We touch down in the rain. It’s early October and 40 degrees in Stockholm. Cold, rainy and windy. This made a nap at our airbnb all the more cozy. Here it’s not uncommon to have individual sets of bedding even when sharing a queen, and nestling up into our individual comforters felt like camping inches away from my companion.
Waking jetlagged in the darkness is disorienting, just as it is when you enter a movie theatre in the sunlight and exit to the moon. Rain pelts us as we walk through the streets of Sodermalm — it comes in from every angle, hitting the backs of our knees, our faces, wetting our shoes. Moments like these make you question why you even boarded a plane. Sweden in October? “What were we thinking”, we asked ourselves as we blew water off our lips and felt our toes go numb.
The light in Stockholm feels more yellow than elsewhere. Instead of sterile white fluorescent light that makes some restaurants feel like laundromats, all restaurants and bars that we pass glow. They beckon us in, promising warmth and sustenance; like an inn at the crossroads along a medieval path, but with fewer swords and less murder.
Nytorget 6 calls to us the loudest, which is how we find ourselves with a dripping umbrella standing awkwardly in a crowded stylish restaurant. Speaking none of the language we motion with the usual gestures for a table for two, and were seated at a corner table next to a group of beautiful suited men.
Traditional Swedish food can be hard to find. For those seeking it out, come with an empty stomach; soups are cream based, meats are dark and sauces are thick. Nytorget 6 serves up traditional (albeit traditional with a twist) Swedish cuisine. Our very first meal in the country is fried duck hearts with chanterelles and dill, toast with roe and topped with more chanterelles, followed by black pudding (read, blood pudding) with lingonberry jam and crema. With contented bellies we no longer questioned our decision to board a plane to Scandinavia.
Food is one of my biggest motivators for travel. Food can solidify my love for a city or break my desire to return to a place. There’s not a lot I’d do for a Klondike bar, but I’d do terrible things for Osaka okonomiyaki or a Neapolitan margherita pizza. Deep dish pizza in Chicago though? Underwhelming. Fight me.
Sleep comes easily after a rich meal on a cold night and in the morning we awake to sun. Pleased by the lack of horizontal rain we venture out for our first coffee, and pass a playground en route.
Nothing drills in just how blonde the Swedish people are than walking past a group of playing children. Almost every child has straw colored hair, and most have hair hitting their shoulders. Boys and girls alike. It looked like a modeling camp, or like a school who forgoes aptitude tests in favor of a beauty factor.
It’s not often that I feel “uncool” passing a group of nine year olds, but now I certainly did. I mean, look at their windbreakers and their rainboots. Their schoolyard style is coveted by residents in the Pacific Northwest, who are willing to spend hours and hundreds of dollars at REI to achieve the same look.
This was the start of my week long lesson: everyone in Stockholm is cooler than you (or at least me).
After the pang of inadequacy that I was given from children, we hit up an impossibly perfect cafe where I was quickly educated on another important Swedish lesson. Fika. Fika is a coffee break, but it’s more of an idea — kind of like the ever-so-trendy “hygge” that’s going around these days.
“A coffee break, big deal”, you may say, “I take coffee breaks all the time”. In Sweden though, a fika break isn’t just about the coffee, it’s a true break. A moment that’s all your own, a moment to slow down, to catch up with a friend, to think about your day, your life. A moment of contemplation and appreciation.
In the States a coffee break is synonymous with refueling — it’s a time to consume just enough caffeine for you to push forward with your day. It’s a five minute wait in a Starbucks line or a visit to the breakroom coffee pot. Not here. Sit. Sigh contentedly. Eat a pastry. Stare out a fogged up window. Sigh again… now you’re getting the hang of it.
Because Fika holds so much weight in Sweden the coffee is fantastic. You don’t take time to swill Folgers, you drink cappuccinos brewed with care, cortados as potent as they are full bodied. And the pastries, oh my what pastries.
Cardamon is a common spice in Swedish cooking. Cardamon and dill seem to pop their head up in every menu item in Stockholm, and that’s not a complaint. The Kardemummabullar is an intricately folded pasty, kneaded with tons of cardamon and topped with a gorgeous layer of sugar and spice. The cinnamon equivalent, the Kanelbullar, is drool inducing as well, but I’ve since found myself longing for a Kardemummabullar with my coffee.
A city with great pastries and great coffee naturally has great cafes to accompany them — I’ll pass an afternoon anyday in Cafe String with its checkered linoleum floor, garishly colored walls and heavily upholstered vintage furniture lining the windows, but it was il caffè that we went to repeatedly. The epitome of Scandinavian chic, il caffè is minimal as can be, and one of the trendier places I’ve ever been. There are four locations scattered around Stockholm, and one in Downtown Los Angeles. Its reach is far, but selective.
At il caffè no one balked at our pronunciation of Kardemummabullar. Like any good cafe, the baristas showed just as much disdain for us as they did for those behind us who spoke the language. Triumph. Perhaps it was this neutral attitude that made me feel comfortable venturing into the more chic beer spots in the city.
