As the birds of steel approach the city from the Baltic Sea, the lucky travelers are treated to one of the most beautiful panoramas this planet has on offer. Thousands of little green islands scatter away from the Scandinavian mainland, emerald shards sinking into blue depths. Stockholm itself is not much different from the archipelago leading up to it, except that there’s more green than blue that surrounds this well-planned, clean and cozy capital.
I was one of those lucky travelers when my plane approached the Arlanda airport some years ago during a clear-skied summer evening. I still remember the feeling of grandeur that crept up my spine as the landscape below was tempting the adventurer in me. Join me on a tour of the city (and surroundings) that I’ve felt as a “home” even before I knew it actually will become my home (I’ve been here for almost 9 years now).
I arrived at the airport at around 20:00 and was picked up by Andrei, the man I’ll always be grateful to for giving me the opportunity to be here. The sun was still hours from setting since this was mid-July, close to the summer solstice. To give you an idea what this means, on the date when I arrived, the sun rose at 03:55 and set at 21:50, with a total day length of 17 hours and 54 minutes.
I’m thankful for whoever chose dark amber as the predominant color for the area of Arlanda’s Terminal 5 where I exited the airplane. It resonated with the golden light of the late sun, creating a warm, cozy atmosphere as I was walking fast past deserted gates.
The image above represents Stockholm very well. It’s a clean city with ample of green spaces, populated by well-maintained buildings with warm-colored facades. There are several large parks in the center of the city. Vasaparken is one of them and is situated right here at Sankt Eriksplan.
A lot of Swedes leave the cities during the summer, so it’s easy to take pictures with seemingly deserted streets. The traffic infrastructure of the city has been built with plenty of wiggle-room in mind, even though in the past years it has begun to struggle. However, an amazing public transport system (among the best in the world) is saving most people from wasting time being stuck in traffic. Here’s the route planner^ (complete with price listings). Rechargeable travel cards can be purchased at SL centers in main transport hubs or, even easier, at any Pressbyran^ shop. And here’s a map of the metro^.
But let us leave the city for a while. One of the best things a traveler can do in the Stockholm area is to get a boat ride through the gorgeous archipelago. My personal favorite is a trip to Sandhamn using a special kind of boat that takes the scenic route through parts of the archipelago where larger boats can’t fit. This is a day trip that is usually available from May to September. Make sure you don’t confuse this with the “usual” trip to Sandhamn, which makes use of faster boats, but goes via another route.
The trip towards the archipelago showcases some of the most beautiful houses I’ve ever seen. I have a lot of appreciation for the effort that was put into integrating human dwellings with the natural habitat. Of course, there are even better ways to do it, but this is a step in the right direction. It’s an example of architecture that is respectful towards the environment. But let’s not get into how much a house like that costs.
Towards Sandhamn, the vessel goes through the Strömma Canal^ which is very, very narrow. The guide will probably tell you about the devastation^ that a Russian fleet brought to the east coast of Sweden almost 300 years ago. The Russians suffered a humiliating defeat and were stopped somewhere around these parts.
Eventually, human civilization falls behind and nature reigns. Boats usually make brief stops on some of the permanently inhabited islands, sometimes only to drop newspapers or mail. There’s not a lot of sand on these rocky formations so beaches are in short supply, but Sandhamn is called like that for a reason.
Another good place to visit is the island and fortress of Vaxholm^. The city of Vaxholm is reachable by bus thanks to a network of bridges. There’s a cheap ferry that makes the connection with the stocky fortress. The island of Grinda^ is another good destination, especially for those that focus on nature rather than architecture.
And now let’s get back to Stockholm. This is not a picture of a riot, even though there have been some of those^ as well (definitely not something usual, but there are dark moments in every city’s history, especially when it comes to capitals).
This is how Swedes celebrate Walpurgis^: with a huge bonfire (among other things). We’ve attended this one in 2010, during our first full year here in Stockholm.
The Stockholm metro has been called “the world’s longest art gallery”. Indeed, there’s a lot of impressive, funny and perhaps even weird^ things to see when exploring the city via its more than 100 metro stations.
One of the first things I noticed when I traveled with the metro here is that these guys actually went through the trouble of naming every single train car (each train has up to 3 long cars). How could I not fall in love with such a city?
The trains are quite long and very well maintained. There’s also an impressive network of buses that reaches almost any place you might want to go throughout the Stockholm metropolitan area. They are also extremely punctual, except when it snows a bit too much^.
