Let’s be honest.
The only thing I knew about Stockholm came from the Millennium series. My only idea of the city was that people ate a lot of sandwiches and coffee, wore only black, and that they operate on a minimalist aesthetic.
We found a cheap flight from LAX to Stockholm but needed to make our way to France. Therefore, we were only in town for a whirlwind four days but we managed to pack a lot in. The first day we decided to just roam around the city without any plan. It was cold and dreary outside but I loved being able to feel like a local.
We were hosted by Eva, a Finnish social worker, her American husband Carson who happens to be a cook studying sustainability, and their toddler son, Niko. The family of three shares a house with Eva’s brother, his wife, and their two kids. Each family has a floor with its own entrance which allows privacy but also the convenience of switching off babysitting duties when needed since they all have small children. Much of what we learned about Swedish culture came from our talks over dinner.
As an American, it’s easy to see Sweden as the idyllic land of milk and free healthcare but it was instructive to also learn about its not-so-pretty side. For example, we heard several expats complaining about the challenges of acclimating to Swedish culture since the Swedes aren’t known for being particularly warm. Eva, who works for a non-profit that supports victims of domestic violence, discussed how difficult it can be for women to report the abuse. She explained how such a sense of independence and governmental support can make it difficult to divulge a need for help. “You don’t need to seek out friends as much because you have the government to take care of you,” she said.
Eva had also experienced this difficulty assimilating first-hand as a second-generation Finnish immigrant. There seems to be some tension between Swedes and Finns which could be for a couple of reasons:
- Finns are required to learn Swedish in school
- Swedish used to be the official language of the wealthy classes in Finland while the lower class workers spoke Finnish
- During WWII, Sweden was neutral while Finland was working with Hitler to defeat Russia, who tried to conquer Finland
Even though many of these issues arose long ago, it may take time for the lingering feelings of inferiority or resentment to dissolve.
Now, onto the city and its attractions. The first things I like to do when I visit a new country are:
- Hit up a local market or grocery store
- Visit the history museum
- Cozy up in a local coffee shop and people watch
Since nobody does coffee like the Swedes, we started with the last point on my list at a landmark Swedish bakery (VeteKatten) for a trademark activity (fika). Fika just means “a coffee break” and comes from back slang of the 1800s when words, such as the Swedish word for coffee (“kaffe”), were reversed. You could just have coffee but it usually includes having a pastry as well. Normally, fika is taken in the morning and in the afternoon. Beware: Swedish coffee is way stronger than the American bathwater we’re used to, so drink at your own risk.
Lunch was had at Meatballs for the People in the trendy but sadly, gentrified neighborhood of SoFo (“South of Folkungagatan”) in Sodermalm, a district of Stockholm. In the 1960s and 70s, Sodermalm was a working-class district which offered affordable living for artist types and less affluent minorities. Over time, its reputation as a creative haven enticed more (white, rich) people to move in thus resulting in the gradual gentrification of the neighborhood.
In Stockholm, there’s a city-wide waiting list for rent-controlled apartments. Everyone with a personal number (similar to an American Social Security number) can apply to be on the waiting list. This results in some people putting their newborns on a list in the hope that once they graduate high school, they can find a place in town. The average wait time for an apartment is 7 years but if you want a nice place in Sodermalm, don’t save your breath unless you can hold it for upwards of 20 years.
If you only have time to do one thing in Stockholm, I would strongly suggest a visit to the Historiska Museet or Swedish History Museum. I’ve never seen such a well-designed and culturally-relevant museum. Honestly, I would list this museum as my one must-do in the city. (Besides maybe having fika.) The museum makes the viewers reflect upon how closely history is tied to our present day. It even draws parallels between how poorly women, refugees, and other marginalized groups were treated back then to how little their situation has evolved over the years.
After the museum, we took a stroll around the Vasastan neighborhood, and stopped by the Stockholm stadsbibliotek. I’d seen pictures of the circular public library on the internet and was excited to stop by a take a look. As beautiful as it is, seeing as this was a public library, I was disappointed to see that people were required to pay to use the toilets and WiFi was not available to the public.
Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town, sports beautiful historic architecture which has unfortunately become sullied by so many tourist shops. We took a quick walk through the narrow, winding streets just to get a feel for it but I can’t really recommend it to a first-time tourist. However, feel free to prove me wrong and check it out yourself!
The Moderna Museet (Modern Art Museum) wasn’t particularly memorable in my opinion but then again probably didn’t walk around long enough to give it the attention it deserved. It was, however, definitely worth it to walk around the small island of Skeppsholmen.
Lastly, the two free walking tours we took were definitely a highlight of the trip. We did the Free Tour Stockholm’s Soder tour and the Stockholm walking tour. We learned about where the term “Stockholm syndrome” was coined, learned about the gentrification of Sodermalm, saw the setting for Stieg Larsson’s novels, and just learned things about the inner workings of the city we otherwise may not have.
All in all, I would definitely recommend Stockholm to other travelers. Fear not going on the tourist off-season! We went in October and though it was a bit brisk, we had a great time and enjoyed getting a less-touristy feel for the city. As a nature-lover, I will definitely be coming back (in warmer weather) to visit the Vasa Museum I didn’t get to see and also to explore the many other cities and forests of Sweden. I also plan to take advantage of the Allmansrätten, or “Every Man’s Right”, which makes it easy to camp virtually anywhere in nature (within reason). I’ll update this post when I head back!