StockholmWords Andy Harris
Photography David Loftus
If you’ve only got a long weekend in Stockholm, resist the hurly-burly lure of the world’s largest IKEA store at nearby Kungens Kurva and head straight for the slippery warren of well-worn, twisting cobblestone streets in Gamla Stan, the city’s 13th-century medieval quarter. Affluent burgher mansions once jostled with more than 800 rowdy tobacco-stained pubs but now share space with chic art galleries, quirky design stores and buzzing bars. Avoid the obligatory camera-toting tourists hoping for a fleeting paparazzi glimpse of Swedish royals outside Kungliga Slottet, the imposing 608-room royal palace where they still hold court, and head straight to Stortorget Square for a steaming bowl of muddy hot chocolate spiced with cardamom at one of the people-watching pavement cafés.
Although I should have visited the impressive baroque Storkyrkan cathedral nearby, I’d already accidentally stumbled noisily into the far more intimate Finska Kyrkan (Finnish church), and embarrasedly sat down in an empty pew, then wished I hadn’t. Soon, I began to enjoy the incomprehensible and lulling somnolent service amidst a congregation of rosy, beatific faces.
Despite preconceptions of this spacious city sprawled over 14 islands – mine were pretty much of Scandinavia’s coolest capital and the ‘Venice of the North’ ilk – I was reminded of San Francisco and Sydney, both laid-back cities with similiar spectacular bayside views and soothing inner-city scenes wherever you look. After Gamla Stan’s jangly tourist vibe, Djurgarden island is the perfect place to experience the relaxed face of the city. Dog walkers are dragged by their noisy cohorts, while lovers sprawl on the grass. Families wander around traditional Lapp houses and farmhouses at Svensen, a quaintly patriotic open-air Scandinavian theme park village; others queued at the Vasamuseet to see the meticulously restored Vasa. This warship was rescued from its watery grave of more than 300 years in 1961.
If you need restoration after all the sightseeing, try slurping down some rousing pumpkin soup at the rickety tables of Rosendal Trädsgård. This outdoor café and bakery is set amidst a patchwork of thriving biodynamic vegetable plots and orchards in the middle of the island. Try and make time also for the Moderna Museet, a stunning building by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, on Skeppsholmen island with its eclectic collection of Swedish modern art, and the beautiful Ostermalm Saluhall.
To sample all the staples of the Swedish kitchen, simply go to Saluhall, a 19th-century indoor market, in the fashionable Ostermalm neighbourhood. Wander various ornate wooden-fronted booths housing fascinating food emporia packed with local delicacies: heady bottles of spice-flavoured schnapps; fruit liqueurs; elderflower vinegar; jars of intense jams, compotes and jellies; farmhouse cheeses such St Olof and västerbotten; and punnets of delicate wild cloudberries, elderberries, blueberries and lingonberries.
At Melanders Fisk, in a corner of the market, Baltic seafood reigns supreme – every type of smoked and pickled fish is laid out. Boiled sweet crayfish, lobsters and crabs might nudge whole smoked eels; sprats rest next to glistening sides of gravadlax, smoked salmon and sturgeon. This is the place to get herrings every which-way, from simply fried and marinated to surströmming (fermented), a punishing local delicacy sold in cans that only the strong or foolhardy can survive.
Afterwards, try open shrimp sandwiches topped with dill mayo, grilled sole meunière or a soused herring platter with potato salad and icy beer at one of the busy market restaurants or simply pick up some crispbread, smoked meats and crunchy fresh pickled cucumbers for an impromptu picnic.
Swedish design can lead to a dangerous, expensive addiction. You start off with lovable, utilitarian IKEA, then acquire a lifelong, Bergmanesque obsession with the more elusive, brooding masters of Scandinavian design. I’m still thinking about some covetable Arne Jacobsen, Alvar Aalto and Verner Panton chairs, Axel Salto ceramics and Berndt Friberg pots on view at Modernity, just one of the many inspirational design stores around town. Andrew Duncanson (right) made the canny move to Stockholm from Scotland in 1998 to open this store which has quickly become a mecca for fans of ‘Scandinavian mid-century modern’.
At another institution, Svenskt Tenn, going strong since the 1920s, houses timeless furniture and textiles from a coterie of classic designers, including founder Estrid Ericson and her long-time collaborator Josef Frank. Here you’ll find more than 160 of Franks’ sensual botanical wallpaper and fabric prints. I also loved Skansen Hemslöjd’s soothing mix of homely linen and delicate Lapp bark baskets and the nearby Party Store devoted to paper products, with some gloriously tacky ephemera for that other national obsession, kräftskiva (crayfish parties).
As you wait for a table at legendary haunt PA & Co, the urbane barman, Jens Lundquist, proffers potent home-infused fruit and spice schnapps at the crowded wooden bar. Once seated, you can dine on biff rydberg, a nourishing hash of diced steak, potatoes, onion, egg and horseradish. More sturdy Swedish fare can be found at Pelikan and Tranan. These traditional beer cafés have been serving bacon with onion sauce, boiled pork knuckle and fried herrings and mash to regulars since the 1920s. Tranan also hosts live music by the likes of Tom Waits in its basement venue.
