The Decorated Farmhouses of Hälsingland, Sweden

Some UNESCO sites aren’t famous works of architecture like Himeji Castle in Japan or the 16th century canal ring of Amsterdam, for example, or ancient historical monuments like Petra in Jordan or Baalbek in Lebanon. Some are more modest, less showy, and exemplify local culture and crafts. The Decorated Farmhouses of Hälsingland, Sweden, are a great example of this kind of UNESCO site.

The roof over the front door is carved with a edge of pointy teeth. Above that is a half of a sun in the center of the little roof.
Decorative entrance to Ol-Anders farmhouse.

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Prosperous farmers in this fertile region decorated whole rooms – as many as 15 rooms and sometimes whole separate houses – just for special festivities like weddings. The rooms provided space for the meals and celebrations associated with special occasions, and also accommodations for visiting friends and relatives. The rest of the time, they stood empty.

A long table at the bottom of the photo has a simple table setting with occasional colorful arrangements. Behind them are two windows with the walls between and above them completely filled with paintings: Large square murals between and next to the windows show scenes filled with flowers. The center one has a couple on a boat, I think, in the center and the other shows a woman standing among flowering trees. Around the murals and above them are ornate flowery patterns, and a different pattern follows the molding next to the ceiling. By contrast, the ceiling is plain white.
The festivities room at Ol-Anders farmhouse.

Imagine having enough extra wealth to build an extra house and pay for decorating it – more on the decorations below – and then not to use it more than a few days a year!

The decorated farmhouses are products of wealth, simply put. These farmers became prosperous through the sale of flax for linen, from raising livestock and from selling timber rights. They were farmers, but aspired to more. These farmhouses were an expression of that aspiration.

Even their residential rooms often contained decorations as well, if somewhat simpler than in the festivities rooms.

In the corner is a cupboard with cabinets and drawers below and plate rails all the way to the molding above. The whole thing is painted in bright blue, light blue and deep red. Next to it a large clock hangs on the wall. A flowery molding lines the ceiling above.
A corner of the kitchen in Pallars, one of the UNESCO-designated decorated farmhouses. Notice that while the walls are plain, there is still a painted molding around the top.

The farmhouses included in the UNESCO designation all date from the mid-19th century, though the decorative tradition goes back to the 16th century. All but one are privately-owned, and each has different rules for visiting.

The decorations in the Hälsingland farmhouses

So what do the decorated farmhouses of Hälsingland look like? They’re rather plain wooden structures on the outside, and mostly painted in the traditional Falun red that is so common in Sweden. Inside, though, they are richly decorated.

The paintings represent a fusion of folk art with the styles favoured by the landed gentry of the time, including Baroque and Rococo. Decorated by painters, including known and unknown itinerant artists, the listed properties represent the final flowering of a long cultural tradition.

UNESCO World Heritage Convention
A half-circular arch over the door. White background with an arrangement of wildflowers in white, red and green painted on it. Top left and right are bundles of hay above the arch, each with a collection of agricultural implements. Above the arch is the molding along the edge of the ceiling, which is painted with a repeting pattern of garlands in brown and olive green.
Detail above a doorway at Gästgivars. Notice the agricultural references in the corners.

It’s a very unsophisticated and simple kind of decoration, but it covers the walls from floor to ceiling either with paintings or stencils. The idea was to imitate the higher classes in their manor houses, but the result was a style unique to this region.

In some of the houses the wall painting looks like marble – or that’s the intention, in any case – a direct reference to what the higher social class might have in their stately homes. Painted images show Bible stories, generally, but with the people depicted in mid-19th century styles.

A bright painting with what may be a boat in the center - Noah's Ark? - and a man to its right holding a rifle. A large tree and flowery decorations fill the space that would be sky.
A detail from a painted wall panel at Ol-Anders farmhouse.

Wallpaper covers some walls, while some wooden walls have been directly painted. Stenciling in multiple colors creates a bright repeating pattern. The moldings at floor and ceiling also sport either stenciling or freehand painting.

