Swedish Shenanigans

Last October we booked a short holiday to Stockholm – capital of Sweden. We were recommended a couple of places to visit and warned about how expensive it is. We’ll let you decide whether the latter was true…. Stockholm is a fabulous city. Most noticeably there are no trucks in the centre – most vehicles are electric or bio fuel meaning the air is clean. There are recycling bins everywhere for everything and you can earn kroner by returning plastic bottles. We felt very safe walking around after dark and women could walk alone with no issues.

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We flew with SAS – Scandinavian Airlines – from Manchester Airport to Stockholm Arlanda Airport. SAS is similar to EasyJet in that the flights are cheap then they charge for anything else. For example, it cost us 30 Euros (approx. £26) each to pick a seat when we checked in online (only available 24 hours in advance). You don’t have to choose a seat but then you run the risk of not sitting together – not necessarily an issue on a short haul flight – but in our eyes, it’s worth paying to try to avoid sitting next to that person who ate 3 garlic cloves for breakfast!

The SAS plane itself was small – there were only two seats on each side of the aisle. I’m 5’6″ tall and my head was at the same level as the overhead bins so be warned if you are taller than me! However, the seats were comfortable and there was more than enough leg room for the flight. We took hand luggage only and the allowance was a small 8kg but a quick tip for you – if you take a rucksack, they tend not to weigh it. Just make sure you don’t look like you are struggling to carry it!

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Once at Arlanda Airport, it was quick and efficient to get the passengers through passport control. Unfortunately no stamp on this occasion. The arrivals area has an Tourist Information Desk for which you need to take a number to join the queue. Fortunately in true efficient Swedish style, we didn’t wait long and the lovely lady was able to tell us all the options for getting to our hotel as well as a free map of the city centre. There is a speedy Arlanda Express train into the centre which is SEK350 one way (approx. £30) each but we opted for the cheaper option of catching a bus to Mårsta then a commuter train to Central Station which cost SEK590 (£50) for both of us. The big difference here is that the SEK590 ticket lasted a full week so we were able to then use the ticket (which is a plastic card the same size as a credit card) to travel on any bus, tram, commuter train and some ferries throughout our stay. Top tip!

We stayed in Scandic Hotel on Uppsgarten which turned out to be a 5-10 minute walk from the Station once you surface on the main road. This is where we saw our first sign – the first of many on our trip – “This is a cash free hotel. We accept cards only”. Next top tip – take a card to Sweden that you don’t get charged for. Check out http://www.moneysavingexpert.com for up to date deals.

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First impressions of Scandic Hotel was how clean and efficient everything was. The room was compact but had everything you could need – places to hang clothes, drawers tucked away for storage, room safe for your valuables, TV with English channels and, being in Sweden, recycling bins tucked away in the bathroom.

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One evening, our TV decided not to work for no apparent reason and the lady from reception came to have a look. When she couldn’t fix it, she offered for us to change rooms. When we said we didn’t mind and it was OK for the maintenance person to look at it in the morning, we got free drinks from the bar instead. Fabulous service.  For their deals, see http://www.scandichotels.com

So, what is there to do in Stockholm? On a Sunday – the day we arrived – there are not many places open to eat mid-afternoon so we hunted down the one place that we knew would be open – Hard Rock Café of course!

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Located on Sveavägen, good old Hard Rock Café came to the rescue with burger sliders and BBQ chicken along with a couple of mocktails. Sveavägen is off a main street, Odengatan, where you can find plenty of high street type stores, restaurants (not on a Sunday afternoon remember!), Stockholm Public Library and Gustaf Vasa Church.

The following day we set about exploring the city on foot. One of the main tourist streets is Drottninggatan – a pedestrian street full of bars, tourist shops and stores. Walking all the way down Drottninggatan leads you to Riksbron (cute bridge) onto Riksgatan through some rather spectacular looking Government Offices patrolled by armed police peering over the edge of the bridge and checking out nooks and crannies.

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If you are a gamer, like me, you will want to pin yourself against a wall and slide along avoiding their gaze Assassin’s Creed style.  Either way, passing the buildings takes you over Stallbron and into Gamla Stan (The Old Town).

