Although a less obvious target than the coastal cities and resorts of the southwest, Sweden’s southeast certainly repays a visit. The provinces of Sörmland, Östergötland, Småland and Blekinge boast impressive castles, ancient lakeside sites and numerous glassworks amid the forests of the so-called “Glass Kingdom”, while off the east coast, Sweden’s largest Baltic islands offer beautifully preserved medieval towns and fairytale landscapes. Train transport, especially between the towns close to the eastern shore of Lake Vättern and Stockholm, is good; speedy, regular services mean that you could see some places on a day-trip from Stockholm.
Blekinge is something of a poor relation to its neighbours in terms of tourism. Towns here put out an endless stream of glossy brochures touting their attractions, but in truth, even Swedes themselves admit the province remains the forgotten corner of the south – perfect if you’re looking for a quiet getaway. The neighbouring province of Småland encompasses a varied geography and some stridently different towns. Kalmar is a very likeable stop; a glorious historic fortress town, it deserves more time than its tag as a jumping-off point for the island of Öland suggests. Inland, great swathes of dense forest are rescued from monotony by the many glass factories that continue the county’s traditional industry, famous the world over for its design and quality, though today drowning in its own marketing hyperbole. In Växjö, the largest town in the southeast, two superb museums deal with the art of glass-making and the history of Swedish emigration: agricultural reforms that denied peasants access to common land, combined with a series of bad harvests, led to more than a million Swedes – a sixth of the population – emigrating to America between 1860 and 1930. At the northern edge of the province and perched on the southernmost tip of Lake Vättern, Jönköping is known as Sweden’s Jerusalem for its remarkable number of Free Churches; it’s also a great base for exploring the beautiful eastern shore of Vättern.
The idyllic pastoral landscape of Östergötland borders the eastern shores of the lake and reaches as far east as the Baltic. One of its highlights, and popular with domestic tourists, is the small lakeside town of Vadstena, its medieval streets dwarfed by austere monastic edifices, a Renaissance palace and an imposing abbey, brought into being by the zealous determination of Sweden’s first female saint, Birgitta. Just off the southeast coast lie Sweden’s two largest islands, Öland and Gotland: adjacent slithers of land with unusually temperate climates for their latitudes. They were domestic tourist havens for years, but now an increasing number of foreigners are discovering their charms – lots of summer sun, delectable beaches and some impressive historic (and prehistoric) sights. Öland – the smaller island and closer to the mainland – has a mix of shady forests and flowering meadows that make it a tranquil spot for a few days’ exploration. Gotland’s well-known highlight is its Hanseatic medieval capital, Visby, a city pervaded by a carnival atmosphere in summer when ferry-loads of young Swedes come to sunbathe and party. The rest of the island, however, is little visited by tourists, and all the more magical for that.