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

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
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? 

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 ever 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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