Move away from Stockholm, and it’s easy to appreciate its unique geographical location. Water surrounds the city and – although you can travel by train and bus – it’s worth making the effort to ply the serene waters of Lake Mälaren or the Stockholm archipelago by boat. The archipelago is made up of a staggering 24,000 islands, islets and rocks, as the Swedish mainland slowly splinters into the Baltic Sea; it’s a summer paradise for holidaying city dwellers.
A boat trip inland along Lake Mälaren is also a must, either to the Viking island of Birka, where you can see the remains of Sweden’s most important medieval trading centre and a dizzying array of ancient finds, or to Drottningholm, the seventeenth-century royal residence situated right on the lakeside. Another easy excursion on Lake Mälaren leads to the impressive castle of Gripsholm at Mariefred.
Also within easy day-trip reach are the ancient Swedish capital and medieval university town of Uppsala and one of the country’s oldest settlements, Sigtuna, complete with its rune stones and ruined churches.
If you’ve flown in with Ryanair, consider spending a day in lakeside Västerås, with its fascinating mix of the new and old – including a sixth-century royal burial mound, or handsome Nyköping on the Baltic coast which rewards visitors with its laid-back seaside atmosphere and impressive castle.
Top image: Gripsholm castle © Roland Magnusson/Shutterstock
Freshwater Lake Mälaren dominates the countryside west of Stockholm, and provides the backdrop to some of the capital region’s most appealing day-trip destinations. During the summer months, boats sail frequently to Drottingholm, home to the Swedish royal family, as well as pretty Mariefred, an enchanting little town on the lake’s southern shore with a magnificent castle. Sweden’s main settlement during the ninth and tenth centuries, the island of Birka, is great for anyone interested in Sweden’s stirring Viking past. The main city on the lake is Västerås, a modern and thoroughly enjoyable place with good sandy beaches and some impressive Viking remains, too.
The island of Björkö (the name means “island of birches”), in Lake Mälaren, is the site of Sweden’s oldest town, BIRKA, which was founded around 750AD and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. For over two centuries, Birka was the most important Viking trading centre in the northern countries, benefiting from its strategic location near the mouth of Lake Mälaren on the portage route to Russia and the Byzantine Empire. Today, a visit here is not only an opportunity to get to grips with Sweden’s Viking heritage, thanks to the site’s excellent museum, but the boat trip to the island also gives you a chance to explore the tranquil waters of Lake Mälaren.
After Birka was founded in the mid-eighth century, tradesmen and merchants were quick to take advantage of the prosperous and rapidly expanding village, and the population soon grew to around one thousand. The future patron saint of Scandinavia, Ansgar, came here in 830 as a missionary at the instruction of the Holy Roman Emperor, Louis I, and established a church in an attempt to Christianize the heathen Swedes. They showed little interest and the Frankish monk preached on the island for just over a year before being recalled. Birka reached its height during the tenth century before sliding into decline: falling water levels in Lake Mälaren, the superior location of the Baltic island of Gotland for handling Russian-Byzantine trade and the emergence of nearby rival Sigtuna all led to its gradual disappearance after 975.
Even if your time in Stockholm is limited, try to see the architecturally harmonious royal palace of Drottningholm, beautifully located on the shores of leafy Lovön, an island 11km west of Stockholm's centre and less than an hour away to reach. Drottningholm is perhaps the greatest achievement of the two architects Tessin, father and son. Work began in 1662 on the orders of King Karl X’s widow, Eleonora, with Tessin the Elder modelling the new palace in a thoroughly French style – giving rise to the stock comparisons with Versailles. Apart from anything else, it’s considerably smaller than its French contemporary, utilizing false perspective and trompe l’oeil to bolster the elegant, though rather narrow, interior. On Tessin the Elder’s death in 1681, the palace was completed by his son, then already at work on Stockholm’s Kungliga Slottet.
Since 1981, the Swedish royal family has lived out at Drottningholm, instead of in the city centre, using it as a permanent home. This move has accelerated efforts to restore parts of the palace to their original appearance, and the monumental grand staircase is now once again exactly as envisaged by Tessin the Elder. In the rooms, good English notes are available to help you sort out the riot of Rococo decoration, which largely dates from the time when Drottningholm was bestowed as a wedding gift on Princess Louisa Ulrika (a sister of Frederick the Great of Prussia). No hints, however, are needed to spot the influences in the Baroque "French" and the later "English" gardens that back onto the palace.
