I had a 4-day weekend in mid-September and was looking to make the most of the time off. My cousin Lana had recently moved to Sweden with her boyfriend Fredrik. I had never been to Sweden and figured September would be the latest I would want to visit Sweden due to the famously cold and dark winters. My girlfriend Maisie was also in Europe and wanted to meet me. The flights worked out well for both of us thanks to Norwegian Airlines: 100 Euros roundtrip for me and a 220 Euro non-stop from Stockholm back to Los Angeles for her. It was meant to be!
September 20, 2019: The Flight In
The flight from Barcelona to Arlanda Airport took 3 hours and was relatively uneventful. I landed around midnight. Once on the ground, I took the speedy Arlanda Express train into town. The train took 20 minutes to travel 39 kilometers and used 100% renewable energy. The kicker is that it cost 300 Swedish kronor (approximately $30 USD) for the one-way trip. The Arlanda Express is representative of Stockholm: well-run, beautiful and environmentally friendly but expensive.
From Central Station, I walked 10 minutes to the surprisingly chic Best Western And Hotel where Maisie was waiting for me.
September 21, 2019: Reunions
Due to my late arrival, we got a late start on Saturday morning: 10 AM. After enjoying the surprisingly delicious hotel breakfast (the Best Western has caviar?!?!?), we scootered over to a flea market in the neighborhood of Ostermalm. There, I met up with my friend Birgitta who I met in the Marshall Islands and Micronesia. She has now been to 190 countries. We chatted about our various adventures (she just came back from Yemen and Afghanistan where she met the President). Unfortunately, she recently broke her leg by tripping over a scooter in Stockholm and had to take a 3-month break from traveling. It is ironic that she her injury occurred in what might be the world’s safest country.
After a wonderful chat, we then walked over to meet Lana and Fredrik. They led us through the streets of Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town. The weather was an unseasonably high 19 degrees Centigrade (66 Fahrenheit) and everyone was out to enjoy the beautiful day.
Stockholm was founded in the 1200’s on an archipelago. The tiny island of Gamla Stan was the original townsite. Today, Stockholm has expanded to many other islands, but Gamla Stan has remained as the historic heart of the city. Most of Stockholm feels super modern, but Gamla Stan still has the medieval charm with narrow alleys and cobblestone streets.
Gamla Stan’s main attraction is the Royal Palace. However, we instead decided to visit the Nobel Museum, dedicated to the famous prize which is awarded in Sweden. We took a guided tour (included in the admission price) which explained a lot about the prize.
The prize and all the rules were devised in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite. Nobel created the prize after reading an article condemning him for profiting off the sale of weapons. The prizes are awarded in six categories: Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Economics, Literature and Peace. There is no overarching Nobel prize committee that decides all the awards; rather each award is selected by a different group. For example, the literature prize is awarded by the Swedish Academy, the world’s highest authority of the Swedish language. All of the prizes are awarded by Swedish groups except for the Peace Prize which is selected by the Parliament of Norway and awarded in Oslo.
Once the respective bodies select the winners, the winners (except for Peace) are flown out to Stockholm for a ceremony in early December. There they receive the award during a ceremony completely in Swedish. The prize consists of a medal, a diploma and 9 million Swedish kronor (approximately $950,000 USD). In addition to coming to Sweden (or Norway) for the ceremony, the only requirement for receiving the prize is that the recipient give a speech on their topic.
After the museum, we got a traditional Swedish lunch at Den Gyldene Freden, the oldest restaurant in Sweden. It was founded in 1722, 3 years before Botin in Madrid which claims to be the oldest continuously-operating restaurant in the world. I’m have no idea how these superlatives work but my guess is that Den Gyldene Freden closed down for some point during its 294-year history. We ordered a large number of Swedish small plates including pickled herring, crayfish, and mushrooms with truffle cream.
With full stomachs, the four of us wandered around the neighborhood of Sodermalm which inhabits the island just south of Gamla Stan. Sodermalm is the hippest neighborhood in Stockholm. The charming streets were full of galleries and restaurants. The neighborhood didn’t have any real tourist sights.
