In a tiny cafe at one end of Gamla Stan’s Stortorget square, a frothy cappuccino serves as the centerpiece for a scene that represents the quintessence of 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? It’s where catching up with friends meets coffee and cakes. But Fika is about much more than caffeine and carbohydrates. It’s a Swedish social institution, where friends sit down and chat about life and current events over snacks like kanelbolle, the Swedish version of a cinnamon bun, and a cappuccino.
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. 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.
Welcome to the capital of the world’s coziest nation.
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 Stockholm’s Grand Hotel. Get out of bed and pull back the curtains. What a view! That’s Stockholm’s Old Town across the harbor and the Royal Palace to your right.
You couldn’t ask for a better address. Better get going. It looks like it’s near noon outside. But wait. It’s only 8 a.m. The sun rose this morning at 3:30 a.m.
Days are long in Stockholm during the summer. The sky will only dim tonight, as the summer sun leaves streaks of color strewn across the sky 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. Enjoy the sunlight.
Before heading down to the Veranda Cafe for a sumptuous breakfast, take a good look at yourself 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.
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 to your right, then along the first street to your right to the beautiful harbor known as Nybroviken.
Admire the colorful passenger boats. You’ll have ample opportunity to board one later, for sightseeing or a dinner cruise. The choice is yours.
Look to your right as far as you can see. 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).
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 walk from there to 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.
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Following your fika at Bla Porten, 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.
All of this 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. No wonder that Stockholm was named Europe’s first Green Capital.
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 most tourists. 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 SEK425 for 24 hours and includes most public transport as well as admission to more than 75 museums and attractions. Purchase or get more information here.
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, and that’s where we’re headed next.
We’re now leaving the green of Djurgarden for Kungliga Dramatiska Teatern, but let’s pause for briefly to talk about the Swedish language.
For the foreign tongue, Kungliga Dramatiska Teatern is too much of a mouthful to pronounce. Don’t even try. Many Swedish words will be too difficult for you to pronounce. 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. Lucky for you, most Swedes speak excellent English.
So that you might brush up on your Swedish, however, we’ve included a video below called Simple Swedish.
Now that you have a better understanding of the Swedish language, let’s get back on our quest to Kungliga Dramatiska Teatern, or the Royal Dramatic Theater.
Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman got their starts in acting here, and Ingmar Bergman staged productions here. Go inside for a tour if you wish or admire 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 a couple of names, 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, the delicious strawberry.
Exit 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.
If you’re still up for shopping before returning to the Grand 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 near 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.
Begin your day as you did yesterday. Exit the Grand Hotel’s front door and head to your right. But first, take a moment to breathe in the view.
Looking across Norrstrom harbor, you’re admiring the Royal Palace (you’re in a kingdom, remember, with a king, queen and princesses). You’re also looking at your next destination, Gamla Stan.
Continue along Stromkajen, cross the street and Strombron (“bron” is “bridge”) to Gamla Stan, the “city between the bridges.” Walk up Palace Hill, nod to the guard at the top, then head down to begin exploring Stockholm’s birthplace.
The House of Parliament is on your right. What’s that in the water? A fisherman. Yes, it’s not unusual to see fisherman in waders hauling in trout from the lake waters than run beneath the Parliament. The locks at Gamla Stan separate Lake Malaren (60 miles long) from the Baltic Sea.
The medieval old town, with its charming cobblestone streets, museums, shops and restaurants, straddles three of 14 islands that make up Stockholm. The well-preserved Old Town features the original network of streets, and some of its buildings date from the Middle Ages.
You’ll need to know a little about the history, so here goes: Stockholm was first mentioned as a town in 1252 and was largely built by the Swedish ruler Birger Jarl. It grew rapidly as a result of a trade agreement made with the German city of Lübeck.
The agreement ensured Lübeck merchants freedom from customs charges for their trade in Sweden, as well as the right to settle there. Stockholm came to be officially regarded as the Swedish capital in 1436. After conflicts between the Danes and Swedes for many years, Stockholm was liberated from Danish rule by Gustav I Vasa in 1523.
Gamla Stan is relatively small, so it’s okay, even preferable, to lose yourself here. After you’ve walked past the Royal Palace, you’ll come to Gamla Stan’s main pedestrian street, Vasterlangatan (“the long western street”).
