2023 Sweden Visitors Guide
Sweden is a large, geographically varied, and strangely little-known country whose sense of space is one of its best features. Away from the relatively densely populated south, traveling without seeing a soul is not uncommon.
South and Southwest Sweden
The south and southwest of the country are gently undulating, picturesque holiday lands, long-disputed Danish territory, and fringed with some of Europe’s finest beaches. The west coast harbors a host of historic ports – Gothenburg, Helsingborg, and Malmö, which is now linked by a bridge to Copenhagen – while off the southeast coast, the Baltic islands of Öland and Gotland are the country’s most hyped resorts, supporting a lazy beach-life to match that of the best southern European spots but without the hotel blocks and crowds. Stockholm, the capital, is the country’s supreme attraction, a bundle of islands housing monumental architecture, fine museums, and the country’s most active culture and nightlife. The two university towns, Lund and Uppsala, demand a visit too, while, moving northwards, Gävle and Gällivare both make justified demands on your time.
Central and Northern Sweden
This area, central and northern Sweden, is the country of tourist brochures: great swathes of forest, inexhaustible lakes – around 96,000 – and some of the best wilderness hiking in Europe. Two train routes link it with the south. The eastern run, close to the Bothnian coast, passes old wood-built towns and planned new ones, and ferry ports for connections to Finland. In the center, the trains of the Inlandsbanan strike off through Lakelands and mountains, clearing reindeer off the track as they go. The routes meet in Sweden’s far north – home of the Sami, the oldest indigenous Scandinavian people.
Top Attractions in Sweden
Stockholm Gamla Stan
Made up of three islands, Stockholm’s Gamla Stan, or old town, is home to the Royal Palace, Stockholm Cathedral, and the Melditsmuseum, which has historical reconstructions of the city in its medieval underground tunnels.
Lund is the most laid-back, eccentric city in Sweden’s south. Its twelfth-century cathedral drips with atmosphere – legend has it that the stone figures that grip the pillars in the crypt are the mythological Finn the Giant and his wife, frozen as they tried to tear the building down.
Visby, the capital of the wild Baltic island of Gotland, was one of medieval Europe’s most powerful cities. Now it throbs with young Swedes set to party – but not far beyond its crumbling city walls are wonderful stretches of empty beach and unexplored countryside.
Gothenburg is the place to go for a taste of student radicalism. The scruffy cafés and restaurants around Haga Nygatan and Linnégatan are not only cheap but have a caffein-fuelled political effervescence rare in modern Europe.
Sweden is blessed with two excellent train journies: the Inlandsbanan that wends its way from Östersund through picturesque Dalarna to Gällivare in the Arctic Circle, and the train that goes from Gällivare through the mountains to Narvik in Norway – a truly breathtaking experience.
Ystad, on the south coast, has to be Sweden’s prettiest town, with its seventeenth- and eighteenth-century pastel buildings set along narrow, cobbled streets. In fact, apart from the busy international harbor, there are few modern eyesores.
The Stockholm to Turku Ferry
The ferry from Stockholm to Turku in Finland is legendary. Also known as the “party boat”, it is full of Swedes and Finns hell-bent on getting as drunk as possible, duty-free. Do not attempt this trip sober.
Practically every Swedish town and village has a campsite, and camping is a pleasant alternative to hostels during the summer, but if you don’t fancy shelling out for a pitch, Swedish law allows you to camp rough – as long as you don’t make a nuisance of yourself.
STOCKHOLM comes lauded as Sweden’s most beautiful city, and apart from some sad central squares of concrete developments and a tangled road junction or two, it lives up to it – it’s delightful, not least as a contrast to the apparently endless lakes and forests of the rest of the country. It’s also a remarkably disparate capital, one whose tracts of water and range of monumental buildings give it an aging, lived-in feel and an atmosphere quite at odds with its status as Sweden’s most contemporary, forward-looking city.
Built on fourteen small islands, Stockholm was a natural site for the fortifications, erected by one Birger Jarl in 1255, that grew into the current city. In the sixteenth century, the city fell to King Gustav Vasa, a century later becoming the center of the Swedish trading empire that covered present-day Scandinavia. Following the waning of Swedish power it entered something of a quiet period, only rising to prominence again in the nineteenth century when industrialization sowed the seeds of the Swedish economic miracle.
