People & Culture
As is true of most places, Sweden’s pop culture reflects its people's collective psyche – in this case, with an enthusiastic embrace of both the grim and the frivolous. Swedish humour is a quirky thing indeed; it can be easily overlooked by the untrained eye, or even misperceived as grumpiness. Swedish literature and cinema tend to favour a weighty, Gothic sense of drama blended with gallows humour and stark aesthetics – in other words, the opposite of its best-known pop music.
The National Psyche
Blonde, blue-eyed, cold and reserved: while these four elements may make up the prevailing stereotype of Swedes, the reality is, perhaps unsurprisingly, much more complex and contradictory. Dark hair, impish stature and random acts of friendliness are not as uncommon as you may think, while a widespread passion for travel and trends can make for curious locals and enlightening conversations.
Two vital concepts in the typical Swedish mindset are lagom and ordning och reda. Lagom means ‘just right’ – not too little, not too much. A good example is mellanöl (medium ale) – it’s not strong, but it's not as weak as a light ale. An exception to lagom is the smörgåsbord.
Ordning och reda connotes tidiness and order: everything in its proper place in the world. A good example is the queuing system; almost every transaction in Sweden requires participants to take a number and stand in line, which everyone does with the utmost patience. An exception to ordning och reda is Stockholm traffic.
Swedes are a friendly sort. Var så god is a common phrase and carries all sorts of expressions of goodwill: ‘Welcome’, ‘Please’, ‘Pleased to meet you’, ‘I’m happy to serve you’, ‘Thanks’ and ‘You’re welcome’. And Swedes are so generous with their use of ‘Thank you’ (tack) that language texts make jokes about it.
It wasn’t until the 1930s that urban Swedes surpassed the number of rural Swedes, and even the most seasoned urbanites commonly retain a strong affinity with nature. The rural sommarstuga (summer cottage) is almost de rigueur, at least as an aspiration; there are around 600,000 second homes in Sweden, and no Swede doesn't want a little wooden cottage in the country or on an archipelago island. As it is, Sweden boasts the highest number of holiday cottages per capita in the world, and most of the people you'll run across in campgrounds on summer holidays are Swedes themselves, enjoying the natural wonders of their own country.
Another common sight that surprises and delights many visitors to Sweden is the large number of men pushing baby strollers. Gender equality has advanced further in Sweden than in most countries. The government has a Minister for Integration and Gender Equality, as well as the Office of the Equal Opportunities Ombudsman, the latter ensuring that all employers and institutions of learning actively promote gender equality and prevent sexual discrimination. Women make up nearly half of parliament members in the Riksdag and enjoy enviable child-care services, and both parents are assured of plenty of child-care leave from employers.
The NBC-TV sitcom Welcome to Sweden offered a goofball take on the many eccentricities of Swedish culture from an outsider's point of view; created by Greg Poehler, the two-season series followed the various misadventures of an American who quits his job in New York and moves to Sweden to be with his Swedish fiancée and her family.
Sweden led the way in the silent-film era of the 1920s with such masterpieces as Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage), adapted from a novel by Selma Lagerlöf and directed by Mauritz Stiller. In 1967 came Vilgot Sjöman’s notorious I Am Curious (Yellow), a subtly hilarious socio-political film that got more attention outside Sweden for its X-rating than for its sharp commentary (and its in-jokes about the king, which foreign audiences, unsurprisingly, failed to get).
With a few exceptions, though, one man has largely defined modern Swedish cinema to the outside world: Ingmar Bergman. With deeply contemplative films such as The Seventh Seal, Through a Glass Darkly and Persona, the beret-topped director explored human alienation, the absence of god, the meaning of life, the certainty of death and other light-hearted themes. Love him or not, it's basically impossible to discuss or think about Swedish cinema without considering Bergman and his influence.
More recently, the Swedish towns of Trollhättan and Ystad have become film-making centres, the former drawing the likes of wunderkind director Lukas Moodysson, whose Lilja 4-Ever, Show Me Love and Tillsammans have all been both popular and critical hits. Moodysson went through a dark phase for a few years but found himself back on the international-cinema radar with 2014's We Are the Best!, a thrilling and heart-warming movie about three high-school girls in 1980s Stockholm who form a punk band out of spite. It's based on a semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Moodysson's wife, Coco, called Aldrig Godnatt ('Never Goodnight'), and it's an excellent portrait of the texture of urban Swedish life in this period.
Lebanese-born Josef Fares (Jalla! Jalla!, Kopps, Zozo, Leo) is part of a new guard of second-generation immigrant directors. Alongside Iranian-born directors Reza Bagher (Wings of Glass) and Reza Parsa (Before the Storm), Fares has turned a spotlight on the immigrant experience in Sweden. His uncharacteristically dark 2007 feature, Leo, also marked Fares’ on-screen debut.
Another Swedish award-winner is director Roy Andersson, once dubbed a ‘slapstick Ingmar Bergman’. His film Du levande (You, the Living) scooped up three prizes (including best picture) at Sweden’s prestigious Guldbagge Awards in 2008.
That year also saw the well-deserved success of Tomas Alfredson’s odd, quietly unsettling teenage-vampire story, Let the Right One In, based on a best-selling Swedish novel. Its American remake was also well received.
But of course the big news in contemporary Swedish cinema has been the film version of Stieg Larsson’s runaway hit series of crime novels, starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). Starring Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace, the Swedish trilogy was a huge commercial success, and the first installment has been remade in English by director David Fincher, with Daniel Craig as journalist Mikael Blomkvist, mostly on location in Sweden.
Feel-Bad Swedish Films
The Swedish film industry is active and varied, but most people associate it with the godfather of gloom, Ingmar Bergman. Many filmmakers have followed in his grim footsteps:
- Songs from the Second Floor (Roy Andersson; 2000) A post-apocalyptic urban nightmare in surreal slow motion; it’s not for everyone.
