Have you ever had the urge to just head down to your nearest airport and buy a ticket on the next flight to an exotic destination? Well, we didn’t quite do it like that, but our impromptu summer trip to Stockholm, Sweden came pretty close.
With no plans for a week and a timely catch-up phone call to a close friend whom we discovered was over in Sweden from New Zealand, the stars had aligned. Forty-eight hours later we had booked a cheap flight, packed our carry-on bags and boarded a plane to Stockholm.
As the only plane on the tarmac flying into the budget Västerås airport, we soon realised this was not Stockholm at all and we were still a good 100km from the city. Luckily the Swedes know a thing or two about efficiency and there was an express bus into the city awaiting our arrival. Much to our amazement, the Flygbussarna had the fastest internet connection we’ve come across in Europe on all our travels. On a bus! So far Sweden is making a good impression.
Sometimes when you land in a new country, the first day is a blur of travel and new sensations that you don’t quite recall clearly. This wasn’t the case here. We immediately fell in love with the iconic red farmhouses that dotted the lush green landscape on our ride into the city. We felt invigorated and alive, everything about this place seemed so wholesome and simple.
We were lucky to be staying with our close friend “Swedish Maria” and her beautiful family out on their island home of Ekerö. The greater Stockholm area is made up of thousands of islands so it’s easy to find the perfect balance of peace and quiet with the city center not so far away.
Fashionably late, we arrived just as Maria’s 30th birthday party kicked off and were warmly welcomed by a gathering of local friends and family. Over the next few hours, we were absolutely spoilt with amazing food, drinks and excellent tips on how to spend our next few days. If you ever have the opportunity to experience a common celebration like a birthday in a foreign country – do it. It’s such a nostalgic experience that also opens your eyes to how other communities celebrate the same thing across the world.
A bird’s eye view from Stockholm City Hall
Stockholm is made up of 14 main islands and spanned by 50 bridges, so the best way to see the city is either on a boat or way up high. Wherever we go, every new city or town, our first goal is to find the highest vantage point we can. It’s the easiest way to grasp the landscape and usually get one of the best view’s.
City Hall Tower had us covered with its ideal central location on the waterfront. The climb is up a steep and narrow staircase to the top where you’ll be rewarded with a nice spot to sit and watch the city come alive. From up high you really get a sense of just how much the city is carved up by waterways. With boats chugging by constantly it was decided that a boat trip was in order at some point during our stay.
Only 30 people can climb the tower at a time with each group setting off at 40-minute intervals. The tickets for the tower climb cannot be pre-booked and go on sale each day in the morning, so get there early to secure your time slot. The tower is open from May – September.
The climb is tough but rewarding and highly recommended. Halfway up the tower, if you’re in need of a rest, there is a museum with massive replicas of City Hall’s statues, just one of the hidden gems to discover in the city!
The Stockholm City Hall is an impressive building inside and out, unfortunately, there was a police graduation ceremony on during our visit and we couldn’t explore too much, but what we did see was fabulous. The repetitive geometry of the red brick arches and pure scale of the courtyard is sure to impress any architecture lover.
Cobbled lanes and cinnamon buns in Gamla Stan
Coming from a country where all the cities and buildings are relatively new, we absolutely love the cobbled alleyways and coloured buildings of Gamla Stan, the old town. Our advice; put away the map/phone/guidebook and wander along, make any turn that takes your fancy and you’ll discover the charm that lies within the narrow and winding streets.
We found hidden churches, arched alleyways and then stumbled upon the most beautiful florist, Christoffers Blommor, and wanted to buy everything in sight! Eventually, you’ll either hit the water or make your way into Stortorget, the oldest square in Stockholm and home to some of the most photographed buildings in the city.
Gamla Stan is where our friend Maria taught us the meaning of fika and introduced us to the Kanelbullar, the cinnamon bun. A traditional Swedish fikapaus (pronounced fee-car-paws) very quickly became a daily ritual. As massive fans of baked goods, the Kanelbullar was too good to resist! A torrential downpour didn’t dampen our day either, though if you’re stuck in the rain on a cobbled street – don’t run! It will quickly end with a sore and wet behind!
After enjoying this historic island we wandered across the bridge into Södermalm, a very cool area of Stockholm full of vintage shops, good food and great views back over the old town from Ivar Los Park. We sat in the summer sun on a grassy hill, watching a band play in the park, and everything just felt right!
Underground art gallery
People think we’re crazy when we tell them how much time we spent underground in Stockholm’s metro stations – but they are the coolest stations we’ve ever seen! Some 90 of the 100 metro stations are part of the acclaimed ‘world’s longest art gallery’, where every station has its own theme of sculptures, coloured walls, mosaic tiles and faux rock formations.
Our favourites were the stations that seemed to be carved straight from rock and painted in deep colours, giving the unsettling (but true) impression of being deep within the bowels of the earth (Rådhuset, Court House, station). And it’s not very often you’ll find a train station painted vivid sky blue with rainbows, another favourite at Stadion metro station.
