Sweden’s east coast, bordering the Gulf of Bothnia (Bottenhavet), forms a corridor of land that is quite unlike the rest of the north of the country; the forest, so apparent in other parts of the north, has been felled here to make room for settlements. The entire coastline is dotted with towns and villages that reveal a faded history; some, like Gävle and Hudiksvall, still have their share of old wooden houses, though sadly much was lost during the Russian incursions of the eighteenth century. However, it is cities like Sundsvall, Umeå and Luleå that are more typical of the region: modern, bright and airy metropolises that rank as some of northern Sweden’s liveliest and most likeable destinations.
All along the coast you’ll find traces of the religious fervour that swept the north in centuries past; Skellefteå and particularlyLuleå (included on the UNESCO World Heritage List) both boast excellently preserved kyrkstäder or church towns – clusters of old wooden cottages dating from the early eighteenth century, where villagers from outlying districts would spend the night after making the lengthy journey to church in the nearest town. Working your way up the coast, perhaps on the long train ride to Swedish Lapland, it’s worth breaking your trip at one or two of these places.
The highlight of the Bothnian coast is undoubtedly the stretch known as the Höga Kusten, or the High Coast, north of Härnösand: for peace and quiet, this is easily the most idyllic part of the Swedish east coast. Its indented coastline is best seen from the sea, with shimmering fjords that reach deep inland, tall cliffs and a string of pine-clad islands that make it possible to island-hop up this section of coast. The weather here may not be as reliable as further south, but you’re guaranteed clean beaches (which you’ll often have to yourself), crystal-clear waters and some of the finest countryside for walking.
From Storatorget take a stroll up Västra Kyrkogatan to the heights of the Neoclassical
, the smallest cathedral in the country. Dating from the 1840s, it incorporates elements from earlier churches on the site; the Baroque altar is from the eighteenth century, as are the VIP boxes in the nave.
The original settlement of Luleå, GAMMELSTAD, lies 11km northwest of the present city. It’s one of the most significant places of historical interest north of Uppsala, and is included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. When Luleå was moved to the coast in 1649, a handful of the more religious among the townsfolk stayed behind to tend the church, and the attached church town – the largest in Sweden – remained in use. It comprises over four hundred timber cottages, which can only be occupied by people born in Gammelstad; even people from Luleå must marry a local to gain the right to live here.
It’s only ninety minutes north by train from Stockholm to GÄVLE (pronounced “yerv-luh”, and confusingly similar to a much-used Swedish swear word), capital of the province of Gästrikland. Gävle is also the southernmost city of Norrland, the region – comprising almost two-thirds of Sweden – which represents wilderness territory in the minds of most Swedes. To all intents and purposes, Norrland, Sweden’s main reservoir of natural resources with vast forests and large ore deposits, means everything north of Uppsala; crossing into here from Svealand (which together with Götland makes up the southern third of the country) is – as far as the Swedish psyche is concerned – like leaving civilization behind.
Although Gävle is one of the bigger towns in Norrland, you can comfortably see everything in a day. Your first point of call should be Gamla Gefle, the old town district, where you’ll also find the town’s two museums, Joe Hill-Gården and Länsmuséet Gävleborg. Nearby, the Heliga Trefaldighets kyrka is a riot of seventeenth-century woodcarving and makes a pleasant stop en route to Gävle’s city park, Boulognerskogen, a vast expanse of forested parkland ideal for a picnic or a leisurely stroll.
Gävle’s town charter was granted as long ago as 1446, a fact that’s at variance with the modernity of the centre’s large squares, broad avenues and proud monumental buildings. The city was almost completely rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1869 and its docks and warehouses reflect the heady success of its late nineteenth-century industry, when Gävle was one of Sweden’s main ports for the export of locally produced iron ore and timber. Today, the city is more famous as the home of Gevalia coffee (“Gevalia” being the old Latinized name for the town), which you’ll no doubt taste during your time in Sweden and certainly smell in the air in Gävle.
Right by the Finnish border, at the very northern end of the Gulf of Bothnia, HAPARANDA is hard to like. The signpost near the bus station reinforces the fact that the town is a very long way from anywhere: Stockholm, 1100km away; the North Cape in Norway, 800km; and Timbuktu 8386km. Viewed from the south, Haparanda is at the end of a very long road to nowhere. However, turn the map upside down, look a little wider and it’s easy to see why IKEA took a strategic risk in late 2006 and opened its most northerly store in the world in Haparanda – a town of barely 10,000 people. The gamble paid off and shoppers from the whole of northern Scandinavia, even from as far afield as Murmansk in Russia, now travel here to get their hands on those famous flat-packs. Other companies have followed the retailer’s lead and set up business here, giving the local economy a long overdue kickstart. Other than the IKEA store, there are only two real sights in town: the train station, and the church.
