In a tiny cafe at one end of Gamla Stan’s Stortorget square, a frothy cappuccino serves as the centerpiece for a scene that is quintessentially Stockholm.
In the center of the oversized cup, coffee has been deliberately dripped onto the foamy realms to form a heart, an unintended icon that takes the same shape as Stockholm’s Old Town when seen from the lofty heights of City Hall Tower.
The Old Town, or Gamla Stan as it is known, has been a meeting place since 1252. Today, more than 800 years later, it continues to pulsate as the heart of Stockholm.
As on most days here at the uber-cozy, candlelit and tiny Chokladkoppen, espresso machines hiss as patrons poke their heads through the front door in hopes of finding a vacant table. Those sitting at the tables and those wanting to occupy them are all drawn here by the same primordial urge: the need to fika.
What’s fika? You’ll read about that in a moment. For now, stay with me. You’re about to learn how to spend two days that you’ll never forget in one of the world’s most beautiful — and fascinating — cities.
At Chokladkoppen, there are no available tables, but here, as in most of Europe, it’s socially permissible to ask if you can share a table using the unoccupied chairs. Doing just that, one couple joins another with polite acknowledgment. The space comes without obligation for small talk.
Conversation is seldom initiated in Sweden anyway as the Swedes are characteristically shy with strangers. And while some visitors mistake the shyness for coldness, the Swedes are anything but cold. In fact, it is warmth that they seek in this nation of prolonged winter darkness (Swedes are rewarded, however, with glorious summers.)
Along with the pleasant mid-afternoon chatter in Chokladkoppen, candles flicker on tabletops. Even in summer, you’ll find candles in almost any restaurant you might walk in to. Soft blankets lay across chairs to break the chill of spring and autumn.
The Swedes cherish light and warmth, and a visitor doesn’t have to be in Sweden long before hearing the Swedes talking about a “cozy” this or that. The word in Swedish is “mysig,” defining the Swede’s seemingly genetic predisposition to seek out or create coziness. The Swedish soul craves coziness so warm and embracing that it envelops you and wraps itself around you.
Welcome to the capital of the world’s coziest nation.
Day One, Finding Fika
On your first of two perfect days in Stockholm, you’re going to set out on a quest to find your own fika. Don’t worry: Fika has no strict rules. If you can drink, eat and talk, you’re qualified to fika.
Your quest begins at the Radisson SAS Strand. Relax. You didn’t oversleep. The sun rose at 3:30 a.m., and at 8 a.m., it looks like noon. The sky will only dim tonight, as the sun’s glow remains long after it sets at 10 p.m. On the longest day in June, you’ll have 18 hours, 38 minutes and 26 seconds between sunrise and sunset to explore Stockholm.
From your corner room, you’re looking out on Nybroviken, the beautiful harbor dotted with colorful passenger boats. You’ll have ample opportunity to board one later, for sightseeing or a dinner cruise. The choice is yours.
Take a close look at the city below to get your bearings before heading down to the lobby level for a sumptuous breakfast. Oh, and take a look in the mirror. See that label titled “tourist” on your forehead? It’s time to scrub that off with some soap and warm water. You’re going to see Stockholm like a local.
Walking The Walk
After fortifying yourself with a hearty Swedish breakfast (go ahead, along with your eggs and bacon, sample the herring in dill sauce), head out the front door and look across the water to your right. That’s your destination, Djurgarden, the former royal hunting grounds that became the world’s first city national park.
You’ll get there by walking along Strandvagen, one of Stockholm’s most exclusive streets (Bjorn Bjorg, among other Swedish celebrities, has a home here). Standing at the entrance of the Radisson SAS Strand, you’re looking directly across at Strandvagen. Now, face left and begin walking toward the Nybroplan, the square just ahead of you.
Make your way around the harbor to circle back along Strandvagen. Resist the temptation to hop on the tram that will take you to Djurgarden (or busses 44 and 47). You can always take the tram back to Nybroplan and your hotel.
