Why Stockholm is the ‘Boston of Europe’

It’s no secret that Stockholm and Boston are premier cities for higher education on their respective sides of the Atlantic. But a closer look reveals that similarities between the two cities go well beyond academics.

Both Boston and Stockholm are historic waterfront cities bursting with culture – and both evolved into strong academic hubs populated by world-class institutions of higher education.

While Boston’s Harvard University may have been founded in 1636, the history of academic Stockholm dates all the way back to 1576, and its sterling reputation has only been burnished and brightened with the passing of time.

Among other things, Stockholm-based academics have proven themselves as leaders in a wide range of disciplines, whether inventing the first exercise bike at the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences or scholars from the Stockholm School of Theology negotiating peace in South East Asia. And let’s not forget the annual selection of Nobel laureates that takes place in Stockholm.

In a 2014 study, the Swedish higher education system is ranked the second-best in the entire world, and many universities in Stockholm place highly in international comparisons. The Karolinska Institutet ranks consistently as one of the top ten medical universities in Europe; the Stockholm School of Economics is the number-one business school in the Nordics; and Stockholm University ranks among the top 100 universities in the world.

Part of Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. Photo: Shutterstock

As more and more schools have opened their doors in the Capital of Scandinavia, this relatively small European city is now home to 18 diverse and prestigious institutions of higher education. Today Stockholm hosts 97,000 university students and 6,000 PhD researchers, more than 8,000 of whom come from abroad.

And Stockholm’s colleges and universities employ more than 20,000 people, making the academic sector a vital part of the city’s economy.The Stockholm School of Economics, for instance, was founded in 1909 to forge ties with the city’s business community – and the relationship still flourishes today. Even today, schools frequently work together to create something new, such as the recently merged Stockholm University of the Arts.

“We want people across the world to think of Stockholm as the Boston of Europe,” Maria Fogelström Kylberg, director of Stockholm Academic Forum, tells The Local.

Want to study in Sweden? Check out Stockholm's official university guide

“Given its size, Stockholm has an incredibly diverse and vibrant academic community. Higher education is truly part of the city’s DNA, and more international students and researchers are taking notice.”

Indeed, students and researchers from more than sixty countries come to Stockholm each year to take advantage of its unique educational traditions and standards – a legacy that includes philosopher René Descartes, who lived his final year in Stockholm as personal tutor and adviser to Queen Kristina; Alfred Nobel, the inventor and industrialist who gave his name to the Nobel Prize; and Sonja Kovalevsky, the world’s first female mathematics professor.

Of course, higher education – whether in Boston or Stockholm – isn't just about quality, it’s also about variety.

Stockholm has universities that offer everything from a degree in aesthetic voice and speech pedagogy (the University College of Music Education offers the only Logonomy degree in Scandinavia), to courses in “Pep talks and physical activity from a public health perspective“.

And Stockholm’s storied higher education scene remains as dynamic as ever, with the addition of Södertörn University College in 1997, and the Stockholm University of the Arts in 2014. And even the second-oldest music college in the world, KMH The Royal College of Music in Stockholm, is currently updating its campus with a slew of new buildings set to open in 2016.

These days, academic Stockholm is also at the beating heart of the city’s thriving start-up scene. From hot new tech companies spawned from innovative research at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, to talented locally-trained engineers and designers, Stockholm universities and colleges are shaping the future of the city – and the world.

The Royal Institute of Technology, KTH. Photo: Shutterstock

And while the strength of their respective academic communities may be the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Stockholm and Boston, it turns out the two cities have a few other quirky things in common beyond being home to world-class universities.

So in the spirit of Cliff Clavin, the beloved know-it-all from the Boston-based sitcom “Cheers”, we offer up a few “little known facts” that make it even easier to see why Stockholm is the Boston of Europe.

1. Nobel Traditions

While universities in Boston like Harvard and MIT may boast among the highest number of Nobel laureates of any university – Stockholm’s Karolinska Instiutet actually gets the honour of choosing them. The Nobel laureate in Physiology or Medicine is selected each year by the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet.

2. Famous old towns

Photos: Shutterstock

Both Stockholm and Boston feature “Old Town” districts featuring cobblestone streets and picturesque waterfronts that are popular with tourists.

3. Water, water all around

Water is a fundamental part of both cities, with channels which open up into larger seas. Their cities are practically defined by their waterfronts. And as every Bostoner knows and every Stockholmer sings, the cities are “mixtures of sweet and salty”, saline and fresh water.

4. Violent separation stories

Both cities were witness to bloody episodes that played pivotal roles in their histories. The Stockholm Blood Bath of 1520, which saw dozens of Swedish nobles killed in a central square, served as a catalyst in Sweden’s separation from Denmark. Much later, the Boston Massacre of 1770 fueled anti-British sentiment that eventually led to US independence.

5. Black and gold; green and white

Sports fans from either city wouldn’t have to buy new supporter gear if they move across the bond. Both Stockholm and Boston have sports teams with matching colours – both Stockholm’s Hammarby and the storied Boston Celtics feature green and white. Then you’ve got Stockholm’s AIK and the Boston Bruins ice hockey team adorned in black and gold.

