Sweden is one of those underrated countries that most people only associate with snowy weather, the sounds of ABBA and random moose attacks.
The last point might be a fabrication (moose never attack randomly, it’s always a cold, calculated incident, like something from a Stieg Larsson crime novel), but Sweden is often overlooked as a tourist destination even though it has the world’s best pop music and pickled herring on toast.
Having been to Sweden six times already, it’s reasonable to assume that I love this place very much. The long summer days, the winter-wonderland landscape when the snow arrives, the coffee culture and classy elegance of their cities… Sweden, I love you!
Join me on a guide through this 900-mile long Scandinavian sensation, stopping at four cool places I reckon everyone should experience.
Take it from the top: Kiruna
The first place I visited in Sweden was the small mining town of Kiruna, which lies within the Arctic Circle, way up in the far north. I went there for Christmas 2005 and had one of the most festive holidays of my life.
The trip was instigated by a group of Aussies I knew, who all wanted to have a real white Christmas after failing to see one while living in the UK (a lot of people seem to think that Great Britain goes all twinkly, frosty and “Love Actually” at Christmas time, and are quite shocked to learn that December in the UK is just as cold, drizzly and miserable as the rest of the year).
After a gruelling 21-hour rail and bus ride from Stockholm to Kiruna, we arrived at our accommodation: a group of wooden cabins at a resort called Camp Alta. Originally, the Aussies had been set on staying in igloos, but warmer winter temperatures had meant there wasn’t “the right kind of snow” even in the Arctic Circle that year (methinks global warming might have had something to do with that). Despite the initial disappointment, we were soon grateful not to have stayed in rooms made of frozen water. Based on stories we’d heard about sleeping in igloos, we reckon the romanticism quickly wears off when you realise you need to go to the toilet outside, in temperatures as low as -27˚C.
On Christmas morning our group hired snowmobiles from the resort and together we sped through the Arctic forest. Our guides took us on trails between snow-clad pines and over a frozen lake, helping us stick to a route that didn’t involve plunging through the ice and into the water. Once we’d gotten over the terror of sinking to an icy death, we were able to enjoy the ride. The pink sky overhead and lilac snow all around us glittered like sugar frosting. The experience was like being magicked into a Christmas card, minus the twee poetry.
Our snowmobile tour included an afternoon at the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi, where we sank a few ice-glasses of vodka in the ice bar. You need to take out a mortgage to buy a round, but it was still worth being there purely for the incredible “ice palace” interiors.
The Ice Hotel is rebuilt every year, made from blocks of ice they cut from the lake. The complex includes a bar, a church and several themed rooms, but no indoor toilets, to avoid any yellow snow incidents. Instead, guests are expected to head over the road to specially constructed cabins. The hotel is filled with ice sculptures made by international artists. It’s hard to believe the whole structure melts away each year, only to be rebuilt again in the winter.
Before we left Kiruna, we experienced a husky-dog sleigh ride through Arctic forest, stars twinkling overhead as we sped through the snow like Santa and his reindeer. The sled-driver took us to a tipi to thaw out around a log burner and drink bowls of steaming mushroom soup. For a taste of the same, you can book through the resort at http://www.campalta.se/dog-sledge-lunch-tour/
Something I’ll never forget from my time in Kiruna were the Northern Lights. Although they weren’t the most colourful, they were still incredibly eerie and ethereal, like ancient godly spirits passing overhead. It’s often a matter of chance to be able to see this natural phenomenon, but if you head to Sweden during a cold, clear spell of weather in the darker months, you might be lucky enough to experience them.
So many sights in Stockholm
Stockholm is affectionately called “The Venice of the North”, and while I don’t remember seeing any canals, gondolas or hordes of annoying tourists threatening to sink the place by sheer mass, there is a huge amount of water there.
For this reason, something I’d recommend doing while staying in Stockholm is to take a boat tour somewhere. Whether it’s one of the ferries between the islands, a smaller boat to a remote picnic spot, or aboard a huge ship to Helsinki or Tallinn, Stockholm’s idyllic islands and grand skyline are best viewed from a vessel.
If you aren’t keen on bobbing around in a boat, there are plenty more things to keep you entertained in Sweden’s capital. Stockholm has museums and galleries in abundance, with some of the best exhibitions I’ve ever come across. A personal fave is the Vasa Museet, which houses a 17th century ship that was somehow lifted from the bed of the harbour and put on display; it’s like the world’s biggest, realest pirate ship has a museum all of its own.
An island in Stockholm that I always gravitate back to is Djurgården, where you can visit an open-air museum named Skansen. The attraction includes restored and recreated buildings from Swedish rural history and the chance to see Scandinavian wildlife in natural surroundings, including some real live moose (from a safe distance of course).
