When most people think of Scandinavian travel, they picture fjords, mountains and the dramatic landscapes of the Arctic Circle. But for a slice of authentic Nordic life, consider the lesser-explored central part of Sweden connecting its capital, Stockholm, and Norway’s first city, Oslo.
The route is mostly flat, but passes beautiful lakes, chief among them the spectacular Lake Vänern, the largest in the EU, and lush landscapes dotted with traditional wooden houses, many painted bright red. More than half the total land area of Sweden is covered in forest (an area the size of the UK), and especially on the approach to Norway, you’ll pass farmland and woodland that give an idea of why friluftsliv, or “outdoor life”, is a cornerstone of the Scandinavian lifestyle. Many Swedish families spend weekends at their summer houses (usually less extravagant than that term suggests, not infrequently without running water) to unwind in the middle of nature.
Travelling by train between smaller towns, this itinerary isn’t for those who want to cram sight after bombastic sight into their holiday. There are cobbled streets to stroll, stopping for coffee and cake, living museums to explore, and plenty of opportunities to hike, cycle or canoe around vast nature reserves and pretty islands.
Trains run directly between the two capitals, but dividing up the journey allows for visits to charming smaller towns and to experience nature at close quarters. Sweden’s long-distance and regional trains are comfortable, with wifi, food and drink on board.
Trains leave from Stockholm’s central station, where travellers can stock up on food for the six- to seven-hour trip at one of the recently opened stalls in the main concourse. Hip chain Urban Deli offers huge salads (from about £7) and try historic cafe Vetekatten’s stall for coffee and a classic cinnamon bun.
The first stop is Västerås, just an hour away, with regular departures and tickets starting at £6. On the shores of enormous Lake Mälaren, the city makes an excellent summer base for exploring myriad islands by ferry, many with sandy beaches and unspoilt coves. One of the closest – just 15 minutes away by regular ferries from Västerås harbour – is Östra Holmen, with lovely sands and a 2.5km footpath around it. Further out are beautiful larger islands, such as Ridön and Björnö, with cycling, hiking routes and hostels.
Round off the day with a cocktail and sharing plates (from £7) and 18th-floor lake views from Locavore in the Steam Hotel ), where doubles with breakfast cost about £74 but expect to pay almost twice as much for a room with a window! Alternatively, those looking for a truly unique stay can book the off-grid underwater cabin at the Hotel Utter Inn (sleeps two, £230).
The next stop, about an hour further along the line to Oslo, is Örebro, the “heart of Sweden”. Start at the island castle and have a drink or meal at the cosy Stallyktan pub, before checking in at the Hotel Borgen (doubles from £100 half-board).
The open air museum at nearby Wadköping is free to wander around, but for those who are hankering after the typical wooden houses of the region, head to the beautifully preserved town of Nora on the train (40 mins, £10 return) or 302/801 bus for an afternoon. Peek inside artisanal workshops in the brewery district and try the homemade ice-cream at NoraGlass.
The next day, catch the number 7 bus (or cycle) to the Oset and Rynningeviken nature reserve with its meadows, wetlands and forest. The restaurant Naturens Hus at the centre of the park offers large lunches for around £8-£11. The park has an unusual history; the area was once home to rubbish dumps, an oil port and a military training ground, but has been reborn as a beautiful landscape, rich in flora and fauna.
From Örebro, take a train to Karlstad (1hr 40mins, £11), around two-thirds of the way to Oslo. During summer, it’s free to borrow a bike on weekdays from the Solacykeln (Sola Bike) cabin in the centre. Follow the river through the city centre, or head out along the cycle and hiking trail Klarälvsbanan. For dinner, settle in at Br Olssons Elektriska (mains, such as butter-baked char, from £22), while Artisan Bread is the place to experience Swedish fika cafe culture.
The city is on huge Lake Vänern, and public transport is supplemented with water buses during the summer. These allow for island-hopping through the archipelago or, for a half-day trip, head to Mariebergsskogen for hiking and other activities. Nearby is the sunny yellow-painted Älvnära Bed & Breakfast(doubles from around £70) with each of its rooms named after a flower .
Västerås, Örebro and Karlstad all have their own charm, but nature-lovers might consider skipping one of them to build in extra time at the next stop, Arvika (direct tickets from around £6 from Karlstad). This is a great base for all kinds of outdoor activities, including elk safaris.
The owners of Guesthouse Eleven (doubles from £100 B&B), a renovated schoolhouse a short bus ride from the train station, offer different packages to help guests experience the best of the area, perhaps through canoeing, biking or hiking, and you can round off the day in the sauna and hot tub.
For those on a tight timetable, take the bus to Storkasberget, the 3.5km walking trail with a tower offering views over the whole area.
From Arvika, it’s possible to head straight to Oslo on an InterCity train (tickets from around £11); there are two direct departures each day, in the early afternoon and evening. Alternatively, stop at Kongsvinger on the way; although it’s well off the typical Norwegian tourist trail, its impressive 17th-century fortress and charming old town are worth taking the earlier train for, catching the later one onwards to Oslo.
How to do it
The Swedish national railway company SJ runs most routes and it’s possible to book tickets on its website, even if the route is operated by another company. Booking in advance will usually save money; the route outlined here costs from 235SEK one-way (around £20) and discounts for those under 26 and the over-65s are available. Visit loco2.com for trains from the UK to Stockholm.
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