- Lilya 4-Ever (Lukas Moodysson; 2002) A grim tale of human trafficking.
- Ondskan (Evil; Mikael Håfström; 2003) Violence at a boys’ boarding school.
- Zozo (Josef Fares; 2005) A Lebanese orphan makes his way to Sweden alone, then has culture shock.
- Darling (Johan Kling; 2007) Harsh economic realities bring together a shallow, privileged party girl and a sweet old man in an unlikely friendship.
- Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson; 2008) An excellent, stylish, restrained take on the horror-film genre that gets at what it’s like to be a lonely preteen in a cold, hostile world.
Historically, the best known of Sweden’s artistic greats have been writers, chiefly the poet Carl Michael Bellman (1740–95), influential dramatist and author August Strindberg (1849–1912) and children’s writer Astrid Lindgren (1907–2002).
During WWII some Swedish writers took a stand against the Nazis, including Eyvind Johnson (1900–76) with his Krilon trilogy, completed in 1943, and poet and novelist Karin Boye (1900–41), whose novel Kallocain was published in 1940. Vilhelm Moberg (1898–1973), a representative of 20th-century proletarian literature and a controversial social critic, won international acclaim with Utvandrarna (The Emigrants; 1949) and Nybyggarna (The Settlers; 1956).
Contemporary literary stars include playwright and novelist Per Olov Enquist (b 1934), who achieved international acclaim with his novel Livläkarens besök (The Visit of the Royal Physician; 2003), in which King Christian VII’s physician conspires with the queen to seize power.
Readers interested in deepest Norrland, with its strange and uniquely remote vibe, should investigate the work of the late Torgny Lindgren, particularly his novel Pölsan (Hash; 2004), or the short stories in Merab's Beauty (1989).
Mikael Niemi’s (b 1959) novel Populärmusik från Vittula (Popular Music; 2003), a coming-of-age story of a wannabe rock star in Sweden’s remote north, became an international cult hit, as well as a 2004 film directed by Iranian-born Swedish director Reza Bagher.
Nonfiction author Sven Lindqvist (b 1932) is recognised for his hard-hitting, sometimes controversial titles. His most famous offering is arguably Utrota varenda jävel (Exterminate All the Brutes; 1992), exploring the Holocaust-like devastation European colonists wrought on Africa. More recently, his book Terra Nullius (2005, translated into English in 2007) is a powerful, moving history of colonial Australia and the attempted destruction of Aboriginal culture.
A Man Called Ove (2013) is a novel about a grumpy old man in a Swedish suburb who struggles (comically) to deal with the changes modernity has brought to his country and, more importantly, to his parking area; the book was a surprise hit domestically for journalist and blogger Fredrik Backman and has been widely translated into other languages. It's a light read but offers an insightful view of life in a modern Swedish apartment community.
The massive success of the Millennium Trilogy, by the late journalist Stieg Larsson (he was the second-best-selling author in the world for 2008), has brought new and well-deserved attention to Swedish crime fiction, which was already a thriving genre domestically. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005) – originally entitled Män som hatar kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women) – is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this genre; Swedish crime writers have a long and robust history.
A few names to start with include Håkan Nesser, whose early novels The Mind’s Eye (1993) and Woman with Birthmark (1996) have at last been translated into English; and Sweden’s best-known crime-fiction writer, Henning Mankell, whose novels are mostly set in Ystad and feature moody detective Kurt Wallander. Johan Theorin's quartet of mysteries (starting with Echoes from the Dead, 2008) is set on the island of Öland. Other writers to seek out include Karin Alvtegen (dubbed Sweden's 'queen of crime'), Kerstin Ekman, Camilla Läckberg and Jens Lapidus.
One of the best ways to get inside the collective mind of a country is to read its top authors. Some of the most popular works by Swedish authors include The Long Ships (1954) by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (1906–07) by Selma Lagerlöf, The Emigrants series (1949–59) by Vilhelm Moberg, Marking (1963–64) by Dag Hammarskjöld, Röda Rummet (1879) by August Strindberg and The Evil (1981) by Jan Guillou.
Any survey of Swedish pop music should probably start with ABBA, the iconic, extravagantly outfitted winner of the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest (with ‘Waterloo’). You can immerse yourself in ABBA completely at the Stockholm museum dedicated to the group and its history.
More current Swedish successes are pop icon Robyn, indie melody-makers Peter Björn & John, and the exquisitely mellow José González, whose cover of the Knife’s track ‘Heartbeats’ catapulted the Gothenburg native to international stardom.
Other artists of note include the Field, aka Alex Wilner, and Kristian Matsson, the singer-songwriter who goes by the Tallest Man on Earth, as well as home-grown stalwarts such as the massively popular Kent, the Hives, the Shout Out Louds and Håkan Hellström, who is much lauded for his original renditions of classic Swedish melodies.
Swedish songwriters and producers are sought-after commodities: Denniz Pop and Max Martin have penned hits for pop divas such as Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez, while Anders Bagge and Bloodshy & Avant (aka Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg) co-created Madonna’s 2005 album Confessions on a Dance Floor. DJ Avicii wrote or contributed to a handful of international hits in the 2010s.
Over the past couple of decades, immigration has noticeably altered the make-up of the Swedish population. Around 15% of Swedes today are foreign-born, and that number is on the upswing as immigration continues to expand. (More than one million Swedish citizens in 2016 were foreign-born.) Swedish musician José González, celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson and film director Josef Fares are testament to Sweden’s increasingly multicultural composition. Some 200 languages are now spoken in the country, as well as variations on the standard – the hip-hop crowd, for example, speaks a vivid mishmash of slang, Swedish and foreign phrases that’s been dubbed ‘Rinkeby Swedish’ after an immigrant-heavy Stockholm suburb.
