It was back in October when, one morning, I found a $200 flight from Los Angeles to Stockholm. I was already planning on moving to Europe around that time, and that was the exact day I was officially going to move out of my apartment; so, without too much contemplation, I booked the flight. The real deliberation came in attempting to decide whether I should stay in Stockholm for a few days — a place I had not been to before — or if the weather would be too brutal and I should skip it. After some initial research into whether or not people suggested that a cold weather trip to Sweden’s capital was a good idea (mostly everyone said a big resounding “NO”), I couldn’t shake the feeling that I could have a good time. Determined not to waste this opportunity, I set about finding a way to plan an itinerary that was doable (and enjoyable) in Stockholm’s frigid weather conditions. And, I think I succeeded! While I certainly want to return in warmer weather to see another side of the city, I don’t think you should skip out on a visit just because it is slightly (okay, very) cold.
Stockholm was built on 14 islands, connected by 57 bridges, which earned the Swedish capital the nickname “Beauty on the Water.” On Stockholm’s shortest day the city sees only 6 hours of sunlight, while on the longest day it is light for nearly 21 hours. This, of course, will influence your itinerary; so, to help you out, here’s my collection of the best tip-offs, should you be lucky enough to ever find yourself in this part of the globe during the winter.
Once you land in Stockholm, you are probably going to want to take the Arlanda Express into the city. Tickets can be purchased online before your arrival — often with a discount. Speaking of money, it is important to remember that the currency used in Stockholm is the Swedish Krona (not the Euro!) so plan your currency conversion appropriately. Once I was there, I found myself doing a lot of walking, but public transportation is the fastest way to get around. Forego the taxis unless you want your bank account to be crying.
One of the loveliest elements of Swedish culture is their daily coffee ritual, fika, which means “to have coffee” — something I am always down for. Swedes are committed to fika and see it as a legitimate reason to set aside a moment for quality time. Accompanying sweets are crucial — often cinnamon buns or cardamom rolls — so it should come as no surprise that Swedes are among the top consumers of coffee and sweets in the world.
To survive a winter trip to Stockholm, don’t forget your thermals (aka Uniqlo heattech), thick sweaters and socks, suitable shoes for snowy/icy conditions, and appropriate gloves/hats/scarves. It gets bloody freezing.
Gamla Stan – Gamla Stan is usually the first place travelers head to when arriving in Stockholm. Considered one of the best medieval heritage sites in Europe — partially because it is pedestrian only— Gamla Stan (which means “old town”) was founded back in 1252 and was where the city of Stockholm first began. With its perfectly preserved cobbled-stone narrow streets, colorful buildings, and beautiful churches, the whole area is incredibly quaint and overflowing with cafés and restaurants.
Södermalm – Known as “Söder” by the locals, Södermalm is the hip area of Stockholm. It is constantly ranked as one of the “coolest” neighborhoods in Europe due to its art galleries, vintage boutiques, minimalistic coffee shops, and funky restaurants; this is where the bohemian crowd of the city hangs out. The development of the region wasn’t initiated until the 1700s, so the architecture is very different to the rest of Stockholm and filled with history from witch-trials and working class folk-lore.
Djurgården – This is quite simply the “museum island.” It is where Stockholm’s most famous museums are — the Abba Museum, the Vasa Museum, and the open-air museum Skansen. The island is easily accessible by trams and buses, as well as a ferry which gives you a great view of the main island. It is also home to the amusement park Gröna Lund which, in the summer, hosts a variety of concerts.
Östermalm – Stockholm’s City Center is also the most expensive part of the city. This is where you will find the swanky restaurants and guest-list only clubs. If you fancy a bit of shopping, a romantic restaurant, or just a taste of how the other half lives, this is where you should head.
