Stockholm: where marvelous and royal cultural heritage meets a modern, cool lifestyle
I've always thought about Stockholm as a city where harmony, cooperation and order are imperative, where everything seems to be in its right place. Respectful and polite citizens, impeccable and quiet streets, stunning buildings and mesmerizing landscapes. Not to mention being a nation which presents an everlasting trust between the State and its population, so much so that citizens also never complain about paying high taxes: they are high but it comes back to them in the shape of decent roads, a good health system, libraries and parental leave.
But there was something hidden behind my perception. It's true that I have been nurturing a nostalgic yet curious image of Stockholm in part because of my father's influence. He spent some wonderful years of his life there, as he himself described, a long time ago, before he passed away. Regardless of carrying my beloved father's imprint, I had personally felt all this "perfectionism" about this town and so much more.
Most European capitals have monuments, museums and churches to die for; the ones that hit you in the face - and don't get me wrong, this is a compliment as I do love remarkable architecture. In Stockholm, on the other hand, I dare to say these constructions have a delicate semblance, almost as if you could pass by and not even notice they are there. It doesn't mean they are less beautiful or less prominent, by no means. But they intertwine with nature in a very unique way therefore creating a subtle balance that gives our eyes a smooth perspective. To me, this makes all the difference!
The archipelago of Stockholm
It comes as no surprise that being an archipelago formed by 30,000 islands, islets and rocks, nature plays a crucial role in the country's ethos: one reason why the Swedish are so connected with the outdoors. They love spending time outside and feel at one with nature. Thus, despite the fact that the city holds gorgeous trees, parks and is surrounded by water, people enjoy escaping from the urban scene to mingle into the wild.
If you are a lover of forests, mountains and beaches, there's so much to explore: hiking, trekking, sailing, kayaking, skiing, ice skating, to name a few. Every season has something to offer plus Swedes in general tend to be very sportive in order to also cope with the cold weather while they keep their bodies warm.
If I may give a piece of advice, take a look at the city's official website which has plenty of useful and inspiring information about what to do when it comes to outside activities: https://www.visitstockholm.com
Neighborhoods in Stockholm
Gamla Stan: if you love a medieval vibe, just like I do, it's worth spending much time in this area. Also called Old Town, it's one of the largest and best-preserved medieval city centers in Europe. Since Stockholm was founded and built up around Gamla Stan in 1252, one can only start imagining the endless secrets this area conceals that no history book would ever be able to witness. On top of that, some of the main worthwhile attractions in the city are located in the Old Town, such as the Nobel Prize Museum, the Royal Palace and the Stockholm Cathedral. Handicraft and souvenir shops, cafes, restaurants and the most unmissable and vibrant pubs are also spread throughout the charming cobblestone streets of Gamla Stan.
Södermalm: also known as Söder, this young-oriented district has become one of the hippest areas in Stockholm thanks to an exciting combination of trendy bars, restaurants and design stores whose consistency in quality and creativity stands them apart from the so-called fashionable, ephemeral hot spots.: The neighborhood is home to the most unforgettable culinary experiences I've had in town. Moreover, Sweden's world-renowned photography museum, Fotografiska, is also based there as well as the highest natural point in central Stockholm: called Skinnarviksberget: it grants us a breathtaking view from above where you can see some of the eye-catching features the city is famous for. Personally, this is a region I would recommend staying over.
Djurgården: this is an island in central Stockholm which you certainly don't want to miss out on. The most iconic museums worth visiting in the Swedish capital are all located in this green area, such as the Vasa Museum, Prince Eugen's Waldemarsudde, Junibacken, Skansen and the Nordic Museum. A perfect balance for culture lovers who dedicate hours to inside attractions is to go for a long walk in the Royal Djurgården Park, formerly the royal family's Game Park.
Östermalm: the posh residential neighborhood has magnificent buildings which one can hardly get tired of admiring. Luxury Scandinavian and international brands also contribute to this fancy credential as well as the delightful Östermalmshallen market (I love its vintage vibe dating back to 1888): a mandatory visit for food lovers. In addition to its affluent environment, Östermalm also offers a great night life proving its mixed vibe.
Culture and the best museums in Stockholm
I tend to believe that when we visit a capital for the first time, at least five days are necessary to feel its pulse. When it comes to museums and galleries, Stockholm has such a diverse scene that will hardly fit into less than one week. By diverse I mean there are museums to cater to everyone's tastes: Scandinavian, Nordic, modern art, contemporary art, classic art, photography, Vikings, realness, and many more.
