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Sandhamn in the archipelago of Stockholm
Photo: Anna Hållams

Overview

Island life

When autumn arrives, seasonal visitors leave Stockholm archipelago and life returns to normal for the people living here permanently. The islands are home to thousands of people all year around with schools, services and a unique lifestyle.

On a windy late August morning, Sandhamn’s marina is almost empty. It’s a stark contrast to the scene here just a month earlier, when sailboats with flags from Finland, Denmark, Germany, Sweden and many more countries were jostling for space by the pier, and the sandy waterfront road, lined by old wooden houses in bright colors, was packed with visitors exploring the stores and restaurants. 

With autumn around the corner, the visitors have left, and life on this island in Stockholm’s archipelago has taken on a different pace. The only people enjoying the outdoors this sunny Friday morning are the permanent residents shuttling across the island on their cargo scooters, working in the guesthouses or preparing today’s lunch in the restaurants. Three toddlers are taking a walk in the marina with their kindergarten teacher – the only three toddlers currently living on the island. 

While the archipelago is one of Stockholm’s most beloved tourist attractions, it’s also home to many people. The Country Administrative Board estimates that around 4,000 people live on the main islands, most of them on Blidö, Yxlan, Ljusterö, Möja, Runmarö, Ornö, Utö and Sandhamn. 

Archipelago island, StockholmStockholm's archipelago consists of approximately 30 000 islands, of which 200 are populated. Photo: Anna Hållams

The two seasons

Stockholm’s archipelago consists of 30,000 islands, 200 of which are populated. Even though the distance to the capital from these islands is relatively short, the lifestyle seems a million miles away from the hustle and bustle in the city. For the people living here, life is divided into two seasons – the summer and the rest of the year. 

Summer is full of action, with thousands of tourists and summer residents arriving. While it’s certainly the season that offers the best opportunities for enjoying the surrounding nature, from swimming, sailing and paddling to fishing and foraging in the woods, many permanent residents love autumn and winter as much. From September to April there’s not much to do – if by “doing” one means going to concerts and museums, shopping on the high street or dining at Michelin-starred restaurants. On the other hand, that’s kind of the point. The archipelago off-season offers a seldom seen tranquility, natural beauty and the luxury of having it all to yourself. What there is to do, simply, is to enjoy.

Making it work

But idyllic as it may seem, everyday life in the archipelago has its own challenges. All transports, for instance, must be done by boat or ferry, and getting from one island to another or to the mainland requires time and planning. 

Stockholm’s authorities, however, see the archipelago as an important part of the region and strive to make living there as functional as possible. The main islands are trafficked by ferries all year around and offer vital services such as grocery stores, pharmacies, doctors, postal offices and a branch of Systembolaget – Sweden’s alcohol monopoly. There’s even a library boat, which visits the islands once in the spring and once in the autumn, taking requests for books in advance.

The biggest islands also have kindergartens and schools. Studying in an island school is a special experience, not least because many of the schools are very small. Often, an entire school has only 20–30 pupils – the size of one class on the mainland. Sometimes the children combine traditional tuition with online classes; distance education is seen as the future for these small communities to receive quality education and be able to remain on the islands. 

Some people commute to Stockholm for work, while others work on the islands. Tourism is a big employer, but it’s equally common to run your own business. The islands’ residents have professions ranging from shop and restaurant owners to taxi boat drivers, electricians, teachers and farmers to artists, beekeepers and many more. It’s not uncommon to have two jobs either, perhaps running a B&B in the summer and consulting a company on the mainland in the winter. 

It may sound a bit complicated, but for the people choosing to live here, it’s an independent lifestyle close to nature, one they’ve chosen and would not want to give up. Visiting Sandhamn on late summer day may well make you want to be one of them.

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