There are more than 70 museums in Stockholm, covering an eclectic mix of topics and attractions, and showcasing the city’s heritage in all its glory. Particularly in the winter months, the abundance of choice means you can easily fill up your days walking around galleries and learning something new. Highlights included the Moderna Museet (an absolute gem filled with prominent 20th-century & contemporary art collections and free entrance), the ABBA Museum (one of the most fun museums I have ever been to the goal of the museum is to let you “experience the feeling of being the fifth member of ABBA”), and Fotografiska (Stockholm’s Museum of Contemporary Photography with changing exhibits and a fantastic top-floor restaurant that boasts terrific views over Stockholm’s waterfront). For those history buffs, The Nobel Museum proudly displays a portrait and Prize citation for each laureate and explains the history of the prize, while the Vasamuseet is home to the great Vasa warship, which took three years to build, sunk in the Stockholm harbor after sailing for only 15 minutes. I was genuinely surprised at how much I loved this museum.
Other places of interest include The Royal Palace (Kungliga Slottet), the official residence of the Swedish monarch and home to the Royal Court (plan your visit to coincide with seeing the Changing of the Guards which lasts about 40 minutes and starts at 12:15 pm on weekdays, and at 1:15 pm on Sundays) and the Katarina Church (one of Stockholm’s most important churches that has twice been entirely destroyed by fire). Don’t miss out on a stroll through the Stockholm’s Metro Stations (dubbed the World’s Longest Art Gallery as more than 90 of the 100 stations are decorated with mosaics, paintings, sculptures, and carvings).
I try to do a free walking tour as soon as I arrive in any new city that offers them as I think they are a fantastic way to get an overview of an area and then you simply tip as much as you think the tour was worth. I would say about 90% of the time I am absolutely blown away with the quality of these tours and the Free Tour Stockholm ones were no different. I did their City Tour and their Söder Tour, and wanted to do their Old Town Tour; but, decided against it, due to jet-lag I could no longer ignore. Next time! When you can no longer feel your feet, it is time to do like a Swede and head to the sauna. Centralbadet, a historic Art Nouveau public spa with four therapeutic pools and mixed saunas, is a lovely option.
Eating & Drinking
Let’s start with fika! I had my favorite cups at Lisas Café & Hembageri, Hermans Trädgårdé (coffee with a view), Mälarpaviljongen, and Grillska Husets Konditori. For a budget option, I also loved Café String which is located just off the square on Nytorgetsgatan and has an eclectic interior.
For lunch, pay a visit to the Herring Wagon (Nystekt Stromming). Recognizable by its bright-yellow fish-shaped sign, this cart is conveniently located at Slussen, a major transit hub and the area where the Gamla Stan old town and the island of Sodermalm converge. You can get fried herring on toast for less than $5 or splurge on the whole plate, featuring mashed potatoes, lingonberry, and crispbread, (like I did) for around $8. Food halls are always a great budget option for lunch (they tend to close by 6 pm) with Ostermalms Saluhall being the most traditional and K25 (near Stockholm Central Station) being a lot newer and having more global offerings. If you make it over to Museum Island, opt for lunch at Bla Porten to indulge in some wonderful Swedish cuisine. Look for the phrase “Dagens” on chalkboards around town as it refers to the daily lunch specials which come at a great price (for Stockholm!).
The good spots in Stockholm tend to get extremely busy, so it is best to book a table in advance if possible. Meatballs For The People is a very tiny and trendy restaurant where you can try Sweden’s famed meatballs. All ingredients are organically sourced, and you can choose from things such as wild boar, veal, fennel — or just the classic. This is a must when in Stockholm! I also dined at the restaurant/bar/bakery/grocery store/deli hybrid Urban Deli Nytorget where I had the best fish stew of my life. That being said, the best meal I had in the city was at Lisa Elmqvist, a high-end fish restaurant located inside Ostermalms Saluhall.
Hope this guide helps you (or convinces you) to plan a trip to Stockholm in the colder months! Let me know if you have any more recommendations for the city, so I can make sure to check them out next time I am there!