As a Finn, I have taken more road trips through Sweden and Denmark that I can remember. My parents would pack us up in the car, we'd take a ferry from Finland to Sweden, and off we'd go to spend a summer vacation in Germany.
Just recently I lived in Linköping, Sweden for three years with my family, and got to re-live many of my childhood memories from those road trips through Sweden and Denmark. More importantly, I got to share them with my own children. What I realized is that there is no need to drive all the way from the Nordic countries to Central Europe, there is much to see in Denmark and Sweden themselves, and they make a great road trip destination for families (though they may not be the cheapest!).
Start your adventure in Copenhagen, Denmark
Copenhagen is the cheapest destination to fly to, the most international Nordic capital, and almost like a gateway between Scandinavia and Central Europe. Copenhagen is the home of, in my opinion, the world's best restaurant, Noma, the Little Mermaid statue, and the famous Nyhavn harbor.
Nyhavn, Copenhagen. Photo by Katja Presnal.
For art lovers, Copenhagen offers several great museums, like the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. Architecture enthusiasts will delight in visiting the 8tallet, urban community complex including apartments, business space, and a restaurant.
8tallet complex in Copenhagen. Photo by Katja Presnal.
If you didn't get a reservation for Noma, don't worry. There are many other options and the good news is that you don't have to spend a fortune to eat well in Copenhagen. Smørrebrød, an open sandwich, is always a great option, and the city is full of amazing restaurants.
If you are traveling with younger kids, they will like the Den Blå Planet, the modern aquarium. And nobody should miss visiting one the most fantastic amusement parks in the world, the Tivoli Gardens, which has been the inspiration for many other amusement parks around the world, including Disneyland!
Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. Photo by Katja Presnal.
Children will also enjoy the original LEGOLAND in Billund. I highly recommend staying at the LEGOLAND resort which both makes the stay convenient and gives you the full LEGO experience. When we stayed there, we were able to see LEGOLAND from our hotel room window and appreciated how easy it was to get to the park in the morning.
LEGOLAND in Billund, Denmark. Photo by Katja Presnal.
It takes about three hours to drive from Copenhagen to Billund (warning: the bridge tolls are pretty high), and Odense makes for an excellent stop along the way. Odense is the birthplace to one of the best fairytale authors/poets of all time: H.C. Andersen. You can visit his birth house and the Hans Christian Andersen Museum!
Odense, Denmark. Photo by Katja Presanl.
When you are heading from Copenhagen to Sweden, the simplest way is to drive over the bridge to Malmö on the Swedish side. I personally recommend heading to the west of Copenhagen and taking a ferry from Helsingør, Denmark, to Helsingborg in Sweden. But first be sure to stop on the way at the Louisiana Modern Art Museum in Humlebæk. It's a perfect pit stop featuring the Louisiana museum where lunch is much better than the one on the ferry.
Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark. Photo by Katja Presnal.
Stop at these cities before heading to Stockholm
I highly recommend taking your time while traveling from Copenhagen to Stockholm. Stay in cheaper smaller towns and experience the Swedish country side. First, stop at Gränna, a charming town by Lake Vättern known for "polkagris," peppermint candy canes. The first peppermint candy canes were made in Gränna back in 1859, and today Gränna is still known for the candy canes. There are several stores, where you can watch the candy canes be made in the traditional way.
Gränna, Sweden. Photo by Katja Presnal.
Continue your trip via lake Vättern and stop at Vadstena, a great destination for a weekend. I highly recommend staying at the old Abbey transformed into a hotel! The Vadstena Castle area is definitely worth visiting, and you absolutely have to see the moat surrounding the castle, which is nowadays used as a guest marina for boats!
Speaking of boats, don't miss the Göta canal when you visit Sweden so you can watch the boats go through the locks. Göta canal was constructed to link the lakes of Sweden, creating a waterway of over 600 km (close to 400 miles) through Sweden. Once the railway system was built, the canal was not needed for transportation of goods anymore, and it became the largest tourist attraction of Sweden. My favorite place to experience Göta Canal is the Berg Locks in Linköping. It's pretty impressive to see boats, especially large canal boats or sailboats go through the locks. Berg Locks has 7 locks, and the surrounding area is gorgeous.
Göta canal, Sweden. Photo by Katja Presnal.
Linköping itself makes for a great overnight stop. The city center, near the Kinda canal, is charming and you can experience the old Sweden in Gamla Linköping, Old Linköping, outdoor museum. It is one of my favorite interactive museums I've ever visited.
Gamla Linköping. Photo by Katja Presanl.
Other great cities to stop on at your way to Stockholm are Norrköping and Kolmården, but I am partial to Linköping after living there for three years. Norrköping has a fantastic art scene and an interesting industrial history. If you have young kids, they will like the Kolmården Zoo, about an hour south of Stockholm. You can take the gondola above the animals and watch the lions and bears and other animals right below you. The amazing sea view is an added bonus. Another kid-friendly (despite the name) attraction you should take in before heading to Stockholm is the Tom Tits Experiment. It's a science museum where kids can learn through hands-on experiments.
End your trip in Stockholm
Where Copenhagen is more cosmopolitan, Stockholm is more luxurious, and beautiful with stunning views of the archipelago surrounding the city. There are so many things for families to do and it's easy to navigate. See some of my favorites and stay tuned for more of my Stockholm recommendations on my Sweden notemap on Findery.