Sweden is a land of contrasts with something for everyone, says Jemma Slingo.
Sweden is a place of extraordinary variety. The north of the country is dominated by mountains, pine forests, lakes and wild boar; the south is flatter and warmer, with expanses of sky and sandy beaches. Stockholm is one of Scandinavia’s most popular destinations. As Sweden’s most northerly major city, the capital “is an appealing place even in winter” and was restored to its full cultural output in October when the Nationalmuseum, its “temple of fine art”, reopened after a five-year restoration, says Chris Leadbeater in The Daily Telegraph. The Nationalmuseum is just one of Stockholm’s many attractions. “The capital really is a smorgasbord of delights. Södermalm has some of the city’s best shops. And the pedestrianised ‘high street’ in Götgatan offers music store Hellstone, and Designtorget, an arcade of chic clothes outlets and coffee shops.”
Be aware that Swedish winters are long, cold, and very dark, particularly in the north of the country, says Imogen West-Knights in the Financial Times. The further north you go, the more extreme it gets: parts of Sweden are within the Arctic Circle, experiencing round-the-clock darkness in December. “A familiar but initially bizarre sight on the streets of Stockholm is of pedestrians standing stock still with their eyes closed, suddenly transfixed by a wash of winter sunlight over their faces. It is, as it turns out, quite involuntary – I catch myself doing it too – but it looks like a religious ritual, like prayer.”
Compared to the bleak beauty of the north, southern Sweden is flatter, tamer and more temperate, consisting largely of forest and farmland – hence its nickname, “Sweden’s larder”. But with plenty of beaches, pretty towns and castles to explore, Skåne – Sweden’s southern-most region – is well worth a visit. “The medieval market town Ystad, in Skåne, has an intoxicating allure thanks to its half-timbered houses, rambling cobbled streets and the haunting sound of its nightwatchman’s horn. Fans of crime novels may recognise Ystad as the setting for the Inspector Wallander crime thrillers,” says Lonely Planet.
If you’re also a fan of The Bridge, Malmö – a 50-minute train ride from Ystad – is another fascinating city to visit. Connected to Copenhagen by the spectacular, 12km long Øresund Bridge, Malmö is a centre for creativity and learning and the “souk-like buzz of the Mollevangstorget market is colourful testimony to the fact that, following a surge in arrivals from the Middle East and Africa, this is now a very multicultural city”, says Adrian Bridge in The Daily Telegraph.
If you’d prefer some fresh air, head to Södermanland, says John Gregory-Smith in the Evening Standard. A couple of hours’ drive south of Stockholm, Södermanland (Sörmland for short) is a “vast expanse of fields, stunning lakes and thick forests that tumble down to the Baltic Sea, where the land shatters into an archipelago of nearly 3,000 islands”. The region is littered with 17th-century castles that add a glorious grandeur to the scenery.
Crayfish, maypoles, and midsummer madness
“Midsummer celebrations are vital to Scandinavian culture, and in Sweden it is even celebrated as a national holiday,” says Hannah Uttley in Wanderlust. “Dancing around Midsummer poles adorned with flowers is an important part of the celebrations, and houses are also decorated inside and out in the same fashion.”
The traditional Swedish summer is also marked by crayfish parties, which are wildly popular come August, when marquees are decked out with crayfish balloons, crayfish napkins and, of course, mountains of crustaceans. On Midsummer Eve, Swedes are expected to dance like frogs around a maypole, singing “The Small Frogs” song, with its catchy lyrics: “The small frogs, the small frogs, are funny to look at. No tails, no tails, they have no tails. No ears, no ears, they have no ears.”