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Umea: The City of Birches

Posted: 20th November 2014 16:55

Umeå is the capital of Västerbotten County, located in northern Sweden on the Ume River.  It is the fifth largest university town in Sweden; with around 33,000 students living here, the average age is just 38.  The youth of the city is reflected in the eccentric arts and thriving music scene found here.  Umeå could probably be described as the hipster entry to the competition for the European Capital of Culture; despite grabbing the title for 2014, the overwhelming response seems to be that “you’ve probably not heard of it.” Despite this – perhaps because of it – with a little exploration, Umeå stands out overwhelmingly as a worthy victor. 

It is known across Sweden as ‘the city of birches’ because of the wide avenues lined with silver birch trees, with a tranquil riverside location, mysterious, dark winters, and range of festivals, cultural and artistic events fit to rival the famous European hotspots.  The city has enjoyed a rich cultural upbringing, with a heritage dating back to the Sami people – Europe’s only indigenous group who have lived in the Arctic region for thousands of years.  More recently, Umeå is known as the city from which modern day celebrity Steig Larsson (author of works including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) hails from.


The music scene has played a huge part in shaping Umeå’s history.  From Yoiking, (traditional singing by Sami reindeer herders), to modern day heavy metal from Meshuggah, who were named as “one of the ten most important hard and heavy bands” by Rolling Stone.  Hardcore 90s punk band Refusedalso hail from here.  Home to the Umeå Jazz Festival and the Norrland Opera, events which play a big part in the annual calendar as well as the 2014 line-up of cultural specialties, you’ll find a varied range of musical delights here to suit every taste.

Umeå Jazz Festival

This year marks the 47th appearance of the Umeå Jazz Festival on the calendar, with around 30 concerts taking place each year across stages at the Umeå Folklets Hus and the Norrland Opera.  It takes place towards the end of October this year, with a selection of live jazz from national and international performers. 


The opera of northern Sweden, Norrlandsoperan (Norrland Opera), was established in Umeå in 1974.  It now has its own symphony orchestra and facilities for opera, dance, art and music, as well as studios and workshops.  During the opening week of the European Capital of Culture 2014, the Norrlandsoperan performed a complete Beethoven symphony cycle, prefacing each symphony with a premier of new work by a contemporary composer.

House of Metal

February is the darkest time of the year, and it is only fitting that House of Metal, a two day festival dedicated to the loudest and heaviest of metal music, takes place in Umeå at this time.  It sees performances from both Swedish and international bands, with past performances from the likes of Lambs of God, Behemoth and Meshuggah, and attracts visitors from around the world. 

Things to do

With all those students flocking to Umeå every year, there’s got to be more than just the university to keep them entertained.  The rural location of Umeå combines the necessities of a big city with the ease of escaping it all; close by is the dramatic Swedish coastline, and several nature reserves.  Alternatively, there’s plenty of entertainment in the city centre to occupy even the pickiest of visitor.

Umedalen Sculpture Park

Set in the grounds of a former 1930s psychiatric hospital, the Umedalen Sculpture Park is a free attraction seeing over 20,000 visitors every summer.  Around 200 eminent Swedish and international sculptors have had their work displayed here, with works in the permanent collection by artists including Anthony Gormley, Roland Persson, and Anish Kapoor.  The park is open year round, and in snowy months you can even ski around the trails of the park.  The experience of wandering past giant works of contemporary art in the midst of grassy trails and looming pine trees is one not to be missed.

Husky Sledding

For the ultimate snow adventure, do as the Swedish have done for centuries and try your hand at mushing.  Feel the wind in your hair as the raw power of a dog-sled team takes you on a rollercoaster ride through the snowy surrounds of Umeå.  There are options in nearby Ricklea Valley for half a day with Helunda Husky, sledding through picturesque forests with a team of 3 or 4 Siberian huskies.  Or, if you’re up for a longer journey, you can choose trips for up to 12 days with Aurora Borealis Adventures.  You don’t have to be physically fit, either; you can sit back and let the experienced guides (and dogs!) do the hard work, or take a hands-on role in guiding the dogs yourself if you fancy a challenge.

The Guitars Museum

Honouring Umeå’s music scene is a new addition for 2014; local brothers Samuel and Michael Åhdén are showcasing their private collection of guitars, amps, basses and music, with around 500 exhibits.  There will also be the chance to take part in lectures, music products demonstrations, guitar ‘clinics’ – open guitar lessons with visiting world stars – for visitors during the year of the capital of culture.  The interactive experience also includes a ‘factory tour’, which gives visitors a chance to see the construction of a Gibson Les Paul, from a piece of wood to the finished product.


If you have an urge to see the world’s oldest ski, Gammlia is your first point of call, with their extensive exhibition of skiing through the ages.  This is part of a cluster of museums, including the Västerbotten Museum, exhibitions delving into the history of the Sami and heritage of the area, and Friluftsmuséet, an open-air village with buildings and activities designed to emulate how the area may have looked historically.  It includes buildings brought from around Sweden, including a church, a farmhouse, a manor house, a windmill, and a school.  There is an annual Christmas market here, and farms with pigs, sheep, chickens and cows open for viewing from mid-June to late August.


