Set amid woodlands, lakes and waterways on a cluster of isles and rocks, it’s tempting to think of Stockholm as the sum of its handsome parts rather than a cohesive capital city. These self-contained islands are replete with dynamic districts, historic quarters and eclectic neighbourhoods full of broad boulevards, medieval architecture and weeping waterfronts. In other words, the city itself is broken up into very distinct areas.
“You wonder what it thinks it’s doing there, looking so important,” quipped the Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman who considered his hometown more a ‘large village’ than a metropolis, with its wide open, almost bucolic, spaces belying its status as Sweden’s cultural, political and economic powerhouse. More than two-thirds of Stockholm is either water or parks, making it one of Europe’s least urban cities, and one best explored via tranquil footpaths and cycling routes or on one of the bobbing boats along its waterfront.
Yet for all its pastoral looks and watery vistas, modern Stockholm is also a bustling city, with a penchant for boutique fashion houses and cutting-edge design, and a reputation as a tech hub — it’s home to Spotify, Skype, Candy Crush and Minecraft.
Although the city’s varying parts can seem at odds with each other, it’s precisely this sophisticated mix of natural good looks, classic architecture and modern sensibilities that makes Stockholm such an alluring proposition.
And wherever you explore, be sure to make time for fika, the very Swedish act of downing tools to fill up on coffee and cake in one of the countless coffee houses — the perfect excuse to stop and admire the views.
Though scattered across a jigsaw of 14 islands where the Baltic Sea meets Lake Mälaren, Stockholm is interconnected by 57 bridges, making it pleasingly compact, walkable and rewarding for even the most aimless of strolls. Most new arrivals anchor themselves on Gamla Stan, the Old City, a glorious hub of history with snaking cobblestone streets and towering stucco walls, yet Stockholm is also crammed with contemporary art spaces and galleries, and these offer visitors an equally appealing introduction to the city.
The site of an audacious $66m (£46m) heist in the early 1990s (including six Picassos), the Moderna Museet on Skeppsholmen has plenty more sought-after art under its belt. Highlights include Salvador Dali’s The Enigma of William Tell and Robert Rauschenberg’s Monogram, alongside pieces by Picasso, Matisse, Warhol and Duchamp. Since mid-January 2016, entry to the museum is free, including access to the adjacent Arkitekturmuseet (Centre for Architecture and Design).
Equally arresting is Fotografiska, a photography museum in a large art nouveau-style warehouse over the water on Södermalm. Spread across three floors, the gallery museum showcases the work of stellar photographers, with past exhibitions from Annie Leibovitz, David LaChapelle and more recently Martin Schoeller. Don’t miss the museum’s top-floor cafe with its captivating city vistas.
Sweden’s largest art museum, the National Museum, opposite the Royal Palace on Södra Blasieholmshamnen, is another obvious draw with priceless works by Rembrandt, Renoir and Gauguin. But those after an even greater art fix should seek out Färgfabriken (Liljeholmen metro) for a dose of experimental art in a former paint and soap factory, the hard-to-find-but-worth-it contemporary art haven of Magasin III (Frihamnen dock) or Marabouparken (Sundbyberg metro), a cocoa factory turned functionalist space for Swedish and international artists.
Even Stockholm’s metro system is one giant, kaleidoscopic art exhibition with over 90 of its underground stations decorated with paintings, sculptures, mosaics and installations, forming what’s considered the world’s longest art exhibit at 110km. A personal favourite is Kungsträdgården on the Blue Line, which resembles an archaeological excavation.
With no fewer than eight Michelin-starred restaurants, Stockholm can be a pricey place to eat. Thankfully, there are several impressive-yet-affordable options, which utilise Sweden’s seasonal ingredients and the fruits of the Baltic Sea.
Blasieholmen Aquarium and Restaurant, or B.A.R as it’s known, is a casual but produce-driven venture from the family-run team at the Michelin-starred Lux Stockholm. More ‘food market with bar’ than restaurant, the concept is simple: choose your fish and tell the chef how you want it.
