Posted August 9, 2013 in More

Lake Mälaren


You’ve got the gist by now: take two things, compare them, and decide which to ‘drink’ and which to ‘sink’. Just like ‘vaskning’, really—but without the criminal waste of champagne. We started off by ‘drinking’ Nya Slussen and ‘sinking’ Gamla Slussen, before Götgatan triumphed over nearby Hornsgatan. But since nobody stays in the city all summer long, we’ve decided to leave Stockholm behind for a while and head out on the water. We’ve loaded up the boat with sill and smultron, kaviar and kantareller (and a few bags from Systemet to boot). We’ve got the lifejackets zipped up—because safety is cool, people—and now we just need a direction. West into Mälaren, Sweden’s third-largest lake? Or east, into the Baltic Sea?


Before we go any further, an admission: almost any comparison between Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea is complete and utter nonsense. Remember, Mälaren is a lake. Its average depth is 13m; the Baltic’s is 55m. It’s a mere 120km from one end to the other, with a total area of just 1,140 square kilometres—almost three hundred times smaller than the Baltic. As lakes go, Mälaren is pretty big—but it’s tiny in comparison with a sea which borders no fewer than fourteen countries. And until about 800 years ago Mälaren was actually part of the Baltic—an inconsequential little inlet adjoined to a vast body of water. Ask your average traveller which of the two would be most likely to feature on their bucket list, and there’d only be one answer.

Lake Mälaren map The thing is, of course, that we’re not your average traveller. We’re Stockholmers—and as Stockholmers, we know there’s one means of measuring the two against one another that dwarfs all others in importance. Forget size. Forget history. Forget international trade. Which one hosts the better summer holiday?

I didn’t pick this particular comparison for no reason. As a recent arrival in Stockholm, various local friends have taken it upon themselves to show me The Real Sweden—which, it being summer, essentially means a country house on a far-flung island. Four weeks ago, I went to one in the Baltic; two weeks later, I went to one on Mälaren. There were similarities: in both places I grew accustomed to using the ‘dass’—one example of which, marvellously, was adorned with a photo of the Crown Princess and her hubby—and was viciously attacked by mosquitoes. But in these ways (and many others) the two can’t be separated. The countryside is the countryside. In a straight shoot-out, some different criteria need to be brought into play. Environmental matters, for instance.

Baltic SeaMälaren may be relatively small, but it more than pulls its own weight. Being a freshwater lake, it provides all of Stockholm’s drinking water—the quality of which, as any Stockholmer will tell you, is about as good as you’re likely to find (although Scottish readers may beg to differ). The Baltic has fairly low levels of salinity, too—but reports suggest that its waters contain something rather more sinister than salt: chemical weapons disposed of by nations including the UK and US after World War II. Although they were allegedly dumped off the German coast, the bottles, which contain various poisonous gases, may well have shifted in the half-century since they were discarded—and reports suggest that it’s only a matter of time before they begin to leak.

baltic sea mapFor now, of course, there’s no need to worry; you can swim in the Baltic without a second thought. I’ve done it myself—although the temperature might make me think twice in future. If you’re one of those people who prefer a ‘bracing’—or, to use the popular terminology, ‘refreshing’—morning dip, then the Baltic is for you; as I took the plunge, every cigarette I’ve ever smoked leapt to the top of my lungs and clung there for several hours thereafter. Mälaren was chilly too, but not nearly as gasp-inducing; shallower waters, of course, tend to warm up more quickly in good weather. If, like most right-thinking people, you believe that an extra few degrees make for a more pleasant bathing experience, then Lake Mälaren wins hands down.

Being inland has its other virtues, too: Mälaren gets bonus points for its calmer waters and its connections to the mainland, both geographical and digital; you’re never too far from a decent phone signal, a hearty meal and (perhaps most importantly) a fully-functioning toilet. What’s more, some of the towns surrounding the Lake are almost picture-perfect. Strängnäs, for instance, is as picturesque a country town as one could wish for. It’s a little bastion of civilisation in the midst of a rural hinterland; approaching its warmly-lit harbour from the water at dusk feels strangely like coming home. Plenty of these towns are peppered around Mälaren’s jagged periphery—little unexpected reminders of human life lurking amidst the Swedish wilderness.

The freshness, the climate, the proximity to the mainland: all these factors would seem to tip the balance in Mälaren’s favour. But all of that assumes the desire to keep one’s trip as pleasant and straightforward as possible. What if you want colder water, rougher waves, and a bit of distance between you and your normal waking world?

For all that Lake Mälaren has in its favour, it can’t quite compete with Baltic life when it comes to the quixotic thrill of the wild. Unprotected by the Swedish mainland, the Stockholm archipelago is imbued with that latent sense of freedom—and maybe even danger—which tends to accompany the feeling of genuine isolation. To visit its furthest reaches is to hang on to Sweden by a thread, in the wonderful, unsettling knowledge that other nations, languages and cultures are right there, just a couple of horizons away. Speak to any traveller who has spent time in the archipelago and they will wax lyrical about its ‘natural beauty’. It’s an overused term, but out in the Baltic it feels entirely appropriate.


If we were speaking literally, choosing which of these waters to ‘drink’ and ‘sink’ would be a no-brainer; after all, Stockholmers consume gallons of Lake Mälaren’s waters every single day. But we’re not speaking literally—and in our little metaphorical world, we’re drinking the Baltic instead. Beautiful though it is, Lake Mälaren can’t compete with the archipelago in the stakes that really count: that feeling of proximity to the wild, of being genuinely ‘elsewhere’. If you get the chance to visit an island on the Lake, take it; but if you get a chance to go east instead, jump. As for jumping into the water itself—well, we’ll leave that up to you.

Do you agree with our verdict? Which would you ‘sink’—Mälaren or the Baltic? Share your thoughts by emailing



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