Stockholm - By The Sea
Written by Alexander Farnsworth
There are many things that could bewilder a visitor to Stockholm. In Sweden’s super-organised capital city, pedestrians wait at crossings for their green light despite a lack of traffic, potholes actually get fixed, subways and buses run according to posted timetables, and the city is almost immaculate. But perhaps the most prominent feature of Stockholm is the surrounding water.
Often called the Venice of the North, Stockholm is situated on 14 islands that sit at the confluence of Lake Mälaren – a huge freshwater lake stretching 100 or more kilometres inland – and the Baltic Sea. This leads to stunning views from most high-perched areas around the city as well as an intricate web of tunnels and bridges which link the different parts of the city that can be navigated by car, on foot, or by bike.
Unlike Venice, however, there is no developed water taxi system, but plenty of boat excursions are available from the City Hall, or from outside the Grand Hotel. And the city’s waters are so clean, people can be seen swimming from just about any peninsula around town during the summer months.
In fact, Stockholm morphs into Santorini on a warm summer day. Two popular sandy beaches within the city limits include the north side of Långholmen, Stockholm’s own Alcatraz island that once housed a prison, and Smedsuddsbadet, under the impressive Västerbron, or Western Bridge.
The historic epicentre of Stockholm is Gamla Stan, or Old Town, with its narrow winding mediaeval streets still lined with Renaissance-era houses. The Old Town was originally a trading post where fishermen and farmers from the archipelago would sell their wares to a growing population. Storkyrkan, the church where Swedish monarchs are buried, and Tyska kyrkan (‘German church’), are each worth a visit, but special attention should be paid to the Royal Palace.
Dominating the landscape of the Old Town, the Royal Palace is the official residence of the Royal family, complete with daily military salutes. (The private residence of the royal family is actually Drottningholm, a Versailles-like castle 20 minutes out of town.) The Royal Palace, said to be one room bigger than Buckingham Palace, was nevertheless where Crown Princess Victoria addressed cheering crowds after her wedding to commoner Daniel Westling in June 2010
But before embarking on any major excursions in Stockholm, it is best to pay a visit to the Östermalms Saluhall market for some provisions. Known simply as the Saluhall, this red-brick building from 1880 on the southwest corner of Östermalm Square is a magnet for well-to-do Stockholmers who are looking for the best of Swedish cuisine. The Saluhall contains stalls displaying a mouth-watering array of cheeses, meats, vegetables, prepared foods, seafood, and breads, all neatly displayed with geometric precision, as well as a couple of sit-down restaurants.
One popular stall is the Lisa Elmqvist stall, where even superstars (and there are many in Sweden) have to wait their turn for their salmon, herring, or Skagenröra, a must-have shrimp, dill, and mayonnaise concoction that is served over bread with a generous dollop of caviar roe. Their adjacent restaurant serves all these dishes and more.
Östermalm itself is comparable to the Upper East Side of New York, or the posh 16th arrondissement of Paris. This is the wealthy part of town with long and wide tree-lined boulevards that terminate on shady squares with grandiose fountains. Östermalm tends to attract industry leaders; Swedish film and pop stars such as Max Von Sydow or members of ABBA can sometimes be seen walking their dogs on Karlaplan – without the paparazzi in tow. Even Tiger Woods is said to own a flat on Strandvägen, a posh, quayside boulevard with sumptuous sand-coloured, six-storey apartment buildings.
Follow Strandvägen and you will wander past enormous villas, many of which are embassies or embassy residences. Keep going east, and the landscape opens up into a huge open-air field where horseback riders can be seen against a backdrop of forests, punctuated by a 155m-high TV tower called Kaknästornet. From the observation deck or restaurant, stunning views of Stockholm’s waterways become evident to the west. Look east, and Stockholm’s Baltic Sea archipelago of 30,000-plus islands and skerries opens up.
Look down, and you’ll see the ferries to Finland or numerous cruise ships as they enter or leave the water-bound capital.
Although surrounded by water, the aerial view of Stockholm is also dominated by parks and forests. It never takes more than ten or 15 minutes to get out of town and into unspoiled nature – another thing that sets Stockholm apart from many other capital cities.
Follow the road past the Kaknästornet and eventually you come to Djurgården, another huge inner-city park that used to be the king’s hunting grounds and is today a popular relief from the busy city life for families, strollers, picnickers, boaters, and kayakers. The western part of the Djurgården island includes popular attractions like Skansen, an open-air museum of Swedish arts, crafts, and architecture, as well as a zoo.
You can also experience the bright lights and loud noises of Gröna Lund amusement park, which is Stockholm’s answer to Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. Stockholm’s famous Vasa Museum, housing the sunken and preserved Wasa (Vasa) warship from 1628, is also on Djurgården.
