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Our Travel Guide to Stockholm
The best things we did, our favorite food and drinks, and what to know before you go to Sweden's capital
Never before in human history has it been so easy to learn about a place before you travel there. You can explore a city on an interactive map, take a vicarious tour of landmarks through strangers’ pictures and videos, and find the best places to eat according to both local foodies and aggregated tourist rankings. The problem is, sorting through and synthesizing advice from so many different sources can be overwhelming. So when my wife Lizzie and I travel, we try to pay it forward afterwards by writing the travel guide we wish we’d had ourselves.
We recently returned from an amazing trip to Stockholm. We are neither travel agents nor experts in Sweden culture, and make no claims to be the authoritative source on anything herein. But we’re pretty darn good at planning vacations, if I do say so myself. So consider this the equivalent of what we would tell you if you called us to say you were going to Stockholm — as many friends who are probably reading this did for us — but in rough essay form. We hope that future travelers find this helpful and, almost as importantly, that people who like reading about new places will get some vicarious joy from scrolling through it.
Basics and Logistics
Stockholm had a different vibe than anywhere we had been before. It’s a big city with about 1 million residents in Stockholm proper and 2.5 million in the metropolitan area. It’s also old by American standards, founded in the 13th century. Yet it’s both smaller and newer than most of the cities that come to mind when you think of grand European capitals. Among other places we’ve traveled, it reminded us most of the less-ancient parts of Rome — a connection I suspect is at least partly intentional, considering the obelisk standing outside the Royal Palace.
We were surprised at how quiet Stockholm is. Granted, we were there in mid-April (not exactly the high season for activity in Scandinavia) and we didn’t spend much time in the heart of the modern downtown. But I didn’t expect to be able to walk around after dinner with no other pedestrians in sight in a city that big — something I’d previously experienced only in the sprawling urban cores of the American Southwest. I’m sure a local would laugh at my writing this, but I was also struck by the relative subtlety of the tourist-pandering. Outside of one stretch of Gamla stan where you can buy a Viking helmet down the block from the TGI Fridays, there are far fewer souvenir stores than in other European capitals we’ve been to.
Stockholm has a reputation for being expensive. In our experience it wasn’t that pricy — more than, say, Lisbon, but not as bad as Reykjavik. I don’t remember thinking that any restaurant we went to was much costlier than the equivalent would have been at home in Philadelphia. The bigger financial surprise was that Stockholm is the least cash-friendly city I’ve ever been to. When we travel abroad, I take out more foreign currency than I think we’ll need in case a restaurant is cash-only or our credit cards give us trouble for using them overseas, knowing we can use it for our last couple meals if we overshoot. (Pro tip: You’ll get a much better exchange rate if you order ahead through your bank than you will at the airport kiosk.) In Sweden, many if not most of the places we spent money were card-only: museums, restaurants, even taxis. Take out only as much kronor as you need for tips.
We spent five nights in Sweden, with three full days devoted to exploring Stockholm. Those three days were pretty jam-packed and we could have easily filled a week with interesting-sounding museums alone, but that was sufficient for us to cross everything we were most excited about off our list. Most of the activities we regretted missing out on were less about how much time we had in Sweden than the fact that it was April and not everything was open for the summer. Having said that, the weather was pleasant enough for walking around (highs ranging from the mid-40s to the low-50s), and visiting outside the peak season made it both cheaper and less crowded.
Traveling to and from Stockholm
If you’re coming from outside Sweden, you’ll probably fly into Arlanda, Stockholm’s main airport. The immigration process was quick and efficient in both directions, though the security line first thing in the morning was one of the longest I’ve experienced outside the U.S. Depending on where you’re staying, it’s a bit of a schlep from Arlanda to Stockholm proper, but there are plenty of options (including an express train and a cheaper commuter rail) to get where you need to go.
If you’re flying regionally (as we did on our day trip to Visby), Bromma airport is another option. Bromma has a single tiny terminal and was one of the chillest, easiest airports I have ever flown out of.
Getting around Stockholm
We like to walk as much as possible when we travel, so we mostly traversed Stockholm on foot. It’s a very pleasant city to walk around in. You’re never far from a view of the water and some eye-grabbing architecture. There are enough hills and uneven streets to feel like you’re using your leg muscles, but it was much less of a workout than hiking across Lisbon or Porto. It also helped us stumble into unexpected highlights, like the historic ships docked along the path to Kastellet and the sunset views from Södra Järnvägsbron.
