Cultural Navigator: Student Life in Uppsala

Posted by Kait Bolongaro & filed under Travel.


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“Gå av cykelvägen! Move!” A man shouted at me as he breezed passed on a bike. I stepped to the side as quickly as possible and I almost lost my footing. His irritation was visible as his mouth scrunched into a ball of disgust. I was meandering down what I thought was a wide sidewalk that turned out to be a bike path. After only ten minutes in Uppsala, I had already broken the cardinal rule of Scandinavia: pedestrians, stay off of the cycle paths.

This first cross-cultural miscommunication was my only negative experience in Uppsala. In general, this medium-sized city is a young person’s paradise. University students who sip coffees in cozy cafés or ride their bikes in hoards dominate the city centre. Uppsala is arguably the student capital of Sweden and its youthful population helps foster the dynamic and exciting atmosphere.

Are you curious about how to imitate a real Swedish student? It takes a bit of practice to be immersed in Uppsala’s vibrant student culture. Here is a road map to help even the most culturally naïve navigate a day in the life of a student at Uppsala University.

1) Channel Your Inner Swede

Uppsala Bikes

It is important to know how to channel your inner Swedish guru before heading outside to conquer Uppsala. Don’t forget your hipster outfit and bike. These are essential items in Swedish daily life. There is a high possibility that your day will include cycling through the snow during the winter. This may well be the Swedish national sport.

While North American voyagers may assume that there isn’t much difference between them and Scandinavians there are some subtle differences. The Law of Jante, which is popular in other Scandinavian countries, inspires the Swedish pack mentality. Basically, the community is more important than individuals and no one is more important than the other. It is quite rare to hear a Swedish person boast of their achievements even if they have circumnavigated the globe on water skis. Pride and arrogance won’t get anyone far. Swedes are also very polite and soft spoken. Be aware: what would be a normal inside voice in North America can be considered shouting in Sweden.

2) It’s Study Time!

Uppsala Library

Hopefully you aren’t studying during your vacation but one of the best places to experience student life in Uppsala is to visit the university. Uppsala University is the oldest institution of higher education in Sweden and is one of the most prestigious European universities. It has played an important role in Swedish history by producing many of the country’s intellectuals, academics and politicians over centuries. It’s nice to stroll around the different faculties and perhaps sit in for a lecture.

Carolina Rediviva (Dag Hammarskjölds väg 1), the university library, is one of the favourite studying stomping grounds. It is also the oldest library in Sweden but has a distinctly modern Scandinavian design flare. While some traditional study halls remain, most students study on the comfortable modern sofas on the first floor. Carolina Rediviva also has a small museum dedicated to books and it contains some of the oldest manuscripts in history, including the Codex Argentus-a Bible translation into Gothic print from the 6th century. Entry is 20 SEK for adults and free for children and students.

3) Joie de Vivre, Swedish Style

Uppsala Cafe

A morning spent connecting with your inner Swedish student can be tiring. This is the perfect time to indulge in the Swedish tradition of fika. This verb literally means to take a break. Friends, family or colleagues have coffee and cake together in cozy cafés. It isn’t only a national pastime; it is a way of being.

While Sweden is mostly famous for its meatballs, it also has a wide array of cakes and pastries for a traditional fika. These fika treats are literally called Fikabröd or coffee bread. Cinnamon rolls (kanelbulle) are a necessity at any coffee break and punschrulle — a small pastry stuffed with cookie bits and cocoa and covered in green marzipan with its ends dipped in chocolate. Heaven.

Uppsala has its fair share of cute coffee shops. My favourite was in Carolina Rediviva and it has a variety of traditional sweets and lunches with student prices. The atmosphere was quaint with its friendly barista and mismatched chairs. It fills up quickly so grab a spot before the lunch crowd arrives at around 11:30 am.

4) Ancient City of Learning


Author Elizabeth Gilbert once wisely said that each city has its own word to describe its character. Uppsala’s word is learning. There is an interesting historical site around every corner of the city with many learning opportunities for tourists and residents alike. It is hard to be bored in Uppsala.

European cities are famous for their churches and palaces. Uppsala doesn’t disappoint. The dramatic Uppsala Cathedral (Domkyrkoplan 5-7) dominates the city centre’s skyline. This Gothic-style goliath dates back to the 13th century and its long black spires make it the tallest church in Scandinavia. It is an imposing and formidable presence in the heart of Uppsala and inside is almost as stunning as the exterior. Another must-see is the Uppsala Castle (Uppsala Slott). This palace overlooks all of Uppsala on a hill in the downtown core. There has been a royal residence in this spot since the 16th century and some old ruins can still be seen. Nowadays the castle is open to the public for viewing and one of its wings is home to the Uppsala Art Museum.

Interested in Vikings? Check out the University Museum (Akademigatan 3) to see a collection of Viking burial artifacts. Curious about pre-modern Sweden? Visit Gammla Uppsala’s pre-Viking burial grounds and old traditional Swedish houses. If you love beautiful gardens, take in the beauty of the Botanical Gardens (Villavägen 8) and Carl Linnaeus Garden (Svartbäcksgatan 27).

5) Party at the Nations

Uppsala wouldn’t be a student mecca without a vibrant nightlife. The Swedes can party non-stop and don’t get tired until sunrise. However, Swedish students don’t necessarily stay up all night in random clubs and bars. One of the most unique institutions at Uppsala University are nations.

Nations are like mini student unions that were originally divided by student’s province of origin. There are 13 nations some of which date back to the 17th century. It was mandatory for all Uppsala University students to join a nation until 2010. However, for practical reasons, students are no longer required to join the nation that represents their particular region.

Each nation has is housed in a specific building that hosts community events such as welcome parties, lectures, excursions and balls. Many groups also have a bar that serves drinks and some food. It is the best place to experience Swedish student life firsthand. However, there’s a catch. You have to be a member of nation to get in. If you are a student from a foreign university, you can apply to get a temporary student card from Uppsala University by contacting the student’s services office.

This crash course in Swedish studentship may be short but hopefully navigating Uppsala’s vibrant student life is less daunting. It is one of the best cities to experience another study culture because of how welcoming Uppsala and its citizens are. If your student years are long gone, Uppsala is worth the day trip from Stockholm to enjoy its rich history and culture. Perhaps you will recapture some fleeting moments of youth while watching the sunset fade over this ancient city of learning.

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