Stockholm

Behind the Image: Mariaberget & Gamla stan, Stockholm

View of Mariaberget from Gamla stan in early morning light. (155mm, f8, 1/500 sec, ISO 400)

View of Mariaberget from Gamla stan in early morning light. (155mm, f8, 1/500 sec, ISO 400)

I must confess something: I could have made much better images of Stockholm. It's normal, as an artist, to be hard on yourself and even put down your own work. It's normal to doubt whether you'll be able to do justice to a scene or even express your vision for an image at all. It's normal, even for the pros, to get a few sucky photos. It's also easy to make excuses and say, "I tried and I'll do better next time." Next time may not come. Try now. Don't be lazy. Laziness was not exactly my reason for coming home from Sweden with quiet images. I had a stroke of rough luck when two foot conditions that I have flared up at once, beginning the day we arrived and ending the day we flew home. I hadn't had flare ups of either of these separate conditions in months. It was the pain with each step that made me lazy about photography in Sweden last June. In a very walkable city like Stockholm, it flat out sucks to have two bad feet when the pressure's on to make stunning images. I'm a lucky guy as far as health goes. I'm a lucky guy as far as everything goes, actually. I'll complain no more.

Behind the Image: Mariaberget, Gamla stan & Södermalm, Stockholm

Usually, I can bet on having lots of "keepers" and a few strong images that really stand out from each shoot. I've found that over the years I actually make fewer exposures and my ratio of "keepers" to "messups" is about nine to one. In Stockholm I shot hundreds of images each day. They're not bad images - just not my best work. I'd like to say that every time I travel I get better at representing the destination in a creative and dynamic way. Though my images of Stockholm are decent for the travel industry (I've sold several images from the trip including the one above), they do not represent me at my best. In my opinion, I came home with a lot of good, but not great, photographs of an amazing and vibrant city. Each time I browse the archive I think of what images I would retake or try to get if I could do it over. Maybe someday I will. I have many other places on my list, but Stockholm may require a second go to get it right.

My favorite area of Stockholm was Gamla stan (Old Town). No history buff can deny its charm. No tourist can leave Stockholm without wandering its narrow cobblestone streets. My wife and I rented an apartment in Södermalm, a more modern and trendy part of town, but made the trip up to Old Town three times. The first was a mess. We arrived at mid-day to swathes of tourists crammed into the tiny streets like herring in a can, all knocking elbows to get the same shot of Hell's Alley. I'd eventually get mine too. What caught my eye even more was the view of Söder MälarstrandMariaberget from Gamla stan. On the first day in Old Town the light was terrible for this particular scene and getting into the right position to frame it nicely while others grazed my arms and back was impossible. Sore feet added much to the difficulties. I had to have one foot on the narrow sidewalk and the other in the street to get the best composition. Passing cars provided a slightly dangerous obstacle. It became clear that we would need to try again later.

I would get this shot on the second trip over to Old Town. We were on the metro as soon as it started running and were on the quiet streets of Gamla stan almost before anyone else. It was perfect. We had the place to ourselves for about an hour before the crowds and commuters showed up. I used my D600 and my ol' trusty 70-300 VR (I have since replaced it with the 70-200 f2.8 VR II). With one achy and blistered foot on the sidewalk and the other achy and blistered foot in the street, I made this image. The long focal length of 155mm allowed the scene to be compressed and simplified. I couldn't be happier with the light that morning. It took several attempts to have the shot framed exactly the way I wanted, but eventually I got there. A tripod would have helped for sure.

I loved the architecture in Stockholm. There's something for everybody's taste, from modern minimalist, to baroque, to art decco, to Victorian. It is impossible to tell from this image, but Mariaberget (the cluster of buildings in the center) and rows of buildings along the side are actually in different parts of the city separated by the Riddarfjärden waterway. Mariaberget is across the water in Södermalm and the rows of older buildings on either side of the frame are in Gamla stan. Within this shot are actually two major parts of the city, separated by water.

Despite feeling that my shots from Stockholm are overall pretty "quiet", this one stands out a little for me. A couple do actually, but none really jump out at me and scream successful photography. My feet kept me from visiting a few parts of Sweden that I really wanted to go to and definitely limited my ability to "chase the light" so to speak. I could make excuses all day. I've received a lot of positive feedback from others on my Stockholm portfolio, but an artist can be his/her own harshest critic. That's a good thing I guess. 

"My life is shaped by the urgent need to wander and observe, and my camera is my passport."

- Steve McCurry

Mini-Travel Guide: Stockholm

Colorful buildings in Stortorget, Stockholm’s historic Old Town square.

Colorful buildings in Stortorget, Stockholm’s historic Old Town square.

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.

View of Mariaberget from Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

View of Mariaberget from Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

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.

My wife enjoying the view of Sofia Kyrka in Nytorget through our apartment window during a long summer evening in Stockholm.

My wife enjoying the view of Sofia Kyrka in Nytorget through our apartment window during a long summer evening in Stockholm.

Stockholm residents enjoying a summer afternoon on the grounds of Sofia Kyrka in Nytorget.

Stockholm residents enjoying a summer afternoon on the grounds of Sofia Kyrka in Nytorget.

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.

Having a lunch of traditional, and not so traditional, Swedish meatballs at Meatballs for the People, Stockholm.

Having a lunch of traditional, and not so traditional, Swedish meatballs at Meatballs for the People, Stockholm.

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.

Swedish cinnamon buns from Bread and Salt, a local bakery in Stockholm

Swedish cinnamon buns from Bread and Salt, a local bakery in Stockholm

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.

Hell’s Alley, Gamla Stan, Stockholm.

Hell’s Alley, Gamla Stan, Stockholm.

Cobblestones and colorful buildings in Gamla Stan, Stockholm.

Cobblestones and colorful buildings in Gamla Stan, Stockholm.

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.

View of City Hall and Stockholm skyline from Mariaberget.

View of City Hall and Stockholm skyline from Mariaberget.

Historic houses near Cornelisparken.

Historic houses near Cornelisparken.

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.

Traditional Swedish architecture in Skansen, Stockholm.

Traditional Swedish architecture in Skansen, Stockholm.

Traditional Swedish windmill in Skansen, Stockholm.

Traditional Swedish windmill in Skansen, Stockholm.

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.

Skogskyrkogården UNESCO World Heritage Site, Stockholm.

Skogskyrkogården UNESCO World Heritage Site, Stockholm.

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.

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