Last updated on November 21, 2023 by Wandering our World
Planning a Nordic adventure? If so, you might find yourself hesitating about which country to visit. Iceland and Norway are two of the very best options, famed for their majestic natural landscapes, friendly people, unique cultures, and fantastic attractions. But which one is best to visit?
Well, that’s not an easy question to answer, and a lot will depend on your own personal tastes and preferences. Norway and Iceland may have some similarities, but they’re also surprisingly different locations in a lot of ways, especially in key aspects, like affordability, attractions, big city entertainment, and so on.
There’s also a massive difference in size, with Norway being significantly more expanse – and with a much larger population – than Iceland. And this may impact your experience, with Norway feeling like a busier and livelier place overall, and Iceland appealing to those who want nothing but peace and quiet, from the hustle and bustle of busier nations.
All in all, there are quite a lot of differences separating Norway and Iceland, and this guide will dig into some of the big ones. We’ll look at how the countries compare in a range of key areas, from their cities and activities to their hiking opportunities, average costs, weather conditions, and more. By the end, you’ll hopefully know all you need to know to make your choice.
- A Quick Overview Of Norway vs Iceland
- Which Has The Best Weather?
- Which Is Best For Activities?
- Which Is Best For Cities?
- Which Is Best For Hiking And Nature?
- Which Is Best For Nightlife?
- Which Is Best For Shopping?
- Which Is Best For Food?
- Which Is Best For Families?
- Which Is Best For Couples?
- Which Is Best For Backpackers?
- Which Is Cheapest?
- Where To Stay According To Your Budget
- Norway vs Iceland: Which Is Better?
A Quick Overview Of Norway vs Iceland
Norway: A Quick Overview
Norway is a Nordic country in Northern Europe, mostly situated on the Scandinavian Peninsula, with smaller sections on the archipelago of Svalbard and the little Arctic island of Jan Mayen. In total, Norway extends across 148,729 square miles, and it’s home to almost 5.5 million people. It has borders with Sweden, Finland, and Russia.
Norway as we know it today has existed for over 1,100 years. Before that, the land was controlled by a multitude of petty kingdoms, which decided to form one unified nation in 872. The country’s past is also strongly associated with the famous Vikings, and many people head to Norway to learn about Viking culture, with multiple interesting museums to explore.
Geographically, Norway is well-known for its striking fjords – long, narrow stretches of water that pass between steep cliffs, formed by glaciers long ago. The country also has approximately 400,000 lakes, and large parts of its landmass are covered in mountains. This makes it a prime destination for outdoor adventures, like hiking and climbing.
And, while many people flock to Norway to soak up its scenic landscapes and explore the mountains and fjords, there’s much more to uncover about this country, from its surprisingly diverse culinary scene to its rich cities, like Oslo and Bergen, which are fantastic places to shop, dine, and have fun. All in all, Norway offers a terrific blend of natural and urban entertainment.
Iceland: A Quick Overview
Iceland is an island country and part of the Nordic group of nations, situated between the North Atlantic and Arctic Ocean, just off the southeast coast of Greenland. It extends across 39,817 square miles of land and is home to around 380,000 people, with over a third of the country’s population living in the capital city of Reykjavik.
According to historic records and findings, it’s believed that Viking explorers came to Iceland in the 870s, with many Norwegians later settling on the island. It was an independent commonwealth for many years, later becoming united with Norway and other Scandinavian nations and finally gaining independence in the 20th century.
The second-biggest island in Europe, Iceland is made up mostly of tundra and is famed for its impressive volcanic landscape. Indeed, a vast volcanic plateau covers the island’s interior, with lava fields, mountains, black sands, and natural hot springs. Like Norway, Iceland also has a series of fjords along its more than 3,000 mile coastline.
Thanks to its small size and sparse population, Iceland is a very unique destination, with a completely chilled-out vibe that many travelers enjoy. It feels far from the hustle and bustle of other destinations, and even its biggest city, Reykjavik, is a wonderfully tranquil and calming place, appealing to couples and off-the-beaten-path adventurers.
