This month’s guest post is from Andy Higgs of Grown Up Travel. He’s a Brit living in the Nordics and knows a thing or two about how to travel Scandinavia the smart way – JM.
The Swedish capital is riding a wave of publicity at the moment following the release of the US remake of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ which was filmed here. Stockholm was already enjoying success attracting visiting fans of the Stieg Larsson books and the original TV series (more details here), not to mention those with an interest in Abba, Swedish design and the beautiful city itself.
Sprawling over 14 islands connected by 57 bridges, there is plenty of space to breathe its clean air. Only a third of the capital is urbanized; the remainder is either green space or water. This is a city that takes the environment seriously – in 2010 Stockholm became the first winner of the European Green Capital Award.
Stockholm has more than enough to experience in a weekend, but whatever you do, make sure you include the following on your itinerary.
Things to See and Do
Most of the main sights are found in the centre of this compact city and you won’t be wasting much time travelling between them – a great advantage when visiting a destination for a short break.
You’ll hardly be the first to go there, but no visit to Stockholm would be complete without wandering the cobbled medieval streets of Gamla Stan (Old Town). Since this is the original heart of the city it’s also a fitting place to start your trip.
Aside from the predictable souvenir shops there are also a number of unusual and interesting stores in this area. Fair trade toys, Swedish candy canes and handicrafts made by blind artisans are among the items on sale here, but you’ll need to head off the main drag (Västerlånggatan) and explore the alleyways and parallel streets to find them.
Stadshuset (City Hall)
This huge brick building on the waterfront was originally intended to be painted blue, but fortunately the architect had a change of heart after seeing how good his creation looked in the sunlight. It’s an impressive place with a 106m high tower offering great views (open summer only).
You can take a guided tour all year round during which you can follow in the footsteps of past Nobel Prize winners. They get to enjoy a banquet in the Blue Hall which unfortunately is missing from the tour agenda, but that is perhaps a little too much to expect. After dinner the recipients, guests and royalty dance the night away in the Golden Hall, so called because its walls are covered in 18 million gold mosaic tiles showing scenes from Swedish history. Stadshuset is not even a hundred years old – it opened in 1923 – but its design, based on the city hall of Siena in Italy gives it a Renaissance look. On top of the tower you can see three gold crowns (Tre Kroner) – Sweden’s national coat of arms. Free entry with Stockholm Card.
Next it’s time for some nautical history. Jump on a ferry (or take the bus, tram, walk or cycle) to the Vasa Museum for a lesson in the perils of vanity. The story of the Vasa warship is not quite as glorious as its wonderfully-preserved appearance might suggest.
She was built in 1620 for the Swedish king in his war with Poland. With 64 cannons over two gun decks the warship was the biggest in the fleet but fatally unstable. Despite nearly capsizing during testing with only 30 men she was put to sea, only to list to one side after a few minutes and sink having travelled just 1,300 metres.
A third of the crew perished – many more would have died if the Vasa had made it to its planned stop in the archipelago to pick up another 300 soldiers. Discovered in 1956 and raised in 1961, a custom-designed museum became her final resting place in 1991. The Vasa is the best-preserved and biggest ship of its kind on the planet as the water in which she lay is a hostile environment for shipworm – the usual suspect in the destruction of wooden ships on the ocean floor.
Come early in the high season to avoid the queues, watch the film first then have a look at this flawed masterpiece, and remind yourself of the fate of its crew by viewing the skeletons exhibited near the base of the ship. If you need refreshment after all that there is an excellent café/restaurant here too. Free entry with Stockholm Card.
Dating back to 1888, this food hall was considered one of the best in the world when it opened – a title it continues to hold today. It retains many of its original details with each stall having a carved wooden stand and sign and remains THE place in Stockholm for food lovers.
Many stallholders have been selling their wares for here for generations and you’ll find fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and seafood with the emphasis on high quality and organic produce. You can also choose from a dizzying variety of fresh bread, cheeses, speciality teas and coffee and those with a sweet tooth (all of us?) are well catered for with a barely resistible array of chocolate goodies.
When you’re done shopping (or browsing) there are plenty of places to sit down and eat a tasty lunch or snack.
Rosendals Trädgård (Rosendal’s Garden)
Continuing on the food theme, Rosendals Trädgård is one of Stockholm’s unique treasures. It’s a classy garden centre located on the leafy island of Djurgården and you’ll soon forget how close to the city you actually are. The highlight here is the café, which sells some of the city’s best cakes, sandwiches, pastries, soups and salads all made on the premises from organic and biodynamic ingredients, many of which come from the garden itself (if in season). It’s a popular place in the summer months with plenty of room to sit in the sun.
You can use the tram to get out to Rosendals followed by a short (and very pleasant) walk. Even better, do a circuit of Djurgården on a City Bike and stop off at the café here for a break.
One of the more recent additions to Stockholm’s cultural scene, Fotografiska is also one of its best. After a grand opening in 2010 the national museum of photography has rapidly become a world-class centre for modern photography.
Some of the international names to have already exhibited at Fotografiska include Annie Leibovitz, Lennart Nilsson and Robert Mapplethorpe. Rather than just hanging pictures on walls, the museum encourages debate and interaction with courses and seminars and also houses an academy.
Again, there is an excellent café and restaurant here with spectacular views (it is right on the waterfront) and if you have a Stockholm Card (see below) admission is included so it’s basically a no-brainer. Free entry with Stockholm Card.
Stockholmers take food seriously, and there is great rivalry with Copenhagen for the title of Scandinavia’s restaurant capital. The Danes may be winning at the moment but don’t be fooled; there are some great culinary experiences to be had here. Prices are high but so is quality – if you are on a really tight budget you are definitely in the wrong place but you will have realised this long before dinnertime comes around… With the selections below I’ve tried to include something for everyone.
