Nine people, six days, one house in a foreign country. Sounds like the premise of a new reality television show, no?
Fortunately for me, my friends are more Real Simple than Real Housewives. The most dramatic thing we did was book the trip itself in the fall. One serendipitous day, our little jetsetter A received an alert about cheap direct flights on Norwegian Air. An hour’s worth of breathless emails later, we were officially Stockholm-bound!
Knowing next to nothing about Sweden before my trip, I imagined a fair land full of fair people. This, it turns out, isn’t far from the truth. Stockholm is full of blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauties, many of whom ride bike around the city with effortless grace (often while wearing black cocoon coats and wood-soled heels). The Swedes truly own their aesthetic, including beyond fashion. Stockholm itself has very clear architectural identities, capitalizing on their gorgeous natural setting. At times, I felt like I was on a Disney set; the streets were so clean, the parks so green and the buildings so chic. It nearly felt sterile, in a way that made me miss the diversity and nitty-gritty of American cities. Soon enough, however, I found myself warming up to Scandinavia’s prim, proper charms. As an American, I felt welcome; as an Anglophone, I had no trouble communicating. I studied the simple design elements around me, from pot lids to cafeteria seating. I enjoyed the mild weather, which mirrored Northern California’s quite closely. “I could get used to this,” I thought to myself… and then, of course, it was over.
I now find myself back in the mists of San Francisco, dreaming about my week of spring in Sweden.
The big day! One by one, couple by couple, we arrived at Oakland International Airport, cheering with relief and enthusiasm every time someone showed up at the gate. However, once boarding had started, we started sweating. Where was K? Last we’d heard, he’d been on public transportation — no word if he’d managed to get to the airport and past the insanely long check-in line. As we started queuing up for final call, however, the crowds parted. There he was, striding purposefully towards the gate, duffel bag slung across his arm, simultaneously radiant and totally flustered. I screamed with excitement. The trip was already off to a very exciting start.
As for the flight itself: we’d been a bit nervous about using Norwegian Air’s nickel-and-dime service, but it turned out beautifully. Though we didn’t pay for “luxuries” like seat reservations or on-board meals, we planned carefully and missed none of those amenities. Because most of us were on the same reservation, we got seats next to each other (and were also able to politely request that others get placed nearby). Each of us also packed enormous caches of food, including burritos and pizza (!). K even put together adorable brown-bag lunches for the whole gang. Just delightful.
I’ve got to hand it to Norwegian Air. We felt like highway robbers paying only $500 roundtrip for a ride on their Boeing Dreamliner. Never before have I paid attention to aircraft models, but this plane felt roomy and rode smoothly. Also of note: instead of using a pull-down shade, the windows can be magically dimmed. Technology is so cool.
We booked our digs, as always, using AirBnB, taking a chance on a four bedroom townhome with no reviews. We were happily surprised when we walked through the front door. The space was beautiful, with lots of natural light, simple and eclectic art, and sleek Scandinavian design elements. The enormous windows and wooden deck looked out on the water. Most importantly: it was roomy enough to (very comfortably) fit our family of nine!
After settling in, we explored the surrounding neighborhood. Hammarby Sjöstad was previously an industrial zone, but is now rapidly, thoughtfully modernizing. This can be seen in new developments such as Nya Carnegiebryggerie (New Carnegie Brewery), the gorgeous Swedish little sister of Brooklyn Brewery in NYC. Only steps away from our apartment, we stopped by a few nights for drinks. The beers were excellent, but service was only polite in a please-have-your-drink-and-get-the-hell-out-of-here way. I suppose few people want to serve tourists late into a weekday night! In our defense, it never looked as late as it really was. Being so high north, Sweden typically has lots of gorgeous daylight in the summer (and too little of it in the winter). The bright skies didn’t help our jet lag, but it did make for some very picturesque witching hour walks.
Another neat geographical fact about Stockholm is that it’s made of fourteen different islands. I hadn’t realized, prior to visiting, that Stockholm was built on an archipelago consisting of over 30% waterways and another 30% green spaces. Its rugged coastal setting makes sense, given that Scandinavia was once home to those seafaring Norsemen, vikings. Jay, obviously, wouldn’t stop with the Game of Thrones references (“Where’s the Citadel? This is Old Town. The Iron Islands are so cold…”).
Gamla Stan (Old Town)
Speaking of old legends, Stockholm proudly protects a historic neighborhood in the heart of the city. Gamla Stan, or literally “The Old Town,” was built in the 13th century, consisting of twisting alleyways, ancient arches, cobblestone streets, and incredible period architecture. We had fun wandering the narrow, winding streets, most of which were pedestrian-only and crammed with boutiques and restaurants. We climbed up a series of steeper streets to arrive at the central square, where the Nobel Museum sits (and where you can order any menu from the previous ceremonies!). The day that we went, there was a lovely group of costumed folk dancers performing in front of the building.
A familiar smell greeted us at one turn — Swedish children were hawking waffles, made to order (using a press, plugged in via numerous extension cords) and topped with your choice of syrups and jams. It called to mind American lemonade stands, except impossibly more rad. Gamla Stan: history, heritage, waffles.