Although GOTHENBURG is Scandinavia’s largest port, shipbuilding has long since taken a back seat to ferry arrivals – those from Newcastle alongside the dock-strewn river, and those from Denmark right in the center of the port and shipyards. Beyond the shipyards, Gothenburg is the prettiest of Sweden’s cities, with broad avenues split and ringed by an elegant seventeenth-century, Dutch-designed canal system.
GÄLLIVARE is one of Europe’s most important sources of iron ore, while Europe’s largest open-cast copper mine sears the landscape 20km to the south, it’s gargantuan bucket-shovels and dump trucks just dots 250m down. The tourist office ferries a trip to the iron ore mines and copper mines. Astounding statistics – 300 tonnes of high explosives are used for each blast – pepper the tour, which also takes in Kåkstan, a rebuilt shantytown on the site of the original iron ore mine; and you stop long enough to sample local delicacies like reindeer, salmon, and lingonberry juice, all for 75kr at Café Endast för Nyktra. There’s not much to Gällivare itself. Little remains of the seventeenth-century Sami village, and the river and surrounding mountains are really the nicest features of the town. You can walk up to Björnfällän, a four-kilometer hike on a well-marked path – the views are magnificent. Buses make the journey (160kr return) to the summit 3km north beyond Björnfällan to see the Midnight Sun daily between mid-June and mid-July. Buses leave from the train station at 11 pm, returning at 1 am.
It’s only two hours north by train from Stockholm to GÄVLE, the principal city of the county of Gästrikland and communications hub for the west and north. Gävle’s charter was granted in 1446, but the town was almost completely redesigned after a fire in 1869. Its large squares, broad avenues, and proud monumental buildings centering on the roomy Stortorget, reflect its late-nineteenth-century success as an export center for timber and metal.
The place to head for is the one surviving part of the old town, Gamla Gefle, an area of wooden cottages and narrow cobbled streets on the other side of the river from Stortorget. Länsmuséet Gävleborg, on the riverfront at Södra Strandgatan 20, has work by many Swedish artists from 1600 to the present including local naive painter Johan Erik Olson. The Joe Hill-Gården at Nedre Bergsgatan 28 is the birthplace museum of US labor organizer Joe Hill. Born Johan Emanuel Hägglund in 1879, he emigrated in 1902, rallying comrades to the International Workers of the World with his songs and speeches until he was framed for murder and executed in 1915. The most piquant items are Hill’s last testament and the telegram announcing his execution.
At HELSINGBORG only a narrow sound separates Sweden from Denmark; indeed, Helsingborg was Danish for most of the Middle Ages, with a castle controlling the southern regions of what is now Sweden. The town’s enormously important strategic position meant that it bore the brunt of repeated attacks and rebellions, the Swedes conquering the town on six separate occasions, only to lose it back to the Danes each time. Finally, in 1710, a terrible battle saw off the Danes for the last time, and the battered town lay dormant for almost two hundred years, depopulated and abandoned. Only in the nineteenth century, when the harbor was expanded and the railway constructed, did Helsingborg find new prosperity. Today, the dramatically redeveloped harbor area has breathed new life into this likable, relaxed town which is well worth a day’s stay for its bars, cafés, and cozily buzzing atmosphere.
Directly south of the North Harbour café-bars, the strikingly designed Henry Dunker Cultural House, named after the city’s foremost industrialist benefactor, aims to provide a full vision of the city’s history in context and also houses a theatre and concert hall. East from Hamntorget and the harbors, the massive, neo-Gothic Rådhus marks the bottom of Stortorget, the long thin square sloping up to the lower battlements of what’s left of Helsingborg’s castle, the kärnan or keep, a fourteenth-century brick tower, the only survivor from the original fortress. The views from the top are worth the entrance fee although you don’t miss much from the lower (free) battlements. Off Stortorget, Norra Storgatan contains Helsingborg’s oldest buildings, attractive seventeenth- and eighteenth-century merchants’ houses with quiet courtyards.
