Stockholm A-Z: Under ground city

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Deep under the bowels of Stockholm runs a comprehensive underground system taking travellers quickly around the centre and out to the suburbs. Stockholm’s underground (Tunnelbana) dates from year 1933 and consists of three lines: blue, red and green with all lines passing through the middle point of T-Centralen, Central Station. The underground is a perfect way to get around in a city where the climate can be challenging for half of the year. However, being tucked under the earth doesn’t mean a lost opportunity. In fact, Stockholm’s underground is said to be the world’s longest art gallery with 90 of the 100 stations being decorated with mosaic, paintings or sculptures. The blue line is by far the most interesting with eye-popping Kungsträdgården, Solna and Rådhuset being of particular interest.

Stockholm A-Z: Traditions

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Depending on the time of year you visit Stockholm, you will experience or witness different traditions. The Swedes are a people who love their customs and it usually involves food and snaps.

Winter
In winter there are the usual traditions of Christmas and New Year, and Stockholm is awash with beautiful Christmas lights and trees. To see the biggest Christmas tree in Northern Europe head down to the quayside on Skeppsbron in Gamla Stan where a fantastically evenly-proportioned tree dominates the night sky. The window displays, the twinkling lights and the New Year’s Eve fireworks are all great things to see in Stockholm during this season. Christmas is celebrated on 24th December with a Christmas buffet that includes ham, herring, meatballs, salmon, beer and snaps. Prior to Christmas, December 13th is the interesting Swedish tradition of Lucia. Early in the morning in schools, churches, workplaces and hotels, girls dressed in white arrive in a vocal parade to bring light to the darkness. It’s a beautiful tradition and very atmospheric.

Spring
Come springtime, the weather is starting to improve and several national holidays are taken. Easter is a long weekend and a time for Swedish families to gather. Stockholm is often quiet around this time as residents often travel outside the city for their celebrations. Typically people eat herring, salmon, lots of eggs and drink beer and snaps.

The last day of April – Walpurgis Eve – huge bonfires are built around the city and crowds gather to watch the flames and listen to choirs to welcome the spring. A good place to catch this impressive tradition is Riddarholmen next to Gamla Stan. The following day, May 1st in Labour Day in Sweden and in Stockholm you will see demonstrations and speeches being held in many of the public squares and parks.

Then there’s Ascension Day towards the end of May. No special traditions are associated with this but as it is a four-day break, many Stockholmers take the opportunity to go out of town.

Summer
On June 6th Sweden has it’s national day. It’s a fairly new public holiday and usually means an opportunity for people to be off work and be outside to enjoy the weather. Celebrations are held at Skansen and in Kungsträdgården park and in the City Hall a ceremony takes place for everybody who has become a Swedish citizen during the year to welcome them into Swedish society.

Around June 20th, it’s time for Midsummer’s Eve. Stockholm is often quiet on this day as shops and restaurants are shut. Residents head out to the countryside to celebrate this time with friends and family. Celebrations involve dancing around a maypole, eating herring and potatoes, playing games, drinking snaps. Needless to say, many babies are made during this long, light summer night. In Stockholm, Skansen has a Midsummer celebration for those left in town which is a fun way to experience this very Swedish tradition.

Autumn
In late summer, early autumn it’s time for the crayfish party. Friends, colleagues gather to eat crayfish, sing songs, drink snaps and party. It often signifies the last days of summer before heading into the darker season. Many restaurants offer crayfish on their menu at this time of year.

Another food-related tradition in the autumn is the ‘surströmmingspremiären’. This is the gathering and eating of fermented Baltic herring. Far from everybody follows this tradition, as it is an acquired taste. The herring ferments in a tin and is opened outdoors due to its pungent reek and eaten with bread and potatoes.

On the cusp of autumn and winter is All Saints Day. While Halloween is becoming more popular in Sweden, it’s not a traditional Swedish celebration. On All Saints Day, people go out to the cemeteries and light candles to honour their loved ones. It’s a beautiful tranquil sight to behold as dark descends to see the crisp twinkling candlelight illuminating graveyards around the town.

