Sweden gets a bad rap in North America: we either don’t know where the country is, often confusing it with Switzerland, or we assume that everyone sounds like the Swedish Chef from the Muppets, eats meatballs and shops at IKEA. While some of that may be true, Sweden is a fascinating country with a long history, a unique culture and a lot of experimental ideas that make Sweden a great place to live, work, play or visit. Here are 10 things to know about Scandinavia’s most populous country:
10. Music is One of Sweden’s Biggest Exports
While ABBA might be a household name, not too many people could name many other Swedish bands. Nonetheless, the music industry in Sweden is enormous, so much so that music is actually one of the country’s biggest exports. In recent years, artists like Avicii, Swedish House Mafia and Icona Pop have given Swedish music more visibility, but songwriters, musicians and producers are also important pieces of the Swedish music scene. Chances are, if you’ve listened to Top 40 in the last year, you’ve heard a song that has a connection to the Swedish music industry—and you’ve definitely heard one if you’ve listened longer. Thoughts on why the Swedes are so musically inclined vary, with some suggesting that the language has a rhythmic quality that loans itself to musical talent, while others point to Sweden’s system of state-run music schools for children and youth helping people develop their talents from a young age.
9. Language Ties
Knowing how to speak Swedish may not seem to be all that important; after all, Sweden is only a nation of 9 million. But Swedish, which evolved out of Old Norse, is closely related to Norwegian and Danish. In fact, the languages are so close, Norwegian and Swedish are mutually intelligible. The Swedes have a bit more trouble with the Danish accent, but the languages are similar enough that Swedes can understand Danish and vice versa. Don’t worry if you don’t speak Swedish, though; almost all Swedes learn English in school and many of them are excited by opportunities to practice their English skills (especially with native speakers). This is especially true for younger people and those living in big urban areas. Things like train schedules are often printed in both Swedish and English, which is welcome relief to travelers who have little familiarity with the Scandinavian languages.
8. Grab Your Skis and Get to Work
Sweden is a northern nation; the capital city of Stockholm lies on the 59th parallel. As such, it’s not entirely unexpected that the country gets some pretty wicked winter weather. As much as winters can be long and cold, many Swedes enjoy being outside and active even in the snowy weather. And while we might think of skiing as something we do for fun on weekends, many Swedes see it as another mode of locomotion. Some will ski to train stations or bus stops; public transit comes equipped with storage space for skis. If someone lives close enough, they might even ski directly to the office. Of course, that doesn’t work everywhere; some urban areas use underground heating to melt snow from city sidewalks, so skiiers still take to the countryside for weekend powder.
7. Summer Celebrations
Even though Swedes are apt to make the best of their wintry clime, they still like summer weather best. The summer is short in Sweden, which means that Swedes know how to make the best of the long sunshine hours between May and August. The summer solstice is typically the most important holiday on the Swedish calendar, celebrated on the weekend closest to June 21. Many use their long weekend to kick off their summer vacations, most of which will be 5 weeks or longer. Many businesses simply close for a few weeks in the summer while their staff takes some much-deserved time off. Swedes like to spend time in the countryside, enjoying much of the natural beauty their country has to offer. Outdoor activities like swimming, canoeing, hiking and camping are also popular.
6. Take a Fika
It’s hard to translate a word like “fika,” but basically, it’s like a coffee break. But fika is much more than a coffee break (kaffepaus); in Sweden, fika is essentially a cultural institution. Swedes drink more coffee than any nation except Finland, and one of the reasons is that fika is as much about social interaction as it is about coffee and a cinnamon bun. Rather than go out for drinks after work, Swedish workers will have fika. Swedish fathers taking their mandatory paternity leave will meet up at a coffee shop for fika. Anyone can fika, any time after breakfast, as many times as you’d like. And if a Swede asks if you would like to have fika, the answer is “yes”—because it means your Swedish friend wants to have fika. Customarily this means having a coffee and a pastry of some sort, although you could have tea if you wanted.
5. A Green Nation
Sweden’s environment is well-regarded by the people who live there; many people still live in rural areas and even those that don’t enjoy escaping to the countryside. Outdoor activities are popular in all seasons, meaning that Swedes have good reason to keep their lakes and rivers clean and their forests pristine. Sweden has been one of the most environmentally forward-thinking nations. In 2015, it was announced that the country would be making a bid to phase out fossil fuels altogether, making Sweden the first country to be fossil-fuel free. Another important initiative has been the incineration of trash in order to generate power. Although it involves a fairly complicated sorting system, Swedes have managed to divert most of their waste either into recycling and compost efforts or into incinerators, rather than landfills. In recent years, Sweden has had to buy waste from neighboring countries like Norway.
4. More than Meatballs
When someone mentions Swedish cuisine, “meatballs” are about the only thing that come to mind for most people. Truth be told, Swedish cuisine seems rather bland at first; spices are lacking and dishes tend to be the meat-and-potatoes variety commonly associated with English cuisine—perhaps symptomatic of inhabiting northern terrain. Swedish cuisine is, in a lot of ways, focused on locally available foods: moose and reindeer feature in meat dishes, while fish is also commonly consumed. Root vegetables like parsnips and turnips are frequent ingredients, and people will venture into forests to pick their own mushrooms. Lingon berries are used to make sauces and cloudberries, which grow in the far north, are considered a delicacy. Breads is a staple at just about every meal and pastries are commonly enjoyed with a cup of coffee. It may not be glamorous, but Swedish cuisine is tasty!
3. 6-Hour Workdays
Okay, okay, the 6-hour workday isn’t commonplace in Sweden. In fact, some companies have just started experimenting with a shorter workday, based on recent studies that suggest workers in knowledge industries are only productive for about 6 hours, meaning companies get as much done in 6 hours as they do in 8. Nonetheless, the fact that Sweden is the country where companies have started experimenting with the shorter workday isn’t much of a surprise: the country has a history of strong workers’ rights legislation and unions are still very prominent today. Workers’ rights have also made for a very strong unemployment safety net—including good job loss benefits, help finding another job and strong leave and vacation policies—that keep workers protected against the vagaries of today’s job market. Although Sweden has been making cuts in recent years, Swedish workers still enjoy some of the best benefits on the planet.
2. Land of Innovation
Given that we’ve talked about Sweden having a strong social welfare state and an interest in environmental policies, it shouldn’t be all that surprising to learn that Sweden is often on the cutting edge of technology—green or otherwise. Volvo, a Swedish car company, invented the seatbelt, a device that has saved many lives. Ericsson, a telecommunications giant, is headquartered in Sweden and more recently, innovations like an “invisible bicycle helmet” have landed Sweden on the map for ingenuity. Fashion and music are also cited as innovative industries in Sweden, although we might expect more creativity from arts and culture industries. What might be more surprising, though, is that Sweden holds a record number of patents—the most of any country in the world. They may not all be good ideas, but the Swedes are definitely willing to dream up technologies that will help make the future better.
1. A Little Something for Everyone
Even though Sweden doesn’t make the list of Top 10 destinations for a lot of travelers, there’s such variety in the country that it offers a little something for everyone. In the south of the country, there’s lots of pleasant beaches that are less crowded than more popular locales like Spain and France. The country is dotted with lakes and forests, wild expanses of untamed tundra in the far north and even mountains to offer adventure in form of whatever outdoor activity you like best—summer or winter. Not into the outdoors? That’s okay—cosmopolitan Stockholm and urban centers in the south and the west of the country offer exciting nightlife, great shopping and excellent cuisine. History buffs can enjoy touring museums, palaces and cathedrals and even the casual tourist will enjoy looking at relics of the country’s viking history. No matter your interests, Sweden has something on tap.