s the warm summer sun shines over Stockholm, the crisp breeze is a subtle reminder that autumn is not far away. For now though, as the sunlight glints off the day-tripping boats lining the harbor, and the blonde and beautiful continue to pack the capital’s outdoor cafés, it is still summertime in Sweden.
Yet there is a sense of urgency in the air as the daylight hours grow shorter in the inevitable march toward the gloomy darkness of winter. In a city where there are 18 hours of sunshine at the peak of summer, but only six hours of daylight in the dead of winter, the need to soak up every last ray of sun is palpable.
When my husband and I arrived in mid-August, the daylight had already waned to a mere 14 hours a day. The summers here are short, but intense, and there were just a few weeks left before the seasons turned.
Thinking of our friends and neighbors back home in Italy, baking themselves orange on our beautiful Ligurian beaches, I pulled my grey cashmere sweater tightly around my body and stepped onto one of the many white steamer boats headed for Stockholm’s archipelago.
More than 10,000 islands stretch 80 kilometers east of the city, so visitors looking to get out of town — by ferry or, for the lucky few, on private boats — the options are virtually endless. Granted, most of the islands are uninhabited and inaccessible by ferry. But that simply adds to the enchantment of cruising past the moss-covered rocks jutting out of the navy blue waters and spotting the occasional red wooden cottage hiding behind the craggy pine trees.
Only 25 minutes from the city by ferry, the island of Fjäderholmarna is the first stop in the archipelago and an easy day-trip from Stockholm. While the exhibits and handicraft shops cater primarily to socks-with-sandals tourists, the waterside restaurants and cafés draw in every type of visitor with fantastic views out over the pristine water. But our plan for lunch is to pop into the take-away café to stock up for a picnic. On the far side of the small island, a swimming hole dares bathers into the frigid dark blue water.
Nearby, picnic baskets and Carlsberg beer bottles litter the towels and blankets laid out in the grass and on the sun-warmed rocks where families mix with tanned day-trippers from Stockholm. After an idyllic afternoon lazed away by the water, we wait for the boat back to town at a harborside café while drinking cold Carlsbergs of our own in the waning sunshine.
As our ferry glides back toward Stockholm, we mull over the evening’s possibilities. When night finally falls in this city that spans 14 islands, there are really only two neighborhoods that matter: Södermalm and Stureplan. So when the boat docks in front of the stately waterfront mansions of Gamla Stan (or “Old Town”), we have a choice of either north or south. The narrow cobblestone streets of Gamla Stan remain the heart of the city, and the place to find hordes of bumbling tourists and kitchy souvenirs.
But the islands that radiate around Gamla Stan have each cultivated distinct, and far more interesting, personalities. To the south lies Södermalm, a former blue-collar neighborhood that has evolved into the epicenter of cool, populated by trendy boutiques, hip bars and cafés, and all manner of stylish hot spots. To the north lie the island of Östermalm and its refined-chic neighborhood of Stureplan. Home to Stockholm’s finest shopping, see-and-be-seen nightclubs and top-notch restaurants, Stureplan is not for amateurs.
We’ll start in Södermalm.
On the busy multi-level concrete bridge linking Gamla Stan to Södermalm, we pause to watch the trains rumble northward far below our feet. Then merging back into the southbound stream of pedestrians, bicycles and cars, we start making our way up the formidable hill of Götgatan. We’re meeting some friends for drinks, and since the sun is still shining, we naturally must sit outdoors to enjoy it.
The main, quasi-pedestrian street Götgatan eventually levels out and feeds into Medborgarplatsen, an expansive Berlin-esque square lined with outdoor cafés teeming with sun-hungry Swedes. In an area reminiscent of Park Slope in Brooklyn or Nine Streets in Amsterdam, you’re just as likely to find cool mommies pushing their Baby Björns as young Swedish fashionisti dressed in trendy H&M jackets and skinny Acne jeans.
Swedish designers have enjoyed considerable success internationally, and Södermalm is the best place to find the next big thing. The cult brand Cheap Monday has a store, Weekday, on Götgatan where they sell their own inexpensive jeans (just 400 Swedish kronor or SEK, or about €42 at 9.4 SEK to the euro) along with other popular, though considerably less cheap Swedish clothing brands, like Acne and Nakkna. The store’s in-house DJ spins from a nook near the stairs while you shop, so you know the clothes have got to be cool.