You can cross all of Gamla Stan on Vasterlangatan. If you were do so without stopping and with no crowds, you could make it from one end to the other in 10 to 15 minutes. But Vasterlangatan can be crowded from mid-morning to mid-afternoon when the weather is nice, so unless you enjoy walking shoulder-to-shoulder, belly-to-back and toe-to-heel with thousands of others, you’ll need to permit yourself to be detoured. I’m going to tell you now, but first it’s time for a hot dog.
What is it about the Scandinavians and hot dogs? I’ve never seen so many hot dog stands as in Scandinavia. Denmark, the nation to the south, is one of the world’s top (per capita) producers of pork. Hot dogs stands are to Scandinavia what Starbucks is to Seattle.
You’ll encounter your first hot dog stand at the beginning of Vasterlangatan. The owner of the small kiosk is from the Middle East and holds a higher degree in something like engineering. One thing that he has surely engineered is a good hot dog. Swedish hot dogs aren’t like American hot dogs in that they’re actually good — and okay for you. You’ll have many varieties to choose from and some unusual toppings, including dried onions and pickles as well as Senap (a mustard that is richer than its American cousin), ketchup and mayonnaise. Yes, you read correctly, mayonnaise.
As you are snacking your way through Stockholm, it’s good to remind yourself that you’re also walking enough to burn off those extra calories.
From the hot dog stand, make your way along Vasterlangatan for only a block before turning left up Storkyrkobrinken, which leads to your first stop, the 15th-century Gothic Storkyrkan (“Stor” means “large;” “kyrkan” means “church”), also, thankfully for the English tongue, called the Stockholm Cathedral, or Church of St. Nicolas. No matter what you call it, the church features Scandinavia’s largest medieval monument, a wooden sculpture made of elk antlers and oak carved in 1489 representing St. George battling a fierce Dragon. Make a mental note of the sculpture. You’ll see another version of it, outside, today.
Check your watch, or look up at the clock tower adorning the cathedral. Don’t look at the clock on the building across the street, however. It’s been stuck at 1:50 for as long as I’ve been coming to Stockholm. If your watch tells you it’s noon, make your way to the 18th-century Royal Palace inner courtyard for the changing of the guard at 12:15 each day except Sundays. During the tourist season, you need to be either tall or early to see the show.
If it’s well before noon, turn left exiting the church to visit Gamla Stan’s largest square, Stortorget (“Stor,” means “large;” and “torget” means “square”), once the venue for public hangings and site of the “Bloodbath of 1520,” the mass execution of Swedish nobles by a Danish king that led to revolt and Sweden’s becoming a sovereign state.
Stortorget today is stunningly beautiful and bordered by tall, narrow, colorful Amsterdam-like buildings, the Nobel Museum and one of my favorite Fika shops, the uber-charming and aforementioned Chokladkoppen. Take a seat inside or out for a hot chocolate or coffee and kanelbolle. Time for another fika.
Afterward, the Nobel Museum is worth a gander. If you can’t do the full tour, step inside the cafe and look under the chairs. It’s okay. They’re light enough to lift, but do so carefully. Nearly all are signed by Nobel Laureates who once sat in the chairs. The ice cream sundae here is delicious, by the way, down to the gold-wrapped chocolate Nobel coin.
For a Nobel-like dinner, you may want to make reservations at Gamla Stan’s Golden Peace, Stockholm’s oldest restaurant, more than 300 years in operation. The Nobel Laureates do lunch here during the ceremonies week.
For now, however, it’s time to see the changing of the guard. Exit the Nobel Museum, turn left and left again along the small street Kallargrand to get back to the inner courtyard at the Royal Palace. Don’t miss the green pissoir on your left. Snapshots of it have landed in many a photo album.
After the changing of the guard, return to Stortorget, and find your way to Svartmangatan, walk about a block to Kindstugatan, with its shops, then turn right on Sjalagardsgatan. Before doing so, however, walk up to admire the other version of the monument to St. George and Dragon (remember I told you to make a mental note of the one in the church?)
Return to Sjalagardsgatan, making your way back to Svartmangatan. Your only quest on these small streets is to admire, and oh, by the way, you are looking so local.
