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The Perfect Winter Weekend In Stockholm

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When I ended up in Stockholm in January, it was an unexpected city break – I didn’t have any plans to visit Sweden, but thanks to Viking Lines’ daily ferry connection between Helsinki and Stockholm, why not take a quick side trip to the Swedish capital, right?

I didn’t know much about Stockholm, to be honest, only what Stiegg Larsson had vividly described in his Millennium Trilogy. But that was enough to entice me. I could see myself wander around the trendy Södermalm neighborhood, delve into the Fika culture, and see for myself why Stockholm is voted ‘prettiest capital in Europe’ so often.Stockholm swedenAnd that’s exactly what I did. Together with a few other bloggers who were in Helsinki to attend the MATKA Nordic Travel Fair a few days later, we hopped onto the Viking Line ferry at 5pm, knowing that we’d reach Stockholm the next morning. When I heard ‘ferry’, I pictured something along the lines of the car ferries I am used to from Italy or the Channel, but it turned out that the Viking Ferries play in a completely different league. These giant vessels hold cars as well as passengers, but the rest of the ship is more like a cruise ship than a ferry. There are several decks, a number of restaurants and bars, a shopping area (duty free!), even a sauna! Even though you don’t actually have all that much time on the boat to eat, because you sleep most of the ride, I like having options. And the food was fantastic. Instead of eating at one of the themed restaurants, I had the buffet dinner which includes bottomless glasses of wine and beer – how awesome is that. After a few drinks in the karaoke bar, I went to bed and woke up just in time to have breakfast before the ship docked in Stockholm.Viking Lines FerryI had two days to see as much as possible of the city, and to find out why so many people who I know who’ve been to Stockholm fall in love with it. And the first stop couldn’t have been better – the Fotografiska photography museum, housed in an old industrial warehouse that was converted in a photography museum. The impressive building with its contemporary industrial design was exactly the right setting for the fantastic photo exhibits that were on during my visit, including a Herb Ritts exhibit that made this photographer-turned-blogger giddy with excitement (remember? I used to be in charge only of the photos around here.. Well that’s not quite true but I used to spend much more time behind the camera than I do these days). I could have spent hours at Fotografiska, taking in the art followed by an extended brunch session in the top floor restaurant that boasts terrific views over Stockholm’s waterfront, watching the snow fall and slowly covering the city in a white blanket through the large panoramic windows.Fotorafiska StockholmTip: If you come here for weekend brunch, museum admission is free! Another tip: the rooftop restaurant, which can also be visited by itself, is a wonderful place to while away on a warm summer night when the sun doesn’t set until midnight. But in my opinion the museum, which housed over 100 exhibits in only 5 years, including cutting edge artists like Adi Nes, whose exhibit I was also lucky to catch, definitely deserves a visit.fotografiska museum restaurantInstead of watching the snow fall from the inside, I braved the cold temperatures and headed to the Södermalm neighborhood where I explored the trendy Sofo area (short for south of Folkungagatan). Here’s the thing: Stockholm has enough museums to keep you busy for months (close to 100! – one of the things that surprised me about Stockholm) and it’s a great way to hide from snow or rain, but I wanted to get a feel for the city itself during my short visit, so I decided to save most museums for my next visit. There are a number that I would’ve loved to see, like the Moderna Museet (Museum of Modern Art), the Museum of Swedish Design and Fashion, Junibacken, which is dedicated to Astrid Lindgren and all her books’ characters, and the Vasa Museum which is world-famous for its reassembled 17th century regal war ship that had sunk in the harbor of Stockholm on its maiden voyage.stockholm from the waterSofo was exactly my kind of area – a little edgier, and filled with little boutiques, independent shops and cute restaurants and cafes. On Thursday nights, you can shop here while enjoying wine and snacks, which is part of Sofonight, an initiative to promote local independent stores. The stores range from hip clothes to trendy accessories, jewelry by local designers and creative home design and furniture.Stockholm independent storesOur group met up again for a lunch at the trendy meatballs for the people restaurant, because you can’t go to Sweden and not have meatballs, right? A place with the word meatball in the name would probably not have been my first choice for lunch but it turned out that my worries were unfounded – they catered to vegetarians and even vegans, like almost all restaurants in Stockholm. And the vegetarian ‘meatballs’ were delicious.meatballs for the people vegetarian meatballsAfter lunch, it was time to explore Gamla Stan, the oldest part of Stockholm and the island – out of the 14 islands that form Stockholm – on which the city was founded in the 13th century. Gamla Stan with its narrow medieval streets felt like a true winter wonderland, the snow hiding the cobble stones and swallowing the sound of my steps, making me think that this afternoon would have never felt as magical had I come here in the summer.Stockholm Gamla StanI finished the afternoon with a walk all the way back to my Södermalm hotel, the fabulous Clarion (I am still kicking myself in the butt for not taking any photos there to introduce you to this hotel in a full hotel review because the design was incredible). My friend Lucy, who had been to Stockholm before, remembered a beautiful church and cemetery she wanted to show me and found her way back there, even though her last visit was many years ago. Our stroll over the small cemetery that surrounds Katarina Church was one of the most special moments of the day. On this cemetery, graves are lit by small lanterns, and walking through the rows of graves in the twilight hours was equally as spooky as it was beautiful.stockholm katarina church and cemeteryThat night, we ventured to Normallm, or the city, Stockholm’s central district, for dinner, trying out the new Kött & Fiskbaren restaurant, a steakhouse with a modern twist. My meat-eating fellow diners were raving about their steaks – I was a bit lukewarm on my vegetarian alternative, but that’s to be expected in a restaurant that specializes on steaks, and luckily my Swedish apple crumble dessert made up for it. I called it an early night after that because I knew I was going to have an early start the next day, to be able to fit in a few more of Stockholm’s highlights before the ferry would take me back to Helsinki.stockholm swedish apple crumbleThe next morning, we were the first ones to arrive on Djurgården, Stockholm’s museum island with a large park area, which is home to several of Stockholm’s most popular museums. We came here via ferry boat from Slussen – a scenic ride through the harbor – and were excited to visit the ABBA museum, which only opened in May 2013, not even two years ago, and has already had more than half a million visitors! While I like some of ABBA’s songs (how can you not tap your foot to tunes like Mamma Mia, Dancing Queen or Gimme Gimme Gimme, or sing along when they come on the radio?), I wouldn’t call myself a huge ABBA fan. The more surprised I was about just how much I enjoyed this interactive museum. It seems like people had just been waiting for a museum like this, and the developers, which include ABBA’s very own Björn Ulvaeus, have done an amazing job to bring ABBA back to life, or to introduce them to a new generation.

