Famous for its blazing sunny summers, dark winters and ordered society, there is nowhere quite like Sweden. Its brightest destination is Stockholm, the tidy, well-preserved capital city that is as famous for its ancient streets as it is for its thriving modern art and design scene.
A civilized business center during the day, Stockholm morphs into a bit of a party town at night. The contradictions that abound are as fun as they are surprising, making a long layover in the city a memorable experience.
A day in Stockholm should start with fika (“coffee and cake”). Taking a fika break is a national passion, so every café and patisserie will have a fika set of coffee (or tea) and Swedish cakes or pastries, which are invariably delicious.
Take yours in the traditional fashion with a kanelbulle (cinnamon bun). Gunnarsons Specialkonditori is a remarkable bakery and patisserie. Serving the country’s finest cakes since 1947, this sweet spot’s fresh cinnamon and cardamom buns are legendary. Choose from a wide selection of beautiful Swedish cakes lined up in pastel hues that often take the whimsical form of a rubber duck or a mouse — they are quite the works of art.
A royal experience
With its simple, clean exterior and beautifully ornate rococo interior, the 18th-century Royal Palace of Stockholm is a sight to behold. Contained within its baroque walls are the offices of the Royal Court of Sweden and the official residence of the king.
The guided tour is fascinating. Guards in each of the rooms are knowledgeable as well. The palace plays host to a variety of exhibits, including the permanent display of the royal jewels in the treasury.
After exploring everything you can on the inside, take a walk around the beautiful old town surrounding the palace.
Relax and revitalize
If you’re going to try one of the famous Swedish saunas, why not select one on a lake with a floating deck? Hellasgarden is an outdoor leisure park that offers Swedish-style spa and sauna treatments. It also provides swimming, skating, sledding, yoga and tennis (depending on the season) just 15 minutes from the center of Stockholm.
The sauna is located on the shore of Lake Källtorp and has an open floating deck that begs for afternoon relaxation. People often take a dip in the icy water after the sauna, no matter the season.
Be sure to check the sauna schedule because some days the usually separated men’s and women’s saunas become coed for family and friends to visit together. Specific spa services, such as the aroma sauna and peeling treatment, occur on particular days listed on the website.
More than a museum
Stockholm has countless museums. Several are dedicated to art and design, while some focus on Scandinavian history — like the famous Vasa museum that contains a 300-plus-year-old shipwreck that’s been perfectly preserved.
For one of those “Only in Sweden” moments, head to Abba The Museum. Countless original Abba relics and photo opportunities are dispersed within interactive displays. Mix your own songs, perform with a holographic version of the band and see the recorded videos online afterward. Abba quizzes, props and costumes are all here for the diehard fans.
If Swedish pop music doesn’t sound like much fun, then you may prefer one of Stockholm’s many other attractions, such as the Fotografiska, a space dedicated to high-quality photographic art displays.
To learn about the country’s fascinating history, Birka is a UNESCO World Heritage Viking city established in the 8th century. Reconstructed Viking houses and original artifacts give you a feel of what life was like in Old Sweden. For an immersive experience, Birka is also accessible by boat.
An intriguing Swedish gastro pub
From the Abba Museum, take the boat back to Gamla Stan. Stockholm’s beautiful Old Town is a medieval district with tiny streets lined with brightly colored ancient shophouses and churches — some of them more than 800 years old. In one such building is the place for an outstanding dinner, The Flying Elk.
Although the establishment describes itself rather humbly, it delivers much more than simple pub fare.
At this Old Town eatery, modern Swedish cuisine and international bar snacks are of exceptional quality. Casual and inviting with friendly staff who create original cocktails, The Flying Elk is so popular with locals and visiting foodies that reservations are essential.
Menu highlights include the scallops with truffle egg; vendace roe with hash browns and Västerbotten cheese; and the unforgettable fish and chips. The meat and foie gras pie and the burger are extremely popular as well.
For such astoundingly good bites, The Flying Elk is surprisingly affordable. Dinner for two is around $150 (and that includes a few drinks). The restaurant is open for dinner and weekend lunches.
Time for bed
Open since 1874, the iconic Grand Hotel on the scenic waterfront in Gamla Stan is a treat after a long day of discovering Stockholm. Overlooking the Royal Palace, the rooms are equipped with smart TVs, comfortable armchairs, opulent beds, fine local beverages and silk bathrobes in the suites — you’ll want to stay in and enjoy the view.
The property’s luxurious Nordic Spa contains a fitness center, so have one final sauna session and dip in the plunge pool before drifting off into a deep sleep.