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The Viking stereotype is prevalent the world over when discussing Sweden. The Swedes even play it up a bit: Just look at the Swedish fans anytime the country competes in an international soccer game. (If their failed attempts to qualify for this year’s World Cup are any indication, you might have to wait a while…) They cover themselves in Viking regalia, including the hilarious, but historically inaccurate, blue and yellow horned Viking helmets.
Despite all of the stereotypes, from an historical perspective, Sweden was not a hotbed for Viking activity. During the Viking Age, the majority of the Swedish population stayed home and farmed. Of course, there were still excursions, many heading east towards Russia instead of west towards what are now Ireland and the United Kingdom.
However, remains of the Viking past can still be found throughout certain areas of Sweden, and a few places just outside of Stockholm make for great day trips.
One of these is the island town of Birka. A two-hour boat trip leaving from Stockholm’s City Hall (Stadshuset) leaves daily during the summer. The boat trip itself is worth taking, as you wind through Lake Mälaren. Along the way, guides—usually dressed in traditional Viking garments—give a historical look at the Viking Age, the areas surrounding Stockholm, and of course Birka.
The island’s history
Birka, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, tends to be described as the first town to be founded in Sweden, around the mid-800’s. It was short-lived, however, being inhabited for only about 15 to 20 years before the Vikings moved on. That means that no one has been living there for well over a millennium, and that very few visible archeological markers (including houses) exist. This is mostly because Birka’s buildings were made of wood, and wood has a hard time withstanding the harsh Swedish winters for 1,200 years.
Though no historical buildings exist, there is now a small museum as well as several models of Viking-style buildings which are fun to wander though. But it is the Viking burial ground that really stands out. The Vikings created large burial mounds for their dead. On Birka, these mounds can still be seen protruding from the ground throughout the island.
Free guided tours are offered, usually given by an off-duty archeologist, and are a great way to learn more about the Viking history, as well as the community on Birka. The tour ends on top of the highest hill. The strategic importance of the island becomes obvious as you look out at Lake Mälaren and its islands.
Because of Sweden’s Right to Public Access law, visitors are allowed to wander all around the island. This provides a wonderful opportunity to picnic. If you do decide to wander, be sure to close all gates behind you. There are sheep on the island, and while some wander free, others are kept in large fields.
Admission and transportation
Adults will pay about 295 SEK for the boat ride to and from Birka. That includes admission to the museum and archeological site. Boats leave twice a day from Stockholm and return twice a day from Birka. Make sure to catch that last boat or you might end up stuck on the island. For more information on the activities on the island during the summer check out the Swedish National Heritage Board Web site.