"Garden of delights"    

With its watery landscape of more than a thousand lakes, its 500 km coastline along the Baltic sea, its archipelago comprising something like 3000 islands, and its hundreds of castles, estates and manor houses, Södermanland (also known as "Sörmland") is a natural choice for the swelling ranks of "eco-tourists", especially those who are keen on historical landmarks as well as scenic splendours.

To Selma Lagerlöf, famously, the county was "the beautiful garden of delights". Södermanland's first inhabitants would probably have agreed. They are thought to have been hunters who arrived during the Bronze Age and settled near water, leaving behind monumental graves and runic inscriptions carved in rock or on standing stones beside ancient roads. Some runic stones are more recent, notably several relics of Christian missions, which began in the 11th century.

The waterways criss-crossing the region from lake Mälaren to the Baltic sea became important routes for transportation and had to be protected, together with the towns that had grown up on their banks and shores: hence the castles and strongholds built, it sometimes seems, on every available slope. The need of the aristocracy for suitably grand properties with proximity to Stockholm also accounts for the wealth of fine buildings and parklands.

Immensely popular
By far the most magnificent of these historical monuments is Gripsholm Castle, on the shores of lake Mälaren, towering over the idyllic small town of Mariefred. Built for King Gustav Vasa in 1537, its myriad rooms and winding passages house the national portrait collection, a unique collection of furniture and artwork spanning four centuries, and one of Europe's best-preserved 18th century theatres. The associated park, gardens and "deer field" are immensely popular.

A glorious 100-year-old steamship sails daily in season between Stockholm and Mariefred; twice a year, in May and September, there are excursions by steamship exploring "the cultural aspects of Mälaren and its interesting castles, manor houses, churches and heritages".

Julita, on the shores of lake Öljaren, is a 19th century country estate that has been perfectly preserved with all its exquisite interiors, parks, formal and herb gardens, dairy, fire station, church, brickworks... the lot. The site – originally a medieval monastery – serves as Sweden's Museum of Agriculture, holding gene banks for apples, pears and rhubarb, and including a peony garden, native breeds of domestic animals, agricultural exhibits, a modern free-range barn and a network of footpaths through a charming cultural landscape.

Facilities for visitors include a children's farm, shop, café and restaurant, and overnight accommodation in the manor or a youth hostel. A number of annual festivals are celebrated in traditional style; there are also "theme days" and a special "Julita Festival" of high quality classical concerts performed by young international musician, now in its eighteenth year.

Fine dining
On a smaller scale, the municipality of Södertälje numbers among its attractions the Torekällberget open-air museum of city and rural life in the 18th and 19th centuries, complete with handicrafts, farm animals and gardens. Nearby, in an old mansion overlooking the sea on the island of Oaxen, the luxurious Oaxens Skärgårdskrog restaurant is considered by many the finest in Sweden and one of the best in the world.

Parken, a zoo and amusement park in Eskilstuna municipality, is known for a range of exotic animals unusual in Scandinavia – in particular its white tigers but also including Asian lions, leopards and the Komodo dragon. Kolmården zoo, near the pleasant county town of Nyköping, features dolphin shows, camel riding and a range of child-centred activities.

Copyright: Sörmlands turismutveckling AB
Copyright: Sörmlands turismutveckling AB
Gripsholm Castle

Copyright: Sörmlands turismutveckling AB Copyright: Sörmlands turismutveckling AB Photo: Roine Magnusson, Kolmården
Mariefred Harbour at Stendörren Exotic animals