Sweden is famed for its cheesy pop music, flat pack furniture, vodka, Vikings and, of course, meatballs. But the country’s real trump card is Stockholm – its truly stunning capital. In summertime this archipelago city is awash with the magnificent midnight sun, while in winter it’s an idyllic snow-capped fairytale delight. Whatever the season, however, Stockholm remains impeccably well dressed, at the forefront of modern Nordic design, and has excellent taste in food.
Situated on the Baltic Sea, the city is made up of a collection of 14 different islands, each with their own distinct personality. Sights are spread across all 14 islands, and if you don’t mind walking, it is the best way to explore the city.
Gamla Stan (the Old Town) is the historic heart of Stockholm and the most obvious starting point for visitors to the city. Whilst it is definitely the most touristy part of the city, its winding cobbled alleyways, terracotta coloured buildings and Royal Palace are a vision. Interestingly, its original architecture remains intact – an ode to Sweden’s neutrality in the Second World War. Gamla Stan acts as the main artery of Stockholm, and from here two smaller islands link to it via bridges.
To the north is home to the Swedish Parliament, Helgeandsholmen, while to the west is the royal crypt, on Riddarholmen. For museums, go east from Gamla Stan, to Djurgarden. The city’s highlight, Sodermalm, lies south of Gamla Stan. This area offers the best of Stockholm’s bars and shops, flea markets, vintage boutiques and trendy independent galleries. Take a wander through the area around Fjällgatan and explore the gorgeous 16th century wooden houses, alongside spectacular city views.
If Sodermalm is not your thing, head to Vasastan for the best of Scandinavian design, or for exclusivity visit Ostermalm, which is home to Stockholm’s wealthiest neighborhood. If you’d like to catch a view that tourists rarely see – go to Kungsholmen and take a stroll along the beautiful walkway next to the water with a view towards Sodermalm.
Whichever way you go, however, take time simply to enjoy wandering in this very clean, safe and friendly city. Get lost in its numerous green spaces, in its views across the Baltic, or lose hours in a cosy café.
Stockholm's top drinking spots
- Tradgarden - Under Bron: Under Bron (below) literally means 'Under the Bridge', and that is exactly where this open-air party is located in Sodermalm. Go for unbeatable atmosphere, a seriously cool crowd, table tennis and dancing all night.
- Riche – this famous restaurant-bar has been an institution in Stockholm since 1893 and has a consistently glamorous crowd who keep the champagne flowing. Go for crowd watching and cocktails.
- Kvarnen – Established 1908, Kvarnen is one of Stockholm’s oldest beer halls. It offers an amazing choice of beer and a busy nightclub in the basement.
- Akkurat – This bar is a must stop for any lover of excellent beer and whisky. It also has the added bonus of a great atmosphere and friendly service.
- 19 Glas – a tiny wine bar and restaurant boasting 300 wines in their cellar which means they can satisfy even the most fussy wine connoisseurs.
Where to stay
There's a huge range of accommodation in Stockholm, but be warned that the majority comes with a high price tag. One of the best options is Benny Andersson’s (of Abba fame) boutique hotel, Rival (above). It’s great location on Mariatorget Square and its 96 individually styled rooms make for a wonderful base. The hotel is only a few yards from the closest metro station (T bana), the hotel has a lovely art deco cocktail bar and a 1940s restored cinema. The rooms have stills from Swedish films across the beds for an extra fun touch, and breakfast is scrumptious.
- Kottbullar och potatis - meatballs and potatoes, always served with lingonsylt (lingonberry). It would be wrong to visit and not try it at least once.
- Sill and stromming - herring - smoked, fried or pickled. Be sure to try them all.
- Brannvin - Sweden's main spirit, is vodka, and is drunk as schnapps. You will often hear a group announce ‘skol’ before they drink, which means ‘cheers’.
- Fika - the celebrated Swedish tradition of taking a coffee break with friends, family or colleagues and is typically accompanied by something sweet.
Food and drink
Stockholm is one of the world leaders in Nordic cuisine, and has eight Michelin starred restaurants to boast of. Lux Stockholm (above) is one of them. The restaurant is housed in the former Electrolux factory and has a wonderful modern industrial-chic feel about it. It’s simple yet classy in design. The restaurant uses seasonal and locally sourced produce, which means the food is always terrifyingly fresh and the menu always changing. A reservation is absolutely essential here. Go at lunch to get a booking more easily, and also to enjoy the natural light through their enormous windows. The best way to eat at Lux is to try a sample menu with matching wines. Nine courses might sound a lot, but it is definitely worth it.
Perhaps avoid fika before you go to Lux. On the subject of fika – there are an abundance of places to get your daily fix. Drop Coffee is a popular and trendy option serving up cup after cup of perfectly brewed coffee to accompany their warm cinnamon buns. String Café is excellent for people watching and its fabulous mismatched furniture. Twang café is a fun option on the fika-front and is a great place to rest your feet for the afternoon and enjoy some live music and freshly baked cinnamon buns. Just down the road from Twang is Pause café, where you can do just that. It’s also a nice place for lunch and people watching in the sun.
Top five soundtracks for Stockholm
- The Cardigans – Gran Turismo (1998) – Sweden’s premier rock band
- ABBA – Gold (1992) – It’s too hard to pick a standalone album, so go for the Greatest Hits
- The Hives - Veni Vidi Vicious (2000) – Sweden’s rock and roll Gods
- Roxette – Look Sharp (1988) – the legendary Swedish pop duo
- Robyn – Robyn (2005) – Sweden’s pint sized pop star
Things to see and do
There are innumerable sights and interesting things to do in Stockholm, but here are some highlights:
For culture - Fotografiska gallery in Sodermalm is a must visit for photography lovers. It’s a beautiful space with a lovely view from its café.
For vegetarians - Hermans Restaurant – a vegan delight with excellent food, views and hammocks outside if you need a post-meal nap.
For nature - Take a ferry to Fjaderholmarna, a group of islands just 20 minutes from downtown. Take a picnic and relax while taking in the scenery.
For royalty – Kungliga Slottet (the Royal Palace) – take a tour or simply be outside at midday to watch the changing of the guard.
For history – Nordiska Museet – Sweden’s largest culture museum
For fun - Abba Museum – a whole museum devoted to the legendary Swedish pop band. It’s as cheesy as their music and the newest museum in the city.
For modern art – Moderna Museet - catch a ferry to Skeppsholmen for a taste of Lichtenstein.
Stockholm basics: know before you go
- The currency used in Sweden is the Swedish Krona.
- The official language is Swedish, plus the protected minority languages Yiddish, Romani, Finnish, Meankieli and Sami.
- The book: Wallpaper* City Guide Stockholm (2013) - £5.95.
- The app: Visit visitstockholm.com to download Stockholm's newest and free interactive guide called 'Stockholm Sounds' which incorporates tasks and music into its travel tips.
Getting There And Away
Stockholm Arlanda is the main airport in Stockholm and is 45km north of the city centre. Stockholm can be reached easily by either bus or express train from Arlanda in about 30 minutes. Skavsta airport is the second airport in Stockholm and is used by some low-cost carriers such as Ryanair. Skavsta is 100km south of Stockholm and the city centre can be reached by the regular shuttle bus service in approximately 90 minutes.
The Rival Hotel offers double rooms from £190 per night. To book, call +46 (0) 8545 7 8900 or visit rival.se. Norwegian Air flies to Stockholm from Gatwick, with single fares starting from £39. Visit norwegian.com to book
Words and photos: Kate Vandy