All things considered, there’re relatively few castles in Sweden, especially when compared to many other European countries. However, I believe in quality over quantity – and there certainly are some spectacular places to discover.
The biggest crowd-puller in Sweden is Gripsholm Castle, a pretty Renaissance Castle reached by paddle-steamer. It’s also home to the one of the largest portrait galleries in Europe.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a dramatic and eerie ruin, Borgholm Castle is a vast, burned out shell on a desolate island on Sweden’s east coast.
The award for the weirdest exhibit in any castle in Sweden must go to the Gripsholm Lion. What were they thinking?!
A Potted History of Swedish Castles
Sweden is a vast country with a small population – just about 10 million people.
It’s enjoyed relative political stability since Medieval times, and so its lands aren’t scarred with the same fortresses and battle-fields you might find in central Europe.
However, you’ll still find many slott (castles) dotted around the Swedish landscape.
Do note, though, that the Swedish slott means palace as well as castle. The majority of the c16th palaces were built on Medieval foundations – which is another reason why ‘castles’ in Sweden are more modern than others in Europe.
Borgholm Castle: Breathtaking Ruins of King Canute
Borgholm Castle is an incredibly atmospheric ruined castle that can be seen on the island of Oland, a spit of land that floats off the east coast of Sweden, within the Baltic Sea.
It’s thought that a Medieval castle was founded here in the mid c12th by Knut Erikkson (better recognised today as Canute). The castle was frequently attacked by invaders, who approached Sweden across the Baltic sea. Because it was so battered, it quickly fell into disrepair.
Between 1572 and 1592, upon the ruins of the original castle, King Johan III oversaw the construction of a huge palace (or, more poetically, a ‘renaissance castle’).
The palace was a place of magnificent opulence but, on the 14th October 1806, it was burned to the ground by an accidental fire, which started in the Northern Wing.
Since 1806, the site has been abandoned, and only the fire-scorched ruins remain. However, the ruins are safe to wander, and are absolutely huge – the castle spanned more than 5000m² of floorspace, across three levels. Some of the steps are safe to climb, and views from the towers give a brilliant perspective of the entire site.
Of all the castles in Sweden, Borgholm really manages to stir the imagination. Indeed, these panorama photographs of Borgholm Castle manage to capture the magic of the site.
Finally – as a bizarre piece of trivia for fans of 80’s music – the video for Roxette’s ‘Listen to Your Heart’ was filmed in Borgholm Castle.
Orebro Castle: A Squat Little Fortress On The Banks of the Black River
Of all the castles in Sweden, Orebro is definitely one of the most endearing: it’s a squat little fortification which guards the trade routes along Svarta (the ‘black river’), in central Sweden.
Orebro literally means ‘a bridge over a gravelled river’, and there was a fortress here from about 1364. However, Orebro came of significant strategic importance due to its position alongside key roads and internal trade routes, leading to lengthy squabbles over its ownership.
Eventually, in 1573, the future King Charles IX tore down the medieval foundations to build the Renaissance Castle you see today.
The castle was built to emphasise military might, but the four towers were designed to provide light and spacious living quarters. Sadly, Charles IX didn’t live long enough to really enjoy the castle – he was murdered just a few years after it was finished.
If you’re thinking that the fairy-tale turrets on the rounded towers look a bit too good to be true, then you’d be right! These weren’t part of the original design, and were added on in the c20th.
If you’re looking for grisly tales about Orebro Castle, you don’t have to delve too far back in history. As part of the castle’s shows for tourists, the old cannons used to be used to launch fire-crackers.
However, just a few years ago, an accident meant that the fireworks were launched at a group of tourists, horrifically blowing off one poor man’s leg. A pretty horrible accident, and a little bit of Medieval cruelty in modern-day Sweden.
Gripsholm Castle: Undoubtedly the Most Famous of All Castles in Sweden
Gripsholm is undoubtedly the best known of all the castles in Sweden, and is located in the south of the country – a few hundred kilometres from Stockholm.
It’s firmly embedded in the tourist trail as it houses Sweden’s vast National Collection of Portraits, and as its many rooms are decked out in period Swedish styles from different historical times.
The castle even has its own theatre within one of the Round Towers, built in around 1780 by King Gustav III. Gustav famously portrayed himself as the ‘actor king’, and his home-built theatre was equipped with sophisticated backstage technology.
The approach to Gripsholm particularly memorable, as most tourists arrive by paddle steamer! The castle is on the banks of Lake Malaren, and the spires and turrets gradually rise into view from the boat.
As you’ve likely gathered, in common with the majority of other Swedish ‘castles’ we’ve covered, Gripsholm is more of a palace than a true stronghold or fortification. Although it was constructed upon fortifications built in 1380 by Bo Jonsson Grip (hence its name!), the vast majority of these foundations were destroyed by King Gustav I in about 1526.
King Gustav Vasa ordered the destruction and rebuild of many castles in Sweden, to strengthen the country’s defensive capacity. Gripsholm was marked from the start, however – it was always intended to be his new home.
After the castle’s rebuild, which commenced in 1537, the site passed to the Swedish Royal Family. Gripsholm remains in their ownership to this day, although it hasn’t been an official residence since around 1713.
Sadly, the castle suffered significant, unsympathetic renovations during the late 1800s, destroying some of its character by adding a rather ugly third floor.
And finally— the infamous taxidermy lion of Gripsholm Castle, the oddest thing in any of the castles in Sweden
First things first – this isn’t an internet hoax. This bizarre, taxidermy lion is a true exhibit in Gripsholm Castle, and dates back to the mid 1700s.
Lions were exotic beasts back then, and, when King Fredrick I killed a lion, he naturally wanted to preserve this marvel to show his guests.
However, his taxidermist, charged with stuffing and preserving the beast, had never seen a lion – and the end result is this cartoonish disaster. The big bulging eyes and the crazed tongue make it look like Goofy after an accident.
To be fair to the taxidermist, he had worked from images of lions on the royal coat of arms, which had protruding wiggly tongues and ferocious eyes. Also, from the side view, the lion actually looks quite impressive (trust me on this one!).
Only when you look at the Gripsholm Lion face-on do things look, well, a little less realistic. It’s a very odd highlight from within the great castles in Sweden.
Want to explore more about the Castles of Sweden?
If you’re keen to find out more about the castles of Sweden, a great place to start is Nina Ringbom’s SlottsGuiden.info, a carefully-crafted website which holds comprehensive information on practically every castle in the county.
The website is in Swedish, but there’s no need for worry: Google Translate will enable you to enjoy the mountains of excellent castle-content within. Enjoy!