Stockholm: Pure shores

1 Apr 2005 by business traveller
If unfamiliar cities cause your survival instincts to go into overdrive, it may take an evening to acclimatise to Stockholm's not-very-mean streets. Clean, green, wholesome and hip, the Swedish capital has a way of wrong-footing anyone expecting a conventionally menacing metropolis. Virtually no one chains up their bicycle, alcohol-fuelled brawling seems non-existent, and graffiti is a genre rather than an act of vandalism. Even the death-metal fans manifest sweetness and a sense of social responsibility. And the average Swede is so superb at English that you might as well limit your learning to hej (pronounced "hey") – Swedish for "hi". The first time I visited Stockholm, I arrived a day short of Midsummer's Eve, though in Stureplan, one of the city's most swish shopping and schnapps-sipping zones, the celebrations were focused more on a combination of payday and a first-round European Cup draw with Italy. We didn't arrive at our hotel until 9.30pm, but the festive atmosphere and June's all-night twilight promised hours of fun ahead. We found an outdoor table at a Sturehof brasserie, wrapped our knees in the blankets draped over every chair, and alternated happily between eating five kinds of herring and beautiful-people watching. Even summer nights tend to be chilly and the sea air is bracing even at its balmiest, so a Stockholm winter is as icy as you can imagine, with ski gear and furs everywhere. But its bars and restaurants are warm and welcoming, glögg (mulled wine) cocks a snook at the biting cold, and the snowy scenery, especially late at night or first thing in the morning, is unfailingly magical. Whichever time of year you go, you'll find a city with an enviable climate of prosperity and confidence: Sweden's intelligent culture, democratic government and genuine Third Way – a typically pragmatic balance between corporate capitalism and a modern welfare state – are the pride of its people. A settlement built over 14 islands, inner Stockholm covers some 216sqkm, of which a third is water. Suburban sprawl is minimal: if you were to drive out of town to the north or west, you'd soon be in moose country. Sail east into the Baltic Sea, among the 24,000 isles and islets that make up the Stockholm archipelago, and you'll find enough wilderness and raw beauty to keep the heartiest outdoor-types happy for a year. If the sea air is tempting, a day trip to the picture-postcard Vaxholm or yachtie favourite Sandhamn is recommended. The bright summer light and broad blue sky create an invigorating sense of space – and may encourage you to plan further exploration of the archipelago's 50-mile reach into the Baltic. The fresh air doesn't stop at the boat-thronged harbour. A wander around the shops will take you over bridges, along waterways, past lakes and through parks. Swimming in the city centre is a real option in summer, and following locals is the best guide. The central districts are easily navigable by foot and taxi, and each has its own feel, although the low-rise pastel-painted houses that make Stockholm such an attractive capital aren't confined just to the Old Town. Also known as Gamla Stan, this mazy, much-touristed little island is quaintly photogenic – especially the cobbled town square, Stortorget – if you can forgive the tat shops and absence of anything resembling real life. For Nordic-style old-world charm, Skansen is a vast open-air museum on the island of Djurgarden, where families, and anyone with a schnapps hangover, can wander healthily around the zoo and reconstructions of old-style buildings. Gamla Stan links the heart of Stockholm – downtown Norrmalm, the wide residential avenues of Vasastaden, and glamorous, affluent Ostermalm – with hip Södermalm, and Langholmen's green haven. If you've only got a day to play with, you'd better decide whether the pull of the Baltic or that of the city's considerable retail pleasures is stronger. Norrmalm's office blocks and administrative buildings are interspersed with museums and shopping centres: the exclusive NK stands opposite the main tourist office on Hamngatan. The Kulturhuset, a seven-storey glass-walled cultural centre replete with comic-book library, theatre, galleries and cafes, presides over the faintly grubby pedestrian hub of Sergels Torg precinct. To the east, upmarket Ostermalm, where we watched leggy blondes stepping out in Stureplan, offers the city's most extravagant shopping and clubbing. It could be characterised by Spy Bar, all VIP rooms and lipsticked tabloid-fodder, and glossy brasserie Riche, also on the main drag of Birger Jarlsgatan, a sometime haunt of Sven-Göran Eriksson. If this all sounds a bit too much, there are countless other bars and restaurants around, with hipper or homelier appeal. Away from the footballers' wives, most of Stockholm's ultra-cool venues are friendly and inclusive. The Lydmar, a boutique hotel whose rooms are each the work of a different homegrown design star, houses a furiously stylish yet very fun bar/performance space that attracts world-class live acts and DJs. A slightly scruffier scene exists over on Södermalm, a night-time stew of all things indie and esoteric. Jazz, salsa and reggae fans can indulge at historic Mosebacke Etablissement (3 Mosebacketorg), while next door is Södra Teatern, a good bet for Swedish indie pop, folk, spoken-word acts and world music. Western classical music is well funded and well attended: on Hornsgatan, Folkoperan has been providing Stockholm's old opera house with healthy competition since the 1970s. Before your musical fix you can hang out with boho Södermalmers in the opera house bar/restaurant. A studenty area on one hand – my favourite hang-out among the vintage shops on Bondegatan is String, an airy cafe where beatniks and stoners philosophise and flirt – Södermalm is also a peerless shopping quarter. Gotgatan is the perfect one-stop street if you're short of time, or could be the first chapter of a credit-card-caning odyssey if you're not. There's Filippa K for chic womenswear; cult cosmetics at Face Stockholm; classic Swedish design at 10-Gruppen; Ordning & Reda for stationery junkies; and the wonderful c/o Stockholm, a "lifestyle boutique" stocking Myla knickers, Missoni towels and Diptyque candles. You don't have to be a specialist to appreciate the all-pervading design aesthetic; you may merely observe that everything looks great; that the city and society seem to function sensibly and pleasingly; that there is a super-abundance of good looks in the genes here. But the modernist, minimalist sensibility (growing warmer and more experimental in the 21st century) that we know and love may be a reflection of deeper national traits. Alex Bagner, design news and arts editor of Wallpaper magazine, whose launch issue featured Stockholm prominently as a pin-up for Nineties cool, says: 'Whether it's in design, architecture, fashion or catering, Swedes seem to achieve the ideal balance. They've even got the perfect word for it, lagom, which translates as 'just right'. Noting how sensible a country is verges on damning it with faint praise, but there's more to the Swedes than their just-rightness and a willingness to queue. The national sense of humour is as dry as tinder on one hand, but demonstrative on the other; a good shaggy dog story or punning joke won't get Stockholmer men nodding or smiling, but roaring appreciatively and slapping their knees. And, just when you think you're in safe hands, that it's all perhaps a little sanitised, all this social awareness and faintly earnest fun, you stumble on a pocket of chaos. There's a late-night eatery, drinking hole and mini-casino on Norrmalm's Vasagatan, where tourists and students mingle with flaneurs and bar-flies until 5am. On a freezing winter night, when a night-cap turns into a party, and a Viking vein of black humour runs through the conversation, you'll end up bonding with all sorts of Nordic eccentrics. And if you stay up late enough, by the time you leave, there'll be nine inches of fresh snow to play in on the way back to your hotel.


