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When I ended up spending a weekend 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.And 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.I 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.Tip: 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.Instead 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.Sofo 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.Our 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.After 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.I 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.That night, we ventured to Normallm, or the city, Stockholm’s central district, for dinner, trying out the new Kött & Fiskbaren restaurant (which has closed since I visited), 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.The 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.
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.
Tip: For a less daunting tour of Stockholm’s rooftops, check out this tour: Hidden Rooftops and Terraces – it promises to bring you to all the best rooftop bars and terraces in all of Scandinavia.
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 (2020 update: this bistro seems to have closed since I visited) 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.
The 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.I 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.I 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 and The Secret Garden 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.
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, and Mellqvist on Hornsgaten. If you consider yourself a true coffee aficionado, make sure to stop by at specialty coffee roasters Johan & Nyström in Södermalm (Swedenborgsgatan 7).
- 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.