Capital of the Västerbotten County in northern Sweden, Umeå is by the Ume River, close to where it empties into the Gulf of Bothnia. Northern Sweden’s largest university is here, in a young culturally-vibrant city in pristine surroundings.
The gulf to the east is sprinkled with islands, some like the Holmön and Norrbyskär archipelagos are summer retreats. The wonderful Nydalasjön lake is nearby, and right outside Umeå there’s fresh wooded parkland on the banks of the Ume. But don’t overlook Umeå’s tip-top attractions, like the outdoor county museum and guitar museum. And on the riverfront are brand new, eye-catching architectural statements like the contemporary art museum, Bildmuseet, and the peculiar lines of the Kulturväven, cultural centre.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Umeå:
1. Guitars – The Museum
You wouldn’t know it from the outside, but this discreet-looking former schoolhouse from the early 1900s is a rock, blues or jazz fan’s idea of heaven.
This museum that opened during Umeå’s recent spell as Capital of Culture has more than 500 electric guitars, mostly from the 1950s and 1960s.
Connoisseurs can size up some extremely rare instruments like a Les Paul from 1960, a Gibson Flying V from ’58 and a Fender Broadcaster from 1950. This beautifully laid out musical trove was assembled from the 70s on by two brothers, and many of the guitars have had famous owners.
2. Västerbottens Museum
On the eastern edge of Umeå is a museum for the Västerbotten County, revealing the history and unique culture of this part of northern Sweden.
Among many things, you’ll get to know about the Sami people, and enter their typical huts (kåtan), made from timber and peat moss.
Some 40 historic buildings from around the county have been dismantled and rebuilt at the outdoor museum, among which are a threshing house, farmhouse and bakery.
In summer it’s a mini town with domestic farm animals and populated by people in period costume informing you about life and crafts in old times.
Finally, the ski museum studies the long history of this Nordic mode of transport, and has a preserved ski, so old that it predates the Egyptian pyramids.
3. Umedalen Sculpture Park
A former psychiatric hospital in the Umedalen suburb has been converted into Sweden’s largest art gallery.
After closing down in the 1980s and being sold off, the hospital and its extensive parkland were chosen by the developer Balticgruppen for an annual (now biannual) outdoor art exhibition.
This company has purchased a sculpture from each exhibition, gradually amassing more than 40 works and permanently installing them in this evocative environment.
Many well-known artists are represented at the park, like Jaume Plensa, Antony Gormley, Anis Kapoor, Louis Bourgeois and Tony Cragg.
It’s hard to take your eyes off this remarkable museum in front of the UmeRiver.
This is the new home of the Bildmuseet, unveiled in 2012 and set within the riverside Umeå Arts Campus.
The building, easily identified by its square lines and windows in random positions, was designed by Henning Larsen Architects and has been lauded internationally.
There are six split-level floors for short-term contemporary art exhibitions, all with far-reaching views over the river.
The shows are rotated every few months , so there will always be a different experience each time you come.
You can expect anything from contemporary Chinese art to architectural photography or industrial design by the likes of Charles and Ray Eames.
And kids are catered for with an art corner where they’ll have art-oriented games and activities.
5. Umeå Rådhus
After a fire claimed most of Umeå in 1888, the architect Fredrik Olaus Lindström was drafted in to design the city’s new landmarks.
Maybe the most important was the Town Hall, completed just two years after the devastation.
This red brick edifice is on the same ground as the former 17th-century building, facing the river harbour, which was a vital means of transport before the railway arrived.
Lindström gave his building a Neo-Renaissance design, with a Dutch influence in its crow-stepped gable and mullioned windows.
The towers were purposely asymmetrical and have different outlines, bringing some playfulness to the silhouette.
The closest lake to Umeå is full of activity on clear summer days.
This is when the pools, playgrounds, lawns for sunbathing and cafe a UmeLagun are all open.
There’s also a campsite nearby with a holiday village that has an adventure golf course.
The waters of the lake itself are unusually clear, and if you’re up for a swim there’s a sandy beach on the north shore.
As the seasons change there are still reasons to come to the lake, whether you’re foraging for lingonberries, blueberries or mushrooms in autumn, or cross-country skiing or ice fishing for perch, pike or roach when the lake freezes over in winter.
Arching over Strandgatan in the centre of Umeå by the Ume River is the city’s new, labyrinthine cultural centre.
The centre is in essence two buildings that fuse together over the street, and is a surprising muddle of amenities, visitor attractions and performance venues.
