First thing to say is that I really love to travel to Scandinavia. Previously I’ve visited all of the other main Scandinavian capital cities (Oslo, Reykjavik, Copenhagen and Helsinki) so I really wanted to see what Stockholm had to offer. The answer is plenty!
The city of Stockholm itself has a long and complicated history. The first evidence of the term Stockholm dates all the way back to 1252 but, as you’d expect, the area has seen a great deal of upheaval, turmoil and investment since those 13th Century days.
Today’s Stockholm is a world away from those early days. It is a clean, multi-cultural city with an abundance of things to see and do. Situated across 14 separate islands, the city has an affinity with the water. It feels like almost everywhere you go you are not too far from the next waterway or river. At the heart of Stockholm is the popular tourist destination of Gamla Stan which, as you can see below, is made famous by its multi-coloured buildings and attractive streets.
There are a few things any first time traveller should know about Stockholm – and perhaps Sweden in general – before going.
Firstly, the locals almost always speak perfect English. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to have a stab at a bit of the local language, but don’t fear; you will be understood everywhere you go.
The second thing which took my girlfriend and I by surprise slightly was that Sweden has mostly moved to being a cashless society. What does this mean in practice? Well it means that in a number of shops and restaurants, they won’t take cash for payments even if you have the exact money on you. Only credit card payments will be accepted. It’s not 100% widespread yet, but it is getting that way the more time goes on. When we travelled here, knowing the country would be expensive anyway – as many Scandinavian countries are – we took £600 worth of Swedish Krona with us; around 7,200 SEK. By the end of our three nights in Sweden we still had a rather large chunk of this money left so ended up changing it for Euros in a Bureau de Change in Gamla Stan (there are plenty to choose from).
The third thing to note is that if, like us, you travel in February to Sweden expect it to be very cold! Even if (as we had it) there is no snow or ice on the ground, the wind coming in from the water makes it a rather bitter experience whilst walking around the city’s many streets. Wrap up warm and bring gloves, scarf and hats with you. February temperatures on average range from 0.5°C to -3.9°C!
Stockholm itself, while busy, is nothing like other European cities – such as London, Paris or Rome – in terms of sheer volume of people. Home to around 975,000 residents at last count, the roads never seem too busy. In fact, as is the case in a lot of places outside of the UK, there is a greater emphasis on travelling by bicycle or tram. You stand more chance of being run down by a cyclist than you do a car!
So who would love coming to Stockholm? Well in my experience the city has a lot to offer people from all walks of life and with a wide variety of interests. Historians will get a lot from the city’s many museums. Those who enjoy the outdoors will have plenty of walking options available. People who love the water can explore this, while families will have many child-friendly activities to choose from also.
As is more often the case than not, flying is the number one way to get to Stockholm. However, the main issue with travelling to Stockholm by air is that none of the four airports that service the city are anywhere near the capital itself!
The closest is Bromma Airport, which is actually just 10km outside of the city. Yet it doesn’t have direct flights to it from the UK. The other three do. Stockholm Arlanda sits 42km outside the city, Stockholm Vasteras is 103km away while Stockholm Skavsta is 106km away. My luck saw me come into the latter of these.
Given its relative closeness to the UK, there are an abundance of flight providers leaving all the major London airports for the variety of the Stockholm airports. For my trip, my girlfriend and I flew with Ryanair from London Stansted (even taking off despite Storm Dennis’ best efforts) landing at Stockholm Skavska.
As always with Ryanair, and indeed all budget airlines, it was a no-thrills flight. Flight time was recorded at just under two hours on the way there and around two and a quarter hours on the return journey.
Aside from how close Sweden is to the UK, the other positive for this trip is that, flight-wise, it’s not going to break the bank. For our trip, including priority tickets on Ryanair, for two people, we paid just £149.96 which proved great value.