For now, put some glide in your stride and walk with the many others who are out on Strandvagen headed to their city park. Make note of the large boat named Stockholm tied up across from the Hotel Diplomat, as you may want to return here for a three-hour dinner cruise to the archipelago (brunch cruises also are offered). If that sounds like too much, opt for a canal cruise or a city sight-seeing cruise.
Walking along Strandvagen, you can see some of Stockholm’s best-known museums, situated just across the water on Djurgarden. You’ll be visiting one of those, the Vasa Museum, in about 15 minutes from now.
At the moment, however, you’re a local. Continue your walk, crossing the first bridge you come to and making your way past the small food kiosk, Djurgardenbrons Sjocafe, to the Vasa Museum.
Stockholm has more than 70 museums, but the crown jewel is the Vasa. It is almost impossible to prepare yourself for what you will see inside the museum: a warship — yes, the actual ship, not a reproduction or model — that capsized after being launched on its maiden journey in 1628.
The Vasa was brought up from its watery grave in 1961. Many artifacts were found in the deep freeze of the harbor, including butter whose expiration date had long passed.
Do not leave Stockholm without seeing the Vasa, or you’ll experience a sinking feeling when you return home, kicking yourself for having missed the city’s most popular museum. That said, make it snappy. You could spend half a day marveling at the Vasa, but we’re on a quest. One hour is all you have.
Head back to the main street Djurgardsvagen and, without crossing, follow the sidewalk until you reach the Bla Porten Cafe, where you’ll step inside for your first Swedish fika.
To the casual observer (not meaning the newly informed you), a fika appears to be nothing more than a snack, but to the Swedes, a fika is when you take time from your “oh so busy” life to catch up with friends over coffee and cake. It’s what we used to call catching up with friends before the pace of life became so hectic.
To understand fika is to begin to comprehend, at least in part, the complex Sweden soul. Fika is an important social institution. “A fika could be that you take either a coffee or tea, a sandwich or something sweet, and you sit down and you talk for hours,” says Karen, a Stockholm tour guide. “It’s a social coffee break that takes longer than five minutes. You need the right environment as well.”
You have the right environment here at Bla Porten. Load your tray with goodies, and be sure to try the Swedish favorite, kanelbulle, a cinnamon bun served in a relatively healthy proportion unlike the sugar-slathered cousin you get back home. Order a coffee, pay with your credit card (or Swedish kroner) and take a seat at the outdoor courtyard. Oh, you are so local.
Following fika, head across Djurgardsvagen to spend a couple of hours walking through several centuries of Swedish history at Skansen. The world’s first outdoor museum serves up “Old Sweden” or “Sweden in Miniature,” with farms and villages reconstructed from more than 150, 18th, 19th and 20th century buildings that have been brought here from throughout Sweden.
Costumed guides and performers add to Skansen’s authenticity. You’ll also enjoy the zoo, featuring primarily Nordic animals such as bear, lynxes, wolves and wolverines. The walking requires energy, of course, which rationalizes your urge to find the 19th-century bakery in the Old Town Quarter. You’ll find it hard to resist the freshly baked breads and buns.
After assuring yourself that “no carb was left uneaten,” exit Skansen’s side entrance and head back toward the bridge to rent a bike at Djurgardenbrons Sjocafe.
Ask for a map, but don’t worry about getting lost. Good signage points the way back. As you pedal through this vast park, you’ll find it easy to forget that you’re in a city of more than 1.65 million.
Your route takes you along country roads, forest paths, past small horse pastures and gardens. There is no hint of city — anywhere. Follow the shoreside and canals around Djurgarden and, after an hour or so of leisurely riding and stopping, find your way to Rosendals Tradgard, where you’ll visit the gardens and greenhouses that belonged to the 19th-century Rosendal Palace.