Near Sodermalm is Fotografiska, the world’s largest photography museum and my favorite in all of Stockholm. The first floor showcased the works of legendary British photographer Jimmy Nelson on his quest to showcase indigenous cultures around the world. After was an exhibit on the Holocaust with quotes from survivors living in Sweden. On the second floor there were two exhibits, one of the Serra Palada gold mine in Brazil from where thousands of people searched for riches. The photos from this were some of the most powerful I have ever seen. The final exhibit featured taxidermies being burned. The artist claims that the animals are being “set free”. The top floor had a bar where we watched the sun set and Michelin-starred restaurant. Also of note: Fotografiska is open until 11pm on weekdays and 1am on weekends.
Later on, we went for a lovely dinner in Ostermalm to wrap up the day.
September 22, 2019: Drottingholm and More Museums
Maisie and I set out to see the Drottingholm Palace. The Palace is the current residence of the King and Queen of Sweden and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Drottingholm is a few miles outside of Stockholm but is easily accessed by public transportation.
Sweden’s Royal Family has no political power. They often represent the government of Sweden at events both in Sweden and abroad. The monarchy has mixed popularity. Many like the royals but others see no need for them in a modern Sweden.
The first thing I noticed is the strange location of the palace: it is located right off a major four-lane road. I was also surprised by the lack of security. The King of Sweden had exactly one guard stationed in front of his house and two in the back.
2/3 of Drottingholm Palace is open to the public. The only part not open is the south wing where the King and Queen actually live. The walls were covered in a dizzying displays of paintings and ornate decorations.
While the palace was exceedingly ornate, it appeared to be noticeably less-nice than other European royal palaces I have visited (the competition is admittedly quite intense). Some places did not have real gold fixtures and instead were painted to look like gold fixtures. The lighting was also dark because there were not many chandeliers. Did the Swedish Royal Family not have the money of other Royals back in the day or was it because of the Swedish culture of modesty to be ever so slightly more low-key than France?
Behind the Palace are beautiful gardens where Maisie and I enjoyed a nice stroll. In the way back is the Chinese Pavilion (Kina Slott): a small two-story structure from the 1760’s that served as a summer retreat for the monarchs. Kina Slott also had painted gold fixtures and reminded me on the outside of something I would find in Six Flags. However, the inside was nicer. 50% of the pieces were actually created in Europe by artists guessing what China looked like. At the time China had the reputation in Europe as paradise on earth – although very few had actually been. The other 50% of the pieces were from China specifically for export to Europe. These artists had to guess what Europeans wanted despite having never been to Europe.
Something Maisie and I both liked was that the Swedish Royal Family actually had hobbies. One room of the Chinese Pavilion was a metal workshop where one of the Queens would create metal objects such as shovels. Another room contained drawings by one of the Kings.
Back in Stockholm we got a traditional Swedish lunch in Gamla Stan before heading to Riddarholmskykan. This ancient church is the burial grounds for the Kings of Sweden (and others too). The ancient tombs were covered in gold, crowns, and intense stonework. The modern tombs on the other hand were considerably simpler in design.
Also decorating the church were heraldic crests from Seraphim Knights and important dignitaries who presumably visited the church. These include the King of Thailand and the President of Liberia.
Maisie and I then headed over to the recently refurbished Nationalmuseum (National Museum). This museum has historically been Stockholm’s main art museum. In addition to the significant collection of European and Scandinavian art, this museum distinguished itself with its collection of Swedish furniture and appliance designs from the 20th century. Starting in the early 20th century, Sweden (and all of Scandinavia) became an epicenter for Modern furniture design. The museum showcased many of the chairs, tables, couches, lamps and even waffle irons designed by Swedes.
We then headed over to visit Lana and Fredrik’s beautiful apartment in Kungsholmen where we got a wonderful dinner at a local restaurant. I ate reindeer!!
September 23, 2019: Museum Island
This was our final real day in Stockholm. Tomorrow, we would have no time to do anything other than head to the airport.
