Travel and a bit of shopping
First published (an edited version) in Fairlady, April 2019
The Swede Spot
Flying into Stockholm looking down at the vast Swedish archipelago evokes imaginary pictures of the small island inhabited by the main character in Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell’s novel Italian Shoes.
The city of Stockholm encompasses over fourteen large islands and fifty seven bridges. Outside the city and along the coast the Stockholm archipelago consists out of roughly 30 000 islands, skerries (it’s only the Scandinavians who would have a word to describe an unforested rock sticking up from the sea) and rocks.
The area around Stockholm has been settled since the Stone Age. The first time the name Stockholm appeared on record was in 1252 when it was used in a letter written by a Swedish statesman called Birger Jarl.
Stockholm has a medieval city centre as well as cutting edge design, it has Gothic churches as well as beautiful parks smack-bang in the heart of the city. The city claims to have more museums per capita than most other cities in the world.
The oldest zone in Stockholm
Gamla Stan, the Old Town of Stockholm, is one of the largest and best preserved medieval city centres in Europe. Nearly all the cobbled streets are pedestrian-friendly; wandering among the autumn-hued buildings feels as if you are in an open-air museum. It’s a treat to come across the narrowest street, Mårten Trotzigs Gränd. It’s just 90 cm wide and it has 36 steps to climb.
Although a visit to the Royal Palace is highly recommended, not least because it has more than 600 rooms including a few museums, I couldn’t tear myself away from the alleyways and neighbourhood churches in Gamla Stan. Sweden’s national cathedral, the Stockholm Cathedral (Storkyrkan in Swedish), is the oldest church in Gamla Stan.
If the weather turns nippy peek into doorways in the labyrinth of side streets until you find a cosy bar or coffee shop that serves glőgg, a spiced, sugared, mulled red wine, in a dimly lit vault or cellar.
Stortorget is the oldest square in Stockholm. From Stortorget runs Kőpmangatan, the oldest street in the city. Though its debatable, the 82 white stones on Number 20 – look out for the burnt orange building on the square – is said to symbolise the heads of the people decapitated by the Danish king in 1520. Face the other way and sit down for coffee and a cinnamon bun (called kanelbullar) at Chokladkoppen (www.chokladkoppen.se/english/) before you resume your wanderings through this laidback city.
Laidback it is indeed with everyone greeting each other with a high-pitched and lilted hej! (hello or hey in Swedish) all around you. You soon learn to do the same upon entering any shop or other establishment.
The Swedes are warm and friendly people, not nearly as aloof as I imagined them to be.
A place of parks
In spring and summer – and any other day weather-permitting – the Swedes are out in their droves in the green spaces that make up roughly a third of the city.
Rather than opting for the more crowded parks on Djurgården Island three of us headed to Haga Park, part of the Royal National City Park. We were fascinated by the whimsy of the Koppartälten, blue copper ‘tents’ built in the style of Roman battle tents. At times Crown Princess Victoria en Prince Daniel spend time in Haga Castle but the park is never out of bounds to the public.
The Stallmästaregården Restaurant (www.stallmastaregarden.se/en/) just off Royal Haga Park, is rustic yet fancy schmancy. Their added drawcard, colloquially known as a ‘lust house’, is a separate garden cottage. It’s not nearly as raunchy as it sounds; it merely means that a table for two is set in a bower with a view over the lake.
Set sail to the Maritime Museum
The Vasa Museum (Vasamuseet), a maritime museum, is the most visited museum in Scandinavia. More than one million visitors dock in annually to see the 69-meter long warship, Vasa, that tragically sank in the shallow waters of Stockholm harbour on its maiden voyage in 1628. The wind toppled the Vasa over only 1300 metres into its first voyage.
The ship was salvaged 333 years later after the location of where it sank was rediscovered in 1956. It is nearly intact and is the only preserved 17th-century ship in the world.
The Face to Face Exhibition is a series of museum mannequins that were created through facial reconstructions of some of the individuals that died in this disaster. During excavation eleven skeletons were found. They were alphabetically named and a biography was created for each of them. One of the skeletons was initially thought to have been a boy but it was later determined that she was a girl of about 16 years old. Her skeleton showed several injuries and it seems that she was malnourished and bullied.
A boat trip in the inner archipelago
A boat trip for a few hours allows you to experience the land-and-seascape of the archipelago with a drink in hand or with lunch on deck.
A word of warning – do not go on the shortest boat trip (usually to Fjäderholmarna) as you will have lovely views of Stockholm but not much else.
The charm of the inner archipelago lies in the miniscule lighthouses not much bigger than dolls’ houses, viewing the ochre-coloured villages and sheds from the water and sailing through narrow channels and under a handful of the bridges.
Back on terra firma
Walking tours – including free tours with experienced volunteer guides – abound in Stockholm. Take your pick – a ghost tour, a vegetarian walk, a Viking history walking tour, a bohemian crawl, a Stockholm by night photography experience. Or better yet, discover Stockholm under your own steam.
Sődermalm (South Island) has a bohemian feel and has loads of boutiques and artistic shops that celebrate creativity and Skandi design. In Vasastan (Vasa or Stone City) you will see how the trendy locals live; it has wider streets and different architectural styles as well as pavement cafés and corner stores. Djurgården is popular amongst tourists as it has several museums and parks. Östermalm is the city centre where the best department stores and restaurants are found.
Drottninggatan is the longest shopping street in Sweden; it runs from Vasastan to Gamla Stan.
Kungsträdgården (King’s Garden) is more of a square than a park; it’s a favourite meeting place for city slickers. From April to early May the cherry trees on the square are in glorious bloom. On a travel website it’s been described as standing under a “cotton-candy canopy”. Grab a pavement table at Victoria Restaurant.
Nordiska Kompaniet (or NK) (www.nk.se/stockholm/) is a few minutes’ walk away. This multi-level department store, established in 1915, is Stockholm’s most luxurious. It is built around a four-storey atrium with wrought iron balconies on all four sides. The window displays, the book store on the top floor and the lighting department were highlights.
Pop into the Finnish design brand’s Marimekko flagship store (www.marimekko.com) nearby. It’s cheerful, it’s colourful and the accessories, bags and homeware are sure to seduce you.
The iconic IKEA was founded in Sweden in 1943. Although it’s not centrally located public transport is super-efficient. If a bus is two minutes late the commuters apologise for the inconvenience their city is causing you if they hear that you speak with a foreign accent!
All over Sődermalm, Vasastan, Östermalm and Drottninggatan you will find wooden toys, hand-knitted wool hats, gloves and sweaters and, lastly, elk-themed souvenirs, for sale. Attractive hand-painted wooden horses called dalahästen are typically Swedish and very popular as well.
The Veranda at the Grand Hotel (www.grandhotel.se/mat-dryck/verandan) serves the best smőrgåsbord, albeit pricey, in the city. A Swedish smőrgåsbord is a classy buffet that traditionally features herring dishes, gravadlax (salmon with dill, juniper and lemon) and meatballs with lingonberry jam.
Head to Gondolen (www.eriks.se/gondolen/) before the sun sets. Its cocktail lounge has stupendous views over the city as it is suspended above the harbour. On a clear day hot air balloons glide above.
The city of Stockholm makes you feel at home. It could be because it is often called the world’s smallest big city or the world’s biggest small town.
Or it could simply be because of the people’s warmth and the way they greet you. Hej, Stockholm! I hope to return one day.
Need to know
There are three simple steps to a Sweden Visa: vfsglobal.se/southafrica/Index.html
For more info, go to: www.visitsweden.com