During my first visit to Sweden and long before having the opportunity to move here, I knew I would adjust quite well to the Swedish culture due to the country’s lovely traditions like fika—the Swedish coffee break.
While it’s true that many other countries take coffee breaks, they aren’t appreciated in nearly the same manner as they are here in Sweden, where they are mandated by law. Fika is a cultural requisite that usually includes baked sweets, fruit or open-faced sandwiches enjoyed alongside coffee. There’s often a large spread of cookies, cakes and kanelbulle, a traditional cinnamon roll, to choose from at most cafés and an equally impressive selection when you visit someone in their home. Workers in Sweden (and Finland) are guaranteed two 15 minute breaks each day, which often culminate in fika at 10 and 3, where you may find it difficult to reach someone on the phone.
In addition to the food, fika is also about enjoying the company of others. Often in the U.S., cafés are filled with individuals on laptops who take up an entire table to work or to check their email. It can be rare to observe a genuine conversation. In Sweden, however, a café can be filled all day with friends, colleagues and love interests discussing the weather, travel, weekend plans and family life.
The word itself (pronounced fee-ka) originates from a former spelling of the Swedish word for coffee—kaffi—and is still used by older generations to mean just that. Nowadays, the term is used both as a noun and a verb that refers to the occasion itself. You can be invited to have a fika, or you can be asked to fika with someone all the same. Its ambiguous definition allows for many interpretations with no strict rules of conduct. Fika can take place at the office, at school or out in the forest during a hike.
Apart from a typical coffee break among friends and co-workers, fika also serves an important purpose in Swedish dating culture. To have fika with a potential suitor, allows you to meet casually without the pressure of a formal date, while still fostering the conversation needed to get to know each other. Those participating in a fika, whether as potential lovers or not, also typically pay for themselves, which alleviates any anxiety over who will pay the bill.
Whether fika is taken as a break from work, study, or as a social gathering, its prevalence in homes and cafés throughout Sweden and other Nordic countries is one reason why they all top the list for the highest coffee consumption in the world. It’s quite a triumph for the region and one that I enjoy taking part in often.
Fika outside of Stockholm, Sweden. 1888 [via Swedish National Heritage Board]
Fika at the bakehouse for the timber workers in Åmot, Sweden. 1912
A summer fika on the grass in Svartsbo, Sweden. 1937
A family fikas together during harvest in Ockelbo, Sweden. 1937
A bus stop fika in Gävle, Sweden. 1940
A fika by the sea in Gävle, Sweden. 1940’s
The mobile Gevalia Café in Gävle, Sweden. 1956
[all black & white photos above via Länsmuseet Gävleborg]