Once you arrive in Sweden the next major issue is how do you get from the airport to the city centre. As mentioned, the airport is a long way from the city. So unless you have money to burn, a taxi or an Uber are not going to be cost effective. I’d suggest, therefore, that the best form of transport is the shuttlebus service run by Flygbussarna.
This service you can book before you leave the UK. Booking a return journey, your ticket is valid for three months from the date of sale. This means that if you buy your ticket on 1 January then it is valid until 31 March. Obviously this is for just one use each way. It’s really affordable too. For two return trips, we paid just 636 SEK – about £50.
It’s easy to locate also. The bus is parked just outside the airport arrivals door at Skavska (assume this is the case at other Stockholm airports too) and is clearly branded. The journey time from the airport is around one and a half hours so make sure you bring a good book to read with you or download some TV shows for the journey. Once in Stockholm the bus will drop all its passengers at Stockholm Centralstation.
Where to stay
During our stay in Stockholm, my girlfriend and I decided to opt for the four-star Mornington Hotel in the quiet Ostermalm district of the city centre. The hotel offers a variety of affordable rooms, ranging from normal and superior all the way up to executive-style rooms and suites. For this, and to keep it affordable (as I’ve mentioned Sweden is not a cheap country) we stuck with the normal room.
This quaint hotel has one thing in abundance. Books! From the moment you step through the revolving door you are welcomed by rows and rows of books – floor to ceiling. And this is just the reception area!
Check-in is extremely easy. In fact a few days before I travelled to the city, I was able to check in online meaning that when I turned up we simply gave our name and two room keys were quickly provided.
Rooms are spread across a number of floors and while we were only on the second, I don’t believe you are really staying in the hotel for the views it affords as you are primarily surrounded by average buildings and apartment blocks.
The room we stayed in was perfectly good. A very comfortable double bed welcomed you into the living space and a powerful warming shower was just what the doctor ordered after a day of travelling around. It was also nice to see that the Mornington Hotel provides tea and coffee for guests in the room as this isn’t always the case when you travel outside of the UK.
As part of our deal with the hotel, breakfast was provided. Each morning there was a plentiful selection of food available ranging from cereals, cheeses and meats to boiled eggs and pancakes. Teas, coffees and a selection of fruit juices are also available to quench your morning thirst.
Check-out is also as easy as check-in. During our final night at the hotel I was emailed my final invoice and when it came time to leave we simply gave our room number, handed over the keys and asked the hotel staff to hold onto our bags until we collected them later in the day. Perfect.
Getting around in Stockholm is relatively easy. While the city is quite large in size – and split across numerous islands – walking around it is simple and enjoyable.
The advantages of walking to your next location are that you get both the fresh air and also see the many beautiful buildings along the way that you’d otherwise miss by going underground. On the whole, the furthest my girlfriend and I had to walk between attractions was around 3km and this took about 30 to 45 minutes to do. Remember, that Stockholm, on the whole, is a pretty flat city.
However for those who may not want to walk, or for those with mobility issues, then the Stockholm Metro is a good – if expensive – option to take.
The Stockholm Metro is made up of seven lines and serviced by a modern fleet of trains. Some of the stations also – such as Radhuset Station – are spectacular in their design given the exposed bedrock making up the open caverns. If you get the chance to stop by one of these stations, then miss a train or two just to have a look around.
There are two types of tickets you can buy for the metro. The first is the adult single journey ticket, which costs 37 SEK (or about £3), and gives the user 75 minutes unlimited access to the whole of the metro network. However, once your 75 minutes is up, you’d need to buy a new ticket to travel again.
The other option is to buy a Travelcard. A 24-hour adult Travelcard costs 155 SEK (around £13) and gets you unlimited travel on the metro and throughout the country for the duration of the ticket. You can also buy 72-hour tickets and seven day tickets for 310 SEK (£25) and 405 (£32) SEK respectively. This is the best option for those who plan to travel around a lot on public transport during their stays.
