We’ve been hearing a lot about Stockholm lately. You probably have, too. Tech companies are springing up, expatriates are settling in, and more restaurant and design houses are soaking up international press coverage each day. It seems everyone wants to be there.
We wanted to experience it ourselves, so journeyed north for New Year’s Eve. As all travelers know, sometimes the travel timing is impeccable, but sometimes it’s not. (Like when we went to Croatia in July.)
As it turns out, Stockholm shuts down between Christmas and New Year’s. So although we didn’t walk away with a solid impression of the city, we were left with fleeting impressions and some random facts, which we’ll happily pass along to you:
Ask residents what they enjoy about Stockholm, and most answer it’s the quality of life. There are less than 10 million people in Sweden, with slightly under 2 million living in Stockholm, but it doesn’t feel crowded: a full one-third of the city is water, and another third is parks. One of the world’s largest archipelagos, with 40,000 islands, is just a boat ride away.
Tourists and expatriates are attracted by a progressive culture with an emphasis on design and technology (it makes perfect sense that the Nobel Prize was created by a Swede). Underlying it all is a level of economic and social security not available to residents of most cities today; health care, education, childcare and retirement benefits, all provided by the State, do not weigh heavily on the minds of Stockholmers. And then there is the famous gender equality. Quoting from Visit Sweden:
When a child is born, parents (or legal guardians) as a couple are entitled to a total of 480 days of leave at 77.6 percent of their normal salary. This is to be cashed in before the child turns 8…. The effect is that Swedish men do take leave from work to spend time with their babies…. There is even a stereotype to go with this, the so-called lattepappa or “latte dad.” He is a fashionable, urban, dad who spends his days baking sourdough bread and drinking lattes with his baby and fellow dads. (His female counterpart is the “latte mom.”)
The most pervasive cultural phenomenon that we noticed during this off time was fika, or coffee time (accompanied by a sweet pastry), which stops for nobody and no holiday. It’s more than refreshment, more than relaxation … we have insider knowledge that many of Sweden’s most important business decisions are arranged over a humble cup of Joe.
Wikipedia hosts a detailed (and, to an outsider, humorous) account of the many noun/verb connotations of fika here.
Gamla Stan, the old town and former home of musical group ABBA, is a hilly island labyrinth of cobblestoned streets and leaning buildings that somehow houses both an excessive amount of tourist shops and some of the most expensive property in Stockholm. Across the water to one side is the island of Sodermalm (or “Soder”), which was once the home of people whose trades were too flammable or smelly (tanners) to be near the other townsfolk, but now has turned trendy; the other direction leads you to the downtown, with its train station, businesses, and many hotels. Ostermalm is the ritziest part of the city, with high-end shopping, grandiose buildings, and wide avenues.
What to do
Since the determining factor was whatever happened to be open at that day and time, and how dry we could keep ourselves during rainy rather than snowy weather, we ended up spending a lot of time in museums.
Stockholm is a huge museum town. We knew a local who was playing host to a Swedish friend from out of town, and even they were going to museums. Luckily, we had The Stockholm Card at our disposal, which allows entry to over 80 museums, boat rides and bus rides, and more. Highlights include the Fotografiska (contemporary photography gallery), National Museum (art and design), Spiritmuseum & The Absolut Art Collection, and the Vasa Museum (the world’s only surviving 17th century ship).
If the weather is right and the sea has frozen over, you can go ice skating between Stockholm’s islands. Regardless, you can take a ferry ride or cruise out to the beautiful archipelago, the primary “must do” suggested by locals. We also took advantage of a guided bus tour, to get our bearings when we first arrived.
Called “the world’s longest art exhibition,” the underground in Stockholm is more than mass transit. Public works artistry throughout is found to “discourage vandalism and encourage consideration.” Both buses and trams easily cover the remaining areas of the city. Getting to and from the airport is simple (avoid taxis to cut down on sticker shock) via bus or train. We chose the Arlanda Express, leaving from the central train station near our hotel, for the high speed-and-convenience factor.