London-stockholm Served by British Airways and SAS from Heathrow. Also served by Ryanair from Stansted. Flights by BA and SAS use the main Arlanda airport (38km from downtown) while Ryanair lands at either Skavsta (88km outside town) or Vasteras (96km outside). Return fares with BA: Club Europe from £463, economy class from £98. Return fares with SAS: business class £593, Economy Flex £493, economy from £117. Return fares with Ryanair start at £56. New York-Stockholm: First class varies $10,574 to $7,854; business class varies $8,914 to $5,146 ($3,373 with Finnair); full coach $3,850 to $2,038; 21 day apex fare $526-low season; $615-shoulder; $960-high; recent sale $300. SAS operates a daily non-stop from Newark. Malaysian operates non-stop Monday, Thursday and Saturday, also from Newark. Best daily connections are Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London, Paris and Munich. Finnair operates via Helsinki on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday. Icelandair operates via Keflavik on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. All service is for Arlanda airport. For Bromma airport the best daily connection is Brussels. LA-Stockholm: First class varies $13,459 to $8,768; business class varies $11,242 to $5,700 ($4,948 with Finnair); full coach $5,412 to $3,396; 21 day apex fare $663-low season; $956-shoulder; $1,130-high; recent sale $412. No non-stop or direct service offered. Best AM connections are O'Hare and Newark. Best PM connections are London, Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam. Alternates are Munich on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday or Zurich on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.


