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Sweden: More Than Just Meatballs

Our agents travel to some pretty awesome destinations. When they return, our excitement to hear about their adventures is almost as great as their excitement is to share them. In ON LOCATION, they talk about the little nuances that make each place special. From Peru to South Africa, Switzerland, and Croatia, experience a fantastic second-hand journey and maybe take away some travel inspiration while you’re at it.

I have a love-hate relationship with Sweden. Two of my best friends moved to Sweden after we completed our degrees at the University of Oregon, and I’ve been riding the long-distance-friendship train ever since. Rebecka, a native Swede, lives in the little city of Mönsterås, half an hour outside of Kalmar, while Tess, an American, lives in Malmö, right across the bridge from Copenhagen. When Rebecka announced her engagement and invited me to Kalmar to celebrate in the wedding festivities, I jumped at the chance to see two dear friends and explore a new country.

I found Sweden to be delightfully vibrant and diverse, full of good food and kind-hearted people. Go, explore, and don’t be surprised if you never want to leave. While by no means definitive or exhaustive, here are 8 things you absolutely need to make time to do, see, and eat.

  1. Eat Pastries and Have a Fika Move over Paris, there’s a new country absolutely dominating the pastry game! Sweden is a dream come true for folks with a major sweet tooth like myself. Swedes have an intense love affair with sweet buns. You can find kanelbulle (cinnamon buns) and kardamombulle (cardamom buns) in pretty much every little coffee or pastry shop. These braided balls of dough are liberally flavored with spices and topped not with icing, but rather with pearl or large grain sugar. Paired with a coffee or tea, these sweet buns are all you need for a perfect “fika”, the traditional Swedish equivalent of tea time.

  2. Play a Game of Boule The Swedes have borrowed the game of Boule from the French and turned it into a national past time. Whether you’re in Malmö, Gothenburg, or Stockholm, find a boule pitch and spend an evening tossing balls about. Although this game is traditionally played outdoors, the Swedes have created boule halls where you can play comfortably year-round. If you are already a boule fanatic, make sure to look up tournament times – while I was visiting in July, Stockholm was getting ready to host a Summer Boule Festival.

  3. Explore Gamla Stan Stockholm is a series of mini islands linked together, one of which is Gamla Stan, the historic old town. Cross the bridge and find yourself immersed in the past. You can tour the Palace complex and see a glimpse of the old ruling regimes, but part of the charm of Gamla Stan is just getting lost in the little labyrinth of streets. Tucked away in this maze are jewelry shops selling gorgeous pieces of Baltic amber, little bakeries turning out marzipan tarts (another Swedish favorite), a 400-year-old Irish pub, and an absolutely gnarly statue of St. George slaying the Dragon. The buildings overlooking the cobblestones are painted in vivid earth shades, which means that the city feels alive and vibrant even during gloomy, rainy days.

  4. Order Swedish Meatballs You’ll never be able to eat at IKEA after experiencing an authentic Swedish meatball experience. Not that IKEA is serving sub-standard food – there’s just nothing that beats hand-formed meatballs with lingonberries that were picked that morning. The lingonberries are absolutely essential – their tart acidity perfectly cuts the richness of the meatballs and their gravy. Not in the mood for meat? Make sure to try the pickled herring (if you’re brave) or the Räksmörgås. Räksmörgås consists of tiny shrimp slathered with a delicious mayo, dill, and lemon dressing and piled high on top of lettuce and toast, and my-oh-my it makes the perfect summer afternoon lunch or snack.

  5. Experience a Swedish Spa Sweden spends a good amount of time hosting gloomy weather, so when it finally warms up and the sun comes out, you can be sure to find many Swedes at their local spa or bath-house. While some spas offer what we Americans would consider a traditional massage, many offer just saunas and swimming. Malmö is home to a well-regarded bath-house, the Ribersborgs Kallbadhus. Situated on the coast, this wooden bath-house overlooks the Øresund and gives Swedes and non-Swedes alike the opportunity to experience the traditional one-two punch of a hot sauna and a freezing dip in water. A word of caution first – Swedish bath-houses often ask bathers to strip completely nude before entering the sauna. If you prefer to stay fully-clothed, while working up a sweat, you should…

  6. Go on a Bike Ride Biking is a Big Deal in Sweden. Most cities have dedicated and well planned out bike lanes. To add to the sophistication, Malmö has bike traffic lights, which very handily turn from green, to yellow, to red, and then back to yellow before green, so you can get a foot on your pedal and be ready to cruise off when it’s your turn to go. Rent from one of the many bike kiosks and cycle a chunk of your day away.

  7. Tour a Winery Parts of Sweden are very verdant and could be easily interchanged with Oregon or Washington, and like those states, these regions find themselves be-decked in grapes. Skåne County boasts a growing wine culture that, while still young, shows great promise. Drive outside of the cities and enjoy an afternoon among the vines. The vineyards are as charming as can be, with none of the snobbery that can so often be found nowadays in old-world wine country.

  8. Eat Swedish Licorice We had sweet, we had savory, now get ready for salty. I’m not sure if Swedes invented black licorice, but according to them, they have certainly perfected it. Licorice comes in salty or sweet varieties, and while the sweet treats will taste pretty familiar, the salty “lakrits” will blow your taste buds away – the Swedes like their licorice extra salty, so don’t be surprised when the little black pastille makes you feel like you just ate a solid piece of sea water. Not a fan of salty? No worries! Licorice shops have plenty of sweet and fruit-flavored varieties and in a multitude of sizes and shapes designed to delight.

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