Cold bathhouses, cobbled streets and a creative cityscape await in Sweden's Malmo

The Scandinavian city offers old-world charm in a new-age setting

Malmo is one of Sweden’s youngest cities. Photo: Werner Nystrand / Imagebank
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“Do you fancy a dip in the Ribersborgs Kallbadhus?” my friend asks, a smile on her face.

Malmo may enjoy a clement climate – long, warm summers and mild winters – compared with the rest of Sweden, but I am not sure I’m up to submerging myself in the city’s icy water.

Around me, people clearly disagree, heading happily into the kallbadhus, one of the many cold bathhouses that have been part of Swedish culture since the 19th century.

The Swedish Medical Association is said to have prescribed cold, salty baths to many patients in the early 1800s, which may well be why cold baths abound along the coastline and lakes of Sweden. A dip in the ice-cold water – no matter what time of year – followed by a session in the sauna is said to have health benefits including increasing blood circulation, improving memory, boosting endorphins and brightening your mood.

The benefits have made Ribersborgs Kallbadhus, located at the end of a very long pier in the Oresund Strait – the narrow sea channel between Sweden and Denmark – a Malmo institution. First opened to locals in 1898, the cold-bath retreat has five saunas, two wood-fired hot tubs, a sun deck and two seawater pools.

My friend gives me a hopeful look, but my ambivalent response seems to solidify the decision. No cold baths for me today.

Located in the far south of Sweden and founded in the late 1200s, Malmo is the country’s third-largest city, after Stockholm and Gothenburg.

A multicultural city, it was originally part of Denmark and served as a lucrative trading hub, best known for its Skane Market – a major fish market that took place annually in the Middle Ages.

In 1658, after many years of war, Denmark ceded the city to Sweden but, soon after, Malmo seemed to decline, going from a central trading town in the Danish kingdom to a relatively marginal Swedish city.

The Industrial Revolution put the spotlight back on Malmo, which became a major centre for shipbuilding and, by 1914, one of the fastest growing cities in northern Europe. However, it was not until the millennium and the opening of the Oresund Bridge that Malmo truly came into its own.

A combined railway and motorway bridge across the Oresund Strait connects Copenhagen and Malmo, and is famed around the world after featuring in the popular Nordic noir television series The Bridge. An impressive piece of structural design, the bridge is now as much a part of Malmo's architectural fabric as the centuries-old squares and modern spiralling skyscrapers.

I begin my exploration of the city traipsing through the cobblestone streets of Gamla Staden, the Old Town. I end up in Stortorget, Malmo’s oldest and largest square, which is surrounded by beautiful 16th-century architecture.

Created in 1540 and spanning 2,500 square metres, the city's largest public market square in now the setting for big events, such as the annual Malmo festival. A striking equestrian statue of Swedish king Charles X Gustav, who conquered the former Danish provinces of Skane, Blekinge and Halland, and united them with the Swedish empire, takes centre stage. Around him, history comes alive in the many surrounding buildings.

Malmo Radhus, the beautiful old townhall built between 1544 and 1547, stands tall on the east. Said to be the largest townhall built in the 16th century, the building went through extensive restoration in the 1860s when the Dutch Renaissance-style facade was created. The frontage features sculptural decorations depicting Themis, seen in Greek mythology as the personification of justice, wisdom and good counsel, and the interpreter of the gods’ will. The goddess is flanked by four figures that represent agriculture, shipping, trade and crafts.

To the north-west stands Kockska Huset, the former palace of Jorgen Kock, a master of the mint who went on to become mayor of Malmo. Built between 1522 and 1524, the stately brick walls now enclose private property, but you can venture inside with a reservation at Arstiderna i Kockska Huset, a fine-dining restaurant located in the cellar.

Towards the south stands the headquarters of the provincial government of Skane county, also built in the 16th century. My friend draws my attention to a building as we exit the square – Lejonet (The Lion), which was founded in 1571 and is the city’s oldest pharmacy. The current five-storey building, built in neo-Renaissance style in 1896, is the most beautiful pharmacy I have ever set my eyes on: it has an art-nouveau interior, with a glass-plated ceiling, whittled wooden shelves and antique medicine bottles.

