Founded in the late thirteenth century, MALMÖ was once Denmark’s second most important city, after Copenhagen. The high density of herring in the sea off the Malmö coast – it was said that the fish could be scooped straight out with a trowel – brought ambitious German merchants flocking; their influence can be seen in the striking fourteenth-century St Petri kyrka in the city centre.
Today, with its attractive medieval centre, a myriad of cobbled and mainly pedestrianized streets, full of busy restaurants and bars, Malmö has plenty of style. Beyond its compact centre, it’s endowed with the stunning and dramatic skyscraper, the Turning Torso, a string of popular beaches and some interesting cultural diversions south of the centre around Möllevångstorget.
Eric of Pomerania gave Malmö its most significant medieval boost, when, in the fifteenth century, he built the castle, endowed it with its own mint and gave Malmö its own flag – the gold-and-red griffin of his own family crest. It wasn’t until the Swedish king Karl X marched his armies across the frozen Öresund to within striking distance of Copenhagen in 1658 that the Danes were forced into handing back the counties of Skåne, Blekinge and Bohuslän to the Swedes. For Malmö, too far from its own (uninterested) capital, this meant a period of stagnation, cut off from nearby Copenhagen. Not until the full thrust of industrialization, triggered by the tobacco merchant Frans Suell’s enlargement of the harbour in 1775 (his jaunty bronze likeness, on Norra Vallgatan opposite the train station, overlooks his handiwork), did Malmö begin its dramatic commercial recovery. In 1840, boats began regular trips to Copenhagen, and Malmö’s great Kockums shipyard was opened; limestone quarrying, too, became big business here in the nineteenth century.
During the last few decades of the twentieth century, Malmö found itself facing commercial crisis after a series of economic miscalculations, which included investing heavily in the shipping industry as it went into decline in the 1970s. But recent years have witnessed a dramatic renaissance, reflected in the upbeat atmosphere pervading the town today. Since the opening of the Öresund bridge linking the town to Copenhagen, the city’s fortunes have been further improved, with Danes discovering what this gateway to Sweden has to offer, as opposed to the one-way traffic of Swedes to Denmark in the past.
Despite the size of Stortorget, it still proved too small to suffice as the town’s sole main square, so in the sixteenth century Lilla torg was tacked onto its southwest corner, over a patch of marshland. With its half-timbered houses, flowerpots and cobbles, this is where most locals and tourists congregate. During the day, people come to take a leisurely drink in one of the many bars and wander around the summer jewellery stalls. At night, Lilla torg explodes in a frenzy of activity, the venues all merging into a mass of bodies who converge from all over the city and beyond.
Head under the arch on Lilla torg to get to the Form/Design Center. Built into a seventeenth-century grain store, it concentrates on Swedish contemporary design in textiles, ceramics and furniture. It’s all well presented, if a little pretentious. The courtyard entrance contains several small trendy boutiques and there’s a simple café.
Malmö is justifiably proud of its beautiful parks, a chain of which run southwards from the grounds of Malmöhus, and there’s a great deal of pleasure to be had by simply strolling around these lovely green expanses. Free guided tours on their flora and royal history are also available (ask at the tourist office).
Heading south from the castle, the first park you encounter is Kungspark, with its graceful trees and classic sculptures, bordering the canal. Just on the south side of the curving river is Slottsparken, with graceful, mature trees and places to picnic; further south is the largest of the parks, Pildammsparken, boasting several tranquil lakes.
Tourists are still rarely encouraged to venture further south of the city than the canal banks that enclose the old town, but those who do are rewarded with the hip multicultural district around Möllenvångstorget. The buildings and areas off Amiralsgatan, to the southeast, give an interesting insight into Malmö’s mix of cultures and its Social Democratic roots (the city has been at the forefront of left-wing politics for the last century, and was central to the creation and development of Sweden’s Social Democratic Party). Around Fersens väg, several blocks west of Amiralsgatan, there are some charming enclaves of antique shops, cafés and quirky buildings, and the impressive Konsthall art exhibition centre.
