Surrounded by lakes and forests, this compact city in southern Sweden makes for a deliciously sustainable weekend break.
Sitting beside a gorgeous lake in the centre of the Swedish province of Smaland, Vaxjo has long been an important marketplace and crossroads.
Its twin-spired cathedral dates from the 1400s, on the site once occupied by a wooden church in AD 1170. The city itself is small and compact, bursting with lively bars, cafes and a Michelin-rated cuisine built on sustainability and the unique ingredients produced in the surrounding lakes, forests and farms.
The city is circled by 23 nature reserves, a good deal of them within walking and cycling distance of the centre, with a 25.5-mile (41km) path linking it with the great outdoors.
Vaxjo makes for the greenest of relaxing European city breaks. Here's what to do here over the course of a weekend.
Check into: The PM & Vanner Hotel. Opened in 1992 by friends Per Bengtsson and Monica Carlsson, this stylish hotel is where the soul of Smaland meets the world. Each room was designed by Sweden's grande dame of design, Ingegerd Raman, and based on the three cornerstones of the region: forest, lake and meadow. Expect sparse and elegant interiors with luxurious details like oak floors sourced from the deep forests of Smaland; and limestone and marble bathrooms from Oland, an island nearby.
Have dinner at: PM & Vanner Restaurant. PM & Vanner actually started out as a restaurant and the hotel was built around it. Diners from the rest of Sweden (and the world) wanted somewhere to stay in Vaxjo with a similar philosophy and aesthetic to the restaurant. The menu offers a sophisticated take on Smaland’s regional cuisine, with dishes such as pikeperch and elk, and has been awarded a Michelin star and a Michelin Green Star for sustainability. Should the restaurant be fully booked (it’s only open Wed-Sat) the hotel’s bistro is equally excellent.
Courtesy of PM & Vanner
Go for drinks at: the bar at PM & Vanner. Boasting one of the best wine collections in the world, not just Sweden, the cellar at PM & Vanner was awarded a Grand Award by magazine Wine Spectator, which is the oenological equivalent of a Michelin star. Here you can sample the wines of young and upcoming producers from less renowned regions, as well as the best Cheval Blanc and La Tache. Per and Monica have imposed a strict one bottle limit so as many people can sample the wines as possible. If it’s quiet, one of the knowledgeable staff will happily take you on a tour of the cellar.
Start your day at: Bonan & Mustaschen. This small coffee bar at Storgatan 8 is an Art Deco temple to micro-roastery coffees, organic teas, artisan chocolate and delicious fresh pastries. Bonan & Mustaschen translates as Beans and Moustaches and is run by the irrepressible Andreas, suitably moustachioed of course. Andreas makes it his mission to match your personality or mood with one of his coffees. Breakfast here is guaranteed to put a spring in your step.
Courtesy of Bonan&Mustachen
Spend the morning at: Vaxjo’s Kulturparken. Tucked between the railway station and the lake, this pretty ‘Park of Culture’ is home to the Smaland Museum, the Swedish Glass Museum and the House of Emigrants, a fascinating museum that traces stories of the people who left the region in the 19th and 20th centuries for a better life in America. The Beach Boys, Michelle Pfeiffer and even astronaut Buzz Aldrin can all trace their roots back to this unassuming corner of Sweden.
Lunch at: an allotment or a castle, depending on the season. If it’s summer, head up to Ekobacken, the ‘ecological hill’ just up from Vaxjo’s stunning cathedral. Here you’ll find Picnic de Luxe, a local picnic-restaurant serving delicious meals made from organic fruit and veg straight from the allotment gardens. At any other time of the year, head around the lake to Teleborg Slott, a castle built in the 19th century that is now an atmospheric place offering breathtaking views across the water and delicious meals made from local, seasonal produce.
Spend the afternoon: e-cycling. Vaxjo is regarded as one of the greenest cities in Europe so what better way to explore it than on an e-bike from RentBike.se? They’ll bring a bike to your hotel and pick it up afterwards and offer tips on the best things to see and do in the city. If you’re feeling ambitious you could take on the Vaxjo Runt, a 25.5-mile (41km) cycle path that connects the six lakes, eight nature reserves and residential areas of the city, passing through wetlands and forests and past ruins that date back to the time of the Vikings.
Spend the evening at: Kafé de Luxe. Situated in one of Vaxjo's most charming and oldest wooden buildings, this casual bar and restaurant is decorated with retro furniture sourced from antique and charity shops around the region and punctuated with eccentric statement pieces. You could spend the evening wandering from room to room taking it all in, but you’d be better served tucking into locally sourced pub food and craft beers and wines. Pop down to the basement before you leave. It’s a popular venue for local bands and DJs and other community events. The night I visited, the local Lindy Hop association were strutting their stuff.
Spend your morning at: the IKEA Museum. Set in the very first IKEA store at Almhult and only 45 minutes by train from Vaxjo, the IKEA Museum is a temple to the vision of legendary Smalander, Ingvar Kamprad. Here you can follow the story of his life and how he used local Smaland values of thrift, durability and common sense to create furniture loved around the world. You’ll also find examples of IKEA products from every era, including the very cool 1950s range that wouldn’t look out of place in any hipster hangout today.
Lunch at: KOKET, the restaurant attached to the IKEA Museum. This surprisingly sophisticated eatery is where chefs create the IKEA meatballs of tomorrow – and you get to try them. Choose between traditional meatballs, chicken meatballs and plant-based versions suitable for vegans and vegetarians. All meals are prepared fresh in a state-of-the-art, stainless-steel kitchen right in front of you. It’s quite a thing tucking into meatballs that literally melt in your mouth.
Enjoy a leisurely afternoon: back in Vaxjo. Take time to wander the cobbled streets of the old town and explore the boutique shops in the pedestrianised city centre. Music lovers will want to drop in on Mono, a suitably hipster record shop set in an old printing shop, complete with massive industrial-era machines still in situ.
It’s almost directly opposite the city’s striking terracotta-coloured cathedral. Dating from the 12th century, its striking twin spires can be spotted from most parts of the city. Inside, the stunning triptych altar screen was created by the world-famous glass artist Bertil Vallien. Finish your afternoon with fika (coffee and cake) at Café Fontaine, right on the lake.
Have dinner at: Villa & Tradgarde de Luxe, just a couple of hundred metres from the cathedral on the corner of Sandgardsgatan and Klostergatan. If it's summer, just follow the sounds of clinking glasses and hum of people enjoying a local craft ale in the attached beer garden. The restaurant itself is decorated in the maximalist style, with countless nooks and crannies offering a truly unique dining environment. The restaurant is famous for its delicious woodfired pizzas, but the surprise menu of spur-of-the-moment creations from whatever is in season from the gardens on Ekobacken is equally popular.
Extend your stay: by venturing out to Glasriket, the Kingdom of Glass. Glassmakers have been hand blowing glass in southern Sweden since 1742 and the tradition continues today in the tiny independent glassworks dotted around the forests between Vaxjo and Kalmar. Here you can meet the craftspeople and artists as they work in their rustic cabins and maybe even try the noble art of glassblowing yourself. At the very least you can pick up a unique glass souvenir, sometimes at a bargain price.
Vaxjo can be reached by air from major cities in Europe and by train from Copenhagen and Malmo. Vaxjo Smaland Airport is a twenty-minute bus ride from central Vaxjo, while the railway station is right in the middle of town. The city itself is easily explored on foot and you can rent ebikes to visit places outside the city centre.
Discover more things to see and do at Experience Vaxjo.
Lead image: Pavel Dudek/Alamy Stock Photo
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