Stockholm A-Z: Stockholmers

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To find one word that sums up Stockholmers is tough. As true East Londoners are supposedly defined by if they were born within the sound of Bow church bells, ‘real Stockholmers’ are defined by having being born and raised here for 6 generations. That’s no mean feat, and needless to say there’s not that many of them.

So what is a Stockholmer? Like most world cities, the people of Stockholm are urban mongrels. In the rapidly expanding population, if you literally swung a cat on the street, you would probably hit somebody from another part of the country. The majority of the residents of Stockholm have migrated here from ‘the countryside’. Chosen to come to get a job, go to college, chase a dream or eat from the smörgåsbord of the capital. Consequently, you will find that Stockholmers are hard-working, focused, cosmopolitan people who want to make a difference to their lives but still dream of the idyll of the countryside.

On the surface, Stockholmers seem fairly homogenous in terms of appearance. People are generally very trend conscious and if one person wears a checked scarf, it’s not long before everyone’s doing it. Diversity of style is not so easy to find when compared to other, larger cities. Often voted amongst the most beautiful people in the world, this conformity and fashion-consciousness combined with fitness orientation can be part of the reason. However, Stockholmers rarely find themselves in the top list for the most friendly people in the world. Residents are often perceived as cool and aloof and not very helpful. I’ve personally had enough people closing doors on me, walking into me as though I wasn’t there and ignoring me to share this perception to some degree. Like many urbanites, Stockholmers are busy, stressed and wrapped up in their own thing. For example, balancing child care with child events, work and social life can sometimes lead to a lack of awareness of others around. Add to this the challenges of being battered by a cold dark winter and you find a population generally more inwardly-focused than outwardly-conscious.

That said, Stockholmer’s can be schizophrenic. The inward focus of the winter shifts as the lighter warmer season arrives. An understandable lifting of the spirits is tangible, cafés move out onto the streets, people ditch the quilted coats in favour of airier clothes and more laughter is heard. People embrace the outdoor life and try to soak up as much UV as possible. It is literally like coming out of hibernation.

For Stockholmers, cultural activities, sport of all kinds, physical activity, shopping, personal pampering, eating out are all part of the agenda. The social Swedish concept of ‘fika’, drinking coffee and eating cake, is popular in the city and reflected by the large number of cafés and bakeries. Even here, trends play an important role, and the current trend of artisan baked goods seems to have a long-lasting grip.

Most Stockholmers seem to love their city and many take an interest in planning regulations and environmental issues. Despite this, Stockholm is the only city in the world that I know of where the term ‘unSwedish’ is used as a positive description of, for example, a cafe, a butique or a restaurant. It seems like the migrant soul of many Swedes extends beyond the capital city to other, more exotic places.

So, one word to describe Stockholmers isn’t possible. A diverse, cosmopolitan, schizophrenic, conformist population is perhaps the closest definition we can get.

Stockholm A-Z: Restaurant scene

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Stockholmers are real foodies and the restaurant scene in the city is second to none. From simple food trucks to Michelin restaurants, Stockholm can offer everything, whatever your culinary taste. All types of international kitchens are represented and eating out is a favourite pastime for many residents. The cheapest time to eat is at lunch and is often great value for money. The restaurant scene changes frequently but here are a few of the hottest restaurants right now:

The Flying Elk, Gamla Stan
B.A.R, Norrmalm
Urban Deli, Södermalm
Nytorget 6, Södermalm
Nosh and Chow, Norrmalm
Mathias Dahlgren, Norrmalm
Gastrologik, Östermalm
Ekstedt, Östermalm
Lilla Ego, Vasastan
Oaxen Krog, Djurgården
Esperanto, Vasastan

For an exhaustive list of restaurants, with a useful grading system, check out http://www.whiteguide.se

Stockholm A-Z: Queen of the Mälaren

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Throughout the years, Stockholm has been given many nicknames: The Venice of the North, Beauty on Water, The Capital of Scandinavia, the Oak, Cissy swamp. Another old nickname for the city is the Queen of the Mälaren. Built on 14 islands between the Baltic Sea and the lake Mälaren, it’s not hard to see why Stockholm was given this majestic title.

