An underrated venue for weekend breaks away, Stockholm (the ‘Queen of the Baltic’) boasts a lively Viking heritage, buzzing arts scene and suggestive café culture
My love affair with Stockholm began in late 2003, and developed over the next three years, when I dated a girl from there. That relationship ended, and since then the city has raged like “an antic in my blood” (to quote Claudius in Hamlet), and has become so familiarly strange: however far I am from Stockholm, it feels so thoroughly a part of me. Until recently I was almost loath to visit – the city haunted me so lividly that I felt to glimpse it once again would invariably either disappoint me or hurt too much.
To face down past demons, I decided to revisit the city over a long weekend last Christmas, electing to visit old haunts alone and incognito. Effecting a clandestine morning landing at Västarås, northwest of Stockholm, I was struck once again by how quiet things are in Sweden. Amidst the immensity of this land (2.5 times the size of the UK) one is struck by the abundant space, and it’s ironic that the Swedes feel that theirs is a small country, however much novels by the likes of Åsa Larsson and Henning Mankell are shot through with a deathly longing for Norrland – Sweden’s northern wilderness.
Everything in Stockholm coheres around striking contrasts between light and shadow, cast against the backdrop of the Baltic’s brilliant blue; which disarms when the sun shines, but takes the breath away when Arctic winds sweep off it in December. The airport coach whisks one into the city from under a low underpass amidst the enchanting echo of sunlight striking water, as we head for Central Station. I remember a scene from one of Ingmar Bergman’s films, Summer with Monika, where a construction worker returns to 1950s Stockholm after jobbing away: “Whatever you say – it’s great to see the city lights again.” It certainly was.
A sensible first investment is a T-bana or metro ticket book. The underground trains here are both efficient and cheap: 20 SEK (c£1.60) will buy you a single ride, but a book of 16 tickets (180 SEK/c£14.40) is useful for covering the city’s major sights at a fair lick. Another concession to speed is my choice of accommodation for the first night, which, so to speak, is all at sea. I stay on Skeppsholmen, which offers modest dormitory digs aboard a 19th-century sailing ship for 185 SEK (c£14.80). It’s one of the cheapest places to stay in town – although my principal motive for staying here is its ideal central location.
Saturday morning sees me tackle a grötfrukost (porridge with coffee and rolls), in one of the delightful konditorier that make the Old Town’s medieval streets a sweet source of fascination. I then visit Vasa Museet on Djurgården by taking a public ferry there, before imbibing modern art (and) Swedish style at the nearby Moderna Museet on leafy Skeppsholmen – another of Stockholm’s islands. Notable for paintings by Dali and Warhol, the museum is a pleasant walk around the harbour from Gamla Stan (Old Town), and that evening I wend my way back to the Nobel Museum on Stortorget, the city’s oldest square.
Coffee house culture thrives in Stockholm, and the Swedes even have a verb for ‘have coffee’ beyond the literal translation. “Kanske vi ska fika snart?” ("Perhaps we shall have coffee soon?") is an effective chat-up line in Stockholm, and is a deal classier and less intoxicating than inviting the object of your every desire out for a pint and a pickled egg. The Swedish saying “Lagom är bäst”, or “Enough is best”, has wide currency here, and it feeds through to a genuine absence of artifice or excess amongst Swedes – whether this concerns drinking or immoderate behaviour in general.
I warmed up with schnapps after an excellent smörgåsbord at Källaren Diana on Brunnsgränd 2-4 for 175 SEK (c£14). For something to eat on the hoof, try korv och mos med räksallad (hotdog with mash and shrimp salad), sold from any of the street stalls around town from around 35 SEK (£2.80). For more budget eats, 7-11s city-wide serve coffee and mouthwatering kanelbulle or cinnamon rolls, handy for those who wish to keep the afterburners on as they blaze a cross-town trail. I turned mine off and went to bed.
Next morning I toured the underwhelming baroque-built Stockholm Palace, having decided beforehand to spend my second night at Pensionat Oden, which offers elegant en suite rooms in ‘century old style’ further south on Södermalm for 995 SEK (c£80). It was a brilliant winter’s day, and if I had more time on this trip I would be tempted by the balloon rides that offer eagle-eyed views of the city. Far & Flyg AB sell gift flights for 1,995 SEK (c£160).
Instead I opted to revisit String on Södermalm (Nytorgsgatan 38), a veritable palace of kitsch, where all the fittings, from furniture and pictures to glass, are for sale, although wacky student outfits are off limits. Bear in mind that this is an alternative 20s hangout, so over-35s are likely to feel they are of pensionable age. The downstairs section is atmospheric, if a little dingy, purpose-built for student radicals reading Strindberg.
I moved on to Mosebacke Etablissement (Torg 3) that evening, an atmospheric jazz venue with commanding city views, although you may have to slalom your way Swedish-style around a drunk American slumped over the bar: “How much is a – hiccup – whisky here, buddy?” Barman (determinedly polite): “56 SEK” (c£4.50). American: “Thaattsss…ludicrous!” Barman (shrugs and smiles wryly): “Blame the Swedish government – our high taxes.”
The atmosphere fairly crackles at this place during summer, when it seems to attract everyone who is young and beautiful in Stockholm. It’s especially pleasant during long summer nights when the jazz piano trills and the terrace doors open to reveal the city’s luminous skyline. Drinks are ludicrously priced, but this is no reason why you, like me, should put your visit to Stockholm on ice – you’ll cease worrying about prices here after the first couple of rounds anyway, and get drunk on the views alone.