Within the extensive palace grounds is the Kina slott (Chinese Pavilion), a sort of eighteenth-century royal summerhouse. Originally built by King Adolf Fredrik as a birthday gift to Queen Louisa Ulrika in 1753, the structure is Rococo in design and, though it includes some Chinese flourishes which were the height of fashion at the time of construction, it is predominantly European in appearance.
Capital of the county of Västmanland and Sweden’s sixth biggest city, VÄSTERÅS is an immediately likeable mix of old and new. Today, this lakeside conurbation, 100km west of Stockholm, carefully balances its dependence on ABB, the industrial technology giant, with a rich history dating back to Viking times. If you’re looking for a place that’s lively and cosmopolitan, yet retains cobbled squares, picturesque wooden houses and even a sixth-century royal burial mound, you won’t go far wrong here. Västerås also boasts some of Lake Mälaren’s best beaches, all a short ferry ride from the city centre.
From the train station, it’s a short stroll up Köpmangatan to the twin cobbled squares of Bondtorget and Storatorget. The slender lane from the southwestern corner of Bondtorget leads to the narrow Svartån river, which runs right through the centre of the city; the bridge over the river here (known as Apotekarbron) has great views of the old wooden cottages which nestle eave-to-eave along the riverside. Although it may not appear significant (the Svartån is actually much wider further upstream), the river was a decisive factor in making Västerås the headquarters of one of the world’s largest engineering companies, Asea-Brown-Boveri (ABB), which needed a ready source of water for production; if you arrived by train from Stockholm you’ll have passed its metallurgy and distribution centres on approaching the station.
North of Storotorget, the brick Domkyrkan dates from the thirteenth century, although its two outer aisles are formed from a number of chapels built around the existing church during the following two centuries. The original tower was destroyed by fire, leaving Nicodemus Tessin the Younger (who also built the Kungliga Slottet in Stockholm) to design the current structure in 1693. The highly ornate gilded oak triptych above the altar was made in Antwerp, and depicts the suffering and resurrection of Christ. To the right of the altar lies the tomb of Erik XIV, who died an unceremonious death imprisoned in Örbyhus castle in 1577 after eating his favourite pea soup – little did he realize it was laced with arsenic. Local rumour has it that the king’s feet had to be cut off in order for his body to fit the coffin, which was built too small. His elegant, black-marble sarcophagus rests on a plinth of reddish sandstone from Öland.
Beyond the cathedral is the most charming district of Västerås, Kyrkbacken, a hilly area that stretches just a few hundred metres. Here, steep cobblestone alleys wind between well-preserved old wooden houses where artisans and the petit bourgeoisie lived in the eighteenth century. Thankfully, the area was saved from the great fire of 1714 – which destroyed much of Västerås – and the wholesale restructuring of the 1960s. At the top end of Djäknegatan, the main street of the district, look for a narrow alley called Brunnsgränd, along which is a house bearing the sign “Mästermansgården”: it was once the abode of the most hated and ostracized man in the district – the town executioner.
A quick walk south past the restaurants and shops of Vasagatan in the city centre will bring you to the eye-catching modern Stadshuset in Fiskatorget – the building is a far cry from the Dominican monastery which once stood on this spot. Although home to the city’s administration, the Stadshuset is best known for its 47 bells, the largest of which is known as “the Monk” and can be heard across the city at lunchtimes.
The Karlsgatan 2 building houses two museums: the Västerås Konstmuseum and the Länsmuseum. The Västerås Konstmuseum, the town's compact art museum, is rather disappointing. It’s worth a quick look for its contemporary collections of Swedish and other Nordic art – but don’t expect too much. The Länsmuseum unfortunately also lacks direction, containing a rag-tag collection of obscure items such as children’s dolls and old typewriters, plonked in glass cabinets; you’ll glean little about the province’s history from this load of junk.
Whilst in Västerås, try not to miss nearby Anundshög, the largest royal burial mound in Sweden, just 6km northeast of the city. Dating from the sixth century, the mound – at 60m in diameter and 14m high – is said to be the resting place of King Bröt-Anund and his stash of gold. Although unexcavated, the mound is widely thought to contain the remains of a cremation burial and a stone cist. Anundshög was also used for sessions of the local ting, or Viking parliament, and several other smaller burial mounds nearby suggest that the site was an important Viking meeting place over several centuries. Beside the main mound lie a large number of standing stones arranged end-to-end in the shape of two ships measuring 53m and 50m in diameter. The nearby rune stone dates from around 1000 AD though it’s not thought to be connected to the burial mound. The stone’s inscription, when translated, reads “Folkvid erected all these stones for his son, Hedin, brother of Anund. Vred carved the runes.”
