Culinary Stockholm: Uncovering Swedish taste
Written by Lola Akinmade Åkerström (and photography)
An advocate for slow travel, Stockholm-based writer and photographer Lola Akinmade Åkerström notes that getting beneath the skin of her city requires slackening your pace, prepping your taste buds, and savouring Swedish culture through its gastronomy.
Riding the wave of new Nordic cuisine that has taken the world by storm this decade, Stockholm’s vibrant culinary scene offers a heady mix of organic bakeries, speciality cafés, local markets, a burgeoning street-food scene, innovative fusion bistros, and Michelin-starred restaurants.
Hosting the European finals of the world’s most prestigious cooking competition, Bocuse d’Or, in 2014, cast the gastronomical spotlight on Sweden’s picture-perfect capital – Stockholm. Its food philosophy is simple: fresh and organic with uncomplicated yet high-quality ingredients such as wild mushrooms, handpicked Arctic berries, and sustainably caught seafood.
And you’ll find this recurring theme as you navigate various culinary spaces across town.
With over 30,000 islands in its archipelago, Stockholm itself is a network of 14 islands with historic cobblestones, over 760km of bike paths, and lush green parks which serve as the backdrop to a thriving entrepreneurial start-up scene and popular gaming industry.
But first, an overview of the city’s main islands and key neighbourhoods.
A 10-minute walk south of train station T-Centralen, compact old town Gamla stan with mustard-yellow and ochre-coloured gabled buildings is linked by cobblestoned alleys and flanked by the box-shaped Royal Palace. You’ll find turn-of-the-century restaurants in centuries-old cellars alongside cafés, confectionery stores, and souvenir shops.
Östermalm – another 10-minute walk east of T-Centralen – is old-school glitz and home to Stockholm’s wealthiest residents. Here you’ll find historic marketplace Östermalms Saluhall selling handmade artisan food and fresh produce next to Michelin-starred restaurants, antique shops, and designer brands such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Swarovski.
Norrmalm, Vasastan, and Kungsholmen are Stockholm’s busy-bee business districts within five-minute subway or bus rides of T-Centralen. Alongside young professionals in trendy suits, you’ll find popular market hall Hötorgshallen and modern bistros serving European dishes and Middle Eastern-inspired restaurants serving halal fare.
Once a 20th-century slum, Södermalm remains the city’s most eclectic island, with vintage stores, ethnic restaurants, hole-in-the-wall live music, and organic cafés. Its Hornstull district draws hipsters who flock to old-fashioned barbershops, cool after-work lounges, and independently run boutiques.
Lush green Djurgården island is home to the city’s best historic museums – open-air cultural museum Skansen, the Vasa warship museum, and the Nordic museum (Nordiska museet).
Going back to basics
Many restaurants serve contemporary takes on traditional Swedish cooking called husmanskost. Think Sweden’s own version of American soul food except, instead of collard greens and fried chicken, you get reindeer meatballs, root vegetables, and pickled seafood.
The name translates into ‘house-owner’s food’ and it started making its way into taverns in the early 1900s. Beyond köttbullar (Swedish meatballs) andsill (pickled herring), which many restaurants serve, other popular husmanskost worth trying are gravad lax, which is cured salmon served with boiled potatoes and sweet mustard; stekt strömming (pan-fried herring), which is a popular lunch option served with mashed potatoes and lingonberries; and räksmörgås (shrimp sandwich), which is an open-faced sandwich loaded with shrimp, boiled-egg slices, salad toppings, and a creamy sauce.
Both Wallenbergare and biff à la Lindström are meat patties, except the former uses veal and the latter ground beef. Swedes grew up eating pannkakor och ärtsoppa (pancakes and pea soup) on Thursdays, and you’ll find these on menus every Thursday.
Restaurant Tradition (Gamla stan) serves healthier husmanskost. The 1940s saloon-style Pelikan (Södermalm) with antique décor is known for its meatballs. Speciality boutique Meatballs for the People (Södermalm) offers 14 types of meatballs including ox, salmon, elk, and reindeer.
Since 1722, iconic Den Gyldene Freden (Gamla stan) has served pickled herring and cured salmon. Historic Renaissance-style Operakällaren (Östermalm) serves elegant husmanskost, and its chef Stefano Catenacci organises official banquets for Sweden’s royal family.
Dining with the stars
Beyond the classics, Stockholm’s culinary scene is driven by modern Nordic restaurants, many of which have Michelin stars, using seasonal ingredients native to Scandinavia.