UNESCO-listed decorated farmhouses of Hälsingland

We visited four of the seven UNESCO-listed farmhouses: Bommars, Erik-Anders, Gastgivars, and Pallars.

Bommars

We only saw the outside of Bommars, since we had not booked ahead and it was closed when we arrived. Like many of these farmhouses, the farmstead consists of three buildings sited as three sides of a square. Apparently many had additional outbuildings on the fourth side in the past.

A brown wooden house with two stories and evenly spaced, almost square windows. The entrance is square and right in the middle.
Bommars farmhouse.

Inside is mostly decorated in wallpaper based on French and English wallpaper of the 19th century, but a local artist made it, using stencils.

Bommars: Letsbo, Brovägen 8, 827 95 Tallåsen. Open for tours in the summer. Cost: SEK 200 (€20/$24) including coffee, children under 16 free. “Forest bathing” and bread-baking also available. Telephone: Marie +46-70-2929862, Karl-Erik +46-(0)70-3475921 E-mail: info@bommars.se / Website.

Erik-Anders

Built in the 1820s and decorated in the 1850s, Erik-Anders shows a subtler decorative style than most, with more marbling and somewhat simpler patterns. Some of the walls are painted to look like mahogany. The overall effect of the figurative paintings as well as the stenciled patterns is more elegant than the other houses.

The walls here are light blue, with brown fake marbling across each. The edges have a simple pattern painted on them in a darker blue. A flowery garland in white and blue above the doorway. IN the center is a tiled furnace in a very simple floor-to-ceiling style.
The main festivities hall in Erik-Anders.

Only two rooms on the ground floor saw daily use, and had clay-plastered walls for insulation. This implies, to me, that the families that lived there actually lived quite modestly, only splashing out for celebrations. The garden has been restored to what it looked like in 1920.

The house is red-painted wood. The door sits right in the middle with two windows on either side of it. Upstairs is one more story: one window in the center above the door and two windows on either side.
Erik-Anders.

Erik-Anders: Asta 728, 826 61 Söderala. Open mid-June-August every day 11:00-17:00. Open April-mid-June and September on Saturdays and Sundays 12:00-15:00. Cost: SEK 60 (€6/$7) to tour on your own, SEK 120 (€12/$14.50) for a guided tour. Also offers accommodations. Telephone: +46-(0)72-728-7941. E-mail: info@erik-anders.se / Website.

Above the door is a painted set of 3 flowers in white on dark green leaves. Beside the door are some scrolly shapes that I think are intended to be trompe l'oeil carvings.
Decorative detail at Erik-Anders.

Gästgivars

An artist named Jonas Wallström did the decorations on the festivities building at Gästgivars – a separate building in this case, dating to 1838.

The house is dark red with white edging. The photo shows the center house and only part of the right-hand side house. The central house is not symmetrical: The door has 2 windows to the left of it and 3 to the right. The house has two stories.
Gästgivars decorated farmhouse.

While he included many hand-painted sections, including trompe l’oeil detail, he is best known for his stenciling technique that he based on the patterns on Wedgewood china. Other artist-decorators copied his technique in other farmhouses in the area. To me it’s colorful and cheerful, which must have been welcome in the winter with such short days.

The stenciled patters repeat vertically right to the ceiling molding, which is painted in pink roses with green leaves. The patterns also repeat horizontally: left to right: a vertical line of red flowers with yellow leaves, then a light grey spray of leaves, a dark grey spray of leaves, a green pattern of flowers and leaves, then back to dark gray, light gray and then the red and yellow again.
Stenciled wallpaper and painted molding at Gästgivars decorated farmhouse.

If you look into the square of buildings, the festivities building is on the right while the central building of this farmstead is the residential building. To the left are the original farm buildings: stable, sheds and a bakehouse. Originally there would have been other work buildings on the fourth side of the square.

