STOCKHOLM – Situated in an archipelago of thousands of islands, Stockholm is one of the most beautifully situated capitals in the world. After long winters, its frozen waterways are finally cleared of ice floes, and its tour boats ferry visitors in and out of its many harbors. By late March, it is warm enough to sit outside, and the city’s streets and parks are crowded with diners bathed in the lengthening sunlight hours. By June and July, it never gets dark.
The waterways define the neighborhoods. Gamla Stan is the enchanting old town with cobble-stone streets, a royal palace, and low, colorful buildings hundreds of years old. Across the way stands the ”newer city” where Victorian- and Edwardian-era buildings stand alongside their sleek and modern neighbors we’ve come to identify with Scandinavian design.
Stockholm may not be an obvious destination for an epicurean, but this sophisticated northern European city should be added to the list. The city’s culinary status is on the rise. In addition to traditional Swedish fare, multiethnic restaurants are abundant now. You will find smorgasbords (the original all-you-can-eat buffet) and schnapps aplenty; or go for the homegrown and traditional fare: wonderfully varied herrings, great beer and cheeses, reindeer medallions, and cloudberries (a tart little yellow berry made into sauces and jams).
Swedes speak English nearly as well as we do, so you never have to worry about getting lost. Ask for directions and listen as the answer is punctuated by the intakes of breath characteristic of some Scandinavian languages.
You can walk everywhere in Stockholm, and it is easy to get around by train (Tunnelbana) and bus. But know where you are going and pay attention, for there is little warning as you approach stops, and there are few English announcements.
The large T signs everywhere would make Bostonians feel very much at home. Jump on bus number 46 at the Normalmstorg Plaza and ride with the locals for a 45-minute tour that costs just $2.50.
Sure, seek out the classic glassware of Georg Jensen, but don’t miss poking around Stockholm’s food markets for the perfect pickled herring. The Ostermalmshallen, located in the Ostermalm district off the Sture Plan (plaza), is Stockholm’s premier gourmet food hall and market. Built in 1888, it’s in an imposing brick building and has always been a gastro-hub. Its vaulted ceiling is braced by a cast-iron erector-set-like cage reminiscent of European train stations of the same era. At the main entrance, you are greeted by the mounted head of a large reindeer, smiling down on the deli stall selling his body parts.
Blue and yellow Swedish flags decorate the center aisle. Stalls throughout specialize in cheese, caviar, produce, cured meats, prepared foods, vinegared salads, and baked goods, while fishmongers dot the perimeter of the market.
The cold waters of the Baltic Sea yield an incredible bounty. Herring, flounder, mussels, giant prawns, baby shrimp, salmon, pike, and sardines all cool on enormous beds of ice. Many of the fish markets also have restaurants, so you have an opportunity to taste what you see. Smoked, marinated, and fried herring with beer is a typical lunch. At the Melanders’ Fisk stall, a big barrel-chested man slices Gravad lax (marinated raw salmon) in perfect sheets while chatting up customers at the takeout counter.
At lunchtime, the joint is jumping. Lisa Elmqvist is also a fish market with a great restaurant attached. If the line for the restaurant is long, try the more informal and communal bar. The menu in English may not reflect all the handwritten choices on the overhead blackboard. One sure way to get something interesting is to order what the Swedes around you are eating. A plate with a layer of bread piled high with a small mountain of baby shrimp and a tall cold beer is a winner. Baskets of bread, crackers, and an especially pure and creamy butter are shared with your fellow diners.
At the Lisbeth Janson stall, homey displays of herbs, fruits, and vegetables share space with jars of native lingonberry and cloudberry jams, mustards, and pickles. They make a lovely gift of local color. Taina and Sven Pettersen bought the shop several months ago, and the friendly couple speak reverently of the original owner and their desire to maintain her products’ high quality.
Another market with a decidedly different flavor is the outdoor Hotorget (the old haymarket) located on the Kungsgatan, one of Stockholm’s main shopping streets.
This marketplace has been around since the 17th century. The flagging market was revived when Sweden opened its doors to immigration in the 1970s. Greeks, Turks, Iraqis, Lebanese, and Italians opened restaurants and took over many of the stalls by catering first to the culinary tastes of their countrymen, eventually attracting back Stockholmers.
The large open market sprawls at the steps of the Konserthuset, an imposing recital hall where pigeons and people perch for a rest, a smoke, or a snack. The towering sculpture and fountain of Orpheus by Swedish sculptor Carle Milles is a dramatic anchor at its base.
Shouts of ”Hey, Hey, Willkommen” (Hello! Hello! Welcome!) come at you from everywhere. Huge tables of fruit and vegetables make a colorful and edible quilt of fresh produce. ”Try my sweet grapes,” a vendor appeals aggressively.
Older couples stroll arm in arm leisurely through the crowded aisles buying ingredients for their evening meal. Middle-aged women pinch, poke, and smell before they buy. Without knowing the language, you can still tell there is a lot of negotiating taking place.
The flower stalls are ringed with blasts of color and seasonal decorations. At Easter time, there are clouds of dyed, airy feathers tied to branches just beginning to bud.
