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Sweden isn’t just some tiny nation in the northern reaches of Europe. Geographically speaking, it’s huge: the distance between Sweden’s southern tip and Lapland’s far north is longer than the distance between London and Rome.
As you might expect, given the sheer size of the place, the country’s landscapes are wild and diverse, taking in everything from rolling green countryside to dense forests, sprawling river valleys and frozen glaciers. Despite this, most tourists (and indeed most Swedes) spend their time in the southern third of the country, which is home to the three largest cities.
Spread across a series of low islands and with an enviable location between the Baltic Sea and Lake Malaren, Stockholm is perhaps Europe’s prettiest capital city. Gothenburg, over on the west coast, is a less showy alternative with an exciting cultural scene and some of the freshest seafood you’ll ever catch sight of. Both of these big cities have unspoilt archipelagos in their backyards, with sleepy islands – many of them car-free – providing a slow-paced alternative to life in the city.
Malmo, Sweden’s third-largest city, is proudly the most diverse place in the country, with an arty vibe and plenty of cool parks, shops and museums. Nearby Lund, an enchanting city with its roots in the Viking Age, is also worth a look around. Thanks to its rich history and a lively student population, it has more to offer than many Nordic cities double the size.
Other places worth visiting in the south of Sweden include Uppsala, a cathedral city with botanical gardens and ancient burial mounds, and Sigtuna, widely thought to be Sweden’s oldest town. Its medieval centre is a charming spot for shopping and slurping coffee.
Beyond the built-up areas, rural Sweden shines. Southern areas such as Skåne are home to fields of cornflowers and poppies, while in central parts of the country shimmering lakes abound. For drivers the large population of elk can pose a real danger, but the rewards are more than worth it. Even for Swedes who have grown up around these landscapes, areas like Dalarna still hold a magical appeal – it’s not unusual for wealthy Stockholmers to have a cute red cottage in rural Sweden, which they make use of during the long summer break.
Further north you’ll find some of Sweden’s most spectacular national parks including Sarek, home to almost 100 glaciers, and Padjelanta, where you’ll spot countless wild reindeer. Settlements in and around the Arctic Circle are small, fascinating… and invariably freezing. Try Abikso, one of the best spots on Earth for watching the northern lights, or Kiruna, a mining community that’s being rebuilt in the face of an existential crisis.
You won’t be able to squeeze everything that Sweden has to offer into a single trip, but by prioritising a few main areas you’ll be able to get a good feel for the country’s many sides in a couple of short weeks. Need some help deciding? Here’s our list of the best places to visit in Sweden.
5 things not to miss in Stockholm
Gawp at the majestic 17th-century warship Vasa, which spent 333 years under water before being turned into Stockholm’s premier tourist attraction.
Get lost among the narrow lanes of Gamla Stan, and then take a wander through the subterranean Medieval Museum or the opulent Royal Palace.
Spend a night in one of the city’s kooky hotels or hostels – there’s an elegant sailing ship, an old prison and even a converted Boeing 747.
Go bar-hopping with designers, musicians and fashionistas in SoFo, the city’s coolest neighbourhood, or hit Stockholm’s markets and food carts for some of the tastiest cheap eats in Sweden, including classics like meatballs and Baltic herring.
Kick back in one of Stockholm’s neatly preened parks, or head out into the archipelago for a spot of sailing or wild swimming.