Why Malmö is Sweden's Unexpected Sweet Spot for LGBTQ+ Travel

by Emell Adolphus

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday September 12, 2021
Originally published on September 11, 2021

WorldPride, Malmö, Sweden.
WorldPride, Malmö, Sweden.  (Source:Andreas Paulsson)

If your Swedish cultural knowledge begins and ends with ABBA's "Dancing Queen," Malmö is the queer getaway you deserve right now — before your life returns to normal. A seven-hour flight from the U.S. Eastern Seaboard and Sweden's third-largest city after Stockholm and Gothenburg, Malmö is two Euro trips for the price of one, thanks to its close connection to Denmark's capital, Copenhagen.

Often billed as sister cities, Malmö and Copenhagen recently co-hosted World Pride and EuroGames festivities together, and access to either is an affordable 45-minute railway ride across the Öresund (the Sound) strait. Throughout my 72-hour trip, I found Malmö to be the more mature and worldly sister of the two, with an approachable gay playground for a first-time foray into Scandinavia.

Grab your passport and a negative COVID-19 test (see the latest travel restrictions) and leave the rest of your worries over the Atlantic.

Making the Most of Malmö

WorldPride in Malmö, Sweden.
WorldPride in Malmö, Sweden.  (Source: Andreas Paulsson)

As an early adopter of LGBTQ+ rights, Scandinavia has been a welcoming respite for queer travelers for quite some time. Sweden legalized homosexuality in 1944, became one of the first countries in the world to allow a legal gender change in 1972 — followed by a monumental gender-neutral marriage law in 2009 and several other groundbreaking LGBTQ+ protections in between.

The average age of a Malmö resident is 36, and that youth has translated to an openness of ideas. As a result, Malmö doesn't have an official gay district akin to Chicago's Northalsted (formerly known as Boystown), LA's West Hollywood, or NYC's Hell's Kitchen because queer residents haven't really needed them.

"Sweden always takes pride in being very far in human rights," said Anna Tenfält, project manager of the joint Malmö and Copenhagen 2021 World Pride celebration. She explained that there are additional Pride celebrations in all Swedish cities. "We are usually up in the 10 best LGBTQ-friendly countries around the world. But that doesn't mean anything. I think the challenge right now is that a lot of people think it's good enough — even people within the LGBTQ community. Being a white gay person that is quite comfortable in Sweden, but it's not that easy to be a transgender person or people of color and being gay and combining different hardships."

Whether you're traveling with a friend or on a solo trip, visiting tourism hot spots such as the magical Gamla Staden (also known as Old Town) will help you make Swedish friends fast. Be open to recommendations and make a habit of dipping into stores just to say "Hej." And if all else fails, finding your tribe or your vibe is never more than a swipe away if you turn on your Tinder or Grindr in the city center.

Serene Scandinavia

Malmö, Sweden
Malmö, Sweden  (Source: Emell Derra Adolphus)

As much as Malmö tries to be a modern, forward-thinking city, a large part of appreciating its appeal lies in its transformative past. Once an industrial shipyard and manufacturing hub, the city has turned from assembly to sustainability in a makeover that reminds me of Detroit's recent renaissance.

But Malmö, in many ways, is already miles ahead. Owing to an abundance of green transportation options that shepherd its more than 340,000 residents from point A to point B, you'll find that the usual sounds of the city hustle and bustle are mostly on mute. As a visitor, you won't have to walk far before finding an electric taxi, bus line, pedal bike, Uber, or scooter to expedite your journey around the city's quiet, contained cobblestone roads.

Admittedly, if you are an American accustomed to lots of noise, the quiet can be jarring. How to fill the void? Think about what you can do to bring a piece of that extra headspace home. Or, if you're desperate, pop in your AirPods and give your travels a soundtrack by listening to a few Swedes you probably didn't know you loved, including Robyn, Tove Lo, Lykke Li, Zara Larsson, or, of course, ABBA, whose pop music comeback is imminent after 40 years.

From Kaffe to Kink

Understated architectural design, interior décor (e.g.: IKEA) and eating experiences you'll quickly come to learn is part of the Swedish way of life called lagom (pronounced LAH-gum). Roughly translated to mean "just right" or "in moderation," this term seems to apply to everything Swedes do, from energy use to eating portions.

In Malmö, the effect creates a city that is best enjoyed as a whole, rather than in individual parts. Make time to visit southern Sweden's largest museum, Malmö Museer, but also discover a different kind of culture with a fetish night of fun at SLM Malmö. Pick up afternoon coffee on Noir Kaffekultur Malmö's Parisian-styled patio before heading to Red Shoe Bar, one of Malmö's only two gay bars, to pick up someone. But you'll have just as much fun mingling at MJ's Hotel, Bar & Restaurant or dancing at Deep.

Local Cuisine with Global Flair

If there is any doubt about Malmö being an international city, look no further than its food offerings. At the old warehouse-turned-food market Malmö Saluhall, you'll find a "food-lovers paradise," including soft-churned ice cream at Favvo Glass, poke bowls from PÅRIS, wood-fired oven pizza at Hedvigsdal, and sweet breads and Swedish cinnamon rolls by St. Jakobs Stenugnsbageri.

Breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner will all feel like fresh concepts in Malmö because locally sourced ingredients inform most menu offerings — from rustic lunches at Ruths to late-night disco dinners at the fast-casual MAX Burgers.

Ambiance and intimacy, however, are unmatched at Aster. Exclusive, intimate and understated, Aster works as an apéritif or a nightcap after a day spent sightseeing. You'll want to put on a good shirt for the occasion and take off any pretension. For a more turned-up dining experience, casual and cool, eat at Atmosfär, where nibbles include pork cracklings, hummus, and anchovies paired with bread and lemon, and main courses include homemade sausages, steak tartare, and spring chicken — all approachable and enticing for the global palate.

Staying in the City Center

Clarion Hotel Malmö
Clarion Hotel Malmö  (Source: Emell Derra Adolphus)

Airbnb options in Malmö are plentiful and affordable, but to choose the self-service route over a hotel would mean missing an entire Swedish customer service experience. Instead, I stayed at the affordable Clarion Hotel Malmö, centrally located near various business and art districts. Plus, the hotel comes equipped with all the travel essentials such as Wi-Fi, TV, spectacular city views, and a few extras, such as the Manhattan-inspired restaurant Kitchen & Table by celebrated chef Marcus Samuelsson, on-site concert venues, and Skybar.

Sweden famously (or infamously, depending on who you ask) did not go into lockdown to battle COVID-19. You'll be hard-pressed to find anyone wearing a face mask, except visitors, around the city. But COVID-19 cleaning protocols and social distancing measures were embraced and actively in place among the Clarion Hotel staff. Lyft rides were staggered, and communal spaces, such as the breakfast hall, had occupant limits.

Overall, I felt safe and healthy during my entire stay, and a big part of that simply had to do with a trust in the hotel staff's service that started during an express check-in.

An exclusively LGBTQ+ travel itinerary for Malmö, Sweden, doesn't exist. Malmö celebrates openness and inclusivity for all, and that's the kind of vacation every out traveler deserves.