6. “T” is the key to getting around

Not a coincidence. Photos: Shutterstock and Flickr

Both cities mark the entrances to their metro systems with a big “T”. In Stockholm, “T” stands for tunnelbana; in Boston, one might assume the “T” is a reference to a famous Tea Party, but rumour has it that Boston’s T was actually inspired by that of Stockholm's metro system, which came into use 14 years earlier. Both systems also feature Red, Blue, and Green lines. Déjà vu.

7. Top in tech

Stockholm and Boston are both home to the top technical and engineering universities in their respective countries – and both have their own nifty three-letter abbreviations: MIT and KTH. OMG.

8. Winter weather woes

Winter in Boston and Stockholm. Photos: Shutterstock

Both cities face their fair share of snowstorms and subzero temperatures during the academic year. Of course, 2014-2015, Stockholm clearly has better weather at least lately. Boston has been battered by blizzards and has been victim of a constant chill, while spring came early to Stockholm.

This article was produced by The Local and sponsored by Stockholm Academic Forum


What’s it like coming to Sweden as an international student during a pandemic?

The international student experience is enriched by the chance to travel abroad and meet new people, but what happens when a pandemic makes those two things difficult or dangerous? Students who had arrived in Sweden for the autumn semester shared their thoughts with The Local.

What's it like coming to Sweden as an international student during a pandemic?
Some students missed the start of term because journeys to Sweden were so complicated. Photo: Veronica Johansson / SvD / TT

Around 3,000 fewer exchange students are studying in Sweden this year, while other international students (who had planned to move to Sweden for a full degree rather than just an exchange semester or year) faced logistical challenges.

Raghav, an Indian Masters student at Uppsala University, is starting his second year. Although he was able to renew his student permit, there were no direct flights available from India, which remains on Sweden's entry ban (holders of a student permit are exempt).

As a result, he was one of many forced to take multiple connecting flights, delaying the journey to Sweden and meaning he missed the orientation week.

He will be studying almost entirely online, and said: “The whole 'international student experience' experience will be less. Online learning leads to sharp drop in socialising and thus networking is really non-existent. [That leads to] low internship opportunities.”

The library at Uppsala University. Photo: Cecilia Larsson Lantz/

Yue Jie, who is starting a Masters at Lund University, also faced difficulties travelling from his home country of Singapore.

“I was denied from transit through another EU country to Sweden. So I had to cancel that flight and take another flight that goes directly to Copenhagen without a transit,” he said.

He was pleased with the support offered by the university, particularly a housing guarantee which means he doesn't have to worry about finding a place to live, although he thought that the Arrival Days should have been extended to accommodate international students whose journeys were delayed.

“In my country, the use of face masks is compulsory everywhere you go, as long as it is outdoors. In Sweden, none of the locals seem to wear a mask. So it is interesting here.”

Ignacio, a student from Panama, said he had had to cancel his plans altogether.

“Because programmes have been changed [to be] online, we cannot apply for a resident permit. Embassies and consulates are not open to interview anyone aplying for permits, we feel [as if things are up] in the air even for 2021 semesters.”

As The Local has previously reported, some students have been left in limbo after Swedish embassies abroad closed, leaving them unable to get their residence permits.

In Iran, around 60 students have had their permit interviews postponed until January, but even then, several students who spoke to The Local said they're worried they won't go ahead, or would get their permits too late to attend the spring term – meaning they'd have to drop out of their course and lose their paid tuition fees.

When The Local asked the Foreign Ministry if they could offer any guarantees that the students would get their permits by a certain time, a press spokesperson said: “These bookings are preliminary and the Embassy continues to monitor the Covid-19 situation in Iran on a daily basis.” 

Raha and Maryam, two first year Masters students at Uppsala University, told The Local they had chosen to start their classes online rather than have their tuition fees refunded. 

But this leaves them facing a lot of uncertainty.

“I have paid my tuition fee in May and I have to pay my spring semester tuition fee before January, but I don't know if the immigration office will grant my resident permit. I have to register my daughter in school, which started from August 15th in Sweden,” said Maryam, who like many others felt that an alternative solution should have been found, such as an email or phone interview, or submission of further evidence.

One concern shared by many students was the slow internet speed in Iran hampering online learning. Programmes such as Zoom may not be accessible.

“The website of Chalmers university is unreachable because of the sanctions and I have to use bypass apps to get there. Preparing the course materials is another problem as we can not go to library or buy them,” said Nika, who emphasised that they had put a lot of time and money into his dream of studying at Chalmers University in Gothenburg. 

“I am forced to accept a big risk to register not knowing whether I will have the permit [in January] or not. I feel like no one cares.”

Thanks to all the students who responded to our survey; even if we could not include all the responses in this article, we read them all and will use them to inform future reporting. If you have questions or a story to share about studying or living in Sweden, get in touch with us at any time by emailing [email protected] and we will do our best to respond.