The mere mention of Sweden conjures up resonant images: snow-capped peaks, reindeer wandering in deep green forests and the 24-hour daylight of the midnight sun. But beyond the household names of ABBA, IKEA and Volvo, Sweden is relatively unknown. The largest of the Scandinavian countries, with an area twice that of Britain (and roughly that of California), but a population of barely nine million, Sweden has space for everyone: the countryside boasts pine, spruce and birch forest as far as the eye can see and crystal-clear lakes perfect for a summer afternoon dip – not to mention possibly the purest air you’ll ever breathe. The country’s south and west coasts, meanwhile, feature some of the most exquisite beaches in Europe – without the crowds.
In general Sweden is a carefree place where life is relaxed. Indeed, the Swedes’ liberal and open attitude to virtually every aspect of life is certainly one of their most enviable qualities; people are generally left to do their own thing, providing it doesn’t impinge on the rights and freedoms of others. In Sweden, rights go hand in hand with duties, and there’s a strong sense of civic obligation (count how few times you see people dropping litter, for example), which in turn makes for a well-rounded and stable society. Many of the cornerstones of the Swedish welfare state, such as tremendously generous benefits and health-care perks, which Swedes still hold dear today, were laid down during forty years of unbroken rule by the Social Democrats.
Yet, over the years, foreigners have somehow confused the open Swedish attitude to society, including nudity and sexuality, with sex. Contrary to popular belief, Sweden isn’t populated solely with people waiting for any opportunity to tear off their clothes and make passionate love under the midnight sun. It is, though, a country founded on honesty and straight talking – two of Sweden’s most refreshing qualities.
Sweden is principally a land of forests and lakes. Its towns and cities are small by European standards and are mostly located in the southern third of the country, where the majority of Swedes live. Of its cities, serenely beautiful Stockholm is supreme. Sitting elegantly on fourteen different islands, where the waters of Lake Mälaren meet the Baltic Sea, the city boasts some fantastic architecture, fine museums and by far the best culture and nightlife in the country. The 24,000 islands which comprise the Stockholm archipelago are a perfect antidote to the urban bustle, offering endless opportunities to explore unspoilt island villages and to go swimming. On the west coast, Gothenburg, the country’s second city, is also one of Sweden’s most appealing destinations. Gothenburgers have a reputation for being among the friendliest people in Sweden, and the city’s network of canals and spacious avenues is reminiscent of Amsterdam, whose architects designed it.
The south is the most cosmopolitan part of the country, owing to the proximity of Denmark and the rest of the European continent, and home to the glorious ancient university seat of Lund, while nearby Malmö, Sweden’s third city, heaves with youthful nightlife around its medieval core.
Inland, southern Sweden boasts some handsome lakes, the two largest of which, Vänern and Vättern, provide splendid backdrops to some beautiful towns, not least the evocative former royal seat and the monastic centre of Vadstena, and Karlstad, the sunshine capital of Värmland, a rugged province ideal for river-rafting trips. To the east of the mainland lies Gotland, justifiably raved about as a haven for summer revelry, especially within the medieval walls of its unspoilt Hanseatic city, Visby.
Central and northern Sweden represent the most quintessentially “Swedish-looking” part of the country. In the centre lies Dalarna, an area of rolling hills and villages that’s home to Lake Siljan, one of Sweden’s most beautiful lakes. North of here lies some of the country’s most enchanting scenery, home to bears, wolves and reindeer. To the east, the shoreline of the Bothnian coast contains the north’s biggest cities: Sundsvall, Umeå and Luleå are all enjoyable, lively places in which to break your journey north.
The far north, inside the Arctic Circle, is the home of the Sámi – Sweden’s indigenous people. Known as Swedish Lapland, it is also the land of reindeer, elk and bears, of swiftly flowing rivers and coniferous forest, all traversed by endless hiking routes. Sweden’s northernmost town, Kiruna makes an excellent base for exploring the region’s national parks and the world-famous Icehotel in nearby Jukkasjärvi. Swedish Lapland is also where you will experience the midnight sun: in high summer the sun never sets, whilst in midwinter the opposite is true, though you may be lucky enough to see the sky lit up by the multicoloured patterns of the northern lights, or aurora borealis.