“We wanted our guests to be able to meet and interact with our chefs, both at our shellfish counter and the open kitchen,” says Henrik Norström, creative director and chef. “We wanted them to be able choose their own piece of fish while getting recommendations from our chefs and waiters.”
Affordability is key, with Henrik determined to provide diners with quality meals in a smart, metropolitan setting, without it costing a fortune. “It’s a challenge but it feels wonderful to offer excellent, fresh produce at affordable prices — we want our guests to be able to come often.”
With fish in plentiful supply, Stockholm isn’t short on high quality sushi. Råkultur is the no-nonsense sister restaurant to Thai/Swedish chef Sayan Isaksson’s Michelin-starred Esperanto. It combines Japanese skill and Scandinavian produce at palatable prices — its nine-piece Moriawase platter costs just SEK125 (£9) — but also offers blowout dishes, such as the Godzilla pork knuckle (SEK540/£43).
For more all-out dining, Stockholm has three double Michelin-starred showcases: the Grand Hôtel’s Mathias Dahlgren; Frantzén, the 12th-best restaurant in the world (according to the White Guide Nordic); and now Oaxen Krog, offering its own interpretation of a Swedish bistro on enviable Djurgården island.
For a city in which drinking is heavily regulated, it’s perhaps surprising Stockholm has such a thriving bar scene. Prohibitive legislation, which limits alcohol sales to venues with a ‘full kitchen’, means the city has developed its own brand of pop-up, hidden bars inside larger, more established restaurants.
A key figure in Stockholm’s speakeasy-style scene is Jimmy Dymott, who in 2009 opened the renowned members bar f/l Cocktailbar (The Bakery, by day), before heading to bar restaurant Marie Laveau to launch Little Quarter, a small space specialising in what Dymott calls ‘cocktails with no shortcuts’.
“We send out a high volume every night and we change our menus every month, so I’d say our bar-game is tight,” says Jimmy. And he has every right to brag since Little Quarter has been voted ‘best bar in Stockholm’ for five years in a row. Though its drinks change with seasonal themes and ingredients you can always expect a few old-fashioned numbers on the wall-scrawled menu. Best of all, inspired creations such as a Tijuana Mama (tequila, lime, grenadine, cucumber) are slammed out in lightning speeds.
Cocktails are big in Stockholm, but if good old-fashioned beer swilling is more your style, the city won’t disappoint. Further south on Södermalm — or Söder to the locals — is a legendary beer hall that’s been catering to thirsty punters since 1908. As one of Stockholm’s oldest boozers, Kvarnen still has a rowdy, blue-collar edge in its gorgeous high-ceilinged beer hall and second Czech-inspired room serving goulash, sauerkraut and pilsner.
Continue the after-hours Söder revelry with a party at Under Bron (Under the Bridge), widely feted as Stockholm’s best club. Set in a two-storey building on Hammarby Slussväg 2, this techno-flavoured haunt has a Berliner vibe and opens at the end of each summer, following an outdoor season as Trädgården, where you can watch live music, sup beer from plastic cups and play ping pong.
With its elegant and intimidatingly attractive locals, Stockholm is a favourite for fashionistas, thanks to key shopping districts Biblioteksgatan, Kungsgatan, Hamngatan and Drottninggatan — all of which sit within strolling distance from each other.
High fashion and eye-watering prices can be found where Norrmalm meets Östermalm, mid-range Swedish brands such as Whyred, Byredo and Acne sit in the adjacent streets of Mäster Samuelsgatan and Biblioteksgatan, while everyday chain stores line pedestrianised Drottninggatan, one of the city’s longest thoroughfares. A short walk from the latter takes me to famed department store Nordiska Kompaniet (NK), Stockholm’s answer to Harrods.
If independent boutiques and bargains are more your bag then Söder — voted the coolest place in Europe by Vogue in 2014 — or more specifically, the neighbourhood of SoFo (south of Folkungagatan), is where to head. It’s here you’ll find cutting-edge Swedish apparel at stores like Grandpa, beautiful art and design tomes at independent bookstore Konst-ig and crates of secondhand vinyl at Pet Sounds, which has been going strong for over 35 years.