Stockholm also has impressively robust public transportation (at least by American standards). We made good use of the subway stop right by our hotel as well as the nearby commuter rail station and ferry terminal. The hard part was getting maps and timetables — I couldn’t find a single functional website with the official schedules. In our experience Google Maps was a reliable source for which lines will get you from Point A to Point B, but not for what time the municipal ferry stops running.
We used taxis only sparingly and had no issues when we did. Ride-share apps are also available, and while they are also controversial there, using them is arguably a less-political choice in Sweden, where the cab industry is less regulated, than it is at home.
Where we stayed
We stayed at the Hotel Rival in Södermalm, which we highly recommend. The staff were amazingly thoughtful and kind, the rooms were clean and spacious, the building was artfully designed, and the free breakfast was pretty darn good. Hotel prices obviously fluctuate a lot but the rates were reasonable when we went. One of the receptionists gave me their referral code for future discounts, which I’m happy to share with any Lewsletter subscribers who are planning a trip.
Specific hotel notwithstanding, I would happily stay in Södermalm again. It’s quiet, it’s charming, and it seems like Stockholm’s best neighborhood for restaurants and bars. (Much more on that below.) You’ll probably spend your days in Gamla stan or Djurgården, but Södermalm is a great launching point for your time in Stockholm.
Every single person we interacted with in Sweden spoke fluent English. Virtually any sign you’ll encounter will either have a translation or just fully be in English. We wandered into only one restaurant where we couldn’t read the menu (in Visby, where there are fewer international tourists) and even then our waiter happily translated for us. If you can read this essay, you can get along in Stockholm.
Do and See
Stockholm is up there with the greatest museum cities I’ve ever been to. The island of Djurgården alone is so dense with musea that you could spend an entire day hopping among them (as we did), and you could probably make a solid trip itinerary solely from the galleries and landmarks we didn’t have time for. Exhibits and tours were particularly well curated in Sweden, designed to tell stories and engage visitors who might not think they’re interested in a subject until they start walking around. Just make sure you bring some earphones. Most museums offer free or cheap audioguides via QR code, and you don’t want to be walking around holding your phone to your ear the whole time.
In roughly descending order of importance…
Vasamuseet (Vasa Museum)
On August 10, 1628, a massive 64-gun warship set off from Stockholm on its maiden voyage, heralding a new era of Swedish naval power. Less than a mile into its journey, the mighty Vasa ran into a gust of wind, capsized, and sank. Three centuries later, the impeccably preserved wreck was rediscovered, raised, and restored to its former glory.
Technically the Vasa Museum is a museum about a boat, but that’s like saying the Grand Canyon is just a hole in the ground. It’s worth the price of admission just to gawk at the ship, whose sheer grandeur and size are impossible to convey in pictures. You’ll also find surprisingly engrossing exhibits about the 17th-century shipbuilding industry, the lives and deaths of those on board, and how the wreck was found and resurfaced. There’s even a section about the ever-evolving efforts to preserve the Vasa, a conservation effort for which there is no precedent. The side galleries are so interesting that you’ll briefly forget about the awe-inspiring vessel behind you. Then you turn around and your jaw drops all over again.
Kungliga Slotten (Royal Palace)
Built on a site where human structures have existed for over a millennium, the current Stockholm Palace dates to the 1700s. The most famous exhibition is the Royal Apartments, full of stunning art, architecture, and history. However, the surprising highlight for us was the Vasa to Bernadotte temporary gallery, commemorating the double jubilee of King Carl XVI Gustaf’s 50th year on the throne and of 500 years of the Swedish monarchy — a fascinating overview of Sweden’s winding path as a modern nation-state. Definitely make time for it if it’s still on when you’re there (or if there’s a similar-caliber temporary exhibit in its place).
The oldest church in Stockholm is also among the most majestic I’ve ever seen. Highlights among its grand furnishings include a 15th-century statue of Saint George and the Dragon, one of the most-important artistic works in Sweden; and Vädersolstavlan, the oldest known copy of a painting depicting the 1535 Stockholm parhelions (recently discovered to be a forged copy from a century later).
Medeltidsmuseet (Medieval Museum)
In the 1970s, the Swedish Parliament wanted to build an underground parking garage for their building on the small island of Helgeandsholmen. Then they found part of the centuries-old city wall in the dig site and it became a museum instead. The Medieval Museum takes you on an immersive journey into life in Early Modern Stockholm, from a model market square to the remains of the Riddarholmsskeppet shipwreck (you will find this more impressive if you see it before the Vasa).