Other innovative boutiques that stock emerging designers are tucked away on the side streets that branch off of Götgatan, particularly south of Folkungsgatan (or SoFo, for those who insist on giving everything a New York-inspired nickname). But shops here close early — usually by 6 p.m. — so we instead climb one of the steep side streets up to Mosebacke, where the outdoor bar has a relaxed beer garden atmosphere. Perched high above the rest of the city, the fresh air and view overlooking the water and Gamla Stan from the far tables are worth the steep drink prices.
Indeed, Stockholm is an expensive city. And with the krona strong against the euro, it makes things seem even more expensive. When the cheapest glass of wine at dinner was roughly €9, I finally balked. Coming from the land of inexpensive, high-quality wine, we decided to slip out of the city for a few days and give our wallets a well-deserved break.
Forty minutes and 62 SEK later, we stepped off the train in my favorite of all Swedish cities, Uppsala.
In the interest of full disclosure, my husband and I met in Uppsala and my mother grew up there, so my ties run deep. Nevertheless, it’s a terrific town to visit in its own right, especially for those still young enough to pass themselves off as students. And the fact that Swedes typically drag out their university education means that anyone under 30 can usually pull this off.
About 70 kilometers north of Stockholm, Uppsala is a university town marked by a majestic, red brick cathedral with towering black spires; a pink (yes, pink) castle on a hill; and the orderly, green Linnéträdgården (the garden of Carl Linneus). Beyond the slow-moving Fyris river, which flows through the center of town and winds past the tranquil city park, lie the university and the splendid mansions of the student nations. The nations, unique to Uppsala, are home to all social life for those studying here — like fantastically refined, co-ed fraternity houses minus the binge drinking and hazing.
Each of the 13 nations house student restaurants, bars and cafés, and regularly hold party nights. The food and drink is as good as at any of the riverside restaurants, but costs half as much. Thus, the allure of Uppsala is revealed. The caveat, of course, is that only students can enter, and guards check IDs at the door. Weekly guest cards that permit entry, however, can be bought for only 60 SEK from the Student Center. Now the difficult part is deciding where to go.
Only a handful of nations stay open during the summer, which makes choosing much easier. On the roof-top patio at V-Dala (Västmanlands-Dala nation), tasty burgers are served with special sauce and crispy fries. There are even fleece blankets to keep you warm as you enjoy drinks outside late into the chilly evenings. Two blocks away, Snerikes (Södermanland-Nerikes nation) is the summertime hot spot with club nights on Tuesday and Friday.
Get in early and enjoy dinner first — a tasty grilled salmon with pesto, potatoes and a dill cream sauce was on offer when we arrived — and avoid the cover charge that kicks in at 9 p.m. Early birds will also snag a coveted table on the expansive wooden outdoor terrace, the best place from which to watch the evening unfold. Inside, DJs spin under the grand spiral staircase leading up to the second floor of revelry where the dancing heats up around midnight. For a quieter evening, the garden at GH (Gästrike-Hälsinge nation) has the best menu in town and quality beers for just 29 SEK.
During the day, fika culture rules this small town. “Fika” is Swedish for “coffee-break,” but Swedes don’t slurp down an espresso while standing at a bar Italian-style. Fika is a chance to catch up with friends and warm up from the often freezing temperatures outside. In the summer, fika can be taken outside and the coffee is likely iced, but one thing remains the same: the sweets.
Scandinavians have a knack for baking — perhaps it’s all the hours cooped up inside during the long, cold winters. The variety of cinnamon rolls, cakes, pies, chocolates and sweet buns is unparalleled — and very difficult to choose from. My husband sticks with a reliable, Swedish classic: prinsesstårta, or princess cake. This light white cake, layered with thick vanilla cream and fresh whipped cream, is covered with a thin layer of light green marzipan and topped with a dusting of powdered sugar.
I usually waver between a chokladboll — a heavenly chocolate ball rolled in coconut flakes — or a traditional bulle — similar to a creatively-shaped cinnamon roll, but with different, less gooey fillings. Any café in Sweden will have these treats lined up on a sparkling glass counter, but the best spot to indulge in Uppsala is the café Storken. It’s tucked in a corner of the main square, Stora Torget, up a flight of stairs from the bustle on the street.
Fika at Storken is like relaxing in your eccentric grandmother’s living room — complete with faded wallpaper — on charmingly mismatched antique furniture beneath dusty chandeliers, with the coolest kids in town and the most delicious sweets imaginable. I think I would move in, if I could, and live on their warm apple cake with vanilla sauce. There’s even a smoking room – rare in smoke-free Sweden – and a small rooftop patio that’s open on sunny days.