Not to mention the iconic Nobel Prize Museum: a spectacle of institution that holds our attention from the minute we walk in. Its curatorship is so accurate and interactive that it makes us dive into the laureates and their ground-breaking discoveries without even noticing we have been there for hours. It's really something! Apart from this one which I naturally consider unmissable, here's a few more that I loved visiting.
Fotografiska: it's the largest photography museum in the world, mainly dedicated to contemporary works. Regardless of whether you are a photography fan or not, don't think twice and go to this fantastic place. Its coastal location is superb and it guarantees a wonderful view from the upper floor restaurant: delicious food, by the way. Also, save some time (and money) to visit the museum shop. You won't regret it!
Prins Eugens Waldermarsudde: the house-castle where the former painter, prince Eugene, lived and thrived before he passed away in 1947 has probably got the most beautiful rooms I've ever seen in my life. When I close my eyes, I can still picture the assertive combination of art deco and art nouveau with modern interior, including a golden chandelier, delicate antique furniture and regal tapestries. Vibrant flower arrangements decorate all rooms and give them a fresh well-maintained appearance.
Once there, Eugene's former private apartments can be visited and one will notice how well preserved they still are, some of them possess a lot of his own work. In parallel, it presents several temporary exhibitions that usually showcase important Scandinavian artists. The buildings and galleries are surrounded by gardens which are worth a visit in their own right.
*Apart from this wonderful visit, the venue is located on the beautiful island Djurgården where many other attractions take place. A good idea is to combine Prins Eugens and Vasa Museum on the same day and spare some time to explore the green area of which this island has plenty. I would also suggest watching the sunset at any tip of this area's coastline. I guarantee it will be the perfect end to this experience.
Hallwyl: sumptuous dining, billiard, smoking and drawing rooms along with green Swedish marble all over the walls decorated with magnificent ancient paintings: the fascinating lifestyle of the wealthy van Hallwyl family is wonderfully depicted at this museum. Created by the Countess Wilhelmina von Hallwyl (1839-1921) who was a huge art collector, she made sure to establish a unique house to keep her tradition alive. It is said this was likely one of the most expensive private properties ever built in Sweden.
Vasa Museum: honestly, I wasn't willing to visit this museum. I'm not very drawn to boats and sea artefacts. But I must admit that I took it for granted: the moment I stepped in, I immediately changed my mind and I could understand why so many people encouraged me to go there. What a museum! Swedes like to regard this as the "most successful failure" in the country's history. Vasa is the name of a ship that sank in 1628 after sailing just 1,300 meters. After 333 years on the seafloor, Vasa was brought to the surface (in the 50's) and can be admired by anyone at this museum. Vasa is the largest wooden ship ever raised and conserved (95% of it is original); thanks to huge efforts and cutting-edge technology, we are able to contemplate this marvelous piece of Swedish history. Not by chance this giant attracts thousands of visitors every year.
P.S.: Sweden is not a religious country which is why there aren't many churches throughout the city. The ones I believe worth visiting, however, are the Storkyrkan and the St Jacobs Kyrka.
Don't even think of visiting Stockholm without saving some time to astonish yourself with the city's subway stations that hide truly impressive artworks. Thanks to a political ideology known as "Folkhemmet" (The People's Home) which was led by the Swedish Social Democratic party, art became more accessible to a wider Swedish community in the late 50's. Since then, a cultural boom emerged and even today many artists are still commissioned to give a new purpose to the city's underground. Some of them depict the most eye-catching paintings and mosaics as well as installations that not only take your breath away but also make you feel like you are surrounded by a giant art exhibition! In my opinion, the unmissable stations are T-Centralen, Rådhuset, Thorildsplan and Kungsträdgåren.
Gastronomy and where to eat in Stockholm
Inventive, contemporary, balanced and marvelous. All these combined define the Swedish culinary scene. First of all, restaurants in Stockholm are bursting with creative chefs. It’s as if they have a white canvas in their kitchens where they design everyday a different chapter with the most interesting and unexpected combination of flavors and textures. The surprise factor that comes in every dish goes hand in hand with consistency. It's really an amazing experience eating in Stockholm.
Because of the country's location, there's no doubt that seafood is part of their culinary tradition. They have an abundance of fish such as anchovy, herring (prepared in plenty of recipes), salmon, cod and many other white kinds. But a great deal of the country's cuisine receives international influence, from France (creamy sauces), Turkey (meatballs and kebabs), Italy (lasagna), Mexico (taco), just to name a few.
