The midnight sun, the snowbound winters, meatballs, herring, Vikings and Volvos, ABBA and the Hives - whatever your pre-existing notions about Sweden may be, a visit to this multifaceted country is bound to both confirm and confound them. Though you’re unlikely to be greeted at the shore by throngs of mead-swilling berserkers in longships, evidence of the Vikings and their pillaging days is easy to find. A stroll through the Swedish countryside will often lead to a picnic on some ancient king’s burial mound. Cycling routes frequently pass through fields crowned with ship-shaped stone graves. In cities and alongside roadways, rune stones staunchly declare the historical equivalent of ‘Ingmar was here’. But Sweden’s days as a warlike nation are long gone. Instead, its domestic and international policies serve as models of neutrality and consensus-building. This is, after all, the birthplace of the Nobel Peace Prize. Travellers today are more likely to be slayed by visions of pastoral beauty - intense green countryside, impenetrable forests, little red cottages atop remote islands and, everywhere, Sweden’s famously clear blue water.
That’s not to say all the excitement ended thousands of years ago - far from it. While tradition reigns in places like Dalarna in the Swedish heartland and the Sami territory up north, much of Sweden today buzzes with a more contemporary energy. A wave of immigration in recent years has added spark and variety to the cultural milieu. Urban centres like Stockholm, Göteborg (otherwise known as Gothenburg) and Malmö consistently churn out cultural artefacts for an international audience (think IKEA, H&M, Absolut Vodka). The Island of Gotland, lying roughly equidistant between Sweden and Latvia, is Sweden's most richly historical area but also has a hip party vibe. Travellers come to Sweden as much for the flash clubs and ground-breaking new restaurants as they do for wilderness hikes and visits to wooden-horse factories.
In short, try the meatballs and dig the Vikings, but don’t stop there - history hasn’t.