Most Italians head to the stunning seaside for their summer vacations, but we were looking to add not shed layers, so we headed north to the land of cinnamon buns and paternity leave. Hej, Sweden!
In the weeks leading up to our trip, it appeared we might not get the cool breezes and leg-shaving respite that were so desired. Perhaps due to that #FakeNews climate change conspiracy, Sweden had its hottest July in at least 260 years. Wildfires were raging, stores sold out of fans (we had multiple Stockholmers tell us of the Great Fan Sell Out of 2018), and farmers struggled to feed their animals.
This seems especially unfair to people like the Swedes who are notoriously eco-conscious. Our Airbnb hosts said the country actually ran out of trash at one point and had to purchase foreign rubbish to continue heating homes.
Then, the day after we arrived, we were grateful to be shivering in a downpour and inhaling that fresh Nordic air of 65-75 F (18-24 C) throughout the week. So, putting aside worries about our planet for a moment, here are a few tips from our week-long Swedish vacay, should you pop over there one day or merely wish to have some mild distraction until your toothbrush vibrates at the two-minute mark.
Watch Welcome to Sweden, an unjustly cancelled TV series that features cross-cultural misunderstandings, family drama, expat shenanigans, and transatlantic love — gee, I wonder why we connected with it. Bonus: guest appearances by Amy Poehler, Aubrey Plaza and Will Ferrell.
On this trip, four years after watching the series and one day after re-watching it, we see one of the actors get off at our bus stop in Stockholm. I am starstruck and briefly consider shouting, “Birger! Welcome to Sweden!” But I can only squeeze Alberto’s arm and breathlessly say, “Oh my god, guarda, guarda,” and then Alberto’s eyes bulge, too. I turn into a paparazzo and take pictures of him as he walks away. Thank you, Claes Månsson, for being a literal one in a million Stockholm encounter.
Random Cultural Tidbits Shared by Stockholmers
- When the Olympics came to Stockholm in 1912, they removed pigeon shooting (too brutal) but added naked dancers between events and photo-finish technology.
- Swedes are practical. “We call things what they are. What do you think the name of that big church over there is? Big Church. And that long street? Long Street.”
- Education, including higher education, is free, as is most health care.
- The Swedish royal family are reportedly very laid back and cool with the peasants; the princess married her personal trainer, for example. The Swedish monarchy was also the first to introduce gender-equal succession in 1980.
- Although a famously liberal and egalitarian society, the extreme right is “unfortunately,” according to one resident, gaining political power.
- Yes, there are many beautiful blondes roaming about, but not as many as you’d guess — there are 184 nationalities represented in Stockholm.
- Speaking of liberal and egalitarian, I have never in my life seen so many men caring for babies and children in public spaces — feeding, burping, soothing, playing — and often without a woman anywhere in sight. After seeing the tenth solo male caregiver, I had to ask Alberto if my bleeding heart was imagining things, but he confirmed that he had noticed the same thing.
I did some more digging after we got home and found that Swedish fathers indeed have the highest use of parental leave in the world and that in 1974 Sweden became “the first welfare democracy to introduce paid parental leave (föräldraledighet) to both parents. This law signals that fathers should take greater responsibility in caring for their young children, that children possess the right to have access to both their parents, and that fathers should facilitate mothers’ return to and involvement in paid work after having a child.” Read this Slate article to swoon (and bemoan your own country) some more: Americans Love Seeing Swedish Dads Out With Their Kids (ICYMI blog post: Motherhood from Italy to Taiwan)
- Back in medieval (I think) times, if you were sentenced to death for a crime, you could prolong your life by becoming the town executioner, a job nobody wanted. You had to have your ears chopped off though and would be killed by the next guy who decided he’d take the job.
- Speaking of the morbid bright side, Alfred Nobel established the Nobel Prize after reading a publication that referred to him as a “merchant of death” (he invented dynamite), a legacy he did not wish to leave.
- Lagom is the hip new hygge, and it roughly translates in English as not too little, not too much, just right, everything in moderation.
- Swedes are, according to a Cuban Bulgarian resident, unlikely to brag or strive to stick out; humility is valued — so much so that it might be hard to sell yourself in a job interview because apparently there’s a fine line between celebrating your successes and being an arse.
We stayed in an impeccably styled and clean Airbnb just south of the city center in Gamla Enskede and about a 10 minute walk to the subway. It’s located in a residential area across the street from a park and has some nice restaurants nearby with no English menus — which means you’re unlikely to be in a tourist trap but the very kind server will have to read everything off to you lest you spend 15 minutes in Google Translate before deciding you actually don’t want to eat there at all. #Awkward
We walked or took public transportation (subway, tram, bus, boat) everywhere. Public transit was very clean, reliable and convenient; a week pass is about 30 euros. It would have been cheaper and more ambitious of us to rent bikes, as recommended by many people, but the combination of rain, laziness and cinnamon buns was a deterrent.