There is also an indoor component to the Hotorget at the far end of the plaza where the atmosphere is slightly chaotic. Butcher shops, delis, and little markets stand chockablock along the walls. One glass case is stacked with ducks and other game birds, feathers and all. There are also fast-food restaurants and a state liquor shop. People shop with a purpose here.
Tooling around a local supermarket gives you an idea of what the Swedes consume day to day. There are aisles devoted only to crackers, which come in every shape and size in beautiful paper wrappings. Refrigerator cases are stacked with tubes of intriguing caviar spreads adorned with the faces of happy children. A box of unusual cumin rye crackers and a tube of salted fish roe make a unique and inexpensive gift.
Of course, there is more than food shopping in Stockholm. From large department stores to boutiques, shopping is an aesthetic experience. World-renowned ”Swedish design” is everywhere evident in appealing displays of products and store appointments.
You may not be in the market for an undulating yellow plastic couch, but a visit to the Nordiska Galleriet will show you the latest in furniture and housewares design. Like a modern art museum but free, the showroom welcomes browsers. You might wind up wishing to replace every piece of furniture and flatware in your home.
For high-quality handmade products, try the shops run by the Svensk Hemslojd, Swedish Handcraft Association. Wooden and hand-wrought iron pieces, woven fabrics, clothing, intricately patterned knitted sweaters, and ornaments – there’s something in everyone’s price range.
Although Marimekko is a Finnish product, it has a beautiful shop off Normalmstorg. From fabrics to dresses and placemats, one is surrounded by happy colors, nostalgia, and high quality.
If you are game for a 30-minute train ride, the Skarholmens Flea Market is on the outskirts of the city. There you see a different side of Stockholm. The indoor market goes on forever, containing mostly knickknacks, old books, clothing, household items, secondhand electrical appliances, etc. Several antiques stalls have wooden furniture, dishes, and porcelains. While most of this is ubiquitous flea market fare, the atmosphere is interesting. Many of the stalls are owned by immigrants.
All of these offerings show that in between your visits to the museums and monuments, it’s more than worthwhile to mingle in the markets and absorb the many flavors of Stockholm.
Debra Samuels is a freelance writer who lives in Lexington.
IF YOU GO …
How to get there
Lowest round-trip airfare between Boston and Stockholm available at press time started at $945 on United Airlines, connecting through Chicago. From Arlanda Airport, a taxi is the quickest and most expensive (about $50) transportation to the city. Check before getting in the cab, because most companies have a fixed rate. There also are buses, Flygbussarna (45 minutes), and a train, Arlanda Express (20 minutes).
Where to stay
Birger Jarl Hotel
104 32 Stockholm
Small 1970s hotel recently updated. All amenities (including free Internet access in the lobby). Quiet but convenient location, 20-minute walk to downtown.
Wonderful breakfast buffet includes smoked fish, cheeses, salads, hot food. Doubles from $256. Summer rates from $128.
Lady Hamilton Hotel
S-111 28 Stockholm
Located in the Old Town; built in 1470, the hotel has a townhouse feel, full of antiques, charming small rooms, and Swedish breakfast buffet included. Doubles from $307. Summer and weekend rates from $217.
First Hotel Reisen
SE-111 30 Stockholm
Small luxury hotel with cozy atmosphere located on the water, with beautiful views. Also built in the 18th century. Fantastic sauna and pool built into a vault below the hotel. Doubles from $179, summer rates. Deluxe rooms and suites come with breakfast buffet.
Where to eat
Jacobs Torg 10
The Opera House
Karl XII:s torg
One of three Operakallaren restaurants. ”The Hip Pocket” is small, with posters of opera stars in their roles lining the wall. Counter-style but elegant. Great beer choices, delicious home-style fresh food, generous portions. From $14.
Ostermalmshallen (see address below)
Fish and seafood; bar menu on blackboard. Counter service and restaurant seating. From $12.
Fem Sma Hus
This cozy cellar restaurant is located in the Gamla Stan – Old Town. Updated, sophisticated Swedish cuisine. $38-$50.
Traditional Swedish home cooking. Under $35.
City Hall (see address below)
Elegant dining room. Visitors can call several weeks in advance and get a replica of the dinner of their favorite Nobel laureate or enjoy the regular menu.
Where to shop
High-quality traditional Swedish crafts:
Subway: Olof Palmes Gata
Swedish crafts with a modern twist.
Furniture, in style.
Stall number 49-52
What to see
A good website on Stockholm: www.stockholmtown.com
Gourmet food hall and market
Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9:30 to 4 Saturday; 9:30 to 2 Saturdays in summer.
Outdoor food and flower market, some clothing and accessories. Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m, Monday-Friday.; 7:30 to 4 Saturday; 10 to 5 Sunday.
Gamla Stan – Old Town
Royal Palace area
Winding cobble streets, plenty of little souvenir shops, and charming bars and restaurants. The Royal Palace is a must-see.
Bus 44, 47
Original Viking ship raised from Stockholm harbor. Great if you are with children. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, Wednesdays until 8; through Aug. 20: 9:30-7 daily.
Stadshuset (City Hall)
Guided tours only. Check for times. Site of Nobel banquets, magnificently situated, gorgeous rooms, cafe, and restaurant.