Our Sweden Travel Guide
Whether it’s your first time travelling to Sweden or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.
At a glance
"A better everyday life means getting away from status and conventions - being freer and more at ease as human beings."
Ingvar Kamprad, Leading by Design: The Ikea Story
Sweden's many attractions range from the Arctic wilderness of the far north to urban fashion shows, archipelago sailing, woodland hikes, great shopping and inspiring architecture from centuries-old cathedrals and medieval cities to cutting-edge modernist monuments. Fans of spangly pop and functional furniture are also well catered for.
Nature tourism is undoubtedly Sweden's biggest draw. At the top of many visitors' wish list is untouched Lapland, offering experiences like the midnight sun and the northern lights accompanied by a near-mystical silence. Pristine woodlands are a short hop from any of the major cities.
The stunning capital of Stockholm is sprawled across 14 islands. A third of the city is water and another third is park and woodland. Its rich cultural heritage includes the narrow streets and alleyways of the Old Town (Gamla Stan) and the striking waterfront National Art Museum. The city is a global centre of dynamic design, edgy fashion and innovative cuisine. From May 2013, you can also meet your cultural Waterloo at ABBA: The Museum.
On the opposite coast Sweden's second city Gothenburg, a grand port city founded in 1621 and designed by the Dutch, is dominated by neoclassical architecture, elegant squares, broad avenues and pretty canalside walks. It attracts visitors to a range of international events including the Gothenburg Film Festival and the Way Out West music festival.
Cosmopolitan Malmö in the far south, linked to the Danish capital Copenhagen via the Öresund Bridge (of TV fame), has a compact medieval centre surrounded by a canal, and a growing reputation as a lively multicultural, student-friendly ecotown with a thriving beach scene - a far cry from its recent shipbuilding past.
The large southeast island states of Gotland and Öland are among Sweden's oldest settlements. Visby on Gotland is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in the world, while Hoburgen rock on Gotland and Ottenby at the southern tip of Öland are spectacular birdwatching spots.
Sweden is one of the most egalitarian countries in the world in terms of income distribution, with one of the lowest levels of poverty. Swedes pay high taxes to maintain their prized social welfare system - and by and large are pleased to reap the benefits including cheap healthcare, universal childcare and education, clean streets, low unemployment and secure pensions.
Culture & etiquette
"Someone who is very strong has to be very nice also."
Astrid Lindgren, Do you know Pippi Longstocking?
Swedes are egalitarian and humble in nature, and find boasting unacceptable. They speak softly and calmly, and it is rare to witness public demonstrations of anger or strong emotion. Politeness is also valued. Swedes rarely take hospitality for granted and will often give thanks for the smallest kindness. Failing to say thank you is perceived negatively.
Social behaviour is strongly balanced towards 'lagom' or, 'just the right amount'. People work hard, but not too hard, and go out and enjoy themselves, but without going to extremes. Competition is discouraged, and children are raised to believe that they are no more special than their neighbour.
Though nominally a Christian nation, Swedes are typically secular, and relaxed in their views on divorce, single parenthood and informal civil relationships.
A high immigration rate, low fertility and a high death rate are gradually transforming the previously homogeneous nation into a multicultural country. Around 15% of the Swedish population are foreign-born. Finns are the largest group, followed by Assyrians, whose numbers doubled as refugees were taken in during the last Iraq War. Other significant groups include Bosnians, Serbs, Somalis, Turks, Kurds and Poles, as well as populations form Denmark, Norway and Germany.
Coffee and beer are the most popular national drinks in Sweden. The sale of all alcohol (barring light beer) is controlled by Systembolaget, the state monopoly, and strong alcohol is highly taxed. All varieties of alcohol are available in licensed restaurants and bars, with Swedish vodka (brännvin) and icy cold schnapps (aquavit) the preferred tipple of many Swedes. Rehydrating tap water is safe to drink everywhere in Sweden.
Midsummer is the most important holiday in the Swedish calendar, centring on the Saturday closest to the summer solstice, with countrywide celebrations beginning on the Friday before with the raising of maypoles followed by partying long into the night. During the three-day weekend, many tourist attractions, shops and restaurants are closed. Other festivals and seasonal events include:
January - Kiruna Snow Festival, Lapland. Snow-sculpting competitions, reindeer-sled racing and other traditional and non-traditional events in Sweden's northernmost city.
