As part of my 40th birthday celebration in Northern Europe, I included a brief weekend stay in a city I had long wanted to visit, Stockholm. I knew that it wouldn’t be nearly enough time to really experience the city, but I wanted to at least visit to get a sense of it and to frankly see whether or not I even liked it. Almost right away though I knew that Stockholm was something special, and I found myself falling in love with this colorful city. We only had a weekend though and so we had to use our time efficiently in order to see and do as much as possible while still having fun. I thought I’d share a few of those weekend highlights so that if you find yourself in Stockholm for only a few days you too can experience the best that this gorgeous and lively city has to offer.
Stay in relaxed luxury
Hotels are important to me when I travel and I’m always looking for the latest and greatest when it comes to luxury travel. So when I learned about the top rated hotel in Stockholm and it was a name I didn’t recognize I was intrigued. But that’s kind of how the folks at the like it, flying under the radar in a relaxed but elegant way. In Swedish “ett hem” means at home, and that’s exactly what the experience of staying with this superb hotel is really like. Housed in a former mansion, Ett Hem features just 12 luxuriously appointed rooms in a curious mix of hotel and B&B that combines the best elements of both styles of accommodation. Thanks to the limited number of rooms, it’s hard not to feel special staying there as a guest. Where the staff almost outnumbers clientele, the experience feels special, as if it were hand crafted for you personally. Inside, the house is light and airy, well designed but also homey. In the winter the roaring fire is a perfect spot to curl up next to, book in hand and coffee by the side. Almost immediately I knew it was a place where I wanted to spend time, instead of a hotel that is only a place to relax in the evenings. In addition to the beautiful rooms, Ett Hem is also well known locally for its restaurant, where hotel guests have special privileges to enjoy the best the kitchen serves, no matter the time of day. The Ett Hem Hotel isn’t your normal luxury experience; it’s something much better. The property takes all of the great qualities of a larger hotel and highlights them in a smaller, more intimate package. I can think of no better place in Stockholm as the launching pad for a luxury weekend than this outstanding property.
Walk through Gamla Stan
As an American, I feel especially compelled to visit the old historic districts of European cities I visit. I just love the old buildings, colorful squares, cobblestone streets and special ambience that only a centuries old neighborhood can provide. In Stockholm, this important link to the past is found in the popular Gamla Stan neighborhood. Stockholm of course has an excellent public transportation system, I’d expect nothing less from a Scandinavian capital, and it’s easy to reach Gamla Stan by train. Gamble Stan is a popular tourist destination, but with good reason. This colorful neighborhood is one of the largest and best-preserved medieval city centers in Europe, and from personal experience there’s nothing better than ambling along its lanes and narrow alleyways, trying to discover what secrets this part of town may hold. This is also where Stockholm was founded in the 13th century, making it a historically important area as well as a fun one to explore. If you want to do more than just wander and window shop, Gamla Stan is also home to the Royal Palace, Stockholm Cathedral and the Nobel Museum.
Visit as many museums as you can
I like museums, but they’re not usually the reason why I visit a new city. That being said, the museums in Stockholm actually were a major reason for my visit and one in particular was number one on my to-do list. ABBA: The Museum may not sound like one of the great museums of the world, but believe it or not I soon discovered that it’s one of the best-curated and organized museums I’ve been to in a long time. Whether or not you’re a fan of the music, I find it hard to believe anyone won’t enjoy singing along to “Mamma Mia” in a private recording booth, or dancing with holograms of the musicians themselves on stage. It’s fun, quirky and a must-do activity in Stockholm. Luckily, the ABBA Museum is within walking distance to several other great Stockholm museums including the most popular, the Vasa Museum. The museum displays the only almost fully intact 17th century ship that has ever been salvaged, the 64-gun warship Vasa that sank on her maiden voyage in 1628 and walking around the ship learning more about the era is something enjoyable for just about any age or interest. I was in Stockholm for less than two days, a travesty now that I look back at it. If I’d had the time there are many other museums I would have loved to visit, including the Transportation Museum, the Photography Museum and many more. I like museums, but they’re not normally the focal point of my trips. Stockholm is different though, the museums in town are just so interesting and varied that an entire trip could be made centered just on them.
Eat all the food
Nowadays, finding new food tours is just a normal part of my travel experience. That’s why when I had such limited time in Stockholm, I knew that a great food tour necessarily had to be a part of the trip. As with most food tours, I learned a lot about what Swedes eat and why, but I also learned a lot about the city. The Stockholm tour with was one of the best run food tours I’ve been on, led by a local food writer and cookbook author, her expertise in all things Swedish cuisine made a big difference not just in my enjoyment of the food and city, but my understanding of the culture behind it. Of the several tours offered, I opted for the Nordic Experience walk so that I could learn more about the very traditional side to Swedish cuisine. I’d traveled in Sweden before, but my foodie knowledge of the country was very limited, a deficiency in my education that was quickly corrected. From meats and cheeses to traditional Swedish meatballs, we tried a little bit of everything that afternoon. Of course my favorite Swedish food custom is Fika, that time in the afternoon when you sit down with coffee, some cake or sweets and catch up with friends. It’s a tradition that I wish more countries would adopt and is yet another reason to fall in love not just with Stockholm, but Sweden itself.
Walk around the waterfront and visit City hall
Water is an important part of life in Stockholm, it’s everywhere and experiencing it is an essential aspect of traveling there. Take a ferry ride, go on a boat tour or just walk around a few of the many waterfront areas, no matter how you do it just make sure to admire the city’s maritime side. Also be sure to visit an unlikely spot, the Stockholm City Hall. I was a little confused at first as to why all of the so-called experts listed a tour of the City Hall on every must-do list I read. It looked nice enough from the outside, but I couldn’t imagine that it would be very interesting inside. Naturally, I was wrong. While it’s still a working government office building, this is also where the annual Nobel Prize dinner is held, a major event in the city. Designed in the early 20th century, the interiors are grand and opulent, none more so than the Gold Room. Made with more than 18 million gold mosaic tiles, the glitz and glam of the room seems totally incongruous with everything I know about Sweden, and yet somehow it all works. It was a beautiful way to end my short time in Stockholm and the view of Gamla Stan from the City Hall is worth a visit in its own right.
This is how I chose to spend my brief time in Stockholm, and looking back at it I think it was the perfect first introduction. More than anything though, it was just a taste of everything this amazing city has to offer and I can’t wait to return and learn more about the Swedish capital city.