Travelling to Ystad, Sweden

The mysterious lure ?of Swedish seaside ?town Ystad?.

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The mysterious lure 
of Swedish seaside 
town Ystad

It’s barely dawn over the Baltic Sea and the morning light brings into view my first crime scene: a stretch of beach where two tortured (but nicely attired) corpses drifted lifelessly to shore, ironically on a lifeboat. Before breakfast, I tramp up the Hammars Backar hills of Ystad to the spot where a taxi driver was stabbed to death and wander through the woods in the Hagestad Nature Reserve. Stunted, gnarled oak and shady pine trees here confirm what a serial killer already figured out: this is indeed a very tidy spot to hide three bodies. By lunchtime, I’m at the edge of a vast rapeseed field. Here a young woman drenched in gasoline lit herself on fire. 

While in reality Sweden is a rather peaceable nation, with a homicide rate of only one per 100,000 residents, in crime novels it’s a bleak and violent place. The Stieg Larsson trilogy that begins with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has a lead character who is violently raped, then tortures her attacker with crude carvings on his body. But that’s nothing compared to what goes down in Ystad, a seaside town of 17,000 perched on the southernmost tip of Sweden – at least in fiction. In the world of detective Kurt Wallander – the literary creation of bestselling author Henning Mankell – Ystad has a murder rate that would make Mexico seem like, well, Sweden.

The dark world inhabited by Wallander is big business in Ystad. Mankell’s first Wallander book, Faceless Killers, came out in 1991 and at least five actors, including Kenneth Branagh, have portrayed the whiskey-drinking, opera-loving detective in various TV series. Twenty-five million copies of Kurt Wallander books have sold worldwide and the number of visitors coming to Ystad has risen every year since 2002. 

Ystad is, however, more than the sum of its body parts. Stortorget, its town square, dates back to the 13th century and from certain angles (under the shadow of its Franciscan monastery and in the middle of the 500-year-old Kemnerska garden) life looks exactly as it would have centuries ago. Peer a little farther off the square and there are shopping lanes with the ubiquitous H&M and other clothing boutiques housed in 16th-century buildings. 

This medieval town has long been an important historical port, with Latvia and Russia on the other side of the Baltic Sea and passenger ferries departing daily for Poland and the Danish island of Bornholm. Ystad’s seaside traditions remain today, with nearby fishing villages that date back centuries featuring houses built along stone gardens and walls all along the countryside. 

Above the fishing village of Kaseberga, 20 minutes from Ystad, is the Ales Stenar, often referred to as Sweden’s Stonehenge, with its 59 stones each weighing as much as two tonnes. Surrounded by vast fields, the stones appear suddenly near the edge of a cliff, a megalithic monument whose origins and purpose have remained a mystery for centuries. 

On windy days, the imposing grey of the immovable stones is a stark contrast to dozens of paragliders floating across the sky as bright as balloons. Paragliders from all over northern Europe come here because the uprising winds along the coast of Scania, particularly the high cliffs near the Ales Stenar, create the thermal drift they prize. 

Take away the fictional horrors and the reality of Ystad is a landscape of cobble streets, sandy beaches and lush forests. Perhaps that is why each criminal activity that takes place in the Wallander books is so compelling; violent misdeeds seem so unlikely here. Peace is a place where bodies appear but leave no trace behind after the final chapter.



Spring and early fall are the best times to visit southern Sweden. In April, daytime highs are near 10 degrees Celsius.

Best Bed 

The sprawling 114-year-old Ystad Saltsjobad hotel, on the outskirts of town, is situated right on a sandy beachfront on the Baltic Sea.

Best meal 

While Ales Stenar is Sweden’s top elliptical attraction, there’s also the Dag Hammarskjold peace circle. Held at Backakra, summerhouse of the former U.N. Secretary General, it’s the place to be for late June’s Midsummer Festival.

Can’t miss

At the detective’s favourite café, the Fridolfs Konditori, try the Wallander pastry, a tooth-jarringly sweet cake with blue marzipan glaze the shade of a Swedish police uniform. 411-12527