The waiter indicated to a spare table on the outdoor terrace at Fotografiska. I slipped into the chair, feet gently throbbing, and tucked the soft blanket around my legs – it may be summer in Stockholm, but as the sun fell below the horizon there was a definite nip in the air.
Sipping my cool glass of wine, I reflected on my jaunt around the city. Since beginning life as a digital nomad, I’ve tried to stay in places for a minimum of a month, preferably longer, to give myself time to really get to know a place and its people. Finances, not helped by the freefalling GBP following the disastrous Brexit vote, meant I only had a short time to spend in this notoriously pricey city when I was lured here by the TBEX travel blogging conference. But armed with a free Stockholm VIP pass courtesy of TBEX Stockholm and Visit Stockholm, plus a 72-hour transport pass, I’d spent the past 48 hours on a whistlestop tour of some of the main things to do in Stockholm.
Here are my highlights.
The Vasa Museum
The Vasa Museum played host to one of the TBEX parties, a sophisticated affair with bubbly and smoked reindeer nibbles. However, I spent the evening chatting (and lingering around the nibbles, wondering how many it was polite to eat as I’d forgone dinner for a nap), so I wanted to go back for a proper look at this unique 17th century warship.
The Vasa is a 69-metre wooden warship that sunk minutes into her maiden voyage in 1628. Miscalculations in her height and weight compared to the amount of hull beneath the water meant a gust of wind blew her off balance, water poured in her lower gun ports, and within minutes she’d sunk 32 metres to the seabed. Here she remained for 333 years, until she was salvaged, excavated and restored to her former glory. The ship we see today is 95% original, thanks to unique conditions in Stockholm harbour that preserved the wood from decay.
There are several exhibitions around the ship, including how she was built, life on board, the imagery used on her wooden sculptures, the people who shared her watery grave, and the salvage and reconstruction effort. All are fascinating, but nothing beats standing next to her, marvelling at her beauty and powerful sculptures, and feeling the weight of her history. It’s not the most popular museum in Scandinavia without reason.
ABBA The Museum
Ah, ABBA! Sweden’s most famous pop group has its own museum in Djurgården, one of Stockholm’s islands. It has everything you might expect – costumes, record covers, gold records, musical instruments, history, lyrics, memorabilia, reconstructions of music studios and dressing areas – and a whole lot more besides.
But the icing on the cake is that ABBA The Museum is a fully interactive affair where you can indulge your inner dancing queen!
Record your own ABBA tune, dance on stage alongside holograms of ABBA, sit at the controls of the ABBA helicopter from the cover of the Arrival album, and shake your booty on the ABBA dance floor, complete with giant glitterballs and flashing, neon floor. It’s expensive – I was lucky enough to visit as part of a private TBEX party – but it is a lot of fun. A word of warning though: you’ll be singing ABBA songs for days afterwards…
Gamla Stan, the Old Town, is the historic heart of Stockholm, and is where the city was founded in 1252. It’s one of Europe’s most beautiful and well-preserved medieval city centres, and it’s a photographer’s dream, brimming with narrow cobblestone streets and colourful houses.
I joined a guided tour to make the most of my short time here, which was a great move. Sure, our guide pointed out the main attractions, such as the Royal Palace, Nobel Museum, and German Church, bringing them to life with interesting little stories. But she also pointed out a few things I may otherwise have walked straight past, such as the cannonball lodged in the wall at the corner of Stortorget, the oldest square; the Viking rune stone in the corner of a wall, protected by a cannon; and Mårten Trotzigs Gränd, the narrowest alley in Gamla Stan – just 90 centimetres at its thinnest point.
However, my favourite thing in Gamla Stan was Järnpojke, the little boy who looks at the moon. This tiny statue sits in the corner of a small public space at the back of the Finnish Church, and stands a mere 15 centimetres tall. Inspired by the artist’s sleepless nights as a child, the young boy is a picture of vulnerability, his arms wrapped around his legs and back gently hunched, as his face tilts wistfully to the sky. The shine on his head indicates the wishes of passers-by who whisper silent prayers, and often you’ll find little gifts, such as money, food, or weather-related items – a knitted hat and scarf for warmth, or waterproof for a rainy day.