Which Has The Best Weather?
Since both Norway and Iceland are in the Nordic region, you shouldn’t head to either of these countries except warm temperatures and sunny days. They’re both quite cold places for large parts of the year, but there are some clear climate differences between the two.
In Iceland, expect to find cold temperatures and plenty of rain pretty much all year long. In Norway, however, while temperatures are also quite low for large parts of the year, many parts of the country, including the capital of Oslo, get to experience a real summer, with quite warm highs and pleasant conditions for spending time outside.
Overall, Norway has slightly better weather than Iceland in general, but it all depends on which part of the country you visit and what time of year you plan your trip.
Which Is Best For Activities?
One of the big selling points of Norway and Iceland – and the other Nordic nations – is the vast array of special activities you can enjoy in this part of the world. However, given their differing landscapes and conditions, these two countries each offer their own unique range of things to see and do.
Norway: The Activities
It’s impossible to talk about the best things to do in Norway without mentioning the iconic fjords, so let’s start there. Many visitors to this country will want to dedicate at least a day or two of their trips to seeing the fjords. You can hike around them, take a cruise, or ride a ferry – either way, you’re sure to be wowed by the intense beauty of these amazing natural spaces.
But there’s much more to Norway than its fjords. The mountains, too, are thrilling places to explore. If you love to hike, you’ll find countless named and signposted trails around, ranging from family-friendly national park paths to much trickier treks. Skiing is popular here, as well, or you could consider a road trip along Norway’s many scenic roads, like Trollstigen.
Want to learn more about Norway’s past, especially the Vikings and the rich heritage of the Norsemen? If so, Norway is replete with museums that can teach you all about that legendary seafaring civilization, with the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo being one of the best places to start. There are also plenty more museums in Oslo, Bergen, and other cities.
Speaking of cities and towns, Norway is also excellent for urban exploration. Oslo is the perfect place to embrace Norwegian lifestyles, but there are so many more places to see beyond the capital, and many of them are absolutely worth checking out, with pretty homes, friendly locals, great food, and unique attractions the whole family can enjoy.
Iceland: The Activities
If you’re heading to Iceland, you’ll probably want to start off in the country’s biggest city, Reykjavik. That’s where you’ll be able to see some distinctive Icelandic landmarks, like the Hallgrimskirkja Church and Harpa Concert Hall. This is also home to Iceland’s best museums for those want to educate themselves on Icelandic culture and history.
However, Iceland is much more about natural landscapes than big cities. If you’re coming to this part of the world, you’ll most likely want to set off and see the majesty of Mother Nature firsthand. The iconic Golden Circle is a must-see – this is a 186-mile route that visits the country’s prettiest natural spots, like the Gullfoss Waterfall and Thingvellir National Park.
Iceland has many other great natural spaces to uncover. There’s Asbyrgi Canyon, which is so beautiful that it was said to have been forged by the gods, as well as Vatnajokull National Park, home of some of the country’s most diverse landscapes, like forests, glacial streams, and lava fields – it’s essentially a microcosm of everything that makes Iceland so unique.
Given that Iceland is so sparsely-populated, you can feel more or less entirely alone exploring the country’s natural spaces. It’s perfect for couples seeking romance or photographers looking for that perfect shot. It’s also a dream location for wildlife – you can seek out reindeer, go on a whale-watching trip, or even try spotting Arctic foxes and other creatures.
Overall, there’s plenty to enjoy in both of these countries. Norway certainly has more to offer, especially in terms of towns and cities, but Iceland is a dream-come-true for nature lovers or those seeking peace and escape from everyday life.
Which Is Best For Cities?
When it comes to cities, it’s almost unfair to compare Norway and Iceland. The former is so much bigger than the latter, and it has a lot more cities to choose from, thanks to its population, which is around 14 times larger than that of Iceland. However, even plucky little Iceland still has a couple of great cities that are absolutely worth visiting.