Inspired by this nickname, a mural was created in the Gold Room of the City Hall. The mural depicts a giant woman, the Queen of the Mälaren, being honoured from the east and the west. Legend has it that this mural received heavy criticism at the City Hall’s opening in 1923 as people perceived her as ugly, unlike the beautiful Stockholm. The artist, who had modelled her on his wife, irritatedly responded ‘her eyes are big so she can watch over the world, her feet are big so she can sit firm and her golden hair symbolises the sun’.

Whatever your opinion the Queen of the Mälaren is an eye-catching dominating image in the City Hall and well worth the visit.

Stockholm’s City Hall sits proudly on the island of Kungsholmen opposite the abstract conference centre of Stockholm Warterfront. The location of the Nobel banquet, the City Hall offers beautiful interiors, halls and chambers. It’s highest point is the 106 meter high clock tower which can be reached by an elevator or 365 steps for the energetic. From the top, you have a magnificent view over the city and the Mälaren. And for a moment as you stand there, taking in the commanding panorama, you feel like the Queen of the Mälaren.

Stockholm A-Z: Parklife

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As a visitor to Stockholm, one of the first things many notice is just how green it is. The 400 parks in Stockholm make up about 40% of the land in the region so it’s not surprising.

One of the unique things about Stockholm’s parks stems from the 1930’s when city planners introduced the idea that parks should be functional and be used actively for play, picnic, demonstrations, theatre and socializing. The concept of Park Theatre was a central part of this and today in many parks, free open air theatre performances are offered to city dwellers. This approach to park-building became later known as ‘the Stockholm Style’.

Two of the oldest parks in Stockholm are Kungssträdgården in Norrmalm and Humlegården in Östermalm. Both were originally gardens where fruit and vegetables were grown and they became public parks in the 1800’s. Today, they both provide escape from the buzz of the city as you sit on a park bench, eat an icecream and enjoy the view.

The 1800’s were a time of park development in Stockholm. On Södermalm, Vitabergsparken startled to be built on a hill. At that time an impoverished shanty town existed on the hill and, though many of the houses were removed, a few still exist today. This is a popular park with picnickers and sunbathers and those playing the Swedish stick-throwing game of kubb. It’s well worth it to go to the Park Theatre here and watch a play or listen to some live music of a summer’s evening.

If you visit Stockholm City Hall, why not extend your stay by strolling along the water’s edge along Norr Mälarstrand to Rålambshovsparken. Along this trail, you’ll find many cafés and restaurants and benches to relax on. Rålambshovsparken is a park for picnicking and playing sports. Here you can play or watch basketball, boule, football, rounders, volleyball. There’s also a skateboard park where death-defying stunts can be witnessed, and an amphitheater for park theater and live music. Just a little step beyond the park and you will find Smeduddsbadet, one of Stockholm’s many beaches.

For Baroque style parks, nothing beats the park at Drottningholm’s Palace, just outside of the city. This is the residence of the Royal Family and it is surrounded by wonderful structured gardens from the 1600’s and English parkland from the1700’s. There’s also a cafe here, a dog island, a theatre and a Chinese pavilion.

In the north of Stockholm, you will find one of the city’s biggest parks – Hagaparken. This park used to be the place where the royal sheep would graze. Today, the sheep are gone but the park still boasts lakes, lawns, pavilions, palaces, cafés, temples, trails and ruins. The official residence of Crown Princess Victoria is also located here.