Boats run from Färjkajen quay in the harbour, southwest of the train station, to a string of small islands in Lake Mälaren blessed with great beaches.
The closest is Östra Holmen, which is noted for its three excellent nudistbeaches on the southern shore. It’s popular with locals who come here to enjoy the wide open views of Lake Mälaren and to explore the island’s undisturbed shoreline – an easy circular walk of around 2km.
Further south, much larger Ridön traces its history back to Viking times, and is today a peaceful forested haven, with sheltered coves ideal for swimming. A country lane winds across the centre of the island from west to east; there’s a small café and wooden bell tower at the point where this lane meets the path leading up from the ferry jetty.
Two other uninhabited islands, Almö-Lindö and tiny Skåpholmen, are perfect for seekers of total solitude. Almö-Lindö, which the boat reaches first, is the better bet since it’s larger, has more varied terrain and some good swimming beaches – though no facilities. Skåpholmen is a skinny sliver of an island, again with no facilities.
Detailed ferry times can be found at wrederimalarstaden.se but generally boats sail several times daily between late April and early November.
If you arrived in Stockholm by plane, you’ll already have had a tantalizing glimpse of the Stockholm archipelago. In Swedish the word for archipelago is skärgård – literally “garden of skerries” and a pretty accurate description: the array of hundreds upon hundreds of pine-clad islands and islets is the only one of its kind in the world. Most of the little-known islands are flat and are wonderful places for walking or cycling (ferries to the islands accept bikes onboard); we’ve picked out the most rewarding islands for strolls and hikes, and have suggested a few trails which are a good way to take in the sweeping sea vistas and unspoilt nature here. The archipelago, though, holds another secret, little known even to most Swedes – many of ABBA’s most famous hits were written out here, on the island of Viggsö where the famous foursome owned a couple of summer cottages.
The easiest and fastest section of the archipelago to reach, and consequently the most popular with day-tripping Stockholmers, the central archipelago is the islands at their most stunning: hundreds of rocks, skerries, islets and islands jostle for space in the pristine waters of the Baltic, giving the impression of giant stepping-stones leading back to the mainland.
The islands in the northern stretches of the skärgård are far fewer in number. As a result, the appearance of the northern archipelago is very different: characterized by open vistas and sea swells rather than narrow sounds and passageways, the islands here are very much at the mercy of the sea and weather. Although sharing more in appearance with the denser central archipelago than its more barren northern counterpart, the southern archipelago is generally much quieter in terms of visitor numbers, because it’s harder to reach from central Stockholm.
If you’re waiting for the boat out in the archipelago, you must raise the semaphore flag on the jetty to indicate that you want to be picked up; torches are kept in the huts on the jetties for the same purpose at night.
In some parts of the archipelago, it’s possible to visit a couple of islands on the same trip by taking the ferry to your first port of call, then rowing across to a neighbouring island, from where you return to Stockholm by the ferry again – we’ve detailed these options in the text. For this purpose, there’ll be a row-boat either side of the water separating you from your destination. When you use the boats, you have to ensure there’s always one left on either side – this entails rowing across, attaching the other boat to yours, rowing back to your starting point, where you leave one boat behind, and then rowing across one last time.
A beautiful low-lying island covered with thick pine forest, Gällnö is the archipelago at its best. Home to just thirty people, a couple of whom farm the land near the jetty, Gällnö has been designated a nature reserve: you can spot deer in the forest or watch eider ducks diving for fish. The youth hostel is well signposted from the main village, where there’s also a small shop selling provisions. From here, there’s the choice of two walks: either head east through the forest for Gällnönäs, from where you can pick up boats back to Stockholm or further out into the islands, or continue past the youth hostel, following signs for Brännholmen until you arrive at a small bay popular with yachties. Look for the hut where the toilet is, as one of its walls bears a map and sign on the outside showing the path leading from here to the row-boats – these enable you to cross the narrow sound (around 15m wide) separating Gällnö from its neighbour, Karklö. When you head across, remember to leave one boat on either side of the sound.
