Alexander Skarsgård, Ikea, meatballs, Abba, and reindeer aren’t the only reasons to love Sweden, especially if you’re a mom or dad to a little one. Ubiquitous high chairs, changing tables, and playgrounds are a few other things traveling parents might fall in love with in the Scandinavian country, as I did recently while road tripping around the heart of Sweden with my husband and our 18-month-old daughter.
I knew ahead of time that Norse nations had a reputation for their wonderfully generous — justifiably so — parental leave programs. When I visited Oslo years ago, I was impressed to see dads leisurely walking their babies around mid-morning, mid-week, and entire young families hanging out in parks on a Tuesday. In Stockholm, too, you can’t throw a binky without hitting a stroller. But I was still surprised to experience firsthand just how well Sweden caters to little ones and, let’s be honest, the parents whose lives are being made easier.
I thought I was dreaming when I stumbled bleary-eyed off the plane in Stockholm and saw a giant stack of complimentary umbrella strollers within 10 yards. I was carrying our 24-pound daughter, Indah, after flying 11 hours overnight from Los Angeles, and this felt like a mirage.
But it was real: Swedavia airports provided us strollers to use for free from the time we landed to the moment we left the airport. I was so happy that sleepy Indah was in that stroller as we waited almost an hour in the immigration line. (It’s worth mentioning the 18-minute Arlanda Express train into the city is free for kids, too.)
Through our 10 days touring southeastern Sweden, I continuously felt like things were master-planned by attentive parents. We drove through small towns, some with only a single restaurant (often, a pizza-kebab eatery), but virtually every one had a playground. And these were not run-of-the-mill plastic playgrounds; they were original and creative. There were sandboxes with diggers (which my husband shamelessly hogged) and pirate ships, trains and tire swings, colorful houses and massive spiraling slides, stilts and play areas carved from trees and, in keeping with the history of a storied town called Falun, giant painted goats.
When visiting Sundborn’s beautiful red wooden church, built in 1755, I was shocked to see a play area for kids behind the turquoise pews, complete with tiny tables and chairs, stuffed animals, dolls, crayons and paper, books, and puzzles.
Ditto at the fascinating Torsby Finnskogscentrum museum and Skogskyrkogården, a historic cemetery and UNESCO World Heritage Site. There, on a baby-sized stool, Indah happily had herself a tea party with a stuffed owl and several badgers while us adults ogled the architecture.
From cool pizza places (P-za) to fine-dining establishments (Bofors Hotel) to lakeside fish shacks (Antes Hamnbod), high chairs abounded, making us feel comfortable and welcome to bring our toddler everywhere. And at some lunch buffets in small-town restaurants, kids under four ate free. Plus, padded stainless steel changing tables were in virtually every restroom I entered, in addition to accessibility setups).
In Stockholm, we had a giant-by-European-standards room at the wonderfully located Story Hotel Riddargatan — JDV by Hyatt, complete with the limousine of pack ’n plays (we noticed the travel cribs were all super long). Here, Indah had plenty of room to entertain herself by rolling my Away suitcase around the airy, art-riddled room. We all enjoyed the breakfast spread (a standard comprehensive perk of every accommodation), thanks to lots of kid- and adult-friendly options, and Indah looked adorable in the Scandinavian minimalist high chair. At other meals, there were, of course, crowd-pleasing Swedish meatballs with gravy, lingonberries, and mashed potatoes, a meal she happily scarfed down several times.
Even at the gorgeous new Hôtel Reisen — The Unbound Collection by Hyatt (where us parents took turns in the sauna and Tjärn forest pond–inspired cold pool while Indah napped), they were gracious and friendly to their little guest, providing a chic black crib with mini pillow and duvet.
Getting around the city is a breeze — some of our Uber drivers even surprisingly pulled out baby seats. All buses, streetcars, and trains allot space for pregnant women and those with young kids, and subway stations are clean and welcoming, each boasting original murals, art, and installations. The grotto stations are especially cool, Kungsträdgården in particular.
Fans of Pippi Longstocking and kids with big imaginations will go crazy for Junibacken, an engaging children’s museum that’s like the Scandinavian literary version of Disneyland — with free chocolate milk on the way out. Indah was captivated and would have happily spent days exploring every inch of the play worlds devoted to author Astrid Lindgren’s theatrical stories. The farm animals at the family-friendly nature reserve and 18th-century manor Nyckelvikens also entertained her. And we didn’t make it, but the amusement park Gröna Lund has a ride that toddlers can take without their parents, plus many more tame, fun options with no height limit.
Out in the countryside, I appreciated the well-marked hikes that meant we always knew exactly the length (and difficulty) of each walk. And many of the roads cutting through dense forests had beautiful places to pull over and rest, sometimes even at a lake with a tidy outhouse and sandy beach to dig in. But perhaps best of all were the vast outdoor spaces. Indah adored running across endless grass with no traffic in sight, but dozens of fat ducks, picking up “baby” pinecones on a stroll through the woods and munching on apples picked straight from the orchard.
A major highlight came when Indah reached out and giddily touched a reindeer’s velvety antlers while at Skansen, the world’s oldest open-air museum, which also features the Baltic Sea Science Center and living exhibits on each part of Sweden, including lots of animals. I realized at that moment that it was the first time I’d seen a reindeer myself, and I felt excited, too. Indah’s joy was contagious.
In Sweden, it felt natural, easy, and accepted to be traveling with our child, which is not always the case around the world. For me, seeing the country through my child’s eyes helped reclaim some of the magic of travel that we can lose when we grow up, and that was perhaps the best gift of all.