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10 things that surprised me about Stockholm

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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:stockholm in the snow

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.stockholm from the water

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.gamla stan stockholm in the snow

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.

cafe mellkvist stockholm
Fika at Mellqvist Kaffebar

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.

kaffe stockholm
Kaffe, where Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig) had coffee in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

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.

Stockholm Fotografiska Sweden
Fotografiska: a revamped industrial building which now houses a photography museum. And currently showing a Herb Ritts exhibit!

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.

stockholm street art
Some of my favorite art – street art – is hard to come by in Stockholm

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.Stockholm Bicycles

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.Stockholm restaurants

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.Stockholm in the winter

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).Stockholm independent stores10 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!gamla stan stockholm winterHave you been to Stockholm? What were the things that surprised you about the city?

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37 Comments

  1. I live in Stockholm and this post made me so happy. I really love it here and you’ve captured the city beautifully. And yes, fika is very important, in January and February we eat semlor (google it, they’re the best!) and everyone takes it very seriously. I will be leaving soon though to cycle around the world, others I would have loved to meet up with you when you get here again!

    1. I am glad to hear that the post made you happy, Cecilia! I can’t believe I missed out on Semlor!! They look delicious. Another reason to return, I suppose 😉 All the best for your cycle journey!

  2. I really love this article! I also happen to have gone through a Girl With the Dragon Tattoo utter obsession and ever since have fantasized about visiting the city where it took place. Not to mention I recently became good friends with someone from Stockholm who really speaks so fondly of it. Hopefully sometime this year I will have a chance to visit!

    1. Nichole – I hope you’ll make it to Stockholm this year! And you must hit up some of the places from the book, or take the Millennium Tour 🙂

  3. I haven’t been yet, but looking forward to! I love minecraft by the way 😀
    Anyway, I do respect any culture that appreciates a proper coffee and takes it seriously, for that alone would love to visit. than for all I know it’s an amazing city with a lot to offer. I want to go too!

    1. MissLilly – Totally agree with the coffee 😉 I was happy to discover this week that Hong Kong takes its coffee seriously, too!

  4. Great post! I love the fact that Stockholm is so environment friendly, that it has clean and fresh air to breathe. It is definitely one of the prettiest cities in Europe – the islands have got to do a lot with it. Sounds like a cool mix of culture, nature and food! And I have heard even the transport system is quite comfy there!

    1. Renuka – yes, great public transportation! I’m not sure what’s NOT to love about Stockholm (except for the 6 hours of sunlight during the winter months maybe 😉 )

  5. I really enjoyed reading your article. Stockholm is one of those places I haven’t visited yet, but I really can’t wait to. It looks so beautifully and you’ve really captured that beauty and charm and made me want to go even more. Being a coffee aficionado, I was totally was sold on just on Fika! 🙂

  6. Scandinavia, and especially Sweden, has been on my to go list for years and now I want to go even more! Mostly to follow in Lisbeth’s footsteps, but also for the design and food and coffee culture. Sounds like a city that would be perfectly my style.

    1. Aah, another Lisbeth fan… love it 🙂 The design is fabulous! I can’t wait to go back to see more of the city and the fabulous design, and to try more of the coffee shops. I am sure you’d love Stockholm, Amanda!

    1. I hope you’ll make it to Stockholm soon, Katie! Such a beautiful city. I can’t wait to see it in the summer – I bet it will feel completely different 🙂

  7. I haven’t been to Stockholm it is on my list. Definitely surprised from your post that there are so many islands and like the fact that it is very green.

    1. That’s one thing I love about traveling – you learn new things all the time! I couldn’t believe that I had never heard that Stockholm sat on 14 islands! 😀

  8. Zab and I are big fans of Sweden, having been there together about 6 times. We’ve only been to Stockholm twice but really like it (and we’ll be going back in late July as we’ve been asked to housesit again in the same place as last year!) But…I’ve never been in winter. Your pictures look lovely, but I reckon Stockholm is even better in summer, when you can really enjoy the outdoor spaces and the fact that nature is so close – and that you can swim in almost any bit of water you can access!

    1. I should’ve picked your brains before I went to Stockholm! Now I am tempted to time my trip in the summer with your housesit 🙂 Like you say – I bet it’s completely different in the summer and I would’ve love to experience it when it’s warm out. Fingers crossed that I can make it happen.

      1. Yes! That would be great if we were there at the same time this summer! It’s also when Stockholm Pride Week is on (27th July-1st August), which we checked out parts of last year and was super fun! See you there…?!

  9. Stockholm was my home for two years (I lived on Södermalm – just a few doors down from the Grandpa shop in your picture) and it was a great city to live in.

    Allegedly the water around the city is safe to drink. I haven’t tested it though.

    You should definitely go in the summer though. Stockholm is a completely different city in the summer 🙂

  10. Thanks for such a great and thorough post Dany! We haven’t been to Stockholm yet, or anywhere in Sweden for that matter but after reading your post we just might head there sooner rather than later. 🙂

  11. What a fab blog! I REALLY want to visit in Europe for a few months this year…and I would like to start in March:April. So running into your blog made me so happy. Lol. Looks like house sitting might be a great way for me to feel out a country before moving there for a few years. What a great idea?!

    Any pointers on what NOT to do/what to look out for when accepting a house sitting gig?

    Thanks!!!

    1. Thanks, Sandi! I can highly recommend housesitting as way to just scope out a country and get a feel for it to see if you like it enough to live there! Know lots of people who did exactly that, actually. The thing I recommend the most before accepting a housesit is ask lots of questions. Make sure you know EVERYTHING you might possibly wanna know. I have quite a few articles on UltimateHousesittingguide.com which you might find useful – good luck with your first assignment 🙂

  12. I visited for the first time last month also and wasn’t impressed at all by the city. Though it kept it’s european charm and architecture, the people are quite standoffish and everything is expensive. The gypsy beggars were the most surprising thing about the city for me.

    1. Drew – interesting that you found the people standoffish! I actually thought they were quite nice, but I’m used to Scandinavians being pretty reserved. I didn’t see any gypsy beggars at all – wondering if they were waiting out the snowstorm somewhere?!

  13. I just LOVE that you included a photo of Meatballs- For the People! I just got back from there this weekend and had the BEST meal from my whole trip there. Awesome post, and almost all of those surprised me as well!

    1. Addie, I am so happy to hear that – had a great meal there, too, even though I’m a vegetarian! But their veggie meatballs were excellent 🙂

  14. I haven’t been to Stockholm yet, and honestly it wasn’t that high on my list. But it looks pretty amazing! And i loved the girl with a dragon tattoo series…would love to follow her footsteps

  15. Dani, like you I love Stockholm, especially Gamla Stan. I visited in early spring when the warmth was just returning to the city and the water under the bridges were already melted. Reason #8 is definitely up there – the city is even more fairytale-like under the snow! Gorgeous!

    1. Peggy – I bet spring time is a wonderful time to visit Stockholm! I can’t wait to go back and I want to cycle around and kayak and explore the parks 🙂 And eat more Kannamummabulle 😉

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