My first encounter with a born-and-raised Stockholmer, while on a walking tour of Potsdam, Germany in 2012, wouldn’t have initially led me to choose his hometown, which he described as “boring”, as a travel destination. But after hearing great things over the intervening years about the city from non-Stockholmers such as Pedro and Jesse T., and seeing it ranked competitively on VirtualTourist’s listing of most-popular European cities, I was sold.
One evening in May, after careful deliberation about where and when I would go on my annual urban holiday, and mentally asking myself “Are you sure?” one last time and self-answering in the affirmative, I clicked a “Submit” button on Lufthansa’s web site. That was it: I would be off to Stockholm in mid-July.
Now back in Winnipeg, I have no regrets.
Contrary to the Stockholmer’s advice three years ago, what I found was a city that was far from boring. Not as sexy or dramatic as London, Paris or Berlin perhaps, but a pleasant and lively city where I found enough to do to pass seven days without much effort; a city in which the nearby kebab shop is still doing brisk business after 11 p.m. on a Saturday night, and in which I could go in search of something fun or interesting to do at 8 p.m. on a Sunday night and find it easily. (If that Stockholmer I met thought a city where you could do that was “boring”, God knows how he would have described the vast majority of North American cities. “Comatose”, perhaps?)
Q & A — Stockholm, Sweden
Q. Why Stockholm?
A. Stockholm is a good choice for those who have already seen some of the grand cities of Europe, such as London, Paris and Berlin, and are now looking for a city that has many of the best things about European urban life — the cafe culture, the history, the nightlife — without being a Disneyland for Adults. In other words, someplace interesting enough to be a bit touristy, but not completely and grotesquely overrun by tourists.
Q. What are the best things to see and do in Stockholm?
A. Different people will have different interests, of course. For the most memorable Stockholm experiences, I would recommend:
a.) Check out the Vasa. The Vasa Museum basically has just one exhibit: the ship by that name which sunk in Stockholm harbour on its maiden voyage in 1628. It had the good fortune to sink in the harbour’s brackish waters, which meant that this elaborately designed wooden ship was in unusually good condition when the Swedes raised it from the sea bed in the ’60s and put back together to become a museum piece. It’s a rare opportunity to see an original 17th century ship up close, and the story of ego and incompetence that led the giant ship (by 1628 standards) to literally flop over on its side just 1.3 kilometres into what was supposed to be a journey to Poland is an entertaining one.
b.) Take each of Free Tour Stockholm‘s three urban walking tours. One covers Norrmalm, the island on which the modern city centre is located. The second covers Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s “old town” neighbourhood (and the one area which is “overrun by tourists”). The third covers Södermalm, which was considered Stockholm’s shabbiest neighbourhood 20 years ago, but which is now known as a “hipster haven”. The guides work for tips (from what I’ve seen, 50 to 100 Swedish krona, or $7.50 to $15 Cdn., seems typical) and each tour takes about 90 minutes. A great way to learn more about Stockholm and its history, and to meet travelers from all over the world.
c.) Take a fika break. In fact, take all the fika breaks you want. Taking some time to relax and enjoy a coffee and pastry while reading a book or watching the world go by, an experience known as fika, a casual term for coffee, is a beloved part of Swedish culture. In Stockholm, you’re rarely far from an independent cafe or even a franchise outlet such as Espresso House or Wayne’s Coffee, which sell quality coffee and pastries. (Their offerings make Starbucks, which has an unusually weak presence in Stockholm, look third-rate by comparison.) Budget a rather steep 60 to 80 krona ($9 to $12 Cdn.) for the experience, which is worth it.
Keep in mind that space is at a premium in Europe’s densely populated cities; thus you might be expected to sit in very close proximity to strangers during peak times, and will not be allowed the vast personal space that North Americans are used to. Respecting others’ privacy (more on that later) is important here.