An interesting combination this – Italian café and bicycle repair shop. Bianchi obviously did their research when deciding to locate their first bicycle café here – the Swedes drink more coffee than most other nations and also love their bicycles.
They also serve good food and its central location makes it a convenient place for a breather. Sip your cappuccino and munch on a ciabatta to the sound of the mechanics tinkering away in the back room.
After something a little stronger than coffee? While Stockholm is far behind arch-rival Copenhagen on the craft beer front, it is home to this British-style boozer which has an extraordinary selection of beer and whiskies.
They had 26 beers on tap, 450 bottled varieties and 400 whiskies when I was there, and the beer selection changes almost daily. You can also book a tasting session and enjoy live music on Sunday nights. Food is also available (as it has to be by law in all places which serve alcohol in Sweden).
Vegetarians are catered for in a big way at Hermans, but carnivores should head over here too for both the excellent food and the amazing view over the city and waterfront. The fixed price buffet is top value (possible one of the best dining deals in Stockholm) and is available for both lunch and dinner. If the weather permits, the restaurant adds a barbeque out on the terrace in the evening.
Hermans does a great job in promoting vegetarian food by providing such a choice; fifteen different salads, three warm dishes, rice, potatoes and bread – each weekend sees a different theme so the buffet will have an Indian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Mexican or Scandinavian flavour.
You’ll find this meat-lover’s heaven on an anonymous side street in Kungsholmen. Restaurant AG is located in an old silverware factory and many of the original industrial features remain – think exposed pipes, lots of metal and white tiles from the 1930s. When you ascend the spiral staircase the first thing you see is a huge glass cabinet with huge chunks of meat hanging from hooks – ageing right in front of you.
They do offer some vegetarian and seafood dishes (or you can simply have a drink at the bar) but make no mistake, meat is what this place is all about. It’s pretty much essential to make a reservation (which you can do online) and definitely recommended – make sure you arrive hungry. The food is delicious and perfectly cooked – these guys know what they’re doing and the entire experience will be a memorable one.
In the same building as the more exclusive (and expensive) Operabaren is Bakfickan, which means “hip pocket”. This is an informal and intimate counter restaurant with space for just 28 who sit either at the bar or at one of the small tables.
From Nobis website Bakfickan has been serving high-quality, reasonably-priced traditional Swedish food since 1962 and is a good place to get to know the locals given the fact that you’ll be sitting so close together. An excellent place to stop for lunch or a drink – make sure you try the meatballs here.
…and don’t forget to Fika
Justin covered the Swedish custom of fika in his article on Malmö and naturally the Swedish capital has numerous places to indulge in this wonderful ritual. But if you’re in Gamla Stan head down to the waterfront and pop into Albert & Jacks at Skeppsbron 24.
Here the emphasis is on simple, top-quality ingredients. Excellent coffee – and the cakes are well worth an extra trip to the gym.
How to get there
Norwegian flies direct to Stockholm Arlanda from London Gatwick airport which is usually the cheapest option. SAS and British Airways fly out of Heathrow and bargains can be had with a little luck. Don’t even consider Ryanair as they serve two other airports - 100km and 130km outside Stockholm respectively.
Getting from the Airport to the City
You can get from the airport to town in 20 minutes on the sleek Arlanda Express. It’s a good idea to book the ticket online in advance as you will save a little cash (there are good deals for weekend travellers) and it’s one thing less to worry about. After purchasing all you need to do is present the credit card you used to the conductor. No wasting paper here.
A bit of orientation
Here’s a handy map laying out all the sights mentioned above to give you an idea of where things are in Stockholm. Click on the markers to see the sight listed and zoom and pan around to see more of the map.
View 48 hours in Stockholm in a larger map
Where to stay
I have stayed at three places, the Nordic Light hotel which is right next to where the airport train arrives so very convenient. It is a little pricey though. Further out is the Comfort Hotel Stockholm, which is a few stops away on the metro. My favourite is the Best Western Time Hotel. It is less central but hits the standard/value sweet spot. An enticing, and cheaper, prospect is Långholmen which is a former prison now run as a hotel during the winter and a youth hostel in the summer. Beds in a cell start around SEK 220 per night for IYHF members.
Get around in Stockholm
Stockholm has excellent public transport although you’ll probably prefer to walk. The T-bana (metro) is easy to understand and covers most areas; buses cover the rest. I recommend buying a Stockholm Card as you get free transport as well as free admission to many of the city’s best sights. Pick one up on arrival at the airport tourist office.
From April to October you should take advantage of the City Bike scheme. You will first need to buy a card from one of the local transport centres which are preloaded for a minimum of 3 days. Find a bike stand; hold the card against the reader and you will be allocated a specific bike.
Off you go – you can use a single bike for 3 hours at a time between 6 am and 10 pm. Have a smartphone? Download the app and get updated info on available bikes. More info here: Stockholm City Bikes.
No prizes for guessing that Stockholm is very expensive – but don’t let that put you off. As long as you go in with your eyes (and wallet) open you’ll be fine. A beer will set you back about SEK 70 (more if you’re drinking something exotic at Akkurat), and expect to pay at least SEK 250 per meal. The Stockholm Card costs SEK 625 for 2 days and will probably pay for itself if you plan to do a few of the things on this list. Where admission is free with the Stockholm card I have pointed this out.
Living in Norway as I do I am lucky to be able to visit Stockholm regularly and even find it cheap (everywhere on the planet is cheaper than home). It’s a stylish and beautiful place, with great food, friendly people and many unique and interesting traditions. Above all it’s a city that will reward the visitor in spades – so start saving your pennies. Come to Stockholm with enough of them and you will have an experience unlike any other.