One of the most popular park destinations for Stockholmers is Djurgården. This pleasure island offers museums, fun fair, cafés, beaches, restaurants, trails and art galleries. Here you will also find Rosendalsträdgård which is a popular, high-end nursery selling plants, fruit and vegetables and flowers. Grabbing a cup of coffee in one of the green houses or picnicking in the orchard are popular summer weekend activities. In the winter, visiting the market and drinking hot chocolate over an open fire is rather relaxing.

For more information about Stockholm’s parks: http://www.stockholm.se

Stockholm A-Z: Oddities

Stockholm, like many other cities, has its fair share of oddities. Paying attention to these unusual aspects often gives us another view of a city beyond the main tourist impressions and sights.

On Skeppsbron in Gamla Stan there’s a building with an unusual symbol above the door. A vagina carved into the stone. Some say it’s a former brothel and therefore and early form of marketing. Other theories tell the story of a cuckolded man whose wife committed adultery and who carved the symbol into his home’s facade to remind them and all around of his wife’s sin. Rather odd.

Along similar lines, on a building’s facade in St Eriksplan near Karlsbergs train station there are small male figures carved ornately. These small figures have unproportionally erect members. Odd.

In Stortorget in Gamla Stan on the corner of a building, there is a cannonball stuck fast into the plaster. Tour guides tell the story of the Stockholm Bloodbath where hundreds of Swedish nobles were executed in this square. The evil King of Denmark stood in a window and watched this massacre and as the Swedish guard fired a canon to kill him, the ball stuck into the wall. Oddly, it didn’t blast away the whole wall, but it mark the beginning of a Swedish rebellion and independence.

Also in Gamla Stan you can see another oddity. In one of the narrow streets leading up to Stortorget, you can see a Viking rune stone. This stone has oddly been used to repair the corner of a building whose facade was obviously crumbling.

Outside of the National Dramatic Theatre in Östermalm, you can see a rather odd statue. The statue depicts a lone women standing. This woman is a much-loved deceased Swedish actress called Margareta Krook. The odd thing about this statue occurs when you put your hand on her heart. Go see what happens.

Another odd statue is situated behind the Finnish Church in Gamla Stan. The city’s smallest statue is a tiny little boy called the Iron Boy. In himself he’s not that odd. It’s what happens to him that is odd. For years, a secret carer has knitted scarves and hats and covered the statue with them so that he doesn’t freeze in the winter. And at Christmas time, he’s sometimes dressed as Santa.

If you’re in Stockholm around the end of June, you may experience something as odd – the light. As the sky doesn’t really get dark at night, the light reflects into the waters of the city. A petrol blue colour appears – Baltic blue – and envelopes Stockholm in a magical sweep. This is breathtaking to experience from a boat or by the water’s edge.

Stockholm A-Z: Neighbourhoods

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Inner city Stockholm is made up of several distinct neighbourhoods each with their own character and attraction.

Here are the main ones, with my tips for what’s worth seeing in each neighbourhood. Do you have any other tips? Please let me know!

Kungsholmen
The island of Kungsholmen is an expanding residential area with turn-of-the-century architecture in the eastern part, functional 40’s-60’s buildings in the centre and modern new builds in the western section. An increasingly popular area, Kungsholmen has lots of restaurants, shops and cafés to enjoy. The island has a waterfront trailing leading all around the island for about 10 km and passing through varying landscapes.

Top 5 worth seeing on Kungsholmen:
– Stockholm City Hall
– Mälarpaviljongen floating restaurant/bar
– Docklands development Hornsbergs Strand for modern architecture
– Rålomshovsparken for picnics, boule, bathing and outdoor theatre
– Fredhälls panoramic cliff top walk and bathing rocks

Vasastan
Vasastaden to the north of Stockholm is a classic part of the city. An area inhabited mostly by wealthy residents, it has wide roads, grand buildings, restaurants, cafés, shops, churches and offices. With close proximity to the city, Vasastan has several parks, the biggest being Vasaparken which is a playground for residents enjoying football in the summer and ice skating in the winter.

