Sweden regularly tops polls on the happiest place to live in the world. But just why are the Swedes so happy? A visit to Stockholm, its elegant capital, gives emphatic answers at every turn.
The first thing that strikes you when landing in the city, which is built on 14 islands connected by 57 bridges, is how very clean it is. Sweden clearly didn’t get the memo that the rest of the world did regarding litter and graffiti being very much ‘in’ this century, and thank heavens they didn’t.
Instead they offer beautiful greenery and many rivers to hold attention – and effectively so. A five-minute walk in any direction will see you passing some sort of aquatic view, providing endless photo opportunities.
On the main rivers you’ll find many wonderful restaurants with outside seating to dine on if the weather allows, and should you find yourself relaxing in one of them, you can easily keep yourself entertained for hours on end with the glorious view of the city – with boats constantly passing you by. There are many guide boats on offer that have proved an extremely popular attraction for tourists, but it is advised you do a bit of research before hopping on the first one that comes along.
Some are practically yachts, with envy-inducing parties happening onboard, but others will advertise themselves as this, only to cram you into a stuffy vessel with a mini fridge of soda that masquerades as a “bar”.
As a river jaunt could easily be the highlight of your trip, it’d be wise to ensure you find the right boat to take in the sights. Pedalos or rowboats might just be an even more enjoyable way to take to the waters, especially for tourists with children or couples looking for a romantic way to spend an afternoon. Many of the guide boats stop at the photography museum, a flashy excursion indeed worth a trip, and allow you the opportunity to look up at the Giraffe Cranes of Beckholmen – as the name might indicate, they are massive industrial cranes in the port, decorated to look like giraffes. They can also take you to a local theme park if rollercoasters are on your agenda.
On land, you won’t have to spend long searching in order to find stunning architecture. High priorities would be the churches in Gamla Stan, the city center founded in 1252 that is one of the best preserved medieval city center in Europe.
For a somewhat different historical moment, take in the unmissable ABBA: The Museum. A celebration of one of Sweden’s most phenomenal ever exports (sorry Ikea), a visit is pure, unadulterated joy. The predictably camp and fabulous venue provides much in the way of interaction, as guests are given the opportunity to perform Mamma Mia with holograms of the famous four on stage, play quizzes and games, and see some of the group’s iconic costumes – while learning about the band’s origins.
It’s not just ABBA on display here, though they are, of course, the main attraction. The museum celebrates Swedish pop in general, examining why such a small country manages to be responsible for such a large proportion of the world’s popular music, especially regarding behind-the-scenes producers.
Although the ABBA museum has unbeatable flair, as well as, undoubtedly, flares, if museums are of interest, you’ll be spoiled for choice. The Moderna Museet regularly hosts fascinating exhibitions, and is free one day each week. Perhaps most famous is the Nobelmuseet, home to the Nobel prize in physics, physiology, chemistry and literature, a sure-fire magnet for intellectuals and history lovers.
However if the weather is good, the city’s 70 museums may have to wait to be visited, as the parks will most definitely be beckoning. The Royal National City Park holds the distinction of being the world’s first national city park; there you can explore the gorgeous forests or even take a swim in the lakes.
Art also makes for big business in Stockholm, where the centrally located Kulturhuset might be the best bet. Six floors of galleries, libraries and theater is topped off by a brilliant rooftop bar with a stage.
Food-wise, there’s certainly more to Sweden than meatballs, though it’s advised you try the local specialty at least once. Beware: Stockholm is not a cheap place to eat or drink. For visitors on a budget, firstly, this might not be the best destination.
But if you’re set on going and saving where you can, then Asian and Italian restaurants seem to be slightly cheaper – if easily clearing $100 per meal for two is enough to have you jumping in the nearest river. There’s one other way to fill up, as the Swedes regularly provide free cinnamon buns as a welcome snack – and these can often be the size of full meals.
For one extravagant meal worth splashing the krona, head to Patricia, a docked boat that offers fresh lobster once a week and a memorable dining experience with friendly staff and warm ambience. An achingly cool cafe, Café String, is also lots of fun with its masses of vintage furniture and dinnerware, giving you the rare opportunity to buy what you’re sitting on or drinking out of. Nearby are many quirky little shops perfect for souvenirs and presents.
In the busiest tourist seasons you might struggle to find a good hotel unless you book far in advance. These are very costly, and some places like the Elite Palace can cost up to $1000 a night, but for cheaper options like the Vanadis Hotel, prepare to slum it. An old swimming pool that converted its changing rooms into bedrooms (and boy does it show), this basic inn costs about $80 a night. There appeared to be little middle ground between these two extreme ends of the scale, so it might be worth signing up to Airbnb if you haven’t already.
Of course, the reason that hotels can afford to charge such astronomical prices to tourists is because so many people want to visit, and it really isn’t hard to see why. Fortunately, not only are the Swedes among the happiest people in the world, but this good fortune extends – and then spreads – to those who choose to join them. You’ll definitely leave smiling (until you check your bank account, anyway).