Living in Malmö: A Pre-Brexit Guide to Life in Sweden

An international outlook, great childcare and underground clubbing await in Malmö, Sweden's third-largest city

Feature by Brian Cloughley | 09 Nov 2016

Things to do in Malmö

“Take the train to Copenhagen.”

That was the first reply when our Swedish teacher tried to start a conversation about things to do in Malmö. The first! 

But it’s fundamentally untrue – ignore any smartarse Danes who insist that Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city, is but a suburb of Copenhagen. Such condescension is, I believe, a fairly recent development brought about by Öresundsbron, the long, elegant road and rail bridge (as seen on Scandinavian crime drama The Bridge) which links the two countries and promotes increasing social and economic closeness within Scandinavia and Europe.

That’s the idea anyway. The super-national connectedness that the bridge symbolises is, in reality, undermined by the restrictions that have been in place throughout 2016, a delayed reaction to the refugee crisis. Two separate ID checks are now mandatory, making train travel to Malmö slow and unreliable. It’s a shame really, because this bureaucratic irritation belies what is now, arguably, Malmö’s defining characteristic – its internationalism.

In 2014, 31% of Malmö residents were born outside Sweden, and that number certainly hasn’t gone down in the meantime. There’s even been an attempt to make Malmö the first city in the world with residents from every nation on earth. 23 nationalities are still sought. Vanuatans, Andorrans, Marshall Islanders: Välkommen till Malmö! As long as you meet statutory employment requirements.

What does this internationalism mean for Malmö? Traditionally, non-European immigrants in Sweden have been packed away in suburban enclaves, but this is changing. The presence of immigrants is becoming more apparent, as the city transitions from multi-culturalism to the melting-pot model.

Nowhere is this melting point more apparent than in the Möllan area of the city. It’s a pretty remarkable neighbourhood, housing hipsterish faux-dive bars, actual dive bars, Asian restaurants of vastly varying qualities, fast food joints, incipient high-end eateries, Middle Eastern bakeries, arty office spaces and studios, and so on.

One of the striking, and emphatically non-Swedish, aspects of Möllan is how many people hang about in the streets. Coming from Scotland’s Central Belt, I initially interpreted the sight of young men hanging about in the street with trepidation/naked fear, but I was wrong. This is more like a cultural echo of warmer parts of the world where outdoor communal areas are more commonly spaces of social interaction (and, yeah, it’s also a reflection of high unemployment in Malmö, especially amongst immigrants).

Learn Swedish

To feel a part of this international scene, as counter-intuitive as it might sound, I’d recommend trying to learn Swedish. It’s fair to say that you don’t need to – it’s entirely possible to get by on English alone, although the oft-heard assertion that all Swedes love to practice their English with a native-speaker is something I'm inclined to reject. I don’t know, perhaps the stony-faced expressions I’ve encountered really are as a result of intense concentration rather than irritation.

Swedish is, wrongly, thought of as a difficult language to learn. Granted, it sounds a bit peculiar, but it’s actually pretty similar to English in terms of grammar, syntax, and even vocabulary. Plus it’s great fun to speak. The reason why people love impersonating the Swedish Chef is because it’s so goofy and fun. I must point out that the Swedish Chef does not, in any way whatsoever, speak a language even remotely resembling Swedish. Nevertheless, when you speak Swedish you can get as carried away with chef-like sing-song intonations as you like. It’s unlikely to be interpreted as piss-taking; be assured by someone who’s pushed the exaggerated Swedish accent pretty far.

SFI (Svenska för Invandrare/Swedish for Immigrants) is a free government-sponsored language programme that all new arrivals are entitled to. It has a mixed reputation – classes can be a bit chaotic sometimes – but I emphatically recommend it. It involves learning not just the language but about Sweden in general, mostly through conversations about gender equality, sexuality, human rights, and so on.

More surprisingly, you’ll learn just as much about Sweden from your classmates. The Syrians, Iraqis and Slavs that you sit with in class are your neighbours. They might not watch women’s football or cure their own salmon but, in the here and now, they are Malmö. Their relationship and reaction to Sweden are important, and finding out how they live and how they came to be here is consistently enlightening.

Finding a flat

As is the case with every other habitable place in the known world, finding a decent rental in Malmö is a pain.

It’s important to know the difference between a first- and second-hand rental. A first-hand rental is an arrangement with a housing association, and gives you strictly enforced rights regarding changes in rent, the length of your tenancy, upkeep of properties and so on. Because of the relative scarcity of these properties, there is a sub-letting market, with people hoarding their rented flats and renting them out on a short term basis.

Second-hand (andra hand) rents of this kind are easier to come by but far less regulated and secure. Standard operating procedure for new arrivals to Malmö is to take your chances with a second-hand rental (most likely found through the Swedish equivalent of Gumtree, then hunting out a first-hand place where you don’t face the risk of being turfed out by your landlord on a whim. (This system is, not uniquely, institutionally prejudiced towards native Swedes, but that’s an argument best saved for another time).

