Quite why I was surprised to see a blanket of white interspersed by black trees when we came through the cloud to land at Arlande airport. I’m not sure. Of course Stockholm is snowy, it’s March and it’s Sweden.
A couple of hours later we are in the middle of a blizzard in central Stockholm and it’s perishing. You can’t beat an early spring break in Scandanavia.
But it being such, there is no place for the shivers – in fact later we will be queing up for them. For now, the well-regulated Swedes will be ensuring we are warm and cosy.
In the centre of the city is a maze of undercover malls and vast shopping areas. They are warm and welcoming, unhurried and populated by women in black. Everyone wears black. Usually it is a padded black coat and black boots. A definite uniform is emerging that screams Scando-chic. It is all neat and understated and there is absolutely no place for flamboyance.
These people-in-black populate fabulously chic cafes which groan with rich pastries and an abundance of sticky cakes. The taking of coffee and a cake with pals has a name all its own, ‘fika’, a Swedish custom that entails having a cup of coffee, usually accompanied with a sweet bun, a slice of cake, some pastries or cookies. Sweden apparently is one of the largest consumers of coffee in the world.
It’s not a challenging custom to get to grips with obviously and offers a great people-watching opportunity. We tried it at an institution called NK, Nordiska Kompaniet, this is Stockholm’s rather grand and striking version of Harvey Nicks, a department store but one aching with grandeur, history and as you might expect, style.
You find the predictable European designers there but the best of Scandanavian fashion too from brands such as Acne, Hope, Back by Ann-Sofie Back and Whyred as well as international brands like Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood and Marc Jacobs.
The interiors department was a vast, lust-after loft-space packed with very desirable, funky pieces, some industrial, some reclaimed and vintage.
The showpiece lights were outstanding – cutting edge design displayed in a way you just don’t see in this country.
But enough of shopping. The reality is that it is all pricey as heck – but most definitely you would bag a thoroughly unique piece for your home, Though don’t forget, this is the home of H&M so there is a bit of high street respite should you need it.
Stockholm itself is simply a lovely city, as we discovered on day two when we woke to the brightest of skies, making the snow on the ground glisten and the waters, scattered with icy chunks, sparkle.
The city is a series of islands and waterways with characterful painted houses lining the waterside. It is all low-level and well-preserved. There’s a surprising lack of traffic for a capital city and a real feel of calm about the place. People are polite, correct and not over-friendly; eye contact doesn’t really happen. This is a self-contained nation. This might explain why apparently Stockholm has the most single people in Europe.
Our grand vantage point of the city was from our balcony at the Grand Hotel, Stockholm’s, well, grandest hotel. It overlooks the royal palace and Gamla Stan, the old, medieval and most touristy part of the city.
The Grand is as gracious as it sounds. Huge, character-packed but with plenty of contemporary chic and an informality that encourages families and groups to fill the lounges for an afternoon tea fix. Rooms have a nod to now with flat screen TVs and very well-equipped bathrooms, lots of black marble and power showers.
In the evening the cocktail bar is a great place to hole up. It appears to be where Sweden’s top people do their moving and shaking. Lounge on deep sofas that overlook the twinkling lights of the river outside. It is a very luxey place to feel indulged over you glass of champagne (around £14).
We were in esteemed company during our stay. This is clearly ‘the place’. Woody Allen a fellow guest, causing a buzz with the paparazzi and gathered crowd outside – though to be fair, even the paps were remarkably well-behaved and the autograph hunters queuing in a sensible fashion, definitely no reckless hysteria.
We went for a thoroughly Swedish food experience at The Veranda Restaurant, situated as you might expect overlooking the water and offer a genuine smorgasbord dining moment that beats Ikea hands-down.
Depending on your taste that might be good or bad. As a fan of the rollmop, I was only too happy to get involved in the six-course food spectacular.
Treat it like a tapas night said our waiter, take your time, make small trips to the buffet and have small plates. The killer bit is the shot of aquavit with each course and the accompanying beer.
I loved the variety off herring dishes and the variety of rye and sourdough breads and wheaty crispbreads which are treated as artisan products rather than just a Ryvita. Certainly the herrings are a love-hate food. Those in a creamy, mustard and dill sauce were a favourite and the sweet-cured variety a revelation. There is none of the sharpness of the pickled versions we get here.
The smorgasbord courses ranged from salads with caviar on to smoked char and salmon with different depths of the smokiness.
It was a genuinely interesting food and delicious food experience.
There were meat courses – sautéed veal and rustic, herby, lamb stew and even home-made meatballs – we thought of Ikea as we were offered lingonberries on the side.
The accompanying icy aquavit – a spirit that is Sweden’s version of vodka – was a bit head-blowing. Each shot flavoured differently – from carrot to coriander, to fennel. Fascinating, if fiery.
The city has a wealth of impressive restaurants as befits a capital of cool with new places opening all the time – there seems to be thing for industrial loft spaces at the moment.
You don’t see bars as such, this seems to be a nation of ‘at home’ alcohol drinkers but we couldn’t resist a visit to the Ice Bar. Housed in a hotel close to the main station, the Ice Bar is the book-ahead destination for a memorable cocktail.
Arrive and you’re given a fur-trimmed cape and mittens then channelled through to the bar made of course, of ice. At a temperature of minus five degrees you literally chill out, sipping a vodka-based cocktail in an ice-glass. Forgive the pun but it is a cool experience that fits the Nordic bill.
It is wise too to feast on the culture of the place of course and on a sunny day Stockholm is navigable on foot. Just follow the bridges to the distinct areas of the city.
There’s a museum island which is a real culture corner, housing among others, the modern art museum, where we saw iconic photography of Yves St Laurent and Catherine Deneuve by Jeanloup Seiff.
In the old town, Gamla Stan, you can explore winding cobbled streets as well as the royal palace and Nobel Museum.
The garden island, called Djurgarden, is the city’s breathing space, a vast green island in what was once a royal hunting ground. Today it is home to palaces, restaurants, fairgrounds, gardens and even a zoo. It’s where the historic Vasa heritage museum recreates the country’s influences from past to contemporary.
Head to Stockholm in summer and the archipelago is a stunning attraction with many boats heading off to explore the waterways and hundreds of islands which frame the city.
Oh and don’t forget the sauna. Late Saturday afternoon the sauna was packed. We prudish Brits kept our cosies on of course.
Requests to reuse content from Remember Media are now being processed through PLSclear. Please visit www.plsclear.com to complete your request.