The rocky outcrop topped by dense pine forest that lies sandwiched between Grinda and much larger Värmdö to the south holds a big secret. It was here on the island of Viggsö that ABBA composed Dancing Queen, Fernando and several other chart-topping hits; shots of Viggsö were also used in ABBA The Movie. Agnetha and Björn bought a summer cottage here in 1971, closely followed in 1974 by Benny and Anni-Frid; the sound of piano music drifting across the treetops was a sure sign that one or other couple had sailed their boat out from Stockholm to spend a few days away from the city. The two men would spend days at a time in Björn’s yellow wooden outhouse hammering away at a battered upright piano and strumming an old guitar – the restorative calm of Viggsö was at the heart of much of ABBA’s music-making.
The vibrant university city of Uppsala lies 70km to the north of Stockholm, and boasts some great museums, including the home and gardens of world-renowned botanist Carl von Linné.
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. 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.
Just north of town, the sixth-century burial mounds of Gamla Uppsala mark the original site of Uppsala.
Five kilometres to the north of Uppsala, three huge royal burial mounds dating back to the sixth century mark the original site of the town, Gamla Uppsala. According to legend, they are the final resting places of three ancient kings – Aun, Egil and Adlis. Though the site developed into an important trading and administrative centre, it was originally established as a pagan settlement and a place of ancient sacrificial rites by the Svear tribe. In the eleventh century, the German chronicler, Adam of Bremen, described the cult of the æsir (the Norse gods Odin, Thor and Freyr) practised in Uppsala: every ninth year, the deaths of nine people would be demanded at the festival of Fröblot, the victims left hanging from a nearby tree until their corpses rotted. Two centuries later, the great medieval storyteller, Snorri Sturluson of Iceland, depicted Uppsala as the true home of the Ynglinga dynasty (the original royal family in Scandinavia who also worshipped Freyr), a place where grand sacrificial festivals were held in honour of their god.
The pagan temple where Uppsala’s bloody sacrifices took place is now marked by the Christian Gamla Uppsala kyrka, which was built over pagan remains when the Swedish kings first took baptism in the new faith. Built predominantly of stone yet characterized by its rear nave wall of stepped red-brick gabling, this is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful churches in Sweden, with an understated simplicity at the very heart of its appeal. Although what survives of the church today is only a remnant of the original cathedral, the relics inside more than compensate for the downscaling. In the porch are two impressive collecting chests, one made from an oak log and fitted with iron locks, which dates from the earliest days of the church. Entering the nave, look out for the cabinet on the left containing a superb collection of church silver, including a fourteenth-century chalice and a censer from the 1200s. Nearby, in the nave wall, a stone memorial to Anders Celsius, inventor of the temperature scale that bears his name, is a worthy tribute. Outside, if you haven’t yet set eyes on a genuine rune stone in Sweden, look carefully in the church walls at the back to find a perfectly preserved example from the eleventh century.
Southeast of the church, the tinghög or parliament hill (the only burial mound not fenced in) was once the site of the local ting where, until the sixteenth century, a Viking parliament was held to deliberate on all matters affecting Uppsala. Immediately west of here, a path leads around the three main mounds, the first of which, östhögen – the east mound – dates from around 550. Following the 1846–47 excavations of Gamla Uppsala, this hill yielded the site’s most astonishing artefacts: the cremated remains of a woman – possibly a priestess of the god Freyr – buried in magnificent wool, linen and silk clothing, as well as a necklace bearing a powerful image of a Valkyrie. The adjacent central mound, mitthögen, is thought to be around fifty years older than its neighbour but has still to be excavated. Finally, the western västhögen has been dated from the late sixth century, and following excavations in 1874 revealed male bone fragments and jewellery commensurate with high status.
If you’re looking for a taste of provincial Sweden before pushing on further south or, alternatively, to Stockholm Skavsta airport, historic NYKÖPING, 100km southwest of Stockholm, is perfect. Indeed, since Ryanair established a base in 2003 at Skavsta (7km northwest of the town), the airport has effectively become Nyköping’s lifeblood, supplying a steady flow of arriving and departing Ryanair passengers, despite the fact that flight operations have been scaled back somewhat in recent years. Capital of the surrounding pastoral province of Södermanland, Nyköping’s underrated charms include an excellent museum in and around the ruins of its thirteenth-century castle, and a thriving harbour – a regular target for the Stockholm yachting set – that bustles with life in summer.