As hip-hop artist Timbuktu (himself the Swedish-born son of a mixed-race American couple) once told the Washington Post, ‘Sweden still has a very clear picture of what a Swede is. That no longer exists – the blond, blue-eyed physical traits. That’s changing. But it still exists in the minds of some people'.
A total of 60,343 people were granted Swedish citizenship in 2016, according to Statistics Sweden – substantially more than in any previous year. Many of the newcomers were UK citizens coming to Sweden in the wake of Brexit. The largest group of new citizens were from Somalia, followed by Syria, Iraq, Poland, Thailand and Afghanistan.
Christianity arrived fairly late in Sweden and was preceded by a long-standing loyalty to Norse gods such as Odin, Thor and their warlike ilk. Some of the outer reaches of Sweden, particularly in the far north, were among the last areas in Europe to convert to Christianity.
According to the country's constitution, Swedish people have the right to practise any religion they choose. Complete separation of church and state took effect in 2000; prior to that, Evangelical Lutheranism was the official religion. There are also about 100,000 members of Christian Orthodox churches, 20,000 Jews and an estimated 100,000 Muslims in Sweden.
Only about 10% of Swedes regularly attend church services, but church marriages, funerals and communions are still popular.
Football (soccer) is the most popular sporting activity in Sweden. There are more than 3000 clubs with about a million members. The domestic season runs from April to early November. The national arena, Råsunda Stadium in Solna, a suburb in Stockholm’s northwest, can hold up to 37,000 roaring spectators.
Two of Sweden’s best-known Swedish football players are Gunnar Nordahl (1921–95), who helped Sweden win gold at the 1948 Olympics and went on to be the all-time top scorer at AC Milan, and Malmö-born Zlatan Ibrahimović (b 1981).
There are amateur ice-hockey teams in most Swedish communities. The national premier league, Elitserien, has 12 professional teams; there are also several lower divisions. Matches take place from autumn to late spring, up to four times a week in Stockholm, primarily at Globen arena.
Alpine skiing competitions are held annually, particularly in Åre. Vasaloppet, the world’s biggest Nordic (cross-country) skiing race, takes place on the first Sunday in March.
Swedish skiing stars include four-time Olympic gold-medal-winner Gunde Svan and giant-slalom icon Ingemar Stenmark, who won a total of 86 races in the Alpine Ski World Cup.
Swedish men have excelled at tennis; superstars include Björn Borg, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg. Borg won the Wimbledon Championships in England five times in a row.
Golf is hugely popular, with more than 400 courses throughout the country. Sweden's Annika Sörenstam is ranked as one of the game’s leading players.
Bandy, a team sport similar to ice hockey, is played on an outdoor pitch the size of a football field; watching a match is a popular winter social activity in many Swedish cities. (In Stockholm, they're held at Zinkensdamms Idrottsplats.)
Sailing is very popular, around Stockholm in particular, where yacht ownership is extremely common, as well as in smaller villages along both coastlines.
Jazz is huge among Swedes; for a primer, look for records by Lars Gullin, Bernt Rosengren and Jan Johansson.
ABBA is the fourth-best-selling musical act in history, after Elvis, the Beatles and Michael Jackson – the group has sold more than 380 million records worldwide.
Sweden is often listed among the world’s most ecofriendly, sustainable countries. Its scenic beauty and natural resources are a major part of what make the place such a rewarding destination, and Swedes tend to cherish what they have. Getting outdoors is a popular activity here and, relatedly, green practices such as recycling and conservation are the norm. Even in large cities, Swedes display a deep connection to and reverence for the natural world.
Physically, Sweden is long and thin – about the size of California, with a surface area of around 450,000 sq km. It’s mostly forest (nearly 60% of the landscape) and is dotted with about 100,000 inland lakes. This includes Vänern, Western Europe’s largest lake, at 5585 sq km. There’s also 7000km of coastline, plus scads of islands – the Stockholm archipelago alone has around 24,000 of them. The largest and most notable islands are Gotland and Öland on the southeast coast.
From its position on the eastern side of the Scandinavian peninsula, Sweden borders Norway, Finland and Denmark – the latter a mere 4km to the southwest of Sweden and joined to it by a spectacular bridge and tunnel. The mountains along the border with Norway are graced with alpine and Arctic flowers, including mountain avens (with large, white, eight-petalled flowers), long-stalked mountain sorrel (an unusual source of vitamin C), glacier crowfoot, alpine aster and various saxifrages. Orchids grow on Öland and Gotland. Up north are forests of Scots pine, Norway spruce and firs; the southern part of the country is now mostly farmland.
Between 500 and 370 million years ago, the European and North American continental plates collided, throwing up an impressive range of peaks called the Caledonian Mountains, which were as tall as today’s Himalayas. Their worn-down stubs form the 800km-long Kjölen Mountains along the Norwegian border – among which is Kebnekaise (2106m), Sweden’s highest mountain.
Parts of Skåne and the islands of Öland and Gotland consist of flat limestone and sandstone deposits, probably laid down in a shallow sea east of the Caledonian Mountains during the same period.
Lake Siljan, in the central south, marks the site of Europe’s largest meteoric impact: the 3km-wide fireball hurtled into Sweden 360 million years ago, obliterating all life and creating a 75km ring-shaped crater.
How’s the Weather?
Sweden has a mostly cool, temperate climate, but the southern quarter of the country is warmer than the rest. The average maximum temperature for July is 18°C in the south and around 14°C in the north. Long hot periods in summer aren’t unusual, with temperatures soaring to over 30°C. The west coast is warmer than the east, thanks to the warming waters of the Gulf Stream.
