Everything you ever wanted to know about Malmö, Sweden, and what makes it great!
From its humble 13th-century roots as a ferry docking for a regional bishop to the dynamic, youthful, cosmopolitan metropolis it is today, the history of Malmö is one that has always followed its own unconventional path. The third-largest city in Sweden, Malmö is thoroughly modern, with cutting-edge design and architecture, a booming tech sector, and four Michelin-starred restaurants in a relatively tiny metro area of just 728,000.
The city proper of Malmö has just 316,000 year-round residents, yet people who visit Malmö are often struck by how this city boasts one of the most unabashedly international cultures they’ve ever seen, rivaling that of most other Nordic metropolises. There are residents of the city of Malmö hailing from 150 nations around the world by some estimates — other estimates put the total at 180 nationalities calling Malmö home!
Adding to Malmö’s reputation as a world city is the Øresund Bridge, the longest combined bridge and tunnel in Europe, connecting it to hip Copenhagen, Denmark and its high-traffic, international airport. Plus Germany is just a short hop across the Baltic Sea, making it easy to understand why any guide to Malmö will show how this young, energetic city is not only high on the list of must-visit places in modern Scandinavia, but in the entire world.
But although Malmö is without question a hub for modern businesses and middle-class biotech and IT workers housed in buildings of clean, minimalist Scandinavian modern design, that doesn’t mean the history of Malmö has been forgotten. People who visit Malmö are equally drawn to the cobblestone streets of the quaint, 15th-century city center and the funky, experimental restaurants and clubs that are scattered throughout the district. In addition, the designers of this very modern city have nonetheless paid close attention to respecting nature and employing sustainable practices even as they push the cutting edge of architectural and urban design innovation. The city boasts expansive open spaces and parks resulting in an explosion of green areas that is downright breathtaking. Depending on where you are in Malmö, it can leave you with a stunning sense of enormous space, elbow room and connection with the natural world even within the confines of a city that is nearly a thousand years old.
And of course there is always the nearby sea. There are miles of gorgeous city beaches to hit up when you visit Malmö, just a mere 20 minutes walking distance from the city center. Perhaps surprisingly to people who think of Scandinavian countries as unrelentingly cold and snowy all year round, Malmö tourism draws visitors in summer rejoicing in not only digging their toes into the sand of the beach known as the “Scandinavian Copacabana,” but who are also there to enjoy the general outdoor orientation of life here during the respite from the long, grim winter months. The high temperatures during the summer months can range from 22ºC up to 29ºC (72ºF — 85ºF) between May and September, and the record high is 34ºC (93ºF)!
What’s more, visiting Malmö and wandering the streets will subject you to an array of enticing odors, not least of which emanates from the numerous falafel vendors — the go-to favorite snack food of the population of Malmö, half of whom are under 30. You’ll also notice the scents of the traditional Italian-style coffee shops in the air, as well as the beer-soaked, sweaty joy emanating from city’s hip young music bars. It quickly becomes apparent that visiting Malmö involves much more than seeing a typical smallish city in some imagined perpetual gloom of snow-bound Scandinavia; Malmö is truly a bustling, active, global metropolis with lively arts, food, and outdoor culture.
So what draws the population of Malmö to make their home in this traditionally Swedish, yet surprisingly international city? Perhaps more importantly, what is it about Malmö that makes it so special?
From “gravel pile” to futurism: The history of Malmö
The first written record of a settlement existing in the location of modern-day Malmö dates to around 1275 A.D. Shortly before that time, a fortified quay was constructed to protect the ferry of the Archbishop of Lund, a city about 20 km to the north. And make no mistake, Malmö’s history starts out right off the bat in quite an international manner. It was originally a Danish city, and Malmö was even Denmark’s second-largest city for centuries.
Despite this, the Danes didn’t bestow upon Malmö a tremendously auspicious beginning, at least not in the naming department. The history of Malmö reveals that the city’s name derives from Malmhaug, a word meaning “gravel pile” or “ore hill.” But that rather less-than-complimentary name didn’t deter the early Danes from falling in love with visiting Malmö and eventually making their homes there. Even starting in the 1300s, Malmö quickly became one of Denmark’s largest and most visited cities.