The most famous Icelandic city, and the one that most people will want to see, is the capital, Reykjavik. It’s by far the biggest city in the country, sitting on Iceland’s western coast, and it’s got quite a few interesting landmarks, like the Saga Museum and the beautiful Hallgrimskirkja church, as well as relaxing spas and an emerging dining scene.
Other towns and cities you might like to add to your Iceland travel itinerary include Akureyri and Selfoss. Akureyri is the capital of North Iceland and offers charming botanical gardens and its own awesome church, designed by the same architect behind the Hallgrimskirkja, while Selfoss almost feels like an open-air museum with its historic center and beautiful old buildings.
If you’re heading to Norway, you’ll find much bigger, busier, and livelier cities to explore, with a wider range of attractions to enjoy. The capital, Oslo, is the perfect place to embrace Norwegian culture, with awesome shopping and dining opportunities, as well as live entertainment and lots of cultural activities.
Bergen, the second-biggest Norwegain city, is also worth checking out for its cute, colorful homes and fairy-tale vibes, while Geiranger is an amazing mountain town, Flam is an adorable little village with jaw-dropping views, Alesund is filled with art nouveau architecture, and Tromso is the perfect place to see the Northern Lights.
Overall, when it comes to towns and cities, Norway is definitely the better option. It’s got lots more urban areas to explore, with plenty more to see and do compared to Iceland.
Which Is Best For Hiking And Nature?
Thanks to their world-famous scenic landscapes, Norway and Iceland are often sought-out by outdoor adventurers, hikers, and nature lovers. Large parts of these countries are covered in pristine wilderness, and there are some spectacular natural places to see, like Norway’s iconic fjords and Iceland’s hot springs and geysers.
As the larger country, Norway has more to offer in terms of large natural spaces, and since so much of the land here is mountainous, it’s a hiker’s paradise. Wherever you go, you’re sure to find a trail to follow, with many of Norway’s paths being well-marked and signposted for accessibility. The fjords are also unmissable, and Norway has world-class ski resorts, too.
In Iceland, it’s a little trickier to find hiking trails, as they’re not as well-marked as those in Norway, but there are still plenty of paths to find and follow. Nicknamed the “Land of Ice and Fire,” Iceland also has really diverse scenery, with volcanic black-sand beaches and lava fields interspersed with cozy hot springs and icy expanses.
Overall, Norway is better for hiking and most other outdoor activities, and its fjords are pretty enough to rival anything Iceland can offer. With that said, Iceland still has a lot of visually impressive landscapes, with geysers, mud baths, and secret waterfalls to discover.
Which Is Best For Nightlife?
If you love staying out late, visiting clubs and bars to mingle with the locals or party into the early hours, Iceland, or more specifically Reykjavik, is a great place to go. The Icelandic capital has rapidly emerged in recent years as one of the top party cities of all the Nordic nations, with a growing lineup of thumping clubs and exciting dance spots staying open to the early hours.
Whether you’re looking for a cozy wine bar, a trendy craft pub, or a crazy dance club with live DJ performances, you can find it all here. Of course, it’s not quite as wild or raucous as some of Europe’s bigger cities, due to the relatively small population, but it’s still not a bad place to party. Unfortunately, outside of Reykjavik, Iceland doesn’t have any other notable nightlife cities.
Norway’s nightlife scene is busier and bigger, with a wider range of places to party, drink, dance, and have fun. As you might expect, Oslo is the top spot for evening excitement, with the busy Norwegian capital boasting a long list of cocktail bars, trendy pubs, and wild music venues to keep you entertained well into the night (or the early hours of the next day).
The big thing that makes Norway better for nightlife than Iceland is that it has other great places to party beyond the capital. Bergen, Trondheim, Stavanga, and Tromso can all claim to have impressive nightlife scenes, with dozens of pleasant bars and dynamic dance clubs for travelers of all ages.