Djurgården is one of those places where it’s impossible to be bored; there are so many things to do on this island: You can enjoy a leisurely stroll in the park and finish with “fika” (Swedish for ‘tea and coffee and a chat’) at Rosendal’s Garden Cafe, discover some artifacts and antiquities at The Nordic Museum (Stockholm’s museum of Swedish culture), get all pop-nostalgic at the Abba Museum or spend the day at a theme park named “Gröna Lund” (based on the Danish counterpart “Tivoli”).
Stockholm’s Gamla Stan (‘Old Town’) is part of Stockholm I love for its winding narrow lanes and cobbled courtyards; it feels like you've stumbled into a BBC costume drama, without the costumes or the drama.
And although it's about as touristy as you can get, it doesn’t mean Gamla Stan any less charming. If you’re feeling flush, you can dine in some of Sweden’s finest restaurants here; 300-year old Den Gyldene Freden is one of the poshest (and oldest).
If you're not hungry, you can always try to find your way around the labyrinth of 17th century buildings instead. Hunt one of the stones inscribed with runes on Kåkbrinken street. The inscriptions are 200 years older than Stockholm itself.
Entertainment in Stockholm is easy to find. On Stora Nygatan in Gamla Stan there's a bar called Wirstströms that regularly hosts live acts in its warren of cellars. I used to go there during my month-long stay in Stockholm and loved how cosy and secret the place felt.
For more modern, energetic clubs and bars (as well as boutique shopping and hipster cafes), Södermalm will be right up your alley. Pre-bar meals are easy to find in this part of town too. Try to find the funky Thai restaurant Koh Pang Yang, which I love for its psychedelic UV interiors and regular jungle“rainstorm” that moves into the basement while you’re dining. Incidentally, the food is quite nice too.
If you're the kind of traveller who loves getting panoramic views of cityscapes, head to Katarina Hissen (Katarina’s Lift, sadly no longer in use) near Slussen, where you can access a precarious-looking metal walkway high above Stockholm harbour. Nearby is Mosebacketerrassen; this bar/restaurant/club is a popular Stockholm venue with an outdoor serving area, so you can enjoy the view with a beverage or three.
The calm vibes of Kalmar and Öland
Once you've had your fill of city-life, you can head southwards through Sweden to Småland, down to the eastern coastal settlement of Kalmar. This small city is quiet and quaint. The fact that the its two main sources of entertainment are the crazy golf course and Kalmar Castle, gives you an idea of just how buzzing this place is. I didn’t think even Swedish tourists came here, but our Swedish friends Sofia and Robert assured us they did.
In fact, Kalmar was named as Sweden’s Summer City of the Year in 2017, and in the two years before that too. This town's got it going on.
And that’s the appeal. As a tranquil Swedish holiday destination, Kalmar draws crowds to its peaceful golden beaches or hiking trails to ancient Viking sites.
Öland, which is a long island you can get to via a humungous 6072m-long bridge, has much the same vibe. We went there to visit Borgholms Slott, which sounds like a Star Trek porno, but is in fact Swedish for “Borgholms Castle”, which is a massive, well-preserved fortress in the centre of the island. Something else worth seeing if you’re into huge posh houses is Solliden Palace, which is where the Swedish Royals hang out in the summer. Darling gardens and a chateau-like ambience, wot, wot?
On Öland you’ll find wildflower meadows, windmills and long, empty beaches. Like Kalmar, it’s somewhere to escape the rush and buzz of 21st century life.
Last stop on this whirlwind tour of Sweden is Malmö. Billed as one of Sweden’s most cosmopolitan cities, it’s also the third largest, with diverse communities of immigrants living there. This interesting mix of citizens also makes Malmö a great place for foodies and you can find a huge variety of restaurants and cafes in this city. Head to Möllevången (or Möllan as the locals say) you want a choice of Middle Eastern, Vietnamese and Indian cuisine.
Like other parts of Sweden, Malmö is also great for its parks, lakes and wide open spaces, so you're never without somewhere to enjoy some peace and quiet. Despite being one of the most populated parts of the country, there were times when I felt like there were more ducks than people in Malmö.
I loved Malmö for its Olde Worlde architecture of cobbled streets and wooden houses. I remember enjoying cinnamon buns and hot chocolate in Lilla Torg, Malmö’s well-known meeting place and location of the Form and Design Center (a go-to for designers and graphic artists in need of inspiration).
Vegan visitors to Malmö should also try to find Kafé Agnez, a sweet little restaurant with a high reputation for good veggie grub, or Kao’s in Foreningsgatan, which serves incredible Swedish-cuisine-meets-seitan alternatives and yummy vegan pastries.
We found plenty to do in Malmö, but that didn’t stop us taking a day trip across the water to Copenhagen in Denmark. There’s something a bit edgier and more bohemian about the Danish capital that contrasts with clean-cut, streets-you-could-eat-your-dinner-off Sweden. And if it’s not your cup of tea, it’s only a 45-minute train-ride back again.
Wherever you head to in Sweden, you should try to fit in at least one of these locations. And if you run into a moose while you’re out there, I’d love to hear the story in the comments below.
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