For an altogether different (and cooler) impression of Stockholm, it is best to head to the more bohemian island of Södermalm, only four stops from Östermalm on the red subway line. This is where writers, journalists, and other media-savvy professionals tend to live and play. On Södermalm, you’ll find farmers markets, pingpong, billiard and pinball halls, silversmiths, record stores, trendy cafés with equally trendy customers, design stores, second-hand stores, and all kinds of bars and restaurants. While there are many different epicentres or neighbourhoods around, Södermalm, Hornstull, Slussen, and SoFo are all definitive in one way or another.
Hornstull, on the western part of the island, used to be a working-class neighbourhood for shipyard workers, and only a generation ago was off-limits to ‘proper’ folk from the north side of town. Still known as ‘Knivsöder’ (‘knife Söder’), Hornstull is today home to old and young alike from all walks of life.
The southern quay of Hornstull has a blossoming restaurant and club scene known as Street, where hip and young Stockholmers in berets and other ’50s-era headgear drink their lattes or beers, and dance the night away. A more relaxed hangout is Liljeholmsbadet, a 75-year-old bathhouse on a barge 100 metres from Street, offering a bathing experience like no other.
While Slussen, just south of Old Town, is really just a set of locks between Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea (the height difference is about one metre and it is worth watching the boats go through), there is an eatery on the square adjacent to the subway stop that must be sampled. The so-called ‘herring wagon’ dishes up fried herring and mashed potatoes, herring burgers, and herring on different kinds of soft or hard breads with all kinds of condiments. The wagon has peddled its herring year-round for the past 23 years, and is today a venerable institution.
Like Hornstull, SoFo – the area south of Folkungagatan (literally ‘people king street’) – is full of multi-cultural design stores, bars, restaurants, cafés, antique stores, and the like. It is said that every store in SoFo has its own blog, something that is hard to prove, although due to Sweden’s image as one of the world’s most high-tech and online societies, this shouldn’t be much of a surprise.
While Stockholm has many different neighbourhoods, each with their own unique character, it is best to explore this green capital randomly, and just get lost in it – sooner or later a green space, waterway, or bridge will present itself, leading to even more explorations.
As Europe’s first Green Capital, Stockholm Town website editor hand-picks three great eco shops, ideal for luxurious organic cotton designer dresses, delicious vegetarian delicacies, and even cool sneakers with soles made from recycled tyres. Browse more great eco shops at http://beta.stockholmtown.com/en/
Swedish designer Nirvan Richter is inspired by a combination of American Shaker and Scandinavian minimalism. The award-winning designer runs his company with a humanistic and ecological mindset that takes the eco-cycle into account.
Trendy, stylish and tastefully selected fashion produced from eco-friendly textiles. You’ll find designers such as American Apparel, Camilla Norrback, Lovisa Burfitt and Kuyichi, and sneakers from recycled tyre rubber from Canada’s Blackspot.
A beauty salon with an ambition only to sell natural, organic products. Among other things, you'll find make-up, lotions, teas and perfumes on the shelves. There is also a professional perfumer who creates personalised fragrances.
Run by Magnus Johansson, Xoko is a rare mix of dessertery, café and bakery. Home-made ice cream, pralines, and chocolate desserts, are not to be missed.
Colourful cushions and sofas create a friendly environment. Tasty sandwiches with names like ‘buddy’, ‘stranger’, and ‘scruffy’.
The baristas are the stars of Cocovaja, with the goal of providing the best coffee in town, to which the numerous regulars can testify.
Cozy little café at idyllic Stortorget Square in Old Town. Exquisite sandwiches and pastries, and in summer a popular al fresco section.
Sturekatten is a hidden oasis: a true old-fashioned café and bakery. A stress-free environment for those who wish to sit and chat, or flick through a magazine.
Foto- grafiska Museum
While there are oodles of museums in Stockholm satisfying just about every curiosity – from silk to music to butterflies, not to mention modern and contemporary art – until recently there was no museum of photography. New York has its International Center of Photography (the ICP) and Paris the Centre Pompidou; but as of May 2010 Stockholm has the Fotografiska Museum.
The 2,500-square metre museum is housed in an old customs building, dating from 1906, in the port of Stockholm, a five-minute walk from Slussen. Just like its American and French counterparts, Fotografiska will have rotating exhibits from famous photographers and conduct high-level workshops. Opening exhibits included shows by Annie Leibovitz, Joel-Peter Witkin, and Lennart Nilsson.
Between cruising the archipelago, kayaking, rock climbing, hiking, biking, ballooning, swimming, and many other al fresco activities, Stockholm is an oasis for health buffs, or just those in search of some fresh air.
Rooftop hiking, however, is one of the more unusual activities. A company called Upplev Mer, or ‘Discover More’, hosts walking tours on top of the Old Parliament building – a unique combination of climbing and sightseeing with panoramic views around Stockholm. You can almost touch the City Hall from there, or gaze over the hundred churches that dot Stockholm’s mediaeval skyline.
Securely fastened with a security harness attached to a cable, and wearing a hard hat, the tour takes about an hour and a half, includes detailed information about the history of Stockholm, and allows an appreciation of the scale of the place that would be impossible from ground level.