That means that the popularity of Malmö tourism began nearly 700 years ago!
By 1434, the town was home to a booming herring fishing industry, and the king of Denmark and his military advisers saw fit to begin construction on a citadel, today known as Malmöhus. Any guide to Malmö will recommend a visit to this impressive fortress, the final form of which was completed in the 16th century. Along with extensive other fortifications, Malmöhus helped to make it the most-fortified city in Sweden at that point in the history of Malmö.
But the internationalism that is so integral to the history of Malmö as well as the modern, eclectic city it has become turned sour in the mid-17th century. A 1658 international accord known as the Treaty of Roskilde ceded Malmö to Sweden, but Denmark continued to to contend periodically for possession of the city despite being a signatory nation to that agreement. In 1677, Denmark sent some 14,000 soldiers across the water to lay siege to Malmö, but the city held out for over a month, sending the Danish troops home empty-handed. The history of Malmö has officially been as a Swedish city ever since.
But the history of Malmö is as much about its relationship with the sea as it is about its uniquely international nature. Indeed, as both the history books and any modern guide to Malmö will show, Malmö’s long-standing global reach is largely due to the intersection of three factors: location near the heart of Europe, access to the sea, and welcoming international business and culture with open arms.
By 1840, Malmö had established itself as a major player in the shipping industry and was home to one of the most extensive shipyards in the world. Establishing itself as a ship-building hub gave Malmö the leverage, mobility and connections to make its mark on the global economy in other ways. By 1870, the city had become a leader in manufacturing, especially in textiles and crafting mechanical components for industry. The railroad changed the history of Malmö around this time as well, connecting the city to the rest of Sweden and cementing its place among the most important of Sweden’s and all of Scandinavia’s cities. By this point in the history of Malmö, it was the third-most populated city in Sweden, a title it retains to this day.
Even if you just visit Malmö in one day, you’re sure to hear about an auspicious moment in the history of Malmö from the early part of the 20th century. It was 1914 at the outset of the first World War when the Three Kings Meeting took place, bringing together the kings of Sweden, Norway and Denmark. That year, the trio of monarchs held a summit to end a period of tension among the Scandinavian nations, hammering out an agreement to remain neutral in the global conflict that was just ramping up.
As we flash forward in our brief history of Malmö, the 1970s ushered in a severe recession that had devastating effects on Malmö’s historically powerful ship-building and manufacturing industries. When the city’s largest employer, the mighty 140-year-old Kockums shipyard announced it was shuttering ship-building operations in 1986, unemployment in Malmö soared and many feared for the future of the city. Middle-class fears saw many families fleeing the once-prosperous city center and relocating to the suburbs, and the population of Malmö had declined by some 35,000 by 1985. That may not seem like a lot in the context of larger cities, but for a metropolis that only had some 265,000 residents prior to that, this flight represented the loss of over ten percent of the population of Malmö.
The difficulties of this period in the history of Malmö continued apace through the rest of the 1980s and into the 1990s as a financial crisis hit the city hard, resulting in the loss of over 27,000 jobs. Adding to the woes of a crumbling manufacturing sector, the financial crisis put the economy of Malmö under severe stress. Starting in the mid-1990s, this period in history of Malmö saw the city and forward-looking planners take a deliberate turn toward reinventing the now-defunct manufacturing and shipping center as a hub for culture, design, technology and innovation.
In 1995 the city began construction on the Øresund Bridge connecting the city to Denmark and the rest of Europe beyond by rail and road, thus launching a rebirth for the moribund metropolis. In 1998, a new Malmö University was opened on the very same docks that were formerly the heart of the old shipyard. And in 2001, an architecture expo was held there, kicking off the metamorphosis of the waterfront into a new, modern district that has succeeded in attracting the middle class back to the city proper.
