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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Like having sex in church: Sweden’s uptight attitude to alcohol

Swedes have a deeply suspicious attitude towards alcohol, embodied in the state monopoly on its sale. Although ridden with guilt and hypocrisy, it is a healthy relationship, says David Crouch

Like having sex in church: Sweden’s uptight attitude to alcohol

Those boxes by the checkout sum up my problem with Systembolaget, Sweden’s chain of state-owned liquor stores. The boxes are called ångravagnar, from ångra, to regret. “Psst,” says the sign over each one. “Have you changed your mind? Here you can put back any drinks you don’t want to buy.”

The boxes are there to make you think again – do you really need all that booze? Won’t you hate yourself if you don’t put back a bottle or two? 

The regret boxes seem to serve little practical purpose, because they are almost always empty. Instead, they are there to send a message, whispering “Psst!” in your ear: “Don’t do it! Alcohol is wicked!”

Smiling assistants lurk around the stores, in theory so you can ask them what wine goes best with your food. Nonsense – they are the morality police, another “psst” in your ear. Talking to them feels like going to confession: forgive me, Father, for I am about to sin. Then there are all the TV ads for Systembolaget depicting toddlers being abused by drunken parents, or pious staff saying their aim is to sell less alcohol, not more

As a result, entering Systembolaget feels like having sex in church: a shameful pleasure. Here you cease to be an adult capable of taking decisions for yourself and instead become a wayward teenager who needs to be shepherded towards acceptable behaviour.  

Systembolaget – abbreviated to Systemet, or “the System” – is the embodiment of Swedes’ deeply suspicious attitude towards alcohol. It is institutionalised guilt on national scale. 

This guilt has historical roots. Sweden once had a serious alcohol problem. A century ago, average vodka consumption reached almost a litre a week for every man, woman and child. For decades, the country battled to find a way to bring down consumption, first with rationing and then the state monopoly from 1955.

The guilty view of alcohol lives on in all sorts of ways. Sweden, a nation renowned for embracing modernity and liberal freedoms, still has a significant temperance movement. The snappily named Independent Order of Good Templars has 24,000 members – more than most of Sweden’s political parties – and believes that Systembolaget should close at 5pm and be shut altogether on Fridays and Saturdays. 

In Britain, for example, politicians like to pose with a drink to show they are “of the people”. This could never happen here. I once went campaigning with a political leader in the run-up to elections, and we needed somewhere warm afterwards for an interview. But she declined to enter a convenient bar in case she might be photographed in a place selling alcohol. 

Quite apart from the System’s restrictive opening hours, there are very few stores – just 450, or one per 23,000 people. Until very recently, there were more golf courses in Sweden than places where you could buy a bottle of wine over the counter. (There are 449 golf courses, down from 454 in 2019.)

A recent opinion survey has compared attitudes to alcohol in the Nordics. Sweden emerges clearly as the Nordic nation that is the most uptight about alcohol. Fewer than half (45%) of Swedes say it’s okay occasionally to get drunk; one in five say it is even wrong to get drunk at a party. Finns and Danes come out as far more relaxed about booze. 

There is a whiff of hypocrisy here. In my experience, the best way to liven up a social gathering in Sweden is to uncork the gin and let it flow copiously. Not so long ago, a former government minister responsible for raising the tax on alcohol became so inebriated (berusad) at a party in the Stockholm archipelago that he exposed himself to the female guests. 

And yet, Sweden’s relationship with alcohol is a healthy one. Systembolaget is popular among Swedes, its reputation exceeding that of well-loved brands such as IKEA, Volvo or Spotify. More than three-quarters want the state monopoly on alcohol to remain in force, while only 18 percent say they want wine and spirits to be on sold in other stores

Despite its faults, Systembolaget represents society taking collective responsibility for a drug that has the potential to cause great harm. After decades of free-market liberalism across the globe, it is easy to forget that societies once behaved like societies, instead of leaving everything to individuals and the interplay of supply and demand. 

How refreshing that young people are not bombarded with advertising telling them they need booze to gave a good time. Living here, you would never have any idea that the country supplies the world with that supreme party drink, Absolut Vodka. Consumption is ticking downwards, and fewer than 3 percent of Swedes drink every day

When I see those regret boxes, part of me wants to scream: “Regrets?! No way! It’s been a hard week, let me get wasted in peace.” But the boxes are the price I have to pay for the comforting knowledge that, in this aspect at least, Swedish society takes responsibility for its citizens’ welfare. I don’t like it, but I accept that it is necessary. It is not ideal, but it works. 

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.