Heja Sverige! 10 (More) Reasons to Visit Sweden

With Saturday’s voting result, Sweden cemented their status as Eurovision legends with a sixth win, second now only to Ireland with their seven wins.

Of course it all started with ABBA in 1974, followed by the boys in little gold boots singing ‘Diggy-Loo Diggi-Ley’ in 1984, national treasure Carola with ‘Fångad av en stormvind’ in 1991 (12 points from the UK secured by our family voting repeatedly on both land lines and fax lines), Charlotte Nilsson, now Perrelli, with ‘Take me to your heaven’, Loreen and ‘Euphoria’ in 2012, and now, of course, the unpronounceable Måns Zelmerlöw and his chubby little stick man performing ‘Heroes’. (He seems to like heroes a lot: in his audition for Idol Sverige he chose Enrique Iglesias’ Hero; although he’s tightened up his act quite a bit since then…)

So for such a small country, Swedish music packs a punch. If the Eurovision wins weren’t enough, we’ve also produced Ace of Base, Avicii, Swedish House Mafia (duh!), the Hives, the Cardigans, Europe, Roxette, Basshunter, Robyn, and, I’m sure, many more.

But of course music isn’t all our little country has to offer. I give you 10 reasons to visit Sweden:

1. The hot men

Come on people, admit it: part of the attraction of Måns Zelmerlöw is that he is, as we would say, a snygging. I read some time ago that Sweden had the best looking men in the world; I’m afraid I can’t find the source of that scientific study right now but based on physical evidence I’m inclined to believe it’s true. The girls aren’t too bad either (okay, I may be biased) and in fact every man I’ve ever told that I was Swedish has always replied, “I dated a Swedish girl once,” proceeding to butcher the three words of Swedish they’ve managed to remember. Not that it’s necessary to learn the language, as ve all speek Eenglish verry vell.

2. Nature’s calling

A Lake in Skåne, autumntime

Autumntime in Skåne, in the south

It’s not just the people who are beautiful but the scenery as well, from the mountains in the north to the open fields of the south. Allemansrätten, the public right of access, means that you can roam freely more or less anywhere, picking berries and wild flowers and even setting up camp for 24 hours without the land owner’s permission. And why not try some wild swimming – although bear in mind that the water never gets particularly warm so you’ll need quite some courage to dive in. Most people also have a country home that they can escape to over the weekends and the summer holidays, so try to get yourself invited over to enjoy the fresh air and mosquito bites that the Swedish countryside has to offer.

3. An island paradise

Djurgårdsfärjan Stockholm

The ferry leaves from the Old Town every 15 minutes

It’s hard to choose a favourite part of Sweden but having spent most of my time in the capital of Stockholm my choice has to be its archipelago, which contains the largest number of islands in the world. Take a ferry out to Utö for the day, or sail out into the skärgård and cast anchor in some quiet bay. If you don’t have a lot of time then at least go across to Djurgården where you can visit outdoor museum Skansen or take your children to Astrid Lindgren’s story world of Junibacken. You can also rent a pedalo or go on a sightseeing cruise to explore the city from the water.

4. A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Swedish maypole

A pagan symbol of fertility, and the focal point for our frog dancing

The longest day of the year brings the biggest celebration of the Nordic calendar, Midsummer, when everyone leaves the city behind to frolic naked in the countryside. Okay not naked, but there’s a lot of frolicking as we all dance like frogs around the Maypole (I’m not kidding), the girls pick seven different flowers to put under our pillows so that we dream of our future husbands, and we eat pickled herring and strawberries and other Swedish delicacies. Watch Swedish Midsummer for Dummies to prepare yourself for Midsummer mayhem, some of which may be explained by the copious amounts of beer and vodka that are consumed…

5. Eat, drink and be merry (Skål!)

The face of L O Smith on an Absolut Vodka bottle

One of the most famous exports from Sweden, along with ABBA and IKEA…

A little later in the year and we have the kräftskiva, a crayfish party traditionally held in August where we slurp on these freshwater lobsters boiled in dill and sing Helan går and other drinking songs over a nubbe, a generous shot of snaps. Make sure that you plan your alcohol purchase ahead of time, though, as anything other than light beer can only be bought at the government-owned Systembolaget. If it’s closed, you’ll find yourself having to turn up to the party empty handed… Console yourself by putting on a funny hat and joining in with the most popular song with the help of this English ‘translation’:

