Stockholm: Five tips for the land of three kings
May 7, 2013
Stockholm, SWEDEN -- Sweden is subtle. Its cuisine is hearty and simple, its aesthetic minimalist and politics neutral. Sweden's modesty often puts the country on Europe's tourism backburner, but for all its nuance, Stockholm, the capital, is an infectious delight with a distinct I-could-live-here vibe.
Stockholm is a singularly beautiful city packed with helpful citizens and enough activities to last visitors for months. However, few have that much time, so I've listed my top five suggestions for a trip to the "Capital of Scandinavia."
Get a tour at the Royal Palace
An all-inclusive pass (140 SEK) to the Baroque style Royal Palace in Stockholm, valid for 30 days, allows access to the entire grounds and all the tours you can handle. Take the 25-minute tour of the Tre Kroner Museum, which houses the remnants of the original palace that burned down from a mysterious fire in 1697. The guide was engaging, charismatic and breezily answered every question thrown at her.
Make sure you: Plan your tour. Tours in English are every hour on the hour, but only for one area of interest in the palace. So, if you have interest in the Royal Chambers or the Treasury, the tour for each runs once a day.
This might seem like an obvious diversion, but in a city with wet, inconveniencing weather, the extensive public transportation system can be seductive. Going through Stockholm on foot gives you access to the city's unique ambiance. Built on 14 islands, Stockholm boasts a compilation of 1/3 water, 1/3 parks and 1/3 buildings. You can best appreciate these proportions on foot, traveling over bridges, strolling along countless wharves and passing through green space.
Make sure you: Pack foul weather gear. This goes for if you plan to walk a lot or travel luxuriously by taxi (lines can stretch outside museums.) Sweden has beautiful summers with midnight sun, but it rains frequently. Pack a rain jacket, umbrella and good shoes. Also, pack warmly during Sweden's notoriously cold winters.
See the Vasa Museum
Most tourist traps are lame. The Vasa defies this stereotype. The museum houses the Vasa, a warship that sunk one kilometer off shore in Stockholm Harbor on its maiden voyage in 1628. I was intent on seeing this resurrected ship, and this perfectly preserved chunk of nautical history proved unparalleled. The Vasa certainly wows and the museum houses engaging displays and relics that give visitors a peek into a sailor's life in 17th century Sweden, how the ship sank and its remarkable re-emergence.
Make sure you: Skip the guided tour. The speech was scripted and boring. The museum has better sources of information, including 25-minute movies in English, which include all the content provided in the tour.
Explore the archipelago
We had the most fun on an overnight trip to an island in the Stockholm Archipelago. The islands rarely see foreign tourists, but serve as summer -- and sometimes winter -- playgrounds for Swedes. The more habitable islands lie closer to Stockholm, harboring luxurious hotels and fine restaurants. For a more rustic and affordable ramble, go further out. We spent a day and a night on Finnhamn, 2.5 hours from Stockholm, where four-wheelers replace cars and cows are the only permanent residents. Vacationers and day trippers can kayak, lounge in the sauna, swim, hike and picnic. We rented a cabin for the night with electricity but no running water; a nearby pump fit the bill. Finnhamn also has a hostel and camping plots for those who can brave mosquitoes.
Make sure you: Plan according to your comfort level. If spending the day outside bores you, stay closer to Stockholm or consider a day trip. Ferries reach most islands in the morning and in the evening. If bobbing through the Baltic makes you turn green, getting to the closer islands via bus or train is also an option. Alternatively, for those skippers out there, you can easily rent a boat and join the leagues of happy sailors. I found this site helpful to determine the most appealing islands and transportation: www.visit-stockholm.com. Click on "Where to go" and then "archipelago islands."
Eat one fantastic meal
Sweden is notoriously expensive and food is no exception, but you can eat cheaply. That said, Stockholm has emerged as a cuisine capital and indulging at least once is a pleasure. The Sodermalm neighborhood, undergoing a cultural renaissance, leans toward hipper and experimental tastes. For something more sophisticated, the Ostermalm neighborhood is posh without being stodgy. Try the laid-back Kungsholmen neighborhood for local eateries near City Hall. We chose Heat, a "modern Thai" joint near Fridhemsplan for its late kitchen and left with a new appreciation for Asian fusion.
Make sure you: Know where to eat cheaply to allow yourself to splurge one night. Swedes love their coffee, and coffee houses everywhere serve cheap food, too. Kebab joints are plentiful and blogger The Hairy Swede recommends sampling strommig (a "delicious" fish) from a food cart outside of the Slussens subway station.