Stockholm seamlessly blends the traditional with the modern, from time-honoured crafts and medieval architecture to globally recognised cuisine and cocktail culture.
An eye for design
Housed in a disused fire station in Stockholm’s hip Södermalm district, a retro reclamation store is stacked literally floor to ceiling with desirable stuff: artfully shabby lamps, antique jewellery, battered paintings and distressed dressing tables. This is Brandstationen – called a ‘toy shop for grown-ups’ by owner Christian Quaglia, it’s one of Stockholm’s many vintage stores. Just inside the doorway, a besuited gentleman tries out an old leather armchair while a couple in vintage Ray-Bans chats animatedly about the aesthetic merits of an angle-poise lamp. The shop is doing a roaring trade.
Strolling along the stately boulevards, it doesn’t take long to realise that Stockholm is obsessed by design. From the upmarket stores of Östermalm to the jumbled bric-a-brac shops of Upplandsgatan, this is a city that has style hard-wired into its DNA.
Some of the most memorable examples of 20th-century Scandinavian design are on show at Modernity, lodged amongst the flashy boutiques and busy department stores of Sibyllegatan. Founded by Scottish ex-pat Andrew Duncanson, the shop showcases work by illustrious names such as Stig Lindberg, Sweden’s master ceramicist, and Axel Larsson and Bruno Mathsson, famous for their sleek and strictly functional furniture. Light streams through the shop’s arched windows, illuminating its collection of curvy coffee tables, futuristic sofas and sinuous armchairs, all arranged with the punctilious precision of museum pieces. Inevitably, price tags tend to match the provenance.
Few Stockholm stores have greater heritage than waterfront Malmsten, founded by one of Sweden’s most celebrated furniture makers, Carl Malmsten, and now run by his grandson. With its pine floors and stark white walls, it’s closer to an art gallery than a shop. Slate-grey armchairs and blonde-wood cabinets are arranged around the half-empty showroom, picked out by spotlights, and with plaques detailing the genesis of each design.
Known for traditional materials and impeccable craftsmanship, Malmsten’s furniture encapsulates the key values of Swedish design – beauty, elegance, functionality and, above all, simplicity. ‘My grandfather understood that good design isn’t simply a case of creating beautiful things,’ explains Jerk Malmsten. ‘It’s about the perfect combination of function and form. In Sweden, we love things that look good, but which serve their purpose too.’ For Jerk, it’s imagination and ingenuity that keep Stockholm’s design scene feeling so fresh. ‘Of course we have a wonderful heritage to build on,’ he explains. ‘But it’s important to keep innovating. Design never stands still, and neither does Stockholm. That’s what makes the city such an exciting place to be.’
Learn to fika like a local
One thing guaranteed to get Stockholmers chatting is a strong cup of coffee and a thick slice of cake. Coffee has been lubricating the wheels of Swedish society since the late 17th century, and the country now drinks more per capita than practically every other nation on Earth (only Finland’s consumption is higher). The humble coffee break even has its own word, fika, which describes the act of sharing a coffee and something sweet with friends, in as snug a setting as possible.
If there’s one place that understands fika, it’s Vetekatten. Founded in 1928 on Kungsgatan – Stockholm’s former red light district, now a busy shopping street – this historic café has been in the same family for 40 years. Deliciously old-fashioned, its grand, high-ceilinged rooms glimmer with polished brass and porcelain ornaments. Aproned waitresses hurry past with platters of sticky pastries and steaming coffee pots, while glass windows in the kitchen wall reveal bakers adding the final touches to trays of kanelbulle (cinnamon rolls) and kaffeebrod (coffee bread). Each time the door opens the shop fills with enticing aromas – including caramelised sugar, buttercream and freshly baked dough – and the sound of clanging pans mingles with the buzz of conversation and the chink of china plates.
Magdalena Brolin is the latest in a long line of Vetekatten bakers. ‘Fika is part of who we are, as natural as waking up!’ she laughs. ‘It’s a special moment where you can just stop, sit back, enjoy the good things in life, and appreciate the people who are important to you. The world would be a much happier place if everyone learned how to fika!’
Another of the city’s classic fika venues, Sturekatten, is tucked away on the shady backstreet of Riddargatan. Reached via a corkscrew staircase, it occupies the top floors of a merchant’s house dating from the early 1700s. The traditionally furnished interior is a rabbit’s warren of rooms filled with worn armchairs, faded oil paintings and antique lamps. People fill bone-china cups from communal coffee pots, then queue at the counter to order their choice of rich chokoladboll (chocolate balls), sweet kringla (sugar-dusted pretzels) or slabs of prinsesstarta (a cream-filled sponge, coated in marzipan).
