I wasn’t especially excited to visit Stockholm, and I blame this on both my superficial knowledge of Sweden, as well as on my loyalty to our friends in Copenhagen, Stockholm’s friendly rival. Fortunately, traveling showed me how wrong I was, as it often does, and the two things I was so sure I wouldn’t appreciate in Stockholm — its food and its people — ended up being my favorites on our five-country trip.
Getting to and from the airport is easy. The Arlanda Express Train reaches the center of Stockholm in just 20 minutes, and its cleanliness, efficiency, and user-friendliness rival the airport trains we’ve taken in Japan and South Korea. Buy tickets at the kiosks or online if you want them in advance.
I cannot recommend our hotel, Hotel Kungsträdgården, enough. This beautiful Gustavian-style hotel is centrally located, offers a lavish breakfast buffet in its historic courtyard every morning, and provides the type of service you’d expect from a much pricier hotel. Our concierge gave us free champagne and chocolates, did research for us when we told them we were interested in subway art, and made us feel at home — from saving our favorite spot for us on a hidden balcony, to making a pot of tea for us as soon as they learned that we drink rooibos tea to end our breakfasts. Our tiny but charming room was on the top floor and overlooked Kungsträdgården (King’s Garden).
If there are only three things you do on your first trip to Stockholm, I’d recommend exploring the city’s subway stations, wandering around Gamla Stan, and stuffing yourself with kanelbullen.
Stockholm’s famous metro system (or “tunnelbana”) has been called the world’s longest art gallery, as more than 90 of its 100 stations are elaborately decorated with artwork. In the summer, the city offers free guided tours in English, but since we visited in late March, we had to settle on following a fantastic blog that led us to nine of the most interesting stations using just one subway ticket. This was the best activity we did in Stockholm, as we got to experience the daily commutes of the locals (this is always very important to a couple of New Yorkers), and it took us on a scavenger hunt through the city, forcing us outside the touristy areas.
Speaking of touristy areas, you can’t visit Stockholm without spending at least a few hours in Gamla Stan, the charming Old Town. Until the 1600s, this picturesque little island of cobblestoned streets and warm-hued buildings comprised the entirety of Stockholm.
Stortorget is its oldest square, lined with colorful buildings topped with gables. This tourist-filled square has a bloody past. In 1520, the Swedish aristocracy, merchants, and priests who challenged Danish rule were rounded up and beheaded here. Rivers of blood flowed through the streets. One victim’s son escaped, went into hiding, and later led a Swedish revolt against the Danish rulers. Three years later, the Swedes elected that same person (Gustav Vasa) as their first king. We noticed his name everywhere in Stockholm, as he is to thank for one of Sweden’s greatest periods in history.
I had my first kanelbulle in Gamla Stan, but the best one I tried was at Fabrique, an adorable bakery chain in Södermalm (“the Brooklyn of Stockholm”). A kanelbulle is a cinnamon bun made with cardamom and topped with pearl sugar, and is possibly my favorite pastry in the world. I had at least two every day. The Swedish tradition of fika – basically, a better version of the coffee break – is to be shared with friends, taken in the morning or afternoon, and includes a pastry such as a kanelbulle. It really should have been no surprise that I fell in love with Stockholm.
One morning, we decided to visit the Vasa Museum on Djurgården, a lush island that contains a handful of museums. I had no interest in an old ship, but I ended up finding it fascinating. The size of the massive Vasa ship is impressive but was also its downfall. Vasa sank after just 40 minutes into its voyage in 1628. After spending 333 years at the bottom of Stockholm’s harbor, Vasa was raised in 1961 and is now housed in a beautiful interactive museum built just for it. While it seems unfortunate that it was barely used, it’s actually had a longer life than most Swedish ships; ships are usually scrapped after just a few years for reuse, so Vasa is easily the best-preserved ships of its time. It was designed by a Dutch shipbuilder, and it sank because it was built too high and too skinny, causing it to tip over easily. Arrive at the museum early to avoid long lines, and take the free 25-minute tour.
On our way to the ferry, we got distracted by a sign that read “Tastings” and found ourselves at the Spritmuseum. The exhibit itself is just decent, but we paid extra for the Swedish liquor tasting and really enjoyed it even though I couldn’t handle most of the liquors. When we were sufficiently tipsy, we continued on our way to the quick harbor shuttle ferry, a convenient way to cross the harbor and return to the other islands.
Another museum we visited was the Nobel Museum, a small comprehensive museum about Alfred Nobel and his legacy of the Nobel Prizes, which are awarded in Stockholm annually. The free 30-minute tour taught me more than I’ve ever known about the Nobel Prizes.
We had so many good meals in Stockholm, but I’ve narrowed it down to my three favorite places. Bakfickan is well-respected for its food, and notorious for its hard-to-come-by tables. Somehow, we were able to get a seat right away on our second try, and it was worth all the hype. Rolfs Kök is a trendy bistro that serves Swedish classics. We were able to make an online reservation the day of. Nystekt Strömming is a food cart on the edge of Gamla Stan. Eating fried herring on a paper plate by the waterfront is just one of the best feelings in the world.
After three days of some of the best meals we’ve had abroad, it was time for the next stop on our trip: Sicily! Hej då, Stockholm!