Hell and gore
Chung Hop father Allan Ley
Hell and gore
Chung Hop father Allan Ley
Oh handsome in the hell and tar
and hell are in a half and four
Hell and goooooore …
Chung Hop father Allan Ley

It makes a little more sense in Swedish…

6. Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree

A selection of desserts on the Swedish julbord/Christmas dinner

Crème brûlée cheesecake, crumble, vanilla pannacotta and a choice of custard or raspberry coulis, blue cheese cheesecake with mulled wine jelly

If you don’t go to Sweden in the summer, another good time is in the run-up to Christmas. Soak up the atmosphere as you go skating on the ice rinks that pop up here and there, drink glögg (mulled wine) and wander around the Christmas markets, the country’s biggest to be found at Liseberg the theme park in Gothenburg on the west coast. Then book a julbord – the Christmas version of a smörgåsbord – and work your way through the seven courses as you drink more nubbe. We used to have a Christmas goat who brought us presents but lately we’ve adopted the American Santa Claus figure; although we still insist on celebrating on Christmas Eve, a day earlier than the UK and US. You can watch Will Farrell attempt to explain some of this on the Jonathan Ross show

7. Fika

If you haven’t heard of fika, hello, where have you been?! It is the coolest aspect of Swedish culture, something like a coffee break but really so much more. Swedes are among the biggest coffee drinkers in the world and we will meet morning or afternoon to guzzle the stuff as we munch on anything from a banana to a cinnamon bun or a chocolate ball. The cinnamon bun deserves a special mention here as it’s so important that it even has its own day, 4th October (incidentally the day after my birthday, how fitting). It has a cousin, the semla, which is eaten as of Shrove Tuesday as a sort of equivalent of pancake day, and another, the lussekatt made with saffron that we eat for Saint Lucia on 13th December with gingerbread to commemmorate the eye gouging and death of this Italian saint (don’t question it, just enjoy).

The Bakery at Skansen, Stockholm

Top tip: If you’re short on time and/or money, you can run up to the Skansen bakery and then run back out and you’ll get your entrance fee back, as long as you’re in the park for less than 30 minutes

8. Food in general

Stereotypical food from Sweden is what you’d expect: meatballs, gravlax, prinsesstårta (green marzipan cake made famous most recently by the Great British Bakeoff) – everything you’re used to seeing at IKEA. It’s impossible not to also mention surströmming, fermented sour herring that has such an overpowering smell that you’re forbidden from opening it in apartment blocks. A sweeter treat is lördagsgodis, a tradition of eating chocolate and sweets on Saturdays. There’s also a much more refined side to Swedish cuisine, with delicious fresh fish and seafood, game, and vegetables. My latest discovery is Ekstedt, a Michelin-starred restaurant where they cook everything on an open fire – they even featured recently in Masterchef, so they must be good.

9. Once upon a time…

Whatever your taste in literature, you’ll probably have some reason to visit the landscapes that inspired your favourite book. The most internationally famous include children’s author Astrid Lindgren and her many creations such as super-strong Pippi Longstocking as well as the Moomins from Finnish author Tove Jansson (she wrote the books in Swedish); Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and his Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; and, most recently, the 100-year old man who climbed out a window (in an old people’s home in the town where my grandparents had their country house) and disappeared. We’ve had seven winners of the Nobel Prize in literature. In TV, we’ve also surfed on the wave of popular Scandinavian crime series with Wallander, based in the small town of Ystad in the south.

10. A portal to another world

Cocktails at sunset

Drinking in the sunset at the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi

The north of Sweden, known as Lapland, lies within the Arctic Circle. How cool is it to say that you’ve been to the Arctic?! Travel to the tiny town of Jukkasjärvi and visit the Ice Hotel, rebuilt every year in a completely new design using snow, ice, and ‘snice’, from the nearby Torne Älv. You can stay overnight in one of the rooms kept at a chilly minus five degrees, have a cocktail in an ice glass, and you can even get married in the Swedish ice church as an alternative to Vegaas. More adventurously, you can go dog sledging and cross-country skiing and, if you’re lucky, you might even glimpse the northern lights…

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