If you’re like me and can’t get enough of the charm of old Europe, add Stockholm to your list. Sweden’s capital is not the gloomy stoic place it’s made out to be in crime novels and detective shows. It’s a modern and vibrant cultural hub with a diverse population, awesome food scene, and breathtaking natural surroundings. I had the pleasure of spending a week in Stockholm, which was simply not enough. It was one of those cities I could return to time and time again. In this “mini-travel guide” to Sweden’s largest city, I’d like to share some of my experiences and travel tips for visiting Stockholm.
Geography and Climate
Stockholm is the capital of Sweden and is composed of 14 islands, connected by over 50 bridges, in a beautiful archipelago of the Baltic Sea. Summers are mild and generally sunny, while winter is cold and snowy. It’s very much Scandinavia as far as winter goes. I was there during summer, however, and the weather was pleasant for walking around this pedestrian friendly city.
Where to Stay
As is the case with major Western European cities, centrally located hotels within walking distance of attractions can be very pricey, especially for budget travelers like my wife and I. My first choice, as always, was to use Airbnb to find an apartment in an area I wanted to be in. I managed to find a small, but very adequate apartment above Nytorget 6, a restaurant in the trendy and hipsterfied Nytorget area of Sodermalm. Sodermalm is Stockholm’s south island. It’s quieter than Normalm (which is more metropolitan and has more to offer the typical tourist with cultural appropriations such as TGI Friday’s and a Hardrock Cafe). It’s also less bustly than Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s historic district, but you can still access Old Town by walking or taking the metro.
Nytorget is a great neighborhood. There are shops and restaurants on every corner. There are also several grocery stores and fruit stands selling quality, and often, local goods.The architecture was fun to photograph, and because it was summer, Swedes were leisurely enjoying the long daylight hours outdoors at cafes and parks. It was a very laid back environment. It felt much more like a small neighborhood than a large city. I can’t say the same for Normalm. I never even bothered going over there because I liked the relaxed atmosphere of Sodermalm so much.
The apartment rental was a small studio located in an art-deco building, but it was clean and modern and had a large window overlooking a park and Sofia Kyrka. It was perfect and had a fully equipped kitchen. The price was reasonable for such a great location at $100 USD a night (the very nice owners refunded a night of our stay because the toilet was leaking when we arrived. It was promptly fixed- no big deal). I would stay again in a heartbeat.
Where & What to Eat
Stockholm has countless amazing restaurants. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough time, or the budget, to eat at all the ones I’d like to try out. You’ve probably read elsewhere that food in Stockholm is expensive. As usual, I’m here to tell you that that is subjective and only partially true. Eating out for dinner is pricey, but no more than any major North American city depending on the restaurant. If you want to enjoy good and classy eats in Stockholm, go out for lunch. If you rent a place that has a kitchen like we always do, then you can cook your own awesome dinners with local ingredients and save lots of dough (no pun intended).
Being a diverse city, there are lots options for ethnic foods and other classic European cuisine. We enjoyed Indian and Greek meals, as well as authentic Czech pub fare, all within walking distance of our Nytorget apartment. One restaurant that stands out for us is Meatballs for the People. They do authentic Swedish meatballs and they do them well. It’s like Ikea, only hand made and super-classy, with more depth and flavor. I ordered the traditional plate of meatballs, gravy, lingonberries, and whipped potatoes. My wife got the rooster balls – not even kidding – it was a salad topped with delicious rooster meat balls. MFTP was only a couple blocks from our apartment and they have daily specials for any budget. They don’t skimp on the meatballs, either. I’d recommend this spot wholeheartedly.
Sweden is famous for its delicious baked goods. I practically ate my weight in cinnamon buns. Bread and Salt bakery has locations all over Stockholm and artfully prepares pastries and breads that will not disappoint.
