First impressions as the train pulls into UPPSALA, only an hour northeast of Stockholm, are encouraging, as the red-washed castle looms up behind the railway sidings with the cathedral dominant in the foreground. A medieval seat of religion and learning, Uppsala clings to the past through its cathedral and university, and a striking succession of related buildings in their vicinity. The city is regarded as the historical and religious centre of the country, and attracts day-trippers seeking a lively alternative to Stockholm as well as travellers looking for a worthwhile stop on the long trek north.
From the train and bus stations, it’s best to make the new Concert Hall your first port of call, barely a five-minute walk away on Storgatan, just the other side of the train tracks. A mammoth structure of brushed steel and glass, whose facade resembles the keys of a giant piano keyboard, it’s certainly divided local opinion; many people believe it’s little more than a huge carbuncle. Be that as it may, venture inside and take the escalators to the top floor for a superb view of the entire city. It hosts Swedish-language theatre as well as musical productions.
From the concert hall, Vaksalagatan leads back under the train tracks and up towards the great Domkyrkan, Scandinavia’s largest cathedral and the centre of the medieval town. Built as a Gothic boast to the people of Trondheim in Norway that even their mighty church, the Nidarosdom, could be overshadowed, it loses out to its rival only on building materials – local brick rather than imported stone. The echoing interior remains impressive, particularly the French Gothic ambulatory, flanked by tiny chapels and bathed in a golden, decorative glow. One chapel contains a lively set of restored fourteenth-century wall paintings that recount the legend of St Erik, Sweden’s patron saint: his coronation, subsequent crusade to Finland, eventual defeat and execution at the hands of the Danes. The Relics of Erik are zealously guarded in a chapel off the nave: poke around and you’ll also find the tombs of the Reformation rebel Gustav Vasa and his son Johan III, and that of the botanist Linnaeus, who lived in Uppsala. Time and fire have led to the rest of the cathedral being rebuilt, scrubbed and painted to the extent that it resembles a museum more than a thirteenth-century place of worship; even the characteristic twin spires are late nineteenth-century additions.
Opposite the west end of the cathedral, the onion-domed Gustavianum was built in 1625 as part of the university, and is much touted by the tourist office for the masterpiece of kitsch that is the Augsburg Art Cabinet – a treasure chest of black oak containing all manner of knick-knacks presented to Gustav II Adolf by the Lutheran councillors of Augsburg in 1632 – and the world’s first ever thermometer from 1745 owned by none other than Anders Celsius, inventor of the temperature scale. Whilst here be sure to make it up to the top floor to see the perfectly preserved anatomical theatre from 1660 where convicts’ bodies were once carved up in the name of science, until the church stepped in to end the practice. The same building houses a couple of small collections of Egyptian, Classical and Viking antiquities.
The current university building is the imposing nineteenth-century Renaissance-style edifice opposite Gustavianum. Originally a seminary, today it’s used for lectures and seminars and hosts the graduation ceremonies each May. Among the more famous alumni are Carl von Linné (Linnaeus) and Anders Celsius. No one will mind you strolling in for a quick look, but the rest of the building is not open to the public.
From the university, Övre Slottsgatan leads south to the Carolina Rediviva, the university library and one of Scandinavia’s largest, with around five million books. On April 30 (Valborgsmässoafton) each year the students meet here to celebrate the official first day of spring (usually in the snow), all wearing the traditional student cap that gives them the appearance of disaffected sailors. Take a look in the manuscript room, where there’s a collection of rare letters and other paraphernalia. The beautiful sixth-century Silver Bible is on permanent display, as is Mozart’s original manuscript for The Magic Flute.
When compared to the glorious building of the university, the castle up on the hill, built by Gustav Vasa in the mid-sixteenth century, is a disappointment. Certainly significant chapters of Sweden’s history were played out here over the centuries: the Uppsala Assembly of 1593, which established the supremacy of the Lutheran Church, took place in the Hall of State, where also, in 1630, the Parliament resolved to enter the Thirty Years’ War. Sadly though, much of the castle was destroyed in the 1702 fire that also did away with three-quarters of the city, and only one side and two towers – the L-shape of today – remain of what was once an opulent rectangular palace. Inside, admission also includes access to the castle’s art museum but, quite frankly, it won’t make your postcards home.
The beautiful Linnéträdgården contains around 1300 varieties of plants. These are Sweden’s oldest botanical gardens, established in 1655 by Olof Rudbeck the Elder, and relaid out by Linnaeus in 1741 with perennials and annuals either side of the central path; some of the species he introduced and classified still survive here. Incidentally, you can see the garden behind Linnaeus’s head on the 100kr note.
The museum adjoining the garden was home to Linnaeus and his family from 1743 to 1778, and attempts to evoke his life through a partially restored library, his writing room and even the bed where he breathed his last.
Bror Hjorth museum
The first sight that greets arrivals at Uppsala train station is an erotic statue of a man with an oversized penis, the work of Uppsala-born sculptor and painter, Bror Hjorth (1894–1968), a former professor of drawing at the Swedish Royal Academy of Fine Arts, who’s considered one of Sweden’s greatest artists. A modernist with roots in folk art, his numerous public art commissions can be seen right across the country – perhaps most strikingly in the church in Jukkasjärvi in Lapland. His former home and studio in Uppsala, west of the city centre have now been turned into a museum containing the largest and most representative collection of his work in the country.
In 1754, Carl von Linné acquired a country estate at Hammarby, 15km southeast of Uppsala, and built a house there. Today, the beautiful homestead, complete with unique wallpaper of botanical engravings, is open to the public and makes a great day-trip. It’s surrounded by lush gardens including a collection of Siberian plants and a gene bank for the fruit species of the Lake Mälaren region.