There’s no escaping the fact that eating and drinking is going to take up a large slice of your budget in Sweden – though no more so than in any other northern European country.
Eating well and eating cheaply needn’t be mutually exclusive aims in Sweden, however. The best strategy is to fuel up on breakfast and lunch, both of which offer good-value options. Breakfast is often included in the cost of a night’s accommodation, and most restaurants have lunchtime specials (dagens rätt) that time and again are the best-value meals you’ll find.
When eating out, resist the temptation to order a starter – throughout Sweden portions are generous and most main dishes are large enough to fill even the emptiest stomach.
Note that although tipping in Swedish restaurants is not expected, it is customary to round the bill up to the nearest 20kr or so.
Swedish food – based largely on fish, meat and potatoes, and very varied in preparation – is always tasty and well-presented and, at its best, is delicious. Sweden’s various salmon dishes are – divine either warm or cold, and a mainstay of any Swedish smorgasbord worth its salt. Herring is mostly served marinated, but don’t let that put you off as it tastes surprisingly good. It also has a prominent place at the table during Sweden's midsummer celebrations. Sauces feature prominently in Swedish cooking, often flavoured with dill or parsley; alternatively there are many delicious creamy concoctions too.
Wild berries appear in many dishes, especially the lingonberry, which is something like a cranberry, and makes a good accompaniment to Swedish meatballs, a combination praised by many a Swede as a delicacy of the country. You’ll also be able to taste orange-coloured sweet cloudberries, which grow in the marshes of Lapland and are delicious with ice cream.
Vegetarians should have no problems, with plenty of non-meat options available, especially in the bigger towns; elsewhere the choice may be limited to pizzas and salads.
Breakfast (frukost) is almost invariably a help-yourself buffet in the best Swedish tradition; you can go up to the serving table as many times as you like and eat until you’re fit to explode. Youth hostels charge around 50kr for breakfast; if you stay in a hotel, it’ll be included in the price of your accommodation.
Fika: coffee and cake
Coffee is to the Swedes what tea is to the British and there’s seemingly no part of the day which isn’t perfect for a “fika”: a cup of coffee, accompanied by a pastry or piece of cake. Unsurprisingly, coffee is something the Swedes excel at, and is always freshly brewed, strong and delicious – head for the local konditori, a coffee and cake shop of the first order. A coffee costs around 25kr and the price will often buy you more than one cup.
Snacks and light meals
For snacks and light meals you’re really looking at the delights dished up by the gatukök (street kitchen). A gatukök is often no more than a hole in the wall – generally conspicuous by the snaking queue and gaggle of teenagers it attracts – serving sausages, burgers, chips, soft drinks and sometimes pizza slices or chicken pieces. Chips with a sausage or burger generally comes to around 75kr.
For the cheapest eating it’s hard to beat the supermarkets and market stalls. Of the supermarket chains, ICA and Coop have the biggest range of produce but most supermarkets in Sweden are small local affairs selling just the basics and a few other bits and pieces. Alternatively, head for the indoor or outdoor markets, which often have fresher produce than the supermarkets, and at lower prices.
Fish is always excellent value, especially salmon. Pork and beef aren’t too bad either, but chicken is slightly more expensive. Sweden is a country rich in cheeses, all of which are reasonably good value and make great sandwich fillers; the range runs from stronger ripened cheeses such as Västerbotten and Svecia to milder types like Grevé and Herrgårdsost. Prästost, a medium-strong cheese akin to a mature Cheddar, is also a particular favourite here.
Swedes eat their main meal of the day at lunchtime; do likewise and you’ll save lots of cash. Bear in mind that Swedes eat early; lunch will be served from 11am, dinner from 6pm. It’s always a good idea to book a table to avoid disappointment, particularly during the summer months of June to August when tables can be at a premium. Smoking is not allowed in restaurant or pubs.
At lunchtime, go for the dagens rätt or set dish of the day, which generally costs between 75kr and 125kr and is one way to sample Swedish husmanskost (home cooking). You’ll also find various pizza and pasta dishes on offer in Italian restaurants, and basic meals in Thai and Chinese restaurants (sometimes a buffet-type spread). Most cafés also offer some sort of dagens rätt but their standard of cooking is often not as good as in restaurants.
An evening meal in a mid-range restaurant will cost you 150–250kr without alcohol. A three-course meal naturally costs more; expect to pay something in the region of 400–600kr, and add around 75kr for a strong beer, or 300kr for an average bottle of wine. Dishes usually have some sort of salad accompaniment and come with bread.
While you’re in Sweden you should sample a smorgasbord, available in the larger restaurants and in hotels for around 350kr – expensive, but good for a blowout. If you’re a traditionalist you should start with akvavit, drink beer throughout and finish with coffee. Coffee will be included in the price, but alcohol won’t.
Drinking in Sweden can be expensive, but there are ways of softening the blow. Either forgo bars and buy your booze in the state-run liquor shops, the Systembolaget (see below), or seek out the happy hours (usually called After Work in Swedish) offered at many pubs and bars. The timing of happy hours is usually set to coincide with people finishing work, so keep your eyes peeled for signs either in bar windows or on the pavement outside. Drinking outdoors is frowned upon and you’re not allowed to take alcohol onto a train or the street for your own consumption (drinking alcohol purchased on trains or pavement cafés is permitted).
In any Swedish town or city, the Systembolaget is the only shop that sells wine, strong beer and spirits. It’s run by the state, is only open office hours (generally Mon–Wed & Fri 10am–6pm, Thurs till 7pm, Sat 10am–2pm) and until quite recently kept all its alcohol on display in locked glass cabinets – this is still the case in many smaller stores. Debate over the future of the system rumbles on and Sweden is coming under increasing pressure from the European Commission to liberalize the sale of alcohol and open up the market to free competition.
What to drink
Beer is the most common alcoholic drink in Sweden, although it can be expensive. Whether you buy beer in a café, restaurant or a bar, it’ll cost roughly the same, on average 55–75kr for half a litre of lager-type brew.
Unless you specify otherwise, the beer you get in a bar will be starköl (also referred to as storstark), with an alcohol content of 5.6 percent by volume. Low-alcohol beers are available for sale in supermarkets. Wine in restaurants is pricey; a bottle will set you back something like 300kr, and a glass around 75kr. It’s also worth trying the akvavit or schnapps, which is made from potatoes, served ice-cold in tiny shots and washed down with beer. It comes in dozens of weird and wonderful flavours, from lemon to cumin-and-dill. If you’re in Sweden at Christmas, don’t go home without having sampled glögg: mulled red wine with cloves, cinnamon, sugar and more than a shot of akvavit.
Where to drink
You’ll find pubs and bars in all towns and some villages. In Stockholm and the larger cities the trend is towards British- and Irish-style pubs, although the atmosphere inside never quite lives up to the original. Elsewhere – particularly in the north of the country – you’ll come across more down-to-earth drinking dens. Drink is no cheaper here, and the clientele is predominantly male and usually drunk.
In the summer, café-bars spill out onto the pavement, which is a more suitable environment for children and handy if all you want is a coffee. When you can’t find a bar in an out-of-the-way place, head for the local hotel – but be prepared to pay for the privilege. Bar opening hours are elastic, and drinking-up time is generally some time after midnight. Smoking is banned in all of Sweden’s restaurants, bars, cafés and nightclubs.