Jet lagged and exhausted at 2 a.m. on a Sunday, I followed Ludwig Millberg, my new, 23-year-old Swedish friend, out of the metro station, down empty residential streets in the Västberga section of Stockholm, past parked cars and scooters, underneath a graffiti-covered bridge. I was ready to call off our quest of several hours to return to my bed near the third-floor window of the Hotel Frantz, enough time for eight hours of sleep and a free, sumptuous brunch.
Then Millberg, a Stockholm University engineering student, pointed to a dusty clearing underneath the trees. There it was: DJs manning turntables on a stage lit with bright-white lights, a disco ball hanging from a wire above 100 Swedish dancers in T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers. It was like walking out of a suburban industrial park into David Guetta’s campsite. Millberg, also known as Kassettludde, a DJ who uses cassette tapes to play his dance-music mixes throughout Sweden, had finally ushered me into Stockholm’s forest rave-party scene.
How did I, a 53-year-old Denver, Colorado, music journalist who likes to be in bed by 10, get to this point? While on a European vacation last fall, Sven, a former music-company executive in Sweden, informed me these outdoor dance parties had taken off during summer 2020, when clubs closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “How do I find them?” I asked. “Just listen for the boom,” he said. I didn’t get a chance at the time but returned for a weekend dance vacation in June.
I googled listings for outdoor dance events and found Facebook groups like “Trance Raves in Stockholm Sweden,” which often list hastily organized events popping up at the last minute. I didn’t want to miss anything while in Stockholm for a weekend, so I asked Sven to recommend a guide. That’s how I found Millberg. “We could go to a club or a bar and drink something and prepare!” he said. “The raves start when the clubs end.” What time? “Three to five.” In the morning? “That’s the best part! It’s going to be a sunrise. It’s quite nice.” Jet lag, he said, would help me stay out all night.
I had met Millberg at 10 p.m. on a Friday at Mosebacketerrassen, an open-air terrace bar. Introverted and soft-spoken, with a wispy beard, Millberg had connections everywhere: A bartender at the Hills, a bright tavern with a house-music DJ in the busy stretch of stylish Södermalm, dropped everything to deliver Millberg his gluten-free beer; bouncers lifted the ropes at Södra, the city’s oldest theater, allowing us to ascend the elevator to a packed bar, listening to pulsating music while overlooking Stockholm.
But as the night went on, Millberg and I began to spectacularly fail in our quest. It was cold and rainy. Millberg loaned me his mother’s bright-yellow raincoat as we roamed the city and listened for dance music in the forest-filled suburb Norra Djurgården, near Stockholm University. We gave up at 4:30 a.m., trying to Uber home—without Wi-Fi—from a Circle K convenience store.
The next day, a Saturday, I was sleepy, ready to call off the story, cut my losses, and enjoy my remaining time in Stockholm. I went for my favorite run around Södermalm, an island with docked ships and trails in and out of the woods. I had a comfort-food dinner at a Swedish-meatball restaurant, Meatballs for the People.
Then I psyched myself up again. Here, dance music is history. Outdoor raves began in Stockholm in the early 1990s, when techno-music scenes spread from the U.K. and other parts of Europe to Sweden, and DJs began to pack clubs and cafés such as Dockland and Svaj. It wasn’t always fun: By 1996, police saw dance-music events as havens for illegal drug use and cracked down. (Today, a Stockholm police spokesperson says outdoor raves are legal if organizers obtain permits.)
The scene persevered, as Stockholm’s location within forests allowed festivals and other events to take off outdoors. During COVID, in summer 2020, media reports showed 700 attendees at a forest rave. “It became more normal for people who don’t normally go to raves,” Viivi Hyvonen, 24, told me at the Västberga party, known as Gården, an annual summer event since 2014. Here, DJ duo Bike Thieves mixed obscure American soul and disco tracks into house music. People of all ages danced underneath the trees—a fortysomething guy in a hat and glasses swayed by himself near a fence, and Millberg and his friend Joey joined the scrum of young people gyrating wildly in front of the DJ table.
“Is this good?” Millberg asked me after a while. “Did you get what you needed?”
I nodded as the sky lightened from pitch black to an otherworldly light blue. We couldn’t see the sunrise, but the party felt like a rebirth, the thump somehow both relaxing and energizing. Millberg kept dancing as I stumbled home at 3:30 on the metro. I woke up in time for Sunday brunch.