The key to Haparanda’s late coming of age is the neighbouring Finnish town of Tornio. Finland was part of Sweden from 1105 until 1809, with Tornio an important trading centre, serving markets across northern Scandinavia. Things began to unravel when Russia attacked and occupied Finland in 1807; the Treaty of Hamina followed, forcing Sweden to cede Finland to Russia in 1809 – thereby losing Tornio. It was decided that Tornio had to be replaced, and so in 1821, the trading centre of Haparanda was founded on the Swedish side of the new border, which ran along the Torne River. However, the new town was never more than a minor upstart compared to its neighbour across the water. With both Sweden and Finland now members of the European Union, Haparanda and Tornio have declared themselves a Eurocity – one city made up of two towns from different countries.
The train station
The disused train station, a grand-looking structure built in 1918, was the result of the town’s aspirations to be a major trading centre after World War I and still dominates the suburban streets of southern Haparanda from its location at the junction of Stationsgatan and Järnvägsgatan. Constructed from red brick and complete with stone tower and lantern, it provided Sweden’s only rail link to Finland until 1992 when it became another victim of SJ closures. From the platforms, you’ll be able to discern two widths of track – Finnish trains run on the wider, Russian, gauge in front of the station; the Swedish tracks are behind the station building. The track between Haparanda and Luleå has now been upgraded and electrified which, in theory at least, will make it possible to once again operate trains via this route to Tornio in Finland, though it’s likely to be some time yet before services resume. Until then, the empty sidings, overgrown with weeds and bushes, give the place a strangely forlorn air.
The inhabitants of Swedish Haparanda and Finnish Tornio – two towns from different countries that have joined together to create a borderless “Eurocity” – are bilingual and use both the euro and the Swedish krona; roughly half of the children in Haparanda have either a Finnish mother or father. Services are also shared between the two towns: everything from central heating to post delivery is centrally coordinated. If a fire breaks out in Tornio, for example, Swedish fire crews from Haparanda will cross the border to help put out the flames. The shared tourist office (see p.000) has two phone lines, one dealing with calls from Sweden, the other with enquiries from Finland; staff switch effortlessly from one language to another depending on which line is ringing.
To get to Tornio simply head towards the “Finland” signs on the bridge; there are no border formalities, and so you can simply walk over the bridge to Finland and wander back whenever you like. It’s worth remembering that Finnish time is one hour ahead of Swedish time and that Haparanda and Tornio have different names in Swedish (Haparanda and Torneå) and Finnish (Haaparanta and Tornio).
After the train station, the only other place worthy of some attention is the copper-coloured
, a monstrous construction that looks like a cross between an aircraft hangar and an apartment building. When the church was finished in 1963, its design caused a public outcry: it won the prize for being the ugliest church in Sweden.
An hour’s trip along the coast from Sundsvall, HÄRNÖSAND is full of architectural delights, including a number of old wooden cottages dating from the 1730s, and is definitely worth a stop on the way north. The town’s highlights are the architectural treasures around the harmonious main square, Storatorget, and winding Östanbäcksgatan with its eighteenth-century wooden houses painted in gentle pastel shades. A short walk from the town centre, the extensive open-air museum at Murberget showcases vernacular architecture from around the country. Härnösand also marks the beginning of the stunningly beautiful region of Ångermanland – one of the few areas in Sweden where the indented, soaring coastline resembles the fjordlands of neighbouring Norway.
Härnösand was founded at the mouth of the Ångerman River by King Johan III in 1585. In 1647, the town was selected as the capital of the second most northerly diocese in Sweden and, accordingly, the new bishop decreed that the old stone church, which already stood in the town, be enlarged into a cathedral. The town has since had more than its fair share of disasters: in 1710, flames tore through it after drunken churchgoers accidentally set fire to a boathouse; just four years later, Härnösand fell victim to a second great fire, started by a group of school students. Newly rebuilt, the town was razed by a third blaze in 1721, during the Great Northern War, when invading Russian forces burnt every house to the ground, bar one.
Lively and friendly, the town of LULEÅ, 65km from Pite Havsbad up the E4, is immediately likeable, and if you’re heading north for the wilds of the Torne valley, Gällivare and Kiruna, or to the sparsely populated regions of Swedish Lapland, Luleå represents your last chance to enjoy a decent range of restaurants and bars.
