GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN — There’s a social expectation that comes with ordering coffee in Sweden. You don’t order a latté thinking you’ll drink it on your way to work, you go to cafés with friends or co-workers to sit down, relax and socialize.
It’s a cultural tradition known as fika (pronounced fee-kah), and after only a few hours in the country I heard it more than any other word in the Swedish language.
“I’ll show you around the city and then we’ll meet everyone for fika,” my friend said excitedly when I arrived at central station.
After introducing me to her group of friends she asked, “where does everyone want to fika?” and throughout the week we heard suggestions of trying fika at various cafés and restaurants throughout the city.
Above: Coffee shops are as important to the people of Gothenburg as beer is to Brussels.
I picked up on a few other Swedish words while I was in Gothenburg. Everyday expressions like tack (thank you) and hej (hello), but only fika managed to blend into our everyday vocabulary.
“It’s longer and has a name,” her friend explained, shrugging her shoulders.
It’s sometimes translated to “coffee break” in English, and can be used a both a noun and a verb. You can ask to fika with someone or invite your colleagues to have a fika.
While the definition is ambiguous, one thing is clear: it’s much more than sitting in a coffee shop and enjoying espresso and pastries.
It’s an important part of Swedish culture and many people believe it’s necessary to set time aside to fika at least once a day.
So after I’d been given a tour of the city, and listened to my friend talk about adjusting to life in Sweden, we made our way to Kafé Magasinet to experience true Swedish fika.
Kafé Magasinet is located just outside of Haga, one of Gothenburg’s oldest neighbourhoods and famous for the city’s landshövdingehues houses with one floor made of brick and the rest of wood. It’s a popular shopping district with many unique shops selling everything from teas and spices to clothing and antiques.
With the exception of Espresso House, there are few chain cafés in Sweden. The city is made up of mostly independent coffee shops and restaurants and all of them have space to sit and enjoy fika.
It’s rare to be offered a paper cup and drive-thrus are practically nonexistent.
Above: People gather in cafés t enjoy fika and the treats that come with it.
The floors of the Kafé Magasinet are cobblestone and the ceiling is made of glass panels, bringing in plenty of light and giving the illusion of sitting inside a greenhouse. It’s best described as cozy and a welcome site in a city where the sun sets around 3:30 p.m. and the skies are almost always overcast. The hanging plants and ivy trellises that line the walls add to the feeling of warm, summer weather and you can almost imagine it isn’t below zero outside.
They serve everything from coffee and pastries to pizzas and spicy vegan bowls. The espresso is organic and fair trade, as is much of the menu and the coffee is ground on one of the nearby islands.
They offer an extensive menu, catering not only to meat eaters but also vegetarians and vegans. Pastries include gluten-free and vegan options and customers also have the choice of lactose-free and oat milk.
And while the feeling of summer may be welcomed at the end of January, the real reason people go is to experience fika.
The coffee shop is busy and almost no one is sitting on their own. Even the few students sitting with their laptops in front of them, papers and textbooks taking over their tables, chat idly with each other.
Almost everyone is accompanied by a friend, family member or co-worker and there’s a clear divide between how we experience coffee in Canada and the way it’s done in Sweden. Here, coffee isn’t what you drink in the morning to give yourself an energy boost nor is it meant to be grabbed on-the-go.
In Sweden, coffee is meant to be enjoyed with others; uninterrupted by work or phone calls.
In fact, as we sat in Kafé Magasinet the only reason we took out our phones was to share pictures of our recent trips or message others to meet us for coffee. We stayed and chatted for hours, enjoying kanelbullar (cinnamon buns) and chokladbollar (chocolate balls) and never felt the pressure to buy something more in order to keep our seats in the café.
It was during fika that we were able to catch up and update each other on our work and family lives. It became a way to start our mornings or relax after spending the day getting to know the city and what it has to offer.
It was our time to sip coffee, enjoy the atmosphere and become truly engrossed in one of Sweden’s most important and tastiest cultural traditions.