Visiting the Scenic, Innovative and Culturally Rich Country of Sweden
Located on the colorful Scandinavian Peninsula of northern Europe, Sweden shares this body of land with its smaller neighbor, Norway. Despite its northern latitude, the Swedish climate is moderated somewhat by winds from the southwest and warming effects from the North Atlantic Current. Covering 450,295 square kilometres, or 173,860 square miles, Sweden has more than 9.7 million residents. As the third largest member of the European Union geographically, Sweden has a relatively sparse population density, with just 21 residents per sq. km. About 85 percent of residents inhabit urban locales, and the country’s southern region has the heaviest population density. While the southern half of this scenic nation is primarily agricultural, there is an abundance of woodland areas in the north.
Sharing partial boundaries with Norway and Finland, Sweden is linked to Denmark via a tunnel-bridge stretching over the Öresund strait. These countries are all within the geographical region called Fennoscandia. Sweden has a rich, colorful history, culture and cuisine, and the country is now a constitutional monarchy with a single legislative house, Riksdag, or Parliament. With Stockholm as its capital city, the country’s head of state is King Carl XVI Gustaf and its Prime Minister is Stefan Löfven. Sweden’s official name is Konungariket Sverige, or Kingdom of Sweden.
General Climate in Sweden
Sweden’s northern regions typically experience heavy snow, sometimes for three quarters of the year, with temperatures falling as low as –22 to –40 degrees F (or –30 to –40 degrees C). In milder southward areas, winter snowfall varies, and median temperatures can range from 23 to 32 degrees F (or –5 to 0 degrees C). There is less variation in summer temperatures throughout the country, with average July temperatures of 59 degrees F (15 degrees C) in the north and 63 degrees F (17 degrees C) in the south.
Sweden’s Colorful History
About 14,000 years ago, the heavy ice cap covering Sweden for the duration of the glacial period began to melt, and the first hunters appeared in this region nearly 12,000 years later. Early human inhabitants are known to have lived in Sweden around 9,000 BC, in the south near Segebro just outside of Malmö. During Sweden’s Bronze Age (1500-1000 BC), settlers crafted decorative weapons and practical items. Ornate rock and monument carvings during the Stone Age (which ended with the start of the use of metals) revealed a sun cult and the change from burial rituals to cremation.
New farming methods developed, and trade links along the Danube River that were introduced during the Bronze Age were strengthened and expanded. Archaeological findings from the early Iron Age (400 BC – AD 1) and the Roman Iron Age (AD 1 – 400) proved that Sweden had made definite contributions to a culture distinctively its own. Many characteristics and qualities of later Nordic arts can be seen in artifacts recovered from these early eras.
After 500 AD, Sweden’s historical development was diverse and eventful, including many milestones, some of worldwide significance. Major periods in the country’s celebrated history include the following:
• Viking Age (AD 793-1066). – During this very active period, Scandinavian Norsemen make expeditions throughout Europe trading, raiding and winning conquests. They also settled in Newfoundland, Norse Greenland, and areas that are now in Iceland, England, Scotland and Russia.
• Middle Ages: Consolidation (1050-1397). – At this time, Sweden had become a group of provinces that were all self-ruled. During this period, after the reign of King Olof of Svealand, King Sverker I of Sweden (1134-55) is reported to have successfully joined the major Swedish provinces of Götaland and Svealand.
• Kalmar Union (1397-1521). – In 1397, at a convention of the leaders of the three Scandinavian Kingdoms at Kalmar, Denmark’s Eric of Pomerania was chosen as common king for all three kingdoms. Sweden separated from this alliance in 1434 and elected King Charles VIII. During his reign, King Charles was expelled from his throne twice, and reinstated twice. In 1470, after his death, the three separate kingdoms were once again united under King Christian II of Denmark, which pleased major factions in Sweden.
• Early Vasa Era (1523-1611). – This era began when Stockholm was taken back from the Danish in 1523, led by Sweden’s Gustav Vasa. Sweden broke free from the Kalmar Union, and Swedish rule continued with a succession of Gustav’s offspring in power as Kings Eric XIV, John III, Sigismund and Charles IX. This eventful era led into the celebrated period called the Swedish Empire, when Sweden assumed the rule and role of a Great European Power.
• Emerging Great Power (1611-48). – During these years, Sweden increased its influence beyond its borders with just over a million residents. The Swedish were victorious in wars with Denmark and Norway, the Holy Roman Empire and Russia. Swedish power and influence during the Thirty Years’ War, led by Gustavus Adolphus, aided in shaping both the religious and political distributions of power throughout Europe.
• Swedish Empire (1648-1718). – During the 17th and into the 18th centuries, the Kingdom of Sweden was one of Europe’s great powers, maintaining its control of large portions of the Baltic region territories. In 1721, after the Great Northern War, the era ended with Sweden losing some of its acquired territories.
