Travel

Neighbourhood guide to Stockholm

The Swedish capital’s eclectic neighbourhoods are where mansions and former royal hunting grounds sit alongside sleek design stores, pop-up markets and countless fika-friendly cafes Monday, 8 April

By Ben Lerwill

The city the locals call Mälardrottningen (‘the Queen of Lake Mälar’) has the kind of open, trend-setting spirit that leaves you dreaming of a move. Scattered across 14 pretty islands, stylish, self-assured Stockholm is home to some brilliant visitor attractions, but the hard part is prising yourself away from the cafes to fit them all in. The one-time heart of the Swedish Empire also has serious history, although today’s city is more defined by its design and tech obsessions than by the cobbled Gamla Stan (Old Town). Come for the galleries, the food and the chance to linger on bridges under big Nordic skies. Come for a look at a European capital that marries old-world stateliness with cutting-edge flair — and gets it right.

Östermalm

Built to host the 1912 Olympic Games, the handsome, red-brick Stockholm Olympic Stadium is so small by today’s standards that you could easily walk past without a second glance — unless, that is, the statues of its naked wrestlers catch your eye. I turn from the stadium to see 20 dogs, none bigger than a handbag, obediently trotting behind the same owner — a sight befitting Stockholm’s most elegant neighbourhood, formed when wealthy merchants ran out of space in Gamla Stan and moved north. It was modelled on Paris, and its tree-lined boulevards and tall townhouses still house many of the city’s leading restaurants and shops. 

At Modernity, a showroom filled with sleek retro furniture, I chat to co-owner Isaac Pineus. “We’re the prime source for vintage pieces from the Nordic design masters,” he tells me, stroking a 1950s table top. The prime source in Stockholm? “No, in Scandinavia.”  

Close by, on the shoreline esplanade of Strandvägen, sits another shop with a weighty reputation. Svenskt Tenn has been a fixture since the 1920s, and its
heftily priced interior design pieces are to IKEA what Michelin-starred dining is to meatballs.

The winters are so long in Stockholm that most of its pharmacies sell crampons to combat snowy streets. But while the darker months add a certain filmic frisson to the city’s character, they also mean its bars and cafes are designed to be lingered in at length — a perk that can be appreciated year-round, not least in Östermalm. 

“I need a fika every day — I’d die if not,” smiles guide Elisabeth Daude, as we settle down to coffee and cinnamon buns in the decorative surrounds of Karla Café. We’re discussing the now-hip Swedish pastime of taking time out with a hot drink and pastries. “It’s not about walking around with a takeaway cup. It implies sitting down and talking.”  

There’s plenty of this going on at nearby Östermalms Saluhall, a smart covered market packed with deli counters and well-dressed diners. I eat butter-fried perch at seafood spot Lisa Elmqvist, while the server explains that today’s market is in a temporary home until 2020. “But,” he says, pointing up at the neat rafters, “it’s won awards.” Very Stockholm, indeed.

Djurgården

There’s a heron flying over ABBA The Museum. One of the great assets of Sweden’s capital is how easy it is to find pockets of nature, and there’s no simpler way of doing this than catching a tram out to the island of Djurgården. For centuries a royal hunting ground — moose and reindeer once roamed here, and roe deer still do — the island is still almost entirely given over to woodland. The key exception to this is found along the western shore, where a cluster of big-ticket museums draws the masses.

Three, in particular, stand out. The first is the achingly trendy Liljevalchs art gallery, with its temporary exhibitions of contemporary art. The second is the pricey but fun ABBA The Museum, which follows the band from folksinging wannabes to world-beating pop titans. I find their old dressing room riders fascinating — turns out they were a whisky-and-coke bunch — and the museum is glossy and upbeat enough to justify its claim that you’ll ‘walk in, dance out’. Via the gift shop, obviously.

The third is the world-class Vasa Museum, showcasing a colossal, 17th-century warship salvaged from the deep almost 400 years after it sank. It serves not only as a marvel of restoration (around 98% of what’s on show is original) but also a reminder of quite how much prestige Sweden had in the 1600s. It’s tempting to see the lavish attention to detail in the ship’s construction as a forerunner to Stockholm’s present-day fascination with design — although it did sink. 

Visitors who’ve had their history fix, might want to take a walk — the best way to really appreciate Djurgården. “It’s a place to breathe,” one sturdy-booted local tells me, before recommending some of her favourite trails on the island. It’s hard to go wrong, really — I follow a twisting path along the shore and into the interior, winding past ancient oak trees, copses of fir and the odd forebodingly silent mansion. The Scandi noir atmosphere would be complete were it not for the birds — blue tits tumble from branch to branch while geese and mergansers float offshore. It’s a joy to be surrounded by such rural scenery while the steeples of the city are still visible across the water. After an hour, I steer myself to the Rosendals Trädgård garden, where a cafe set in a pair of greenhouses lit by fairy lights provides exactly what you’d want it to: homemade cakes, organic lunches and a warmth so cosy that the minutes become hours.

Södermalm 

One of the city’s high points, in at least one sense, is Skinnarviksberget. The small rocky plateau requires a mild clamber to reach, but the views it grants over the rest of Södermalm and the islands beyond make it worthwhile. It’s somewhere to come with a picnic (rye bread and Svecia cheese, perhaps) and time to spare — all the better to gaze over a city that’s steadily grown into Scandinavia’s largest. 

Södermalm itself is perched on low granite cliffs and was traditionally a working-class area. These days it gets pointed to by fashionistas as one of the coolest neighbourhoods in Europe, its numerous bars and boutiques unafraid to do things their own way. I’m especially taken by Lakritsroten, a store dedicated solely to the wonders of liquorice. The white chocolate version is well worth a try.   

I get waylaid, too, at Bottle Shop, which only sells craft beers lower than 3.5%. “Swedish law says that anything stronger can only be sold from government outlets,” co-owner Fredrik Glejpner explains, pouring me a bourbon-infused sour ale.

“We stock 100 beers, and half are brewed here in Sweden.”

Fredrik also tells me he was one of the brains behind the rebranding of the area south of the Folkungagatan thoroughfare as SoFo. Gems here include Il Caffè — part florist, part bakery, part laptop cafe; the charming The English Bookshop and the secondhand clothes shop POP Stockholm, which does a good line in chunky sweaters. 

There’s no escaping the fact that Stockholm can be expensive, but further south I find the excellent Teatern, a shopping centre food court with stalls offering dishes from well-known Swedish chefs. Here, you can eat well for a tenner, joining the locals on multi-tiered seating (a nod to venue’s name, which translates as ‘theatre’) and tucking into anything from vegan burgers to seafood ramen.  

The neighbourhood’s undoubted cultural highlight, however, is Fotografiska, a large waterside photography gallery in a former customs house. The major exhibitions change every few months, but you can expect big names and powerful stories. It’s worth every krona, twice over. And if you subsequently find yourself in need of somewhere to unwind, there’s the house beers and sourdough pizzas at Omnipollos Hatt (“It translates as ‘godlike chicken hat’, but I don’t know why,” the barman tells me) and the pub-like clamour of Akkurat.  

Essentials

Scandinavian Airlines flies between Heathrow and Stockholm Arlanda Airport from £55 one way. Downtown Camper by Scandic is centrally located with bumper breakfasts, a rooftop wellness area and activities including yoga, jogging and meditation. Standard doubles from 1550 SEK (£129.40), B&B.

Published in the May 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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