Whether they’re too sweet, thickly iced, or lacking enough cinnamon, finding a good cinnamon bun—or kanelbullar—is no easy feat.
When I was young, I had a Swedish stepmother who left me with a lifelong craving for kanelbullar, Swedish cinnamon buns. Yes, many places do cinnamon buns, but for my liking, they are either thickly iced, too sweet, not yeasty enough, or never have enough cinnamon. Only the traditional Scandinavian buns do. It looks like I am not entirely alone in my love for the sticky cinnamon buns. Did you know there is an International Day of the Kanelbulle every October 4th?
My longing for a cinnamon bun with my coffee very much feeds into the concept of Fika, often translated from Swedish into English as a coffee and cake break. But really, Fika is an experience that involves stepping away from your day-to-day life, taking time for yourself or a friend, and consciously enjoying a relaxed break any time of day. Having a kanelbulle in hand only helps you achieve Fika that much more.
My temporary Swedish family—made up of my stepmother, Helen, and my step-grandparents, Wille and Jøje— introduced me to kanelbullar when I was a young kid, around age eight or nine. Those delectable Swedish cinnamon buns, all yeasty and rolled into a snail shape with cinnamon inside and coarse sugar sprinkled on the top, were a revelation to me. The few summers and winters I spent in Sweden swimming in lakes and learning to ice-skate was always sprinkled with the smell and taste of a still-warm kanelbulle.
Being a travel writer and serial ex-pat, I have been lucky enough to live in many countries, on three continents, and two hemispheres as a result of following my husband around the globe for his work. Each time I arrive in a new place, I see if they have a decent kanelbullar in town.
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WHERE: Hamburg, Germany
In my hometown of Hamburg, Germany, we have a sweet treat that is quite similar to the kanelbulle, known as the Franzbrötchen. These are also snail-like baked pastries that I am guessing were inspired by nearby Scandinavian countries, such as Denmark, which is less than 200 miles from Hamburg. Not quite the same, but close enough to be delectable.
The sad thing about the yummy Franzbrötchen is that they are a true local specialty of Hamburg that you won’t find outside of the city. Every bakery in Hamburg has Franzbrötchen on offer. They sometimes vary in shape and, more recently, have come with (unnecessary) embellishments, such as raisins, nuts, or crumble. Ask for a Franzbrötchen and everybody knows what you are after. When I left home to move abroad, the search for a replacement for kanelbullar and Franzbrötchen began in earnest.
WHERE: Paris, France
Living in Paris, I got side-tracked by croissants, pain au chocolat, madeleines, macarons, and various other local sweets before my desire for a kanelbulle rose to the surface. As luck would have it, at around the same time, a friend discovered the tiny Fragments Café in the Marais, which served—among other things—decent and very typically Swedish cinnamon buns.
I became a regular at the café until, to my horror, they said they would no longer sell cinnamon buns in their café. Instead, they opened a dedicated bakery called Circus Bakery, just behind Shakespeare & Company on the Left Bank. Unfortunately, Circus Bakery permanently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but another great option is Mamiche, which serves up cinnamon rolls that could rival those in Stockholm.
WS Samson and the Munch Museum
WHERE: Oslo, Norway
When I traveled to Oslo, my first thought right after “Wow, it is still light at midnight” was finding cinnamon buns. After all, this was Scandinavia. I struck gold at the café in the Munch Museum after I posed for the mandatory selfie with The Scream. Good coffee and an enormous kanelbolle, spelled slightly differently and somewhat larger than their Swedish cousins, brought utter bliss.
The original Munch Museum moved to the newly named MUNCH in October 2021, so I don’t know whether the café moved with the paintings, but I do hope so. When leaving Oslo, I came across the bakery WS Samson, which has a location in the airport. Their kanelboller had previously been voted Oslo’s Best and I did buy a few to take home with me, much to the guy’s surprise at the bag security check.
INSIDER TIPGo to the WS Samson main branch, which is not far from the Palace at Gyldenløves gate 6.
Cinnamon Scrolls and San Churro
WHERE: Melbourne, Australia
When I moved to Melbourne, my search fell on dry ground. Melbourne is one of the best cities for food, the variety is enormous, and the number of seriously good restaurants is incredible. But could I find quality Swedish cinnamon buns? The short answer is no.
