Having traveled to dozens of countries and hundreds of cities over the past five years, it is getting harder and harder to find places that surprise me. When I took the ferry from Helsinki to Stockholm for a quick weekend getaway in Sweden’s capital, I sure didn’t think that Stockholm would surprise me, but there were several things that I didn’t expect. And: I also didn’t expect to love Stockholm as much as I did, to be honest! I am already thinking about a return trip and how I can work Stockholm into my summer travel plans. I’ll tell you more about my weekend in Stockholm shortly, but here are ten things that surprised me:
1 Stockholm is spread out over 14 Islands
I knew that there was a lot of water around Stockholm, but I had no idea that the city was in fact sitting on 14 islands! These islands, located at the mouth of Lake Mälaren, which eventually flows into the Baltic Sea, are all very close together and connected by 57 (!) bridges, and you can walk from island to island. Gamla Stan is the oldest one of them, the place where the first settlements of Stockholm were built in the 14th century. Stockholm actually translates ‘log island’ (‘Stock’ in Swedish is ‘log’, and ‘holm’ means ‘island). ‘In Stockholm, you’re never far from the waterfront’, one of our local guides told me, and for someone like me who loves the water, that makes the already beautiful city even more attractive to me. And if 14 islands aren’t enough for you: the entire Stockholm archipelago is made out of 30,000 islands.
2 So fresh and so clean
I knew that Stockholm was regularly listed as one of the prettiest cities in all of Europe, and yet I was still surprised to see how clean and neat the city was. There is no heavy industry, and that combined with the fresh sea air, is the reason why Stockholmers enjoy some of the cleanest air of any European capital, and Stockholm was the first capital to be honored the ‘European Green Capital’ award. 95 % of the population lives less than 300 meters from a green space. The city is very active when it comes to building energy-efficient houses, sustainable land use, environmentally friendly local transport, the amount of public green spaces and recycling – I am a big fan.
3 Fika is taken very seriously here!
This is something I can definitely get behind – the typical Swedish coffee break. As a German, I was very much reminded of our afternoon coffee and cake break (Kaffee Und Kuchen), probably my favorite thing about German culture, but I think Fika is even a bit better. Why? First of all, Swedes take their coffee culture serious. Instead of just a plain ol’ filter coffee, you get an espresso or cafe latte, always prepared with utmost professionalism. And the pastries you usually get with your coffee – to die for! Kannamummabulle (cinnamon buns) or kardemummabulle (cardamom buns) were always so fresh and delicious, I was considering moving to Stockholm just for those. There are tons of coffee bars all over Stockholm, and I would make it my mission to try (and rate) them all.
4 You can follow in Lisbeth Salander’s footsteps
If you don’t know who Lisbeth Salander is, you might want to skip to #6, but if reading this name gets you as excited as it gets me, you will be delighted to hear that you can go on dedicated Millennium Tours which bring you to the apartment of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Blomqvists’s apartment, Milton Security (the company she worked for), and other places of interest from the popular trilogy. I have to admit that reading Stieg Larsson’s Trilogy was what first piqued my interest in Stockholm (especially the Södermalm neighborhood) and while I didn’t have time to join a Millennium Tour this time, I’ve already put it on my must-do list for my next visit. By the way – The photo above was taken in what used to be Stieg Larsson’s favorite coffee shop, and also that of his main character Mikael Blomqvist.
5 Very cultural
Stockholm is one of the cities with the most museums per capita in the world, making it a paradise for cultural tourists. There are nearly 100 museums in the city! The Nationalmuseum is Sweden’s biggest art museum with over 16,000 paintings and 30,000 handicraft objects, and you’ve got something for every interest: modern art (Moderna Museet), Fotografiska (an excellent photography museum), Skansen (an open-air museum on Swedish country life), the Vasa Museum (famous for the reconstructed Vasa Ship), the Nordic Museum and the Stockholm City Museum on Swedish culture and the history of the city, and the list goes on and on. Stockholm is also home to the Nobel Museum, after Alfred Nobel decided to set up a fund in his name to commemorate advance science and Stockholm held the first Nobel Prize awards ceremony in 1901.
And of course there is an ABBA museum – which only opened in 2013, is interactive and even lets you sing with the ABBAs on stage and record their songs, and already attracted over half a million visitors!
In addition to all these museums, Stockholm is also home to a number of internationally acclaimed art galleries and several theaters. And UNESCO geeks can visit three World Heritage sites in the Stockholm region.
I also learned that Stockholm was home to the world’s longest art exhibition, which is its subway system – the tunnels are all covered in art – but I didn’t spend enough time in the subway to truly appreciate this unique art gallery.
6 A city of cyclists
I personally love to ride a bike whenever possible, so of course one of the first things I noticed were the many bike lanes. There are nearly 500 miles /800km of bike paths in Stockholm, and I could see myself cycle all over town all summer long. I am not sure if I would be as brave as the Stockholmers I saw on their bikes – considering that it was snowing heavily during my visit, there were quite a few cyclists! – but judging by the amount of bikes that I saw around town under a thick layer of snow, I assume that nearly everyone in Stockholm owns a bike and that most of them use it year round.
7 Booming restaurant scene
During my weekend in Stockholm I ate at several restaurants, and three of them had just opened. The restaurant scene in Stockholm is booming, with new restaurants opening all the time, expanding their space or adding another branch, and the food is very creative. There are meatballs of course (which you have to try if you eat meat – I was told that they were so much better than meatballs anywhere else in the world), lots of seafood and reindeer meat dishes, but I was surprised to see such a large variety of international cuisines and beautifully designed restaurants (I could add a whole paragraph about Swedish design here, which I absolutely loved). In total, there are over 1,000 restaurants in Stockholm.
8 Stockholm in white looks even better!
Confession: I am not the biggest fan of winter. I know, this isn’t really news for most of you, but I usually despise the white stuff. In Stockholm, however, it didn’t faze me in the slightest that I was wandering around in a heavy snowstorm for hours, watching how the entire city got slowly covered in a white blanket. Stockholm is already incredibly picturesque, but the snow made it even prettier. I also loved how the snow was like a soundproof cover, swallowing every noise you usually hear in a city. On my walk around Gamla Stan, the Old Town, I felt like I was the only person out, and I cherished the silence.
9 Independence outweighs chain
I was surprised to see relatively few chain stores around the city – instead, I stumbled upon boutique shop after boutique shop, independent book stores, and loads of independent design and clothes shops. Independent stores are definitely going strong in Stockholm, something I was happy to see in this age and day where the shopping streets are usually dominated by the same brands. (Of course there are still big brands in Stockholm, and let’s not forget that both Ikea and H&M were founded in Sweden).10 City of technology geniuses
Did you know that the computer game Minecraft, popular internet radio Spotify and internet telephone provider Skype were all invented in Stockholm? Technology company Ericsson was also founded in Stockholm. I had no idea, but I am particularly grateful for Skype, which has made it so much easier for me to stay connected with family and friends on my travels… who knew I was using something from Stockholm on a daily basis!Have you been to Stockholm? What were the things that surprised you about the city?