In the decade and a half since, the city’s planners and politicians have meticulously created a long-term guide to Malmö that will lead it into the future. They have clearly taken great pains to create a lively, prosperous city that seamlessly blends the medieval history of Malmö with sleek, modern, 21st-century business and residential architecture built for sustainability and energy efficiency. Residents and visitors alike marvel at the Scandinavian minimalist architectural design along the waterfront district, the medieval city center, the city’s expansive parks, and of course, the glorious beaches that beckon Swedes and visitors from all over the world. Indeed, Malmö tourism isn’t just for laypeople; city planners from around the world visit Malmö to learn more about how they do it, and to get ideas for blending all these disparate parts together in their own locales.
Modern Malmö: What brings people here?
As mentioned above, Malmö proper has just 316,000 residents in a metro area that has a mere 728,000, a tiny blip on the radar of most major world cities. Yet what you quickly realize when you research Malmö tourism and its modern development is that this city punches far above its weight in a variety of ways. From the architecture to the food to the culture, visiting Malmö you’ll see a truly unique and charming place, and you’ll quickly understand why it draws so many people from around the world who are keen on visiting Malmö.
As might be expected in a Scandinavian country like Sweden, the modern architecture of Malmö follows a clean, minimalist, yet innovative style. However, to know where you are, you’ve got to know where you’ve been. So it’s worth taking a closer look at the medieval buildings still remaining, which are equally delightful for those looking into Malmö tourism.
The best-known older edifice dates from the medieval history of Malmö, and is the aforementioned citadel known as the Malmöhus. Construction began in the 1300s, and today it houses a museum and is a must-see photo-op for those interested in visiting Malmö. The building that’s been around longest in Malmö is St. Peter’s Church, or Sank Petri which was first built in the early part of the 14th century. In addition to exploring these incredible examples of medieval Gothic architecture, simply wandering around the Gamla Vaster or Old Town will reveal much of Malmö’s charm as well.
But one of the things that is so unique and uniquely charming about Malmö is how you can be transported in just a short walk from 14th-century old-world charm to the very leading edge of neo-modernism. Just a five-minute walk from the Malmöhus stands perhaps the most important and well-known icon of the architecture of modern Malmö, and indeed in Scandinavia as a whole: the Turning Torso tower. At a height of 190 meters (620 feet) this breathtaking edifice is the tallest skyscraper in Scandinavia, and draws flocks of Instagrammers as well as architecture students to marvel at its striking twisty shape and unique profile all year round. The building, which is in large part dedicated to residential use, was created by Spanish architect, sculptor and engineer Santiago Calatrava. He modeled the twirling shape after his sculpture Twisting Torso, a white marble piece that he is said to have based on the form of a human twisting around to look behind them.
And here’s where the forward-thinking of the city planners at the helm of Malmö’s development over the past couple of decades really shines: the Turning Torso, along with most of the rest of the modern, architecturally fascinating buildings that have sprung up around it over the past couple of decades in the Västra Hamnen or Western Harbor area were designed to provide sustainable, self-sufficient, energy-conscious living and work spaces. The entire district is covered with modern, eye-catching buildings that by design vastly reduce pollution and energy consumption while providing modern, aesthetically pleasing, human-oriented spaces for middle-class residents and workers. Thus they replaced the polluted, run-down and toxic manufacturing district with some of the most green and ecologically-friendly planned construction in the world.
Food and Malmö tourism
No opportunity to visit Malmö can go by without at least mentioning the incredible food culture of which the city is so proud. Of course you must start the conversation with the aforementioned quartet of Michelin-starred restaurants drawing foodies from not only Scandinavia and Europe, but from all over the world. But you also can’t forget the delightful Swedish tradition of fika, a kind of afternoon tea, only generally taken with coffee and a type of cinnamon roll. Indeed, just these two food extremes could easily put Malmö tourism on the map if you wished to limit yourself to them, but there is so much more.
In addition to trying out Michelin-starred restaurants when visiting Malmö, you can eat very well here on a more down-to-earth budget. For instance, when you start to research the variety of restaurants available when visiting Malmö, you quickly learn that the green, eco-friendly ethos of the city’s architecture and open-space planning are no accident. The young, urban, cosmopolitan population that calls Malmö home clearly demands and has gotten plenty of vegetarian, sustainable, raw-food and farm-to-table options for dining out, ranging from high-end to very simple casual dining.
