Sweden in a nutshell
Swedish national holidays are firmly rooted in traditional celebrations. Holidays in Sweden revolve around the seasons, religious observances and most of all — the sun. In December, candles, Christmas lights and brightly lit paper stars illuminate the darkness from windows. In late April, Valborg bonfires are lit to mark the start of the spring. And around the longest day of the year, it's time for Midsummer, which most celebrate in the countryside. This is when you’ll find plenty of pickled herring, traditional songs and otherwise sensible adults dancing around the maypole in the classic frog dance.
On top of a five-week paid vacation, Sweden has eleven public holidays, or “red days,” which mean offices and schools are closed. In some companies, employees even get to leave work early the day before a public holiday.
Because everyone is celebrating, the majority of businesses — including shops, banks, museums and restaurants — are closed on Midsummer’s Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. For the rest of the public holidays, Sunday hours (usually 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.) apply. Some restaurants are also closed on public holidays.
Read more about Swedish traditions
What Swedes are like
Around the world, there are plenty of ideas about Swedish people — many of them based on myths. For example, that everyone here is blond and shy. Or that they ski to work and spend their time dodging moose and polar bears on the streets of Stockholm. But if you ask Swedes what they think of themselves, you’d be more likely to hear about equality and fairness — rather than fighting polar bears (which live near the North Pole, thousands of miles away).
In reality, the myth of Swedish shyness has some truth to it. People here tend to listen before they speak. Swedish people don’t tend to boast or draw attention to themselves — and they don’t cut in line before it’s their turn. But some of these attitudes are changing quickly, especially among the younger generation. Individualism runs strong, and younger people are not afraid to show it.
Above all, at the heart of this is a strong spirit of equality. Swedish people try to treat everyone equally, regardless of job titles or social status. The spirit of equality affects the Swedish culture in a number or ways. Leadership decisions are to a large degree consensus-based — because everyone’s opinion is considered worthwhile. It also helps explain why people here may come across as quiet or shy. Soft-spoken Swedes might at first seem pretentious or disinterested, when in fact they’re just giving others room to speak.
The first thing you might notice here is that people typically try to avoid open conflict. Your neighbors might not complain directly about the noise in your apartment, but they may leave a note in your mail slot. And the same goes for leaving a mess in the commonly-used laundry room. At first this might seem passive-aggressive but in a country where rules are generally decided by everyone involved, it’s more likely a way to resolve and prevent face-to-face conflicts.
Another feature of life you’ll soon encounter here is queuing, or waiting in line. Swedes take standing in line very seriously. In the bank, in the post office, in the hospital, in the tax office, in the job center, and in some shops, you will need to take a piece of paper with a number on it, and wait your turn.
Although it may take some time and some Swedish language skills to see it, there is much to appreciate in Swedish habits. Behind every queue, meeting or seemingly strange consensus-based process is often a fair, open and honest mindset. Although they might have an oddly reserved way of showing it, Swedes are curious at heart and often eager to meet new people.
Free time in Sweden
Most Swedes are active and enjoy getting out into the countryside for anything from mushroom picking to sports. Many have access to a summer home, where they relax and enjoy their time near nature. The country’s long coastline, beautiful archipelagos and thousands of lakes mean a lot of time is spent on or near water, and private boats are common. At other times, winter sports are typical — whether it’s cross-country skiing or ice hockey.
Beyond sports, people are active in all types of clubs. From books and museums to knitting and cooking, there’s a club or study circle for just about any interest. And as you might expect from the country that gave the world Ikea, home improvement receives a lot of attention. New furniture, planned renovation and building projects tend to pop up as topics of conversation at any coffee table.
While Sweden is a progressive, changing country, it does preserve some special traditions. Singing is a prime example. Many Swedes are able to sing huge numbers of traditional songs by heart, and people of all ages belong to community choirs. They are likely to suddenly break into song at any number of social gatherings — and certainly at Midsummer, crayfish parties and Christmas.
There are also a number of quirky aspects to everyday life in Sweden. One of these is an unmistakable fondness for coffee. Only neighboring Finland has a higher per capita consumption of coffee. Coffee breaks, or fika, are a deep-rooted feature of both working and private life in Sweden, and are never complete without some form of sweet pastry. Despite their healthy, sporty lifestyle, Swedes are notoriously sweet-toothed, consuming vast amounts of cake and candies.