walking trails

Swedes gather for coffee in Tyresta National Park (Shutterstock)

Swedes gather for coffee in Tyresta National Park (Shutterstock)

Around 30% of Stockholm is green, so it’s easy to find a park to explore.

Forty minutes south of the city, Tyresta National Park’s serene lakes and swathes of tall pine forest – look out for roe deer and mountain hare among the trees.

An hour away, sections around Lake Mälaren are also ideal for ambles or cycles.

Nuuksio (Shutterstock)

Nuuksio (Shutterstock)

Sipoonkorpi is the closest national park to Helsinki.

Under an hour’s drive away, you’ll find numerous marked nature trails (ranging from an effortless 1km to a more tricky-terrain 5km) – all through the park’s seemingly never-ending spruce forest. Nuuksio, also within easy reach, is a mix of forest and mirror-esque lakes.

Helsinki vs Stockholm on... museums

Kiasma Contemporary Art Museum, Helsinki (Shutterstock)

Kiasma Contemporary Art Museum, Helsinki (Shutterstock)

Stockholm is awash with museums, so head to Djurgården and start exploring.There’s the interactive ABBA Museum, imposing Vasa Museum – preserving a sunken ship from 1628 – as well as the Nobel Prize Museum.

For a breath of (real) fresh air, the old-school village in Skansen is the world’s oldest open-air museum

Vasa Museum (Shutterstock)

Vasa Museum (Shutterstock)

The Finnish capital’s offerings focus on art and design. Kiasma is a contemporary art lover’s playground, while Amos Rex houses a collection of futuristic work.

The Designmuseo in Kaartinkaupunki is the top ticket for devotees to the Finnish aesthetic, with an exhibit featuring furniture, clothing, prints and more.

Helsinki vs Stockholm on... islands

Stockholm's islands (Shutterstock)

Stockholm's islands (Shutterstock)

Stockholm’s 14 well-connected islands boast a diverse array of old and new.

Riddarholmen and Stadsholmen islets combine to make up Gamla Stan, the colourful and well-preserved old town.

Modern Södermalm, on the other hand, has a voguish photography exhibition, trendy shops and even trendier eateries.

Suomenlinna (Shutterstock)

Suomenlinna (Shutterstock)

A 15-minute ferry ride from Helsinki’s Market Square is the UNESCO-listed Suomenlinna, a star-shaped sea fortress, swarmed by nature and spread across six connected islands.

Created in the 18th century when Finland was still part of Sweden, it remained a military base until 1972. It exists today as a cultural treasure.

Verdict

There’s much to admire in these Nordic capitals and plenty of cafés to collapse in after a busy day’s sightseeing. Stockholm may have a slightly broader appeal for the classic city break fan, while contemporary design devotees will be delighted with Helsinki.

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