The largest of the Scandinavian countries, Sweden appears to be little more than a massive forest encompassed by a craggy, fjord-slashed coastline and scattered with 100, 000 crystalline lakes, a vast natural force interrupted rarely by the hand of man. However this clean, green country has scattered gems of sophisticated civilisation, lively, elegant cities full of action and cultural interest – even if they do have a medieval core – and attractive, friendly local people when you get past the initial reserve. Swedish life is well-organised, highly efficient, very safe and a lot cheaper than it used to be.
How long to stay? Minimum worthwhile stay not including flights: Stockholm for a wild weekend. Recommended: 9 days to take in Stockholm, another city and some of the countryside, such as a trip to Gotland.
Part of the psychedelic Kungstradgarden Metro station in Stockholm So that’s where they spend the winter months! Photo by Arild Vagen.
• It can get chilly, or wet, or both, even in mid-summer. • Endless tree views can be sooo monotonous. • Swedish cuisine is healthy and hearty but hardly entertaining.
Best: May – September. n. b. August is the main Swedish holiday so a very crowded time and it may rain. Worst: November-April (extreme cold and short daylight hours)
17thC Drottningholm Castle with Hercules in the foreground. Photo by Arild Vagern.
***Stockholm, the spirited, handsome capital city has a medieval centre, a maze of waterways and plenty of activities. Stockholm Pictures Guide
Ferries around Stockholm are one of the pleasures of tourism in Sweden, either short trips upriver or further out into the Archipelago. (Get a boat pass). ***Take a ferry out to a few of Stockholm’s 24, 000 nearby islands known as The Archipelago – with varied attractions, harbours, parks, castles and beaches.
**Visit Vaxholm, an idyllic little town with castle, 1 hour from the city.
*Sandhamn (Sandon) is popular among summer sailors, one and a half hours from Vaxholm.
***Mariefred, a peaceful town with wooden houses and narrow lanes, famous for its spectacular 16th century Gripsholm Castle. 1 hour by boat, 75km/47m by road from the city.
**Sigtuna, this small, tranquil town dating from AD 970 is the oldest town in Sweden. 46km/29m from the city.
**Uppsala, a quiet, ancient university town with the largest cathedral in Scandinavia and a few good museums. Forty minutes from the capital by train.
Sandhamn in winter by Arild Vagen.
Outside the Stockholm area
**Gothenburg (Göteborg, West coast). Sweden’s largest port and arrival point for herds of tourist cars, Gothenburg is also an attractive, spacious, canal-crossed city with grand buildings from varied eras, fine cultural offerings including a stunning opera house and some excellent museums. Liseberg, a high quality amusement park will give the kiddies a break from culture overdose. nb. the road to Gothenburg from Stockholm is dead boring but the coast north of Gothenburg is rocky and appealing.
**Dalarna and Värmland Provinces (NW, adjacent to Norway, north of Göteborg): the best of traditional Swedish countryside, unspoilt forests, lakes (esp. Lake Siljan) and ancient villages retaining Swedish folk customs.
***Malmo (SW tip). Contains one of Europe’s most engaging medieval centres and a fast route to Copenhagen (Denmark) via a long bridge.
***Skane Province, SW. A beautiful rolling area of castles and windmills known as chateau country.
***Kalmar (SE island, connected to Oland island), another charming medieval town with a huge history and a fantastic castle.
Visby’s town walls, Gotland.
***Gotland (SE island). This large island in the Baltic Sea, 90km off Sweden’s east coast, provides some of Sweden’s best landscapes, sailing, relatively good weather, sandy beaches and the spectacular medieval walled town of ***Visby, with its 100 ancient churches and 3km wall. (A car is not needed, go by train and ferry)
**Beaches: Sweden’s south-west coast has many excellent beaches while the southeast islands of Gotland and Oland hosts restrained beach resorts and the country’s best climate. A lot of crystal-clear lakes are also swimmable if so posted. We don’t need to mention the water is cold?
**Lapland (far north), a massive, wild and unspoilt place of reindeer, mountains, waterfalls, forested valleys and roaring rivers peopled by the Sami (Lapps).
**Gammelstad ‘Church Village’, Lulea (Norbotten County, NE), a World Heritage Site of 424 tiny old wooden cottages built solely to accommodate visitors to the 15thC church.
• Near Stockholm city centre are two popular beaches, Langholmsbadet and Smedsuddsbadet, both with good facilities including food and recreational areas. Busy in the summer of course. Ask your hotel reception how to get there.
• Varamon beach in south Sweden is reputed to get more sun than any other beach so is a favourite destination for both locals. The beach offers plenty of soft sand, varied facilities and marine activities. To get there travel to the city of Motala and follow signs from there.
• Another excellent beach in southern Sweden is Boda on the island of Oland, connected to the Swedish mainland via Road 137 from Kalmar to Oland. Boda beach is long with fine sand, good facilities, camping and activities available, including golf.
• Sudersand is one of Sweden’s most popular beaches on the Baltic Sea, with boat rentals, marine activities, accommodation and food all available. It’s on the small island of Faro in Gotland, about 200 km (125 mi) south of Stockholm. You can get there from Stockholm via the Nynashamn – Visby ferry followed by the Farosund – Faro ferry.
• Skane region, also in the south and sometimes known as the Swedish Riviera, is famous for its variety of expansive beaches. They are easy to reach from Denmark across the Oresund Bridge.