A final option – albeit one we didn’t use given the time of year we were in Stockholm – is via water-ferry. When the sun is out in the summer, going out onto the water may be a lot more appealing than when it is cold and wet in winter. However, for those who would be interested to look into this further more details can be found at Visit Stockholm.
The beauty of Stockholm is that there is plenty to see and do and a lot of it can be done within a very short space of time. One of the first stops to make in Stockholm is to the central Gamla Stan region. This area is effectively the Old Town and is where you’ll see the famous multi-coloured buildings views that are synonymous with the city.
Made up of a variety of winding alleyways and quaint squares, Gamla Stan sits primarily on the island of Stadsholmen and dates back the the 13th century. While it may have lost something of the fairy-tale postcard scene thanks to the various tourist shops and Burger King-style eateries that have popped up, the essence of the city remains largely here. Make sure you visit Stortorget (or the Grand Square) for those fabulous picture opportunities in front of the colourful houses. This is also the scene of one of the bloodiest parts of Swedish history which, in part, inspired George R. R. Martin to write the Red Wedding scene in the A Song of Ice and Fire books; adapted to TV’s Game of Thrones. Read more about the Stockholm Bloodbath. Also make sure you pay the area a visit at night to check out the buildings all lit up.
The next stop in Stockholm should also be a historical one. The Vasa Museum. This museum located on the island of Djurgarden and displays the only fully intact 17th Century ship that has been salvaged; the Vasa. The history of the Vasa is equally comedic as it is tragic. Having set sail in 1628, she sunk some 1,500m after leaving port when a gust of wind filled her sails and toppled, what would have been, the pride of the Swedish fleet.
Despite being relatively close to land, some 30 people are thought to have died during the sinking; many of which were trapped within the confines of the ship itself. In fact some 15 remains have been recovered and are on show at the museum.
What’s impressive here is that the Vasa spent the best part of over 300 years underwater after she sank and fortunately, due to the conditions in the waters around Stockholm, she did not rot and was salvaged almost intact in the 1950s. Since then much restoration work has taken place and since 1990 members of the public have been able to view the Vasa in full inside this impressive museum.
The ship itself is the main draw of the museum and sits proudly in centre spot. Visitors can go from floor to floor (albeit not on-board the ship) to see the Vasa from all angles and get an impressive view on the sheer size and beauty of the design. There is plenty of information available around the museum and a trip here is well worth a few hours of anyone’s time.
Tickets for the museum are easy to buy. You can either buy them in person at the entrance of the museum or purchase them online in advance. Again similar to the bus tickets, you don’t buy the ticket for a specific day. Instead you have three months from the date of purchase to use the ticket. Tickets cost 150 SEK per person – approximately £12.
A great way I find to see a good part of a new city is to sign up for a free walking tour. These days most cities have at least one option for such a tour and Stockholm is no except to this. Having read through a few suggestions online I came across one that looked really good; Free Walking Tour Stockholm.
This very helpful independent company operates the same way that all free walking tours operate. You meet the tour at a set location – for this one it’s outside Gamla Stan metro station – and look for the guides holding the company’s logo. They are very easy to spot. They also operate in all weather conditions so don’t worry if it’s raining, they will still be walking the tour.
When my girlfriend and I took part we were met by three guides. The first was taking a Spanish language tour around the Old Town. While I have very basic Spanish I didn’t feel I was ready for this one just yet! The other two guides were taking English language tours. The first around the new town and the second around the old town. We opted for the latter.
It’s worth noting that they host tours twice a day; at 10am and and 1pm. Both meeting at the same spot outside of Gamla Stan metro station. However, if you want to do the new town city tour, then that one ONLY leaves at 10am.
The tour itself is really informative and you get to see a large number of local sites within an hour and a half. Our guide – Alex – born and bred in Oxford, England, was a wealth of knowledge and made the time fly by despite the cold winds. He was entertaining and clearly loves the city itself. The old town tour focuses entirely within Gamla Stan but while you may have already walked the streets yourself, this tour puts context to what you were seeing.