Top image © AndrzejL/Shutterstock
• Sweden is the third largest country in western Europe – behind only France and Spain – stretching 1600km from north to south. If the country were pivoted around on its southernmost point, the top of the country would reach as far south as Naples in Italy.
• There is no translation for the Swedish word lagom, one of the most commonly used terms in the language. Roughly speaking, it means “just the right amount, not too much but not too little”, a concept that is the very essence of Swedishness.
• More than half of Sweden’s land surface is covered with forest – mostly coniferous – punctuated by an astonishing 100,000 lakes.
• Sweden is home to the world’s first and largest hotel made entirely of ice and snow. Icehotel is built in December using blocks of ice cut from the local Torne River. The hotel melts back into the river in May.
• In northern Sweden frozen lakes and rivers are used by drivers looking for a shortcut to their destination. The national road agency marks out “ice roads” and decides when the ice is thick enough to support a vehicle.
An atmosphere akin to Mediterranean joie de vivre takes over Sweden during the midsummer solstice (the weekend closest to June 24), when maypoles are erected as giant fertility symbols in gardens and parks across the country. Midsummer is not a time for staying in towns – everyone heads to the countryside and coasts, with Dalarna, the island of Öland and the shores of the Bohuslän coast being just a few of the most popular spots. Aided in no small part by copious quantities of alcohol, the population’s national characteristics of reserve and restraint dissolve over midsummer weekend. Long trestle tables draped in white cloths and sagging under the weight of multiple varieties of herring, potatoes with dill and gallons of akvavit are set up outside, and parties go on through the light night with dancing to the strains of accordions and fiddles.
Also known by their Latin name, aurora borealis, the northern lights are visible all across northern Sweden during the dark months of winter. These spectacular displays of green-blue shimmering arcs and waves of light are caused by solar wind, or streams of particles charged by the sun, hitting the atmosphere. The colours are the characteristic hues of different elements when they hit the plasma shield that protects the Earth: blue is nitrogen and yellow-green oxygen. Although the mechanisms which produce the aurora are not completely understood, the displays are generally more impressive the closer you get to the poles – low temperatures are also rumoured to produce some of the most dramatic performances. Gällivare and Kiruna, both well inside the Arctic Circle, are arguably the best places in Sweden to catch a glimpse of the aurora, particularly during the coldest winter months from December to February. Although displays can range from just a few minutes to several hours, the night sky must be clear of cloud to see the northern lights from Earth.
It’s estimated there are currently over three thousand brown bears in Sweden, the highest number since the 1800s, roaming across an area stretching from the far north as far south as northern Värmland. Since the early 1940s it’s been legal in Sweden to hunt bears every autumn to keep the population in check and each year around 250 animals are culled. Although it’s rare to spot a bear in the wild, should you be hiking in an area where bears are present, you’re advised to whistle or talk loudly to alert the bear to your presence, particularly in autumn when they are present in the forests gorging on wild berries ahead of hibernation.
Unsurprisingly, the long, dark winters have a tangible effect on the Swedish psyche. During the winter months, you’ll find that people are generally quieter and more withdrawn, and protect themselves from the rigours of the cold and dark by deliberately socializing indoors, often choosing to light candles throughout the home to create a sense of cosiness. You’ll even see candles burning in public buildings and shops to brighten up the gloomiest time of year. It’s during winter that Seasonal Affective Disorder, or S.A.D., causes widespread depression, affecting roughly one in five people. Although you’re unlikely to suffer during a short visit in winter, you’re likely to encounter gloomy faces and a general sense of inertia throughout the winter months. S.A.D. is caused by a lack of daylight which leads to an increase in the production of the sleep-related hormone, melatonin, secreted from a gland in the brain. Naturally people do all they can to alleviate the effects of winter; for example, during the period of 24-hour darkness in northern Sweden, the Winter Swede creates a semblance of day and night by switching on bright lights during what would be daytime, and using low-lighting during the evening hours. Once spring arrives, there’s a notable bounce in people’s step, and the Summer Swede prepares to emerge from months of enforced hibernation – you’ll see people sitting in lines on park benches in the sunshine, faces tilted to the sky, making the most of the return of the sun. Festivals and revelries are thick on the ground in spring and summer, and outdoor life is lived to the full, including picnics under the midnight sun, beach parties lasting late into the night and an exodus to the countryside as people take up residence in their forest or lakeside log cabins to enjoy the brief yet intense summer months.
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