The harsh Lappland winter starts in October and ends in April, and temperatures can plummet as low as -50°C. Snow can accumulate to depths of several metres in the north, making for superb skiing, but snow depths in the south average only 20cm to 40cm. It usually rains in winter in the far south (Skåne).
Norway’s mountain ranges act as a rain break, so yearly rainfall is moderate. Swedish summers are generally sunny, with only occasional rainfall, but August can be wet.
Thanks to Sweden’s geographical diversity, it has a great variety of European animals, birds and plants. And its relatively sparse population means you're likely to see some in the wild.
Sweden’s big carnivores – the bear, wolf, wolverine, lynx and golden eagle – are all protected species. Wolf hunting was banned in the 1970s, after the wolf population had been brought nearly to extinction, but in 2010 the Swedish parliament authorised a cull to bring the newly resurgent species’ numbers back down. Most of the country’s wolf population is in Dalarna and Värmland.
The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (www.swedishepa.se) has detailed information on Sweden’s policies regarding endangered animals.
The wolverine, a larger cousin of the weasel, inhabits high forests and alpine areas along the Norwegian border. There are an estimated 680 in Sweden, mostly in Norrbotten and Västerbotten.
Brown bears were persecuted for centuries, but recent conservation measures have seen numbers increase to about 3200. Bears mostly live in forests in the northern half of the country but are spreading south.
Another fascinating forest dweller is the lynx, which belongs to the panther family and is Europe’s only large cat. Sweden’s 1200 to 1500 lynx are notoriously difficult to spot because of their nocturnal habits.
Not all of Sweden’s wild creatures are predatory, of course. The iconic elk (moose in the USA) is a gentle, knobby-kneed creature that grows up to 2m tall. Though they won’t try to eat you, elk are a serious traffic hazard, particularly at night: they can dart out in front of your car at up to 50km/h.
Around 260,000 domesticated reindeer roam the northern areas under the watchful eyes of Sami herders. Like elk, reindeer can be a major traffic hazard.
Lemmings are famous for their extraordinary reproductive capacity. Every 10 years or so the population explodes, resulting in denuded landscapes and thousands of dead lemmings in rivers and lakes and on roads.
Sweden is home to all kinds of bird life. Some of the best birdwatching sites are on Öland, including the nature reserve at its southernmost tip, as well as Getterön Nature Reserve, Tåkern Nature Reserve, Hornborgasjön, between Skara and Falköping in Västergötland, and the national parks Färnebofjärden, Muddus and Abisko.
The golden eagle is one of Sweden’s most endangered species. Found in the mountains, it's easily identified by its immense wingspan.
Coastal species include common, little and Arctic terns, various gulls, oystercatchers, cormorants, guillemots and razorbills. Territorial Arctic skuas can be seen in a few places, notably the Stockholm archipelago and the coast north of Gothenburg.
Look for goldcrests in coniferous forests. A few spectacular waxwings breed in Lappland, but in winter they arrive from Russia in large numbers and are found throughout Sweden. Grouse or capercaillie strut the forest floor, while ptarmigan and snow buntings hang out above the treeline along the Norwegian border.
Sweden has a wide range of wading and water birds, including the unusual and beautiful red-necked phalaropes, which only breed in the northern mountains. Other waders you’re likely to encounter are majestic grey herons (southern Sweden), noisy bitterns (south-central Sweden), plovers (including dotterel, in the mountains) and turnstones.
For more details about birdwatching, contact Sveriges Ornitologiska Förening (www.birdlife.se).
Sprats and herring are economically important food sources. Among other marine species, haddock, sea trout, whiting, flounder and plaice are reasonably abundant, particularly in the salty waters of the Kattegatt and Skagerrak, but the Baltic cod is heading for extinction due to overfishing.
Indigenous crayfish were once netted or trapped in Sweden’s lakes, but overfishing and disease have driven them to extinction.
Grey and common seals swim in Swedish waters, although overfishing has caused a serious decline in numbers. Common dolphins may also be observed from time to time.
The North and, particularly, the Baltic Seas are suffering severe pollution, and vast algae blooms, caused partly by nitrogen run-off from Swedish farms. As a result, herring, sprats and Baltic salmon contain higher than average levels of cancer-causing dioxins; the Swedish National Food Agency has recommended that children and women of child-bearing age eat Baltic fish no more than two or three times a year.
Overfishing of these waters is also a huge cause for concern, with cod and Norwegian lobster on the verge of extinction. Fishing quotas are determined by the EU as a whole, and there’s been a constant struggle to achieve balance between sustainable fish stocks and consumer demand.
Sweden was the first country in Europe to set up a national park (1909). There are now 29, along with around 2600 smaller nature reserves; together they cover about 9% of Sweden. The organisation Naturvårdsverket oversees and produces pamphlets about the parks in Swedish and English, along with the excellent book Nationalparkerna i Sverige (National Parks in Sweden).
Four of Sweden’s large rivers (Kalixälven, Piteälven, Vindelälven and Torneälven) have been declared National Heritage Rivers in order to protect them from hydroelectric development.
The right of public access to the countryside (allemansrätten) includes national parks and nature reserves.
- Abisko Northern gateway to the Kungsleden hiking track.
- Haparanda Skärgård Beaches, dunes and migrant bird life.
- Muddus Ancient forests and muskeg bogs, superb birdwatching.
- Padjelanta High moorland; great hiking.
- Pieljekaise Moorlands, birch forests, flowering meadows and lakes.
- Sarek Wild mountain ranges, glaciers, deep valleys; expert hiking.
- Stora Sjöfallet Famous waterfall; hydroelectric development.
- Vadvetjåkka Large river delta containing bogs, lakes, limestone caves.