On the main square, Storatorget, opposite the tourist office, stands the vast St Nicolai kyrka with its white, vaulted ceiling. The building dates from around 1260, although most of what you see is the result of sixteenth-century refurbishment. The pillars here are adorned with dozens of beautiful, heavily moulded silver candle sconces. It’s the Baroque pulpit, though, that’s the highlight; crafted in Norrköping in 1748, it was modelled on the one in the Storkyrkan in Stockholm. Outside, standing proudly on a nearby rocky outcrop, is the red 1692 bell tower, the only wooden building not destroyed in 1719 when the town was attacked from the sea by invading Russian troops who burnt virtually the entire place to the ground.
From Storatorget, it’s just a couple of minutes’ wander south, down Slottsgatan with the river to your left, to Kungsgatan. Here you’ll see the King’s Tower, the main part of Nyköpingshus castle. A late twelfth-century defensive tower, built to protect the trading port at the estuary of the Nyköping river, it was subsequently converted into a fortress by King Magnus Ladulås.
In the sixteenth century, Gustav Vasa fortified the castle with gun towers; his son Karl, who became duke of Södermanland, converted the place into one of Sweden’s grandest Renaissance palaces. Devastating fires here in 1665 and 1719 reduced all lesser buildings to ash and gutted the castle. With no money forthcoming from the national coffers, it was never rebuilt; only the King’s Tower was saved from demolition and became used as a granary. Today, the riverside tower and the adjoining early eighteenth-century house built for the county governor form a museum complex. Wandering through the original gatehouse (porthuset) beneath Karl’s heraldic shield, you reach the extensively restored King’s Tower. On the first floor, a stylish job has been done of rebuilding the graceful archways that lead into the Guard Room. The rest of the museum is fairly uninspiring, the best exhibition being a display of medieval shoes and boots.
It was in the King’s Tower in 1317 that the infamous Nyköping Banquet took place: one of King Magnus’s three sons, Birger, invited his brothers Erik and Valdemar to celebrate Christmas at Nyköping and provided a grand banquet. Once the meal was complete, and the visiting brothers had retired to bed, Birger had them thrown in the castle’s dungeon, threw the key into the river and left them to starve to death. In the nineteenth century, a key was caught by a boy fishing in the river; whether the rusting item he found, now on display in the museum, really is the one last touched by Birger, no one knows.
Forty kilmoetres south of Uppsala is SIGTUNA, 40km south of Uppsala, a compact little town that dates all the way back to Viking times, with extensive ruined churches and rune stones right in the centre. Apart from its ruins, it looks like any other old Swedish town with cobbled streets and squares. Scratch the surface though, and you’ll understand what made Sigtuna so important. Founded in 980 by King Erik Segersäll, Sigtuna grew from a village to become Sweden’s first town. Fittingly, it contains Sweden’s oldest street, Storagatan; the original, laid out during the king’s reign, still lies under its modern-day counterpart. Sigtuna also boasts three intriguing ruined churches dating from the twelfth century. The Sigtuna district also contains more rune stones than any other area in Sweden – around 150 of them have been found to date – and several can be seen close to the ruins of the church of St Lars along Prästgatan.
Two of Sigtuna’s most impressive ruins, the churches of St Per and St Olof, lie along Storagatan itself. Much of the west and central towers of St Per’s still remain from the early 1100s; experts believe it likely that the church functioned as a cathedral until the diocese was moved to nearby Uppsala. The unusual formation of the vault in the central tower was influenced by church design then current in England and Normandy. Further east along Storagatan, St Olof’s has impressively thick walls and a short nave, the latter suggesting that the church was never completed.
Close to the church ruins on Olofsgatan is the very much functioning Mariakyrkan, constructed of red brick during the mid-thirteenth century to serve the local Dominican monastery. Inside, the walls and ceiling are richly adorned with restored paintings from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
On the main road, Storagatan, the Sigtuna museum includes material on Sigtuna’s role as Sweden’s foremost trading centre. Coins bear witness to the fact that this was the first town in the land to mint coins, in 995, plus there’s booty from abroad: gold rings and even an eleventh-century clay egg, from Kiev.
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.
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.
Born in Småland in 1707, Carl von Linné, who styled himself Carolus Linnaeus, is undoubtedly Sweden’s most revered scientist. His international reputation was secured by the introduction of his binomial classification, a two-part nomenclature that enabled plants and animals to be consistently named and categorized into families; it was Linnaeus who invented the term homo sapiens, for example. Only very recently has the basis of his classifications been undermined by genetic methods, resulting in the complete realignment of certain plant families.