Things to Do in Stockholm
Free Walking Tours
We did three free Stockholm walking tours — Stockholm City, Gamla Stan (Old Town) and Stockholm Subway Art, and they were a great way to get acquainted with the city as well as learn more about Swedish history and culture. Tips are encouraged (in any currency) at the end of the tour.
Pro tip: Don’t withdraw any cash in the local Swedish Krona (SEK). Stockholm is on its way to going cash-free and some places will only accept cards anyway.
Stockholm Subway Art Gallery
As mentioned above, Stockholm’s subway system is an art gallery in itself. You can go with a tour group (here’s the offical SL tour; we did a different one) to see a few of the hot spot stations and get a brief explanation, or you can go admire them on your own. Our tour guide suggested the following stations but 90+ of them have artwork, so you’re bound to run into a few even accidentally:
- Blue line
- Solna Centrum
- Green line
- Red line
- Tekniska Högskolan
Our guide said the art was commissioned as a way to lure apprehensive Swedes underground (post World War II) to use this new, potentially dangerous form of transportation. I later read on several sites that this underground exhibition was the result of a political and cultural movement in the late 1950s to make art more accessible to your average citizen and not just the Swedish elite. The official SL site notes the following motivations: beauty, safety, station identity/navigation, and vandalism reduction. Whatever the reasoning for bringing more art into the world…
Museums and Historical Sites
It’s the same old story: a guy wanted to prove he had bigger balls than another guy — and then his hastily constructed warship sank on its maiden voyage; King Gustav just had to wave his mast in the air. Now, you and I can go gape at a massive 17th century ship that was underwater for 333 years.
Pro tip: Dress in layers. It seems sub-zero temps are necessary to preserve the artifact.
This was an interesting, well-designed photography museum and a perfect place to spend a rainy afternoon. It also has a nice cafe/restaurant upstairs with a great view of the city.
Since this royal castle from the 1600s is the king and queen’s permanent residence, they don’t grant you full access, making the interior visit shorter than expected, but it’s beautiful and the palace gardens and Chinese Pavilion are a peaceful place to amble around or have a picnic.
It was free, there were very few tourists, and the woman who founded it was doing things that a woman of her time was not supposed to do, because it interfered with duties like embroidery and shutting up. So obviously, I liked it. Or, as the museum put it, “Among women during the 1890s, Wilhelmina was quite alone in her pursuits, and she walked a fine line of what was considered appropriate for a woman of her station to devote her time to.” Cheers, Wilhelmina von Hallwyl.
Famous for being the venue of the Nobel Prize banquet plus for its grand ceremonial halls and artwork (the gold mosaic room was my favorite), the City Hall offers tours (mandatory) in several languages. It’s a popular place to get married and has a six-month waiting list; supposedly Swedes can choose between the short (two-minute) or long (four-minute) ceremony.
I was hoping to learn more about Nordic culture and history but the exhibits failed to engage us (or maybe we were coming down from a sugar high). Like, I couldn’t look at one more antique Swedish chair; I have been to IKEA five times this year already. It was interesting to learn about the Sami in Sweden, an indigenous people who have lived in the Arctic region for thousands of years.
It was our last day in Stockholm and we had limited time and attention spans left, but it’s a free museum so we popped in for an hour (only enough time to walk through the Vikings exhibit and a few others) and then ran to get one last cinnamon roll before the airport bus left.
If you’re an indoor cat who doesn’t like bugs or being wet, below are some “outdoorsy” activities we suggest. If you’re into fishing, camping, swimming, deep hiking or kayaking, we are useless to you. But, Sweden is not! They have the Right of Public Access (‘Allemansrätt’) which means you have “the right to walk, cycle, ride, ski and camp on any land with the exception of private gardens, near a dwelling house or land under cultivation.”
The medieval city center where Stockholm was founded in 1252 might be annoyingly crammed with tourists in the summer, but it’s a picturesque area to roam about.
This is a World Heritage Site cemetery where the designers wanted nature — majestic trees and rolling hills — to shine rather than the headstones. Going back to that theme of equality, it’s “impossible” to have giant burial monuments, like you’d see in Italy, for example. The legendary actress Greta Garbo is buried here; her tombstone is modest, but they gave her quite a respectful perimeter, not laying anyone to rest nearby.
Pro tip: There’s a free audio guide via your phone, so you don’t need to pay for a tour if you’re interested in its history.
Vaxholm is an archipelago town you can reach via boat from Stockholm — a nice, leisurely water ride that’s an attraction in itself. There’s the Vaxholm Castle/Fortress and the nearby Bogesunds Castle, but we didn’t tour either of them. It had quite a sleepy vibe when we were there, and we didn’t do anything except have a nice lunch at the waterfront Boulangerie Bageri & Café. The archipelago is made up of 30,000 islands, so have your pick.
