The southwestern provinces of Halland and Skåne were on the frontiers of Swedish-Danish conflicts for more than three hundred years. In the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries, the flatlands and fishing ports south of Gothenburg were constantly traded between the two countries, and the presence of several fortresses still bears witness to the area’s status as a buffer in medieval times. Today, for the visitor, the southwest is one of Sweden's most appealing regions, known for its gently rolling landscapes and laid-back coastal towns. The attractive coastline south of Varberg is characterized by seemingly endless wide, sandy bays backed by gently shelving beaches, which makes it a popular destination for holidaying Swedes.
Halland, a finger of land facing Denmark, has a coastline of smooth, sandy beaches and bare, granite outcrops, punctuated by a number of small, distinctive towns. The most charismatic of these is the old bathing resort of Varberg, dominated by its tremendous thirteenth-century fortress; also notable is the small, beautifully intact medieval core of Falkenberg, while the regional capital, Halmstad, is popular for its extensive beaches and nightlife.
Further south, in the ancient province of Skåne, the coastline softens into curving beaches backed by gently undulating fields. This was one of the first parts of the country to be settled, and the scene of some of the bloodiest battles during the medieval conflict with Denmark. Although Skåne was finally ceded to Sweden in the late seventeenth century, Danish influence died hard and is still evident in the thick Skåne accent – often incomprehensible to other Swedes and the butt of many a joke – and in the province’s architecture. Today Skåne is known as the breadbasket of Sweden and its landscapes are those of slabs of yellow rape, crimson poppies and lush green fields contrasting with charming white churches and black windmills. In the north of the province, Båstad is renowned for glamorous living through its close links to the country’s tennis elite. One of Sweden’s best areas for walking and cycling, the Bjäre peninsula lies to the west of Båstad and comprises forested hill ranges, spectacular rock formations and dramatic cliffs. To the south, both Helsingborg, with its laidback, cosmopolitan atmosphere, and bustling Malmö, Sweden’s third city, have undergone some dramatic changes in recent years: Helsingborg’s harbour has been transformed by an influx of stylish bars, while Malmö has seen the most significant development in recent Swedish history – the completion of the 16km-long bridge linking the city to Copenhagen, and thus Sweden to the rest of Europe via the Öresund Strait.
Just north of Malmö, the university town of Lund, with its wealth of classic architecture, has a distinctive bohemian atmosphere that contrasts with Malmö’s more down-to-earth heritage, whilst east from Malmö, you’ll encounter the pretty medieval town of Ystad on the south coast, and then the splendid countryside of Österlen. Here, pastoral scenery is studded with Viking monuments – such as the “Swedish Stonehenge” at Ales Stenar and the southwest’s most alluring beaches.
This is one of the easiest regions of Sweden to get around; trains run to all the main towns and services are frequent; we’ve given details under each town account. The west coast can be busy in the Swedish holiday season of mid-June to mid-August, so it pays to book accommodation wel in advance.
Thirty-five kilometres south of Halmstad, a journey of around fifteen minutes by train, lies BÅSTAD (pronounced bow-sta). The northernmost town in the ancient province of Skåne, its character is markedly different from other towns along the coast. Cradled by the Bjäre peninsula, which bulges westwards into the Kattegat (the waters between Sweden and Danish Jutland), Båstad is Sweden’s tennis centre, where the Swedish Open is played at the beginning of July – the centre court down by the harbour is truly impressive. The town also boasts an extremely beautiful setting, with forested hills on the horizon to the south.
There is a downside, though, which can blunt enthusiasm for the place. Ever since King Gustav V chose to take part in the 1930 national tennis championship and Ludvig Nobel (nephew to Alfred of the Nobel Prize) gave financial backing to the tournament, wealthy retired Stockholmers have flocked here, bringing an ostentatious smugness to the town for the annual competition held during the second week of July. The locals themselves, however, are quite down-to-earth, and most view this arrogance as a financial lifeline. Despite all this, Båstad isn’t a prohibitively expensive place to stay, and makes a good base from which to explore the peninsula.
A full 23 years after construction started, the railway tunnel through the Hallandsåsen ridge south of Båstad – Sweden’s longest at 8.7km – finally opened to traffic in December 2015. From the outset the project was plagued by an environmental scandal, as toxic sealants began to soak into the groundwater, killing fish and cattle, and causing many site workers to fall ill. Construction was halted in 1997 amid further problems – the drill used to bore into the hillside became stuck and wedged in the rock after boring a mere 18m and the drilling company went bankrupt due to the extra costs incurred in sealing the water leaks.
The tunnel is part of a larger project to upgrade the entire Swedish west-coast line to double track. Though trains now operate 10–15 minutes faster between Gothenburg and Malmö, it’s estimated the whole project, including a new railway station in Båstad, has cost over 10 billion kronor.
