Comprising thousands of coastal islands and inland lakes, along with vast forests and glaciated mountains, Sweden’s natural geography is simply stunning in its diversity. Dotted between thee breath-taking landscapes are a rich assortment of scenic towns where traditional industries such as fishing and farming cling on in the face of modernity.
We asked more than 100 writers, travel bloggers, photographers and other selected travel professionals, each with an intimate knowledge of Sweden gained through ample time spent in the country, to name the three Swedish towns they consider the most charming. All towns with populations of less than 100,000 were considered. Here are the 10 to reap the most votes, listed from A to Z.
Situated on the west coast of Sweden, the well-maintained city of Halmstad is a popular summer destination for Swedish holidaymakers thanks to its mild climate, sandy beaches and array of excellent golf courses. At the heart of the town – both physically and metaphorically – is the broad and beautiful Nissan River, which serves as the boundary between the old city on the west bank and the newer quarters on the east. To the disappointment of traditionalists, vestiges of the past such as factories and workers’ cottages continue to vanish, replaced instead by bold glass apartment buildings and offices. Nonetheless, for the time being at least, Halmstad continues to ooze character and charm, securing it a place in our list of the best small cities to visit in Sweden.
Another favourite summer haunt with Swedes, picturesque Kalmar is a regular fixture on lists of the country’s finest towns and cities. Home to several pristine beaches and sheltered from the Baltic Sea winds by the island of Öland, Kalmar combines plenty of modern bars and cafes with authentic medieval charm. Dominating the landscape is an imposing castle that recalls Kalmar’s feudal past, while the city also boasts Sweden’s largest gold hoard, from the 17th-century ship Kronan, which is exhibited at Kalmar County Museum, all adding to the sense of being a veritable treasure trove for visitors.
For fans of naval architecture, the military-base town of Karlskrona is about as good as it gets. Included on the Unesco World Heritage list for its impressive assortment of 17th- and 18th-century ships, boats, other marine vessels, the town’s naval heritage continues to play a visible role in modern life here. Perched in the centre of the beautiful Karlskrona archipelago, the town also enjoys a striking geographical setting, with wonderful views every which way you turn. Amenities are in ample supply, with shops, cafes and restaurants dotted around town, while Karlskrona is also a popular base from which to enjoy excursions to the archipelago’s myriad of islands, islets and skerries.
The incredible natural phenomenon of the Northern Lights is one of Sweden’s most iconic attractions. But lesser known is the small mining town of Kiruna, where many visitors to the lights begin their trip. Located in the heart of Swedish Lapland, the town is the gateway to Abisko National Park, widely considered the world’s finest rated aurora borealis destination where the Northern Lights can be seen on almost any clear night (they are visible in Kiruna on clear nights too). Adventure-seekers also flock here to enjoy Arctic activities such as snowmobile safaris, reindeer sleigh rides, snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing.
Combining outstanding natural beauty with vibrant shopping, entertainment and nightlife, the coastal town of Luleå in northern Sweden has it all. Surrounded by islands, rivers and vast forestland, the opportunities to get out and explore the great outdoors are almost endless, or for more sedate pursuits, a stroll around the UNESCO World Heritage site of Gammelstad will satisfy most. Meanwhile the pretty marina, overlooking the bay, is popular for yacht-spotting. A university town, Luleå also enjoys a youthful buoyancy which is reflected in an active cultural scene, with several museums and art galleries dotted around.
Perhaps the town on the list with the most distinguished past is Lund, which during medieval times served as the seat of an archbishopric that held sway over all of the Nordic countries. Today the town’s remarkable cathedral stands as a stark reminder of that rich heritage, serving as a focal point for visitor and locals alike. Beyond the cathedral, Lund is awash with attractive green spaces, an interesting variety of museums (copses of beech trees,) and a city life with youthful energy thanks to the presence here of a well-regarded university. Meanwhile the city centre is simply charm personified, speckled with historic buildings and narrow cobble-stoned side streets that positively demand to be explored.
Nestled on a bay of Lake Siljan in Dalarna, central Sweden, the small town of Rättvik has been a magnet for summer holidaymakers since the late 19th century. Home to Sweden’s first ski resort, the town features an array of quirky landmarks and places of interest including a closed limestone quarry that serves as a concert stage and a toboggan run offering stunning views from its summit, while close by are dense forest and farmland where such exotic wildlife as bears, wolves, lynxes and elk can be found. For a taste of the contemporary, there are also elegant restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques.
Small enough to walk around but large enough to evoke a sense of importance and scale, the pretty lakeside town of Sigtuna is the closest destination to the capital of Stockholm to make our top ten list. Dotted with quaint wooden buildings, along with shops, cafés, restaurants and a museum, the town has enough attractions to enjoy a leisurely weekend of exploration without feeling overwhelmed. Old Swedish houses, castles and churches, and a sprinkling of viking runestones contribute to the sense of history here – indeed it is considered Sweden’s first town, founded as it was way back in the 10th century, and its charm has certainly endured.
Considered by many to be Scandinavia’s best-preserved medieval town, Visby is picture-postcard worthy thanks to its cobbled lanes, pastel cottages and colourful wildflowers. Enhancing the town’s authentic charm are beautiful ruined Gothic churches and well preserved 12th-century ramparts. The capital of Gotland, the largest island in the Baltic Sea, the Unesco World Heritage town is also sufficiently remote so as to feel you’re a world away from the hustle and bustle of Sweden’s urban centres. All of these characteristics combine to make it a popular getaway for holidaymakers across the nation – and indeed with our voters.
Part of the scenic region of Skåne in southern Sweden, Ystad has vast stretches of sandy beaches and gorgeous rolling countryside on its doorstep. It has also had an illustrious past at the heart of the nation’s movie industry, with a production studio and interactive film museum among its landmarks, and more recently, the town has been the setting for the hugely popular Wallander TV series, with Wallander-themed tours even on offer. The town’s creative streak is also seen in the array of galleries and boutiques scattered around, while adding to the town’s character and charm are several medieval buildings including Greyfriars Abbey, the Church of the Virgin Mary, and the 16th-century Latin school.