This Stockholm city island is full of museums and sights, but it also has great nature areas and paths. Have a cinnamon bun and coffee on Helin’s terrace overlooking the water and then take a walk on the path leading east. Go to the garden behind Rosendal Palace and you might see dogs herding sheep along the water below. Adorbs.
Wear good shoes, and bring a bottle of wine and some snacks to watch the sunset on this rocky hilltop overlooking the water and city.
Another popular lookout point/path for your 360 photos, one Stockholm resident confirmed Monteliusvägen was one of his go-to date wooing spots.
A tranquil place for a stroll where you can peer at ducks and kayakers, near the end of this path you can grab a bite or drink at Solstugan, which has a nice deck with a view of the sea.
Food & Drink in Stockholm
Look, I loved my time with you, Sweden, but I’m coming from THE Land of Food, and I never expected for you to delight me as much as the Italians do with their delicacies, so I’m not mad at you or anything. You did great with what you had and what I could stumble upon as a clueless tourist. Also, it’s my fault I don’t like salmon or herring. Phew, glad we got that out of the way.
That being said, here are a few traditional Swedish foods and places that did delight us. Plus, Swedish bars and restaurants don’t make you buy water like they do in Italy — yay for free, delicious tap water!
Kanelbulle (Cinnamon Buns)
They say the Swedes invented cinnamon buns, so we thought it culturally sensitive that we eat 1-2 per day. They are a bit less dense and creamy than the ones in the U.S., no globs of frosting on top, and typically also contain cardamom in the dough. Our favorite buns were at Grand Cafe on the water in Blasieholmen and Café Kronan in Gamla Stan, but we weren’t disappointed with any of the other buns, except at a place a British tour guide recommended. Did Brexit bust your sense of taste too, bro?
We accompanied most of these buns with a cup of Swedish coffee, which was almost always delicious. Did you know Swedes are the second biggest coffee drinkers after the Finns?! We definitely perfected the art of the Swedish fika, a mandatory (for good life balance) coffee break accompanied by sweets like kanelbulle. Over the dark winter days when Nordic folk get so little light or warmth, one can easily understand why such a cozy, caffeinated tradition exists.
Meatballs, Lingonberries and Reindeer
Kryp In Restaurant
Prästgatan 17 (Gamla Stan)
Any loyal IKEA shopper knows that Swedish meatballs are a thing, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually eaten them there. In Stockholm, I only ate them once, and they were paired with the traditional lingonberries and mashed potatoes. My mom’s meatballs are better (she’s Italian American after all), but I was satisfied nevertheless.
“What?! Santa’s little helper?!” I exclaimed when Alberto said he was ordering the reindeer. “Yeah, he helps you survive the Nordic winter!”
I can’t remember the name (Swedish is hard, y’all), but we were also served a delicious “delicacy bread” prior to the meal, that included ingredients like potato, cardamom and syrup.
So, this first lunch was probably the most traditional, and after that, we felt some freedom to not eat “authentically Swedish” for the rest of the trip, aside from the daily buns of course.
We stumbled upon this place in the midst of a chilly rain shower and frantic Google Map search for dining options. The friendly server guided us into a cozy cave-like corner lit by candles and deep red walls. I later read in our host’s Lonely Planet Pocket Stockholm guidebook that it was a recommended spot. Score!
Our host also recommended Meatballs for the People as the best place in town for this traditional dish, but we couldn’t get a table. Or, if you don’t want to bother at all with being “authentic,” I present the following: “Swedish meatballs are actually based on a recipe King Charles XII brought home from Turkey in the early 18th century.”
Other “very Swedish” restaurants we enjoyed included:
Pelikan – Blekingegatan 40 (Sodermalm)
A local friend brought us here, and I enjoyed my potato dumplings with mushrooms, browned butter and spinach.
Hybrid – Nynäsvägen 287 (Gamla Enskede)
Not only was the food homemade and delicious, but the server literally sat down next to us to translate every word on the menu, including the obscure vegetables that he’d resigned himself to saying, “And that’s…another plant.” I also briefly learned the Swedish word for “little pig from the farm.”
Good non-Swedishy restaurants:
- Shanti Gossip (Bengali) – Skånegatan 71 (Södermalm)
- Tjabba Thai – Wallingatan 7 (Norrmalm)
- La Neta (Mexican) – Barnhusgatan 2 + Östgötagatan 12B
- Hermans (Vegetarian) – Fjällgatan 23B (Södermalm); we heard from several locals, including non-vegetarians, that their buffet and view was extraordinary, but we couldn’t get a table.