It’s a fifteen-minute train ride south from Varberg to the decidedly likeable medieval town of FALKENBERG (falcons were once used for hunting here, hence the name), with some lively museums and a gloriously long beach. It’s a well-preserved little town that really comes alive in July and August, when most of the tourists arrive.
Falkenberg has a long-standing reputation as a centre for fly-fishing on the Ätran River. A succession of wealthy English gentlemen came here throughout the nineteenth century; one such devotee, London lawyer William Wilkinson, went so far as to write a book about the experience, Days In Falkenberg (1894). In it, he described the place where the well-to-do visitors stayed as “an ancient inn with a beautiful garden leading down to the river”. This building, one of the few here to have escaped the dozen or so town fires which devastated the town over the centuries (most recently in the 1840s), now houses Annas Bakgård, the best café in town.
The upper-class Englishmen brought considerable wealth with them, and had a tremendous influence on the town. Predictably enough, they made no attempt to adapt to local culture: Falkenbergers had to learn English, and throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, baby boys here were named Charles instead of the Swedish Karl, while the most popular girl’s name was Frances, after Wilkinson’s daughter. English influence can be seen even today: near the post office there is a British telephone box donated by Oswaldtwistle in Lancashire.
Just fifteen minutes’ walk south from town, Skrea Strand is a fine, 2km-long stretch of sandy beach, perfect for swimming. At the northern end, the large bathing and tennis complex of Klitterbadet has an indoor 50m saltwater pool plus a shallow children’s pool, a vast sauna, jacuzzi and steam rooms. At the southern end of the beach, all the way down past the busy wooden holiday cabins, lie some secluded coves; in early summer the marshy grassland here is full of wild violets and clover.
The principal town in Halland, HALMSTAD was once a grand walled city and an important Danish stronghold. Today, although most of the original buildings have disappeared, the town makes a pleasant enough stop on the long haul south from Gothenburg, thanks to the extensive – if rather crowded – beaches not far away, and a range of really good places to eat. Halmstad is also perfectly placed for a quick jaunt to the Mjellby Konstmuseum, which offers art lovers a chance to appreciate the work of the well-known (in Sweden, at least) Halmstad Group.
In 1619, the town’s castle was used by the Danish king Christian IV to entertain his Swedish counterpart, Gustav II Adolf; records show that there were seven solid days of festivities. The bonhomie, however, didn’t last much longer, and Christian was soon building great stone-and-earth fortifications around the city, all surrounded by a moat, with access afforded by four stone gateways. However, it was a fire soon after, rather than the Swedes, that all but destroyed the city; the only buildings to survive were the castle and the church. Undeterred, Christian took the opportunity to create a contemporary Renaissance town with a grid of straight streets; today the main street, Storgatan, still contains a number of impressive merchants’ houses from that time. After the final defeat of the Danes in 1645, Halmstad lost its military significance, and the walls were torn down. Today, just one of the great gateways, Norre Port, remains; the moat has been filled in and a road, Karl XIs vägen, runs directly above where the water would have been.
Long gone are the days when the locals of HELSINGBORG joked that the most rewarding sight here was Helsingør, the Danish town whose castle – Hamlet’s celebrated Elsinore (Kronoborg castle) – is visible, just 4km across the Öresund strait. Bright and pleasing, Helsingborg has a tremendous sense of buoyancy. With its beautifully developed harbour area, an explosion of stylish bars, great cafés and restaurants among the warren of cobbled streets, plus an excellent museum, it is one of the best town bases Sweden has to offer.
In the past, the links between Helsingborg and Copenhagen were less convivial than they are now. After the Danes fortified the town in the eleventh century, the Swedes conquered and lost it again on six violent occasions, finally winning out in 1710 under Magnus Stenbock’s leadership. By this time, the Danes had torn down much of the town and on its final recapture, the Swedes contributed to the destruction by razing most of its twelfth-century castle – except for the 5m-thick walled keep (kärnan), which still dominates the centre. By the early eighteenth century, war and epidemics had reduced the population to just seven hundred, and only with the onset of industrialization in the 1850s did Helsingborg experience a new prosperity. Shipping and the railways turned the town’s fortunes round, as is evident from the formidable late nineteenth-century commercial buildings in the centre and some splendid villas to the north, overlooking the Öresund.
For a taste of what the locals traditionally do for fun, buy a foot passenger ferry ticket to Helsingør. Scandlines’ ferries run every 20min (38kr return; w scandlines.se) and tickets are available on the first floor in the Knutpunkten terminal. Try to go on the Aurora or Hamlet, which have better restaurants and bars than the Tycho Brahe; you can see in the timetable which ship operates which departure. The idea is to “tura” as it’s called in Swedish, that is to go back and forth as many times as you like on the same ticket (you only need a single because you don't get off in Denmark). Good-value lunches and dinners are also served on the boats and you can also buy duty-free.