- Ängsö Tiny island; meadows, deciduous forest, bird life, spring flowers.
- Björnlandet Natural forest, cliffs and boulder fields.
- Färnebofjärden Bird life, forests, rare lichens and mosses.
- Fulufjället Contains Njupeskär, the country’s highest waterfall at 93m.
- Garphyttan An 111-hectare park; fantastic springtime flowers.
- Hamra Only 800m by 400m; virgin coniferous forest.
- Kosterhavet The sea and shores surrounding the Koster Islands.
- Sånfjället Natural mountain moorland with extensive views.
- Skuleskogen Hilly coastal area, good hiking.
- Tresticklan Natural coniferous forest, fine bird life.
- Tyresta Stockholm’s own national park.
- Töfsingdalen Wild and remote; boulder fields, pine forest.
- Blå Jungfrun Island with granite slabs, caves, labyrinth.
- Dalby Söderskog Forest, wildlife.
- Djurö Bird life and deer on an archipelago.
- Gotska Sandön Sandy isle featuring dunes, dying pine forest.
- Norra Kvill An 114-hectare park; ancient coniferous forest.
- Söderåsen Deep fissure valleys, lush forests; hiking and cycling.
- Stenshuvud Coastal park; beaches, forest, moorland.
- Store Mosse Bogs with sand dunes, bird life.
- Tiveden Hills, forests, lakes, boulder fields, beaches.
Ecological consciousness in Sweden is very high and reflected in concern for native animals, clean water and renewable resources. Swedes are fervent believers in recycling household waste. Most plastic bottles and cans can be recycled – supermarket disposal machines give 0.50kr to 2kr per item.
Two organisations that set standards for labelling products as ecologically sound are the food-focused KRAV (www.krav.se), a member of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, and Swan (www.svanen.se), which has a wider scope and certifies entire hotels and hostels.
Linked to environmental concerns is the challenge of protecting the cultural heritage of the Sami people. The harnessing of rivers for hydroelectric power can have massive (negative) impact on what has historically been Sami territory, whether by flooding reindeer feeding grounds or by diverting water and drying up river valleys. In general, the mining, forestry and space industries have wreaked havoc on Sami homelands.
- Naturvårdsverket (www.swedishepa.se) Useful website of the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency.
- Svenska Ekoturismföreningen (www.ekoturism.org) Promotes environmentally friendly tourism.
- Svenska Naturskyddsföreningen (www.naturskyddsforeningen.se) Excellent website on current environmental issues.
The aurora borealis, or northern lights, appear in many forms – pillars, streaks, wisps and haloes of vibrating light – but they’re most memorable when they take the form of pale curtains, apparently wafting on a gentle breeze. Most often, the Arctic aurora is faint green, light yellow or rose-coloured, but in periods of extreme activity it can change to bright yellow or crimson.
The northern lights (norrsken) are caused by streams of charged particles from the sun and the solar winds, which are diverted by the Earth’s magnetic field toward the polar regions.
Because the field curves downward in a halo surrounding the magnetic poles, the charged particles are drawn earthward here. Their interaction with atoms in the upper atmosphere (about 160km above the surface) releases the energy that creates the visible aurora. During periods of high activity, a single auroral storm can produce a trillion watts of electricity with a current of 1 million amps.
The best time to catch the northern lights in Sweden is from October to March.
Midnight Sun & Polar Night
Because the Earth is tilted on its axis, the polar regions are constantly facing the sun at their respective summer solstices, and are tilted away from it in winter. The Arctic and Antarctic Circles, at latitudes 66°32’N and 66°32’S respectively, are the southern and northern limits of constant daylight on the longest day of the year.
The northern one-seventh of Sweden lies north of the Arctic Circle, but even in central Sweden the summer sun is never far below the horizon. Between late May and mid-July, nowhere north of Stockholm experiences true darkness; in Umeå, for example, the first stars aren’t visible until mid-July. Although many visitors initially find it difficult to sleep while the sun is shining brightly outside, most people get used to it.
Conversely, winters (especially in the far north) can be dark and bitterly cold, with only a few hours of twilight to break the long polar nights. During this period, some people suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which occurs when they’re deprived of the vitamin D provided by sunlight. Its effects may be minimised by taking supplements of vitamin D (as found in cod-liver oil) or with special solar-spectrum light bulbs.
Sweden is a long, drawn-out 1574km from north to south, but averages only about 300km in width.
The lemming is the smallest but most important mammal in the Arctic regions – its numbers set the population limits for everything that preys on it.
Swedish elk are slightly smaller than their closely related American relatives, called moose.
The fearsome-looking brown bear’s favourite food is…blueberries!
A great resource for twitchers is Where to Watch Birds in Scandinavia by Johan Stenlund.
You can swim – and fish for trout and salmon – in the waters by Stockholm’s city centre. (Check fishing regulations at the tourist office.)
Four of the national parks in Lappland – Muddus, Padjelanta, Sarek and Stora Sjöfallet – are Unesco World Heritage sites.
True North: The Grand Landscapes of Sweden, by Per Wästberg and Tommy Hammarström, contains stunning images by some of Sweden’s top nature photographers.
Design & Architecture
Swedish design is firmly integrated into daily life: functionality is key, although beauty and cleverness are equally important. It's rare to walk into a Swedish home or public space that isn't arranged for maximum efficiency and comfort, whether that means cute IKEA kitchen hooks or optical-illusion wallpaper. Of course, there are also plenty of aesthetic flourishes – bold-print fabrics, beautiful glassware, swoopy architectural details. But the core of Swedish design and architecture is simple structural elegance above all.
Sweden’s architecture has a mostly classical sensibility, with some Romanesque and Gothic influences from the mainland. Sweden embraced the Renaissance in the 16th and 17th centuries, which is also evident in the nation’s core historic architecture.