In the midst of remote, densely forested, marshy country, JOKKMOKK is a welcome oasis. Once wintertime Sami quarters, the town is today a renowned handicraft center, with a Sami high school keeping the language and culture alive. The ájtte Museum on Kyrkegatan is the place to see some of the intricate work. Have a glance, too, at the so-called Lapp Kyrka , in which corpses were interned in wall vaults during winter, waiting for the thaw when the Sami could go out and dig graves – the temperatures in this part of Sweden plunge below -35°C in winter. The great winter market still survives, now nearly 400 years old, held on the first Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of each February when 30,000 people gather in the town. It’s the best time to be in Jokkmokk, and staying means booking accommodation a good six months in advance. A smaller, less traditional autumn fair at the end of August is an easier though poorer option. The tourist office is at Stortorget 4. In summer there should be no problem getting a place at the HI hostel at Åsgatan 20 (tel 0971/559 77; under £5/$8); just follow the signs from the station. The campsite is 3km east on Route 97.
Bright KALMAR had much to do with Sweden’s medieval development. It was the scene of the first meeting of the Riksdag called by failing king Magnus Eriksson in the mid-fourteenth century and played host to the formation of the Kalmar Union, the 1397 agreement uniting Sweden, Norway, and Denmark – a history manifest in the surviving castle, Kalmar Slott, beautifully set on a tiny island a few minutes’ walk away from the bus and train stations. Defended by a range of steep embankments and gun emplacements, the fourteenth-century buildings survived eleven sieges virtually unscathed, a record not respected by King Johan III who rebuilt the structure in the late sixteenth century. The castle is now a storybook confection, with turrets, ramparts, a moat, and a drawbridge. The spruce interior repays a long dawdle; highlights include the intricately paneled Lozenge Hall and a dark dungeon.
If the castle seems to defend nothing, in particular, it’s because the town was shifted to Kvarnholmen, an island to the north, in the mid-seventeenth century following a fire. This is modern Kalmar, a graceful, straightforward grid settlement that centers on the Baroque Domkyrkan on Stortorget. Time is best spent wandering the streets around Lilla Torget: there’s not a great deal left – some seventeenth-century buildings and city walls – but what remains is authentic and atmospheric enough. The one place really worth making a beeline for is the Kronan Exhibition, the main attraction of the Länsmuseum, Skeppsbrogatan. The Kronan was one of the three biggest ships in the world – twice the size of the Vasa – when it went down after an explosion in the gunpowder magazine in 1676, lying undisturbed until 1980. There’s an inventive walk-through reconstruction of the gun decks and admiral’s cabin, as well as a swag of gold coins, clothing, sculpture, jewelry, and weapons – in fact, a complete picture of seventeenth-century maritime life and a remarkable insight into a society at the height of its political powers.
Just forty minutes south of Helsingborg and fifteen minutes from Malmö, LUND is the most obvious target for a trip, a beautiful university town with a picturesque medieval center and a unique buzz thanks to the student population. This does mean, though, that life drains out of the place during the summer when the students are on vacation. Its weather-beaten Domkyrkan, consecrated in 1145, is considered by many to be Scandinavia’s finest medieval building. Its plain interior culminates in a delicate, semicircular apse with a gleaming fifteenth-century altarpiece and a mosaic of Christ surrounded by angels – although what draws most attention is a fourteenth-century astronomical clock, revealing an ecclesiastical Punch and Judy show daily at noon and 3 pm. Below the apse is a crypt, supported by vividly sculpted pillars and littered with elaborately carved tombstones.
Outside the cathedral, Kyrkogatan, lined with staunch, solid, nineteenth-century civic buildings, leads into the main square, Stortorget, off which Kattesund is home to a glassed-in set of excavated medieval walls. Adjacent is the Drottens Kyrkoruin, the remains of a medieval church in the basement of another modern building, but the real interest is in the powerful atmosphere of the old streets behind the Domkyrkan. Kiliansgatan, directly behind the cathedral’s apse, is a delightful cobbled street, whose fine houses sport tiny courtyards and gardens. In this web of streets, Kulturen is a village in itself of indoor and open-air collections of southern Swedish art, silverware, ceramics, musical instruments, etc. Worth a visit at Finngatan 2 is Skissernas Museum – though renovations may involve temporary closure. Inside the museum is an amazing collection of models, maquettes, and sketches of internationally renowned works from Chagall to Matisse, Picasso to Henry Moore. Finish off your meanderings with a visit to the Botaniska Trädgård just beyond, an extensive botanical garden with some shaded pathways.