Once the tour is complete (it finishes in the famous Stortorget) visitors pay what they feel the tour is worth or what they can afford. 50% of this money goes to the guides, the remaining, we were told, goes towards promoting the company. There really is no pressure to put huge amounts of money in.
If like us, you want to relax a bit during your trip then finding a spa within Stockholm is a great way to do this. We followed our walking tour of the city with a 30 minute trek north to Centralbadet in the Norrmalm region of Stockholm.
First thing to note here is that the spa itself is a bit tricky to spot. There are few signs showing there is something there and you only really notice it when you observe the building design.
Once inside you have a variety of options at your disposal. Entrance to the Spa as part of the ‘Relax’ package (which includes use of the swimming pool, gym, saunas, steam room, thermal baths and cold pool – alongside a robe, slippers and towel) costs 410 SEK per person (around £33).
The next step up from this is the ‘Revive’ package which also includes a meal in the Ecobaren restaurant. This costs 530 SEK per person (or around £43). This was the package we went with.
It’s worth noting that this is a mixed spa. That means men and women share the facility. Changing areas are kept separate however, and there is also a women’s only sauna to use. It’s also worth noting that in the sauna and steam room areas bathing costumes are not permitted, so men and women must only wear the towels provided. For those with a more prudish persona this may feel slightly odd, but believe me, you get used to it pretty quickly and no one gives this a second thought once they are in.
Make sure you experience all the difference saunas and steam rooms. These range in heat and intensity and you feel extremely relaxed inside the quiet rooms. Afterwards, take a plunge in the cold pool if you can bear it. I managed to totally submerge myself under the near freezing water for a brief second although my girlfriend didn’t quite brave it that far.
After the cold make sure you get in the Jacuzzi and warm up. This is possibly the nicest feeling within the whole spa.
Lunch at the restaurant is pleasant. You get the choice of three options – one of which is almost vegan. I went with a fish option while my girlfriend chose the vegan one. I think she made the right choice, as hers was a buffet style plate meaning she could get as much as she wanted from the off and have a dessert as well! Can’t say I was jealous at all.
Also make sure you give yourself time to spend in the complexes impressive swimming pool. This beautiful room centred around the pool has a number of beach-hut style seating areas and a couple of hammocks upstairs also. I’d imagine in prime periods this area can get extremely busy. When I was there in February however, there was plenty of room. Worth emailing the spa in advance of your planned trip to see when the best time of day would be to visit.
Back in the city itself, and if like me you are after an amazing view then perhaps the best option currently is to take a bit of a walk – through Gamla Stan and out the other side – to the Katarina Elevator (or Katarina Hissen).
This elevator connects the lower Slussen area with the upper heights of Södermalm. While the elevator itself has not been operating since 2010 due to a ‘lack of security’, you can still get to the top by taking the stairs behind the construction and walking along the walkway. Don’t worry, it’s all perfectly safe and legal. The Swedish authorities appear to be doing a great deal of construction work in the area (as of early 2020) so perhaps this may bring the elevator back into action in the future.
The final must see is a personal love of mine. The escape room. For those not familiar with this craze, your team (usually between two and six people) have one hour to solve all the puzzles in the room and escape; completing whatever story you have taken part in. Trust me, it’s great fun.
After much research I booked us into Escape Stories. This escape room has four themed rooms at the time of writing. The Last Manuscript, The Break In, The Cover Up and The Da Vinci Quest. We went for The Last Manuscript at a cost of 750 SEK for two people (around £60).
The game hosts are enthusiastic and run you through the rules of the room as well as give you the backstory to your particular quest. Unlike some rooms I’ve previously done, Escape Stories doesn’t limit the number of clues you can ask for, nor does it penalise you for asking for them. They are concentrating on ensuring that players have the best time possible and give them the greatest opportunity to escape. How much help and assistance you want it totally down to you as a team.
