Quick, what do you know about Sweden?
If you’re like me, you might have come up with the following:
- Absolut Vodka
- The Swedish Chef (from the Muppets)
- Swedish meatballs
- Swedish Bikini Team
- Swedish Fish
I've got to break the news to you. The Swedish Bikini Team was conceived by the marketing folks at Old Milwaukee beer and were really Americans in platinum wigs, while Swedish Fish originated in Norway. Even my stereotypes aren't actually Swedish.
With precious little knowledge of Sweden, I decided on this Stockholm trip to get beyond pop culture references and stereotypes.
We left Oslo on Swedish SL rail for the five-hour journey to Stockholm. I love traveling by train, but especially when it’s as relaxing as this. Pack a lunch, including a bottle of wine (no fluid restrictions here!) and simply step from the platform into your comfortable seat, complete with plug-in for your phone or laptop. No pat downs, no charge for luggage. Did I mention the wine? So civilized.
Five hours through the Norwegian and Swedish countryside passed quickly and there we were in urban Stockholm, on a night like a film noir set. Outside the Mariatorget metro station it was pitch black with wet pavement illuminated by a lone streetlight, empty streets and air completely still, interrupted only by the clip of my boots. I kept expecting a man wearing a trench coat and fedora to step around the corner and ask me for a light.
But this wasn’t a detective novel and instead of a seedy hotel, we were staying in a cute top-floor studio apartment in Sodermalm. It was so dark, I forgot to put on my sleeping mask, even though our host cautioned multiple times (OBS!) about the bright early morning sun coming through the skylights.
When I was awakened by the sun at 4:45 am, it was like going from black and white Kansas to technicolor Oz. Despite being a large city with 1.5 million people, Stockholm is so full of waterways and parks that blue waterways and green spaces catch the eye everywhere you look.
A stunningly beautiful city, Stockholm (technically an archipelago) covers 14 islands connected by many bridges. The major districts include Norrmalm and Ostermalm on the main city side, Sodermalm to the south and historic Gamla Stan in the middle.
After the previous day on the train, we were ready to hit the streets and decided to start our visit by circumnavigating Sodermalm. Billed as a trendy, hip 'design' neighborhood, we were anxious to see what the fuss was all about.
There was a great vibe, being a Friday afternoon with warm and sunny temps. True to its reputation, every hipster seemed to be outside, but it was particularly rowdy with droves of high school graduates crowding the streets in what looked to be sailor caps.
We left the noise for Tantolunden Park, a large, hilly green space famed for its allotment gardens- tiny gingerbread-house cottages (sheds!) that are fenced in for growing flowers and vegetables. Then, at the waters edge, it was a chaotic scene with boats being lowered into the water for the season while crowds sipped beer and soaked in the sun alongside riverfront bars and cafes. Nearby, in contrast to the drinkers, was an outdoor gym area called utegym (literally, out gym).
Finally, we stopped at highly recommended Fabrique Boulangerie for a bit Stockholm's famed coffee culture. Stockholmers love to fika, which is a coffee break with baked goods, and Fabrique makes it extra special with touches such as china serving plates and real roses. Our food didn't disappoint either- the coffee was strong and fresh, and the Swedish kanelbullar (cinnamon roll) for me and ricotta cookie (for Perry) were perfection!
We finished the day by climbing the highest point in Sodermalm, Skinnarviksberget, to watch the sunset.
The following day, we decided to tackle the city- Norrmalm and Ostermalm. Unaware when we booked, turns out we were in Stockholm during the lead up to Eurovision.
Euro-what? Don't worry my fellow Americans, I had no idea what this was before I moved to the UK and had one of those embarrassing 'How have you NOT heard of Eurovision' moments. The Eurovision Song Contest is an annual competition among European countries that send one entrant to represent the nation. It's a huge source of pride to be the winning country (you host the following year) and at times, has launched the international careers of the winners, such as ABBA (1974) and Celine Dion (1988).
It helped explain the interesting fashion we saw on the street over the next week, styles that can only be described by the derogatory (apologies!) term 'eurotrash'. But I digress. Back to the city!
The center, especially near the water has an interesting combination of architectural styles, including Renaissance, Neo-Classicical and Art Nouveau, borrowing ideas from all over Europe. While they were building, city planners thoughtfully included plenty of green spaces and tree lined boulevards.
But the further in you go, the more modern and urban it becomes. Central Stockholm is brimming with shopping malls and fashion is big here (H&M headquarters in Stockholm), so we checked out two of the best- Ahlens and MOOD. Ahlens is the John Lewis/Nordstrom of Sweden, while MOOD is a new concept fusing cool modern spaces with unique shops. We loved MOOD so much, we went twice just to soak up the ambience- and to trick my mind into believing I had done some shopping. PS. It's hard not to shop with all the cute clothes I keep coming across while I wear the same thing day after day. Oh, boo-hoo, I'll get over it.