Swedish tours offer many multi-activity breaks, such as biking, kayaking, rafting and horse-riding in one package. Beware mosquitoes!
Sweden is very well organized and trekking is no exception with excellent marked trails, camp sites, mountain cabins and other support for walkers. The south is good for moderate hikes with scenic views while the far north in Lapland is where to find real isolation, panoramic views, mountains, snow in summertime, wild reindeer and the Sami people and exotic culture. Sweden’s best known hike is the 500kms (312mls) Kungsleden from Abisko, north of the Arctic Circle to Hemaven in the south (near Tarnby). This trail is easy to walk and well serviced but fairly busy, especially in July.
The Stockholm area is a great urban boat experience; head for the southern Archipelago for more strenuous paddling or north to Laponia’s World Heritage Site for serious kayaking.
Cycles are especially useful in cities and widely rentable (free in some hotels); they are also great for Sweden’s more scenic, flatter and drier southern parts e. g Gotland or High Coast UNESCO World Heritage Site on the east central coast. Bikes can be taken on some trains.
Dinghy rental is available in Stockholm in season. Bigger yachts often do trips including Finland, Norway, denmark or Russia.
There’s no shortage of equine rentals in Sweden, with chances of wildlife sightings, such as moose, deer, boar, lynx, eagles. Get details from local tourist offices. The southern highlands are popular, offering easy access and good weather. In the north pony treks often start from Funäsdalen, near Norway and Ammarnäs, close to the Arctic Circle. In the province of Dalarna, you can even rent a horse and covered wagon with space for a small family for multi-day trips, doing around 16 kms (10mls) a day.
Sweden offers hundreds of delightful courses but one of the most unusual is the Björkliden Arctic Golf Course (the world’s most northerly golf course, near Boden) where you can play in a spectacular setting in summertime at midnight!
Stockholm in sight of the palace you can fish for salmon, free of charge, by royal decree. Other places you will need a licence. Get more information from a tourist office. Pike, perch, salmon and eel are main targets.
Getting around Scandinavia
Transport is extremely efficient in Scandinavia, with good trains (e. g. 6 hours from Oslo, Norway to Stockholm. Get a Rail Pass), buses (from Oslo, 7 hours; from Copenhagen, Denmark, 9 hours). Ferries are fun and competitive but complicated and few go to Stockholm except from Helsinki, Finland, (16 hours). There’s also a bridge from Copenhagen to Sweden’s southern city of Malmo, and masses of flights at low prices from other Scandinavian countries.
Consider the amazing Inlandsbanan Arctic Circle rail line for incredible views in comfort; best starting from Mora (central Sweden). It only runs mid-June to mid-September.
The best thing about the excellent Swedish transport system is the huge multi-mode Rikstidtabellen timetable that lists everything clearly. Find it in tourist offices but it’s too bulky to buy and carry, just copy relevant sections. Self-driving in Sweden is, frankly, often slow and dull (unless you have a passion for endless forest) while city parking is difficult.
Midsummer, June 21: the country’s biggest event with lots of dancing, fireworks, boozing. August: Medieval Week, Visby. Historic dress, music, tournaments and more. August: Gothenburg Party, Göteborgskalaset, is the biggest outdoor festival in the country. August: Malmo Festival, music and seafood coming out of its ears. 16-19 August: Skokloster Pageant, varied colourful historical events. 18 August: Midnight Race, 10 kms (6 mls) starting in Stockholm’s fashionable Södermalm district. September: Stockholm Yoga Festival, Liljeholmshallen. Dec 13: Lucia Festival, robed processions, singing, boozing. April 30: Walpurgis Night, celebrating the winter’s end, fires and fireworks.
Currency: Local currency is the krona (plural: kronor) and easy to acquire from ATMs which are commonplace, do not charge for the service and give a fair exchange rate. Tips are included in service charges though a 5-10% gift is not uncommon for good service.
Electricity: 230v, 2 round pin plugs, such as in Norway, Finland, Germany, Netherlands (or twin flat pin Schuko plugs).
Safety: Sweden is a very safe, low-crime area; the police are superb and generally speak good English.
Language: As usual in Scandinavia many locals speak English though learning basic greetings is a nice gesture.
Curiously hotels in Stockholm are cheaper in the summer than during the rest of the year, due to lack of business trade then. There’s generally a wide range of accommodation from luxury hotels to cheap pensions, youth hostels, b-and-bs and many campsites (June-Sept only) that offer full-featured cabins as well as DIY tents. A Scandinavian camping card is essential. Free camping is also permitted if discreet. Some parks and trails offer mountain huts. The Jukkasjarvi Ice Hotel freezes from mid December to end of April. Guest in a Swedish house? Remove your shoes!
Swedish food is filling and nutritious but nothing to write home about, even if smorgasbord is an international word. Sweden’s cuisine frequently consists of large servings of potatoes, meat (elk and reindeer if you choose) and fish (usually herring or salmon), supported by salad, cheese and fruit – so you won’t starve but you may be bored to death. Fast food – like anywhere in the overdeveloped world – is readily available, with pizzas leading the fat pack. Beers are good, wine is fine and Sweden’s popular vodka equivalent, akvavit, is head-banging.
EU citizens and nationals of USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand do not need a visa for up to 3 months in Sweden; other Scandinavians don’t even require a passport.