Island hopping in Sweden: ‘Pine forests, cobalt rivers and toy-town villages of scarlet wooden cottages’

Sweden has more than 30,000 islands to take in, and many of them are easily accessible from the capital, Stockholm. Sophia Constant took a road trip to find out more.

Ask a Swede about their archipelago and they will enthuse about summers spent roaming wild islands, staying in rustic farmhouses, creating entertainment from nature, keenly fishing for the evening’s BBQ, and endless games of Kubb.

Exploring, once a challenge, is becoming easier. Swedes encourage visitors to share their way of life and welcome sustainable tourism, preserving the islands’ pristine and peaceful allure. Small businesses provide well-managed excursions, and car ferries now connect the islands, enabling seamless road trips.

Stockholm archipelago

Credit: Helén pe / mediabank.visitstockholm.com

Wind through pine forests, cross cobalt rivers and explore toy-town villages of scarlet wooden cottages; a natural playground for outdoor pursuits: biking, canoeing, sailing, swimming and fishing – necessary skills for islanders worth their salt.

An aerial view of the coastline around Stockholm shows the endless dots on the map.

An aerial view of the coastline around Stockholm shows the endless dots on the map.

If you’ve a long weekend you can explore three or four of the 30,000 islands; stretch it out to a week and you’ll also be able to do justice to Stockholm itself. Arlanda Airport is an hour from the gateway to the Archipelago, where Nacka Strait’s peaceful banks – home to a yacht club and sophisticated waterfront restaurants – offer a luxurious experience. The outer islands are rustic and rural, and all the more enchanting for it.

Varmdo, the largest island, is home to Artipelag, an extraordinary gallery immersed in forest on the shores of Baggen’s Bay. The gallery, a work of art inspired by nature, hosts world-class exhibitions, with nature trails leading to external art installations.

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Fram t.o.m. den 1 september har vi fyra samtidigt pågående utställningar: 🦋Fornasetti Inside Out Outside In | till 26 januari 2020 🦟Insekt Insikt av konstnären Annika Liljedahl, med musik av Lo Kristenson 🌱Sara Nielsen Bonde (2019 års Roos-stipendiat) 🌲Skulptur i natur – You can enjoy four simultaneous exhibitions at Artipelag until 1 September: 🦋Fornasetti Inside Out Outside In | until 26 January 2020 🦟Insect Insight by the artist Annika Liljedahl, with music by Lo Kristenson 🌱Sara Nielsen Bonde (the recipient of the Fredrik Roos Art Grant 2019) 🌲Sculpture in Nature #FornasettiArtipelag #AnnikaLiljedahl #LoKristenson #SaraNielsenBonde #FredrikRoosstipendium #utställningar #exhibitions #Artipelag

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Head north to unearth Sweden’s maritime history at Fredriksborg, once the strongest fortress in Europe. For a typical Swedish sauna and Baltic Sea bathing, take a boat-taxi to private island, Badholmen. Its signature floating pontoon comes with a sauna, speakers, fridge and sofas.

Travel to Rindo to find a cheese factory, craft beer brewery, and Muttley and Jack’s micro-roastery. Jack hand-roasts specialty coffees, sustainably farmed, and delivers to cafes across Europe (his canine sidekick, Muttley, snoozes supportively at his feet). His tasting workshops are comparable with fine wine tastings, always concluding with traditional Fika (coffee and pastries) overlooking the Strait of Oxdjupets.

Vaxholm City, ‘capital of the archipelago’, boasts a bustling harbour, shops, seafood restaurants and Vaxholm Fortress (‘prison escape’ activities are wildly popular). Vaxholm Old Town; an idyllic heritage centre of pastel houses, overlooks families splashing in shallows and picnicking on the boardwalk. Privately charter a boat through serene stretches of the archipelago – Catch and Relax combine fishing trips with island history and delicious picnics, or return to owner, Bo’s, for a Champagne BBQ on a private dock with views to Vaxholm Castle.

Medieval Oscar Fredriksborgs fortification near Vaxholm, in the Stockholm archipelago, Sweden

Medieval Oscar Fredriksborgs fortification near Vaxholm, in the Stockholm archipelago, Sweden

Vaxholm City is magical over Midsummer, the longest day of the year (19-25 June). This beloved pagan festival, higher-ranking than Christmas, pays tribute to nature and light. Communities, crowned in flower garlands worthy of Renaissance paintings, flock to public parties to enjoy traditional festivities, laced in nostalgia. Dressing the Maypole (ancient fertility symbol), with flowers and birch leaves is a community effort of paramount importance; it forms the centrepiece for the day’s frivolities.

Ring dances are performed by the older generation, weaving around the Maypole in folk costumes, then the crowd, spellbound by Midsummer spirit, joins hands for the more animated numbers. For any first-timer, the frog dance is obligatory – hop in circles to fit in! Gorging on herring-heavy picnics is half the excitement, always accompanied with potatoes, sour cream and mountains of dill, followed by fresh strawberries smothered in cream.

Celebrations culminate in late night family dinners. The sun barely dips below the horizon, weaving the sky with pink and blue, marking the peak of summer. Vaxholm B&B owner, Linda, opens her doors to offer an insight, serving drinks beneath a lantern-lit tree, before a BBQ within a flower-filled greenhouse. Typical of Midsummer, a civilised dinner swiftly morphs to a merry scene of guests around a cornucopia of schnapps, enthusiastically bellowing folk songs, hammering fists to a marching rhythm, bowing to each other with a quick-fire ‘Skål!’ and knocking back shots. This often leads to Baltic Sea plunges, then dancing to ABBA to warm up. To experience quintessential Midsummer, one must be fully committed…

Travel over Midsummer for a fine introduction to archipelago life. The rest of the year it’s decidedly more sleepy, when nature can be enjoyed in solitude.

Where to stay, eat and drink

Hotel J, Nacka Strand

A taste of the archipelago within reach of the capital. Spacious, contemporary rooms with balconies overlook the sea (choose the top floor!). The restaurant is worth a visit even if you don’t stay: it’s on a floating platform that enjoys views over the Baltic Sea, overlooking the water taxis darting from pier to pier. Try the seafood platter.

Fredriksborg Hotel, Fredriksborg

A charming waterfront hotel connected to a historic fortress (climb the look-out tower for 360’ views!). Military barracks were converted into homely bedrooms, with wide windows and fireplaces. A 5-bedroom garden cottage with veranda takes in spectacular views. Seasonal food is served in the garden or orangery beneath the fortress, overlooking the shimmering sea – magnificent at sunset.

Vaxholm B&B, Vaxholm

The Wahlstrom’s transformed a traditional wooden villa into a charming B&B, offering homemade picnics, cookery classes and dinner parties.

Waxholms Hotel, Vaxholm

This historic hotel in a recently-renovated 100-year-old building offers comfortable sea-view rooms and an excellent restaurant, moments from the Midsummer parade.

Artipelag, Gustavsberg

Even if art isn’t on the agenda, the buffet on the top floor is a place to indulge in an inordinate buffet of meat and fish platters, seasonal vegetables, local cheeses and freshly baked breads.

Vaxholm Hembygdsgårdscafe, Vaxholm Old Town

Sit on the deck with a pot of lemon-drenched shrimps, watching boats bobbing in the harbour.

The well-preserved wooden houses from the turn of the last century in Vaxholm.