Turn on Tyska Stallplan, a short alley that leads to Prastgatan, where you’ll look for a very narrow alley to Marten Trotzigs, the restaurant so named for a German copper dealer who lived here in the 16th century. Half of Stockholm’s Middle-Age population was German. At Marten Trotzigs’, you’re back on Vasterlangatan, but at the opposite end, having avoided the bustle and crowds.
The entire walk has taken a leisurely two hours, with visits to cathedral, the changing of the guard, and shopping. For lunch, you have quite a few choices. You’re probably fika’d out by now, but if not Stockholm’s oldest fika cafe is near the square. Or you can stop for lunch al fresco at Martin Trotzig at Vasterlanggatan 79.
My recommendation, if you still have some gas in the legs, is to walk down to the water, across the bridge and take the Katarinahissen lift, built in 1883, up to the best-value and best-view lunch in town at Gondolen.
After lunch, make your way to back to Gamla Stan for more exploration, or head to City Hall to admire the Blue Hall, where the Nobel Prize banquet is held annually, and the Golden Hall, with its more than 18 million glass and gold mosaic pieces. Nobel prizes are awarded each December, except for the Peace prize, which is awarded in Oslo.
Climb City Hall Tower for a bird’s-eye view of Stockholm. The tower, by the way, is 106 meters tall, a mere meter higher than Copenhagen’s. Think the two cities aren’t competitive? Think again.
Not long ago, Copenhagen was thought of as being the more Continental of the two cities. No longer, Stockholm has proclaimed itself to be the Capital of Scandinavia. While still distinctly Swedish, Stockholm now boasts an international flair. But I am digressing. Back to our quest.
It’s a good thing that Stockholm enjoys 20 hours of sunlight during summers, because now you’re going on a boat tour.
At Stadshusbron by the City Hall, board the steam-powered SS Drottningholm, built in 1909, for a voyage through Lake Malaren to Drottningholm Palace, an hour’s chug away.
A brilliant example of a northern European 18th-century royal residence, Drottningholm has been home to the Swedish Royal Family since 1981. Building began here in 1662. Join a guided tour, and be sure to visit the court theater, built in 1766. Don’t miss the wonderful Chinese Pavilion.
You can spend most of the afternoon on the excursion to Drottningholm. When you return, make your way to the world’s first permanent “Ice Bar,” situated in the Nordic Sea Hotel, near Central Station.
The price of admission, SEK 180 if you book in advance (recommended), includes use of capes, mitts, and slippers to keep you warm inside the below-freezing bar and an Absolut cocktail (or lingonberry juice) served in glasses made from 100% pure, clear ice from the Torne River in Swedish Lapland. In fact, the whole interior of the bar is built from the ice. Hold on to your glass, by the way, as refills are only SEK 95.
Toasting, by the way, is a ritual in Sweden. Bring your ice glass so that it’s level with your sternum. Look your companion in the eyes, nod, say “skål!” and drink. Then lower the glass and look your companion in the eye again. You are so local.
Your tour — or time in the bar — lasts 40 minutes. You can always leave early if you’re too cold. Want a souvenir? Purchase ice glasses, packed in a special box to keep them from melting — guaranteed for 24 hours.
After your cocktail, find a special place for dinner before returning to your hotel. The favorite of Evert Taube, the famous author, artist, composer and singer who lived from 1890 – 1976, was Den Gyldene Freden (the aforementioned Golden Fleece), which has been a restaurant in Gamla Stan since 1722. Taube’s bronze statute stands nearby.
Although the sky isn’t completely dark when you exit the restaurant at midnight, your day is coming to an end, and with it, your two perfect days in Stockholm.
In two full turns of the clock, a mere 48 hours, Stockholm has revealed something of its soul to you, but trust me, there’s much, much more. We’ll save that for another day, another time, another visit.
If you are in Stockholm for a few days, you surely will want to venture out to the archipelago on ships that depart from the city center. It’s about a two-hour journey to Sandhamn, a small village where you can take lunch at Sandhamns Vardshus before setting out on kayaks for smaller, uninhabited islands just a few miles away. Return to relax in the sauna before boarding the ship back to Stockholm. The experience is quintessentially Swedish and one that should not be missed.