Day three was a relatively lazy Sunday with a leisurely stroll down tree-lined Karlavagen towards the circular plaza, Karlaplan.
After, we headed to a nearby British pub, the Tudor Arms, where we watched Leicester City draw with Manchester United while we chatted with local Swedes about, of all things, the NBA! One guy was a huge Spurs fan and made bold comments such as 'Michael Jordan was nothing without Scottie Pippen.' Okaayyy then!
Monday, we had a visit to the US Embassy, which you can read about here.
After the Embassy debacle, we took the day off on Tuesday to chill in our apartment, catch up on reading and do some laundry. Our host had returned from her meditation seminar and graciously washed our things at her place downstairs. Prior to this, Perry experimented with washing clothes in the sink, which he mentioned on his website.
Wednesday, we focused on Gamla Stan, the medieval old town that also houses the Royal Palace and Cathedral.
Our last day, we finally made it Djugarden, the museum island. Conventional travel wisdom says you shouldn't wait to visit an attraction on your 'must see' list because random closures can happen. I may have tempted fate, but I definitely saved the best for last.
Djugarden houses the key museums of Stockholm:
- Vasa Museum, containing an intact 17th century ship that sank in the nearby harbor in 1628
- Skansen, the world's oldest open air museum featuring heritage Swedish buildings and a zoo
- Nordic Museum, displaying a large collection of Swedish social history
- ABBA Museum, no explanation needed
Bear in mind, we are not typical tourists on a two week vacation. We are living on the road for a year and so visiting every museum we come across is not possible lest I and my bank account burn out within 3 months. We need to be selective, and Vasa was my 'can't-miss' museum in Stockholm. Vasa is a Swedish war ship that sank on her maiden voyage about two miles out of town, in front of horrified crowds who had gathered to watch the spectacle of such an ornately carved and painted ship. I learned about Vasa during a visit to the Mary Rose museum in Portsmouth, UK, which houses an old Tudor ship that sank in the 1500s and was recovered in the 1970s. But Vasa is REALLY special because of two factors- 1) how intact it is and 2) the remarkable exterior decor.
We went during a particularly sunny and glorious day which worked out perfectly- there were no crowds as everyone was visiting the outdoor attractions. We had the whole place to ourselves and I nerded out on all the exhibits and took a ton of photos. The museum is spectacular- even Perry, not a museum lover, enjoyed it. In addition to explaining the story of Vasa with visual displays, the museum does an excellent job showing life in 1628 Sweden, plus it tells the stories of the crew that died on board. A bit morbid, but they have the skeletons found inside the ship on display with clues about their life gleaned from the forensic analysis of their bones. Such gems as:
- Broken femur as a child did not heal properly so probably walked with a limp
- Teeth show malnourishment occurred during childhood
- Disfigured skull means she probably always wore a hat
- Was suffering from painful periodontal disease at the time of death
YIKES- and these were people in their twenties. Life was tough!
Our time in Stockholm came to a close with a cruise to Helsinki. As we sailed east, I thought about what I picked up about Sweden and Swedish culture between tourist attractions.
- Money Talks
It's definitely one of the most expensive places we have visited, so if you go, bring extra cash. Socialism doesn't come free...but it makes for a pleasant vacation destination!
- Coffee Rules
Great coffee and lots of it. Don't forget to fikapaus!
- Blondes AND Brunettes
Yes, there were plenty of tow-headed people, but it's not a sea of yellow hair.
- Design Matters
The land that brought the world H&M and IKEA has a creative passion- from fashion to home goods to art and architecture, the Swedes take good design seriously
- Forget the Meatballs & Candy Fish
Swedish cuisine is way more sophisticated. I don't care what IKEA is selling. Also, I didn't see any Swedish Fish, but we did buy an interesting package of candy with the flavor Salvi- which turns out to be salted licorice. Even with my Jaegermeister-loving ways, I couldn't eat them.
- No Bork Bork Bork
I didn't hear anything even remotely resembling the Swedish Chef and the Swedes are understandably irritated by the comparison- reminds me of the crap we Minnesotans took when the film 'Fargo' was released.
- Absolut-ly French?
The Swedish state sold Absolut Vodka to French group Pernod Ricard for $5.6 billion in 2008, and the marketing department has been focused on building a mega-brand outside of Sweden ever since!
- ABBA Fever
There is an ABBA Museum, however, I was too embarrassed to go in. I did see a one of those face hole board thingy's out front where you and three friends can put your heads into this image.
Some stereotypes persist, I guess.