Vrak (Museum of Wrecks)
Walk a couple minutes from the aforementioned exhibit of a single shipwreck and you’ll find the Museum of Wrecks, plural. The collections are a bit dry on their own and some of the recent footage is highly disturbing. Having said that, we walked in just in time to take a guided tour (free with admission, which itself is discounted if you buy a combo ticket with the Vasa Museum) with one of the most-engaging guides I’ve ever had at a museum. There’s also a fun interactive area where you can go on a virtual-reality dive into a wreck, then use the artifacts you found to unravel what happened to the ship.
Vikingaliv (Viking Museum)
Is this a place of groundbreaking scholarship? No. Will someone who’s read about the Vikings elsewhere learn much that they didn’t already know? Probably not. But the artifacts are cool, the presentations are fun, and you can sit in a model Norse ship. This also has to be the only place in the world where you can take an animatronic theme-park ride about joining the Varangian Guard.
Judiska Muséet (Jewish Museum)
The 18th-century synagogue that housed Stockholm’s first sanctioned Jewish community later became a church, then a police station. Now it contains its own memories. The collection is small but it tells a poignant story about perseverance and cultural pluralism. This may go without saying for a Jewish heritage museum in Europe, but fair warning that there is a very disturbing section about the Holocaust.
ABBA The Museum
Let’s be honest: You’ve already decided whether or not you’re going to the ABBA Museum. Nothing I say here will convince an ABBA fan not to go or get someone who dislikes their music to buy a ticket. Having said that, I both enjoyed it and walked away disappointed. The collections are impressive, the immersive activities are fun, and it’s well worth the extra 20 SEK (about $2 USD) for an audioguide narrated by the band themselves. It also felt incredibly scattered, both literally in that you have to zigzag around to find the out-of-order audioguide checkpoints, and figuratively in that it isn’t clear what story the museum is trying to tell. The galleries aspire to transcend mere fan service, alluding to themes like the challenges of collaborating while the group’s eponymous marriages collapsed and the ideology implicit in their steadfast disinterest in politics, but none of these narrative threads are explored beyond the surface level. I’m glad we went, though I wish the museum had been more interested in investigating the ABBA phenomenon instead of merely regurgitating it.
For centuries, Gotland’s strategic location in the Baltic Sea made it both a commercial hub and a frequently contested imperial outpost. Now the island is one of Sweden’s most-popular destinations for internal tourism. (I’ve heard multiple people liken it to Sweden’s Cape Cod.) In Visby, the island’s main town and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there’s history everywhere you look, from the ruins of medieval churches to the runestones in the Fornsalen museum to one of the oldest still-intact city ring walls in Northern Europe. We found cheap single-day roundtrip flights from Stockholm and saw the whole city in one afternoon (albeit one with a very high step count), but I’m sure it would be nice to take the ferry and spend a couple days there if you have time.
Eat and Drink
Stockholm is a major cosmopolitan city where you can find countless cuisines on offer. If you’re specifically looking for Swedish fare — or at least what’s presented as such at the kind of restaurants that tourists like us could find — expect a lot of hearty comfort food. You’ll see meatballs on just about every menu, served with mashed potatoes, pickles, and lingonberries. Beef, seafood, and game are quite common. Fika is part of the lifestyle, so plan on at least one stop a day for a coffee and a cinnamon bun. But be warned, Swedish coffee is strong. In Portugal and even Italy, I could enjoy an afternoon espresso without issue. In Stockholm, a single cup too late in the day kept me up much of the night.
Come hungry and plan your trip around going to…
Meatballs for the People
I don’t have the standing to declare that any given meatballs are the best in Stockholm. Even if I did, I doubt a restaurant with an English-language name would really be at the top of the list. What I can tell you is that the so-called Classic balls at Meatballs for the People were the best of the many meatballs we tried in Sweden. Moreover, there may not be a comparable meatball experience anywhere else in the world.
We split the Meatballs Feast for Two, a flight of eight different types of meatballs from across the animal kingdom. Which of the 12 types of meatball on the menu you get are an unpredictable “chef’s choice” selection (we asked what that day’s picks were and our waiter said it changes with every order). Our platter ranged from conventional proteins, like beef and chicken, to meats that I would otherwise probably never have tried, like reindeer and moose. I can’t say I loved all of them — though the bear wasn’t bad — but the traditional beef/pork combo was fantastic, and even the gamiest balls tasted delicious coated in the accompanying fluffy potatoes and creamy gravy. [Website]
Delirium Café in Brussels. Catraio in Porto. Monk’s Cafe in Philly. These are the places that come to mind when I think about the best beer bars I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience. Now I can add Akkurat to that list.
