We suspect that Sweden would like to keep its Baltic islands, Öland and Gotland, to itself. Each summer, the number of Swedish visitors there reaches almost a million, and for good reason. The islands boast the sort of charming beaches and natural beauty that attract tourists.
Although Öland attracts so many vacationers, life there wasn't always so friendly. Islanders who could not make a living emigrated to America in greater numbers than in any other province in Sweden. Many of the American tourists visiting Öland today are the descendents of those Swedes, returning to see where their great-grandparents came from. But you don't necessarily have to come from Öland to enjoy its beauty and its beaches. Just ask the royal family, who use the island as their vacation retreat.
Called the "island of sun and winds," Öland is Sweden's sunniest province. It is know for its family-friendly, shallow, crystal-clear waters, and for its luxuriant vegetation. Many plants aren't found in any other Scandinavian country, including a profusion of orchids, some 34 species in all. Öland is also a land steeped in prehistoric times. There are plants here from Iberia, the Alps, and eastern Europe that survived the Ice Age and the warmer postglacial period. Remains from 4,000-year-old burial chambers can even be seen, as well as many runic stones from the Viking era.
Two hundred years ago, a British visitor called Ölanders "the Italians of the north," suggesting a more extroverted streak than mainland Swedes. After a visit, you can decide that for yourself. Today the inhabitants of Öland make their living mainly from agriculture, fishing, food production, industry, and tourism. The hub of the flat, rural Baltic island, connected to southern Sweden by one of the longest bridges in Europe, is Borgholm, the capital, a small resort with a recreational harbor on the west coast.
As fascinating as Öland is, we recommend touring Gotland, particularly its ancient capital of Visby, if you have time to visit only one island. Because the climate is milder in Gotland than in the rest of Sweden, the scenery here offers a wide variety of flora and fauna, as well as a unique landscape of statuesque limestone formations, cliffs, forests, heaths, and meadows.
In Gotland, some 1,000 farms dating from the Viking era -- and medieval times in general -- are still in use today. (In Viking times, Gotland was the gateway to Sweden and the scene of many a battle.) Off the coast of Gotland lie several other islands. Farthest to the north is Gotska Sandön, a place of myths and legends and the stronghold of Sweden's last pirates. Just a stone's throw off the north coast lies Fårö, familiar to many as a once-favorite retreat of Olof Palme, Ingmar Bergman, and other political and cultural personalities. To the west, the twin Lilla and Stora Karlsö islands are known for their huge colonies of guillemots and other seabirds.
If you don't have time to absorb all of that, at least check out Visby, the capital city. It's surrounded by well-preserved medieval walls, the finest in Scandinavia. Some 2,000 citizens live within these walls today. Once a Viking trading station, Visby developed into a leading commercial center for trade across the Baltic Sea in the 12th century. In time it became one of the most important cities of the Hanseatic League. The city grew and prospered, as the remaining 13 ruined churches, 2 monasteries, cathedral, and 200 buildings resting on medieval foundations attest to today.