August 2, 2022
Cabin fever is real. And it’s formidable.
Summer was just kicking off (really still technically spring), and we were already feeling the wear of spending far too much time at the actual cabin. (Although to be fair, it’s as likely fatigue from the accumulation of time over the last three years.) Our rule of thumb is to never brave the summer vacation crowds, rather to do our European travels in May, then sit tight until fall. But we suddenly heard the siren song of Scandinavia, thanks in no small part to our travel-heavy Twitter feed.
The original plan was to spend a week going from Stockholm to Copenhagen to Oslo. My latest Covid-born obsession is languages, and there was no way I could tackle three at once. So, Swedish this year, Norwegian and Danish next.
Breaking It Down
Stockholm is actually made up of 14 islands, all connected by pedestrian and bike-friendly bridges. It’s a big small city with under a million people. The most prominent:
- Ostermalm: Referred to by most as the heart of the city, this island boasts embassy row, quiet, high-end residential areas, and buzzy, busy streets filled with shops and restaurants nearer to the harbor/marina on the south end. This area runs into Strandvagen (Stockholm’s high-end street), right on the water.
- Djurgarden: This one’s home to all the museums and ample green space, with walking and bike trails and sculptures throughout.
- Gamla stan: Known as the “Old City,” it holds the Nobel Prize Museum, king’s palace, and all the rest of the fancy stuff. There are great medieval streets to explore, as long as you stay away from the touristy sones.
- Sodermalm: This one’s got the younger, hipper, edgier neighborhoods, also filled with energetic streets and shops and restaurants. Looking for a vibe? This one was the backdrop for filming locations for The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo movies (the Swedish trilogy), and that should be enough said.
The people: Friendly, beautiful, tall, and blond. Well-dressed, and all spoke conversational American English (where else in Europe are you hearing people say “you guys?”).
The city: Fresh air, incredibly clean, pure water, and just plain pretty everywhere. It seemed to be split evenly between water, green space, and city, a Venn diagram with no crossover (there were no trees on city streets, but there are pocket parks and large green pedestrian boulevards everywhere).
The scene: Equal parts hip and cosmopolitan as it is laid back and casual, with great shopping, bars, and restaurants.
The bikes: Almost like Amsterdam, they’re everywhere. Unlike Amsterdam, there are hundreds of kilometers of dedicated bike lanes and trails.
The light: In Sweden, light governs. In July, there are only about two hours resembling dusk, and at 3:00 the birds start chirping again to welcome the full light. In the winter, it’s just the opposite, hence all the museums and markets (including their famous Christmas markets).
We found a pretty good home base in Stockholm, at the hotel Ett Hem. It looked good enough, in fact, that we even decided to eschew our usual hotel-hopping habit, and we are unapologetic in that it’s the only one we’re recommending. We looked at the Grand (the high-end guy in town) and heard they also have great service, even for a big hotel. We also had a tour of the Oaxen brand’s small boat hotel, Prince van Orangien, and it was extremely decadent, cozy, and special. If we can get back before December, a stay there is a must (and hopefully someone will buy the now-for-sale Oaxen group of two restaurants and the hotel from its current owners and keep its legacy going—anyone got some cash laying around?).
But honestly, a stay at Ett Hem is pretty special.
Stockholm is quite a culinary destination. It’s brimming with incredible restaurants, and the more industry people you meet, the more recommendations you get. Most of the most notable spots that we found were in Ostermalm, but there are a few treasures to be unearthed in Sodermalm (an easy cab or Uber ride). Our favorites included:
- Punk Royale: It can really only be described in a dedicated post—see here for the whole, memorable experience.
- Oaxen Krog: In an oxymoronic way, it’s a casually elegant Michelin experience, but it’s sadly closing in December 2022. The bistro Oaxen Slip is equally memorable.
- Other Michelin experiences are Ekstedt and Frantzen (often named one of the World’s 50 Best restaurants).
- Hantverket: A casual, all-around crowd pleaser. Sit at the counter if possible, it’s a fantastic show.
- WoodStockholm: As quirky as its name, it’s a chef-driven place with a neighborhood feel.
- Ett Hem: If you don’t stay there, you at least need to have lunch or dinner.
- Punk Royale’s sister spot, Coco & Carmen.
- Lilla Ego: Casual, buzzy and chef-driven creative and fun.
- Frammat: A buzzy French place from one of the founders of Punk Royale.
- Brasserie Astoria: Better at lunch (especially outside), or for a drink in the swanky bar (which felt a little over-decorated by Stockholm’s Scandi standards).
- Villa Dagmar: Just outside of the Ostermalms Saluhall food hall, it’s a great spot for brunch.
- Asian Post Office: AKA APO
- A Bar Called Gemma for drinks
- Caffe Nizza
- Sturehof: Where Volvo was born, it’s on the main drag and always humming like an engine.
- In the main tourist thoroughfare on Ostermalm (on Strandvagen), of the many choices, only the Glashuset (the Glass House) is recommended
What to do when you’re not eating and drinking yourself to death:
- Start with a half-day bike tour (hotel concierge can help narrow down to one of the city’s many guides) to get a lay of the land and a city overview, then you can organize the rest of your days appropriately. It’s a good idea to rent bikes to have on hand; it’s a super-easy way to transverse the city
- Do a boat tour. We opted to take a private boat on a canal tour before heading to an archipelago made up of 30,000 islands. There are also plenty of public ferries that take you to certain places, like the popular port Sandhamn in the archipelago. Otherwise, go through Stromma for a lot of options.
- Wander the medieval streets of Gamla Stan, avoiding the main tourist thoroughfares.
- Wander or bike around the hipster heaven of Sodermalm (exploring those aforementioned filming locations from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), and have lunch or a coffee on the summer streets (mostly for pedestrians with street cafes and planters filled with flowers).
- There are also two high vantage points in Sodermalm where you can get a good view of the heart of the city (Ostermalm): from Monteliusvagen (the cliff path) or near Nytorget (the church and cluster of iconic houses).
- Do a half-day shopping/market tour in Ostermalm with Ostermalm Saluhall, and the stores Svenskt Tenn, Malmsten, Granit, Nordiska, and other Scandinavian and Swedish stores (there are also plenty of high-end brands, if that’s your happy place).
- Just walk (or bike) the city and enjoy the parks and churches everywhere (Humlegarden, Djurgarden, and the green areas along the canal). City Hall is also worth a stop, right on the water with great view.
- If you want to park your bike for a bit, the metro stations are also mostly decorated with unique art, making a sort of underground art gallery.
If you’re into museums and it’s raining (a frequent occurrence, usually without warning), Stockholm is filled with them—yes, including ABBA The Museum (even the museum has a dramatic name). The two most highly recommended are the Vasa and the Nationalmuseum.
Even with plans for Oslo and Copenhagen in the works, it’s easy to imagine us back in Stockholm—soon—even if just for a few days, since we’re kind of in love with it (though we’re told it didn’t hurt that we had uncharacteristically good weather).