The décor feels antique, but Sturekatten provides a snapshot of contemporary Stockholm: ladies-wholunch gossiping over finger sandwiches, canoodling teenagers snuggled into threadbare sofas, sharpsuited businessmen hammering out deals over black coffee and cinnamon cakes. And in a city that often seems preoccupied with everything that’s new, shiny and modern, these cosy old-world cafés provide a reassuring reminder of bygone days.
Where the old ways are best
It’s a crisp spring morning on the island of Djurgården, a 20-minute ferry from Stockholm’s city centre, and another day is beginning in the 100 year-old town of Skansen. Bathed in sunshine, its streets are a hive of industry. The town’s potters, weavers, saddle-makers, printers, bakers and silversmiths are opening up for the day’s trade, while glassblowers stoke their furnaces, gardeners tend to the allotments and the faint clang of the town’s iron foundry rings out across the hillside. It’s like looking through a window into Sweden’s pre-industrial past – and that’s just as its founder, the academic Artur Hazelius, wanted it.
Covering an area of 75 acres, this huge open-air museum was established in 1891 to recreate the atmosphere of a provincial Swedish town from the early 19th century. Laid out according to a traditional town plan, Skansen’s winding streets are lined with buildings collected from all over Sweden – flax mills and cobblers’ shops, blacksmiths and pharmacies, clapboard churches and merchants’ houses – each one painstakingly disassembled and rebuilt here by hand. The town even has its own Nordic zoo, along with licensed taverns where you can drink home-brewed beer from wooden flagons.
Now populated by a permanent workforce dressed in period costume, Skansen is part social experiment, part living museum. It sounds twee, but it’s a surprisingly involving experience and has helped preserve traditional skills that might otherwise have died out. Björn Rocke is a university lecturer who works part-time in Skansen’s furniture workshop. ‘It’s vital that we preserve the old ways,’ he explains, shouting above the deafening thrum of pulleys and bandsaws. ‘Many other countries have lost these things, but at Skansen, we have the opportunity to preserve them for future generations.’ As he talks, he feeds a block of oak into a buzzing lathe and quickly fashions a chair leg to add to a dozen others stacked on the dusty workbench.
Skansen is just one example of the way Sweden stays in touch with its roots. Handicrafts such as knitting, weaving and carpentry are still taught in most schools, and even in downtown Stockholm, city dwellers can still indulge their nostalgia for Sweden’s pastoral past thanks to ‘hantverk’ shops such as Svensk Hemslöjd, which sells traditional goods such as lovikkavantar (woollen mittens), tennträdsarmbande (leather wristbands woven with silver thread) and dalahäst (hand-painted horses carved from birchwood). ‘For Swedish people, these links with the past are very important,’ Björn muses, sanding a chunk of fragrant oak. ‘They remind us where we came from, and also tell us something about who we are today.’ He turns back to his bench as soft morning light filters through the workshop’s windows and the smell of sawdust fills the air.
Discover the secrets of Gamla Stan
Night is falling over Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s tangled old town, and its cul-de-sacs and courtyards are pin-drop quiet. The hordes that throng the thoroughfares of Västerlånggatan and Stora Nygatan have evaporated and the medieval city has fallen quiet for another day. Old gas lanterns bathe the streets in a fluorescent glow, and apart from a couple of cats stalking along the cobbles, Gamla Stan seems deserted. However, the silence is only skin-deep – somewhere in the old city, deep beneath the streets, the party at Baggen is just getting into swing.
Hidden away behind a nondescript doorway on the tiny backstreet of Svartmangatan, this secret folk music club is impossible to find unless you happen to be looking for it. It’s reached via a steep stone staircase that leads down from street level into a cramped, brick-vaulted cellar, part of a network of subterranean tunnels rumoured to lie beneath Gamla Stan. Framed by rough stone and hefty beams, lit by candles and alcove lamps, it makes a wonderfully intimate setting for a concert – especially when packed with people, the old walls echoing to the sound of flutes, cellos and accordions.