January - Gothenburg International Film Festival. Feature, documentary and short film screenings and other events, seminars and parties.
February - Jokkmokk Winter Market. 400-year-old annual Sami market, featuring folk dancing, reindeer races and traditional food just inside the Arctic Circle.
February/March - Vasaloppet. Annual week-long ski festival centring on a 90km cross-country ski race between Sälen and Mora, commemorating future king Gustav Vasa's flight on skis from Kalmar Union troops in 1521.
March - House of Metal, Umeå. Two-day indoor hardcore rock festival.
30 April - Walpurgis Night. De facto half-day holiday when bonfires are lit to herald the spring, predominantly in the old university towns of Upsalla and Lund.
June - Sweden Rock Festival, Sölvesburg. Annual three-day hard rock festival.
June - Smaka På, Stockholm. Week-long food festival and cooking competitions in Kungsträdgården.
July - Piteå Dansar, Norrbotten. Street carnival of music, dance, food and crafts.
July - Rättvik Folklore Festival. Celebration of international folk dancing on the shores of Lake Siljan.
July - Storsjöyran, Österjön. Three-day international music festival.
August - Visby Medieval Week. Gotland's medieval city hosts themed markets, games and a huge banquet.
August - Dalhalla Opera Festival, Rättvik. The venue is an amphitheatre with superb acoustics, carved out of an old limestone quarry.
August - Stockholm Pride. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender parade and festival.
August - Way Out West, Gothenburg. Three-day rock, electronic and hip-hop festival including after-hours gigs at various venues around the city.
August - Kräftskivor (crayfish parties). Outdoor food and drink parties throughout Sweden mark the end of summer.
September - Öland's Harvest Festival, Borgholm. The island's artists, farmers, craftsmen and restaurants show off the best of Öland's produce over four days.
September - Lindingöloppet. The world's largest cross-country race, with classes for everyone from juniors to veterans aside from the main 30km event in Lindigö, northeast of Stockholm.
October - Stockholm Jazz Festival. International jazz and blues at various venues across the city, including Skeppsholmen island.
October - Hem & Villa, Stockholm. The country's largest interior design fair.
October/November - Umeå International Jazz Festival. Five days of concerts featuring Swedish and international artists.
November - Stockholm International Film Festival. Screenings of new international and independent Swedish films.
November/December - Gamla Stan Christmas Market. An annual institution since 1915 in Stockholm Old Town's main square featuring seasonal handicrafts and delicacies.
Food & drink
"Don't offer cinnamon rolls to a baker's children."
Swedish food culture is made up of far more than meatballs and fish-shaped sweets. Like its Scandinavian neighbours, Sweden still holds on to a traditional food culture shaped largely by geography and climate. The long summer days with cool nights produce fruit that grows slowly and is intensely flavoured, the vast forests are stocked with mushrooms, wild berries and game, and the surrounding sea produces high-quality shellfish and fish. Dishes tend to rely on seasonal and organic ingredients more often than not, and the quality of the produce is high.
While the ingredients on the whole remain as they have for centuries, recent years have seen chefs giving classic dishes a modern twist, and a significant increase in fine dining restaurants, particularly in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö, but also in smaller towns and in the countryside. The food scene is growing, and it is an innovative one.
That said, there are many Swedish staples that have never gone out of fashion and are unlikely to, pickled herring first and foremost. Always the basis for a typical Swedish buffet, it comes in a variety of flavours - dill, mustard, garlic or onion for instance - and is traditionally accompanied by sour cream, chopped chives, boiled potatoes, hard boiled eggs and that other Swedish classic - crisp bread. Entire shelves in supermarkets are stacked with different varieties of crisp bread, or knäckebröd, which has been baked in Sweden for over 500 years. Topped with anything from sliced boiled eggs, or caviar squeezed from a tube (another Swedish speciality), or ham and cucumber or just butter, it's a daily part of the diet.