The town has an important university, and is also the hi-tech centre of the north, specializing in metallurgy. For tourists, though, the main appeal is likely to be the UNESCO World Heritage-listed church town of Gammelstad, 11km northwest of town.
If you’re visiting Luleå in summer, taking a boat out into the archipelago makes a wonderful day-trip – departures are daily and there’s a whole array of islands in the Gulf of Bothnia to choose from: beaches, walking trails and plenty of peace and solitude are the main draws.
When Luleå was founded in 1621 it had at its centre a church town and medieval church. Numerous trading ships would load and unload their goods at its tiny harbour, reflecting the importance of trade with Stockholm even in those days. The harbour soon proved too small, thanks to the growth in business, and so, by royal command, the settlement was moved to its present site in 1649; only the church and church town, today part of Luleå’s Gammelstad, remained in situ.
Up until the end of the eighteenth century, Luleå was still little more than a handful of houses and storage huts; indeed Linnaeus, Sweden’s famous botanist, who passed through here in 1732 on his journey to Swedish Lapland, described Luleå as a village. Though the town had started to become something of a shipbuilding centre in the nineteenth century, it wasn’t until the construction in 1888 of the Malmbanan, the railway built to transport iron ore from the Gulf of Bothnia for wintertime export at the ice-free Norwegian port of Narvik, that Luleå’s fortunes really started to flourish. Luleå was at one end of the line, and its port was vital for lucrative iron exports (the main ironfields were – and are – around Kiruna and Gällivare).
Whilst in town it’s worth retracing your steps back down Nybrogatan to the train station, from where Stationsgatan (turning into Varvsallén) turns right, passing through the docks on its way to the impressive
, the second biggest in Sweden afterSkansen
The first building to take up its location here was a bell tower, which was moved from the village of Ullånger on the High Coast to its current position in 1913. There are around eighty other buildings, most notably traditional Ångermanland farmhouses and the old Murberget church, once a popular venue for local weddings. Look out for the Rysstugan, the one and only wooden building to escape the devastating fire caused by the Russians in 1721. The nineteenth-century Spjute Inn here is still home to a restaurant, and also contains a skittle alley dating from 1910, where you can have a game.
From the Domkyrkan, turn right and follow the road round and back down the hill until you come to the narrow old street of Östanbäcksgatan, with its pretty painted wooden houses from the 1730s. This is one of the oldest parts of town, Östanbäcken, where the houses were among the first to be built after the Russian incursions.
From Skellefteå it’s 70km north along the E4 highway to the superb sandy beaches of Pite Havsbad, northern Sweden’s main beach resort. Renowned for its long hours of summer sunshine, relatively warm water temperatures and sweeping strands of golden sand, it’s a great place to unwind. There’s even an official nudist beach: turn left along the beach and look out for a large rock marked “Naturist Bad”.
If you’re visiting Pite Havsbad in winter, don’t miss the fabulous icebreaker tours onboard the Arctic Explorer, which was built in Finland in 1963. After retiring from official service, the boat now sails from Piteå out into the frozen expanses of the Gulf of Bothnia on a two-hour excursion through the icefield (Feb–early March Sat 11am; 2hr; 795kr; minimum 10 people required for tour to operate; advance booking essential on t 0911 327 00). There’s also the unmissable opportunity to don a survival suit and float off the stern of the ship amid the ice blocks the ship has just broken.
For a taste of the town’s architectural splendour, take a walk up the hilly main street, Nybrogatan, to its junction with Storgatan: the Neoclassical pastel orange Rådhuset here, complete with white semicircular portico, originally served as a school and home to the diocesan governors. While further up the hill, at the corner of Brunnshusgatan, the headquarters of the regional administration is particularly beautiful, housed in a Neo-Baroque and Art Nouveau building with a yellow ochre facade. From the top of Nybrogatan, there are good views back over the town and the water.
For a provincial place, Härnösand reeks of grandeur and self-importance, each of its proud civic buildings a marker of the confidence the town exudes. The main square, Storatorget, was once declared by local worthies as the most beautiful in Sweden and it’s easy to see why: its western edge is proudly given over to the governor’s residence, built in Neoclassical style by the court architect, Olof Tempelman, using local brick.
Inside the Neo-Renaissance former provincial government building, on the southwestern edge of Storatorget, you’ll find both the town’s tourist office and the Konsthall, whose small collection of contemporary Swedish art is worth a quick glance on your way in and out of the tourist office.
