Many people know Sweden for its famous exports, most notably IKEA and Saab. Perhaps you’ve also heard of Sweden’s penchant for hanging pennants and its simple modern style, if you know a little more about Scandinavian design. Maybe you’ve even tasted elderflower in a cocktail or sampled lingonberry jam (perhaps in an IKEA cafeteria…). Combined with socialist ideals, that about sums up what I knew of Sweden prior to my visit.
What I discovered was a multi-colored city bravely lit against the impending darkness of a Scandinavian winter. I saw no blue sky during my time in Stockholm, but this liberal and intellectual gem of Scandinavia shone brightly nonetheless.
Physically, Stockholm is perhaps the smallest capital city I’ve encountered to date. An excellent transit system connects this grouping of islands across a waterway running from Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea.
I stayed on Södermalm, today a trendy island in the south of the city which is chock-full of bike lanes, antique shops, and lamps.
I quickly learned that an individual’s lighting choices can say a lot about one’s personality. In the land of the midnight sun to the near constant darkness of a Swedish winter, lighting demands serious attention in this land of extremes. Every cafe I entered featured candles under open flame, casting a cozy warmth over their interiors and bracing against the dry cold outside.
Friendly shopkeepers greeted me with a casual “hej, hej”, which sounds more like “hey, hey” to the American ear. Such a friendly way to be greeted, and with a smile no less! This treatment after Russia and Paris definitely made the American in me feel welcome.
Sweden is extremely liberal, both politically and personally. A number of shops touted S&M in my hipster neighborhood and locals tell me that all sexual preferences are welcome here.
My friend Jenna, who has lived in Sweden for nearly 10 years and is married to a Swed, tells me she couldn’t imagine starting a family anywhere else. She and her husband Tomas have two 20 month old girls (the beautiful blondies seen below). They were both given 6 months off per child with full pay. And even now they are still able to take unlimited sick days whenever the girls are ill. Incredible. I asked her how they make it work, knowing that so much of a Swed’s salary is devoted to the high taxes to pay for healthcare, pension, etc. She said simply that there aren’t many additional expenses beyond housing. Daycare is free and only a block from their house. Stockholm’s wonderful transportation system is subsidized. Sweden clearly goes to great lengths to take care of its people. If you’re curious to read more about the Swedish system, here’s more on the Nordic Model.
There is a decidedly intellectual air about Stockholm. Art and design are woven into the fabric of everyday life. Wandering the city, I spotted many design firms, each with a unique style of decor and presentation.
Sculpture installation at the Modern Museet.
On a slushy day, I spent an afternoon at the Moderna Museet. Located on a harbor island, the museum houses a great collection of modern art as well as a wing devoted to Swedish architecture and design, known as the ArkDes.
Also while out wandering, I ran across the Nobel Museum in Gamla stan, the Old Town portion of the city.
Exhibits highlighting the work of Nobel winners, past and present.
I spent a few hours geeking out over exhibits on the Higgs Boson (I have a fascination with CERN from my time in Switzerland) and Alfred Nobel‘s original experiments during his childhood time in St. Petersburg.
Salmon (lax) is always on the menu along with creme fraiche. I had lunch at Ostermalms Saluhall on the recommendation of my friends Devi and Derek – definitely an awesome spot for enjoying Stockholm’s tastiest treats.
On my final night in Stockholm, I had the chance to visit Skogskyrkogarden with the whole family. A special cemetery on the outskirts of Stockholm, Sweds from all over flock to Skogskyrkogarden to honor their loved ones on All Saints’ Day. I was really lucky that my trip overlapped with this year’s celebration.
As the website states, “All Saints’ Day is a day of dignity and reflection. The custom of lighting candles on family graves is still widely practiced, and anyone passing a cemetery in Sweden this weekend is met by some beautiful scenes.”
Modest graves dot the forest floor. Loved ones come to spend time remembering their loved ones.
This visit seemed to only scratch the surface of what Stockholm had to offer. I certainly learned a thing or two about how to make the best of living in a dark, Northern land. On the whole, I came to appreciate Sweden’s love of the light and their strength of spirit. I would love to return in the summer at the Solstice – an incredible time of year, I’m told, full of outdoor parties and celebration. For now, hej då, Stockholm! Thank you for your warm hospitality.