by Jana Thevar
There’s absolutely no doubt that Sweden is a stunningly gorgeous country. It’s true that the winters are bitter, dark and long. However, the moment spring comes around, one gets a peek of what paradise looks like in Scandinavia.
There’s no shortage of tourist spots in Stockholm, and they’re all worth it. However, if you have a little more time in the city (or if you’ve done the whole major-tourist-spot thing on a previous visit), here are 10 ways to actually experience the city like a Stockholm native. It’s not so much the place that counts, but what you do and how you do it.
What I love about Stockholm? It has a vibe that I can only liken to gourmet dark chocolate. Smooth, sophisticated, bittersweet. Slightly unyielding until you fully embrace it, and then you experience the irresistible dark seduction, the honeyed softness hidden within its fluid shadows (perhaps what I’m trying to say here is that it’s fucking elegant in a badass way).
Forget the ABBA museum, that warship and the overly-hyped stuff. Here’s how you become local in Stockholm, at least from my perspective. In addition, learn how to work around Systembolaget, get your SL transportation passes and you’re good to go.
1. Picnic in Skansen
Skansen is basically a huge, open-air ‘living’ museum and zoo. Yes it’s a tourist spot, but there’s something really authentic about it. This is one way to experience Stockholm from a Swedish child’s point of view.
Skansen sprawls over acres of lush, green hillside (okay, only in spring / summer) and consists of olden-days Swedish stuff like restored historical Viking farms and villages, complete with real people dressed the part. So, you have ‘villagers’ baking bread (you’ll be offered some with freshly-churned butter), tending to animals, running the apothecary and serving you tea with lingonberry scones. They have native Scandinavian animals in spacious enclosures including moose, reindeer, farm animals, wolves and foxes.
I thought this place was for kids, but boy was I wrong! I had a blast. The best place for a picnic is at the peak during summer, where you get an amazing view of the city – if I’m not mistaken, this is somewhere near the bear enclosure. A must-visit – it’ll bring out the child in anyone. So pack yourself a lunch (because eating out is expensive in Stockholm) and head over to this place, it’s easily accessible via public transportation.
2. Have fika in the Old Town
Gamla Stan literally translates to ‘old town’, and that’s exactly what it is. It’s a fantastic place, with the old building facades and architecture maintained from the Viking age.
However, Gamla Stan has come a long way from its guillotine-beheading days (I’m not kidding, this happened at the main square in ancient times, and the decapitated heads were rolled down the winding streets to be gathered at certain points for disposal, or so the locals told me).
These days, it consists of elegant, swanky cafes and restaurants, plus stores selling everything from clothing to souvenirs. A great place to have your fika while people-watching, or if you’re as morbid as I am, staring at the cobblestone paths wondering what it would be like if a bloodied head rolled down right past you.
3. Visit the world’s only round IKEA
I think it would be sacrilegious to be in Stockholm and NOT visit the largest IKEA in the world, situated in the outskirts of Stockholm in Kungens Kurva.
It’s pretty much your regular local IKEA except that it’s freaking huge, located in the motherland of flat-packed furniture AND – here’s the carrot – it’s ROUND. Yes, like a cake, so you walk through the store in wide, spiraling circles. How cool is that? There’s a free bus from Vasagatan near the main train station, so there’s no excuse – at least go there and get a tea towel or something.
4. Hate the red horse
Every Swede I know despises the dalahäst, the iconic Swedish red horse. I’ve no clue why they detest this innocent-looking creature so much, probably because it’s so touristy-overrated. Nobody seems to know what it signifies or how it came about, but legend has it that farmers carved these things as toys for their kids, to keep them entertained during the long, harsh winters.
So, make sure you turn up your nose at the dalahäst and pretend that you’re too cool to care about it while you’re in Stockholm. Then, go out and secretly buy one for yourself to be taken home. They’re actually super cute, with highly-detailed painted-on flowers and everything.
5. Try moose or reindeer meat
Okay, I feel mean recommending this (and I couldn’t bring myself to eat these when I was there), but these meats are quite common in Sweden. Reindeer are raised like cattle in the far North, and moose are commonly hunted. So, in respect of the local culture, and me attempting to be as objective as I can as a travel writer, this is something you can consider. Or, be like me and just have a good look at all the stuff that fascinates you but you can’t bear to indulge in.
As I try not to condone animal cruelty, the alternative is that Sweden is wonderfully vegan-friendly. Vegans here will simply be spoilt for choice. Take a trip to any major Swedish grocer like Coop, ICA, Eko, City Gross and Willy’s to sample the wide variety of local foods and all the yummy vegan options.