Where to eat, drink and stay
Unsurprisingly, Stockholm has no shortage of great hotels. There’s everything from hip and stylish Story Hotel to eclectic Art Nouveau Hotel Esplanade, said to be the favorite of Wallpaper founder Tyler Brûlé. For old-world luxury head to The Grand Hotel, overlooking the old town and palace, which has housed the Nobel Prize winners for the last century. We chose the Sheraton Stockholm for the mix of easy location, Starwood points (we’ll be using them up in Tel Aviv next week) and water view.
The Grand Hotel’s Cadier Bar boasts multiple winners of Sweden’s Bartender of the Year award, and its view makes it the ideal place to end the afternoon (Sunday afternoons are packed with people enjoying high tea). The Ice Bar Stockholm, with interiors and glasses made entirely of ice, is created by the founders of Sweden’s Ice Hotel and located in the Nordic Lights hotel (reserve in advance, since capacity is tightly controlled to prevent body heat from melting the surroundings; we were turned off by the wait).
Whenever we asked for dining recommendations, the first question was, “Do you like meat?” We imagine that stems from a predominantly fish-eating population, but we’re not sure. Meat restaurants seem to be considered fine dining, and are trendy. Our favorite restaurant was the non-meat-specific, cozy but energetic bistro Nybrogatan 38, suggested by the kind of concierge who is worth their weight in gold.
Here is a detailed list of the best places to eat, drink and dance, provided to us by a chic insider at the tourist bureau:
Best restaurants / bars
AG– A hidden and really cool restaurant where you will find a lot of locals. The food is mainly for meat lovers but I usually go there to hang out in the bar.
B.A.R– Create your own meals, by stepping up to the fish tank or ice counter to choose among a wide variety of fresh fish, meat, seafood, seasonal vegetables and condiments.
Taverna Brillo– Newly opened. The restaurant is surrounded by bars and will furthermore also encompass a market, a bakery, an orangerie and an ice-cream café. The restaurant is designed under the lead of Swedish interior designer Jonas Bohlin.
Nytorget Urban Deli– Bar, deli and store in the heart of style-conscious SoFo. The trendy concept reminds you of New York.
Le Bar Rouge– Lively, warm, luxurious setting á la Moulin Rouge!
Orangeriet– One of the cosiest places and superb drinks!
Story Hotel– Really popular among locals for afterwork and more.
Berns– Popular among locals and visitors. Gorgeous!
Riche– Classic meeting place in the city center, with multiple bars and restaurants. Stockholm’s art, fashion and club crowds gather here to see and be seen.
Café Opera– This club is housed in magnificent interior spaces in the Opera House.
Vassa Eggen– This is really a restaurant but the bar has become very popular.
Xoko– A mix of dessertery, café and bakery. It is located on my favorite street, Rörstrandsgatan, which is popular among locals.
Gildas rum– This is a pearl. Laid-back service and cosy, homely feeling.
Sturekatten– A hidden oasis: a true old-fashioned café and bake shop housed in a two-story Östermalm apartment building. Very old but charming!
- One of Stockholm’s most revered personages was King Gustav “The Great,” who was murdered in the 1600s at a masked ball and later inspired Verdi’s “The Masked Ball.”
- Kungliga Slottet, the royal palace, is said to have more rooms than Buckingham Palace.
- During WWII, cabbages rather than flowers filled the landscaping of Ostermalm’s tree-lined avenues.
- Birka, close to Stockholm, was Sweden’s first city. They were tradesmen, we were told, because after all most people of this time were peaceful tradesmen and only about 1% were Vikings. However, the primary source of wealth in Birka came from extracting taxes from the ships hoping to enter the Baltic Sea.
This trip was made possible in part by the Stockholm Visitors’ Bureau, Sheraton Stockholm (best breakfast buffet a girl could ask for), Arlanda Express, and a hop-on hop-off bus from Open Top Tours. To read about our commitment to fair and unbiased reporting, please visit our disclosures page.