stockholm abba museum
Back to the 70s in the ABBA museum

Not only did I learn more about ABBA, their story and their music, but there was a recording studio in which I could record a song, a stage on which I could perform with ABBA holograms, all of which can be viewed and downloaded online later when you type in your ticket number on the ABBA museum website – what a great souvenir! It doesn’t stop there though – I could also virtually try on ABBA costumes and act in a music video, and listen to the ABBAs narrating every single stop in the museum through my audio guide. Last but not least, there was a Swedish Music Hall of Fame included in the museum, highlighting other famous Swedish music acts such as pop legends Roxette or Ace of Base, or newer acts like Robyn and First Aid Kit. I loved traveling back in time and hearing more about how ABBA started out and how they became a global phenomenon. To see how much fun it was to be on stage with ABBA, check out the short video I took at the museum (and no, that’s not me singing :D):

What followed next was the highlight of the weekend for most of my fellow travelers – a rooftop tour of Stockholm. In theory, this sounded amazing! Wandering on top of Stockholm, seeing this beautiful city from above. In reality though, it was heavily snowing and the vision wasn’t great. And let’s not forget that I am scared of heights, so I was too preoccupied with not slipping on the slushy, narrow walkways to be able to truly enjoy the walk. I couldn’t even take my camera out to document the experience, but the few snaps I took with my iPhone show that you couldn’t see much of Stockholm in the snowstorm that day anyway. I did, however, see images of what the experience would look like when it’s not snowing (or raining) and have to say: WOW! It looks absolutely amazing and I might have to overcome my fear of heights again when I return to Stockholm, and do the rooftop walk again. Take a look at some pictures of the tour during the summer here.

stockholm rooftops
Snowy views over Stockholm

The other spot I sadly missed because of the snowstorm would have also tested my limits: Skyview On Top Of The Globe, which are glass gondolas that run along the side of the Ericsson Globe, the largest spherical building in the world. From the gondolas, you’re supposed to have some of the best views of Stockholm, but that will have to wait until my next visit.

