This smaller, friendlier version of Stockholm should be your next city break

Orebro, Sweden
Gemma ventured to the Swedish city of Orebro to assess its underrated weekend-break credentials - Icon Photography/Imagebank Sweden

“Are you excited about the Svampen?” I asked eagerly, for the 17th time, as our plane taxied for take off at Gatwick. My boyfriend smiled weakly, again. “Yes, darling.”

Before being asked to visit the Swedish city of Orebro to assess its underrated weekend-break credentials, I had been (like most British travellers, and, I’d wager, a fair number of Swedes) unaware of its existence. Brimming with enthusiasm, I had rushed to google what delights Sweden’s eighth largest metropolis held in store (untapped Scandi cool! Fairy-tale castles! Nordic folklore!), and was rewarded with… the Svampen (literally The Mushroom), a large, but not-large-enough-to-be-genuinely-thrilling water tower. And apparently not a great deal else. My heart sank.

But as our weekend of discovery drew near, I succeeded, gradually, to drum up some excitement for the Svampen. Eighth largest cities can’t all be showstoppers, and if this was Orebro’s finest attraction, by God we were going to muster some enthusiasm for it.

Orebro, Sweden
The Svampen literally translates to 'The Mushroom' - Icon Photography/Imagebank Sweden

So we flew to Stockholm, where we paused to meet Swedish friends for a quick drink, and asked if they’d ever been to Orebro (pronounced “uhh-ruh-broo”, they gently explained, which was not how we’d been saying it).

“Yes,” came the answer, as they looked at us with politely concealed Swedish consternation. “It’s a university city – we used to go there to get drunk,” said one friend. “It’s basically students, and elderly people, and not many in between,” said another. “You tend to live there if you haven’t left yet, or if you’ve come back… at the end.”

So, student bars and retirement complexes: a sort of Bournemouth without the seaside?

With some trepidation, we left Stockholm and headed two hours west by train, finally pulling into Orebro’s central station at around 9pm. It was very dark, but then it had already been very dark several hours earlier, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, when we landed in Stockholm. Not twilight, not a charming dusk, but a full, middle-of-the-night, all-pervading blackness, which felt extreme for this side of the Arctic circle at the beginning of November.

Orebro, Sweden
Two hours west by train from Stockholm, Orebro has functioned as a commercial hub since the 13th century - Icon Photography/Imagebank Sweden

But it wasn’t just dark: it was also raining, enormous drops of especially wet, icy rain. As we trudged through utterly closed, utterly sodden, utterly quiet streets – lined with stalwart Swedish chains (Ahlens department store, Bastard Burgers, Pressbyran convenience stores), down-at-heel Thai massage parlours and sad modern apartment blocks – we started to have second thoughts, wondering if even a visit to the Svampen could salvage our spirits.

In fairness, a brief look at the city’s history somewhat puts its modern appearance into perspective. Set halfway between Stockholm and Gothenburg, and on a major river, Orebro has functioned as a commercial hub since the 13th century. After a fire destroyed much of its centre in 1854, it seems to have finally surrendered to its lot as a place destined for practicality, and decided not to bother too much with aesthetics.

Fair enough. A similar approach has produced far less attractive cities than this, after all. Look at Milton Keynes.

Nevertheless, surrounded by frigid mist and smooth concrete facades, things looked bleak. And then, we stumbled onto Jarntorget, one of the city’s three main squares, and suddenly everywhere was aglow with tiny quaint pubs where plaid-shirted musicians plucked lively tunes on the double bass, and the sort of homely little restaurants where the odd Hamptons-chic hurricane lantern and quirky artwork complemented gently worn edges and hearty food. Everywhere, rosy-cheeked students and groups of vivacious retirees rubbed along without the least bit of friction.

Orebro, Sweden
Orebro is set on a major river halfway between Stockholm and Gothenburg - Icon Photography/Imagebank Sweden

Daring to hope this was the case throughout, we strolled across the Svartan – the river which dissects the city – and found (mostly) more of the same, alongside two antique stores and a shop selling hand-crafted pipes, plus two karaoke bars, three small clubs guarded by neon-clad bouncers, and two sports bars. It was Friday night, and students will be students, after all.

It was then that Orebro began to make sense. In having to cater simultaneously to two extremes – students who want their fun in music and cheap beer and burgers, and retirees who want some of that too, but with a nice refined edge and a decent wine list – it seems to have discovered a fabulous medium. And at a price tag to match: dinner for two, with drinks, set us back barely £60 – quite the Scandi rarity.

The next day, mist gave way to a crisp, blue-skied winter day, and suddenly there was the city’s spectacularly curvaceous Swedish Renaissance castle, which had been hiding right next to our hotel in last night’s fog.

We spent the day exploring, discovering that – with scarcely 150,000 residents and a city centre you can cross on foot in fewer than 20 minutes – Orebro is as compact as it is casual. By mid-afternoon, we had visited the castle’s neat little museum, state rooms and an excellent photography exhibition on its upper floors (; the Slottsparken, a pretty park dating from the 1770s; two unremarkable churches; a long, wide high street lined with smart homeware shops and yet more chains (a Specsavers here, a Burger King there); and Wadkoping, a charming open-air museum depicting the quaint (pre-fire) Orebro of yesteryear.

Orebro, Sweden
Home to scarcely 150,000 residents, Orebro is as compact as it is casual - Icon Photography/Imagebank Sweden

By 2pm, we had, by and large, completed the city – but for its Svampen. We strolled half an hour north to what felt like the outskirts of town, past enormous corporate warehouses, retirement condos with striped awnings, and through a sprawling bog which gave way to a sweet little neighbourhood of red and yellow houses with wraparound porches and gambrel roofs.

Then there it was, sprouting from a grassy mound and stretching skyward in alien, mushroom glory. And at the top, a tiny restaurant with views over the city and a nature reserve to the east, as well as a bar, and a draught beer pump in the shape of – what else? – a Svampen.

Here, in beer-pouring miniature, was the beauty of going beyond the usual city-break staples writ large – Orebro is (almost) everything that’s lovely about Stockholm, but on a smaller, friendlier, less need-to-be-cool scale. Where Stockholm begs for approval, Orebro is comfortable in its own skin: proudly average. It may not have the palaces or poise of some of its peers, but it takes itself altogether less seriously – and, truth be told, what city wouldn’t benefit from a dose of that?


Ryanair (, Norwegian (, SAS ( and British Airways ( all fly direct from London to Stockholm, with returns starting at £29. From there, take the Arlanda Express into the city (£31 return), then the onward train to Orebro, which takes just shy of two hours and costs from £41 return (

Gemma Knight was a guest of the Clarion Collection Hotel Borgen (00 46 1920 5000;, a dramatic 19th-century building in the very centre of the city overlooking the Svartan river, which has double rooms from £86 per night, including breakfast, fika (coffee and cake) and dinner (excluding drinks).

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