Two other inner-city institutions, Sturehof and Prinsen, dispense satisfying interpretations of classic Swedish meatballs, served with potato purée, pickled cucumbers and lingonberry sauce, while Lisa Elmqvist, inside the Saluhall indoor market, has spot-on seafood dishes such as cod with shrimps, arctic char with mustard sauce and sole meunière.
If you want something a little different, head for Gamla Stan’s Le Rouge, where chef Danyel Couet dispenses a thoroughly Swedish interpretation of modern French in opulent surroundings. Alternately, relax in quirky garden café Rosendal Trädsgård. Monica Ahlberg has been baking up a storm here since 1990. Her famous cakes and biscuits indulge the Swedes’ love for fika, eating spiced, sweet morsels, such as gingersnaps, rhubarb tart and apple cake, with a cup of coffee between meals.
EAT & DRINK
PA & Co Riddargatan 8; 0046 8 611 0845. Unpretentious bistro and bar attracts a hip crowd.
Prinsen Master Samuelsgatan 4; 0046 8 611 1331. Beautiful restaurant renowned for its grills and seafood.
Rosendals Trädgård Djurgårdsvagen; 0046 8 545 812 70. Pick flowers, eat soup, and buy jam at this inspirational biodynamic garden/café.
Den Gyldene Freden Osterlänggatan 51; 0046 8 24 97 60. Historic Gamla Stan restaurant where the Swedish Academy still meet once a week to discuss Nobel prize winners in literature.
Le Rouge Brunnsgränd 2-4; 0046 8 505 244 30. Swedish produce, French inspiration from Danyel Couet, one of the stars of Stockholm’s fine-dining scene.
Chokladkoppen Stortorget 18; 0046 8 20 31 70. There’s steaming hot chocolate and good people-watching to be enjoyed at this lively café.
Tranan Karlbersvagen 14; 0046 8 527 281 00. This formidable beer joint has served fried herrings and mash to regulars since 1929.
Gondolen Stadsgården 6; 0046 8 641 7090. Take the elevator for spectacular views over the city at this classic bar.
Lisa Elmqvist Ostermalm Saluhall; 0046 8 553 404 00. No need to book for toast skagen, grilled fish and pickled herrings at this Saluhall Market favourite.
Riche Birger Jarlsgatan 4; 0046 8 545 035 60. Fashionable and crowded bar.
Pelikan Blekingegatan 40; 0046 8 556 090 92. Old beer hall with art deco murals and classic fare like potato pancakes or pickled pork and turnips.
NK Nordiska Kompaniet Hamngatan 18-20; 0046-8 762 8000. Venerable old department store with brilliant basement food hall – the champagne bar wasn’t bad either.
Ostermalms Saluhall Ostermalmstorg. All types of Swedish delicacies and snacks are available in this food hall including the ever-popular takeway smoked- and pickled- fish shop Melanders Fisk (0046 8 662 4579), and butchers B Andersson (0046 8 662 5557), with an impressive array of smoked and free-range meat.
Modernity Sibyllegatan 6; 0046 8 20 80 25. Marvellous vintage store.
Svensk Hemslöjd Sveavagen 44; 0046 8 23 21 15. Handicrafts, colourful fabrics and linens.
Party Store Sveavagen 44; 0046 8 411 2425. Paper ephemera for all those endless Swedish parties.
Svenskt Tenn Strandvägen 5; 0046 8 670 1600. Wonderful design store, going strong since 1924.
10 Swedish Designers Götgatan 25; 0046 8 643 2504. Textile collective renowned for bold fabrics.
Ikea Modulvägen 1, Kungens Kurva; 0046 204 390 50. Need we say more?
Scandic Anglais Humlegårdsgatan 23; 0046 8 517 517 20. Child-friendly hotel in the city centre, whose restaurant features a kids' menus developed by our own Jamie Oliver.
Grand Hotel S Blasieholmshamnen 8; 0046 8 679 3500. Aristocratic hotel with waterfront views.
Nordic Light Hotel Vasaplan 7; 0046 8 505 630 00. Stylish, all-white rooms at this hip hotel.
Rival Hotel Mariatorget 3; 0046 8 545 789 00. Abba’s Benny’s popular hotel also has a worthy café and bakery.
Hotel Stureplan Birger Jarsgatan 24; 0046 8 440 6600. New hotel with rooms in 18th-century Gustavian as well as more modern styles.
Moderna Museet Skeppsholmen; 0046 8 5195 52 00. Installations, photography and paintings.
Vasamuseet Galarvarvsvagen 14; 0046 8 519 5480. Restoration of an Imperial Swedish warship that sank in 1628.
National Museum S Blasieholmshamnen; 0046 8 5195 44 10. Modern design and 19th-century painting.
Skansen Djurgarden; 0046 8 442 8000. Open-air museum that’s an insight into the Swedish love of outdoors.
Visit Sweden Call the tourist board on 020 7108 6168 or log on to visitsweden.com.