After a few heady days in Uppsala, the big city beckons once again. Exiting Stockholm’s Central train station, a wide boulevard ushers visitors past one of many H&M stores, two grand department stores and one enormous shopping mall, before finally depositing them in the lovely public park, Kungsträdgården. After a not-so-brief detour in the upscale department store NK, Stockholm’s answer to Paris’ Galeries Lafayette, we tumble out into the busy street in desperate need of a rest and some fika. So we head to a charming outdoor café on the south end of the park — an ideal location for people-watching — to take our first fika of the day.
After several sweets and some saft — a light fruit drink made from berries – we’re ready to ditch the camera-toting tourists flocking to the nearby Royal Palace and Parliament Building.
After a long stroll down Strandvägen, Stockholm’s most sought after address — and home to celebrities like Tiger Woods and his Swedish wife, Elin — we cross the bridge to Djurgården, the city’s green island. Djurgården is an oasis — a calm, more refined version of Central Park — though it does house a few tourist attractions of its own. Skansen, the world’s first open-air museum, gives visitors a taste of Sweden past, while Gröna Lund is a second-rate amusement park with rides that continually threaten to fling riders into the harbor. We instead wander inland to find the island’s hidden treasure, Rosendahl’s Kafé, which is set beside its own lush garden, Rosendahl’s Trädgård. The café serves lunch in a cozy greenhouse, while the outdoor seating is serviced by a bar with excellent sandwiches, fika treats and drinks. Surrounded by fragrant gardens, green grass and shady birch trees, we while away the entire afternoon with some rosé wine and Åbro beer, enjoying the peaceful setting.
Come evening, it’s time to finally go big, and in Stockholm, that means Stureplan. Along with Stockholm’s young and beautiful, who seem remarkably more beautiful than the average city’s young and beautiful, we sit down to dinner at East. Although Italian cuisine is delicious, sometimes a girl just needs some good sushi. And at home, in small town Italy, that has been impossible to find.
Once we’re under East’s red awning, though, we’re in sushi heaven and never want to leave. Across the street is Sturehof — Stockholm’s most famous see-and-be-seen restaurant — and Sturegallerian — Stockholm’s most chichi shopping mall. Around the corner is Louis Vuitton, Versace, Mulberry, and Orrefors-Kosta Boda — Stockholm’s Fifth Avenue, or so they like to say. After dinner, Stureplan offers one über-designed hot-spot after another in which to dance the night away. Sturecompagniet and Spy Bar are just two such establishments with sky-high drink prices and dance floors packed with stunning blondes. Some might argue that the chance to party with the world’s most beautiful people is worth the price. I’m not so sure.
Wandering home in the dim light of the early morning as a light rain begins to fall, the tranquility of the city is striking. Back in bed, I hear nothing but the raindrops gently tapping against the window. No dogs barking or neighbors yelling to one another. No motorini tearing down the road, engines screaming. No noxious fumes from yet another backyard brush fire. And for a few hours, I have the best sleep I’ve had in months. But soon the sun is up again, and one more beautiful summer day in Sweden has begun.
Low-cost carrier Sterling flies direct to Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport from Florence, Milan, Rome and Naples. Non-direct flights to Arlanda can be found on Air Berlin from Milan, and on Air Berlin, Estonian Air and GermanWings from Rome. National carriers such as Alitalia, SAS and Lufthansa fly from Italy to Arlanda, but flights often include at least one stop. In October, easyJet will begin direct flights to Arlanda from Milan.
Getting to Stockholm from Arlanda Airport couldn’t be easier. The efficient Arlanda Express train gets you to the center of Stockholm in 20 minutes for 220 SEK per person. Less expensive regional trains also run at regular intervals from the train platforms located inside the airport.
From Stockholm’s Central Station, regional trains run to Uppsala three or four times an hour, depending on the time of day.
Boats to Fjäderholmarna and other archipelago destinations depart from Slussen, Nybrokajen (at the west end of Strandvägen) and Strömkajen (below Kungsträdgården, in front of the Grand Hotel) about twice an hour and cost around 100 SEK round trip. More information and schedules (in English) can be found at www.fjaderholmarna.se.
For schedules to other archipelago destinations, check out www.waxholmsbolaget.se, which is also in English.
For information on the Uppsala student nations, including addresses, opening times, guest cards, party nights and more (also in English), visit Nationsguiden. It also has an English-language section.