Travel notes: Stockholm

When the sun came out…

Stockholm was our first destination of our Nordic Tour in September and October 2013, a mere three nights with no great expectations of seeing too much. We just wanted to settle in and get a feel for the city.

This was aided by renting an apartment through AirBNB in Sodermälm, just south of Gamla Stan, the old city. Our lovely bright and airy apartment was homey; it was modern while in an old building; and on a street with cobblestones. I was charmed by the apartment itself as well as the location.

It was funny to think back on my previous visits to Stockholm, spring of 1992, young enough to crash in strangers’ spare beds (this one belonging to Richard, a kind doctor, a friend of a friend of my brother). I can’t remember at all where I stayed in the city, and my strongest impression of the city was of the grounds of a palace that Johnny, another friend of a friend of my brother took me to. I remember being charmed by the old city, but didn’t remember any details. The other trip was a few hours in transit between Copenhagen (I think) and Helsinki (for a conference) with the briefest of visits with Filippa and her family.

So, rather than Stockholm coming back to me, it seemed almost a new city that I had missed most of the first time around! After arrival, we went for a quick walk through the old city and to the harbour. It was absolutely freezing, an early cold snap that felt more like winter than fall. The main strip of the Gamla Stan, Västerlanggatan, reminded us of any terrible tourist street, packed with people and cheap viking helmets and braids. But anywhere away from that street was quite charming. I also realised, walking through it, that the original intention, to find a rental apartment here was misguided. It’s a small, historical and touristic area; no wonder the few listings were booked or super-expensive.

In each of the Nordic cities we visited we chose at least one top-end restaurant to try; in Stockholm, this was Volt (review to come) and was a great first meal in Europe, our introduction to the new Nordic cuisine. Our later attempt at a traditional meal at Pelikan was amusing enough: the building itself, a historic drinking hall was worth the visit. The herring appetiser was, well, herring, and the meatballs were tasty and combined with potatoes, gravy and lingonberries, too much to eat. This means I can now say I’ve tried Swedish traditional food… and that IKEA’s frozen meatballs aren’t too different!

Combining a boat tour with observations of bearded Swedes

Our other activities in Stockholm included an Under the Bridges tour, which was really a good way to get a feel for the city and how it is layed out. The recorded tour was good and it was interesting to how even in a city as old as Stockholm, new neighbourhoods are being developed all the time. We had a jazz brunch at the Sodrateatern on Sunday morning with my friend from Pearson College, Filippa, which was a mere five minutes up the street from our apartment. The food was great (a buffet) and the jazz was good.

After, she took us for a long walk around Sodermälm and we were very charmed, beautiful views of the city and waterways, wonderful historic buildings, a great big yellow church and then funky secondhand stores and cafes. As fans of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, we were charmed to discover that much of the action happens in our neighbourhood. We even had a jaunt down to Steig Larsson’s favourite cafe, Mellqvist Kaffebar at Hornsgaten 78, where a bearded Swedish hipster served us tall lattes, and tiny birds skittered around us trying to get crumbs from our pastry (another fantastic coffee place was Coffice, a place for folks to meet and work over coffee but it was so hip and stylish, it’s worth a visit for tourists). The excursion to Mellqvist allowed us to stop at the Filippa K secondhand store, a small store that resells clothes by one of Sweden’s famous clothes designers; usually it’s pricy so finding their resale store was cool and we both a great wearable souvenir (and better than an Abba t-shirt).

Speaking of Abba, though we planned on visiting the museum, it was closed while we were there. Because of timing, neither did we get into the Nobel museum. We also wanted to book into see the Swedish version of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert… but it wasn’t playing on the nights we were in town. So, our short trip meant a few timing issues. Meanwhile, our long morning walking around Djurgarden, a nice little ferry ride from Sodermälm, was a little flat. It was overcast the whole time, and at the end of the season, things just felt like they were shut up and quiet. It is one of the lotteries of travel, though I think one bright sunny day would have made quite a difference: Stockholm really is physically beautiful but we perhaps didn’t see its best face.

Stockholm was also unlucky to be the city to introduce me to Scandinavian prices. The Australian dollar and cost of living here is so high now, I really didn’t heed the snippets of warnings I’d heard about Scandinavia being expensive to travel in, but $10-$15 for a coffee and a pastry for breakfast and $15-20 for a glass of wine surprised me (and reminded me of their high taxes!) and we the $6 metro ticket to go just a few stops was steep (though I understand it’s better to buy a strip of 9).

Perhaps because we started watching the TV series Vikings, we did notice: Swedes do beards really well. And a number of the men do look like Vikings: tall and strong and bearded with blond or reddish hair. The people in the areas we were walking around were healthy, beautiful and extremely well dressed. Oh, and a significant number of the people we spoke to in shops and restaurants would switch between Swedish and perfect American English, with no trace of accent. Television? Exchange programs? We found it striking (and didn’t encounter it again in Finland or Denmark).

This review has a few complaints but it was, I think, circumstantial rather than a reflection on the city, All in all, it was a gentle start to our tour, perhaps hampered by schedules and weather, but a beautiful city. I’d return during sunnier and warmer weather, grab a ferry out to one of the islands and spend more time wandering around the shops (a brief shopping excursion was fun enough). Also, as our entry and departure point from Europe, the airport really has an awesome selection of chocolate, liquor, and Swedish glass (Kosta Boda).

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