The mere mention of Sweden conjures up resonant images: snow-capped peaks, reindeer wandering in deep green forests and the 24-hour daylight of the midnight sun. But beyond the household names of ABBA, IKEA and Volvo, Sweden is relatively unknown. The largest of the Scandinavian countries, with an area twice that of Britain (and roughly that of California), but a population of barely nine million, Sweden has space for everyone: the countryside boasts pine, spruce and birch forest as far as the eye can see and crystal-clear lakes perfect for a summer afternoon dip – not to mention possibly the purest air you’ll ever breathe. The country’s south and west coasts, meanwhile, feature some of the most exquisite beaches in Europe – without the crowds.
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In general Sweden is a carefree place where life is relaxed. Indeed, the Swedes’ liberal and open attitude to virtually every aspect of life is certainly one of their most enviable qualities; people are generally left to do their own thing, providing it doesn’t impinge on the rights and freedoms of others. In Sweden, rights go hand in hand with duties, and there’s a strong sense of civic obligation (count how few times you see people dropping litter, for example), which in turn makes for a well-rounded and stable society. Many of the cornerstones of the Swedish welfare state, such as tremendously generous benefits and health-care perks, which Swedes still hold dear today, were laid down during forty years of unbroken rule by the Social Democrats.
Yet, over the years, foreigners have somehow confused the open Swedish attitude to society, including nudity and sexuality, with sex. Contrary to popular belief, Sweden isn’t populated solely with people waiting for any opportunity to tear off their clothes and make passionate love under the midnight sun. It is, though, a country founded on honesty and straight talking – two of Sweden’s most refreshing qualities.
Sweden is principally a land of forests and lakes. Its towns and cities are small by European standards and are mostly located in the southern third of the country, where the majority of Swedes live. Of its cities, serenely beautiful Stockholm is supreme. Sitting elegantly on fourteen different islands, where the waters of Lake Mälaren meet the Baltic Sea, the city boasts some fantastic architecture, fine museums and by far the best culture and nightlife in the country. The 24,000 islands which comprise the Stockholm archipelago are a perfect antidote to the urban bustle, offering endless opportunities to explore unspoilt island villages and to go swimming. On the west coast, Gothenburg, the country’s second city, is also one of Sweden’s most appealing destinations. Gothenburgers have a reputation for being among the friendliest people in Sweden, and the city’s network of canals and spacious avenues is reminiscent of Amsterdam, whose architects designed it.
The south is the most cosmopolitan part of the country, owing to the proximity of Denmark and the rest of the European continent, and home to the glorious ancient university seat of Lund, while nearby Malmö, Sweden’s third city, heaves with youthful nightlife around its medieval core.
Inland, southern Sweden boasts some handsome lakes, the two largest of which, Vänern and Vättern, provide splendid backdrops to some beautiful towns, not least the evocative former royal seat and the monastic centre of Vadstena, and Karlstad, the sunshine capital of Värmland, a rugged province ideal for river-rafting trips. To the east of the mainland lies Gotland, justifiably raved about as a haven for summer revelry, especially within the medieval walls of its unspoilt Hanseatic city, Visby.
Central and northern Sweden represent the most quintessentially “Swedish-looking” part of the country. In the centre lies Dalarna, an area of rolling hills and villages that’s home to Lake Siljan, one of Sweden’s most beautiful lakes. North of here lies some of the country’s most enchanting scenery, home to bears, wolves and reindeer. To the east, the shoreline of the Bothnian coast contains the north’s biggest cities: Sundsvall, Umeå and Luleå are all enjoyable, lively places in which to break your journey north.
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The far north, inside the Arctic Circle, is the home of the Sámi – Sweden’s indigenous people. Known as Swedish Lapland, it is also the land of reindeer, elk and bears, of swiftly flowing rivers and coniferous forest, all traversed by endless hiking routes. Sweden’s northernmost town, Kiruna makes an excellent base for exploring the region’s national parks and the world-famous Icehotel in nearby Jukkasjärvi. Swedish Lapland is also where you will experience the midnight sun: in high summer the sun never sets, whilst in midwinter the opposite is true, though you may be lucky enough to see the sky lit up by the multicoloured patterns of the northern lights, or aurora borealis.