Sweden is known as a land of good design in stark nature – and nowhere is that more recognizable than in its small towns. From fishing villages filled with traditional wooden cottages to medieval town squares filled with winding streets, the Scandinavian country is a gold mine of castles, churches, and villas on a beautiful backdrop of farmland, beaches and mountains.
From its far-flung frozen north and forever snowy Lapland, home of the Sami people, to its sparkling seas and patchwork of islands in the south, we take you on a journey through the most charming small towns in Sweden – and why you should be visiting them right now.
Granted city status in 1200 AD, the seaside settlement of Marstrand – named after the island on which it’s situated, Marstrandsön – is often still referred to as a ‘city’ by Swedes despite having a population of just over 1,000. It is, however, home to the mid-17th century fortress of Carlsten, named for King Karl X Gustav of Sweden, a 14th-century medieval church, and is a renowned centre for sailing and sailing competitions, hosting the Match Cup Sweden (part of the World Match Racing Tour). Marstrand is known as a playground for celebrities and rich Swedish residents alike, who come in the summer for sea, shopping and nightlife.
In southeastern Sweden, and nestled on the southern shores of Vättern – the country’s largest lake and the sixth-largest in Europe – lies the town of Vadstena. Its famous for a few things: a castle, built in 1545 as a fortress before becoming a habitable royal castle in 1660, and then falling out of favor and used for grain storage (now a museum); Vadstena Town Hall – the oldest in Sweden; a 14th-century abbey founded by the Swedish Saint Bridget; and a medieval town square as pretty as it is old.
Founded in 1680 as a naval base meant for protection from invasion and raids from the south, Karlskrona is today known as Sweden’s only baroque town, with its buildings and layout left virtually intact since its founding. The central building of the town is the Fredrikskyrkan church, constructed in the 1690s; other churches in town are the early 18th-century Church of the Holy Trinity (built for the town’s German residents), and the more traditional Amiralitetskyrkan, which is also Sweden’s largest wooden church.
Kiruna is unique in that it is currently in the process of being moved, bit by bit, to a new location 3 kilometers east – due to the Kiirunavaara mine literally undermining the town. It also happens to be Sweden’s northernmost town, and is a great place to see the splendor of the Northern Lights, as well as a convenient gateway to nearby Abisko National Park; and the world’s first Icehotel was also built around 11 miles north of Kiruna. In 2001 the town’s stylishly elegant wooden Gothic Revival church was voted Sweden’s favorite pre-1950s building, and is a stand-out icon of Kiruna.
Located on the island of Öland, tiny Alby is home to a wealth of history. Alby is thought to be the oldest settlement on Öland, with archeological evidence of farming communities living here from 4000 BC. Scattered around are ancient standing stone circles – indicative of burial grounds; nearby is the iron age ringfort of Eketorp; there are also medieval buildings, such as stone bridges, and a number of iconic 17th-century wooden houses. Alby is a charming cocktail of heritage that history-lovers won’t want to miss.
In the north of Sweden, close to the city of Luleå, lies the town of Gammelstaden. It’s mainly famous for the quaint settlement that grew up around the 14th century Nederluleå Church. The Lutheran church, with its square tower and large sloping roof, sits at the center of 424 traditional wooden cottages, painted in the quintessentially Swedish Falu red; it’s the largest medieval church of any kind in the northernmost and sparsely populated region of Norrland. It’s possibly the best preserved example of how many towns once looked throughout Scandinavia.
Arriving at Nora is like stepping back through time: it is home to more of Sweden’s characteristic traditional wooden houses, spared destruction by fire or demolition. 18th century Swedish poet Anna Maria Lenngren once said of the town, “Så liten stad, så mycket smak” – or in English, “Such a small town, so much flavor.” The iconic houses are tucked away in picturesque cobbled streets that make exploring the 17th-century town a joy. In its central location (near the town of Örebro), and just two-and-a-half hours by train from Stockholm, Nora is a popular destination for tourists.
8. Ystad Where to Stay
Located in Sweden’s southernmost Skåne (or Skania) County, the town of Ystad is an old one – dating back to the 11th century, the history of this place goes back almost a millennium. Aside from being the home of fictional detective Kurt Wallander, Ystad is known as a tourist destination for its heritage buildings, many of which – including the grand town hall – surround the Stortorget or Main Square. It’s also home to Greyfriars Abbey, one of Sweden’s best preserved monasteries, and the medieval St. Mary’s Church – both particularly striking examples of the Brick Gothic style. East of Ystad is the megalithic monument of Ales Stenar, consisting of 59 large boulders forming a stone ship.
Just an hour away from Stockholm, Mariefred is a very pretty town. Here you can discover many 18th-century wooden buildings, from traditional summer houses to its old wooden railway station – now a museum, with steam trains still making a welcome appearance for tourists. It’s also famous for the 14th-century Gripsholm Castle, an imposing fortress turned royal residence turned museum (still considered to be at the disposal of Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf). Mariefred also boasted Scandinavia’s only Carthusian monastery, but it was pulled down – now the town’s parish church stands on its former location.
This coastal town on the southwest coast of Sweden has long been popular as a seaside resort and it’s no truer nowadays. With a scenic harbor filled with shops and picturesque cafes (the waffles here come highly recommended), Mölle began life as a lively fishing village but soon grew a reputation; it was here where mixed-sex bathing began in the late-19th century – scandalous for the times – which also gave rise to Mölle as a center of erotic entertainment. Today, of course, it’s mainly visited for the picturesque location.
The picturesque coastal town of Simrishamn lies in southern Skåne County and is part of the the county’s ancient southeastern portion, Österlen. This region is known for its orchards, farmland, beautiful nature and small towns – of which Simrishamn is one. Nearby Simris features not only an ancient church dating from the 1100s, but is also home to the 11th-century Simris Runestones: mysterious standing stones with runic inscriptions in the Old Norse language.
The town of Jokkmokk is located in Sweden’s far north Lapland province and has the snow and climate to go with it. In spite of that, or quite possible because of it, the town is a picturesque place to visit, with wooden houses and beautiful landscapes. There’s a museum dedicated to the Sami people, an impossibly pretty 19th-century Gothic Revival church, plus an unbroken 400-year-old tradition in the Jokkmokk Market; taking place on the first Thursday of February each year it attracts thousands, playing host to concerts, trade and exhibitions, and is important for the Sami people.
3. Visby Where to Stay
Visby is known for its well preserved medieval town wall, built as fortification that also included defensive towers, and churches – though these are now mostly in ruins. Situated on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, Visby was part of the medieval Hanseatic League, a confederation of guilds and market towns joined together for commercial and defensive purposes. Its main square or Stora Torget is surrounded by interlinking cobbled streets and is lined with cafes – perfect for watching the world go by in this picturesque coastal town.
Little Sigtuna is located just north of Stockholm and lays claim to the title of Sweden’s oldest town still in existence: it was founded in 980 by Swedish King Erik Segersäll. This millenia-old settlement is known today for its beautiful medieval town center, complete with traditional wooden buildings occupied by cute shops and restaurants down winding narrow lanes, as well as the stone ruins of medieval churches. Its main street – called Stora Gatan – is also said to be Sweden’s oldest and dates back to the time of King Erik Segersäll’s reign.
Picture-perfect Trosa has a pretty funny namesake: in Swedish the word trosa is like “panties” in English – but apparently the locals have heard all the jokes already. For part of the year at least, some of those locals are actually Swedish celebrities (including former Abba member Benny Andersson) who have summer houses here – often along the blissful banks of the Trosa River. Known as a town since the 14th century, Trosa is popular for its pretty town center with a mix of establishments from trendy to traditional.