Magnificently ornate baroque architecture arrived (mainly from Italy) during the 1640s, while Queen Kristina held the throne. For good examples, visit Kalmar, a historical centre of power and the site of the eponymous union of Denmark, Norway and Sweden in 1397.
Kalmar’s Domkyrkan (Cathedral), designed in 1660, and the adjacent Rådhus (Town Hall) – as well as Drottningholms Slott (1662) outside of Stockholm – were all designed by the court architect Nicodemus Tessin the Elder. Tessin the Younger designed the vast Kungliga Slottet (Royal Palace) in Stockholm after the original palace was gutted by fire in 1697.
Pre-Renaissance examples include the Romanesque Domkyrkan in Lund, consecrated in 1145 and still dominating the city centre with its two imposing square towers. Fine Gothic churches include Mariakyrkan in Sigtuna (completed in 1237) and Uppsala’s Domkyrkan, consecrated in 1435. The island of Gotland, however, is your best bet in Sweden for ecclesiastical Gothic architecture, with around one hundred medieval churches scattered across the ancient landscape.
The 19th century brought urban and social upheaval, industrialisation and the influx towards urban areas. There followed the creation of a Swedish state, and in architecture, the National Romanticism movement – an often-decorative classical free-style with Arts and Crafts influences. Known in Sweden as Jugendstil, it has strong similarities to the more continental art nouveau. Typical examples of this period include Centralbadet in Stockholm and the artist Anders Zorn's home in Mora.
Following this period, abstracted and more international modernism took hold, and Stockholm’s 1930 exhibition introduced modern design and the Swedish architects of the 20th century.
The transition to modernity was led by Erik Gunnar Asplund (1885–1940), Sweden’s most important architect. Two perfect examples of his work are found in and around Stockholm: Stadsbiblioteket (the City Library; 1932) and, a bit outside of town, Skogskyrkogården (the Woodland Cemetery), where you’ll find perhaps the greatest collection of work from the Swedish master; many of the pavilions are collaborations with the less prolific Sigurd Lewerentz (1885–1975).
Asplund was typical of the Swedish approach. He travelled widely as a young designer, returning to his homeland to make an architecture both of its time and true to Swedish tradition. His work contrasted with the more aggressive radical modernism of France and Germany, and set the tone for Finnish master Alvar Aalto.
The post-industrial city of Malmö has become a hot spot of design and innovation. The old docks northwest of Gamla Staden (Old Town) were converted into ecologically focused housing for the new century. Its landmark Turning Torso (2005) – a twisting residential tower designed by Catalan architect Santiago Calatrava – is an arresting sight dominating the skyline.
Close by is the Öresund bridge (Georg KS Rotne; 2000) connecting the two metropolitan areas of Malmö and Copenhagen. Malmö has become a commuter base for Danish residents in Copenhagen as a result of this remarkable piece of infrastructure – after it reaches the end of the bridge section the road and rail lines literally disappear into the water, to become a tunnel until it emerges next to Copenhagen airport. It’s quite a sight from the air.
Within Stockholm, contemporary design and culture found a robust home in 1974 in Kulturhuset, a large modernist pavilion holding a wide range of cultural activities. Designed by Peter Celsing, it’s like a big set of drawers offering their wares onto the large plaza outside, Sergels Torg; the torg (town square) is the modern heart of Stockholm, and standing at its centre is Kristallvertikalaccent (Crystal Vertical Accent), a wonderful, luminescent monument to modernity and glassmaking traditions. Designed by sculptor Edvin Öhrström, it was the result of a 1962 competition.
More recently, the planned suburb Hammarby Sjöstad, just south of Stockholm's centre, has taken shape as a sustainably built, eco-conscious neighbourhood. Its approach to mindful integration of infrastructure, transportation, public spaces and energy conservation has been widely influential in urban planning.
Frozen Art & Design
The Icehotel, in the small village of Jukkasjärvi just outside of Kiruna, not only started the global trend of ice hotels and bars but also has become a focus for collaboration among artists and designers from Sweden and around the world.
The hotel is made from both snow and ice, the superstructure built in a manner similar to rammed earth, with snow blown and compacted onto Gothic-arch-like steel forms that produce simple vaulted spaces. Artists then create suite interiors using a combination of malleable snow and chiselled or carved ice.
A wide range of artists come to the Icehotel. Regulars include fourth-generation stonemason Mats Nilson and younger designer Jens Thoms Ivarsson, but new artists are invited to design suites each year – it's never the same hotel twice.
Flatpack Furniture Takes Over The World
Ingvar Kamprad was 17 years old when he created IKEA in the city of Älmhult, in the craft-focused province of Småland. He has gone on to become one of the world’s richest men, and the company he started now has its own dedicated museum in the town where it was born.
The IKEA name (a combination of Kamprad’s initials and those of the farm and village where he grew up) was officially registered in 1943. Initially selling pens, watches and nylon stockings, the company added furniture to its products four years later, which gradually evolved into the IKEA-designed flatpack creations so familiar today.
There was almost an early end to the IKEA empire when the first Stockholm shop and all its stock burned down in 1970. But, besides his devotion to work and obsession with cost cutting, Kamprad also seems to have thrived on adversity – IKEA bounced back.
Seeking to bring simple, good design to the whole world, in an affordable way, IKEA has had enormous influence. Cheap and innovative products were born out of Swedish modern design – the idea of the house as the starting point of good design, rather than the end.
The clean-cut company was rocked in 1994 by revelations that Kamprad once had links with a pro-Nazi party in Sweden (he later offered a public apology and expressed much regret for this time of his life).