Random fact time: tap water here is among the purest in the world.
Art, and especially music, is blossoming in Stockholm. A newly renovated^ music high-school ensures that future generations have ample opportunities to develop their skills. Creatives are pouring into and swarming around the city. The fact that the capital has become a regional technology hub contributes to the artistic growth.
All around Stockholm, parks and nature reserves abound. One of our favorites is Hellasgården, south of the city, easily reachable by bus (15 minutes) from centrally located public transport hub, Slussen. Follow the marked path to circle the Källtorp lake. It takes about 1.5 hours. Beautiful views are waiting for you to behold.
There’s a small touristic village here, featuring a restaurant, several cottages and a sauna. Sporting events are organized all year-round. In the winter, they make a skating rink and one can circle the lake while steaming, naked people run out of the sauna and throw themselves into the ice-cold water at a specially maintained area next to the shore.
Also one bus away from central Stockholm is Flaten, a lake that supposedly has the best water quality around the capital. The accompanying nature reserve is swarming with people gathering mushrooms during certain autumn weekends. There are two small sand beaches that are quite busy during the summer.
Midsummer day is very important for Swedes. Close to Stockholm lies the Tyresta national park and castle. We’ve been lucky to celebrate Midsummer there in 2010.
Do keep in mind that what you’re seeing above is just 15 minutes away from a bustling capital (in Scandinavian terms). There’s no traffic, no hubbub, just forest, rocks, water and positive vibes. Oh, and clean air, just like in the rest of Scandinavia as a matter of fact.
But wait a minute, isn’t this city supposed to be “somewhere in the North”? Where are the polar bears roaming on the streets, picking off half-frozen people from bus stations? Don’t worry, I haven’t been avoiding the subject of winter.
Thanks to its proximity to the Baltic Sea and to global warming, Stockholm winters aren’t that tough, at least not for me. My home town in Transylvania experiences more snow and colder winters, albeit not as dark and not as long. Yes, it gets quite dark, with the day length dropping to just over 6 hours during the winter solstice.
Sure, there are times when we get buried a bit^, but remember that thing I said about an awesome public transport system? Because so many people rely on it, the Swedes won’t let themselves be buried for too long.
Personally, I love winters here. It’s the coziest time of the year. Almost everybody puts something shining and colorful in the window. It’s a time for snuggling in bed with a warm cup of tea and enjoying a good movie, or for doing some quality gaming in the dark. There are lots of indoor swimming pools, climbing arenas and many other places one can burn calories and time.
Cold weather? As the (sometimes annoying) saying goes: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing”. Those that visit during the winter should definitely pack underpants and thick jackets. In Stockholm it’s not the temperature that gets you, it’s the humid wind courtesy of the Baltic Sea. The thermometer rarely goes under -15 Celsius and usually hovers around -10 to -5, sometimes even around 0.
Spring hits sometime around mid-April, give or take half a month. Yeah, that’s a long winter, although there are several warm days scattered through November and March. When spring does arrive, it’s an explosion of happiness. Stockholmers pour out and bask in the sun on every bench around town, occupy every sidewalk and find every excuse to be out in the light.
Thanks to all the green spaces, it’s a city where one can truly celebrate spring. We try to walk underneath the blossoming Japanese cherry trees at Kungsträdgården every year. At this same location, during winter, they set up a skating rink. Kungsträdgården hosts various gatherings year-round (concerts, exhibitions, commercial and political events).
Here are some other fun things one can do in Stockholm: get a subscription for the city bikes^. It’s cheap and there are lots of pick-up & drop-off points. Go visit the Drottningholm palace or the Haga park. Enjoy the awesome view and in the same time have a tasty dinner up in the Kaknästornet television tower^. And I can’t forget my favorite museum: Fotografiska^, located at walking distance from Slussen. And since you’re in the area, don’t miss the chance to eat at one of the best vegetarian restaurants in the Swedish capital: Herman’s^.
In Gamla Stan (the Old Town) one can find such points of interest as the Nobel Museum (overrated in my opinion) and the Royal Palace (not terribly impressive either). And of course, there are several streets filled to the brim with overpriced cafes and souvenir shops. There are two restaurants I can recommend in the area: the vegetarian Hermitage and the absolutely fabulous Viking-themed Aifur^.