Overall then, Norway is the nightlife king, but Iceland isn’t too bad if you don’t mind a much smaller and less hectic scene.
Which Is Best For Shopping?
Shopping is another area in which the Norway vs Iceland comparison is quite easy to call. Since Norway has a much larger population and many more towns and cities, it’s got a far deeper shopping scene compared to Iceland. There are lots of places to shop here, and plenty of interesting products to buy, from high-end fashion to hand-crafted gifts.
Once again, Oslo is the main place to shop in Norway. The Norwegian capital has more than enough boutiques, malls, and markets to fill an entire week of shopping fun, like the vast Oslo City shopping center and eclectic Arkaden mall. Other cities, like Bergen and Stavanger, are also terrific for shopping, with lots of indie stores and ateliers.
In Iceland, Reykjavik is the primary shopping hub. And, despite being a relatively small city compared to Oslo, it’s packed full of stores to please all sorts of shoppers. From quirky bookshops to home décor galleries, cute kids’ shops, and traditional soouvenir stores, there’s lots to see here, and you shouldn’t have any trouble grabbing some mementos to take home.
Overall, Norway certainly has the superior shopping scene, with much bigger malls and centers to explore, but Iceland has the benefit of being much quieter and calmer, which can provide quite pleasant, relaxing experiences when you’re browsing the boutiques and roaming the streets of Reykjavik.
Which Is Best For Food?
Food-wise, the clash between Norwegian and Icelandic cuisine is an intriguing one, and everyone will have their own opinion. Both countries offer a delicious selection of traditional dishes and delights to tantalize your taste buds, but you may prefer the flavors and menus of one country over the other.
In Iceland, the cuisine is built around easily accessible local ingredients, including fish, lamb, and dairy products. There are lots of cured meat and seafood dishes on the menu, and popular meals include “Humar”, or Icelandic lobster, and “Laufabraud”, which is a traditional festive flatbread.
Over in Norway, fish is the main element on most menus, and Norway is known as a global leader in smoked salmon. Lots of Norwegian dishes also revolve around game meats, like moose and reindeer, and Norway has many delicious meals like meatballs, stews, creamy seafood soups, and poached fish.
Overall, there’s more diversity on offer in Norway, and even if you’re not a fan of the traditional cuisine, Norway’s cities have plenty of other foods, from pizza and sushi to tacos and pasta, perfect for the varying tastes of travelers from around the world. Over in Iceland, while the traditional food is quite tasty, it’s harder to find other options.
Which Is Best For Families?
Iceland and Norway are both excellent destinations to consider for a family vacation, with both offering their own unique advantages for parents and kids alike.
Iceland has the big benefit of being smaller, which makes it easier and faster to get around and see the sights – that could be helpful if you’ve got little children who can quickly get bored on long journeys. There are also lots of family-friendly tours and activities in Iceland, like Golden Circle tours, hot spring dips, whale-watching, and horseriding.
Norway is a dream destination for families, with attractions and activities to suit kids of any age. Families can enjoy all sorts of fun here, from trips to the fjords to hikes in the mountains, steam railway rides, theme parks, canyoneering adventures, dog sledding in the snow, whale-watching, zoos, aquariums, and so on.
Overall, with its much wider range of activities, Norway is the superior country for most families. There’s lots here to keep kids happy, regardless of their age or interest. Iceland’s range of activities is a little narrower.
Which Is Best For Couples?
Planning a Nordic honeymoon or anniversary trip? Or perhaps you and your partner are looking for a special part of the world to escape to for just a few days? Either way, Norway and Iceland are fine spots to consider, especially for those who prefer cooler climates and natural adventures over the usual honeymoon beach resorts.
Norway’s fjords are some of the most romantic places on the planet, and there’s nothing quite like admiring those spectacular water and mountain views hand-in-hand with your partner. There are also lots more lovers’ activities to enjoy, from snow hotel nights to alpine skiing, river cruises, and lots of charming, quaint towns and villages.
In Iceland, couples can have a more relaxing time, indulging in the soothing spas, hot springs, and mud baths, or set out and explore the volcanic landscapes, touring lava fields and watching geysers in action. There’s not quite as much to do overall, but for shorter stays and more quiet, peaceful experiences, Iceland’s the place to be.
Overall, the best option for you will depend on tastes and interests. Norway is best for diversity, hiking, and action-packed trips with lots to see and enjoy. Iceland is better if you want a calming, laid-back escape.
Which Is Best For Backpackers?
Backpackers can enjoy exciting adventures in Norway and Iceland, and both of these destinations rank among the best backpacking spots in all of Northern Europe.
Iceland has the benefit of being a little cheaper. It’s still not exactly an affordable destination, but if you’re on a tight budget, you should find it easier to plan a trip to Iceland without overspending. It’s also smaller and quieter, which may appeal to those seeking that laid-back, off-the-beaten-path vibe.
While Norway might be a little pricier, it’s got more to see and do. The cities are bigger and more engaging, with lots of museums and other cultural activities, and there are more natural spaces to enjoy, with hiking trails, lakes, mountains, and the famous fjords. So, if you want more of a fulfilling trip, with a mix of urban entertainment and natural delights, head to Norway.
Which Is Cheaper?
When it comes to cost, Norway and Iceland are both quite pricey compared to most other parts of Europe. Indeed, the entire Nordic region is relatively expensive to explore, with high prices for food, accommodation, and more. But, if you want to save cash, Iceland is a little cheaper overall, with more affordable hotels and food, for the most part.
Where To Stay According To Your Budget
Budget: Zander K Hotel in Norway is a beacon of modern elegance. With sleek architecture and expansive windows, it bathes interiors in natural light. The chic design seamlessly blends with Nordic aesthetics, creating a harmonious ambiance. A beautiful fusion of style and comfort, the hotel is a captivating retreat in the heart of Norway.
Luxury: Britannia Hotel in Norway is a true masterpiece of opulence. The historic grandeur of its architecture is adorned with intricate details, reflecting timeless elegance. Luxurious interiors boast sumptuous decor, creating an enchanting atmosphere. From regal chandeliers to plush furnishings, Britannia Hotel is a symphony of beauty and refined luxury.
Budget: Siglo Hotel by Keahotels in Iceland is a coastal gem. Nestled against the backdrop of majestic mountains, it exudes Nordic charm. Architectural elegance meets natural beauty, with large windows framing breathtaking views of the sea. Inside, chic design harmonizes with the surrounding landscape, creating an enchanting and serene retreat.
Luxury: The Retreat at Blue Lagoon, Iceland, is a haven of sublime luxury. Nestled in a lava field, the architecture seamlessly blends with the raw beauty of the surroundings. A tranquil lagoon, surrounded by moss-covered rocks, invites serenity. The interiors, marked by modern elegance, offer an immersive and captivating experience.
Norway vs Iceland: Which Is Better?
Overall, it’s impossible to say that one of these countries is simply better than the other. They’re both beautiful, wondrous places in more ways than one. And, if you have the time, budget, and ability to do so, it’s best to try to see both of them. But, if you’re only able to see one for the time being, Norway is probably the right choice.
Norway wins this contest simply for being a bigger, more diverse, and more engaging destination overall. With its wider range of landscapes and attractions, it can appeal to travelers of all tastes. You can learn about Viking history, admire the majestic fjords, explore quaint towns and cities, eat fantastic food, and so much more.
At the same time, while Iceland might not have won this battle, it’s still worth considering if you’re looking for a Nordic adventure. It’s got some of the most distinctive and impressive landscapes on earth, with that fascinating blend of icy glacial spaces and fiery volcanic lava fields providing a truly special allure that few other places can match.