For our last day, Maisie and I visited the island of Djurgarden. The island has a bunch of museums… and not much else. We visited three museums.
The first museum was the Vasa Museum, Stockholm’s top tourist attraction. The Vasa was a warship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628. Lost for 320 years in the murky waters of Stockholm harbor, it was discovered by an amateur archaeologist in the 1950’s. In 1961 the Swedish government raised the ship from the ocean floor in an event televised worldwide. The Vasa was then coated in glycerin and stored in a temporary museum before being moved to its current home in 1990.
Vasa is the only intact 17th century warship ever salvaged and is miraculously over 95% intact. The ship is massive and truly a sight to see. The museum is especially interesting because the story takes place over three completely different time periods: the 1600’s when the boat was built, launched and sunk, the mid 1900’s when the boat was salvaged from the sea and today where scientists and authorities are doing their best to preserving the ship.
Seven minutes from the Vasa Museum is the ABBA Museum. ABBA is arguably Sweden’s greatest cultural export (IKEA has a strong case too).
The band was formed by two couples: Benny and Frida (Anni) and Agnetha and Bjorn. When vacationing on Cyprus together they tried singing as a group of four. They liked what they heard and eventually decided to form a group. The first few singles were released under the name “Bjorn and Benny” but they soon changed their name to ABBA which is an acronym of their first names.
They had a few hits in Sweden, but their big break came at the 1974 Eurovision song contest. They won the entire contest with the song “Waterloo” and catapulted to international stardom. For the next 7 years they would tour the world and produce some of the most well-known pop hits ever.
However, the strain of being on the road ultimately became too much to bear. Both marriages dissolved and the band decided to “take a break” in 1982. They made a few private appearances throughout the 1980’s but would never perform publicly or record again. All four have continued to make music, but the two men Bjorn and Benny had the most success. After ABBA the two men created a musical called Chess then worked together on the Mamma Mia! soundtracks.
I was especially intrigued by ABBA’s songwriting process. Benny would create a song on his piano using nonsense lyrics. Then the song would form. This appears to be the opposite of most songwriters who start with the lyrics.
While I had low expectations, the ABBA Museum was surprisingly well-done and informative albeit silly at times.
The final museum of the day was Skansen. Skansen is an open-air museum and is quite unique. In the late 1800’s the founder purchased farmhouses from all over Sweden and brought them to Stockholm for their preservation. Today, visitors can tour the farmhouses which all have historic reenactors in period costume to explain. Skansen also has a zoo featuring Nordic animals. The closest thing I have seen to Skansen would be Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, USA.
In the evening, Maisie and I met up with Lana and Fredrik for rooftop drinks and a farewell dinner.
We got dinner at Aifur, a Viking-themed restaurant in Gamla Stan. When we walked in to the dimly lit restaurant, we were greeted by the host, a man with a long braided beard and a Viking outfit. He asked me a number of questions including our names, countries and professions. It seemed a little nosy, but perhaps he was stalling until our table cleared, but no.
The host then walked us out to a platform above all the tables. Then he blew a Viking horn which caused the entire restaurant to stop eating. “Attention everyone!” he said, “We have Bryce, Maisie, and Lana from the United States and they even brought a Swede!” The restaurant erupted in applause us as we soaked it all in.
At the table, we ordered mead and beer in giant mugs. The menu had dishes with interesting Viking-themed names such as “Indulgence of the Raven Lord”. Throughout the night, guests kept coming in and being introduced. I absolutely loved Aifur and would highly recommend it to any visitor to Sweden. The one annoyance is that the Vikings never invented a three-pronged fork – only two-pronged.
As we walked back to the hotel on this final night, I marveled at the impressive society that Sweden had built. With the exception of weather, the quality of life in Stockholm appears to be superior to the US in every way. They have a strong commitment to improving the lives of all citizens, not just the rich. They place a high value on design and functionality. Decisions seem to be based on science and empathy rather than ego and nationalism. And climate change/environmental impact is a part of every conversation.
Yes they have their problems too, but they are far more minor than other places. The world can certainly learn a lot from Sweden.