Where did everybody go? How Stockholm becomes a ghost town in summer

It’s July in Stockholm. The streets are empty, the bars are eerily deserted and you don’t have to wait an hour to get a table for brunch. What is going on? 

Where did everybody go? How Stockholm becomes a ghost town in summer
The Local's reporter Chiara Milford trying to interview a lonely traffic light in Stockholm. Photo: Michael Parker

Some tumbleweed drifts down the street. 

You text one of your Swedish friends to meet for fika but they say they’re out of town and won’t be back until August. You check your email but it’s all out-of-office replies.  

Your favourite cafe has a sign in the window saying “sommarsemester!!” with a smiley face and a flower.

A group of international students zooms by on electric scooters. For the first time since you moved to Sweden, there isn’t a queue outside Systembolaget, the alcohol chain.

Where on Earth did everyone go? 

It’s not a zombie apocalypse, it’s not some natural disaster that you missed the memo about evacuating, and it’s not everyone suddenly taking pandemic precautions extra seriously and self-isolating. 

It’s summer. 

Most of the people usually crowding Sweden’s cities will be swiftly on their way to their sommarstuga (summer house) in the countryside to spend the warmest months of the year.   

Around a fifth of the population are lucky enough to own a summer house, and even more have access to one through family and friends. 

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Swedes were among the most-travelled nationalities in the world. Even though many are opting to stay within national borders this year, they’ll still be getting the hell out of the cities for a Svemester (Sverige + semester – “Sweden holiday”).

It’s hard to know exactly how many people leave Swedish cities over the summer – the government doesn’t track the locations of its citizens to that extent – but you don’t need national number-crunching agency Statistics Sweden to tell you that the exodus is pretty high. 

Most employers offer staff a minimum of 25 days annual leave and Swedes take a big lump of that off during the summer, particularly while school is out in July. 

So that’s the reason you may feel like you’re living in a ghost town right now. 

It was difficult to get hold of anyone to interview for this story. The only thing around available to talk to me was one of the traffic lights between Hornsgatan and Ringvägen in Södermalm. 

“Honestly I don’t see the point of me turning on for work every day,” they told me. “There are barely any cars to stop, and barely any pedestrians to usher across the street.”

Even though they’ve been at this crossing for several decades, the yearly summer exodus still comes as a surprise.

“One day there are hundreds of cars at my intersection. The next, it’s just a couple of drunk kids on scooters.” 

“I miss the pollution,” they said. 

Still, with fewer people around you can finally find a place to sit at the city’s outdoor bars, relax on Tanto Beach without feeling the breath of the stranger on the towel next to you, and walk down Götgatan without bumping into the unfortunate date you filed under “seemed like a good idea at the time”.

Glad semester!

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OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Swedes have a reputation as a nation of orderly queuers. But it doesn't take long living here before you realise that for things that matter - housing, schools, health treatment - there are ways of jumping the line.

OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Soon after my daughter was born, I emailed Malmö’s sought after daycare cooperatives to get on their waiting lists. 

I didn’t get an answer from any of them, so a year later, I began dropping her off at the daycare allotted to us by the municipality. 

It was housed in a concrete structure so grim-looking that it was used as the gritty backdrop to the police station in The Bridge, the Scandinavian Noir crime drama based in Malmö. Getting there involved taking a lift that frequently smelled of urine. The rooftop playground was (after we had left) used by local dealers to stash drugs.

But to be fair, it was close to our house and in other ways, perfectly adequate. 

A year later, though, I got a call from one of the cooperatives I had emailed. My daughter Eira was next in line. Did I want to come to meet the staff and existing parents?

When I arrived, I discovered I wasn’t alone. My friend, a Swede looking to establish herself in Malmö after a decade in London, was there, as were several others.

Listen to a discussion about queue-jumping on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

I soon had a distinct feeling of being outmanoeuvered, as I watched her identify the parents in charge of new intakes and get to work on them, asking intelligent questions, demonstrating her engagement, and generally turning on the charm. 

A few days later I discovered that, even though I’d been told Eira was top of the list, my friend’s son had got the place. 

This was my first lesson in Swedish queuing, and it is a pattern I’ve seen time and time again.

Swedes, I’ve learned, generally respect a queue if it’s visible, physical, and not about anything particularly important. But when it comes to waiting lists for things such as housing, schools, and healthcare, many people, perhaps even most, will work their contacts, pull strings, find loopholes, if it helps them jump the line. 

When it was time for the children of the parents I knew to go to school, several of them — all otherwise upstanding law-abiding people — temporarily registered themselves at the addresses of friends who lived near the desirable municipal options, and then, after their children got places, moved back.

When I protested weakly that by doing this were depriving someone else’s child of their rightful place, they simply shrugged. 

When Eira joined Malmöflickorna, a dance gymnastics troupe that is a kind of Malmö institution, the other parents whispered to me that joining the troupe helped you get your child into Bladins, Malmö’s most exclusive free school, as the troupe had longstanding links. 

When it comes to accessing health treatment, I’ve learned, it doesn’t pay to stoically wait in line. When I was recently sent for a scan, I immediately rang up the clinic my primary health care centre had chosen for me. The receptionist spotted a time that had just become free the next day, and slotted me in, saving what could have been months of waiting. 

If you’re looking to buy a house, I’m told it pays to develop good relationships with estate agents, as sometimes they will sell a house without even listing it. And there are all sorts of ways to jump the long rental queues in Swedish cities, some involving paying money, some simply exploiting contacts. 

I’m not, myself, much of an operator, but I’ve also learned to take advantage of any opportunities that crop up. 

A year after we had lost our battle for the daycare place, the same Swedish friend got in touch. She had managed to upgrade to an even more sought-after cooperative. (This one has had world-famous novelists and Oscar-contending film directors as present and former parents.)

There was a place free, and she was in charge of the queue. Did we want it for Eira? The queue at this daycare, I soon discovered, was pure fiction. The municipality has since cracked down, but at the time, places went to the friends and contacts of whichever parents happened to be on the board, or failing that, to people in the queue who seemed the right kind of person. 

It didn’t seem right, but of course, we took the place.