Instead, I became a regular at the cafe chain San Churro, which serves the best hot chocolate and superb churros covered in sugar and cinnamon, Spain’s answer to donuts. At least my cinnamon craving was satisfied. I later figured out that Down Under, cinnamon buns are known as cinnamon scrolls, which are covered in all sorts of gooey toppings. Finding a plain cinnamon scroll can be tricky, but the one I spotted I snapped up happily.
INSIDER TIPFor churros, head to the QV mall on Swanston Street, or try a cinnamon scroll at Cinnamon Scrolls, at number 178 Chapel Street.
Fika Bristol and Mokoko Coffee and Bakery
WHERE: Bristol, England
During the lockdown, moving to Bristol in the UK was not my favorite international move, but it was probably the most successful where kanelbullar was concerned. Searching high and low for cafes who baked them, I finally happened upon Erin from Fika Bristol, a Swedish baker living just across the river from me with neither a café nor bakery attached to her name but home baking to order.
I became a regular and found out that fresh kanelbullar can easily be frozen, making my regular orders of 10 that much more acceptable. Jackpot! One day, when I walked to her house to pick up my order, I turned the corner of her street and noted how everything smelled of cinnamon. Like Marcel Proust with his madeleines, I was propelled straight back to my childhood and—a bit like Pavlov’s dogs—started salivating with giddy anticipation.
INSIDER TIPIf you don’t have time to get some buns baked to order, then pop into Mokoko Coffee and Bakery in Whapping Wharf, which also offers a decent cinnamon bun. Go early, as they sell out by mid-morning.
Breezes Beach Club & Spa
WHERE: Zanzibar, Tanzania
One of the most surprising locations where I found the perfect kanelbullar was on vacation on the island of Zanzibar. Staying at the Breezes Beach Club & Spa on my first morning, I was scouring the breakfast buffet, looking for fresh, exotic fruit, when I happened upon a basket of what looked like mini kanelbullar.
Obviously this was not what I expected on an East African island in the Indian Ocean, so I bit into one with some trepidation. Perfect! Guess who smuggled a serviette full of mini cinnamon buns out of the breakfast room every morning to munch on the beach?
I have no idea why they were there. Maybe the chef was Swedish or maybe the hotel regularly welcomed Swedish guests. I never found out, but I just took my good luck and enjoyed it while I could. By all means, pop along to Breezes. It is a lovely hotel in a great location, although I cannot promise they still serve cinnamon buns for breakfast.
WHERE: London, England
Whether you live in London or are just visiting, this is the city that has everything. Every corner offers a different cuisine, so it is not a big surprise that, after some serious research and some not-so-successful tastings, you’ll stumble across a Swedish outfit that makes kanelbullar. In fact, Söderberg is a Scottish café chain and bakery only specializing in all things Swedish. There you’ll find open sandwiches, smörgåsar, waffles, köttbullar, and even the meatballs that a certain furniture store has made famous.
INSIDER TIPIn the heart of Soho, you’ll find the small and cozy café at 36 Berwick Street.
WHERE: Dubai, UAE
Dubai, like London, is such an international city, with reportedly more than 200 nationalities living and working there. You can get pretty much anything and everything your heart desires in Dubai, and that goes for a kanelbulle as well. Hidden in the low industrial estate of Al Quoz, in a large bland building, I found a little bit of Sweden, complete with open sandwiches and cinnamon buns, plus those lovely salty licorice candies, sausages, and meatballs. Plus, Smorrebrod delivers, which has become more important during the Covid-19 pandemic.
INSIDER TIPHead to the Smorrebrod branch at Al Qouz 1 (at the Hungarian Games Center) for some Fika. Smorrebrod has been my top find on the Arabian Peninsula so far.
Whenever I find myself in a country where I cannot get hold of proper and fresh cinnamon buns, what I do is find a branch of the Ikea furniture store. Despite their meatballs generally tasting the same worldwide—except in the Middle East where they do not use pork—their cinnamon buns are somewhat hit or miss. If you find fresh ones in their in-house café, I’d say, go for it. I do if I don’t have an alternative, but avoid the pre-packaged cinnamon buns, as they are too dry.
Since 1972, Old West Cinnamon Rolls in Pismo Beach, CA has been serving up thick, buttery, hot cinnamon rolls in 5 (yes 5!) different varieties of this yummy goodness. Best eaten there at the shop in the cold, foggy mornings with a hot cup of coffee.
Don't miss this local's favorite!