Top 5 worth seeing in Vasastan
– The City Library for its magnificent architecture
– Observatorielunden for the old observatory and park
– Vanadisbadet – a newly-renovated lido
– Brunnsviken – a nature area just north of Vasastan for walking and cycling
– Clas på Hörnet – traditional restaurant/hotel housed in a centuries old roadside inn.

Östermalm
Östermalm is the upscale, upmarket neighbourhood in Stockholm. Symbolic of this area are exclusive buildings, designer shops, high-end restaurants, expensive cars, elegant cafés and speciality boutiques selling the latest in classic food and design. This is the most expensive part of town to live in and the surroundings and residents reflect it. Several beautiful parks provide the wide avenues and boulevards with a verdant edging. The hustle and bustle of Stureplan gives way to the quieter residential roads to the north. Stureplan is also a centre for some famous nightclubs which let only the most desirable clientele.

Top 5 worth seeing in Östermalm
– Humlegården park for its relaxing pathways, open air cafés and immaculate lawns
– Strandvägen waterside promenade connecting the town with Djurgården
– Östermalmshallen, a fantastic historical food market from the 1800’s
– Sturebadet, a spa and baths dating from 1885
– Berwaldhallen, music hall for classic and contemporary performances and the home to Stockholm’s symphony orchestra

Södermalm
The island of Södermalm is the southern part of the main city. Initially a very poor area, and then the place for Stockholm’s working-class to live, it has in recent years been gentrified and trendified into an urban melting pot of designers, artists, musicians, the gay community, and hipsters.

Södermalm, or Söder, was recently declared by Vogue to be the third coolest neighbourhood in the world. And experiencing its artisan bakeries, bohemian cafés, on-trend shops, and experimental restaurants, it’s easy to see why. From Stockholm’s harbour you see the heights of Söder dominated by its churches and impressive hill-top buildings.

Top 5 worth seeing on Södermalm

– Fjällgatan and Monteliusvägen for the best panoramic views in Stockholm
– Mariatorget for hanging and eating
– Sofo for hipster heaven
– Hornstull for restaurants, bars and live music
– Fotografiska museum for breathtaking international photography

Norrmalm
The city centre area and the main place to find mainstream shops and chain restaurants. This neighbourhood has more and more residents as inner city rejuvenation speeds up but it is mostly the place of business and commerce. Here’s where you’ll find Stockholm’s three main department stores: NK, Åhléns City and PUB. The center of urban outdoor activity is here too – Kungsträdgården – a park dedicated to the pleasure of Stockholmers year round. In the summer, there are festivals, in the winter ice skating and in the spring the park is enveloped in the beautiful vibrant pink of cherry blossom.

Top 5 worth seeing in Norrmalm, apart from shopping

-Hötorget outdoor market and Its indoor partner Hötorgshallen
– Sergelstorg and Kulturhuset, 60’s architecture maligned by some, praised by others
– The Opera House with its adjoining bar, restaurant and nightclub
– Kungsträdgården park, all year round
– Berns restaurant, cafe and club in Berzelli park

Gamla Stan
Stockholm’s origin, founded on a small island between the lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea was for centuries an important centre of trade in the Baltic region. The town we see today was set up in the 1300’s and most of the buildings are from the 1700’s and 1800’s. Around 3000 people live in Gamla Stan and the neighbourhood is full of colourful buildings, narrow cobbled streets, alleyways, churches, national buildings and touristy shops and restaurants.

Top 5 worth seeing in Gamla Stan

– The Royal Palace
– Storkyrkan cathedral
– Riddarholmen and its church
– The Houses of Parliament
– Stortorget, medieval city square

Stockholm A-Z: Museum mania

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The latest museum to be added to Stockholm’s impressive stock is the Abba Museum. Located on Djurgården, the museum island, the ABBA museum celebrates the music of the notorious Swedish pop group. As it attracts a lot of visitors, it’s best to pre-book.

