04 October 2016

Weekend in Stockholm: Things To Do, Places to Stay

Although I have a couple of five-day trips booked over the next two months, a colleague's impromptu weekend trip to Gothenburg — combined with a BA sale — spurred me into booking my own weekend trip to Sweden but to Stockholm instead. I went to Stockholm in early 2011 and, despite the weather being icy and me being ill, I really liked the city and have wanted to go back ever since. The speciality coffee scene has expanded greatly since then too and I'll be writing about some of the cafés I visited in a separate post. I'll also cover my two other favourite holiday activities — eating and shopping — in another post; today, I am writing about some of the things I did and some general travel tips.

I was in Stockholm for only 60 hours but I managed to cram a lot in. Our flight landed at Arlanda a few minutes early and because I'd travelled very light, with only a large handbag, I zipped through the airport and was on the Flygbussarna airport bus by 12.45 pm on Friday, reaching the central bus terminal by 1.30 pm. The bus was about 198 SEK return (about £18) if you book online — much cheaper than the Arlanda Express train, which gets you into the city centre in 20 minutes. It was a 15-minute walk to my hotel in Gamla Stan (the old town), about which more later, and I only stayed long enough to check in and switch over to my smaller handbag before heading back out.

The Stockholm archipelago consists of thousands of islands of varying sizes, connected by bridges or, in some cases, by boat. Gamla Stan is pretty, quaint and very popular with tourists. I usually prefer to stay in quieter, cooler neighbourhoods — close to where the most promising coffee shops are located — but booking my hotel so late limited my choices and Gamla Stan has the benefit of being a 15-minute walk from both the shops and cafés of Norrmalm to the north and the hipster paradise that is Södermalm to the south.

Stockholm has an excellent public transport system and you can get one-day and three-day passes transport passes known as SL cards. However, these are quite pricey and because a) the weather was so beautiful and b) I like walking, I didn't use public transport at all. The city centre is quite compact anyway, so although my feet were a little achey after pounding 13 miles worth of pavements each day, I have no regrets. If you think you will take the Tunnelbana (metro), buses or boats a few times a day, it may be worth buying an SL card.

My first destination on Friday afternoon was to Södermalm. I had a couple of coffee shops on my list (you'll know which ones if you follow me on Instagram) and my second priority was to get something to eat. The only challenge with this in Söder is choosing from the many great bakeries and lunch spots. As I walked around the neighbourhood, some of the streets and buildings did refresh my memory. In particular, I was pleased to see that my favourite punny hairdresser's — Cut the Crap — was still in business. I also remembered (too late) that the cliffs and hills on the northern edge of Södermalm can be tricky to navigate around.

Earlier this year, many of Stockholm's museums stopped charging admission. Fotografiska, the photography museum, wasn't one of them but it was worth the 120 SEK (£11) admission fee. There were several excellent exhibitions, including one of Anton Corbijn's work. The view of the city from the rooftop café-bar is great, the loos are the coolest museum bathrooms I've ever seen and there is a good shop too. Do be aware that like a number of places in Stockholm, they don't take cash.

Initially, I thought I'd catch a bus and a boat over to the island of Skeppsholmen but I ended up walking along the harbour, through Gamla Stan and around the main harbour to the small, verdant island. Skeppsholmen is home to Moderna, the modern art museum, and if you cross the island onto an even smaller isle called Kastellholmen, you can visit the castle and enjoy great views over Djurgården and Södermalm.

I had read that Moderna was free on Friday evenings but it turns out that it's free all the time. They have an excellent permanent collection and a lovely book shop, although the temporary exhibitions weren't my cup of tea. My culture quota fulfilled, I wandered back to Gamla Stan to get changed for dinner — more about that in my next post.

On both Saturday and Sunday morning, I went for a run along a wonderful jogging/cycling circuit called the Riddarfjärden Loop, a mostly flat 4.5-mile circuit that takes you from Gamla Stan, west past the city hall and the grand buildings of Kungsholmen, back over Västerbron and along the Södermalm waterfront. The whole route is on either pavements or separated jogging paths and on such gloriously sunny but crisp mornings as last weekend, the conditions were perfect.