(Cautionary note: Be careful about using the term “fika” around Germans, as the pronunciation is very close to that of “ficken”, their slang term for sexual intercourse.)
d.) Enjoy the city’s parks. Kungsträdgården, a fairly small park in the city centre, is a popular place to hang out and people-watch, and frequently hosts free concerts, festivals and other events. The much larger Djurgården, south and east of the city centre, is akin to Assiniboine Park with harbour views.
e.) Learn how those Scandinavians got to be so on-the-ball about everything. Those wanting to learn more about how Sweden has become synonymous with the sane, ethical, earnestly responsible government that is becoming an endangered species in North America might be interested in taking in a tour of City Hall and of the Riksdag, Sweden’s national parliament.
f.) Enjoy the nightlife. If you’re into nightclubbing, Stockholm has its fair share of clubs filled with people who could pass for fashion models. But if that’s not your thing, no problem. During a summer evening, there’s a good chance something will be going on at Kungsträdgården, or that Drottninggatan, the pedestrian mall that serves as Stockholm’s main retail street, will be full of people and buskers. Outside the old PUB department store on Drottninggatan, one could spend half an hour or more many evenings relaxing and watching Mareks Radzēvičs, a Latvian musician, play the cello. If you have a few krona to spare, toss it into his cello case. Continue south on Drottninggatan toward the Riksdag and the Old Town, where there will be plenty more activity.
g.) Go for a sauna. It’s a Nordic tradition, it’s very relaxing, and many Swedish hotels offer them. In fact, it’s rather amazing that it has never really caught on in Canada, given our similar climate. And since part of traveling is experiencing things you wouldn’t experience in your home town, don’t freak out if the sauna is mixed-gender-nude — just mind the etiquette rules that you’ll be expected to adhere to.
If you’re an ABBA fan, by all means check out the ABBA Museum. I avoided this one after being warned by an Australian expat living in Sweden that he was ready to puncture his eardrums after two hours.
Skansen, a historical park depicting how Swedes lived in the olden days, is apparently hugely popular among those who can tolerate large numbers of families with children.
Q. When is the best time to go?
A. Summer. Stockholm sits slightly above 59° North latitude, making it one of the most northerly large cities in the world. In fact, it’s further north than Churchill. At this latitude, the summer days are even longer than they are in Winnipeg, while the winter days are even shorter and darker. Hence, Stockholmers make the best of their summers, which are cloudier than they are in Winnipeg, but generally mild.
Hotel prices tend to be a bit better in the summer, too, as there are fewer business travelers around and there is more competition for price-sensitive holiday travelers.
Q. What is the weather like?
A. As noted, summer days are mild: typically with highs in the low to mid-twenties Celsius during the day, and lows in the low to mid-teens at night. It rains periodically, but not too heavily or frequently.
Q. Are things really expensive there?
A. Stockholm is one of the more expensive cities to visit, but there are ways to mitigate the costs. Find a hotel with a complimentary or affordable buffet breakfast (the ubiquitous, Swedish-based Scandic hotel chain is a safe bet), and eat breakfast like a king so that all you will need is a modest lunch later on. Go for a proper meal later in the day, at a price which is about 25 to 50 percent higher than Winnipeg levels; avoid progressively snacking throughout the day (outside of fika breaks), as the markup over standard Winnipeg prices is higher, and could end up costing as much as a single restaurant meal.
Also be price-aware about buying alcohol or taking taxis, as the prices are typically at least 50 percent greater than Winnipeg prices. See Numbeo.com’s Cost of Living Comparison for more information.
Q. I heard that the taxes are high? Is that true?
A. If you had a hissy fit over the Manitoba Provincial Sales Tax increase, you’ll go into shock over Swedish sales tax, which is 25 percent on many goods. Don’t feel too bad for the Swedes, though, as they do get their money’s worth: car ownership in Stockholm is largely optional even for families with children due to the city’s walkability and the country’s excellent public transportation network, qualified post-secondary students pay no tuition, and the country is ranked near the top in everything from economic competitiveness to freedom from corruption to peacefulness.