There are museums in Stockholm to cater for most tastes: interior design, art, Swedish history, nautical history, dance, architecture, medieval history, the Mediterranean, ethnicity, diversity, Alfred Nobel, royalty, coins, natural history, astronomy, Judaism, technology. You name it, you could spend a whole week in the museums of Stockholm and still not see them all.

Here are few highlights:

Everyone thinks they’re a photographer. But this museum helps put things into perspective. For the latest in breathtaking international photography, head to the fabulous Fotografiska on Stockholm’s harbour side. Housed in an old toll house, the museum has a good restaurant, party nights with cool music and great views of the city.

Are historical buildings and national costumes more your thing? Then take a tram out to Skansen, Stockholm’s wonderful open-air museum. Here the whole family can spend a whole day eating, listening to music and admiring the old buildings and crafts of centuries past. There’s even a small zoo hosting nordic animals. If you’re in Skansen at 8pm on a Tuesday in the summer, don’t miss the weekly televised show called Allsång på Skansen. This is one of the most popular TV shows in Sweden. Famous artists, old and young, Swedish and international perform and the show’s host encourages the audience to sing along in a huge collective choir. You don’t get much more Swedish than this, and it’s definitely worth sticking around to witness it.

Are you thrilled by the sting of modern art? Then Stockholm’s Museum of Modern Art not only has a great restaurant with fantastic views but also some of the best modern paintings, sculptures and media to be seen. Located on the island of Skeppsholmen in Stockholm’s harbour, walking distance from the city. After visiting this museum, a walk around this historical island is also recommended.

Into old queens? And other royalty? Then the Royal Armoury in the cellars under the Royal Palace is the place for you. This the oldest museum in Sweden, established in 1628, and shows the history of Sweden’s royalty through arms and armours, clothing, robes, jewels, carriages and blood-stained items from murdered monarchs.

Surprisingly, there’s no Viking museum in Stockholm. However, a trip out to the lake island of Björkö, 30km from Stockholm, might satisfy that yearning. On Björkö lies the former settlement of Birka, the predecessor to Stockholm and an important point of trading for the Vikings. Today Björkö is an architectural site with a small museum housing its findings.

Fancy a drink? Then a trip to the Spritmuseum might be just the potion. Or it might put you off forever. Alcohol is also culture and this museum puts the Swedish bittersweet relationship to alcohol in focus.

For more information on all the many museums and art galleries go to http://www.stockholmmuseum.com

Stockholm A-Z: Långholmen

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Tucked away on the north west coast of Södermalm, in Lake Mälaren, is the oasis of Långholmen. This island is accessed by small bridges and is a paradise for sunbathers and swimmers. The island has a bloody history – it was originally a prison island, housing criminals up until 1975 when it was closed. Today the old prison houses schools, apartments, a hotel, a conference centre, an inn and a very interesting hostel where you can spend the night in the former prison cells. Outside the prison is a popular beach which attracts hundreds of bathers on sunny days. In fact the whole island attracts its fair share of sun-worshippers. If the crowded beach is not your scene, it’s possible to jump of the rocks or low-hanging branches all around the island. In the winter, the lake freezes and you can walk around the island in the very same place you bathed just six months earlier.

On Långholmen you will also find cafés and restaurants, ice cream stands, a spinnery, a museum, a caravan site and cutely colourful allotments.

Långholmen is easily accessible by bike and connects to the other side of lake Mälaren via the imposing bridge Västerbron. From this high vantage point, you can look down over the city hall, the old town, the city, into the harbour and out into the Baltic Sea.

Close to the island of Långholmen is the residential island of Reimersholme. This smaller island was once the place for a wool factory where the prisoners of Långholmen were put to work. The factory is long gone but the island is worth the walk around to take in the beautiful panoramas over the lake.

Just close to Långholmen and to Reimersholme is a favourite historical Stockholm cafe. Set in a pleasant garden, the cafe Lasse i Parken was, in the 1700’s, a worker’s cottage. Nowadays the only people working there are the catering staff, as Stockholmers enjoy their coffee and cakes listening to live music or stand-up comedy.