Every day around noon (depending on weekday and season) one can enjoy the changing of the guards with military fanfare. The Royal Palace is only used by the royal family during official events. They normally reside at Drottningholm. Oh, speaking of royalty…
This is a picture of King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia that we took during the Swedish National day in 2010. They crossed barely five meters from where we were standing.
Go on a promenade along the famous Strandvägen and don’t be surprised if you see people riding horses (not necessarily the royal guards). As you walk on Strandvägen coming from the center of Stockholm, you will find Djurgårdsbron, the bridge over to Djurgården, which is the island hosting some of Stockholm’s most important attractions.
The Vasa Museum^ is one of the most visited museums in Scandinavia for good reason. It’s built around a huge warship that sunk in what was a shameful failure for the Swedish naval forces. However, fast forward 400 years and the Swedes have turned it around into one of the best museums I’ve been in (and which probably more than paid for the loss of the ship, the expenses to recuperate it and some jokes about the Swedish navy). Well planned and organized, the Vasa is a must-see if you’re into going to museums.
And while you’re at it, make sure you at least go into the Nordic Museum for a couple of minutes. It’s situated right next to the Vasa. It’s a very impressive structure. The museum itself is excellent if you’re interested in the history of Scandinavia all the way from ancient times.
On Djurgården you can also find the Gröna Lund^ amusement park, open spring-autumn. On most late afternoons they also host a concert, sometimes featuring pretty famous names. A beautiful park surrounds Prince Eugene’s Waldemarsudde^, an art museum. Right across from Djurgården you can find the Sea History Museum^, the Technical Museum^ and the Ethnographic Museum^. With this many attractions and so much nature all around, the Djurgården area offers plenty of opportunity for charming walks.
Also on Djurgården you can find the Skansen open-air Museum^. It’s a recreation of a long-gone Sweden. Year-round, the employees of the museum illustrate life as it was a long time ago. They walk around and go about their business in the exact same clothes people here were wearing hundreds of years ago. Enter one of the many cottages and see them work iron, glass and furs, or listen to them play the violin and sing folk songs during the winter, sitting by the fireplace. There are many events for family and children at Skansen.
They either re-created or brought entire structures from all over Sweden. The museum covers a large area so you can consider it a day trip. There’s also a zoo featuring animals from Sweden. Some of them are kept in decent conditions while others have very little living space, something that really doesn’t sit well with me.
There is an even worse zoo at the bottom of the park where they caged exotic animals. It is at that zoo where a couple of years ago it struck me more intensely than ever just how terrible these places are. Inside one of the “large” enclosures I saw two monkeys perched next to one of the few windows of the enclosure, looking outside towards a freedom they will probably never experience.
The place is contradictory to the Swedes’ general respect towards animals and the environment. But having a zoo is still considered around the world as providing some sort of “educational value”, despite the fact that it also presents children with a skewed image of reality – that of animals seen as some sort of play-things or curiosities for us to catalogue. I feel that this is more harmful than whatever is gained by seeing an animal up-close rather than in a documentary. And that’s it for today’s ethics lesson :).
Millesgården^ is another good museum with plenty of open-air art. It is situated on the island of Lidingö, easily accessible with public transport. It’s mostly focused on sculptures, some of them appearing to defy the laws of nature (but it’s all just physics).
Stockholm is a safe city given its size and cultural diversity. With that in mind, yes, there are a couple of neighborhoods that I would recommend staying clear of: Tensta, Rinkeby and Husby. But there really isn’t any major risk if you mind your own business. Nothing on the scale of what you can get yourself into in (much) bigger cities such as Paris, London, Rio or New York.
Last I heard, about one in every seven Stockholmers own a boat. I think a better statistic is that seven out of ten people speak English here. Half of them speak it very well.
I am happy to say that I consider myself lucky to have been shaped by this city. No matter what my future holds, I am fortunate to have lived here for almost 9 years and counting. I arrived here as a stressed-out Romanian immigrant. This city and its inhabitants worked miracles on me. Together with my new-found home I also had the courage to start a family, something that Sweden is wonderful for (but more on that in a future article).
Stockholm is also quite contradictory at times. It is a place that offers many temptations and a lot of Swedes have fallen prey to the hyper-consumerism push^ coming from the United States, a country they seem to look up to for reasons I can’t really comprehend. And yet, it is a place that encourages personal evolution and reinvention. Like anything in life, it is what you make it. For me, Stockholm is the place I was born again.
My proposed soundtrack for reading this text: