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Harbour of Gothenburg
View over the Gothenburg harbour area with the barque Viking and Göteborgsoperan, Gothenburg Opera
Photo credit: Göran Assner/

Water world

Swedes have a close relationship with water. We enjoy it, use it and even live on it. At least that is true for the three major cities. Although there are significant differences in attitude…

With water surrounding most part of the country, Sweden is bound to have a bit of an island mentality. Or do we? Let’s examine the different part water plays in the lives of Stockholmers, Gothenburgers and Malmoeits.  

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The Ship of Vasa

Navire Vasa

Photo: Ola Ericson/

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The Ship of Vasa

Photo: Ola Ericson/

Summer in the city

Photo: Tove Freiij/

Thomas Bergsell – the typical Stockholmer

He loves fresh fried herring from the cart by Slussen and a swim in the clear seawater in the summer. And like most Stockholmers he takes advantage of the close proximity to the archipelago, where the magic serenity of the islands is only a boat ride away. In fact, many islands are accessible through public transportation, others via larger ferries departing downtown. But as Thomas likes the island lifestyle and vibe so much, he decided to own a boat himself instead.

– You do get the feeling that boat owners today are mainly old men. You know, the types of old guys that like to hang around in dungarees? They are the ones you encounter every time you visit the dock. But that is not the case at all once you take the boat out for a ride.

He is polishing the boat he and his old friend Jonas bought a few years ago. Thomas says the idea of owning a boat never occurred to him but once Jonas suggested it he thought it was a brilliant idea. A great way to take the kids out on excursions in the summer, and a cool way to explore the islands just outside the hustle and bustle of the city. 

– Boating is a family activity for sure and sailing is the best part of the journey. You realize quickly that there is no one typical boat owner, it is a very mixed bunch. In regards to background as well as geography. Another thing you notice is that boat owners are really helpful towards each other, it is unusual to see Stockholmers being so friendly and open as we leave the subway traffic chaos behind us and see lush, green islands and the open water instead. 

There are approximately 40,000 boats in Stockholm alone which makes us one of the greatest boat owner nations in the world. This should not come as a great surprise, anyone who has ever visited Stockholm or even seen a photo of the city will notice the proximity to the sea. It is omnipresent, providing the inhabitants with a means of transportation from the south side to the north, swimming spots in the summer and ice skating in the winter. And, honestly, a source of great pride. Stockholmers do love the water. So much so, perhaps, that a person who does not enjoy swimming in the summer is a bit of a coward and an anomaly. There is even a Swedish word for it – 'badkruka'. And several children’s rhymes to encourage you to get into the water. 

Lakes and archipelagos

Sweden has one of the largest archipelagos in the world, close to 100,000 lakes, a great coastal line and a strong boating industry. And a great history of boating. In 1628 Stockholm was one of the greatest powers in Europe and boating was a specialty. King Gustaf II Adolf ordered the strongest, biggest and most beautiful ship the world had ever seen to be built, as a symbol of Sweden’s political and military power at the time. 

But that was not to happen. Vasa ship sank on its maiden voyage just outside of Gamla stan harbour, in clear view of everyone who had come to see the marvellous ship in all its splendour. Not knowing how to salvage it Vasa remained at the bottom of the sea for 300 years until it was salvaged in 1961. The pristine preservation of the ship and its many objects on board has made the Vasa museum Stockholm’s most popular tourist attraction.

But the water of Stockholm is also serious business. Since 1991 Stockholm International Water Institute has looked into issues like water governance, climate changes and water economics in order to keep the waters of Stockholm one of the purest in the world. We love our water, but we must never take it for granted. 

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Summer evening

During the Swedish summer, the sun sets slowly, if at all. That makes for magical summer evenings with the light lingering long into the night and it's a great time for staying out late, enjoying the outdoors, whether in the city or in the countryside.

Photo: Faramarz Gosheh/

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Summer evening

Photo: Faramarz Gosheh/


Photo: Steampipe Production Studio AB/ Göteborg & Co

What about Göteborg then?

It is different for the people of Göteborg (Gothenburg). The water has shaped the west coast’s identity for years. Göta River runs through it and the cold Nordic sea is at its hem, which makes Göteborg a haven for fishing. And, naturally, dining. Fresh and locally sourced fish and seafood (shrimp and oysters especially) are essential for eating and Göteborg is also home to the shrimp sandwich, a truly Swedish delicacy. A mountain of fresh shrimp, with a generous dollop of mayonnaise and sliced, boiled eggs as the main ingredients. 