Just off of the Katarina Bangata in Sodermalm, a street that collects golden leaves on the pavement like it’s a salaried position, is Katarina Ölkafé. Walking into this beer bar, escaping the cold, is a weighted moment. Katarina Ölkafé is simplicity at its finest — there are white walls, a bar, and behind the bar are moss green shelves stacked with two dozen or so different varieties of beer bottle.
There are 5 drafts, named after their style: Lager, IPA, Stout. The bar has a general-store vibe. You can walk in, survey the selection behind the proprietor then make your order. There’s a scarcity to the transaction that I love, albeit in small doses. I don’t want my favorite local bar to feel like it’s always in short supply, like it’s the evening before a blizzard or the dawn of the zombie apocalypse.
On a cold night the place fogs up quickly and stays fogged up. While here you’re surrounded by gorgeous Swedes. It’s one of those rare places a tourist can walk into and only hear the local language. You’ll also find an overwhelming amount of brown haired Swedes, and you’ll know you’re somewhere stylish in Stockholm when those around you are brunette. Walking out onto the leaf lined street after a few beers, the pavement gleaming with recent rains, I really started to love Stockholm in the fall. I was bundled up in the arms of my baby and leaving one cozy place for one cozy bed. It was romantic and though 1000 miles away, felt homey.
For the beer inclined, the Omnipollo brewery is a must-drink spot. Heaven have pity on the fool standing next to the door — this place is a constant fire hazard; people enter every second to push the crowd in a wee bit more.
Omnipollo’s beers are global trendsetters — they had a Mango lassi smoothie IPA and strawberry milkshake lactose IPA on draft, and they did them well. The lucky few who can push themselves into the limited barspace can order a pizza (and a good pizza at that), which is cooked in a pizza oven that’s painted like a pair of lilac lips, swallowing your dinner whole then spitting it back out again. Terrariums hang above you as you sip and eat, and watch the leather jacketed, dark haired patrons push in and out, rhythmic as breaking waves.
Maybe it’s just because I was there in the fall, maybe it’s because we were in one of the most hip areas of the city, or maybe it’s because it was my first trip to Scandinavia, but the people here don’t just look good, they look interesting, and they appear interested in what’s happening around them. Fotografiska, the city’s photography museum, was buzzing on a rainy Thursday afternoon.
Like all great museum visits, the trip sticks with you. An exhibit on by the photojournalist Paul Hansen documented bleak subjects: bodies in Mosul, scarred women in Rwanda, ten year old children comforting their younger siblings upon hearing of their parents deaths. But it was a picture of a small child at a refugee camp, stealing a few moments to play with a balloon, the look on their face that of total contentment, that streaked my cheeks with tears.
In the next room was an exhibit aptly titled “Last Night in Sweden” showcasing photos of what was really going on that night in February 2017 when Donald Trump uttered those infamous words “You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this?” spewing “alternative facts” about a terror incident in Sweden that never occurred. What was happening you may ask? Same as anywhere on a Saturday night — young women were getting ready to go out, couples went dancing, babies were born — the only image unique to Sweden may be a family feeding their pet reindeer but it’s unlikely that would strike fear into the hearts of a world’s citizens.
No one in the country poked fun at us or made us feel unwelcome. And while we saw art and newspapers throughout the city characterizing the U.S. president, no feelings of animosity were projected upon us. To the people of Stockholm, thank you.
Sodermalm may be the epitome of chic, with its sleek white-walled restaurants and wooden tables that would make the writers of GOOP fall silent in awe for a full five minutes, but I’d consider Gamla Stan, the city’s old town, to be the cool grandmother Sodermalm picked up all its tricks from. There are narrow cobblestone streets, perfect public squares and adorable cafes the changing leaves seem to intentionally fall around.
Take the world’s coolest metro, followed by my favorite method of transit, the water taxi, and you can hit up the island of Djurgården which hosts the epic Vasa: a museum centered around a 17th century Swedish warship that’s been tirelessly reconstructed after having its remnants pulled from icy depths of the Scandinavian seas.
Also on the island is the ABBA museum which we just missed a trip to. (I’m kidding, we missed it because Carl could not be convinced even when I told him that you can record yourself singing to Dancing Queen on the way out).
Other than the Vasa and the Fotografiska we didn’t do too much. We walked through the streets. We rode on trains. Island hopped via boats. We saw. We didn’t pay to enter any other buildings or venture onto any tours. We looked into windows, pointed out church spires in the distance and avoided puddles.
We drank so much coffee I can still feel my hands trembling. We ate gloriously, filling ourselves with reindeer, pork knuckles, gubbröra (that’s anchovies, eggs, parsley and dill served on sweet brown bread and topped with an egg yolk and trust me, it’s better than it sounds), and of course, with meatballs.
While not a city bursting at the seams with activities a la New York or Rome, Stockholm is a city to enjoy. To take your time in. Don’t down your espresso, sip it. Don’t worry if your train is running a minute late, look at the painted walls surrounding you. It is, dare I say it, the embodiment of the fika it so pushes.