Cult and culture in Uppsala

The Swedish city of Uppsala, north of Stockholm, is one of the most important in the country. Many centuries before Stockholm was mentioned as a small trading post between the Baltic Sea and Lake Mälaren, Uppsala, 80 kilometers to the north, was the pagan center of the Vikings. It is understandable that the Catholic Church focused on this place for successful Christianization. Uppsala became the first bishop’s see in 1164. The church needed scholars, which led to the founding of Scandinavia’s first university. Uppsala, scene of the Viking Age, center of power of the church and royal house as well as place of science and teaching is an exciting destination in Sweden. You can reach Uppsala from Stockholm in 35 minutes by train. A stay of several days is worthwhile, because if you visit Uppsala, you must not miss Gamla-Uppsala – otherwise you will miss the beginning of everything.

Abendstimmung am Fluss Fyrisån in Uppsala, Schweden / © Foto: Georg Berg
Evening atmosphere by the river Fyrisån with Uppsala Cathedral / © Photo: Georg Berg

Uppsala – a worthwhile city trip

In Uppsala, the cathedral, university, castle and botanical gardens are all close together. Historical input about Vigborg the Viking, King Gustav Vasa, Anders Celsius or Carl von Linné can be combined with a relaxing break in one of the many cafés by the river Fyrisån. A visit to the Anatomical Theater in the Gustavianum and a walk along the rune stones from Viking times are topped off with a Swedish fika in Café Guntherska. Old Uppsala, once a pagan center, sacrificial site and mysterious necropolis, is only five kilometers away and is easily accessible by bike or bus. Here are the most important sights in Uppsala and Gamla Uppsala.

Gamla Uppsala – cult site of the Vikings

Hügelgräber in Gamla Uppsala. Die Königsgrabhügel eingebettet in grüne Wiesen sind ein bedeutender heidnischer Kultplatz und das Zentrum des im 11. Jahrhundert niedergegangenen Königreichs Svea / © Foto: Georg Berg
Burial mounds in Gamla Uppsala. The royal burial mounds embedded in green meadows are an important pagan cult site and the center of the kingdom of Svea, which fell in the 11th century / © Photo: Georg Berg

According to legend, people from all over Scandinavia flocked to the temple in Gamla Uppsala every nine years during the Viking Age to make sacrifices to the Norse gods. Nine males of each species were sacrificed, including humans. It is said that they were hung in trees in a grove and their blood was to propitiate the gods. Adam von Bremen reported this to his archbishop around 1070. He wrote that the people in the north had a famous temple called Uppsala, which was decorated entirely with gold. Around 650 AD, there were not only the royal tombs still visible today in the area of old Uppsala, but also halls and a market square. The surrounding area was dotted with small mounds, as the deceased were buried in mounds of earth. In 1164, this legendary Uppsala became Sweden’s first archbishopric in the course of Christianization. Traces of the alleged golden temple can no longer be found today, but the large royal tombs are still visible. The Gamla Uppsala Museum exhibits finds from some of these burial mounds. To the great disappointment of archaeologists, the deceased and their valuable grave goods were cremated before burial. It is assumed that the temple stood on the site where the small stone church stands today. Gamla Uppsala has captivated people for more than 1,500 years. King Gustav Vasa also used the symbolic power of Uppsala on several occasions. In 1531, he proclaimed a bell tax on Parliament Hill, which was just behind the church. When the citizens protested, the king threatened to kill them all, whereupon they begged for mercy and agreed to pay one bell per parish. These and other stories can be read in the small community museum right next to the church. There is a lot to explore in old Uppsala, so much so that 125 years ago the need for a tourist attraction was already apparent.

Odinsborg – a restaurant from 1899

Das Ausflugslokal Odinsborg in Gamla Uppsala wurde 1899 im Geist der schwedischen Nationalromantik erbaut. Der Stil ist vergleichbar mit dem deutschen Jugendstil und einer romantischen Verklärung der Vergangenheit. In den Gasträumen von Odinsborg gibt es historische Darstellungen und Trinkhörner aus dieser Zeit / © Foto: Georg Berg
Odinsborg restaurant in Old Uppsala / © Photo: Georg Berg

The Odinsborg restaurant in Gamla Uppsala is one of the very first restaurants for outings. It was built in 1899 in the spirit of Swedish national romanticism. The style is comparable to German Art Nouveau and romanticizes the past. In the restaurant rooms there are historical depictions and drinking horns from the early years of tourism in Gamla Uppsala. To this day, Old Uppsala is a culturally significant place for many Swedes. You can still order mead, the honey wine of the Vikings, in Odinsborg. But coffee and a slice of cake are also a good choice.

Uppsala Cathedral

Grab von König Gustav Vasa (1496-1560) und zwei seiner drei Ehefrauen im Dom zu Uppsala / © Foto: Georg Berg
Tomb of King Gustav Vasa (1496-1560) and two of his three wives in Uppsala Cathedral / © Photo: Georg Berg

Construction of the cathedral began in 1270. Consecrated in 1435, the Gothic cathedral is the largest church in Northern Europe with its 107 meter long and 27 meter high interior. In the 16th century, King Gustav Vasa forced the reformation of the Swedish church to the Evangelical-Lutheran faith. Until 1719, many rulers were crowned in the cathedral. King Gustav Vasa (1496-1560) and the botanist Carl von Linné are buried here.

Uppsala University

Festaal der Universität Uppsala bei der Abschlussfeier für internationale Studenten / © Foto: Georg Berg
Auditorium of Uppsala University at the graduation ceremony for international students / © Photo: Georg Berg

Uppsala University was founded in 1477, making it the oldest university in Scandinavia. It is one of the hundred best educational institutions in the world and has produced 8 Nobel Prize winners. Today, 50,000 students from all over the world study here. Among the university’s most famous scientists are Carl von Linné, Anders Celsius and Olof Rudbeck.

