Sweden: Where the Sun Barely Sets

Sweden routinely sits at the top of worldwide “best of” lists: best health care, best standard of living, highest life expectancy, and so on. The country is clean and has an extremely low crime rate. In addition, Sweden has some of the most beautiful scenery you’ll ever see, and a hopping night life in the larger towns. For those who like winter sports, Sweden is the place to go with world class ski resorts and adventure excursions such as traveling through the arctic areas via dogsled. However, Sweden isn’t just about activities in the cold. The summer weather is fairly pleasant, and with some of the longest periods of sunlight, numerous museums and medieval sites, Sweden is a perfect destination for your next vacation.

Getting in, out, and about Sweden

Sweden is a participant in the Schengen Agreement. Countries within the Schengen area, which covers much of Europe, allow US citizens to travel the entire area for up to 90 days within a 180 day period. You only need a passport that will remain valid for at least three months beyond your planned departure from the Schengen area, and you can travel across borders in the area without needing to apply for any special visas. You will still need to have a return ticket and proof that you have enough funds for your time in Sweden.

The Swedish health system is comparable, if not better, than what you will find in the US. It is a state run health care system, but non-Swedish citizens do have to pay for any health care services they receive. Sweden does not require any special vaccinations in order to enter the country. The US Center for Disease Control does recommend that you are up to date on the common vaccinations, those against measles, polio, smallpox, and the like. Some travelers may opt to get vaccinations against such things as rabies and Hepatitis A & B, but such a choice depends on your travel plans. Consult with your local doctor about your travel plans well in advance to see if any vaccinations would be appropriate for you.

Although Sweden has a rather extensive train system, you may decide to travel through the country via an automobile. If you choose to do so there are some important things to consider. Since Sweden can get cold and icy in the southern part of the country for half the year, and for the full year in northern parts, you will need to have special winter tires on your vehicle. Swedish law also requires drivers to keep their headlights on during both day and night. Even if you only have a single alcoholic beverage, you should avoid driving since the blood alcohol limit is only one-fourth of what it is throughout most of the US, and the Swedish are particularly strict about intoxication while driving. Driving at night can be harrowing. In addition to potentially icy roads, wildlife crossing the roads is a significant cause of traffic accidents.

Swedish drivers tend to be far less aggressive than you will find in other parts of Europe. This may be partly for the reason that Swedes do not drive much. In Sweden’s larger cities, most of the population uses public transportation. Many of the smaller Swedish towns don’t even allow any auto traffic. As you get further north, travel via dogsled or snowmobile becomes more prominent.

One particularly wonderful aspect of Sweden is its right of public access. This means you can camp on public lands, and even private lands, for a couple of nights without any problems. If you are in a large group looking to camp on someone’s private lands, you should get permission first. For travelers on a budget, camping is an affordable alternative to staying in hotels or hostels.

While the weather can get extremely cold in the winter time, during Sweden’s summers, it can be unpredictable, although usually quite nice in the mid 80’s F. However since the weather can change abruptly, it’s a good idea to pack warm clothes and be prepared for sudden storms. During the winter, the nights don’t get very dark, but can stay lit up throughout the evening, particularly in the northern part of the country.

The traveler’s tongue

The official language of Sweden is Swedish. Even though nearly 90% of people living in Sweden speak English in some degree of fluency, making an attempt to speak Swedish is a great way to earn the locals’ good will. Behind English, Finnish is the next most common language spoken in this country.

Unlike in much of continental Europe, where greetings can involve cheek “kissing,” the Swedes tend to greet others with hugs and handshakes. When you enter someone’s home, ask if they want shoes on or off in the house because many people find it polite to go shoeless indoors. Another aspect of Swedish culture to consider is promptness. When it comes to parties or other such events, it might not be uncommon to arrive “fashionably late,” but in other types of meetings, being right on time or even early is considered polite.

Money matters in Sweden

Sweden is a rather expensive country. In Stockholm, for instance, budget meals still range above $10, and even a Big Mac at a McDonalds costs over $7.50. Even public transportation can be expensive, with a purchase of a day card that allows you access to subways and buses costing just over $17. You can find hostels for as low as $25 for a single bed per night, but the average price runs between $30 and $40 a night. Three star hotels can range from $125 to $325 a night per person. Most major attractions in Stockholm get pricey as well, usually between $20 and $30 USD for an adult entry ticket. Consequently, if you travel on limited funds, take time and care beforehand to plan your activities, and purchase things in advance whenever possible.

The Swedish unit of currency is the Swedish krona, or crown, and it’s written SEK, with the numerical price following afterwards. You can change money through ATM machines or at exchange bureaus, but it’s unlikely that businesses will directly accept foreign cash, and if they do, you are likely to get a prohibitive exchange rate. Most businesses in Sweden do accept major credit cards however.

Sweden is not a tipping culture. They pay their service workers good wages, so tipping is unnecessary. If you want to show appreciation for exceptional service, leaving the change or a tip of 5-10% is appropriate.

Highlights of a Swedish vacation

The best time to visit Sweden is during the summer months. At the northernmost part of the country, there is often snow on the ground, which allows for winter sport activities all the way into June. However, keep in mind that many Swedes also vacation at this time, and popular tourist sites can get extremely crowded. One notable exception to this is during holidays such as the Midsummer celebration. During these times, many businesses won’t even open, and parts of Sweden can come to feel like a ghost town. Here are some of the great attractions for a Swedish vacation:

• Stockholm: A beautiful city that sits along an archipelago, Stockholm has the nickname, “Venice of the North.” Famed for its nightlife and fine shopping opportunities, Stockholm also features wildly popular museums such as the Vasa museum where you can see a fully preserved 17th Century ship. Rent a bicycle to ride around the city or go on a boat tour throughout its numerous islands. There’s a reason why Stockholm has a syndrome named after it: you’ll never want to leave.
• Go skiing: Sweden has some of the best skiing in the world. Hit the slopes in Riksgränsen or Åre, two of the more popular destinations for skiers.
• Gotland: This island in the Baltic Sea is a popular vacation destination among the Swedes themselves. Check out the medieval walled town of Visby, a UNESCO World Heritage site or hike along the island’s beautiful rocky coast, and don’t forget to check out the numerous lovely churches that are scattered throughout the island. You can also take a ferry to the small island of Fårö, where you will find great beaches to relax and enjoy water sports.
• Gothenburg: Sweden’s second largest town features quaint cobblestone streets and a friendly and welcoming atmosphere. Be sure to visit Maritiman, a floating museum that features numerous ships. Another great attraction is the hilltop fortress of Skansen Kronan, a throwback to when the Danes and the Swedes were at odds.
• Kiruna: If you don’t mind the cold, this northernmost town in Sweden affords many unique opportunities such as a stay in a hotel made entirely of ice, which is a museum in its own right. You can also enjoy dogsledding and snowmobile tours, as well as both downhill and cross-country skiing, and of course, the famous Northern Lights.
• Kungsleden: This 430 km hiking trail is a great way for the more adventurous traveler to see the natural beauty of the Lapland area of Sweden. It starts in the town of Abisko and stretches all the way until you reach Hemavan, with numerous stops along the way where you can camp, rent a kayak or take a boat tour for a stretch.

Although Sweden can get expensive, it is a vacation well worth it to see a land and people that will astound you.