For a light lunch, do as the locals do and pick up a glass of wine and a sandwich from the cafe situated in one of greenhouses. Then find a shady spot in the apple orchard to picnic. Most of the food is produced locally or comes from the gardens.
Should you want something more extravagant, find your way to Villa Kallhagen, one of Stockholm’s finest restaurants. Though only five minutes from Stockholm’s city center, Villa Kallhagen is off the map for tourists outside of Sweden. You’ll find few of your fellow countrymen dining in this exquisite restaurant in a park setting.
After lunch, return the bike, and head to the ferry landing at the Vasa Museum to cross the water to Nybroplan. You’ll only need a few coins for the crossing, or just show the Stockholm Card you purchased after landing at Arlanda Visitors Center (situated in Terminal 5). The card costs SEK330 for 24 hours and includes most public transport as well as admission to more than 75 museums and attractions.
You’re not quite done yet. Two more stops before heading back to your hotel. See the beautiful building across from the ferry landing? That’s Kungliga Dramatiska Teatern.
For the foreign tongue, that’s too much of a mouthful (Swedish is a difficult language; most foreigners have no trouble saying the number six, which is pronounced “sex,” but try saying seven; it sounds like nothing more than the exhaling of air, but impossible for the non-native Swede to pronounce properly).
The building is the Royal Dramatic Theater. Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman got their start in acting here, and Ingmar Bergman staged productions here. But you’re only appreciating the theater in passing, as you walk alongside it up Nybrogatan, on the left side facing the theater, to Saluhallen, which opened as a market in 1888.
The market goes by several names, including Saluhallen and Ostermalmshallen. But to sound like a local, just call it “hallen.” You’ll blend.
Step inside this “Seattle’s Pike Place Market meets Your Upscale Grocery Store and Food Court” for culinary treats that are a feast of the eyes and the tummy. Admire the Swedish golden-hued mushrooms known as chanterrelles, and the colorful berries, including the Swedish favorite, Jordgubbar, which is the summer icon of Sweden, known simply as the strawberry. If you want to appear as a local, bite into a juicy strawberry (you may want to pay for it first, however).
Exiting the market, walk across the square, Ostermalmstorg, turn right on Sibyllegatan and make your way back to Strandvagen. Turn left.
You’re going shopping at one of Stockholm’s most exclusive stores. Just a few steps away, at Strandvagen 5, you’ll find Svenskt Tenn, a classic design shop featuring printed fabrics and furniture designed by Josef Frank as well as a selection of goods that you will not find in other stores. That’s because Svenskt Tenn has exclusive contracts with designers to offer one-of-a-kind traditional and contemporary Swedish design.
Coincidentally, there are three other recommended hotels within walking of where you are standing as you exit Svenskt Tenn. Two are in Stureplan, which is up Birger Jarlsgatan (to your right as you face the water). Those are Hotel Stureplan and Scandic Anglais. Both are reviewed in our hotel guide.
The other is the Grand Hotel, situated directly behind the Radisson SAS Strand. You’ll be passing it tomorrow.
For now, if you’re still up for shopping before returning to your hotel, make your way toward Stureplan, taking in the shops along the way, then returning on Biblioteksgatan, an upscale shopping street.
When you reach the square just before Nybroplan, turn right if you want to visit Sweden’s largest department store, NK, at Hamngatan 18 – 20. The Orrefors shop, situated on the bottom floor, has more original glassware than anywhere else in the city. Other recommended crystal shops are Nordiska Kristall and Vasa Kristall.
Return to your hotel to refresh yourself. Tonight, you’re on a dinner cruise to the archipelago. Stromma Lines awaits you directly across the water from your hotel. You’ll visit the archipelago on what will seem to be an endless summer night. Exhale. No, you’re not attempting to say the number seven. You’re relaxing.
Life just doesn’t get any better than this. And get some rest tonight. You’ll need it. Tomorrow, we tackle Stockholm’s most popular district, the centuries-old Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s Old Town.
To be continued . . .