Leaving Malmö, it’s barely 30km due south along the E6 and then Route 100 to Sweden’s most southwesterly point and the adjoining medieval town of SKANÖR, site of a tremendous beach and nature reserve, plus a remarkable Viking-style settlement at nearby Foteviken.
Skanör was once an important commercial centre and was founded as part of the Hanseatic commercial system. In the early twentieth century, the town became a fashionable bathing resort for wealthy Malmö families. Today, Skanör’s simple pleasures lie in wandering through the medieval streets and admiring the pretty half-timbered houses around the main square, Rådhustorget, and along Mellangatan.
Jutting into the Kattegat directly west of Båstad and deserving a couple of days’ exploration, the Bjäre peninsula’s natural beauty has a magical quality to it. Its varied scenery includes wide fertile fields where potatoes and strawberries are grown, splintered red-rock cliff formations and remote islands ringed by seals, thick with birds and historical ruins.
The landscape of the southeastern corner of Skåne, known as Österlen, is like a Mondrian painting: horizons of sunburst-yellow fields of rape running to cobalt-blue summer skies, punctuated only by white cottages, fields of blood-red poppies and the odd black windmill. Along with the vivid beauty of its countryside, Österlen has notably picture-perfect villages, plenty of smooth, sandy beaches, and the Viking ruin of Ales Stenar. It’s not surprising the area has lured writers and artists to settle here more than anywhere else in Sweden.
Above the harbour of the old fishing village of Kåseberga is Ales Stenar, an awe-inspiring Swedish Stonehenge. Believed to have been a Viking meeting place, it consists of 56 stones forming a 67m-long boat-shaped edifice, prow and stern denoted by two appreciably larger monoliths. The site was hidden for centuries beneath shifting sands, which were cleared in 1958; even now, the bases of the stones are concealed in several metres of sand. It’s difficult to imagine how these great stones, not native to the region, might have been transported here. Ales Stenar stands on a windy, flat-topped hill, which most of the tourists snapping away don’t bother to climb; once at the top, though (it’s a steep 10min hike), there’s a majestic timelessness about the spot that more than rewards the effort.
For a day in really splendid natural surroundings, it’s hard to beat the Hagestad Nature Reserve, the best of the three reserves around the village of Backåkra. Thousands of pines were planted here in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to bind the sandy earth, and, together with oaks and birches, they make up a densely forested area; the clumps of gnarled, stunted oaks are particularly distinctive. It’s especially beautiful in midsummer when orchids and heathers colour the forest floor; if you’re lucky, you may also see elk, badgers and roe deer, while buzzards and golden orioles are often sighted above. The reserve is also the home of the most glorious beach in Skåne, known as Sandhammaren: walk along any path towards the sea and you’ll soon reach a bright white ribbon of sand – marked “Sandhammaren” on signs – backed by steep dunes and lapped by turquoise waters.
Under an hour by local train from Malmö, the medieval market town of YSTAD is exquisitely well preserved and boasts a prettiness that may come as a surprise if you’ve arrived at the train station down by the murky docks. In the historic centre though, you can marvel at the quaint, cobbled lanes, lined with cross-timbered cottages, and the town’s chocolate-box central square, oozing rural charm. With the stunningly beautiful coastal region of Österlen stretching northeast from town all the way to Kristianstad, Ystad is a splendid place to base yourself for a day or so. It also offers the option of a quick hop to the Danish island of Bornholm. Ystad stages its annual opera festival through most of July; you can get information on performances and book tickets at the ticket office.
Staying in Ystad, you’ll soon get acquainted with a tradition that harks back to the seventeenth century: from a room in St Maria church watchtower, a night watchman (tornväktaren) sounds a bugle every fifteen minutes from 9.15pm to 1am. The haunting sound isn’t disturbing, though it’s audible wherever you stay in the centre. The sounding through the night was to assure the town that the watchman was still awake (until the mid-nineteenth century, he was liable to be executed if he slept on duty); however, the real purpose of this activity was as a safeguard against the outbreak of fire. The idea was that if one of the thatched cottages went up in flames, the bugle would sound repeatedly for all to go and help extinguish the blaze. The melancholic bellowing only ceased during World War II, though then the residents complained they couldn’t sleep in the unbroken silence. If you look carefully from Stortorget, you can just see the instrument appear at little openings in the tower walls each time it’s played.
Kurt Wallander, the anti-hero of author Henning Mankell’s crime novels, is one of Sweden’s best-known fictional characters. Millions of people across the world have followed Wallander’s investigations as he hurries through Ystad’s streets, the location for the novels and the spin-off TV series. With the tourist office’s special guide in hand, fans can set off in search of some of the town’s most famous fictional sites such as Wallander’s apartment on Mariagatan and his favourite café, Fridolfs. In line with Mankell’s no-nonsense approach to his fame, he specifically requested that there should not be a Wallander theme park in Ystad.