Berns 8 Näckströmsgatan Famous for its Strindberg connections, nightlife complex and Clock Suite. Lydmar 10 Sturegatan Popular with art directors and fashion editors. The Grand 8 Sodra Blasieholmshamnen On the waterfront, this is the sumptuous sister hotel to Berns. Nordic Light 7 Vasa Plan Minimalist and modern, with rooms of all sizes. Lady Hamilton 5 Storkyrkobrinken Folk-art objets and paintings abound. Great beds. Radisson SAS Strand Hotel 9 Nybrokajen Superior business hotel with phenomenal penthouse suite. Hotell Diplomat 7c Strandvägen Family-run art nouveau luxury. Clas pA Hörnet 20 Surbrunnsgatan Antique-filled inn, putting up poets since 1731.


Gondolen 6 Stadsgarden A must. Spectacular dining in the sky. Fredsgatan 12 Fredsgatan Witty fusion food. Hit the terrace in summer. OperakällarEn Stockholm's opera house, serves modern cuisine in beautiful surroundings. Sturehof 2 Stureplan Perfect for a glass of rosé and a snack. Den Gyldene Freden 51 Osterlanggatan Owned by the Swedish Academy. You can try roast reindeer. Tranan 14 Karlsbergvägen Relaxed, lively bistro with a buzzy basement bar. Lisa Elmquist Ostermalmshallen Enjoy the fresh catch of the day amid the hubbub of the food market. Bon Lloc 111 Regeringsgatan Award-winning flavours from Matthias Dahlgren. Vassa Eggen 29 Birger Jarlsgatan Nouvelle, Swedish-style. Restaurangen 14 Oxtorgsgatan Dazzling bespoke cuisine. Lao Wai 74 Luntmakargatan Hidden away Asian fusion. Koh Phangan 57 Skänegatan Spicy food from expert chefs.


Sodra Skattkammaren, 44 Bondegatan Affordable vintage furniture. Sibyllans Kaffe & Tehandel, 35 Sibyllegatan. A wonderful tea shop. Vete-Katten, 55 Kungsgatan Boutique bakery, the "Flour Cat". Kaffekoppen, 18 Stortorget An alternative to Gamla Stan's tourist-trap cafes. Tintarella di Luna, 102 Drottninggatan Serves the best Italian coffee in town. Krabat, 79 Folkungagatan Piratewear for the young, and browsable toys. David Design, 7 Nybrogatan Super-hip design and gifts. BlAs & KnAda, 26 Hornsgatan Shop/gallery selling contemporary ceramics. Svenskt Tenn, 5 Strandvägen Design editors' favourite for classic furniture, upholstery and homewares. Vasamuseet Djurgarden Wildly popular museum: a carved wooden 17th-century ship rescued from its watery grave. Tip Top, 57 Sveavägen A chic gay disco. East, 13 Stureplan Hip hop bar with a multi-ethnic crowd. Centralbadet, 88 Drottninggatan Art nouveau baths — swim and relax. LAngholmen The island for nude swimming, sunbathing and hanging out in hot weather.


There's much more behind the rude health of Stockholm's fair sons and daughters than good DNA and a diet of herring: their home has a greater proportion of green public spaces and swimmable waters than any other major city. The biggest park, a vast hilly peninsula with paths for cycling, rollerskating and jogging (and no cars at weekends), is Djurgarden, a former king's hunting ground. It's now the site of an open-air museum, Skansen, and the Vasamuseet — home to an original 17th century warship. Dating from 1619, central Humlegarden, a lunchtime favourite of Stureplan nine-to-fivers, with an excellent children's playground, also has a royal past. To the west, on Kungsholmen, summer sunbathers dot the grassy acres of Ralambshovsparken, which has a superb little sandy beach. Such abundant city swimming may be the stuff of fantasy for many city dwellers, but late-night dips are far from uncommon among Stockholm's party set. A boat trip to one of the archipelago's uninhabited or more secluded islands will let you swim and frolic far from the crowds. East of Ostermalm, Gärdet is one of Stockholm's biggest stretches of greenery, with fields for soccer and kite-flying, woods for walking, and canals for cycling and canoeing. Fishing enthusiasts with the wit to prepare themselves (locals will tell you what's biting when and what tackle you need) will find the clean waters rewarding: the bridges by the Swedish parliament and the eastern side of the Royal Parliament are recommended spots. A 20-minute drive north will bring you to Lake Norrviken for ice-skating. Cross-country skiing in Lindingö, to the north-east, is just as accessible from the centre of town.
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