The mural shows a rural scene: a thatched house next to a waterfall with trees around it. Above are two reclining angels that look 3-dimensional.
A wall painting in Gästgivars. Notice the trompe l’oeil angels at the top.

Gästgivers: Gamla Orbadenvägen 29 820 11 Vallsta. Open daily from mid-June to mid-August with guided tours between 11:00 and 16:00. and in September between 11:15 and 15:00. Must pre-book. Cost: SEK 100 (€10/$12), free for children up to 15. Telephone: +46 (0)70 314 2870. E-mail: info@varldsarvetgastgivars.se / Website.

Pallars

Pallars was probably the most extensive and impressive of the Decorated Farmhouses of Hälsingland that we visited. The white central farmhouse was residential and dates to 1858. It’s unusually large and grand-looking, which was, of course, the intention.

A large white house with three stories. The door sits symmetrically in the center with a large portico roof over the steps up. Two windows on either side of the central door. 6 windows on the story above that. 6 more windows (but much smaller) above that, under the roof.
Pallars farmhouse.

Several of the rooms inside the residential building were solely for festivities, and only two of the rooms the family actually lived in have decorations.

Next door, to the right if you are facing the white building, are two houses attached to each other, each with a prettily-carved doorway. One was originally a guest house and the other a stable that was later converted.

Each half has a doorway toward the center where the two houses meet, with twoo different small porticos. Each house has 3 windows: One next to the door and two on the upper story. The house is wooden and painted dark red.
Pallars guest houses.

The original guest house, built in 1853, accommodated visitors during weddings and other festivities. It has remarkably ornate decorations by Blämärlarn, who was a painter from a nearby province in Sweden. You can see the status-signaling here again in the quantity of blue pigment he used. Apparently the blue pigment was particularly expensive. This is the only one of the farmhouses where the landscapes on the wall depict real places in Sweden.

A bed in a corner. Above it, on each wall, a large painting filling each wall, arched at the top. Each painting shows a scene of white buildings, a church, a waterway with boats. The sky above is blue and the top edges are extra blue.
Two of the many blue paintings at Pallars.

Upstairs is plainer, without decorations. It offered accommodations for farm workers and tradesmen.

To the left of the white house is a larger building that was once the farm’s main residential building and probably dates to 1819. It has just three rooms and a bakery, as well as an attic.

Pallars: Långhed 736, Alfta. Open mid-June to mid-August with tours daily at 13:00. No advance booking. Cost: SEK 220 (€22/$26.50). Telephone: +46 (0)271-200 22 E-mail: besokscentrum@ovanaker.se.

More Decorated Farmhouses of Hälsingland

Here are the three we did not visit:

Bortom Åa

This was one of the most affluent farms in the area. When the family that owned it built a new residential house in 1910, they left the old one and its contents untouched, which makes it one of the best-preserved decorated houses of Hälsingland. The last owner gave it to the local municipality, so it the only one of the UNESCO farmhouses that is in public hands.

Bortom Åa: Open daily June-August with tours on the hour from 11:00-16:00 or by appointment. Cost: SEK 120 (€12/$14.50), free for children under 13. Telephone: +46-(0)657-300-30 E-mail: info@fagelsjo.nu. / Website.

Walpaper with vertical patterns. A small red flower, green leaves above it, yellow leaves outside of that. This is repeated vertically. Between these rows are much simpler patterns in light gray and white.
Another example of stenciled wallpaper from Gästgivars.

Kristofers

This one is particularly well-preserved, with many painted rooms for festivities. The painter, Anders Ädel, is known for his flower paintings in particular.

Kristofers: Kalvstigen 6, Järvsö. Open only by booking in advance. Some accommodations available as well. Telephone: +46-70-5592757 Email: info@kristofers.se. / Website.

If you enjoy folk art and architecture, try one of these articles from other sites in Sweden:

Jon-Lars

This is the largest of the UNESCO-listed Decorated Farmhouses of Hälsingland, with two identical halves built for two brothers. One half sports landscapes in blue and pink, while the other half has an “Arabic-patterned French wallpaper” in brown and yellow. The brothers built a shared house for parties.