Gamla Stan (The Old Town)

We visited Gamla Stan more than once on our trip as it is so beautiful and has plenty of places to explore but for the purpose of our little story, we’ll cover it all in this bit.

Gamla Stan is the Stockholm you see in the tourist guides. Cobbled streets, beautiful architecture around every corner and cute restaurants just waiting to be found. The Royal Palace is the official residence of the Swedish monarch and is located on Stadsholmen but you will find it easily just wandering around.

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The Royal Palace is where we were heading towards as we strolled the streets of Gamla Stan. We found a lovely photogenic café where we were stopped by a couple of young Instagrammers wanting a photo taking of them walking towards it but not actually going in. We know this as they followed us afterwards as we wandered in the same direction! We also found some lovely shops to browse around and a Christmas shop where we bought a decoration to add to our collection. Then this is where sometimes the best things happen by accident. A plumber’s van blocked the route we were going to take and instead we turned up Kindstugatan and found a restaurant advertising Swedish meatballs which we had already decided we wanted to try.

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Under Kastanjen means ‘under the Chestnut’ which relates to the giant Chestnut tree outside. Full of charm, the restaurant has quirky pieces such as top hat lampshades and glass cabinets full of colourful wine bottles. Even the sink in the ladies toilet was clear with plastic fish swimming within the basin (more awesome than we’ve made that sound!).

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There are two levels to the restaurant – ground floor and basement. The former was full so we went down to the basement then had to come all the way back up to order at the till! Two orders of meatballs with mashed potato, creamy gravy, pickled cucumber and lingonberries with a glass of coke set us back SEK390 (approx. £33). Many Swedish restaurants provide free tap water that you can help yourself to.

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Before you judge what pickled cucumber tastes like, think again. It’s nothing like gherkin. Pickled cucumber is warm and sweet and complements this meal beautifully. Once Tara had tried it, there was no stopping her! For the record, the meatballs were delicious and although it doesn’t look like you get many, they are filling and great for fuelling an afternoon of walking.

On to the Royal Palace. The Palace is open to the public and houses five museums.

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Built during the 18th century in Italian Baroque style, it stands on the site of the “Tre Kronor” Castle which was burned down in 1697. Entry to the Palace is free if you hold the Stockholm Pass which costs SEK645 (approx. £55) for a one day adult pass. Alternatively, it costs SEK160 for adult entrance without a Pass. Areas you can explore include the Royal Apartments, the Treasury, the Tre Kronor Museum and Museum of Antiquities. Be sure to check opening times before visiting as they vary over the year and if the King is in residence.   Outside at all times, there is a guard standing to attention holding a rifle with a wicked looking knife on the end.

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On a slightly lighter note, there is a daily changing of the guard which was spectacular to watch especially as, when we were there, it started off with the brass band and drummers playing Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk!

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One evening we strolled over Riksbron to see the Old Town by night (even more fabulous by the way) and came across the square that you see in all the postcards.  Stortorget Square is home to beautiful colourful buildings housing cafés and gift shops.

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In particular, we were looking for Chokladkoppen as we’d heard good things about their hot chocolate and cakes.  Chokladkoppen has indoor and outdoor seating and we chose to sit out even though the evening was becoming cool, mainly because they provide blankets for you to cover your legs with and snuggle down to people-watch on the Square.  The café was one of the first openly LGBT-friendly places in Stockholm and continues to be a hub for the rainbow community.  Their hot chocolate is served in giant mugs with no handles enabling you to keep your hands warm on a cool night while their cakes come in monster portion sizes.  Absolutely delicious!

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A short walk from Gamla Stan, you will find Nybroplan tram stop.  From here you can use your pass to jump on the tram to Djürgården.  We made our way over there on our second day.

Djürgården

Djürgården is one of the 14 islands that make up Stockholm. There are many tourist attractions in close proximity on the island including:

Skansen: Opened in 1891, Skansen was the first open-air museum and zoo in Sweden.  Entry is included in the Stockholm Pass or SK280 (approx. £24) for 2 adults.  We went out of season so not the best advocates for the park as many of the animals were not in situ.   Learn from our mistake and check before you go in!  The park itself was huge and even though there were few animals to visit, we were there for a couple of hours looking around and taking in fabulous views over the river to Ostermalm.