SoFo is also home to Pärlans Konfektyr, a cute, vintage-themed confectionery store, opened in 2010 by owner Lisa Ericson. Inspired by a trip to Japan and its penchant for beautiful things in beautiful packages, Lisa has created an artisan caramel concept using all-natural ingredients, old-time recipes and antique candy machines. With period 1930s décor and jazz music, boxes of hand-wrapped caramels and retro tea service, stepping into Pärlans is a time-warped joy. Customers peek through to a kitchen of simmering copper kettles, cutting machines and stacks of mouth-watering fudge, packed with punchy flavours such as vanilla and sea salt, lemon and blue poppy seeds, and candied ginger.
“We usually have 10 different flavours,” says Lisa. “Five of them have been with us from the beginning and they’re so popular, we don’t dare stop producing them.”
When seeking a conveniently placed hotel among Stockholm’s mosaic islands, many visitors focus on the more ‘mainland’ neighbourhoods, particularly the downtown hubs of Norrmalm and Vasastaden. But stray a little out of central to the oasis island of Skeppsholmen, a former naval base and stomping ground of Swedish royals, for a practical yet pleasingly secluded city stay.
The walk from bustling central to leafy Skeppsholmen takes no more than 10 minutes, and as you step off the short connecting bridge you’ll be struck by how silent Stockholm has become, even though you’re only over the water from the Old Town crowds and sprightly Söder streets.
Among stately buildings and salty shipyards sits the island’s namesake hotel housed in two converted 17th-century barracks. It might be all pale wood floors and whitewashed walls, but Hotel Skeppsholmen is more than just another exercise in minimalist Scandi design. It’s a carefully scrutinised listed building with strict preservation orders — even the light fixtures require permission to change. It’s hard not to be charmed by its pokey corridors, worn stone staircases and wooden window shutters.
Back towards central, if money’s no object, the five-star Grand Hôtel is an obvious choice. As the only hotel with panoramic views of the Royal Palace, it’s safe to say it’s pretty grand. It’s been hosting royalty, celebrities and Nobel Prize laureates since 1874 and lavishes guests with yacht hire, custom tailors and its own Michelin-starred restaurant. At the other end of the scale, 18th-century Hellstens Malmgård is a popular city retreat offering a taste of traditional Sweden with antique furniture, cosy fireplaces and creaky old floorboards — for well under £100 a night. The 21st-century isn’t far away though; situated in Söder, the hotel is a stone’s throw from top hangouts, including Louisiana-style eaterie Marie Laveau.
Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) has direct flights from Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Heathrow and Manchester; British Airways from Heathrow; Norwegian from Birmingham, Gatwick, Edinburgh and Manchester; and Ryanair from Stansted.
Average flight time: 2h 20m.
Stockholm has four airports: Arlanda, Bromma, Skavsta and Västerås. Most airlines use Arlanda, from which there’s a 20-minute express train into the city’s central terminal. Stockholm’s main sights can easily be explored on foot, though buses and trains (metro), run by Storstockholms Lokaltrafik (SL), are the quickest way to get around town. You can buy tickets at SL counters, train stations or Pressbyrån kiosks — tickets can’t be bought on buses.
The Stockholm Card, which gives free entry to more than 75 museums and attractions, also entitles you to free public transport. Cards are valid for 48, 72 or 120 hours. Bike hire is another practical way to explore, with docking stations available citywide.
Need to know
Currency: Swedish krona (SEK).
£1 = SEK12.59.
International dial code: 00 46.
Time difference: GMT +1.
How to do it
Sunvil Discovery has a seven-night Stockholm and archipelago package from £1,087 per person, including return SAS flights, four-nights B&B in central Stockholm, three-nights B&B on the island of Utö and a 48-hour Stockholm Card.
Published in the April 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)