Student life in Uppsala

Studenten stehen Schlange für eine Cocktail-Nacht in der Södermannsland-Nerikes Nation, gegründet 1805. In Uppsala übernehmen die historisch aus Landsmannschften hervorgegangenen Nations die Interessenvertretung der Studierenden. Darüber hinaus prägen die Nations das soziale Angebot für Studenten wie etwa Bars, Clubs. festliche Banquette oder Restaurants mit Mittagstisch, die exklusiv und preiswert für Mitglieder von Nationen sind / © Foto: Georg Berg
Students queue up for a cocktail night in the Södermannsland-Nerikes Nation, founded in 1805 / © Photo: Georg Berg

In Uppsala, 13 student nations represent the interests of students. These nations originated historically from countrymen’s societies. At the beginning of their studies, students choose a nation and pay their fees. Almost all nations were founded in the 17th century and are housed in venerable buildings. However, students are less interested in the history of a nation than its party potential. There are club and cocktail evenings, banquets and cheap lunches almost every week. Alcohol is also cheaper in the Nations, which regularly leads to long queues at the entrances. However, access is only granted to those studying in Uppsala.

Uppsala Botanical Garden

Altes Tropenhaus im Botanischen Garten Uppsala. Heute Sammlung von Sukkulenten / © Foto: Georg Berg
Old tropical house in the Uppsala Botanical Garden. Today a collection of succulents / © Photo: Georg Berg

The botanical garden is a varied green area. Among the highlights are the accurate baroque garden at the foot of the castle, the 200-year-old orangery and the tropical greenhouse. Café Victoria serves food made from regional organic ingredients and, of course, pastries and coffee. A picnic on the lawn is also permitted. Around the orangery there are still four old laurel trees in the large tubs that Carl von Linné ordered in Holland in the 18th century. Until the 1980s, the leaves of the laurel were used to weave laurel wreaths for doctoral students. But scientists seem to grow faster than laurel trees. In order to preserve the historical plants, the leaves for the wreaths are now sourced in Italy.

Linnaeus Garden

Führung durch den Linné Garten in Uppsala mit dem in Schweden bekannten Linnaeus Darsteller Hans Odöö / © Foto: Georg Berg
Guided tour through the Linnaeus Garden in Uppsala with the well-known Swedish Linnaeus actor Hans Odöö / © Photo: Georg Berg

The Linneaus Garden is located in the middle of Uppsala. The world-famous botanist Carl von Linné lived with his family from 1743 to 1778 in the professor’s house, which is now a museum. The house showcases his scientific achievements through exhibitions in the library, the study and the natural history cabinet. The 18th century building is furnished with original objects such as clothes, textiles, crockery and furniture belonging to the Linné family. This botanical garden was first laid out in 1655 and is the oldest in Sweden. In 1741, Carl von Linné became a professor at Uppsala University and thus responsible for the garden. Linné taught his students and conducted research here. The Linné actor Hans Odöö regularly slips into the role of Carl von Linné and explains the botanist’s studies in English during his guided tours. Carl von Linné introduced the binary nomenclature used today, according to which all organisms are named in a uniform system with a double designation.

Fika at Guntherska or Café Linné

Kanellbullar und anderes Gebäck in einer Bäckerei in Uppsala, Schweden. Diese werden in Schweden traditionell während einer Fika gegessen. Fika bedeutet die Unterbrechung einer Tätigkeit, um mit der Familie, mit Freunden oder mit Kollegen Kaffee zu trinken. Eine Fika kann zwischen 15 und 45 Minuten dauern. Zum Kaffee wird oft eine Süßigkeit, Fikabröd genannt, gegessen / © Foto: Georg Berg
Large selection of kanellbullar and other pastries for a cozy fika in a café in Uppsala / © Photo: Georg Berg

Cardamom knots are a popular yeast pastry alongside kanellbullar. Together with a cup of coffee, they become fika, a central part of Swedish culture. Swedes are among the biggest coffee consumers in the world. Fika means interrupting an activity to drink coffee with family, friends or colleagues. A fika can last between 15 and 45 minutes. Coffee is often accompanied by something sweet. When Swedes invite guests to a fika at home, they traditionally offer them seven different sweets. Less is considered stingy, more too ostentatious. This custom probably explains the huge range of cakes, canapés and cookies on offer in cafés and bakeries.

Cycling and hiking in Uppsala

Der Wanderweg Linnéstig zwischen Uppsala und Gamla Uppsala ist benannt nach dem berühmtesten Bürger der Stadt Uppsala, dem Botaniker Carl von Linné / © Foto: Georg Berg
The Linnéstig hiking trail between Uppsala and Gamla Uppsala is named after Uppsala’s most famous citizen, the botanist Carl von Linné / © Photo: Georg Berg

Uppsala has been voted Sweden’s most bicycle-friendly city several times. There are numerous well-developed cycle paths, hiring bikes is easy and many routes are well signposted. You can reach Old Uppsala, five kilometers away, on foot or by bike on the Linnéstig. Tip: take the bus to Gamla-Uppsala and after visiting the Viking cult site, walk back to Uppsala with the spires of the cathedral firmly in view.

If you’re wondering why Uppsala and Gamla Uppsala even exist, here’s an explanation: Gamla Uppsala had to give up its name to what is now Uppsala. Until the 13th century, today’s Uppsala was called Östra Aros. However, when the large cathedral was to be built in Östra Aros, the pope ordered the important name Uppsala to move with the bishop’s seat and the former Uppsala became Gamla Uppsala.

The research was supported by Destination Uppsala

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