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The park also displays houses and farmsteads from all over Sweden with actors dressed up to play the part.  In season, we can imagine that you could spend many hours here especially if you have children.  For more details, see http://www.skansen.se

ABBA Museum: A must for any ABBA fan!   An interactive museum at it’s finest.  Love singing and karaoke?  You’ll adore this place!

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At SEK500 (approx. £42) for 2 adults, it’s expensive but you will have chance to see original costumes, sing with your idols via hologram, have your photo taken with realistic models and sing in a recording booth.  There are sets and stories all the way round telling the story of the band from their inception and beyond including the recent Mamma Mia films.  For more details, see http://www.abbathemuseum.com

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Vasa Museum: Unfortunately we didn’t get time to visit Stockholm’s most visited museum.  This is a maritime museum with the only almost fully intact 17th century ship on display – the 64 gun warship, Vasa.  Entrance is SEK150 (approx. £13) for adults. For more details, see http://www.vasamuseet.se

Djürgården Park: If you get to Djürgården, make sure to visit the beautiful park that makes up a large part of the island. The beautiful riverside walk is well cared for with a fabulous blue gate at the entrance and picturesque views over the river.

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After we visited Djürgården, we hopped back on the bus to find a restaurant we had been recommended – Meatballs for the People.  Located on Nytorsgaten in Sodermalm, we took a circular route to get to it from the bus stop but that probably says more about our map reading skills than how difficult it is to find!

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Meatballs for the People is recommended on Trip Advisor with over 90% average or above reviews.  First thing to be aware of is that it is more of a café than a restaurant, so don’t worry about getting dressed up.  As well as the traditional beef meatballs, they offer different meats so if you fancy trying something a little different, this is the place.  I tried the wild boar meatballs which were a stronger flavour than the traditional ones and absolutely delicious.

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Other options could be reindeer, moose or bear but the menu changes daily so take your chance! Of course we had lingonberry juice to drink – in the UK, you can only find this in IKEA. The bill came to SEK320 (approx. £28).  Visit http://www.meatballs.se for full details.

You may have noticed by now that we had become somewhat addicted to meatballs on this trip.  In this vein, we decided to try another meatball establishment on our third day – Bakfickan.

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Hiding within the Opera House, the restaurant is a real mix of clientele with the likes of us sitting at the horseshoe shaped counter bar mixing with couples dressed to the nines going to see the opera.  This time we both had traditional meatballs but the accompanying side dishes came in separate dishes which meant I had to fight Tara off the pickled cucumber which she was by now obsessed with.  You would think by now she would realise that nothing comes between me and my food! These meatballs were lighter in texture but no less delicious than their predecessors.  See http://www.operakalleren.se for menus.  If you decide to visit this little hidden gem, be aware that it only seats 28 so make a booking if you can or you may not get a seat.  The meal here was a little more expensive at SEK420 (approx. £36) but this does also include complimentary bread and unique atmosphere.

We had another happy coincidence on our trip to Stockholm.  Completely unknown to us, we were visiting at the same time as the baking and chocolate festival was taking place in Alvsjö – a quick trip away on the train.  The Bak & Chokladfestivalen takes place only once a year and is a four day show of all things chocolate and snacks.  A dream come true for us two!

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Walking into the arena, the heady smell of melted chocolate hits the senses and taste buds start salivating.  As you enter into the show itself, you are met with a highly organised set up of flavoured chocolate fountains that you can dip a variety of fruit or marshmallows into to sample:

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Ice cream stalls with multiple flavours, toppings and cones to choose from; infinite displays of chocolate goodies interspersed with unusual flavoured savoury snacks such as salty liquorice crisps (no!) and gluten free bread and crackers.

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To wash it all down, there are stalls with sparkling wine or cafés with freshly ground coffee.  Heaven! If you are in Stockholm at the beginning of October, make sure to check it out!

We had a fabulous few days in Stockholm and would recommend you put it on your city break list right now!  If you need a break on your explorations, there are plenty of Espresso Houses around – a Swedish Starbucks – but remember, no cash!

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