• Age of Liberty (1718-1772). – During this period of enlightenment, parliamentary government gained power and the cause of civil rights emerged and strengthened. This age started after King Charles XII died in 1718, ending in 1772 when King Gustav III became dictatorial. The kingdom, already weakened from the effects of the Great Northern War, made the transition from a monarchy to parliamentary rule. Civil rights were upheld by the parliament, but were not enforced universally, and commoners who lacked taxable property still had no rights.
• Reinstatement of Absolutism (1772-1809). – When Gustav III was reinstated after the death of Adolf Frederick of Sweden in 1771, he had already renewed an earlier alliance between Sweden and France. Louis XV of France expressed his support of Gustav if he succeeded in restoring the Swedish monarchy. A new coronation oath included a clause overruling future abdications from the throne, obligating the king to continue his reign without interruptions.
• Era of Liberalization (1809-1914). – During this historic period, the Constitution of Sweden was established (1809), following the end of the Finnish War. At that time, King Gustav IV Adolf had no choice but to abdicate the throne and live in exile. Later on, Charles XIII became king. In 1814, the Union of Sweden and Norway was official. Although the two countries retained their separate identities and constitutions, the Swedish king was the joint ruler. This union was dissolved by mutual agreement in 1905. From 1866 to 1905, Sweden experienced the onset of industrialization, preparing the country for the advancements of the 20th century.
• 20th Century and Beyond. – During both World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945), Sweden maintained policies of neutrality. Although still essentially a neutral country, Sweden does participate in global defense operations of NATO. Sweden maintains 15 registered units in the rapid response forces listings of the EU, UN and NATO.
Arts, Culture and Costumes of Sweden
Art, Handcrafts and Architecture
Because of its northern location, Scandinavia was basically isolated from central European countries and cultures during much of its early history. Since cultural exchange was not possible, traditional Swedish handcrafts and early folk arts motifs served as major influences on the development of modern design and architecture. Sweden became a pioneer in the Functional movement in art and design, and even today, Swedish architecture and interior design are known for their fine qualities of functionality, simplicity and sophistication. Architect Gunnar Asplund’s design of the District Court House in Sölvesborg, an excellent example of Functional architecture, became a celebrated inspiration for both American and European architects. The Stockholm Exhibition of 1930, designed by Asplund and Gregor Paulsson, is another excellent example of the Functional style.
Historically, porcelain items and tiled stoves have contributed both decorative and functional style to Sweden’s art and crafts industries. These stoves have been commonly used in homes for many years, supplying cost-efficient heat and folk-art deçor. Since 1980, factories throughout the country have resumed or expanded their regular production of these attractive stoves. With the vast amount of forests in Sweden, woodcarvings have always been widely produced and appreciated for their superior craftsmanship. The province of Dalarna is well-known for its woodcarvings.
Although the number of glassworking studios has decreased during the last years, there are still many active glass artists producing fine glass art works. The locations of Kosta and Orrefors are praised for their beautiful handcrafted crystal vase and glass designs. This region in the southeast area of the province of Småland is referred to as the “Glass Kingdom.” The majority of Sweden’s painters who have achieved worldwide fame were painting from the late 19th into the early 20th centuries. These artists include Anders Zorn, Carl Larsson and Bruno Liljefors. Their paintings can be viewed in major museums throughout the country, such as the Gothenburg Art Museum, the National Museum in Stockholm, the Furstenberg Art Museum and Stockholm’s Thiel Gallery.
Culture of Sweden
Swedish culture is deeply involved with a primal sensitivity and interaction with the Nordic climate and terrain. Sweden’s art, literature, poetry, music, design, dance and textile fashions all reflect this inherent affinity. The Swedish people have always had an attraction to the rich cultures of France, Germany and other European countries and have assimilated qualities of some of these other cultures into their own.
With the strengthening of Sweden’s political status in the 17th and 18th centuries, leaders wanted their country to equal other European nations in cultural significance. At the same time, other European countries were gaining new interest in and respect for the Swedes’ acceptance of new ideas and ways of thinking. Additional Swedish qualities admired by other nations were their wit, playfulness, frankness and sincerity. All these qualities and more come alive in the great works of Swedish icons of culture like August Strindberg, Ingmar Bergman, Astrid Lindgren and Carl Larsson and in Swedish folk music and folk art. The Swedish government’s policy of neutrality that has continued since the early 19th century has enabled strong government support for Swedish arts and culture.
Traditional Swedish Costumes
In 1903, the first Swedish National Costume (Allmänna Svenska Nationaldräkten) was designed by Mörta Jörgensen, and she later revised the name, shortening it to “din Svenska Dräkt,” meaning “your Swedish Costume.” Originally, this costume was made of woolen fabric. The female costume has two different versions. The first or original design has a skirt and bodice, or laced vest, while the second, later design has a short bodice and skirt that are joined and stitched together. Both skirt and bodice may be made in blue fabric (Swedish blue), or the skirt can be blue and the bodice red. The apron is fashioned from yellow fabric. All colors must be in somewhat subdued shades like the Swedish wool flag at the beginning of the 20th century. (The modern Swedish flag is made of brightly colored cotton or synthetic fabric.) The headgear for this costume is in crisp, white material with winged side formations. Shoes and stockings are black. To meet popular demand, Bo Skräddare (“Tailor”) designed Nya Svenska Mansdräkten (New Swedish Costume for Men) in 1982, to complement the women’s costume. It consists of an embroidered vest in Swedish blue and red with navy blue or black pants and a shirt with a stiff collar and neck kerchief. There are also peasant costume designs in bright colors for contrast at public events.