After the rooftop tour, we stopped for a quick lunch at the trendy No53 bistro in Gamlastan, and after that we had the rest of the day to explore on our own. I love getting to know a city by simply walking around, and I was on the hunt for the coffee shop with the best fika – the typical Swedish coffee break that involves a steaming hot cup of coffee and a sweet treat, in particular a kannamummabulle (cinnamon bun) or kardemummabulle (cardamom bun). I had asked around and between locals’ recommendations and favorite spots of people who had visited Stockholm in the past, I had a nice list of coffee shops that sounded worth being checked out. I marked them on my map and connected the dots, making this my walking route for the day, simply wandering around Stockholm with some breaks to warm my toes in between – after all, it was still snowing.

Stockholm felt eerily empty on this snowy day, but that didn’t dampen my mood. On the contrary – I enjoyed walking through a city without having to fight my way through the crowds, like I am used to from walking down Broadway in New York or even Sonnenallee in Berlin, where I had been a few days prior.

Winter in StockholmThe coffee shops I stopped at were all in line with the picture I already had of Stockholm: a young, dynamic and sophisticated city with some of the most stylish people I’ve seen anywhere in the world. If I were to move to Stockholm, I would have to up my game for sure – basically buy a completely new wardrobe. Mellqvist was my favorite stop on my coffee shop crawl – the cardamom bun I had there was to die for.cafe mellqvistI ended up walking through Sofo again, discovering new little gems that I had missed the previous day, and I found something I wanted to buy in every single shop, from vintage shop Grandpa to home decor paradise Coctail or the famous Swedish fashion brand Acne.

Café String was exactly my kind of coffee shop, filled with vintage furniture thrown together in a mix of colors and styles (apparently every piece in there is for sale), and I could see myself working on my laptop there at least once a week, taking advantage of their lunch and fika deals. I sat down at one of the tables in the window, contributing to the ever changing window display for a while. I almost missed my ferry because I was enjoying my time at Café String so much, and had to run to catch the ship back to Helsinki.meatballs for the people stockholmI only spent a couple of days in Stockholm, but that was all it took to get me hooked. My list of things that I still want to do in Stockholm is long – from Skogskyrkogården Cemetery (yes, I visit cemeteries in most places, especially when they are as acclaimed as this one, a UNESCO World Heritage Site), renting a canoe to paddle along the Hornsbergs Strand, window shopping along Nybrogatan street in the Östermalm neighborhood and nibbling on Swedish treats in the Saluhall food hall, try more coffee shops for fika (there are so many!), day trips to the quaint town Sigtuna (Sweden’s first city, founded in the 900s) and Vaxholm (known for its archipelago-typical wooden architecture), bar hopping around the city’s chic and vibrant bar scene, especially popular gay bars like the new Bitter Pills Bar, The Secret Garden or Torget that I didn’t get to check out on my first visit.