But — it is possible for you as a Canadian to get a sales tax refund on purchases that you are taking back to Canada with you, as long as you are carrying them in your carry-on baggage. I’ve never applied for this rebate because: a.) It’s a bit of a hassle, and requires you to have sufficient time at whichever airport you’re exiting the Schengen “border-free Europe” zone at, and, b.) I’m getting a benefit from the safe streets and excellent infrastructure that European cities provide, so it’s not like I’m paying but getting nothing. But if you’ve got a bit of extra airport time and some space in your carry-ons for your purchases, go for it.
Note that in Sweden, sales taxes are included in advertised prices. The price you see is the price you pay.
Q. What is the best way to get there?
A. Since there are no direct flights between Canada and Sweden, you will need to travel via a third country. I would recommend taking Lufthansa’s overnight Toronto-Munich flight, and then making a quick one-hour connection to their mid-morning Munich-Stockholm flight. This is for four reasons:
a.) It gets you into Stockholm earlier, and thus less exhausted, than almost any other option;
b.) Munich is one of Europe’s best airports for making a connection at. I was able to disembark my flight from Canada, clear Immigration, go through airport security, and then walk at a relaxed pace to the departure gate for the flight to Stockholm in 29 minutes flat;
c.) In the unlikely event that you do miss your connection, the next non-stop flight is only about three hours later and would still get you into Stockholm by mid-afternoon;
d.) Lufthansa is a good, reliable airline. I will candidly admit that getting an unexpected and unexplained free upgrade to Business Class on the flight back to Canada makes me a big Lufthansa fan; but I’ve also spot-checked their on-time performance on Flightradar24.com, and estimated that only about five percent of Lufthansa flights arrive more than 30 minutes late — as good as it gets in the business, and a good indication of a company that has its act together.
Alternately, KLM’s Amsterdam hub and SAS’s Copenhagen hub, the latter served by SAS’s Canadian partner Air Canada, should be among the better airports to make connections at. Avoid tight connections at the sprawling Frankfurt-Main, and avoid all connections at much-despised airports such as Chicago O’Hare, any New York City-area airport, London Heathrow or Paris Charles de Gaulle.
Q. Is Sweden part of the “border-free Europe”?
A. Yes, Sweden is part of the Schengen Area, in which people are allowed to move around — even to take up residence in a different country — with minimal hassle. For example, some people live in Sweden but work in Denmark, commuting daily across a bridge that connects the two countries, often without having to even report to a customs officer.
What does that mean for you as a Canadian? You will need to clear Immigration (a.k.a., Passport Control) at the first Schengen Area country that you arrive in; most likely Germany, the Netherlands or Denmark. Since Canadian tourists are generally considered low-risk, it is unlikely that you will be asked more than just the basic questions: the purpose of your visit, how long you intend to stay for, where you plan to visit, etc. Unlike Canada and the U.K., which is not a Schengen country, most if not all Schengen countries do not require you to fill out a paper arrival card or customs declaration before landing.
If you connect through London Heathrow, you should not need to go through British immigration formalities as long as you stay within the secured International areas of the airport. This is easiest if both your inbound and outbound flights arrive and depart from the Star Alliance’s Terminal 2 or British Airways’ Terminal 5.
Even if you are arriving from another Schengen country, you will need to clear Customs on arrival in Sweden. This is a less bureaucratic and less interrogative experience than it is in Canada and the U.S. Like much of Europe, Sweden uses a Green Channel/Red Channel system: walk out of the baggage claim area through the Green Channel exit if you have nothing to declare, or walk into the Red Channel area and speak to a customs officer if you do. (On my arrival in Stockholm, a couple of uniformed officers stood off to the side scanning the crowd. The Green Channel exit was unstaffed, which is not unusual at European airports. Arriving passengers can be spot-checked, however, so don’t try sneaking things through.)
Q. Does Sweden use the Euro as its currency?
A. No, Sweden continues to use its traditional currency, the Krona (shorthand: SEK). One Swedish krona is equal to about 15 cents Cdn. Therefore, $100 Cdn. is equal to about 667 SEK, and 100 SEK is equal to about $15 Cdn.