Heading south from Malmöhus along Slottsgatan, first cross over Regementsgatan and then cut across three blocks east to cobbled Södra Förstadsgatan; at no. 4 is a splendid house designed in 1904, its National Romantic facade covered with flower and animal motifs. A little further along the same road at no. 18, the Victoriateatern is Sweden’s oldest still-operating cinema, dating from 1912; it’s all fine Art Nouveau swirls of dark oak and bevelled glass. Back on Fersens väg (the southward continuation of Slottsgatan after crossing Regementsgatan), you’ll pass the city theatre on your right, with its amusing sculpture of tiers of people – the naked supporting the clothed on their shoulders.
Arriving at St Johannesgatan, head for the single-storey glass and concrete building at no. 7: the Konsthall, an enormous white-painted space showing vast modern works in regular temporary exhibitions. There’s lots of room to stand back and take in the visual feast.
From the canal, head east along Regementsgatan and turn right into Amiralsgatan, from where it’s a ten-minute walk south to Folkets park, Sweden’s oldest existing public park, which was once the pride of the community. Recently restored with an elegant new water feature at the Möllevången exit, Folkets park contains a basic amusement park, and at its centre, a ballroom named the Moriskan, an odd, low building with Russian-style golden domes topped with crescents. Both the park and the ballroom are now privately owned, a far cry from the original aims of the park’s Social Democratic founders. Severe carved busts of these city fathers are dotted all over the park. The socialist agitator August Palm made the first of his several historic speeches here in 1881, marking the beginning of a 66-year period of unbroken Social Democratic rule in Sweden.
More interesting than the giant twirling teacup fun rides in Folkets park is the multicultural character of the city south from here. Strolling from the park’s southern exit down Möllevången to Möllevångstorget, you enter an area populated almost entirely by people of non-Swedish descent, where Arab, Asian and Balkan émigré families predominate. The vast square is a haven of exotic food stores, side by side with shops selling pure junk and more recently established Chinese restaurants and karaoke pubs. On a hot summer afternoon it’s easy to forget you’re in Sweden at all, the more makeshift and ramshackle atmosphere around the bright fruit and veg stands contrasting with the clean, clinical order of the average Swedish neighbourhood. It’s worth taking a close look at the provocative sculpture at the square’s centre: four naked, bronze men strain under the colossal weight of a huge chunk of rock bearing carved representations of Malmö’s smoking chimneys, while two naked women press their hands into the men’s backs in support. It’s a poignant image, marrying toil in a city founded on limestone-quarrying with the Social Democratic vision of the working man’s struggle.
From the western side of Malmöhus, Malmö’s most breathtaking sight looms on the horizon: the Turning Torso. An easy walk north along Mariedalsvägen, crossing the canal over Varvsbron, leads you to Västra Varvsgatan, which streaks in a straight line to the city’s Västra Hamnen district, home to the skyscraper that bears down on you as you approach. The tallest building in Scandinavia, this sleek, twisting tower of steel curves 90° clockwise as it rises to a height of 190m above the ground. It was designed to reshape the city skyline that had been dominated for decades by the massive Kockum shipyard crane, and now houses luxury flats and penthouses.
Separated from the Turning Torso by delightful Ribersborg park, Malmö’s long stretch of sandy beaches stretches several kilometres to the old limestone-quarrying area of Limhamn to the southwest. Fringed by dunes and grassland, the beaches, popular with young families as the water remains shallow for several metres out to sea, are numbered according to the jetty which gives access into the water. At jetty #1, the Ribersborgs kallbadhus is a cold-water bathhouse offering separate-sex nude bathing areas and sauna whilst the last jetty, #10, denotes Malmö’s popular nudist beach.
Linking Malmö with Copenhagen in Denmark (and thus Sweden with the rest of continental Europe), the elegant Öresund bridge was finally completed in 1999, after a forty-year debate. From Lernacken, a few kilometres south of Malmö, the bridge runs to a 4km-long artificial island off the Danish coast, from where an immersed tunnel carries traffic and trains across to the mainland – a total distance of 16km. The bridge itself has two levels, the upper for a four-lane highway and the lower for two sets of train tracks, and comprises three sections: a central high bridge, spanning 1km, and approach bridges to either side, each over 3km long. In December 2010, Citytunneln, a new underground rail tunnel was opened beneath the city, speeding trains directly into the heart of Malmö from Denmark; the journey to Copenhagen is faster and more frequent as a result.