After showering off and a quick breakfast at my hotel, I headed straight back out to the Stadshuset (city hall), which is the office for many politicians and civil servants and also hosts the annual Nobel Banquet. There are regular tours for 100 SEK (check the times off-season) and you can also climb the 106-metre tower for 500 SEK. You have to join a tour group and it's quite a steep climb (there is a lift that takes you some of the way if you need it), but it's well worth it for the panoramic views across the city. The bell tower itself is pretty impressive too. Afterwards, I sat down by the water for a bit and then sneaked in a quick leap. Hey, the sunshine was filling me with joy!

For most of the rest of the afternoon, I was carrying out the shopping, eating and caffeinating portion of my day, wandering from Kungsholmen, through smart Vasastan and back down through Norrmalm. I met for lunch with a London friend who has just moved to Stockholm and we shopped in Norrmalm for a bit, visited the Östermalms Saluhall gourmet food hall and then food a place on the waterfront in the sunshine to sit and relax with a drink or two. Everyone seemed so happy as they enjoyed what might be the last warm(ish), sunny weekend of the season.

After my Sunday morning run, which was even easier once I had the route mastered, I checked out of my hotel and went to join the free Stockholm walking tour, which leaves from outside Gamla Stan Tunnelbana at 10 am and 1 pm. Initially, I'd thought about going to the Vasamuseet, which celebrates the ill-fated 'Titanic of Sweden', but the weather was so nice that I didn't really feel like being inside and besides, as a former tourist-information employee, I love walking tours.

We were a big group — 40 people or so — but our cheerful and cool guide kept us informed — and out of the path of cyclists — as we walked past some of the city's most famous landmarks in the old town and new. If you're short on time and are keen to get a flavour of some of the city's key sights, from the parliament and palace, to the building where 'Stockholm syndrome' got its name and a statue with a warm belly, these free tours work well. The tip I gave to the guide was probably the only cash I really needed for the whole trip (and even then, I bet she would have preferred PayPal if I'd asked).

Another reason I had wanted to do the walking tour on Sunday morning was that many of the shops and cafés are closed then — some shops don't open at all on Sundays, so do your research in advance. After the tour (and a couple of failed coffee shop visits) and a stroll around the Hötorget flea market, I headed back to Södermalm where I climbed the steep steps to Katarinavägen, which gives a great view of the city. You used to be able to get the Katarinahissen (lift), but it's been closed for a while. If it's open, you can also ride in the lift of the bar-restaurant called Gondolen, which I went to on my last trip.

After lunch in SoFo (the area of Södermalm South of Folkungagatan), I spent most of the afternoon hopping from hipster boutique to cool coffee bar to relaxed park. Södermalm is definitely a great place for whiling away hours people-watching and soaking up the cool atmosphere over a fika or a drink. I slowly began to make my way back to the bus station, via my hotel to pick up my bag, the Nobel Museum (getting ready for this week) and a fab burger joint for dinner.

Two-and-a-half days isn't very long to spend in Stockholm but with two museums, a walking tour and 40 miles of exploring the city on foot, I accomplished a lot. If you think you will visit a lot of museums and other sights, the Stockholm Pass may be worth the money (it wasn't for me); it doesn't include transport either. I had also read about Stockholm being a near-cashless society but I hadn't anticipated how many places wouldn't accept cash, from major museums, to big coffee shops, to restaurants. I rarely carry cash at home, but as a lone traveller, I think it's usually sensible to get a little local currency just in case. Unfortunately, the airport ATM only dispensed 500 SEK notes and I failed to get rid of one final 200 SEK note after both the final coffee shop I visited and the burger joint rejected my money. Consider yourself warned...

As for my hotel, I stayed at the nautical-themed Victory Hotel in the heart of Gamla Stan. I paid about £90 per night for a very small single room, but as you can probably tell, I wasn't in my room very much, and it was quiet, well-appointed and comfortable; the shower was great too and the wifi performed well. The hotel staff were extremely friendly too and there's a sauna and medieval plunge pool (!) in the basement and a hot- and cold-buffet breakfast. The location is very central too.

Last time, I stayed at the stylish Hotel Birger Jarl in Norrmalm, which was a little too pricey this time. I also really liked the look of Story Hotel in Östermalm (there was a good deal on the Mr & Mrs Smith website too), which is more of the kind of hotel I typically gravitate towards.

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