The famously frugal Kamprad has now taken a back seat in terms of running the company, but ownership is still within the family. Control over the empire is now divvied up among Kamprad's three children and divided into a series of complex charity and trust entities. Today IKEA has stores in more than 50 countries, with several more planned; branches first opened in Australia in 1975, Saudi Arabia in 1983, the US in 1985, Britain in 1987, China in 1998 and Russia in 2000.
The southern province of Småland has been Sweden’s glassmaking headquarters for well over one hundred years. The cluster of glass-blowing factories – among them well-known brands Orrefors and Kosta Boda – has consolidated over time. A high point of glass design was in the 1960s, when traditional figurative forms meshed with abstracted patterning as young designers were given the chance to compete with more established figures. Since then, the glassmaking universe has been home to some of Sweden's most innovative artists, including Bertil Vallien, known for his mysterious, haunting faces inside glass blocks, and Ulrica Hydman-Vallien (his wife), with her distinctively painted glass bowls.
Sidebar: Key Turn-of-the-Century Buildings in Stockholm
- Fredrik Lilljekvist’s Royal Dramatic Theatre ('Dramaten') (1908)
- Ferdinand Boberg’s Rosenbad (1902)
- Ragnar Östberg’s Stockholm City Hall (1911)
Contemporary design and architecture generally follow global trends, but the characteristically Swedish interests of nature and craft are evident when cruising through blogs such as the snappy Ems Designblogg (http://em.residencemagazine.se).
Standout architectural firms include the established Wingårdh, but emerging practices such as Elding Oscarson show a restrained international influence. Lund & Valentin in Gothenburg have, since 1952, been a good index of architectural tastes, as seen in their postmodern GöteborgsOperan (1994).
For a new-design twist on the traditional Swedish wooden horses (dalahäst), look into the work of Kerstin Oldal (www.kerstinoldal.com), who reinterprets the national symbol in gorgeous ways.
The only internationally recognised group of indigenous people in Scandinavia, the Sami migrated here following the path of retreating ice and have inhabited the far northern territory collectively known as Sápmi for thousands of years. They lived by hunting reindeer in the area extending from Norway’s Atlantic coast to the Kola Peninsula in Russia.
Sápmi & Modern Sweden
By the 17th century, the depletion of reindeer herds had transformed the Sami's hunting economy into a nomadic herding economy. Until the 1700s, the Sami lived in siida (village units or communities), migrating for their livelihoods, but only within their own defined areas. Those areas were recognised and respected by the Swedish government until colonisation of Lappland began in earnest, and the Sami found their traditional rights and livelihoods threatened both by the settlers and by the establishment of borders between Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia.
Who Is a Sami?
In Sweden today, the stereotype of the nomadic reindeer herder has been replaced with the multifaceted reality of modern Sami life. According to the Sámediggi (Sami parliament) statutes, a Sami is a person who identifies as Sami, who either knows the Sami language or who has had at least one parent or grandparent who spoke Sami as their mother tongue.
The Sami population of Sápmi numbers around 100,000, out of whom around 45,000 live in Norway, 27,000 or so in Sweden, slightly fewer in Finland and some 2000 in Russia. These numbers are approximate, as a census has never taken place. Famous people of Sami descent include Joni Mitchell and Renée Zellweger.
Particularly precise when it comes to describing natural phenomena, the landscape and reindeer, Sami is not a single language. There are, in fact, 10 Sami languages spoken across Sápmi, which belong to the Finno-Ugrian language group and are not related to any Scandinavian language.
Sweden officially recognises the Sami languages as minority languages and international law decrees that Sami children are entitled to mother-tongue education in Sami. In practice, however, it hasn’t always proved possible to find Sami-speaking teachers, and some municipalities feel that it costs too much to provide education in Sami.
The Centre for Sami Research (CeSam) in Umeå conducts research into Sami language and Sami language courses can be taken at Umeå and Uppsala universities.
One of the cornerstones of Sami identity is the yoik (or joik), a form of self-expression that has traditionally provided a bond between the Sami and nature. The yoik is a rhythmic poem or song composed for a specific person, event or object to describe and remember their innate nature. Thus you can yoik anything you like, from a new pair of trainers to your beloved grandmother. The yoiking tradition was revived in the 1960s, and it’s now performed in many different ways – including experimental yoik and hard yoik, pioneered by contemporary musicians.
Sami Religion & Mythology
Sami beliefs have traditionally revolved around nature, and Shamanism was widespread until the 17th century. The noaidi, or shamans, bridged the gap between the physical world and the spiritual world; when in a trance, it was thought that they could shape-shift and command natural phenomena.
Sami folklore features many myths and legends concerning the underworld. Forces of nature, such as the wind and the sun, play an important role in Sami myths and legends: Sápmi is said to have been created by a monstrous giant named Biogolmai, the Wind Man. Sami creation stories feature the Son of the Sun as their ancestor, while the Daughter of the Sun is said to have brought the Sami their reindeer.
In 1685 it was decided by the monarchy and the church that the Sami must be converted to Christianity. Idolatry trials were held, shaman drums burned and sacred sites desecrated. However, not all effects of Christianity were negative: Laestadianism helped to alleviate the poverty and misery of the Sami in 19th-century Lappland.
‘A Lapp Must Remain a Lapp’
From the 1800s onward, Sweden’s policies regarding the Sami were tinted with social Darwinist ideas, deeming the Sami to be an inferior race fit only for reindeer husbandry. The nomadic Sami were prevented from settling lest they become idle and neglect their reindeer. A separate schooling system was set up, with Sami children denied admission to regular public schools. Under the Nomad Schools Act of 1913, they were taught in their family’s tent (lávvu) for three years by teachers who moved between Sami settlements in summer. After three more years of limited schooling in winter, they were considered sufficiently educated without becoming ‘civilised’.