There’s one major advantage to a town with so many young people; it’s almost guaranteed that there’ll be plenty of places to go out.  Whether you’re looking for live music at an intimate bar or to get rowdy with the crowds at a massive club night, you can find it in Umeå.  Clubs and pubs are mostly located on the university campus (you might need student ID to visit some of them, or pay an entry fee), or in a cluster in the downtown area.  The general feel to going out here is distinctly student-y and relaxed, with an emphasis on cheap drinks and good times.

5IVE/Cover Club

One of the biggest clubs in Umeå has recently opened on Västra Norrlandsgatan.   5IVE grabs the younger crowd on Friday nights with a mix of popular chart and club classics.  Cover Club on Saturdays is for the over 21’s, playing hits from the 70s and 80s, and there’s also a separate hard rock room.  There’s also karaoke for the brave (and drunk).  There are often nights featuring specific artists and events, so check out the calendar when you’re planning your visit.


Allstars is a large American-style sports bar located in the downtown area, serving American-style fast food and drinks along with live sports on the TV screens.  It’s a part of a popular chain found across Sweden, and on weekend nights it morphs into a club, playing popular and chart music till 2am.  Perfect for sharing a plate of nachos with friends while the big game is on, then dancing the night away with the beer flowing.


Music is a huge part of Umeå’s cultural heritage, and Scharinska is the venue where the resident performers in Umeå meet when they come back from their tours, encompassing a concert hall, bar, and restaurant.  They host various events between Tuesday and Saturday with a decent selection of electronic and dance music, often featuring guest DJ’s and performers.  It draws in a varied crowd with more of a sophisticated vibe than the typical college party that you might find elsewhere.


Umeå is a city that is very proud of their food.  From local delicacies to a wide selection of international dishes, the emphasis here, as it is all over Sweden, is on the freshest of locally sourced ingredients.  From dishes made with reindeer and elk to bleak roe, cloudberries, Arctic raspberries and almond potatoes, expect new culinary discoveries with every menu.  Locally produced Västerbotten cheese (Västerbottensost) is likely to appear on virtually every menu, being produced in nearby Burträsk.  Six restaurants in the city appear in Sweden’s prestigious White Guide, testimony to how seriously the locals take their food.


For the most sumptuous of Swedish food with a distinct flavour of the north, look no further than Teatercaféet.  They didn’t claim their sought-after place in the White Guide for nothing; they have grown with a winning combination of friendly, efficient service, fresh, simple ingredients cooked well, and an awareness of their ecological impact, using mushrooms and berries picked from the forest, and fish and meat sourced from Swedish farms where possible.  Over the weekend they open as a nightclub, and have had DJ’s Axwell, Stonebridge, and Mayka playing in past guest slots.  It’s not the cheapest option, but it’s definitely worth it.

Lottas Krog

It’s not just for the fantastic selection of beer, wine, and whiskey that the customers choose Lottas Krog; the food is pretty good, too.  The menu tends towards a classic English style, with fish and chips, marbled rib-eye steaks, and a decent selection of burgers.  It’s pub food with a bit of class, and after a hearty meal here it’s not hard to see why this is one of Umeå’s longest standing taverns. 

Cafe Mekka

Dating back to the 50th Century, Cafe Mekka offers sumptuously fresh pastries from their own bakery, as well as a selection of sandwiches and savoury options.  The coffee is good and the mood is relaxed, with paintings, drawings and photographs adorning the walls.  They’ve got an outdoor terrace as well, making it an ideal spot for meeting friends in the summertime.


Whether you’re enjoying a sophisticated city break or travelling to Umeå to get back to nature, there’s a wide selection of cheap accommodation available.  Choose from hostels, hotels, or even take to the great outdoors for some camping (in the summer months, at least). 

First Camp Umeå

As far as camping goes, First Camp Umeå is a pretty classy place.  It has room for 320 caravans and around 100 pitches for tents, and there are showers, toilets, a communal kitchen and even a sauna available for guest use.  All this in the midst of the picturesque natural surroundings of Lake Nydalsjön, located close to the centre of Umeå.  There’s a chalet village on the site as well.  If you fancy trying your hand at ice-fishing, you’re conveniently located if you’re staying here, and you’re close to a slalom slope and cross-country skiing trails, too.


For cheap and comfortable dorm-style rooms, you can’t beat the YMCA.  They’ve got rooms available from single bed through to those that sleep 14, with shared kitchen and bathroom facilities; pretty standard hostel stuff.  What’s not so standard is the inclusion of a flat screen TV in the single and double rooms, and the free breakfast buffet is a bonus as well.  Located in the middle of the city within stumbling distance of bars and clubs, you really can’t go far wrong.

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