Swedish Cuisine Specialties
Swedish cuisine is focused on cultured dairy products, crisp breads or soft, usually sweetened, bread, fruits and berries, seafood, chicken, beef, pork and potatoes. Breads are baked using varied grains including rye, oat, wheat, sourdough and whole grain. Tart lingonberry jam is traditionally served with meatballs and other meat dishes. Hot or cold fruit soups are popular, such as blueberry and rose hip soups. Although olive oil is gaining in usage, butter is a major source of fat in the Swedish diet. Swedish pastry consists of biscuits, yeast buns, cakes and cookies, often quite sugary. Both fish and salt have been primary trade items in the Swedish economy since the Middle Ages (about 1000 AD). Sauerkraut and different types of preserved fruits and berries have long served as a Vitamin C source during long, cold winters, although sauerkraut is not often included in modern Swedish cuisine.
Major Industries in Sweden
Since the year 2000, industries of major importance in Sweden have included communications, information technology, pharmaceuticals, superior-quality steel, automobiles, precision equipment (like armaments or bearings), electronics and motors, printed materials, computer software and home or office furniture. Several acclaimed global engineering firms have Swedish names, although they now have international ownership. These companies include Electrolux, SKF, ABB, Scania, Saab and Volvo. In the influential telecom and IT business sectors, Ericsson is the most dynamic and highly recognized name. Sweden is home to 29 of the 500 largest active modern companies with Swedish brand names.
Swedish Immigration to the U.S.
Swedish immigration to the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries contributed to the social and economic transition of North America and Europe from 1850 to 1950. The massive movement of 1.3 million Swedes to the U.S. was caused by social and economic factors in Sweden. A powerful surge in growth of the Swedish population added pressure on Sweden’s basically agricultural society. By moving to the United States, Swedish workers as emigrants experienced economic advantages not available in Sweden. Political and religious issues were much less influential than socio-economic factors in this mass immigration. This major event in Sweden’s modern history created a huge network of valuable contacts for transatlantic business and strengthened Swedish-American relations economically and socially.
Favorite Visitor Destinations in Sweden and Scandinavia
There are many favorite destinations with major attractions for visitors in Sweden and throughout Scandinavia. These popular places include several locations in Stockholm like the Swedish Museum of National Antiquities and the Fotografiska Museet. Another fascinating attraction is the K. A. Almgren Silk Weaving Mill in Stockholm. Still operating with its original mechanical equipment after 140 years in operation, this active mill also mounts exhibitions concerning the company’s history and timeline, Sweden’s silk production industry and the influence of women on industrialization. On a walking tour of historical Stockholm, visitors can view celebrated attractions like the Royal Palace, the city’s smallest alleyway and St. George and the Dragon. Included on the tour is a stop on Riddarholmen Island to enjoy its spectacular view of Lake Mälaren.
In Gustavsberg, guests can visit the famed Gustavsberg Porcelain Museum of the factory’s porcelain line from 1827 to 1993. Also on display are varied household china patterns, classic and new. In the painting hall, guests can experiment with porcelain painting. At Skokloster Castle, visitors get a complete view of one of the greatest baroque castle designs in the world. Located in a glorious scenic locale on the shore of Lake Mälaren close to Arlanda, this castle dates from the Swedish Empire of the 17th century. It is the largest private palace in the country. In Fjällbacka, just 130 km. north of Gothenburg, you can join an exciting crayfish safari. By hopping on a fisherman’s boat, you can try catching crayfish and lobster while discovering the fishing lifestyle and culture. This intriguing place is where waterside summers were enjoyed by Ingrid Bergman and where writer Camilla Läckberg found the perfect scenes for her novels and films.
For Sweden’s visitors who have time for some additional travel excursions in other nearby countries, a treasured experience is viewing the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) in Tromso, Norway. Near Copenhagen in Denmark, guests can visit the beautiful French Baroque Danish Royal Gardens, and to complete their visits, travelers in Scandinavia should all visit the most prominent beach in Helsinki, Finland, “Hietsu,” or Hietaniemi Beach. Scandinavia offers a wide array of scenic beauty, art museums, cultural attractions, historic sites and delicious cuisine. As the largest Scandinavian country, Sweden is now one of the most socially progressive countries in the world. Only by visiting this vibrant, friendly and culturally rich country can travelers begin to grasp the unique knowledge, perspective and insights this nation offers to the rest of the world.