Jon-Lars: Långhed 206, 822 92 Alfta. Only viewable by booking a tour in advance. Telephone: +46-(0)70-317-33-93 E-mail: tourism@ovanaker.se / Website.

Many more decorated houses in Hälsingland

Ol-Anders

Ol-Anders is not part of the UNESCO World Heritage designation. I’m not sure why it wasn’t included, because it has the requisite elements: painted residential and festivities rooms that at least look original.

The colors are remarkably cheerful, yet unsophisticated, in its big festivities room. I included two pictures from inside Ol-Anders above at the beginning of this article: both show murals from the festivities room there.

This photo shows all three red-painted houses with white trim, set in three sides of a square. In front is a little shed half in the ground.
Ol-Anders.

Ol-Anders is now a tourism visitor center and houses an Emigrant Museum focusing on a religious sect from the area that emigrated to Bishop Hill, Illinois. It would be a good place to stop first to get information about the others you want to visit.

Ol-Anders: Runemovägen 6, 822 92 Alfta. Free admission to the house and to the Emigrant museum. Tours must be pre-booked. Telephone: +46-(0)271-57-777 E-mail: tourism@ovanaker.se / Website.

Löka

We also visited Löka, a local heritage and community center that inhabits another decorated farmhouse. Löka is a good place to learn about the history of the area, even if its decorations aren’t as impressive.

A simple red-painted house with white trim around the windows. The doorway is set right in the middle with a small roof over the entry. Two stories. Two windows on either side of the door and 5 windows upstairs.
Löka.

The association that operates Löka keeps a collection of local textiles and traditional costumes. It also maintains a range of farm-related buildings from the same period: a barn, a cowshed, and several decorated houses.

Löka: Långgatan 49, 822 31 Alfta. Open daily mid-June to mid-August with tours three times a day. Price: 50 SEK (€5/$6). Telephone: +46-(0)271-107-30. E-mail: info@alftahembygdsforening.se. / Website.

Driving through Hälsingland

While there are in fact something like 1000 such farmhouses in the Hälsingland region of eastern Sweden, only seven of them make up the UNESCO-designated collection. The explanation given in the region’s tourist brochures is that the requirements are stringent, and that these seven represent all of the tradition that was so common across the region.

In the foreground is a field of half-grown wheat. Beyond that is a green field and beyond that a forest. On the horizon are some low mountains.
I took this photo across the road from Gästgivars. It shows the kind of scenery you’ll pass in Hälsingland.

The best way to get around this UNESCO site, which is scattered across Hälsingland, is by driving. To rent a car, use the form below:

If you like folk art and driving through pretty countryside, you’ll enjoy visiting this seven-part UNESCO site. We were on our way south from taking a Hurtigruten cruise up the coast of Norway, and stopped at whatever UNESCO sites or other historical sites looked interesting along the way.

Stay somewhere in the area overnight so you don’t feel pressured to hurry. We booked most of our accommodations through booking.com. The search box below is set to Ljusdal, which is pretty central. Use the map view to zoom out to get more options:

Booking.com

Don’t feel like you need to see all of the UNESCO farmhouses – we felt that the five we saw were plenty for a day and a half’s sightseeing. Remember that several of them need to be booked ahead of time, so plan your visits based on that.

Pinnable image
Text: The Decorated Houses of Hälsingland, Sweden (and the Rachel's Ruminations logo)
Image: A wall painting showing a colorful boat and a man with a rifle.

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about Rachel

Hi, I’m Rachel!

Rachel’s Ruminations is a travel blog focused on independent travel with an emphasis on cultural and historical sites/sights. I also occasionally write about life as an expatriate. I hope you enjoy what I post here; feel free to leave comments! Read more...

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I have to expand my Sweden touring. This look very cool and I’ve not been to this area at all — Uppsala is as far north as I’ve gotten on this side of the country. Time to venture farther afield!

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