Roughly the size of California, Sweden has some 280,000 sq. km (108,109 sq. miles) of landmass, bordering Finland to its northeast and Norway to its west. As the northern end creeps over the Arctic Circle, the southern third of Sweden juts into the Baltic Sea. This southern tier is the site of most of the population; much of the north is uninhabited and occupies one of the last great wildernesses of Europe.
Known for its warm summers and bitterly cold winters, Sweden is a land of lakes and forests, mountains and meadows. Because of generally poor soil and a rocky landscape, Swedes have turned to mining, steel production, and forestry to spur their economy.
Swedes are known for their almost mystical love of nature. Although they travel abroad in winter to escape the cold, Swedes are their own greatest tourists when the all-too-brief summer arrives. Many Swedes have second homes in remote parts of the country.
Many visitors heading for history- and monument-rich France or Italy mistakenly think Sweden lacks attractions. This is not the case: Sweden possesses 1,140 historic fortresses, 2,500 open-air runic stones, and 25,000 protected Iron Age graveyards, and the Stockholm area alone has 10 royal castles. As in parts of the American West, you'll encounter one thing in Sweden that is not always available in other parts of Europe: the wide-open yonder. Space characterizes Sweden's vast forests, mountains, and national parks. Sometimes you can travel for miles without encountering another soul.
Stockholm is, of course, the major target of nearly all visitors. More than 7 centuries old, it is a regal place, filled with everything from the winding cobbled streets of the medieval district to the marble, glass, and granite of its high-rises in the commercial center. While many other world capitals may have passed their prime, Stockholm grows better with age. No longer as provincial as it was even 15 years ago, today it's lively, vibrant, and filled with nightlife, great restaurants, and countless shopping opportunities, along with a sophisticated, savvy population enjoying one of the world's highest standards of living. And no other European capital has such a dramatic landscape as the surrounding 24,000 islands, skerries, and islets.
But Sweden only begins in Stockholm. At least two other major cities merit exploration: Gothenburg and Malmö. Gothenberg, a major seaport, is filled with tree-lined boulevards, restaurants, museums, endless shopping, elegant buildings, and nightclubs. And it enjoys striking scenery along Sweden's craggy western coastline. North of Gothenburg lie sleepy fishing harbors in rocky coves and offshore islands where city folk come in summer to retreat.
Southwestern Malmö boasts one of northern Europe's most attractive medieval centers, and also is a good base for exploring the ancient university city of Lund, with its mass of students, a revered 12th-century Romanesque cathedral, medieval streets, and numerous museums.
However grand the cities may be, any native Swede will tell you that the countryside is the chief reason to visit. Our favorite destinations, the folkloric provinces of Dalarna and Värmland, form Sweden's heartland. Filled with forests and vast lakes, this is the landscape described in the country's greatest literature. Some towns, especially around Lake Siljan, still look as they did in the Middle Ages. Folk dances and music festivals keep the summer lively.
The ancient province of Skåne in the southwest is called the château country, for the French-like castles that still dot its landscape of undulating fields and curving, rocky coastline. In spring, black windmills and white churches pose against a background of yellow rape, crimson poppies, and lush green meadows.
For sheer scenic drama, nothing equals Lapland, that remote and isolated region of Europe in the north, home to the Lapps (or Sami) and their reindeer herds. It's a domain of truly awesome proportions. Birch-clad valleys and sprawling woodlands of pine give way to waterfalls, roaring river rapids, mountain plateaus, and fens covered with moss. The numerous rivers of the region snake down from the mountains to spill out into the Gulf of Bothnia, and the locals have long ago accepted and adapted to the harsh lifestyle imposed on them by the weather. Unspoiled nature under the midnight sun is a potent attraction.
Finally, there is the island of Gotland in the Baltic, which knew its heyday in Viking times. This land of beaches, spas, and sailing has a warmer climate than the rest of Sweden. Some 100 churches and chapels still remain on the island, and its capital, Visby, is one of the oldest cities of Sweden. Its Old Town wall stretches for over 3km (1 3/4 miles) and is capped by 44 towers. Crenellated turrets and long, thin, arched windows evoke the Middle Ages.
Sweden is a country where you can enjoy history and urban pleasures, but the nation's heart and soul can be found in its vast landscapes. From a summer wilderness fragrant with fields of orchids and traversed by wild elk to the dark wintry landscape dotted by husky sleds and paraskiing, Sweden provides a stunning vacation experience.