The city’s library, theatre, art house cinema and market are all here, as well as a cafe on the waterfront and a gallery for art exhibitions.
There’s also a museum to women’s history, studying gender dynamics through Sweden’s past.
8. Umeå City Church
Umeå’s largest place of worship was erected in just two years up to 1894 and is wrapped in grenery.
One of the church’s predecessors was demolished by the Russian Army in 1770, and the other was burnt down in the fire in 1888. This Neo-Gothic edifice was designed Fredrik Olaus Lindström and built according guidelines set out by Helgo Zettervall who designed and restored churches and cathedrals all over Sweden at the end of the 19th century.
Two of the best bits to check out are the colourful rose window on the western facade and the 19th-century organ crafted by the esteemed Åkerman & Lund company.
9. Arboretum Norr
A short way up the River Ure from the city is the village of Baggböle.
In the 19th century this was the scene of a huge water-powered sawmill responsible for cutting down large swathes of woodland.
Now, the word “Baggböleri” is a synonym for reckless deforestation in Swedish.
Starting in the 1970s, this became somewhere to appreciate foliage as an arboretum was planted along the left bank of the river.
It is now made up of 1,600 trees and shrubs from around 280 species, sourced from all over the world.
These plants are all being assessed to find out how they respond to the northern climate.
In former army barracks is a kid-friendly science museum that opened in 2006 and runs during term time.
There’s an exhibition about space, a mathematics room with a wealth of brain teasers, puzzles and games, and a planetarium with three shows in the evening, one of which is in English.
The attraction’s showpiece though is its observatory, which has a 35-cm optical telescope with a ccd camera for guided stargazing on nights when the weather is clear.
11. Olofsfors Ironworks
A trip well worth making, this industrial attraction is in the town of Normaling, under half an hour down the coast.
What you’ll discover there is an intact ironworks going back to 1762. The special thing about this factory is just how much of its original equipment is still here, like a water-powered trip hammer and its blower, an 18th-century blast furnace and a forge where the iron would be honed into all manner of items.
There’s more to see outside the factory in the shape of worker’s residences, a coachman’s house, a fine manor house which is now a restaurant, and a schoolhouse containing the museum’s cafe and shop.
12. Älgens Hus
Another recommended excursion lies west of Umeå just outside the town of Bjurholm.
This is the setting for Europe’s first ever moose-themed attraction.
There’s a farm, museum and cafe at Älgens Hus, managed by Christer Johansson, a former ski champion.
The museum has ancient rock carvings of moose, as well as collections of giant antlers and displays explaining the life of a moose in each of the seasons.
In the farm the moose are tame and you’ll be allowed to approach and touch them.
These creatures are also milked, and this goes into a few of the treats served at the cafe and is also used to make cheese that you can purchase.
In the 1890s something very interesting happened on this small archipelago not far from Umeå.
On what had been uninhabited islands, the timber industrialist Frans Kempe established a Utopian working community around the largest steam-powered sawmill in Europe.
Life was made as comfortable as possible for Norrbyskär ‘s workers, in order to undercut union power.
The spacious houses built for the employees are still here and are now holiday homes in summer.
There’s a museum about the island’s history, trips on a tourist train, activities for kids, while the natural beauty of Norrbyskär is undeniable.
In summer you can escape to this archipelago accessed only by ferry from Norrfjärden.
The crossing takes 45 minutes, and in winter when the water freezes over there’s a hydrocopter service.
Holmön only has 70 or so permanent residents, but in the warmer month is a delight for its untouched nature, quaint homes and all the things you can get up to outside.
You can hire a bike and go where you please, discovering secret beaches, coasting through aromatic woodland and chancing upon little lakes and ponds.
You can also sail a traditional sloop, the kind that kept these remote communities in touch with the mainland.
Also call in on the archipelago’s lighthouse, which dates to 1896, or inspect historic vessels at the boat museum.
15. Music Festivals
Sweden’s indie scene has always been productive, and in spring you can see what’s new at Umeå Open.
This festival is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2018. After welcoming international bands for its first decade or so, it has turned its attention to domestic acts like Peter Bjorn & John, Little Jinder and Säkert! who all headlined in 2017. The Umeå Jazz Festival in October is now coming up for its 40th anniversary and stages around 30 concerts at various venues in the city.
It’s often listed as Sweden’s premier jazz event and luminaries from the jazz world show up each year.
One of 2016’s headliners was New York-based guitarist and vocalist DIDA.