6. Go to a crayfish party
Crayfish parties, known as kräftskiva, are quite a thing in Sweden. They’re held around August and people basically gather (usually outdoors if the weather is good) for a picnic-get-together thing with family and friends while feasting on boiled crayfish seasoned with dill.
You could still join the party if you don’t eat meat, just bring your own food and nobody will mind – Swedes are very used to vegans. They key is to soak in that wonderful red-gold, Swedish summer-autumn sun and just have fun.
7. Try typical Swedish foods
As with any country, Sweden has its uniquely-local fare. These are some I highly recommend, especially for fika:
• Lingon berries (these only grow in Scandinavia)
• Punschrulle (I don’t know why this word means ‘vacuum cleaners’, it’s just pastry made of marzipan and chocolate)
• Plankstek (steak served on a wooden board, surrounded by mashed potatoes)
•Prinsesstårta (Swedish Princess cake, made of whipped cream and topped with a marzipan dome)
• Various food pastes in tubes (a very local thing, just like Kalles Kaviar – these can be eaten with crackers or bread)
• Hönökaka (flat Swedish bread, super delicious, goes great with butter)
• Blåbärssoppa (translation: blueberry soup)
• Oatly (Swedish vegan milk, goes well with anything)
• Knäckebröd (Tastes like cardboard, but as you only live once, try it anyway)
Skip the rotten herring (surströmming) unless you have a death wish, even the Swedish dogs I know can’t stomach it.
8. Shop at local haunts
No, not H & M.
Generally, shopping in Sweden is a unique experience. True, almost nothing is made here except Marabou chocolates, but it’s more of the way everything is structured around shopping – you’ll need to experience it yourself to really know what I’m trying to say.
And I’m talking about things in everyday city stores in Stockholm where Swedes get their regular stuff, like Acne Studios, Åhléns and Clas Ohlson. For instance, Clas Ohlson is a hardware store, but you could buy a full fine art set there (think French acrylics, easels, carving tools, chisels, high-end brushes). Zebra-print kitchen knives. Fuchsia-pink toasters with complete matching kitchen sets. Owl-shaped silicone baking trays. Winter hunting socks.
Another store, Indiska, has some of the most beautiful items I’ve ever seen. Indiska, meaning ‘Indian’ in Swedish, sells everything from clothing to house furnishings, all with a New-Age-Indian touch. Very unique offerings. Forget those tacky Viking helmets with the fake golden braids; go here for classy souvenirs.
9. Experience laundry day
Hah! The Swedes and their laundry days are quite something. Never, ever try to influence a Swede about changing plans for laundry day schedules – NOT GOING TO HAPPEN. For any reason.
I found this whole laundry thing in Stockholm intriguing because I come from a tropical country, where it’s pretty much blazing summer heat all year round, every single day. Most Malaysians have a washing machine at home, and it’s just a matter of chucking your clothes into one, putting on a fully automated cycle and finally hanging the clothes out to dry in your yard.
Stockholm natives take their laundry days very seriously. From pre-booking laundry room slots, sorting the clothes to gathering the cleaning stuff, they are so meticulous about the whole process that it’s a mesmerizing phenomenon to watch and experience.
I’ve seen guys that looked like they fell off the stage during a black metal concert, (complete with tattoos, leather gauntlets and flowing demonic hair) walking into the tvättstuga with dainty little packages of pink softener and eco-friendly detergent.
Well, that’s Sweden. \m/ for life indeed, but make sure you smell like roses while screaming about Satan and death from the mosh pit.
10. Hunt for kantarell
Patches of forest are plentiful in Sweden, even around Stockholm. There’s almost nothing I loved more than hiking the Swedish forests during mushroom season, generally between August and September. The air is sharp, fresh, cool and crisp. The grounds are blanketed with moss, pine needles and rhubarb shoots. Sometimes, you’ll see deer and hedgehogs.
While this is a fun activity, watch it – don’t go alone, especially if you haven’t a clue about edible mushrooms in Sweden. It’s better to go with a seasoned mushroom-picker (you know, to avoid killing yourself). While Sweden has numerous delicious local fungi like the Karljohan and champinjon, the ultimate prize for any mushroom-hunter is the golden kantarell. Finding some is as exhilarating as finding that proverbial pot of gold (and just as difficult, because everyone’s after the same thing). If you’re as clueless as I am about mushrooms, you can do what I do; mushroom-hunt for the heck of it, check them out, then forget about it and go buy some kantarell from the local grocery store. Fry them with butter and you have an amazing snack.