Q. How much cash should I get?
A. At least 50 percent more than you would go through in Canada during the same period of time. For example, if your cash spending in Canada is about $80 per week, get at least $120 Cdn. worth of Swedish krona, or 800 SEK, before departure or just after arrival.
If you prefer to use plastic, Sweden is a credit/debit card-friendly country, provided that you have a chip card and a four-digit PIN. (Longer or shorter PINs might be problematic.)
Q. What is the best way to get into the city from the airport?
A. Flygbussarna‘s coaches offer the best combination of price and convenience. Coaches to and from Stockholm’s Arlanda airport, 45 kilometres by road north of the city centre, run every 10 minutes during much of the day for $30 Cdn. per person round-trip. The drive takes about 45 minutes. Tickets can be purchased online before leaving Canada.
Commuter trains run every 30 minutes between the airport and Stockholm’s central railway station. How much you will pay depends on whether you buy a single-trip ticket or a multi-day travelcard: a one-way ticket into town costs $20.25 Cdn. per person, while a seven-day travelcard, valid for bus, metro, tram and train travel throughout the Stockholm area with airport privileges, should cost a total of about $73.50 if my calculations are correct. This is an option if you are travelling light — commuter trains might be crowded — and intend to use public transportation frequently during your stay.
Arlanda Express runs swanky, high-speed trains that cover the 45 kilometres between the airport and the city centre in just 20 minutes. But they run at 15-minute intervals, slightly less often than the slower Flygbussarna coaches, and are vastly more expensive at $79.50 Cdn. per person round-trip. Not really worth it unless you want to take a high-speed train just for kicks.
Taxis between the airport and the city cost about $75 Cdn. each way: worthwhile for a family, but couples and solo travelers will get better value by taking a coach if they’re staying at a hotel within the city centre. (Or try your luck with Uber.)
Q. Where would be a good place to stay?
A. In or near Norrmalm is your best bet. This will put you within walking distance of much of what the city has to offer, and close to Central Station and metro and tram stops for trips further afield.
Staying in the centre of the city, even if it’s more expensive than staying in a suburb, has two advantages. First, you can drop off any purchases you make during the day, or run back quickly to pick up or drop off a rain jacket or umbrella. Second, you can more easily return to use the toilet, bearing in mind that public toilets in Europe are not always as easy to find and sometimes are pay-to-use. (Even in the expensive NK department store, it costs 10 SEK, or $1.50 Cdn., to use the restrooms.)
Q. Is it safe in Stockholm?
A. Yes, quite safe, though some would recommend being cautious around metro stations, streets outside of pubs, and the Sergels Torg sunken plaza at night. There are only about 90 homicides per year in the entire nation of Sweden out of a population of 9.5 million; this would be roughly equivalent to Winnipeg experiencing just 6-7 homicides per year.
Visitors’ primary concern should be in not making themselves easy targets for pickpockets and bag-snatchers. Take only what you need for the day with you, and leave the rest in your hotel room safe; and familiarize yourself with these anti-theft tips from Frommer’s and the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police.
Don’t bother with the strange new trend of wearing your backpack on your belly instead of on your back. It looks ridiculous; it automatically flags you as a tourist who is likely carrying more valuables around than the typical local person and who won’t be in town long enough to see justice carried out; and if you have your passport and your credit and debit cards all in one backpack, you’ll be royally screwed if a thief does get ahold of it. (For that second reason — not flagging yourself as a tourist — I recommend not sporting a Canadian flag while traveling. Or wearing white sneakers, which is apparently another give-away that someone is a North American.)
Q. What is the best way to eat affordably in Stockholm?
A. Stockholm’s Middle Eastern eateries offer meat and vegetables in good portions for moderate prices. A hearty Shish Tawouk plate at the STHLM Bistro in central Stockholm costs only 99 SEK ($15 Cdn.), and the city’s various kebab places offer similar value.
Unlike Canada, advertised Swedish prices include sales taxes, so the price you see is the price you pay. As restaurant servers in Sweden are relatively well-compensated compared to their Canadian counterparts, tips are normally limited to rounding the bill up to the nearest multiple of 10 or 20 Swedish krona ($1.50 to $3.00 Cdn.), which usually works out to five or 10 percent. A Canadian-style 15 percent tip would be a bit extravagant, akin to giving a Canadian server a 30 percent tip.