Conventional bread is used for the ubiquitous open-faced sandwiches from which the smörgåsbord - the famous Swedish buffet - takes its name. The sandwiches themselves vary from the simple to the elaborate, with the räksmörgas or shrimp sandwich, a particular favourite. Topped not only with shrimp, but a mixture of boiled egg slices, lettuce, tomato and cucumber, this is often given a further flourish of romsås, crème fraîche blended with dill and roe. These sandwiches are such a part of life here, that the Swedish expression for 'a piece of cake' is 'glide in on a shrimp sandwich'.
Open sandwiches aside, the smörgåsbord will typically consist of a selection of pickled and smoked fish and shellfish - usually herring, salmon, eel and crab, and then (never at the same time as the fish) cold sliced meats, followed by hot dishes such as Swedish meatballs (köttbullar), small hot dog sausages (prinskorv), roasted pork ribs and that unctuous and super comforting Swedish side dish that is Jannsson's Temptation - a melting mix of potatoes, onions, cream and anchovies. Though the smörgåsbord is not quite as prevalent as it once was, there remain places serving it at breakfast or lunch, and it's worth sampling at least once. And if you're in the country during August, try and sample a crayfish party too, for the camaraderie as well as the succulent fresh water crustaceans and icy shots of schnapps. For a more singular version of a Swedish shellfish experience, try a lobster and oyster 'safari' along the west coast. .
Inland, game - mainly elk and reindeer - is just as delicious, often served with that other Swedish classic - lingonberry sauce. The right of public access laws in Sweden that give everyone the right to roam and forage, also allow for ample opportunity to pick and preserve these tiny tart berries into a sweet sauce. Despite most children only being allowed to eat sweets on Saturdays, the Swedes have a fondness for puddings, from pancakes served with jam (traditional on Thursdays, after a helping of pea soup) to the special occasion prinsesstårta cake topped with a bright pink sugar rose. This love for baked sweetness is such that specific dates are set aside to celebrate particular favourites, such as cinnamon rolls (the fourth of October, as it happens).
"I like the sea: we understand one another. It is always yearning, sighing for something it cannot have; and so am I."
Sweden is a sparsely populated country, characterised by a long coastline, extensive forests and numerous lakes. One of the world's northernmost countries, its surface area is comparable to that of Spain or California. Its borders are unchanged since 1905, with the Scandinavian Mountains and Norway to the west, Finland to the northeast, and the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Bothnia to the east and south.
More than three-quarters of the land (78%) is forest and woodland, and 15% of the country lies within the Arctic Circle. There are close to 100,000 lakes, including the Great Lakes of Vänern, Vättern, Mälaren and Hjälmaren. Lake Siljan in central Sweden lies on the site of Europe's largest meteoric impact: a 75km ring-shaped crater formed by a 3km-wide fireball some 360 million years ago.
The highest point is the glaciated southern peak of Kebnekaise in Lapland, at 2,104 metres (the northern peak, at 2,096 metres, is free of ice). The lowest point, at 2.41 metres below sea level, is in the Kristianstads Vattenrike Biosphere Reserve at the bottom of what was once a bay of Lake Hammarsjön.
The islands in Sweden's seas, lakes and watercourses number 221,831, and they account for 2.6% of Sweden's land area. The major archipelagos lie off the coasts of Stockholm, Götland, Gothenburg and Luleå.
Sweden has excellent rail links between all the major cities. There is also a summer-only service, the Inlandsbanan, that follows a picturesque 1,000km route through central and northern Sweden. Timetables are relaxed, and the driver will stop at the best sites for a quick dip in a lake, wild strawberry picking, or to watch birds, reindeer or beavers. Domestic flights are available if you're pushed for time.
Buses are less expensive and much slower, but can be useful for accessing the remote north. Going by car is far more rewarding, and driving is easy in the summer months, with traffic jams unheard of outside city limits.
The busiest ferry route is between Nynäshamm, south of Stockholm, and the medieval city of Visby on Gotland. The archipelagos off Stockholm and Luleå also have extensive ferry services linking the main islands.