The third-largest city in Sweden, MALMÖ , won back for Sweden from Denmark by Karl X in the seventeenth century, was a handsome city then and is now, with a cobbled medieval core that has a lived-in, workaday feel a world apart from the museum-piece quality of most other Swedish town centers. With the opening in 2000 of the Øresund Link, a sensational seventeen-kilometer-long road and rail bridge, Malmö really is the Swedish gateway from continental Europe, and after years in the doldrums after the failure of much of its industry, it is enjoying a revival and is as lively and upbeat as ever for travelers wanting to find a cosmopolitan Swedish city outside the capital.
Storuman, Sorsele, Arvidsjaur and the Arctic Circle
Traveling on the Inlandsbanan, you may well spend the night at STORUMAN , five hours north of Östersund and ten hours from Gällivare. The tourist office is just to the right of the train station and will give you details of the excellent mountain hiking to be had around the town. There’s a hostel in the same building as the tourist office (tel 0951/777 00; £5-10/$8-16). SORSELE is the next major stop on the Inlandsbanan, a pint-sized town that became a cause célèbre among conservationists in Sweden, pushing the government to abandon its plans to regulate the flow of the River Vindel here by building a hydroelectric station. It remains wild, untouched, and seething with rapids, with a campsite on the river bank. There’s also a hostel, a small place open from mid-June to August. ARVIDSJAUR contains Sweden’s oldest surviving Sami village, dating from the late eighteenth century, a huddle of houses that was once the center of a great winter market. They were not meant to be permanent homes, but rather a meeting place during festivals, and the last weekend in August is still taken up by a great celebratory shindig. There’s a cozy private hostel at Västra Skolgatan 9, and Camp Gielas, beside one of the lakes 1km south of the station, has cabins from 375kr. A couple of hours north of Arvidsjaur the Inlandsbanan finally crosses the Arctic Circle, signaled by a bout of whistle-blowing as the train pulls up. Painted white rocks curve away over the hilly ground, a crude but popular representation of the Circle.
Known as the “Stone City”, SUNDSVALL is immediately and obviously different. Once home to a rapidly expanding nineteenth-century sawmill industry, the whole city burned down in 1888 and a new center built completely of stone emerged within ten years. The result is a living document of early-twentieth-century urban architecture, designed by architects who were engaged in rebuilding Stockholm’s residential areas at the same time. This was achieved at a price, however: the workers who built 573 residential buildings in four years became the victims of their own success and were shifted from their old homes in the center and moved to a poorly serviced suburb.
The materials are limestone and brick, the style simple and the size often overwhelming. The Esplanaden , a wide central avenue, cuts the grid in two, itself crossed by Storgatan, the widest street. The area around Stortorget is still the roomy commercial center that was envisaged. Behind the mock Baroque exterior of the Sundsvall Museum, four late-nineteenth-century warehouses have been developed into a cultural complex called Kulturmagasinet (Culture Warehouse), devoted to art exhibits and city history. The Gustav Adolfs Kyrkan – a soaring red-brick structure whose interior looks like a large Lego set – marks one end of the new town. To get the best perspective on the city’s plan, climb to the heights of Gaffelbyn and the Norra Bergets Hantyerks Och Friluttsmuseum, an open-air crafts museum down Storgatan and over the main bridge.
Forty minutes train ride north of Stockholm, UPPSALA is regarded as the historical and religious center of the country. It’s a tranquil daytime alternative to the capital, with a delightful river-cut center, not to mention an active student-geared nightlife. At the center of the medieval town, a ten-minute walk from the train station, is the great Domkyrkan, Scandinavia’s largest cathedral. The echoing interior remains impressive, particularly the French Gothic ambulatory, sided by tiny chapels, one of which contains a lively set of restored fourteenth-century wall paintings that tell the legend of St Erik, Sweden’s patron saint, while another contains his relics. Poke around and you’ll also find the tombs of Reformation rebel monarch Gustav Vasa and his son Johan III, and that of the great botanist Carl Von Linné (self-styled as Carolus Linnaeus), who lived in Uppsala.
