Slice of Umea: It's hotting up in snowy east Sweden

Steve Vickers walks around the 'city of birches' and the joint 2014 European Capital of Culture

For the first time since 1888, when a fire turned hundreds of houses to ash, Umea is hot property. Sweden's eleventh-biggest city, 400 miles north of Stockholm amid a sea of pine, is next year's European Capital of Culture. Compared with the Latvian capital Riga, which shares the honour in 2014, Umea might seem an unusual choice. But with one of the world's best design schools, a rocking music scene and a story that's been shaped by the Russians and the Sami – the indigenous population of the Arctic – it's every bit as captivating.

The celebrations don't officially get going until the end of January, when the first of eight Sami seasons (deep winter) begins. But the cultural calendar is already packed, and if you go soon, you'll miss the crowds.

Start your cultural tour of Umea at Stadskyrkan (00 46 9020 02642; svenskakyrkan.se; Mon to Fri, 10am to 4pm), the city's main place of worship. Originally built from wood, the church was destroyed twice – first by the Russian army in 1720 and then by the fire of 1888 – before designers switched to bricks. The Neo-Gothic building that emerged is now a popular place for concerts and recitals.

From here, wander downhill towards the icy black river. The wide waterway helps Sweden keep the lights on; the country's hardest-working hydropower plant is just 10 miles upstream. While you're here, take a moment to notice the birch trees lined up along the riverbank. Thousands of these trees were planted after the 1888 blaze in a bid to prevent future fires spreading, and Swedes still call Umea "Bjorkarnas stad" – the city of birches.

Follow the silver tree trunks east along the riverside walkway and you'll reach the arts campus at Umea University, home to Bildmuseet (00 46 9078 67400; bildmuseet.umu.se; free), a superbly curated gallery of contemporary picture and film. The building, a seven-storey tower of larch and glass, is a work of art in itself. Enter through the first-floor gift shop, stacked with books on form and function, and leave through the main entrance on Ostra Strandgatan, passing the university's renowned Institute of Design (dh.umu.se).

On Pilgatan, just across the road, the buildings are more traditionally Swedish. Follow the wooden houses, stopping halfway along for a lazy lunch at Bokcafé Pilgatan (00 46 9012 1830; pilgatan.se; closed Mon). This cosy bookshop has a little counter serving sandwiches and chokladbollar – claggy, chocolatey confections that are usually washed down with plenty of coffee. Ask staff about upcoming photo exhibitions and jazz-appreciation evenings, which take place at the shop.

The busy main road handling traffic from Finland, a four-hour ferry ride to the east, marks the end of Pilgatan. Turn left and you'll find a zebra crossing that leads to a footpath on the opposite side of the road. Follow this trail on to Gammliavagen and turn left after the sports centre. You'll soon arrive at Vasterbottens Museum (00 46 9016 3900; vbm.se; free), a sprawling, partly open-air cultural centre that tells the region's story through a diverse collection of exhibits. Until 7 January, it hosts Queering Sapmi, in which LGBT Sami share their stories.

A 15-minute walk to the south-west is Norrlandsoperan (00 46 9015 4300; norrlandsoperan.se), Umea's opera house. As well as putting on shows – a Swedish version of Hans Christian Andersen's Snow Queen is currently on – the company hosts Vita Kuben, a small contemporary art, space above the foyer.

The red-brick building opposite is an old school, currently being converted into a new hub for the city's musicians. Guitars The Museum (guitarsthemuseum.com) will open in February, showing off more than 300 rare guitars collected by local twins Mikael and Samuel Ahden. It will also house a music shop and the new iteration of Umea's best live venue, Scharinska (facebook.com/scharinska), which is now based across town at Storgatan 65.

For a quieter drink, head to Lottas Krog (00 46 9012 9551; lottas.nu), a short stroll west of the opera house on Nygatan. Like many Swedish pubs, it tries a little too hard to replicate the atmosphere of a traditional British boozer, but there's a good selection of beers, including Mariestads Old Ox, a dark-yellow brew that – at 6.9 per cent – packs a punch.

If you fancy watching a local band or solo artist, check the posters in the window at Burmans Musik (00 46 9012 0242; facebook.com/burmans musik). Opened in 1949, it's the oldest record shop in Sweden, with racks full of vinyl and rare CD box-sets from across Scandinavia.

Finish on Radhusesplanaden, Umea's birch-lined main thoroughfare. On 31 January, when a three-day inauguration party kicks off, artists, musicians and street traders will fill the southern end of this road, marking the start of a new phase in the city's cultural evolution. Tempted to join them? Book soon, and make sure you wrap up warm.

Fresh cuts

It's brand new but Koksbaren (00 46 9013 5660; koksbaren.com) has already established itself as the place to come for seasonal Swedish dishes, such as cabbage pudding with lingonberries and potatoes. Smart without being stuffy, it offers a superb-value weekday lunch menu that changes daily but always includes soup, a main course, and coffee (SKr110/£10).

Also new is the super-central Comfort Hotel Winn (00 46 9071 1100; nordicchoicehotels.se), just off Radhusesplanaden. The building itself is a bit of an ugly duckling (the huge glass panels dwarf the surrounding buildings) but it's a comfortable base with free Wi-Fi, a sauna, and double rooms from SKr779 (£75).

Travel essentials

Getting there

You will need to change planes in Stockholm. SAS (0871 226 7760; flysas.com) connects in the Swedish capital from Heathrow, Birmingham and Manchester; Norwegian (0843 378 0888; norwegian.no) connects from Gatwick and Manchester.

Staying there

Clarion Collection Hotel Uman, Storgatan 52 (00 46 9012 7220; clarionhotel.com). Doubles from SKr1,050 (£98), room only.

More information

Umea2014.se

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