SUNDSVALL, the capital of the tiny province of Medelpad, is often referred to as “Stone City”, for the simple reason that most of its buildings are made of stone – a fact that distinguishes it immediately from other coastal towns here. Having gawped at Sundsvall’s imposing architecture, most visitors then make for the city’s other main attraction: Kulturmagasinet, a superb museum complex located right in the city centre housing the paintings and sculptures of local artist Carl Frisendahl, amongst others. In summer, Gaffelbyn, Sundsvall’s outdoor craft village, is definitely worth a look, too – try your hand here at baking the northern Swedish flatbread, tunnbröd.
Once home to a rapidly expanding timber industry, the whole city burned to the ground the day after Midsummer in June 1888. A spark from the wood-burning steamboat Selånger (promptly dubbed “The Arsonist”) set fire to a nearby brewery, and the rest, as they say, is history – so much so that the remark “that hasn’t happened since the town burned down” is now an established Sundsvall saying. Nine thousand people lost their homes in the resulting blaze. The work of rebuilding the city began at once, and within ten years a new centre had been constructed, entirely of stone. The result is a living document of turn-of-the-twentieth-century urban architecture, designed and crafted by architects who were involved in rebuilding Stockholm’s residential areas at the same time. Wide streets and esplanades that would serve as firebreaks in the event of another fire formed the backbone of their work. These thoroughfares are home to 573 residential buildings, all of which went up in four years; the centrepiece is the house that dominates the main square, Storatorget.
The reconstruction, however, was achieved at a price: the workers who had laboured on the city’s refurbishment became the victims of their own success. They were shifted from their old homes in the centre and moved out south to a run-down suburb – the glaring contrast between the wealth of the new centre and the poverty of the surrounding districts was only too obvious. When Nils Holgersson, a character created by the children’s author Selma Lagerlöf, looked down on the town from the back of his flying goose, he remarked: “There was something funny about it when you saw it from above, because in the middle there was a group of high stone houses, so impressive that they hardly had their equal in Stockholm. Around the stone houses was an empty space, and then there was a circle of wooden houses, which were pleasantly scattered in little gardens, but which seemed to carry an awareness of being of lesser value than the stone houses and therefore dared not come too close.”
Other than the IKEA store, there are only two real sights in town. The train station, a grand-looking structure built in 1918, was the result of the town’s aspirations to be a major trading centre after World War I and still dominates the suburban streets of southern Haparanda from its location at the junction of Stationsgatan and Järnvägsgatan. Constructed from red brick and complete with stone tower and lantern, it provided Sweden’s only rail link to Finland until 1992 when it became another victim of SJ closures. From the platforms, you’ll be able to discern two widths of track – Finnish trains run on the wider, Russian, gauge. The track between Haparanda and Luleå has now been upgraded and electrified which, in theory at least, will make it possible to once again operate trains via this route to Tornio in Finland, though it’s likely to be some time yet before services resume. Until then, the empty sidings, overgrown with weeds and bushes, give the place a strangely forlorn air.
UMEÅ is the biggest city in the north of Sweden, with a current population of 112,000 people, which means that an astonishing one in ten of the residents of Norrland live here. Demographically speaking, it’s probably Sweden’s youngest city, a notion borne out by taking a stroll around the airy modern centre: you’ll form the impression that anyone who’s not in a pushchair is pushing one, and that the cafés and city parks are full of teenagers. Indeed one in five people are in their twenties, figures that are partly due to the presence of Norrland University. Its youthfulness may well be responsible for the fact that Umeå is the one of the few towns or cities in northern Sweden where there’s an air of dynamism: new restaurants and bars are opening all the time, there’s a thriving cultural scene and the Botniabanan high-speed rail link to Stockholm means the capital can be reached in just over six hours.
The sound of the rapids along the Ume River gives the city its name: uma means “roar”. With its fast-flowing river – a feature few other Swedish coastal cities enjoy – and wide, stylish boulevards, Umeå is an appealing metropolis. It would be no bad idea to spend a couple of days here, sampling some of its bars and restaurants – the variety of which you won’t find anywhere else in Norrland. An added attraction is the nearby elk farm at Bjurholm, which makes a great day-trip from the city.
Umeå is sometimes referred to as the “City of Birch Trees”, after the trees that were planted along every street following a devastating fire in 1888. Most of the city was burnt to the ground in the blaze, and two-thirds of the town’s three thousand inhabitants lost their homes. In the rebuilding which soon began apace, two wide esplanades, one of which is Rådhusesplanaden, were constructed to act as fire breaks and help prevent such a disaster happening again. A decree was then handed down stating that the birch was the most suitable tree to add life to the town’s newly reconstructed streets; even today, the city council places ads for free trees in the local papers and provides free birch saplings every spring to anyone who wants them.