I won’t give too much away – as I’m sure Escape Stories won’t thank me for giving all its secrets away here – but it’s safe to say all is not as it seems in the room so really explore hard as some clues are rather tricky to find. Just for the record, we escaped the room in 46 minutes.
Where to avoid
The beauty of Stockholm is that it’s both a very safe city and very clean. There are really no obvious areas to avoid in terms of safety; although, as in all cities, its best to keep a clear view on your belongings as pickpockets do exists. Annoying, but just be sensible.
If, like me, you travel here in the winter months, then it may be your preference to avoid water-based activities as it is likely to be rather cold. However, for those brave enough to go out onto one of the many Stockholm waterways then options and ferryboat services are available. For me though, there was little fun to be had on a boat with the freezing wind blowing.
And while not one to avoid as such, if you do travel to Stockholm in the winter then the city’s exciting looking amusement park Grona Lund is always closed. It’s just too cold for them to open and expect people to visit. This is very much a summer excursion and should I ever be in Stockholm in the summer then I’m sure I’d pay it a visit.
The only other attraction that my girlfriend and I avoided at all costs – which may actually attract others to its doors – is the ABBA Museum. This shrine to the music of Sweden’s (arguably) biggest export allows visitors to get up close and personal with their heroes and even become part of the band in a holographic experience. For me however, this sounded like my idea of hell. Needless to say we avoided it.
Great places to eat
First thing to note about Stockholm – as is the case in most of Scandinavia – is that both food, and especially alcohol (a pint of beer can cost around £10), are pretty expensive. That being said it is possible to get great quality food at reasonable prices.
Sweden has some wonderful food on its books. During a stay here it’s always advisable to source out some of the local meats – including reindeer, wild boar and moose – while those looking for something a bit more varied can enjoy a smorgasbord; a type of meal served buffet-style containing a variety of hot and cold plates.
For the benefit of this blog, I’m looking at two great mid-range (price-wise) restaurants that I believe should be on all travellers must-visit stops during a stay in Sweden. By mid-range I’m talking about a full three course meal for two including a round of drinks to come to between £80 and £100 (between 1,100 and 1,500 SEK)
The first of these is the Knut Bar – a wonderful little bar and restaurant in the heart of Stockholm city. This neatly designed small restaurant produces a beautiful array of local food and catches some of the prime tastes of Swedish cuisine.
The service here is also superb. The waiters are very attentive but also give you space to enjoy your meal and the company you are in. Most seats at Knut Bar also have cushions and blankets provided for extra comfort and for those cold winter nights.
Food-wise my personal favourites here were the aptly-named Plate from the North – a smorgasbord style dish including moose sausage, rainbow trout tartare and smoked wild boar amongst other dishes followed by the beautifully cooked grilled reindeer roasted beef. For desert make sure you don’t miss the light and airy orange saffron cake with vanilla cream.
The next stop for any seasoned food-loving traveller in Stockholm should be Brinken. Top tip here is book a table in advance. It’s a small restaurant with limited seating allowing for an intimate setting. When my girlfriend and I arrived at the restaurant (having booked a table) the lady in front of us was turned away saying they had no availability until the Wednesday night – and it was Sunday when we went in!
Once you are seated however, you can expect a delightful culinary experience. With tables located in the L-shaped room around the small, but active, kitchen, you get right into the heart of the food-making process.
Similar to Knut Bar, Brinken has a small, but well thought-out, menu covering a variety of Swedish tastes.
A good starter option here is the smoked deer in horseradish cream; although the more adventurous amongst you could opt for the pickled herring with egg and anchovy salad. The main courses continue the Swedish theme and the age-old Swedish meatballs make a welcome appearance on the menu, although, if I were you, I’d plump for the wild meat sausage served with caramelised onions or even the Brinken slow-cooked wild boar.
Delving into the deserts, it’s easy to get seduced by the chocolate lava cake but I’d suggest you also pay attention to the seasonal pie served with vanilla cream. This, from my experience, was well worth missing my chocolate fix for.