Wisesigen Stockholm – We’ll see each other again. I’m sure of it.stockholm

How to have a perfect winter weekend in Stockholm

  • If you happen to be in Stockholm during the colder months of the year, it might be wise to buy a Stockholm Card, which includes all public transportation and admission to 80 of the most popular museums and attractions around Stockholm (including Skyview, Junibacken Museum, The Royal Palace, to name just a few), plus sightseeing tours by boat and bus. You can find a full list of attractions included in the pass here. The card is SEK525 / US$61 for 24 hours, SEK675 / US$78 for 48 hours or SEK825 / US$96 for 72 hours, making it cheaper the longer you stay. (Note: the card might seem pricey at first, but considering the number of attractions that are included and that Sweden is an expensive country, it will definitely pay off to invest in one if you plan to visit a number of museums and other attractions).
  • Plan in regular café stops to get warm again. In Gamla Stan, gay café Chokladkoppen and Sundbergs Konditori (Stockholm’s oldest café), are worth a stop, Café Saturnus and Tössebageriet in Östermalm, Mellqvist on Hornsgaten and Café String (Nytorgsgatan 38) in Sofo, and Café Panorama (on the top floor of the Kulturhuset). If you consider yourself a true coffee aficionado, make sure to stop by at specialty coffee roasters Johan & Nyström in Södermalm (Swedenborgsgatan 7).

snow bikes stockholm sweden

  • If it’s really really cold, take a subway art tour. Yes, Stockholm’s metro stations are famous for their art, sculptures, mosaics and installations – over 90 out of 100 stations have been decorated with some kind of art, making it the ‘world’s longest art exhibition’. You should buy a day pass (SEK115 / US$13.33 for 24hrs or SEK230 / US$26.65 for 72hrs – basically you get 3 days for the price if two if you buy a 3-day ticket right away, instead of three individual day tickets) for the subway anyway, since it’s the most reliable form of public transportation, and connects all parts of Stockholm very well. Having a day pass for the metro also saves you the possible taxi scam that is widely talked about. WikiTravel has some good advice on it. Here’s a suggested subway art trail by EveryTrail (downloadable onto your phone), and VisitStockholm recommends these additional stops to check out for art lovers.
  • Also look out for glögg (mulled wine) if you are visiting during the winter, one of my favorite ways to warm up on a cold day.
  • Visit a sauna – as most of Scandinavia, Swedes also love their saunas. Centralbadet, a historic Art Nouveau public spa with four therapeutic pools and mixed saunas, is a good option. The perfect way to get warm after a long day of walking around Stockholm.
  • Most places don’t open on Sundays, or close early, so if you are visiting on a weekend and plan to do some shopping, make sure to do that on Saturday.

gamla stan stockholm in the winter

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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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Polaroid of the week: Wonderfully white Stockholm

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polaroid of the week sweden stockholm gamla stanAfter nearly three weeks in Germany, I finally hit the road again! Midweek, I left for Berlin to spend a couple of days in my favorite German city before I flew to Helsinki on Saturday. I loved being back in Berlin, but I was even more excited to head to Scandinavia, a region of Europe I have barely touched so far (other than a few days in and around Oslo a few years back).

I didn’t spend much time in Helsinki though – after half a day in the city, I made my way to the ferry terminal to catch the Mariella cruiseferry to Stockholm. I went to bed on Finnish soil (or to be precise: water) and woke up in Sweden! I was amazed how easy it was to go to another country just for a day, as many of the Finnish people on board did – they were taking advantage of the tax free booze and and just spent the day in Stockholm before returning to Helsinki on the 5pm ferry today (you gotta love Europe!).

My first stop was the Fotografiska photography museum – and I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to Stockholm. There happened to be a Herb Ritts exhibition on, and the views from the top floor bistro over the islands were incredible. From there, I continued my exploration of the city, braving a heavy snowstorm, which covered everything in a pretty white layer of snow. Gamla Stan, the old town (pictured), was eerily quiet and empty when me and Lucie walked around the narrow cobblestone streets, marveling at the old buildings in the area where Stockholm was founded in the 13th century. Stockholm sits on an archipelago where Lake Mälaren meets the Baltic Sea, and the main city rests on fourteen islands – Gamla Stan is one of them.

I have another day of exploring ahead of me before I return to Finland, and I can’t wait to see more of this incredibly picturesque city – I feel like that the snow just adds to the beauty of Stockholm, making it even more charming. And with proper winter clothes, I don’t even mind walking around in the cold for hours! Of course two days aren’t nearly enough to get a real feel for the city, but they are enough to whet my appetite for more. After this little teaser, I have a feeling it won’t be long until I’ll be back to see more of Stockholm and the rest of Sweden.

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