Completely different in atmosphere is Södermalm, the trendy, hip district of Stockholm. Located on the island between our home in Hammarsby Sjöstad and Gamla Stan, Södermalm is a vibrant community fostering culture, nightlife, and excellent food. My friends and I spent the majority of our downtime checking out the cute boutiques and cafes. Our favorite areas were built around town squares (torgets):
- Mariatorget: K and I wandered here in search of pastries at Chic Konditori, an adorable bakery facing a beautiful parklet. There are tons of wonderful cafes lining this area, but Drop Coffee makes an especially mean mug. Sandqvist, the maker of utilitarian backpacks seen on nearly every young Swede, also has their flagship store in this area.
- Nytorget: A Swede described this area as having “beautiful hipsters”… and it’s true! This was our go-to neighborhood. We loved grabbing appetizers at Urban Deli, stopping for coffee breaks at random cafes, and walking around window shopping. (Side note: the same Swede also tipped us off about Hornstull, another hipster haven in Södermalm, though we weren’t able to visit.)
On our first night, we were walking to Södermalm when we noticed noises coming from underneath a bridge. Trädgården, a beer garden, was serving liquor, playing music, flashing lights, and absolutely bumpin’ on a Saturday night. Later, Jay, K and I returned for a casual afternoon beer… but found ourselves in the middle of a punk rock show, complete with disco ball, fog machine, and all-girl rrriot bands. It was wonderful people watching, as Trädgården attracted people of all ages and types (not to mention, exceptionally handsome security guards). You know how, when traveling, sometimes you get lucky and just stumble upon an unexpected good time? This was one of them.
If a bohemian scene doesn’t satisfy, head on over to Östermalm (known among certain circles as bougie central). The bustling streets, crowded retail stores, and fancy buildings were a total change of pace from the previous districts — a true downtown. Friends picked up some cute wardrobe pieces, though I clung in fear to my poor wallet; the exchange rate wasn’t doing me any favors. In any case, enjoying the beauty of the district costs absolutely nothing. Swedes are fantastic urban planners; Östermalm was busy, but not overwhelming or ostentatious. Beautiful buildings hid quiet, serene alleyways. Humlegården, a beautiful expanse of green space, and the national library sat nearby as an easy escape.
My favorite area in Stockholm, however, was the least developed: Djurgården. This beautiful island is covered in peaceful parkland, with houses, museums, and little cafes dotting its border. One day, a few friends and I visited the Vasamuseet (Vasa Museum), built solely to showcase a formerly-sunken Viking ship. It was a fascinating way to explore Swedish history. Others in our group opted to go to the Moderna Museet, reporting that it was the most beautiful modern art museum they’d seen. There’s plenty to do and see on Djurgården. A, in particular, had a lovely time strolling along the grounds, stumbling upon a quaint cafe built in a field of wildflowers.
On our final day in Stockholm, Jay and I rented bikes and rode around the perimeter of the island, gathering different sights and sounds along the way. We stopped for coffee at a waterfront restaurant, letting the ocean breeze cool us off. We paused to admire swans swimming in ponds and ducks waddling across lawns. We spent an inordinate amount of time trying to videotape Jay, sharply braking on his bike to throw up a cloud of dust. We watched boats dock and divers jump into the river, bobbing up and down in their puffy, neon orange scuba suits. We sat on benches, quietly listening to the water and feeling the warm sun on our faces. It was so utterly idyllic — a storybook come to life.
I’ll admit, I didn’t know what to expect, traveling with such a large and close-knit group of friends. As is to be expected, it was occasionally difficult coordinating so many people. Perhaps a few mistakes were made: we spent more money than necessary on boat passes; we didn’t meet up as planned sometimes; we lost one fully-packed duffel bag; we were introduced to a truly life-ruining game. Those sort sof hiccups, though, come with the territory. The most important thing was that we loved and respected each other and our traveling styles. We didn’t try to force an agenda on ourselves, and instead let our interests dictate our individual (but often converging) itineraries. One day, K and I spent an hour perusing the refrigerated aisles of a French frozen food grocer, which then inexplicably led to us walking the length of Södermalm. Another day, a few of us slept in until noon and started our adventures with roughly a dozen samples of chocolate mousse at a nearby bakery. Most days, we ventured out into the world in smaller groups and returned home to have dinner at our family table.
It did, however, take some time for us to get to that point — and specifically over the hump of jet lag. On our first real day in Stockholm, a few of us set off around lunchtime to retrieve a lost phone, leaving the other half to sleep in. We didn’t hear from our (happily well-rested) friends until 3 hours later. (By the way, let us all pause to thank the modern world for the marvel of WiFi.) One night, Jay explored the city on his own, having lost an entire afternoon to catch-up sleep. Um… There may also have been moments where I, delirious and crazy-eyed, stumbled around furniture and attempted gymnastics in a bath robe… but who’s judging? Jet lag is so very real. Somehow, we made it through together.
Finally: did I mention that we only had two bathrooms between the nine of us? I’m not sure how we did it, but we did and without incident. I won’t soon forget the joys of coming home to a completely empty apartment and having a little spa time to myself. 😉
And now for a very suave change of subject! Have you noticed that there’s been nearly no discussion of what we ate? Coming up: our (interesting and perhaps unexpected) gastronomic adventures in Stockholm…