There’s less of a tradition of young people flat-sharing in Sweden than in the UK, so some of the terms used to describe living arrangements can be a bit misleading. For example, if you’re invited to live in a kollectiv don’t expect to end up in a hippy commune in the style of Lucas Moodyson’s Together. A flat-share with a taciturn German is the more likely outcome.

Also, don’t expect your own washing machine. Tvättstugen (literally, the washing cottage) is pretty much a Swedish tradition. You’ll have to book a time to do your laundry in advance, probably in the basement of your building. This sounds like a massive pain in the arse, but is actually extremely useful as an invariably valid excuse for ducking out of any unwanted social engagement. “Oh, you’re going to see an Ingmar Bergmann double bill on Tuesday? Ah, yeah, sorry, tvättstugen.

As a line to shut down a conversation it’s a beauty, a failsafe excuse matched only by a trip to the VD clinic. It’s better, in fact, because you’ll avoid any follow-up questions about why you’re going to have to spend four hours at the VD clinic.

Malmö nightlife

Sussing out Malmö’s nightlife isn’t straightforward. Above the surface, weekends in Malmö can appear lively but somewhat sanitised. The centre of Malmö’s weekend action is Lilla Torg, a central square with pubs, restaurants and cafes on all four sides. There’s a line from Trainspotting that always pops into my head when I happen across Lilla Torg of an evening: “Only arseholes, wankers and tourists set fit in Rose Street.” I’m sure you’ll make up your own mind on that one.

The aforementioned Möllen is a more reasonable place to start a night out. There’re enough bars and restaurants to find something to anyone’s taste, and the adjoining area in and alongside Folketspark forms something of an indie music hub (Kulturbolaget, Babel, InKonst and Moriska Paviljonen). Unfortunately though, to catch touring bands, you’ll often have to resort to that old ‘take the train to Copenhagen’ approach.

A visitor would probably be surprised at how quiet Malmö seems after midnight. I believe this is, in part, a result of the lack of music-focused clubs here. Serious clubbing is hampered by legislation, for example the Swedish law that (with very few exceptions) permits the sale of alcohol only to establishments that serve food. Somehow the intensity of a hardcore trance night can be undermined by somebody tucking into their chicken and chips in the corner of the room.

Regardless of the reasons for it, Malmö has a significant underground club scene. Known in Swedish as svartklubben, parties of dubious legality pop-up in and around town every weekend (and are often promoted with a nice line in inclusive gender, sexual, and racial politics). On occasion parties are shut down by the police, but there seems to be an unoffical (and untypical for Sweden) police tolerance towards them. In any case, a lot of them are not illegal as such, and operate more or less legitimately as social clubs (you may have to become a member before you can attend).

In a way, the extent of a club’s legality is reflected by their overt presence on social media – if a club has an open Facebook group it surely can’t be very illegal. Oskrivet (techno/house) and Plan B (eclectic weirdness) are a couple of higher profile (and largely above-ground) club names to get you started. From there, it’s up to yourself how far down the rabbit hole you wish to venture.

Bring the kids

Of course, when people talk about moving to Sweden for the lifestyle they’re rarely referring to the underground party scene. It’s widely reported, and indeed true, that Sweden’s provisions for parental leave and daycare make parenthood a viable life choice here rather than the ruinous catastrophe and/or preposterous pipe-dream that it so often seems to be in the UK.

This kid-friendly (or perhaps more accurately, parent-friendly) set-up is evident throughout Malmö. There are playgrounds everywhere and you can’t go far during daylight hours without bumping into a daycare day-out. The sight of a two-by-two line of chattering hi-vis clad munchkins is indubitably adorable. The convention for kids to go to nursery/pre-school from a young age and for long days (at little or no cost to the parents) is one of the pillars of raising kids in Sweden.

Is this a sensible and holistic policy that promotes individual freedom, a healthy work-life balance and gender equality? Or is it a nefarious way of ensuring young kids become indoctrinated into a Swedish way of life at the earliest possible age? Again that’s an argument for another place, but those kids in the hi-vis vests are so cute they might make the whole brainwashing thing worthwhile.

The other pillar of raising young kids is the ample parental leave that new parents are entitled to, while continuing to receive the majority of their salaries. There is a hefty amount of red-tape involved, but these benefits are available to all residents from EU countries (insert here: Brexit lament/mocking comment about the unsustainability of European social provisions).

There is even a bonus equality payment, to encourage fathers to take equal parental leave. If the presence of earnest-looking men around parks and playgrounds is any indication, this policy seems to be working. This brings to mind the (ok, yes, almost certainly apocryphal) story of an American visitor returning from Malmö and reporting on its renowned social liberalism; “It’s amazing, there are gay au-pairs everywhere!”

Check out our full list of Living Abroad guides, from Sydney to Santiago, here