Akkurat’s beer cellars (extending five stories underground, and open to visit if you email ahead and ask nicely) are stocked with hundreds of rare vintage beers from around the world. They make a point not to post their bottle list online, so I won’t delve into too much detail about their offerings, but the two beers I had will give you a sense of how special their selection is. The first was a special version of the renowned Stormaktsporter, brewed in 2020 to commemorate the bar’s 25th anniversary. The second was Barrel-Aged Old Rasputin X, the first edition of the series of my favorite beer of all time. Old Rasputin X was bottled in 2007 and was never distributed outside of North Coast’s brewery in California. I have no idea what it was doing in a Stockholm basement 16 years later, but I chose to just be glad it was there. [Website]
If you can get there, you'll be glad you made time for…
Of all the restaurants we heard about before we went to Stockholm, Tabbouli was the most enthusiastically recommended; I’m pleased to pay that forward here. We split a mixed grill platter of assorted meats and veggies (the chicken was the surprise highlight) along with the spinach pies, cheese sticks, and the eponymous tabbouli. This was the toughest table for us to get in Stockholm, but it’s well worth the effort for this Lebanese feast. [Website]
I get it, you’re not going to Sweden to eat Italian food. But sometimes you just need a big bowl of pasta. We found ourselves in such a mood one night, and O'Pizzicato hit the spot. Start with the proscuitto nero, up there with the best cured ham I’ve ever had outside of Italy — so salty and nutty that you’d almost think it was marbled with Parmigiano Reggiano. We also loved the fettuccine with beef and shallot cream sauce and the bigoli with the freshest-tasting tomatoes we ate on our trip. [Website]
Among the many places we ate at that presented as classic Swedish restaurants, this charming bistro was our clear favorite. Then again, considering the anachronousness of our favorite dishes — popcorn chicken, pumpkin soup, and beefy pasta — maybe it would be more accurate to consider it just really good modern cooking. [Website]
The cheapest meal we had in Stockholm — a single giant sausage costs the current equivalent of under $7 USD — was also one of our favorites. Take your pick(s) of 27 different types of specialty sausages, including accommodations for different dietary restrictions and spice levels, stuffed in a hollowed-out baguette with a schmear of sauerkraut. We tried the well-spiced Husets (House sausage), the hot Kabanoss, and the cheesy Ostkorv. Street food at its finest! [Website]
Don’t go too far out of your way, but we can vouch for these places if you’re in the mood for…
You’re in good hands wherever you stop for a coffee break around Stockholm. Having said that, Vete-Kattan is famous for a reason, especially if you visit their cute flagship location. Good luck picking just one treat from their pastry case. We also had a good breakfast at Fabrique, including my favorite of the many cinnamon buns we sampled in Sweden.
Comfort food in Gamla stan
Spend enough time walking around the old city and you’re bound to work up an appetite. Stop into Stockholms Gästabud for delicious Swedish classics, or the cozy Gamla Stans Lykta for Eastern European dishes like pelmeni and savory pies. (They also have good meatballs.) I’d heard that any restaurant in this area is likely to be a tourist trap, so maybe these are too, but that doesn’t mean they’re not delicious.
A quick bite in Djurgården
I wrote above that Djurgården is so dense with museums that you can spend an entire day there. The bad news is that there aren’t many food options around. Luckily, “museum cafeteria” is not a pejorative in Stockholm the way it would be at home. We had a nice lunch at the Vasa Museum because that’s where we happened to be where we got hungry, but we’d heard good things about other museums’ cafés, too. You can also stop for a scoop at Kenny’s Gelato, winner of Sweden’s 2022 glassmästerskapen (ice cream championship).
A low-key pint in Södermalm
In most places, Omnipollos hatt would be the best beer bar in the neighborhood. Not in this case, as it’s just a few minutes’ walk from Akkurat. Still, Omnipollo is a pretty darn good brewery, and their cozy bar is a nice spot to grab a pint and a snack.
You can see exactly where all these places are — as well as everywhere else we went that isn’t highlighted here — on our heavily annotated Google Map!
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