Built on a natural island, Stockholm’s old town has a history stretching back more than 1,000 years. Laid out during the Middle Ages, it’s a jumble of cobblestone squares, arched lanes and back alleys that seem to run into one another and never quite allow you to get your bearings. Around one corner, a tiny courtyard café sits among shuttered townhouses; around the next, a great Gothic church looms up behind cast-iron gates. It’s a place that seems full of secrets – as Renata Broda, manager of Story Tours, explains. ‘Like many old cities, Gamla Stan is a story that’s written in stone,’ she says. ‘If you know where to look, you can discover many secret things that most people, including most Stockholmers, never get to see.’
On the busy square of Stortorget, surrounded by cafés, Renata points out a cannonball lodged in a wall since a medieval siege, and bullet-holes left by one of the city’s periodic revolutions. Nearby, there’s a hidden garden that once belonged to members of ABBA, and an underground bathhouse housed in the stone vaults of a church cellar. Our coffee stop is at the 300-year-old restaurant of Den Gyldene Freden, where the 18 Swedish Academy members meet in strict secrecy once a year to decide the winners of the Nobel prizes. ‘You could visit Gamla Stan every day for a year and never get bored,’ smiles Renata. ‘I’ve been exploring it for years, and I only know a fraction of its secrets.’
Old city, new cuisine
At Michelin-starred Lux, Henrik Norström is preparing a delicate sculpture of entrecôte (beef steak), oyster cream, white radish, marrow and caviar. It’s an intricate dish that encapsulates the creativity of Stockholm’s most sought-after chef. ‘Great cooking is all about surprises,’ says Henrik. ‘My food revolves around classic Swedish ingredients combined in new ways. Flavour is crucial, but I spend as much time thinking about texture, shape, colour and form.’
Situated on the small island of Lilla Essingen, in a redbrick warehouse that once belonged to Electrolux, Lux blends industrial heritage and Scandinavian style. Chefs work at granite workstations in the dining hall, surrounded by hefty pillars and roof trusses, while diners look out through leaded windows along the city’s canals. It’s a studiously minimal décor that perfectly reflects the restaurant’s stripped-back philosophy. In contrast to traditional Swedish cuisine, Henrik’s food is defined by lightness and purity of flavour. He’s fanatical about local ingredients; a map in the foyer details suppliers, from family-run fruit farms to the fishermen that catch his crab and langoustines. Much produce is collected by hand – mushrooms from the forest, samphire foraged from the coastline – and ingredients are often served raw or just-cooked to preserve maximum flavour.
For the very best produce, Stockholmers flock to the century-old covered market of Östermalms Saluhall. Sheltered beneath cast-iron beams and a soaring roof, it’s home to rows of stalls stocked with cheese and charcuterie, ice beds laden with cod and herring, wooden trays piled high with cèpes and button mushrooms. The hall echoes with the classic sounds of a busy market, but it’s the smells that linger longest, a cocktail of salty tangs and earthy aromas that stays with you long after you’ve stepped into the city air.
Drink it up, Stockholm-style
Tough licensing laws and alcohol taxes make Sweden’s capital a pricey place for a drink, so when Stockholmers go out they do it in style. Le Rouge is one of the city’s most opulent cocktail bars. Furnished in Belle Époque Parisian style, it has a hint of the strumpet’s boudoir. Velvet-padded booths are lit by brocaded chandeliers, while bartenders juggle multicoloured cocktails to a soundtrack of jazz and jangling ice cubes. ‘There’s a really vibrant cocktail scene, with a new generation of young bartenders creating their own signature drinks,’ explains head cocktail-mixer Rikard Enell. ‘It costs a lot to drink in Stockholm, so we make every one special.’
He mixes up some classic Swedish ‘punsch’ – a powerful blend of rum, spiced tea, lemon and arrack, an Asian spirit. Sweet, alcoholic fumes waft up from the jug, but Rikard insists it won’t taste right unless it’s chased down by some akvavit, a typically Swedish spirit, spiced with dill, caraway and cumin. Drunk together, they pack a punch like a blast of booze-laced gunpowder. ‘Now you know how we get through the winter!’ Rikard laughs.
A little way south, a clanky elevator rises to sky-top bar Erik’s Gondolen. Thirty-three metres up, waistcoated waiters carry trays of frozen gimlets – a cocktail made with gin and lime juice – as drinkers gaze through panoramic windows. ‘Quite a view, isn’t it?’, notes the bartender. Far below, city lights twinkle, ferries chug along canals, and the rooftops of riverside townhouses are traced out against the orange sky.
The article 'Stockholm’s enduring style' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.