In my experience, avoiding restaurants in heavily touristy areas is a good plan. In Gamla Stan, as charming as it is, I noticed a lot of kitchy chain restaurants that were geared toward tourists near the famous Stortorget square. The few that were not obviously catering to tourists had much higher prices than I noticed elsewhere in the city. The general rule is to go at least three blocks away from touristy areas to find good, authentic, and more moderately priced restaurants. As far as alcohol prices, restaurants are steep, but we found that the government-owned spirit store (called Systembolaget) actually had very reasonable, if not cheap, beer and wine prices.
What to Do in Stockholm
Take Pictures in Gamla Stan: The number one thing you should be doing in Stockholm is taking pictures! This is a travel photography blog after all. It’s a beautiful city with aesthetically pleasing subjects around every corner. Get out early, not only to get the good morning light, but to avoid the crowds. I had a blast wandering the narrow streets of Old Town one early morning before the tourists arrived. There were only a few locals in transit, so I used them to provide scale as I photographed the colorful historic buildings in and around Hell’s Alley.
Take a Walk on One of Stockholm’s Many Waterside Walkways: There are several walking paths and boardwalks along the waters edge that offer great views of the city skyline. Monteliusvägen is a quarter-mile walkway near Mariaberget that overlooks the city and provides great views of City Hall and Lake Mälaren. This is one of the most popular spots to photograph Stockholm’s skyline. Another great spot is Cornelisparken, which is accessible via a long-stone staircase above Fotografiska.
Visit Galleries: I enjoyed and was inspired by the work I saw at Fotografiska, a well-known photography gallery and museum in Sodermalm. One of my favorite photographers, Nick Brandt, had an exhibition there of large images of Africa’s wildlife shot on medium format black and white film.
Take a Ferry to Skansen: Skansen is an outdoor museum and zoo set in a old Finnish settlement where you can see native Scandinavian wildlife and traditional Nordic architecture. The best way to get there is by ferry from Normalm, Gamla Stan, and Sodermalm to Djurgarden. During summer it gets pretty crowded, but that’s also the best season to see the animals and the wildflowers that blanket the meadows and gardens of both Skansen and Djurgarden.
Enjoy Serenity and Nature at a UNESCO World Heritage Site: Skogskyrkogården is a cemetery and UNESCO World Heritage Site located south of Sodermalm. We took the metro only a few stops, and it felt like we were way out of the city and in a more natural setting. It was peaceful. Families elaborately decorate the graves of deceased loved ones in a very calm setting with walking trails and minimalist landscaping. It doesn’t feel like a sad place. It’s peaceful, set in nature among hundreds of tall pines. There is a meditation grove and the whole place is designed to promote a peaceful mindset for both mourners and visitors.
Getting Around Stockholm
Stockholm is a walkable city. It’s also bike friendly. Public transit is efficient as well, so you should have no problems getting around no matter what area you’re staying in. I recommend getting a 7 -day SL Card. It allows you to use any public transit, including the very nice metro system and ferry to Djurgarden, without having to pay each trip or reload a card. It’s a flat fee, which at the time of this writing is 315 SEK. We weren’t expecting to use it but a couple times, but ended up using it daily. We definitely got our money’s worth. You should, too!
Go. Do. See.
Stockholm is an awesome city filled with activities for anyone’s travel style or budget. Summer is a great time to be there, but I’d also love to go in Winter, or during the Christmas season when the holiday markets are open and snow covers the streets of Old Town. Stockholm is picturesque for sure – an architectural photographer’s dream. To keep costs low, I’d recommend booking an apartment through Airbnb, purchasing alcoholic beverages at the Systembolaget, eating out for lunch instead of dinner, and buying an SL Card to save on transit costs. If you’re near an airport that budget airline Wow Air flies from, then booking with them would be a great way to start saving on your Stockholm experience. We flew from BWI to Stockholm for $964 total round trip for two with Wow – not too shabby! For location info, use the map below to explore Stockholm. For more tips on how to save for, and during, travel check out my post on how to afford to travel. Thanks for reading and happy travels.
( To find out what photo gear I used on my trip to Stockholm, click here.)
(c) 2017 Jon Reaves. All rights reserved.