Metro tickets can be purchased from most stations and visitor tickets come in 24 hours, 72 hours and 7 day options. Well worth it to see some amazing art, and get around the city quickly.
Sampling Swedish culture at Skansen
For a bit of Swedish history and to see some Scandinavian wildlife we spent half a day at Skansen, the world’s oldest open-air museum. It’s a quirky mix of part-zoo, part-historical, part-children’s farm. Featuring different Swedish farmhouses from all over the country, a petting area with domestic farm animals and examples of traditional occupations like glass blowing and blacksmithing.
Our favourite area was seeing the animal habitats and coming into close proximity of some classic Scandinavian fauna – reindeer, wolves, bears and even the elusive lynx. Not to mention the peacocks roaming around everywhere. It’s clearly set up for younger kids and school groups and has a theme park feel to it, but we still found it interesting to see a mix of Swedish culture.
Avoid the hill climb on the way in by grabbing the historic Funicular on the way up.
Drink in the sun at Drottningholm Palace
If you get a nice day during your visit, make sure to pack a picnic and spend the day wandering the massive grounds out at Drottningholm Slott – which translates to Queen’s Islet Palace. The park is massive and open for the whole public to enjoy. You can pay to see the inside of the palace, which is nice if you’re into stately rooms, long corridors and chandeliers. Our friend (and now tour guide) Maria knew a guy, who knew a guy, who got us in for free so we took the express tour.
But we were really there for the expansive grounds and gardens which are worth going for alone, especially if you have the time to wander around and a sunny day to enjoy outdoors. Closer to the palace you can wander along tree-lined alleys and admire the hedge patterns of the formal gardens. There is also a court theatre which you can visit to see some rare examples of stagecraft from the 18th century. The pale yellow palace can even be approached via boat from Stockholm, the views from the water showing off its best aspect.
Stadsbiblioteket Stockholm – Stockholm public library
Happiness is a good book, or two, or three, or a million. So many books need a beautiful home and the Stockholm public library is exactly that. Personally, we love going into public libraries whilst out exploring cities. There’s an instant calm that washes over you once you step inside. Plus they usually have free Wifi, bathrooms and provide a welcome break from city roaming.
The Stockholm public library is one of the most unique we’ve come across. The central room is an enormous circular space with a soaring domed ceiling flooding the library with natural light. We would’ve stayed here much longer if we could read Swedish that is.
Also isn’t Biblioteket just the best word ever?
Discovering the delectable cloudberry jam
Being generously welcomed into our friends home had some seriously good perks, like being introduced to some tasty traditional Swedish cuisine. During our ten days, I think we had some form of strawberries and cream for dessert every night (and some lunches). Our stay overlapped with the midsummer celebrations so we were treated to feasts of whole cooked fish, new potatoes, pickled herring, Swedish meatballs, fresh strawberries and lots of whipped cream.
But above all else, our favourite new food is homemade cloudberry jam.
We have searched in so many places once we returned to the UK and cannot find this anywhere. The flavour was delicious but really hard to describe; like a cross between apricot and quince, less sweet than your regular berry jam, but pairs really well with fresh whipped cream! Our Swedish experience was made all the richer by the people we met, old friends and now new friends. A massive heartfelt thank you to the entire Bergvall family for taking us in and sharing your beautiful home with us.
Summer steamboats & island hopping
Every summer the glorious old fleet of steamboats return to service to ferry passengers around Stockholm’s maze of waterways. We ventured out to the island town of Vaxholm for half a day to wander the streets of pastel houses and sit by the water watching the boats go by. The old citadel is worth a visit and sits on it’s own imposing island overlooking the entrance to the open sea.
We loved the boating life so much we spent a few days sailing around the islands, for a full breakdown read about our Stockholm Archipelago experience.
Taking it easy.
For having nothing planned when we arrived in Sweden we were surprised at how much we managed to see and do in our 10 days around Stockholm. It is such an easy-going city with so much to do, but also extremely efficient and pragmatic which makes it an ideal impromptu destination. We felt a really welcoming vibe from everyone we met, warmly being invited over for dinner and declared as new friends on sight. The thing that stuck with us the most was the minimal, go-with-the-flow attitude – taking time to enjoy the small things and a general positive attitude to life.
Still on our Stockholm list
- Fotografiska – A contemporary photography gallery
- Gröna Lund – An amusement park right in the middle of the city
- Vasamuseet – A maritime museum, home to an almost whole 17th century salvaged warship
- Archipelago – We’d dearly love to come back and explore more of the islands (see our Stockholm Archipelago post)
Our favourite Stockholm memories
PAUSE to be in the moment and enjoy fika daily
CRUISE your way around the many waterways that make up the city
INDULGE in a daily dose of Kanelbullar (cinnamon bun)
LOSE yourself wandering the cobbled streets of Gamla Stan
CLIMB the City Hall Tower for beautiful views all across the city