"If I have a thousand ideas and only one turns out to be good, I am satisfied"
Fourteen thousand years ago, present-day Sweden to its southern tip was entirely submerged beneath a thick ice cap. The first known human dwelling place in the south dates from around 12000 BC. From 8000 to 6000 BC, as the ice retreated further, the land became populated by hunter-gathers who also fished using simple stone tools. Settlements and graves dating from the Stone Age, which lasted until about 1800 BC, are still being discovered.
The Bronze Age in the Nordic region was marked by a high level of culture, as shown by the artefacts found in graves. After 500 BC, iron came into more general use, and over the next millennium the population of Sweden became settled, and agriculture grew to form the basis of society.
The Viking Age (800-1050 AD) witnessed a significant expansion of Sweden's borders to the east. Viking expeditions set off from the Swedish coast to plunder and trade across Baltic and along the rivers that stretched deep into present-day Russia. The Vikings reached as far as the Black and Caspian Seas, where they developed trading links with the Byzantine Empire and Arab kingdoms.
Sweden remained pagan for many centuries. Christianity first reached Sweden via 9th-century missionaries, but the country was not converted to Christianity until the 11th century when the first Christian king, Olof Skötkonung took the throne.
King Magnus Ladulås (1240-90) authorised the establishment of nobility, reorganising Swedish society on the feudal model and granting numerous privileges to the Church. The monumental cathedrals of Linköping and Uppsala were completed in 1250 and 1285. After the catastrophic Black Death swept the country in 1350, both population and trade saw a dramatic downturn, but the economy grew again from the late-14th to the mid-16th century, especially through trade with northern Germany, and many new towns were founded as a result of commercial activity.
In 1389, the crowns of Denmark, Norway and Sweden were united under the rule of Danish Queen Margareta, formalised as the Kalmar Union eight years later. But the union was scarred by internal conflicts that culminated in the 'Stockholm Bloodbath' of 1520, when 80 Swedish nobles were executed at the instigation of Kristian II. The act provoked a rebellion, which in 1521 led to the deposition of the Danish king. Swedish nobleman Gustav Vasa seized power, becoming King of Sweden in 1523.
Gustav I laid the foundations of the Swedish state, nationalising the church and confiscating its estates, and introducing the Protestant Reformation. Power was concentrated in the hands of the king and hereditary monarchy came into force.
Swedish foreign policy was now aimed at gaining dominion over the Baltic Sea, leading to repeated wars with Denmark from the 1560s onward. The last male Vasa heir, Gustav II Adolf, became one of Europe's most powerful monarchs, and spent almost his entire reign at war. From when he took the throne at just 17 in 1611 to his death in battle in 1632, Sweden rose to become one of the great powers of northern Europe. The final Vasa monarch was Christina of Sweden. Succeeding her father as heiress presumptive at the age of 6, she was crowned Queen at 16 and reigned for ten years. Her impulsive behaviour and habitual cross-dressing are commemorated in the Strindberg play Kristina and the 1933 film Queen Christina starring Greta Garbo. The Swedish empire continued to expand, even embracing a short-lived colony in present-day Delaware. But Sweden's largely agrarian economy lacked the resources to maintain the country's position as a major power in the longer term.
After defeat in the Great Northern War (1700-21) against the combined forces of Denmark, Poland and Russia, Sweden lost most of its provinces on the other side of the Baltic and was reduced to the frontiers of present-day Sweden and Finland. In the Napoleonic Wars, Sweden surrendered Finland to Russia, but in compensation obtained Norway, which was forced into a union in 1814. This uneasy union was dissolved in 1905 after many disputes.
While 18th-century Sweden saw rapid cultural development, partly through close contact with France, overseas trade was hit hard by the Napoleonic Wars, which led to stagnation and economic crisis during the early 19th century. By the late 19th century, 90% of Swedes still earned their livelihoods from agriculture, and from the mid-19th century to 1930 about 1.5 million Swedes emigrated, chiefly to North America, in search of a better life.
In 1888 a French newspaper erroneously published an obituary of Alfred Nobel, in which it condemned his invention of dynamite and labelled him 'the merchant of death'. Concerned about his legacy, Nobel went on to set aside the bulk of his estate to establish the Nobel Prizes for physical science, chemistry, medical science, literature and peace, which have since become an international institution.
When industry came to Sweden it developed rapidly between 1900 and 1930, ultimately transforming Sweden into one of Europe's leading industrial nations after World War II.