Opposite the cathedral is the Gustavianum, built in 1625 as part of the university, and much-touted for its tidily preserved anatomical theatre. The same building houses a couple of small collections of Egyptian, Classical, and Nordic antiquities and the Uppsala University Museum, which contains the glorious Augsburg Art Cabinet, an ebony treasure chest presented to Gustav II Adolf. The current University building is an imposing nineteenth-century Renaissance edifice over the way, among whose alumni is Anders Celsius, inventor of the temperature scale. No one will mind if you stroll in for a quick look at the extensive collection of portraits and the imposing central hall. A little way beyond is the Carolina Rediviva, one of Scandinavia’s largest libraries, with a collection of rare letters and other paraphernalia, including a beautiful sixth-century silver Bible and Mozart’s manuscript for The Magic Flute. The Castle has recently been made open to the public – a 1702 fire that destroyed three-quarters of the city did away with all but one side and two towers of this opulent palace. Now you can wander around the excavations and peruse the waxworks in authentic costumes. There are also guided tours in English of the opulent State Apartments.
Undoubtedly the finest approach to VISBY is by ship, seeing the old trading center as it should be seen. The magnificent three-kilometer city wall was built around the end of the thirteenth century to isolate the city’s foreign traders from the islanders. The old Hanseatic harbor at Almedalen is now a public park and nothing is much more than a few minutes’ walk from here. Close by, pretty Packhusplan, the oldest square in the city, is bisected by curving Strandgatan which runs south to the fragmentary ruins of Visborg Castle, overlooking the harbor. Built in the fifteenth century by Erik of Pomerania, it was blown up by the Danes in the seventeenth century. In the opposite direction, Strandgatan runs towards the sea and the lush Botanical Gardens, just beyond which is the Jungfrutornet (Maiden’s Tower) where a local goldsmith’s daughter was walled up alive, reputedly for betraying the city to the Danes. Strandgatan is the best place to view the merchants’ houses looming over the narrow streets and is also home to the Gotlands Fornsal Museum at no. 14 (May to mid-Sept daily 10 am-5 pm; rest of year Tues-Sun noon-4 pm; 50kr), which, along with the usual Viking and medieval relics, claims the largest collection of painted windows in Scandinavia. The museum also tells the tale of the slaughter of thousands of Swedes by the Danes in 1361 – an event remembered by Valdemar’s Cross, a few hundred meters east of Söderport, where excavations earlier this century revealed a mass grave. The strikingly towered Domkyrkan, a short walk west of the museum), was built between 1190 and 1225, just before the great age of Gothic church buildings on the island. Used both as warehouse and treasury, it’s been heavily restored, and about the only original fixture left is the thirteenth-century sandstone font.
An hour by train from Malmö, YSTAD sits at the end of a ride through rolling farmland. The train station is by the docks, a murky area that gives no hint of the cozy little town to come. In the nineteenth century, the town’s inhabitants made a mint from smuggling, a profitable occupation in the days of Napoleon’s Continental Blockade. Quite apart from coming to see the crumbling medieval market town, you might well be leaving Sweden from here: ferries depart for the Danish island of Bornholm and for Poland.
The narrow, cobbled streets wind up to Stortorget, a well-proportioned square, at the back of which sits the grand Sta Maria Kyrka, a church that has been added to continually since its original foundation in the fourteenth century. The red-brick interior displays heavy, decorative tablets lining the aisle walls and enclosed wooden pews – the end pieces sculpted with flowers and emblems. The green box pews at either side of the entrance were reserved for women who hadn’t yet been received back into the church after childbirth. From the church, take a walk down Lilla Västergatan, the main street in Ystad in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with neat pastel-colored houses. At no. 28 you’ll find Galleri Z, which looks like a furniture store but upstairs has a superb gallery of contemporary art exhibitions. Walk back through Stortorget and it’s not far down to the old Greyfriars Monastery and museum, a thirteenth-century survivor in a pleasant setting that contains the usual local cultural and historical collections.
