It’s a late June night in Sweden, but the night never comes. At 10 in the evening the sky outside my hotel window is a steely blue. When I crawl into bed at midnight the rocky horizon is still a clear, bony silhouette. And when I wake up jet-lagged, my internal clock jumpy, sunlight is streaming through the curtains. I look at my watch. It’s 3:30. In the morning. Dawn in Sweden, in midsummer, is a fleeting thing, because the sun stubbornly refuses to set.
That is part of the reason I’m drawn north in June. Let others crowd Mediterranean beaches and Caribbean resorts. No place celebrates summer like Sweden. After the endless, frigid winter, the long blast of blizzards and sheets of ice, there is a palpable sense of celebration here, a kind of collective euphoria. Windows are thrown open, people dance around the midsummer maypole — a Scandinavian conga line — and everyone heads out to the islands, to bed down in red-washed wooden cabins, and picnic on crayfish by the sea. And the sun, which just months before stubbornly refused to rise, joins the party like the most confirmed insomniac.
I’ve done this vigil before but always on the east coast of Sweden, where the Stockholm Archipelago splays out into the Baltic, a long necklace of islands. This year, though, I head to the southwestern coast, to see how the other side celebrates.
In Gothenburg, my first stop, the summer fiesta is in full blast. It’s easy to overlook this city, Sweden’s second largest, a port sitting on the mouth of the Gotta River, which feeds into the North Sea; it can’t compete with Stockholm’s glamour. But lately it has compensated with its own rising wave of top Scandi restaurants and refurbished attractions.
When I set out from my Upper House hotel in the towering Gothia Towers for a quick city tour, the whole place seems to glow.
Along the central anchor of the city’s Kungsportsavenyn boulevard the long line of outdoor cafes are already filling with people. In the gentrified Haga district, shoppers are prowling the cobbled streets. The mainly 19th-century buildings, some originally built as poorhouses, rise three stories high — the first story stone, the top two weathered wood. The neighborhood bakeries are setting out pillowy cinnamon buns, and the jumble of boutiques and antique shops are crowded with Nordic tchotchkes.
Over at the city’s Konstmuseet (Art Museum), the surprises are legion. Lucas Cranach’s portrait of the biblical heroine Judith is a study in happy bloodlust; holding the decapitated head of Holofernes, the Assyrian general, a loopy smile on her face and a crazy little feather corkscrewing off her forehead, Cranach’s Judith is one goofy, guiltless killer. The haunting antidote to this comedy is Edvard Munch’s “The Sick Girl” — the painting of his young dying sister, propped up in bed, a pale, almost translucent girl who already seems to be dissolving into the ether. It may be the world’s saddest, most elegiac portrait. There is something haunting about the museum’s world classic collection of Nordic painting, as well. An echo of the scenery outside, the canvases of North Sea islands and seascapes capture the dense golden light and long shadows of midsummer, before the coming dip into winter.
All that would be enough to justify my visit but Gothenburg offers another surprise: a thriving food scene that may not be as revolutionary as those of Scandinavia’s other culinary capitals, but in some ways offers the more satisfying, homegrown taste of a Swedish summer.
Fish market dining
In the city’s Saluhallen, the historic food hall sitting under a high vaulted ceiling, everyone is buying baskets of fresh strawberries — not the overblown berries, mealy as potatoes, that stock too many supermarkets but smaller iterations that spit a sweet juice. I pass the shoppers sitting down to their food hall picnics along the green parkland that frames Gothenburg’s long central canal, before I grab my own lunch at Gabriel Restaurant, perched on a balcony above the city’s fish market. The setting is apt. A box of the meatiest shrimp, still curled up in their pink shells, is followed by fried plaice fish robed in browned butter, and a plate of Swedish oysters.
I’ll wish I had refused the ice cream dessert, though, later that evening when I consider the menu at the Michelin-annointed SK Mat & Manniskor, and opt for chef Stefan Karlsson’s four-course sampler. The blowout begins with smoked halibut roused by sorrel, and grilled local tomatoes dressed with marigold emulsion, raw fennel and roasted almonds. Then there is a dry aged sirloin paired with button mushrooms and shredded oxtail, climaxing with my own taste of those supernal strawberries, their sweet juice turned sweeter by roasted strawberry curd.
I’m well fed when I set off the next day, heading north to the fishing villages and islands of Sweden’s Bohuslan coast, but it turns out there are more signature dishes to come. My first stop is Kladesholmen, a hamlet on an island of the same name which is also known as the herring island, because there were once 30 herring processing factories dousing the town in fishy perfume. Now the tiny port is an idyllic sprawl of pastel-washed cottages luring summer visitors with its quirky herring museum and my stop for the night — Salt & Sill, Sweden’s first floating hotel, moored on the Skagerrak Strait.
My guest room, which bobs a bit at night, simulates a boat cabin; the walls are all bleached wood planks and a white sailcloth hangs like a nautical canopy above the bed.
It’s clear, though, that no one is here to bed down early. The Salt & Sill restaurant is already crowded when I come for dinner, with families tucking into the kitchen’s vaunted herring boards. That night the smorgasbord includes matjes herring, herb herring, and then more herring marinated variously in coconut and chili, malt whiskey, lemon and star anise, and blackberry and green pepper.
How do you top that? Some of the guests swim off the herring, diving into the strait from the piers linked to the hotel’s dock, and others head for Salt & Sill’s sauna, also floating, of course, and toast the stubborn sun. This is pretty much a distilled midsummer Nordic fiesta, roaring into the night, though even a Swedish roar is relatively reserved and respectful.
The next morning I head still farther north to the resort town of Lysekil, sort of a Swedish Coney Island, where my hotel for the night, the Strandflickornas Havshotell, is a rebuke to Scandi minimalism; it’s all chintz, overstuffed settees and swagged curtains.
That should be enough of a dramatic final act to the trip, but I want one last taste of June, so I catch the ferry to the island of Fiskebackskil, 15 minutes away. I step off the boat and realize I’ve found maybe the ultimate midsummer idyll, a kind of Swedish Brigadoon that could pass for Pippi Longstocking’s hometown. There is no real center to the island. Instead, the wandering streets curve lazily past wooden cottages painted a riot of sorbet colors: dusky rose, pistachio, mint green, cornflower blue. That’s not enough. In bursts of exuberance, the houses go wild with flourishes. Some come framed by white picket fences and fly flapping Swedish flags. Others sport gingerbread fringe, their balconies and doorways and window frames carved into swirling curlicues. And everywhere, big banks of flowers spill loose, running up the wooden flanks of the cottages and swamping front yards, an explosion of pink and yellow blooms.
The whole thing feels like a sustained artwork which finally runs down to a small harbor, filled with boats and a trickle of day-trippers. It’s late afternoon when I arrive and everyone is collecting on the terrace of the waterfront Brygghuset restaurant, sampling heaped shrimp sandwiches and plates of butter-slicked cod.
For a minute a puffy rain cloud drifts past, everything goes gray and there is a quick trickle of rain. But no one looks concerned. Happily downing their snacks, they know that the midsummer sun will be back in a minute, glowing steadily through the night.
Food and travel journalist Raphael Kadushin writes for Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler and other media. He lives in Madison, Wis.