Located in lavish Grand Hôtel, Mathias Dahlgren – Matsalen (Norrmalm) serves multicourse tasting menus, while restaurant Frantzén (Gamla stan) uses organic vegetables, fruits, and berries grown on its farms for its 14-course menu. A few other stars include innovative Gastrologik (Östermalm); rustic Ekstedt (Östermalm), which only cooks on open flames; and Volt (Östermalm), which works with local producers and uses seasonal ingredients such as langoustines.
But the rising number of bakficka (back pocket) bistros run by the very same chefs means you don’t have to break the bank for lavish meals. Their concept is to make high-quality meals affordable and accessible without special reservations. For example, Mathias Dahlgren runs a bakficka called Matbaren, also located in the Grand Hôtel; while Gastrologik’s bakficka Speceriet is right next door.
A sizeable Middle Eastern community here means top-notch halal restaurants, such as popular Lebanese restaurant Tabbouli (three locations – Södermalm, Kungsholmen, Norrmalm). Libanesen (Södermalm) serves a 14-dish meze buffet with hummus, falafel, baba ganoush, and grilled meats.
Elegant Southeast Asian-inspired Farang (Norrmalm) and Michelin-starred Esperanto (Östermalm) and its sister establishments, raw sushi powerhouse Råkultur and Japanese bistro Shibumi, are leading the wave of fusion cuisine created by blending Asian flavours with Swedish produce.
For vegetarians, Hermans (Södermalm), with spectacular views of Gamla stan and Djurgården, remains the top choice in town with a wide buffet of plant-based dishes.
Fika like a local
A trip to Stockholm is incomplete without fika. Pronounced ‘fee-ka’, this cultural tradition is a social institution where breaks are taken several times a day to socialise with colleagues and friends over coffee and fresh pastries such as kanelbullar (cinnamon buns), chokladbollar (chocolate oatmeal balls), and semlor (wheat buns filled with almond paste and cream).
Iconic Vete-Katten (Norrmalm) serves the best semlor; cosy Gildas Rum (Södermalm) feels like your grandma’s kitchen; vibrantly decorated Vurma (Kungsholmen) is popular with young families pushing strollers; while exclusive Wienercaféet (Östermalm) with Viennese-inspired pastries draws in the business crowd.
Arguably the best coffees can be found at Drop & Coffee (Södermalm) and Johan & Nyström (Södermalm), both of which serve fairtrade, sustainably harvested coffee they roast themselves.
It’s often said that the way to someone’s heart is through their stomach, and for this stunning Scandinavian capital, navigating its culinary culture may very well get you into its heart.
The daily deal
Keep your eyes open for signs that say ‘Dagens rätt’ or ‘Dagens lunch’. This means ‘Dish of the day’, which includes meals at almost half their regular prices, and is popular with locals as a way of dining out without breaking the bank.
Rise in biodynamic fare
Stockholm’s exemplary focus on sustainable behaviour means there’s a wide array of eco-friendly and biodynamic restaurants to choose from: from Rosendals Trädgård Café (Djurgården), set in a greenhouse which grows its own seasonal produce, to Djuret (Gamla stan), which only serves a single organic animal on a rotating menu basis, and Gro (Vasastan) which focuses on sustainably grown vegetables.
Vibrantly decorated with art deco, avant-garde black-and-white portraits, and bold Andy Warhol-style artwork, boutique Hotel Rival (Södermalm) is owned by founding ABBA member Benny Andersson. It offers 99 uniquely designed rooms, a café, restaurant, and large 700-person cinema. Wake up to its Sunday smörgåsbord, touted as one of the best brunches in Stockholm. Its long-time concierge, Sean Naughton, knows every corner of the city for the best tourist experiences.
Mariatorget 3; +46 (0) 8-545 789 00
Head over to Södermalm, grab a cup of freshly brewed coffee and sweet pastries from Vår Bagarbod, and settle into one of its wooden wicker chairs and kerbside tables designed for people-watching. This cosy family-run café is located in a former fashion boutique called ‘Vår Bod’, hence its name. It kept some old aesthetics after its renovation such as the vintage signage above the entrance.
Ringvägen 129; +46 (0) 8-643 78 12
Only six years old, Stockholm’s contemporary photography museum Fotografiska remains a must for every traveller. Set inside a 1906 red-brick art nouveau-style industrial building with 2,500m2 of exhibition space, Fotografiska regularly features both Scandinavian and internationally renowned photographers. Its restaurant with jaw-dropping waterfront views uses 100 per cent ecological, natural, and local ingredients. Stadsgårdshamnen 22; +46 (0) 8-50 900 500
Distance: 4,585 km
Flight Time: 6 hours, 50 minutes