On the other hand, they support the local farmers whose lands grow an inspiring variety of vegetables (funnily enough, beetroots are part of every restaurant's menu!). Speaking of which, vegetarians don't have to worry as options are aplenty: although they are not extensive, of a restaurant’s 10 dishes, I would say at least two of them cater to those who love greens. Vegans, though, will find it a little bit more challenging to be pleased.
It's Fika time!
In Sweden, people always have a good excuse to tuck into something sweet – so much so that specific calendar days are designated to the celebration of particular sugary specialties. Cinnamon Bun Day (Kanelbullens dag) is celebrated on 4 October for example.
If you have a sweet tooth, this country is meant for you: they are crazy about pastries and are always managing to find time to indulge themselves. Actually, taking one or two pauses a day is a national habit which they care very much about. They also have a name for it: "Fika", which literally means taking time to appreciate life or chat with a friend while drinking a cup of coffee accompanied by something sweet.
Here's a list of my favorite restaurants and cafés where the staff are so friendly and knowledgeable that your experience will become even more worthwhile:
Woodstockholm: whenever I'm going out by myself or in a party of two, I always try to sit behind the counter; this bar was no different. Apart from the amazing food, every bite would take me to heaven. Great wine list as well.
Bar Agrikultur: it's difficult to describe in words what my heart (and stomach!) felt; but I can guarantee that you'll hardly taste a meal like this. Small portions especially made to be shared.
Café Nizza: coming from an Italian family, I can't help but being judgmental when it comes to pasta. Not in this place. Before the main course, I ordered delicious vegetables which are certainly worth trying. Natural or biodynamic wines from unusual regions crown off the experience.
Babette: trendy, always packed, cool, wonderful food. It's sort of an institution considered by locals and tourists as a place you can never go wrong with.
Johan & Nystroom: don't be intimidated by the number of youngsters queuing for fresh, well-made prepared sandwiches on weekends: the waiting is worth it. Pastries and great roasted coffee too.
Bistro Bananas: a hot spot for many years, it has a very unpretentious ambiance which caught my attention along with very flavorsome pizzas.
it's one of the world's most distinguished food courts that you're going to love especially if your budget is generous. If not, just go for a visit because its architecture is really unique, and you can feel the nostalgic vibe which dates back to 1888.
Prices: bear in mind that eating out can be very expensive. Starter, main course, dessert and a glass of wine, for instance, can easily cost 100 Euros.
The abundance of water is a great advantage to get from one place to another. There are several ferries (free of charge) that connect the main islands which surround the city center (you'll probably take a ferry to visit some of the aforementioned museums). It is a delight to move between islands while admiring the landscape. I highly recommend doing one of those 2,5-hour boat tours that will give you a clear perspective of how Stockholm is beautifully designed. Although it is pretty normal to see private boats strolling around the water, most Swedes have their own bicycle. They also favor the efficient public transport system.
When to visit Stockholm
Stockholm is a Scandinavian city, therefore, the proximity with the North Pole doesn't spare them from the very harsh winter. If you are a fan of cold temperatures and snow, then you probably won't be afraid of how frozen the climate can be between November and February. But if I may suggest one season that I consider carrying a good balance it would be the beginning of Autumn. The contrast of the sky's deepest light blue with the yellowish palette of trees and plants are something truly picturesque! Summertime is not a bad idea: although I've never been there during the sunniest season, I can only imagine how wonderful it must be to swim in those crystalline urban beaches.
Friendly guide to Stockholm
*Costs are not exactly comparable to other European capitals: Stockholm is slightly more expensive;
*Hotels and B&B's have styles and prices that fit anyone's budget (I can’t recommend anyone specifically because I stayed in an Airbnb apartment which is great if you travel with an open mind);
*Taxis are expensive / Uber a little less (I rather use public transport or bike);
*It's a very safe city, any day any time;
*The alcohol consumption is controlled and distributed by the Government. There are specific shops called Systembolaget where people can buy liquor from. They have limited opening times on Saturdays and don't open on Sundays (for the sake of avoiding the alcoholically abusive past of its citizens);
*Pubs: they stretch all over the city and serve good food and good live music. Don't miss the chance to visit one (especially on Fridays or Saturdays when you'll get the chance to see how Swedish people turn from introspective, very shy individuals into bold and outgoing ones). My favorite pubs are in the Gamla Stan neighborhood: O'Connell's Irish Pub; Wirströms Pub and Stampen.