A block north-east of the square is Malmo's oldest building, St Petri Kyrka or St Peter’s Church. The 14th-century Gothic church is built in brick, with ceilings adorned in late-medieval paintings.

By now, I’m keen to sit myself down and enjoy a repast, and Lilla Torg seems to be just the place. Located barely a few steps from Stortorget, the compact market square was created after Malmo's market grew so much that space on the Stortorget fell short. The small houses, quirky stores and inviting restaurants showcase how Malmo cleverly weaves history and modernity.

As I order a coffee, the barista tells me that people often head to Lilla Torg for a catchup – over a coffee, drink, lunch or dinner. Many nights out begin with clinks and cheers here as there are several popular nightclubs nearby. The cafe is not buzzing just yet, so the barista returns for another chat as I tuck into a kanelbulle, a deliciously spiced Swedish cinnamon bun.

She tells me that Malmo is one of Sweden’s youngest cities, with an average citizen age of 36 years. Perhaps that’s the reason the city has more pubs and restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the country. Malmo, now home to about 350,000 people, is a true melting pot of cultures, with residents from more than 170 countries.

The size of the city means it’s entirely walkable; and you can cover a lot of attractions in a day. This includes the Malmo Art Museum, the City Museum, the Museum of Natural History and the Science and Maritime House Museum – all handily housed inside Malmo Castle.

Other art-focused destinations include Moderna Museet, located in a disused power station, and Malmo Konsthall, one of Europe’s largest exhibition halls for contemporary art.

The next day, on a local’s recommendation, I head to Malmo Saluhall, a refurbished 1800s warehouse that's known as the destination for food lovers. Packed with small kiosks, eateries and stalls, the artisanal food market is a great example of urban renewal and the perfect place to shop for fresh produce or enjoy a quick bite to eat (the thoughtfully interspersed seating areas are perfect for this).

I wander from stall to stall taking in the mountains of locally made sausages, breads, cheeses, yoghurt, fresh fruits and veggies on sale, and the emanating aromas mean decision-making isn’t easy.

I make my way to Vastra Hamnen, one of Malmo's swanky, modern districts that's been regenerated from its former shipyard site. The seaside district is one of a kind – it’s entirely carbon-neutral with a self-sufficient energy supply drawn from biogas, wind and solar energy. The Western Harbour area encompasses living, working, education and leisure facilities, and is dominated by two landmarks.

Turning Torso, officially opened in 2005, is a neo-futurist residential skyscraper designed by Spanish architect, structural engineer, sculptor and painter Santiago Calatrava. Rising to a height of 190 metres, with 54 storeys and 147 apartments, the structure comprises nine cubic sections, each housing five floors and a mezzanine, with each floor rotated 1.6 degrees compared to the level below. This translates to a total rotation of 90 degrees, creating the impression that the tower is rotating around its own axis.

Not far from here is the Malmo Lighthouse. Constructed in 1878, Inre Hamm served as a guiding light to ships navigating the waters for more than 100 years before it was decommissioned in 1983. The red-and-white-banded structure may have been dwarfed in recent times by newer buildings, but it remains as a noteworthy beacon of the past.

Standing here as the day draws to an end, the lighthouse and Turning Torso juxtaposed against the setting sun showcase how Malmo has successfully melded the old and the new.

One day before I leave, my friend plucks her phone out of her pocket and pulls up a news clipping about the latest social media trend. I take it from her and read that the likes of Kim Kardashian, Harry Styles and Lizzo reportedly believe in the power of ice bathing and vouch for its “endorphin rush”.

My friend’s eyes have a mischievous sparkle – her body language says what she doesn’t. I take a leaf from her book and let my actions do the talking.

I draw a hot bath, toss in foamy soap and light a couple of candles. Ribersborgs Kallbadhus will have to wait for next time!

Updated: July 27, 2023, 3:11 PM