Another joy for those new to Sweden and intent on visiting Malmö is the delight residents take in their daily fika, or afternoon coffee. But oh, wait. Fika is so very much more than grabbing a moment during the doldrums of the workday afternoon to slug down a desperately-needed hit of caffeine, then dashing off to your next task. To hear the Swedish describe it, fika represents “…a moment to slow down and appreciate the good things in life.” Enjoyed with coffee or tea and accompanied by a cinnamon roll or other sweet pastry, fika can mean sitting in a park with friends, or simply taking some contemplative quiet time alone with your coffee and sweet snack. But regardless, the idea is that the beverage and the moment are to be savored and enjoyed thoroughly — and never rushed.
Finally, when it comes to Malmö tourism for the foodie, it’s important to remember the internationalism that is the beating heart of Malmö. Just as international connections have been a thread throughout the history of Malmö, dining in the modern city means you can travel around the world, gastronomically speaking. While of course there are countless restaurants specializing in traditional Scandinavian fare in Malmö, along with standard international dining options like pasta, pizza and burgers, you can also find top-notch Middle Eastern cuisine, vegetarian, sushi, Thai, Lebanese, steakhouses, Indian food, Mexican food, and much, much more.
Culture and Malmö tourism
Finally, one of the greatest things about Malmö tourism is the unique cultural draws they have there, starting with the beaches. Everything in summertime in Malmö is oriented to the outdoors, and the beach is just about as “outdoors” as you can get. The city boasts miles of nearby beaches comprising five distinct areas, reachable with an easy walk from the town center. The water quality across the board is pristine, and you can visit beach styles fitting any preference: white sand, green lawns, wooden decks, and clothing-optional spaces are all available.
Another must-see aspect of the culture when you visit Malmö is the Ribersborgs Kallbadhus, an open-sea bath extending out along a wooden deck from the Ribersoborg Beach, which the locals refer to as the Scandinavian Copacabana. This charming wooden structure was built in 1898, and features two open seawater pools that—separated by gender—are clothing optional, as well as saunas, massages, dining and more.
And if you’re there in August, the Malmöfestivalen is when the youth-oriented culture of Malmö really shines. Billed as the biggest festival in Scandinavia, the festival features all kinds of music, arts and crafts, kid-friendly events, so-called “happenings,” sports, and of course food and drink.
To sum up:
Malmö Sweden is a uniquely Scandinavian city, in that has held onto that tradition while still flourishing as a result of its broadly open and welcoming international connections. With incredible history, innovative design and and a green aesthetic combined with an overwhelming array of top-notch dining, nightlife and cultural options as well as a stunning seafront and beach life, visiting Malmö should be on everyone’s bucket list!
Quick facts about visiting Malmö
Where is Malmö?
Malmö is in the Scania region of Sweden, near the southwestern tip of the country. It’s just a short hop across the Øresund (or Sound in English) from Denmark and Copenhagen.
What is the population of Malmö?
The city proper is home to about 316,000, while the metro region of Malmö has about 728,000, making it the third-largest city in Sweden and the sixth-largest Scandinavian city.
What kind of weather can I expect while visiting Malmö?
Summertime is great for outdoor activities, with highs reaching up to 22ºC to 29ºC (72ºF – 85ºF) between May and September.
What languages do they speak in Malmö?
The official language is of course Swedish, but English language instruction is compulsory in school and almost universally spoken there. You’ll also hear German, French, and a wide variety of Arabic languages.
What’s the nightlife like in Malmö?
The city population skews younger, with half of residents under 30, so expect a wide variety of clubs, pubs, rock venues of all stripes, and experimental theater if you go out.
Seriously though, the weather. It’s Sweden. Will I freeze?
Maybe, but only if you go in winter. The record low is -28ºC (-18ºF), but keep in mind the record high is 34ºC (93.2ºF). Visit Malmö in summer like a normal person!
Scandification explores and celebrates the magic of Scandinavia. Stay tuned and we’ll bring the essence of Scandinavia to you.