Where the new Nordic cuisine is gaining popularity Göteborg is at the forefront: locally sourced ingredients, prepared traditionally but with a modern update. It’s interesting since Sweden overall is more known for its modern designs, it’s innovations and style, the seafood remains surprisingly traditional in its foremost city. 

Fishing and sailing, part of the identity

Such pride does Göteborg take in its fishing and sailing identity, it even influences art and music. Musician Håkan Hellström, one of Sweden’s biggest stars, is a good example. For a long period during his career he wore sailor suits and apart from his record-selling music he has also released traditional songs, all sung in a clearly detectible Göteborg-dialect, emphasizing his roots in this fishing town. His songs are in Swedish and many depict life in Göteborg, which awarded him “Göteborg Citizen of the Year” in 2001. Songs like “Saknade te havs” (“Missing at sea”) has a clear reference to the water as well.

Göteborg musician and producer Björn Olsson who has been dubbed “Sweden’s Ennio Morricone”, has worked closely with Håkan Hellström among other musical giants. He has released four albums, named after local shellfish like shrimp, lobster, crab and crayfish. They are sometimes referred to as the “Shellfish suite”.

– I am always drawn to the sea wherever I am, explains Björn Olsson. I always carry the guitar with me, if there is time I head to the sea wherever I am. I don’t like the inland as much, I’m always rather around the northeast part of Tjörn island. 

His love for shellfish springs from his love for the sea, and for Göteborg. Björn Olsson says the album titles started as a bit of a joke but seemed fitting.

– I have always bought stickers and patches of different shrimp when I have visited shrimp towns like Smögen. And I have visited those parts of the coast since I was four years old. 

Naturally, the proximity to the sea also influences his work, and his identity. His 2016 album was named “Västkustrock” (“West coast rock”) after all. 

– The smell of the sea is always here. And the sound of the seagulls. 

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Malmö Western Harbour

The Western Harbour is a district in Malmö that has in recent years undergone a complete transformation from an industrial area to a beautiful architectural neighbourhood with a sustainable focus.

Photo: Aline Lessner/

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Malmö Western Harbour

Photo: Aline Lessner/

Relaxing on the pier

Photo: Karolina Friberg/

And Malmö in the south...

Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city, has yet a different take on its relationship to water. To the local patriots of Malmö, water and swimming is more or less an act of freedom. You can do it anywhere and anytime you want, there are no rules. Or, the only rule is that you will swim, it’s what true living is all about. It is you and nature being one. 

And one must not forget that here the continent, in the form of Denmark, is only a short boat ride away, another form of freedom.

– After a night of dancing oneself sweaty my friends and I always head for Västra hamnen (Western Harbour) for some night swimming. We usually ride our bikes there but we have also taken a taxi, says swimming enthusiast Karin Segerström.

She believes the people of Malmö make very good use of the water and its swimming opportunities. Ribersborg is where the natives come to swim, along the 2 kilometres of sandy beach. This is also where people have parties and picnics during the very, very long summer nights.

– I have known colleagues who have made it into a habit to take a morning swim before work. 

The last few years have seen a great rise in the urban bath. New beaches, piers and swimming spots have developed both organically and not: Ribersborg with its Kallbadhuset (open-air bath), Scaniabadet i Western Harbour and Sundspromenaden. All with different styles, vibes and visitors.

So much part of the free living Malmö lifestyle is swimming that the hashtag #manångraraldrigettdopp (“One never regrets taking a swim”) is widely used on social media. It has become a way of bragging about taking the coldest baths, the earliest baths of the season and appreciating the swimming lifestyle in general. 

– It is used especially in reference to a “refreshingly” cold swim, explains swimming enthusiast Christin Persson. As in ‘Isn’t it too cold for a swim? No, it’s refreshing!”. 

Mix and mingle in Malmö

She explains that Ribersborg has nine different piers and everyone has their personal favourite. Summertime it is crowded with workout enthusiasts, yoga and capoeira practitioners, and foxtrot and line dancers at the outdoor dance floor.

Apart from an avid bather Christin Persson is also a radio producer and has lived in different parts of Sweden, mainly Stockholm. She has made an important observation of the bathing behaviour in the cities. 

– I believe Stockholmers have a loving relationship with water just like we do here in the south. But I believe that because of the distances between the swimming spots, Stockholm might be more segregated and divided. Here in Malmö people from all over the cities mix and mingle, we have only one coastline, which is a beautiful thing.  “The city is full of water”, as Robert Broberg once sang. Although he is a Stockholmer. But that doesn’t matter, I know what he means.

Writer: Caroline Hainer