Before leaving Gamla Stan, I was enticed into a new coffee shop, Coffeestop, by a sign promising crispy waffles, cream and marshmallows (I mean, who can walk past that?). So I left the Old Town enriched by stories and fortified by sweet delights.
For a city built on 14 islands, it’s little wonder that Stockholm has an intrinsic connection to the sea. So if you really want to get to know this city, you need to get on the water.
I took two boat trips: one a tour around the main city, but my favourite took me into the inner archipelago, where I got to experience a little of Stockholm’s pristine nature. The boat trip itself was a mixed experience. It was the height of summer and a beautiful day, so the boat was packed to the gills and everybody wanted to be outside enjoying the sunshine. By the time I boarded, all the seats on deck were gone and I had jostle for position by the railings for a decent view and a good photography spot, and then stand my ground. Unfortunately I found a spot on the left and, despite the guide trying to point things out on both sides, the best views were on the right where the boat was closest to land. If you take this trip, buy a ticket early and head for the right-hand side of the boat!
Despite this, the trip was stunning. For two and half hours, we chugged past wooded islands, small sandy beaches, little coves with colourful summerhouses, rocky cliffs, and tiny islands with a single house. And we shared the water with a number of yachts and boats, with locals and tourists making the most of the Swedish summer. I yearned to get off the boat and dig deeper in those tiny communities and explore the wilderness on some of the islands – it definitely whet my appetite for a return trip.
Fotografiska is a contemporary centre for photography with several exhibition halls in a stunning location on the waterside looking over Gamla Stan and the islands of Skeppsholmen and Djurgården.
I enjoyed the entire museum, but two exhibitions really stood out. My favourite was Nick Brandt’s Inherit the Dust, a monologue of man’s destruction of modern Africa. The exhibition is a series of photos of life-sized portraits of Africa’s wildlife that he’d taken only a few years previously, placed in the same landscapes that have today been annihilated beyond recognition. The message hits home, hard. (I was so engrossed that I took no photos of my own.)
The other standout for me was a total surprise. I wasn’t aware of Brian Adams’ career as a photographer, and celebrity portraits don’t usually do much for me. But his portraits of celebrities showed a connection and vulnerability often lost as stars inevitably let their guard down in the presence of somebody who understands the pressures of celebrity life. Tagged on the end were a series of photos Adams took of soldiers maimed by war, which were sensitively shot and, at times, profoundly shocking.
And it was at Fotografiska I found myself at the end of my brief tour. Eating there was a bit of a splurge. Was it worth it? You bet it was!
The Fotografiska Bistro is the brainchild of Swedish celebrity chef Paul Svensson, and it focuses on green seasonal dishes. It’s not solely vegetarian, but greens takes centre stage, with meat or fish served only as a side dish or flavour complement in the main dish.
The menu is divided into cold, warm and sweet, and you can order and mix the dishes as you wish, each costing 125 SEK. I went straight for the warm dish, choosing grilled baby leeks in smoked sour cream and honey, with a piece of belly pork as a side dish that melted in my mouth and was a perfect companion to the smoky leeks. For dessert I chose rhubarb crumble, topped with mascarpone and meringue, which set my taste buds dancing in delight.
Yes, it was way over of my usual budget – hence I nursed my £11 glass of wine throughout the entire meal – but indulging in local food and drink is one of my travel pleasures, and I’d only sampled a fraction of the delights on offer in Stockholm. Fotografiska has an amazing reputation for food, so I savoured every mouthful, lingered over each drop of wine, and simply enjoyed the moment.
When I could linger no more, I reluctantly untangled myself from the cosy blanket and wandered off to watch the sunset over Gamla Stan. As I stood there, my mind was already planning when I could return to explore the pristine nature of this green country and sample more of its culinary delights.
Accommodation can be expensive in Stockholm. I found an awesome Airbnb with an arty, musical family who were amazing hosts, so there are bargains to be found if you look around. (If you haven’t used Airbnb before, sign up via my link for a discount off your first stay.) Alternatively, see Agoda for the latest hotel prices, and check TripAdvisor for the latest accommodation reviews.
Have you been to Stockholm? What were your favourite things to do? Do you have any suggestions for places I should visit on my return? I’d love to hear your thoughts…