The first Social Democrats entered government in 1917. Plans for a welfare state were drawn up during the 1930s, and put into effect after the war. Vehicle giant Volvo, which began as a ballbearing company ('volvo' means 'I roll' in Latin), produced its first car in 1927, while the Saab aerospace and defence company was established in 1937, and began producing motor cars a decade later. In 1943, 17-year-old Ingvar Kamprad founded a homespun company called IKEA and began selling pens, watches and nylons. Furniture was added four years later, eventually evolving into the flatpack designs that have since conquered the world of home furnishings. From the mid-20th century, Sweden took an active role in world affairs. Diplomat and author Dag Hammarskjöld became Director-General of the UN in 1953 and was credited for resolving the 1956 Suez crisis.
From the onset of the 1950s, there had been calls for modernisation of the 1809 constitution. Orchestrated by future Prime Minister Olof Palme, a new Instrument of Government was finally adopted in 1974, stating that all public power is derived from the people. The monarch was still the head of state, but in name only.
The economic crisis of the early 1970s broke the long hegemony of the Social Democrats, and since 1976 power has frequently changed hands.
Olof Palme was three-and-a-half years into his popular term as Prime Minister in 1986 when he was fatally wounded by a mystery gunman as he left a Stockholm cinema. The incident shook Swedes' confidence in safety and security, and had an equally shocking echo in 2003 when Foreign Minister Anna Lindh was stabbed and killed while shopping in the city's NK department store. Her assailant was a disturbed 24-year-old man of Serbian heritage who was quickly dubbed 'Sweden's most hated man'.
Sweden joined the EU on 01 January, 1995. In a national referendum in 2003, a majority voted not to join the euro.
In the 2006 election the Moderate Party emerged as the main victor. Together with the Centre Party, the Liberal Party and the Christian Democrats, it formed a coalition government headed by Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, which clung to power in 2010 when, for the first time in history, eight parties were represented in the Riksdag, including the extreme right-wing Sweden Democrats.
Stockholm is undoubtedly the best city in which to shop for high-quality cutlery, china, textiles, crystal, jewellery, silver, glassware and pottery. Bargains can be had too, as competing boutiques and department stores have frequent special offers. Look for the signs 'REA' for a sale, 'Extrapris' for discounts of 10% or more, or "'Fynd' for special offers. Drottninggatan is dominated by the PUB and Åhléns department stores, and otherwise crammed with stores large and small; the NK department store on Hamngatan has a wide range of international and Swedish fashions, including local favourites Gant, J. Lindeberg, Fillipa K. Acne and Tiger; while Designtorget at Sergels Torg is great for innovative household objects by up-and-coming Nordic designers. All are within easy walking distance in the City area.
Low-cost seconds or discontinued lines can be snapped up at glassworks shops, such as Orrefors and Kosta Boda in Småland. Nya Höganäs-Keramik, at Höganäs in southern Sweden, offers bargains in ceramics.
Everywhere in Sweden, you'll find handicrafts shops where you can buy knitwear, needlework and woodcarvings. The Sami Duodji gallery and crafts centre in Jokkmokk offers the best range of traditional Sami souvenirs. Traditional markets and country fairs are held year-round throughout Sweden. Check ahead for markets and events in the areas you are visiting.
A service charge is included in most Swedish hotel and restaurant bills. Tipping for special services is acceptable but not expected. At restaurants, a small gratuity is expected for evening meals.
Taxi drivers should be given a few extra kronor, porters and cloakroom attendants usually charge fixed fees, and doormen are tipped modestly.
Where to eat
Stockholm and Gothenburg have seen something of an explosion in fine dining restaurants in recent years, and the bigger towns also feature more ethnic restaurants than they once did. Most restaurants offer a Dagens rätt (dish of the day) at lunchtime, for a reasonable price, and there are plenty of cafes for lighter meals - the concept of fika (a drink, usually coffee and a bite) is a popular one here. There are all the usual fast food outlets to choose from too, and an abundance of hot dog stands (korvkiosks). Locals in Stockholm are especially fond of Günter's, selling over twenty different kinds of hot dogs from around the world.