Getting Around Sweden
- Stockholm to: Gällivare (2 daily; 16hr); Gävle (hourly; 1hr 20min); Gothenburg (21 daily; 3hr 10min by X2000, 4hr 30min InterCity); Helsingborg (14 daily; 5hr by X2000, 6hr 30min InterCity); Kalmar, change at Alvesta (8 Mon-Sat, 3 Sun; 6hr); Lund (6 daily; 4hr 40min); Malmö (11 daily; 4hr 30 min by X2000); Mora (11 daily; 3hr 30min by X2000); Narvik (2 daily; 20hr); Östersund (6 daily; 6hr); Sundsvall (9 daily; 3hr 30min by X2000); Uppsala (half hourly; 40min).
- Gällivare to: Narvik (2 daily; 4hr 40min).
- Gothenburg to: Copenhagen (2-3 daily; 4hr 20min); Helsingborg (6-9 daily; 2hr 40min); Kalmar (3-5 daily; 4hr 40min); Lund (6-9 daily; 3hr 30min); Malmö (8-12 daily; 3hr by X2000, 3hr 45min InterCity); Oslo (4 daily; 4hr 40min).
- Malmö to: Helsingborg (at least hourly; 50min); Lund (at least hourly; 15min); Ystad (Mon-Fri hourly, Sat & Sun 4-6 daily; 50min).
- Sundsvall to: Gävle (8 daily; 2hr 30min); Östersund (5 daily; 2hr 15min).
- Uppsala to: Gävle (hourly; 40 min); Mora (11 daily; 2hr 15min by X2000).
- Stockholm to: Gävle (3 Fri, 1 Sat, 4 Sun; 2hr 20min); Gothenburg (2-5 daily; 4hr 30min, or 7hr 20min via Jönköping); Helsingborg (1 daily, 2 Fri & Sun; 8hr); Kalmar (2-5 daily; 6hr 30min); Malmö (1 Fri, 1 Sun; 10hr 20min); Nynäshamn (3 daily; 1hr); Oskarshamn (2-5 daily; 4hr 30min); Oslo (1 Fri, 1 Sun; 9hr); Sundsvall (3 Fri, 1 Sat, 4 Sun; 6hr); Uppsala (3 Fri, 1 Sat, 4 Sun; 1hr).
- Gothenburg to: Gävle (1-2 daily; 10hr); Kalmar (1 Fri, 1 Sun; 6hr 30min); Malmö (3 Fri, 3 Sun; 4hr 40min); Oslo (3-4 daily; 4hr 50min); Uppsala (1 Fri, 1 Sun; 8hr).
- Nynäshamn to: Visby (mid-June to mid-Aug 3 daily; 5hr by day, 6hr by night).
- Oskarshamn to: Visby (mid-June to mid-Aug 1 daily; 4hr by day, 6hr by night).
- Stockholm to: Helsinki (Helsingsfors), Finland (2 daily; 15hr); Tallinn (summer 1 daily plus 1 every 2 days; 15hr); Turku (Åbo), Finland (4 daily; 13hr).
- Gothenburg to: Frederikshavn (4-8 daily; 3hr 15min); Harwich (April-Oct 4 weekly; 24hr); Newcastle (mid-June to mid-Aug 1 weekly; 24hr); Kiel (1 daily; 14hr).
- Helsingborg to: Helsingor (3 hourly; 25min).
- Malmö to: Copenhagen (every 30min; 40min).
- Trelleborg to: Rostock (3 daily; 6hr); Travämunde (2 daily; 7-9hr).
Food & Drink in Sweden
Eating and drinking is nothing like as expensive as it used to be in Sweden, though filling up at breakfast and lunch is still much better value than eating out at restaurants in the evening. At its best, Swedish food is excellent, largely meat-, fish- and potato-based, but varied and generally tasty and filling. Specialties include the northern Swedish delicacies – reindeer and elk meat, and wild berries – and herring in many different guises.
Breakfast ( frukost ) is invariably a help-yourself buffet – served in most hostels and some restaurants for around 50kr-70kr, and free in hotels – consisting of juice, cereals, bread, boiled eggs, jams, salami, tea, and coffee on even the…
Drinking is still pricey, though in Stockholm it’s no more than most European capitals now. The cheapest choice is probably beer, which costs 35-45kr for 400ml of lager-type drink – a sto stark .