Despite demands that nomad schools should meet the same standards as regular Swedish schools, the situation did not improve until after WWII, when the Sami began to actively participate in the struggle for their rights, forming numerous associations and pressure groups.
The Sami in Sweden are represented by the Sámediggi (Sami parliament), comprising 31 members. Funded by grants from the Swedish government, it oversees many aspects of Sami life, from representing reindeer-herding interests and promoting Sami culture and organisations to appointing the board of directors for Sami schools. While it acts in an advisory capacity to the Swedish government, the Sámediggi does not have the power to make decisions regarding land use.
The Swedish Sami also take part in the Sámirađđi, the unifying body for the Sami organisations across Sápmi and international Sami interests. Sámirađđi is an active participant in the WCIP (World Council of Indigenous Peoples).
Sami Rights & Today’s Challenges
The Sami claim the right to traditional livelihoods, land and water, citing usufruct (age-old usage) and the traditional property rights of the Sami siidas (villages or communities), which are not formally acknowledged by Sweden. The Swedish state is yet to ratify the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, which would recognise the Sami as an indigenous people with property rights, as opposed to just an ethnic minority.
While the Swedish state supports Sami efforts to preserve their unique reindeer-herding heritage, with an allowance of 300 to 500 reindeer per family, there is one condition: herding units, or sameby, may not engage in any economic activity other than reindeer herding. Currently, around 10% of Sweden's Sami are full-time reindeer herders.
In theory, the Reindeer Husbandry Act gives reindeer herders the right to use land and water for their own maintenance and that of their reindeer. In practice, a large chunk of land allocated to the herders for grazing is unsuitable for that purpose, and tourism and extractive industries such as mining also continue to pose a threat to that traditional Sami occupation.
Sami crafts combine practicality with beauty. ‘Soft crafts’, such as leatherwork and textiles, have traditionally been in the female domain, whereas men have predominantly pursued ‘hard crafts’, such as knife making, woodwork or silverwork.
Traditional creations include wooden guksi (drinking cups) or other vessels, made by hollowing out a burl and often inlaid with reindeer bone; knives, with abundantly engraved handles made of reindeer or elk antler and equally decorative bone sheaths; and silverwork – anything from exquisitely engraved spoons, belt buckles and brooches to earrings and pendants.
Designs differ depending on whether an item hails from northern or southern Lappland: northern knife sheaths are typically more steeply curved and decorated with patterns of stars and flowers, while southern craftsmen use abstract square patterns. Northern leatherwork and embroidery often feature cloth appliques, while southern Sami favour leatherwork combined with beadwork.
Recurring symbols are found in Sami silver jewellery. These include the sunwheel that graces women's belts; animal motifs that were once painted on sacred shaman's drums: beavers, reindeer, moose; and komsekule, silver filigree balls that once graced Sami collars but were then used as an anti-goblin charm when hung on children's cradles. The heavy silver collars worn by women often feature the Gothic letter 'M'. In the Middle Ages, such 'M's were a pilgrim sign that symbolised the Virgin Mary.
In the 1970s there was a revival of Sami handicraft; since then, genuine Sami work that uses traditional designs and materials has borne the Sámi Duodji trademark.
People of the Eight Seasons
For centuries, Sami life revolved around reindeer. Thus, the Sami year traditionally has eight seasons, each tied to a period of reindeer herding:
Gidádálvve (springwinter; early March to late April) Herds are moved from the forests to calving lands in the low mountains during the spring migration.
Gidá (spring; late April to late May) Calves are born. Leaves and grass are added to the reindeer's diet.
Gidágiesse (springsummer; end of May to Midsummer) Herds are moved to find more vegetation for calves and their mothers. Reindeer mostly rest and eat. Herders repair temporary homes.
Giesse (summer; Midsummer to end of August) Reindeer move to higher ground to avoid biting insects. Herders round them up and move them into corrals for calf marking.
Tjaktjagiesse (autumnsummer; end of August to mid-September) Reindeer build up fat for the winter. Some of the uncastrated males (sarvss) are slaughtered in specially designated corrals. Meat is salted, smoked and made into jerky.
Tjaktja (autumn; mid-September to mid-October) Reindeer mating season. The reindeer stay mostly in the low mountains, where they feed on roots and lichen.
Tjaktjadálvve (autumnwinter; mid-October to Christmas) Reindeer are divided into grazing groups (sijdor) and taken to winter grazing grounds in the forest. Surplus reindeer are slaughtered.
Dálvve (winter; Christmas to the end of February) Herders frequently move the reindeer around the forests to make sure the reindeer get enough lichen to eat.
The Sami Information Centre in Östersund (www.samer.se) is a treasure trove of information on all aspects of Sami life – from history and present-day culture to politics and food.
Fewer than half of all Sami can actually read and speak Sami. The most common language is North Sami, spoken by around 18,000 of the 50,000 Sami speakers. Sami languages are mutually unintelligible: Kildin Sami speakers from Vilhelmina can communicate with Russia's Kola Sami but not Kiruna Sami.
Traditional Sami clothing, or gákti, comes with its own varied and distinctive headgear and is one of the most distinct symbols of Sami identity. The Sami can tell at a glance which part of Sápmi another is from, or whether the wearer is unaccustomed to wearing Sami garments.
The red, blue, green and yellow of the Sami flag, designed by Norway’s Astrid Båhl in 1986, correspond to the colours of the traditional Sami costume, the kolt, while the red and blue halves of the circle represent the sun and the moon, respectively.
Gällivare-based Visit Sápmi (https://visitsapmi.wordpress.com) pools resources from all over Sápmi and aims to connect travellers with specific aspects of Sami culture – from Sami tour companies to Sami culinary experiences and craftsmen.