Avoid restaurants in Gamla Stan, the touristy old-town area, which are less reliant on repeat business than restaurants elsewhere in the city and therefore have less of a vested interest in your being satisfied. Instead, eat where the Stockholmers eat, which is basically in any other part of the city.
Q. Should I rent a car?
A. No, unless you’re planning to travel out into rural areas poorly served by Sweden’s excellent public transport system. Stockholm is by no means a “car town”, which is a good thing as a car town is a dull town. Parking for one hour on a weekday afternoon in central Stockholm typically costs $9 to $13.50 Cdn., vehicles entering the city are subject to congestion charges of up to $9 Cdn. per vehicle per day, and Stockholm gas prices are currently about $2.15 Cdn. per litre. And for all that expense, driving won’t save you much time: a trip from Central Station to the hip Södermalm area, for instance, takes 10-20 minutes both by car and by Metro.
In fact, while in Stockholm, you might notice that a fair bit of freedom can be gained by not driving. As a pedestrian or public transport user, you’ll be free to have a drink or two even on an empty stomach without worry, you can wander more because you won’t be tethered by the need to stay close to where you parked your vehicle, and going out on the town will be less expensive and involve less effort.
Q. Do people speak English there?
A. Approximately 86 percent of Swedes are able to speak English well enough to carry on a conversation, and many will quickly switch to English if they detect that you are not a Swede. It is a second language, though, so don’t assume that they know jargon or nuances that most Canadians would know: keep your English simple and direct.
As always when traveling in a foreign country, it is considered good form to know and to use basic niceties such as hello (hej), please and thank you (tack in both instances) and pardon me (ursäkta mig). Hej is pronounced identically to the English word hey, tack is pronounced the same way as the English word by the same spelling, and ursäkta mig is pronounced ur-shack-ta mye.
Q. Are the people friendly?
A. Stockholmers can seem rather aloof by Winnipeg standards, but also calmer and more polite. As in the other Nordic countries, respect for others’ privacy is both offered and expected, and asking questions that cross that privacy threshold — even questions we take for granted such as “What did you do this weekend?” — might be seen as impolite in their view.
This can have its benefits however. For example, in a Swedish restaurant, servers will not hang around your table, and might not even approach unless they see some indication that you wish to speak to them or that you’ve finished the meal. While this might be considered poor service in Canada, it is considered good service in Sweden, as the server is making a point of respecting your privacy.
But once again, Swedes are remarkably polite and civil, and you can count on being treated courteously wherever you go.
Q. How do they feel about Canadians?
A. Swedes aren’t the type to offer unsolicited opinions to strangers, so it’s not readily apparent. My best guess is that it’s probably a benignly neutral view, possibly leaning positive — but that they don’t really give us much more thought than we give them.
Q. Do people really dress up nicely in Stockholm?
A. They tend to be conservative-casual dressers: well-fitting, unostentatious, neutral or moderately coloured clothes are fashionable; excessively baggy or flashy clothes are not. Jeans and t-shirts are fine as long as they meet this criteria. Leave the sweat pants at home, as you would probably be considered an oddball for wearing such clothing in public in Stockholm, and in much of the world outside of North America for that matter.
Stockholm in Images
Twenty years ago, Södermalm was the last place one would go as a tourist in Stockholm. Today, it’s a must-see neighbourhood due to its historic character and its status as a “hipster haven”.
Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s oldest neighbourhood, can be annoyingly touristy — but also beautiful.
Central Stockholm’s Kungsträdgården Park is the site of many free events, and a fine place for people watching.
Head down to Hotorget Plaza in Stockholm’s Norrmalm area on Sundays to experience a genuine European market.
I wonder what kind of reaction the owner would get driving that middle van around Winnipeg?
The Canadian government’s travel information page for Sweden
Kwintessential’s guide to Swedish etiquette