Exploring Stockholm in winter
By Emily Billington
The steamy window to my left frames a dismal picture: pines swimming in a loose mist, muddied snow shovelled into haphazard piles at roadsides, and weather-stained apartment blocks standing in austere clusters. At one glaring spot in the aluminium sky, I notice the sun straining to penetrate the thick cloud. Suburban Stockholm is bleaker than I imagined, then again, I am visiting one of the world’s northernmost capitals in the depths of winter.
It’s a Sunday morning in mid-January, the temperature is teetering on freezing and I am trundling towards the city on the metro, past towns with names like Ängbyplan and Åkeshov. Our carriage is relatively sparse of faces, other than for a girl with facial piercings and hair dyed the colour of mustard powder.
Before long the train has been swallowed underground and sometime later we pull into T-Centralen – the heart of Stockholm’s metro system where all three of its lines convene, and where the girl with mustard powder hair departs. Re-emerging above ground to cross a bridge, I snatch my first glimpse of downtown Stockholm; a scene shrouded in similar subdued tones. A church steeple drowns in the grey haze of the sky and the river looks like a smashed mirror, its murky water suffocating beneath a sheet of cracked ice – a stark contrast to the guidebooks which show parades of sunflower-yellow buildings against intense sapphire skies, and red timber summerhouses clinging to shores lapping with indigo waters. I am determined to uncover the city’s inner vibrancy even on this dreary Sunday morning, and my first stop promises just that.
I disembark the metro at Gamla stan: Stockholm’s famous Old Town and a self-confessed tourist trap. Happily, it is also a concentrated pocket of colour where medieval buildings in coats of marigold, apricot and rust-red trim skinny cobbled streets and border ancient squares, squeezed so tightly together it’s as if they’re holding their breath. Each hairpin corner reveals souvenir stores tempting tourists with carousels of postcards, baskets of plastic Viking helmets, and flapping Swedish flags, whilst a beguiling miscellany of cafés and restaurants announce their presence with protruding signs in all shapes and sizes. An occasional sandwich board also directs wanderers to an unassuming side door or alleyway where lurks an elusive underground bar. It is a rich labyrinth of a district posing hours of potential meandering, however, what draws most visitors to Gamla stan is its status as Stockholm’s birthplace.
Viking legend has it that in 1252 the desire arose to relocate Sweden’s centre from Sigtuna, a bay town further north. In uncustomary fashion, the nation’s ruler Birger Jarl plonked a log-full of gold afloat on Lake Mälaren under the premise that wherever it ended up would become the nation’s new capital. Shortly afterwards it was discovered moored on the island of what is today Gamla stan, and – rather conveniently for a decision devoid of all logic – it was agreed by all to be an excellent location; as an island it was easy to defend, and the adjacent lake promised important trade opportunities with the Baltic. Stockholm had been born and Sweden had bagged itself a new capital, albeit via a most unusual selection process. Mushrooming with each passing century, today the capital comprises 14 islands in the Stockholm archipelago, before filtering into some 24,000 smaller islands and islets, stretching 80km into the Baltic Sea. Gamla stan, however, remains the core of downtown Stockholm and forever its historical heart.
I amble through its slender streets with no real purpose other than to ogle at the architecture and soak up the colours like plants absorbing sunlight. A tussle for the prime photograph spot ensuesin Stortorget Square as eager fellow tourists endeavour to snap one of Stockholm’s most recognised locations. Flanked by a smattering of cafés and the grand exterior of the Stock Exchange Building (which now houses the Nobel Museum and the Nobel Library), Stortorget is a most picturesque plaza. However, it is the eye-catching parade of oblong structures in an ochre rainbow of red, orange, yellow and green that has us all lunging for our cameras. Photographs of buildings 14-22 adorn the front cover of many a Stockholm guidebook.
The square is modest in size, and though attractive, on this bitter winter morning it is a little lacking in life. In the Middle Ages, Stortorget was the centre of goings-on in Stockholm – a chief meeting place for townsfolk and a stage of humming activity on market days. Today it is a textbook coffee break spot for snap-happy tourists, and having already caffeined-up, I swiftly continued my stroll.
Shimmying through the shadowed streets, I pass a shop window displaying unusual Alice in Wonderland mannequins. A peek through the door reveals shelf upon shelf of other peculiar dolls and an elderly lady with a stern countenance – presumably their craftswoman – sitting at a worktable. In two minds about whether to investigate the bizarre shop further, she casts me a glare and I hurry on, though it strikes me that the atmosphere in Gamla stan is a touch spooky. On turning the corner my premonition is confirmed as I am greeted with a blackboard advertising an evening Ghost Walk: one of the district’s most popular tourist attractions where costumed guides clad in top hats and coat tails and brandishing glowing lanterns, divulge tales of chilling murders, spectral hauntings, and unresolved mysteries.
Popular myth has it that Stockholm’s Royal Palace – tucked into the corner of the island of Gamla stan – is professed to be one of the city’s most haunted sites, plagued by the ghost of the White Lady (a harbinger said to appear before a death in the royal family), and the Grey Man (an ancient spirit allegedly residing in the cellars). Also woven into the island’s unnerving history is the notorious tale of the Stockholm Bloodbath, when in 1520 Stortorget Square underwent a brief yet grisly transformation into an execution site. This sinister chapter in Swedish history saw 82 dignitaries and alleged enemies of King Christian II beheaded and burned in a horrifying exercise of power, and it is believed that the 82 white stones adorning the brick-red exterior of building number 20 symbolise the heads decapitated.Gamla stan may glow with ochre hues, however in its history is buried an ineradicable darkness.
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As lunchtime approaches, I traverse the Karl Johan lock towards Södermalm – Stockholm’s professed hipster district. True to its reputation its main street of Götgatan is a neatly packaged parcel of trendy, urban sophistication. Vintage music stores packed to the rafters with dog-eared records and tawdry neon signs; industrial coffee shops thick with the bitter scent of roasting beans baring visible ceiling pipes and mismatched furnishings; and low-lit bars with eclectic wall art serving astupefying selection of craft brews, all beckon the local population of alternative twenty-somethings.
Infectious as the hubbub of central Södermalm is, I have a table booked at Hermans: an all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet a little off the beaten track that promises another welcome dose of vibrancy. The walk to Hermans provides a scenic sojourn; stretching along Fjällgatan, a cliff edge walkway overlooking a steely expanse of water. This side of the Karl Johan lock disperses into the Baltic Sea, so tablets of ice have given way to velvety ripples, on the surface of which Gamla stan’s reflection undulates like strokes of diluted paint on a page.
Hugging the cliff edge at a bend in Fjällgatan, a painted wooden sign signals the arrival at ‘Hermans Trädgårdscafé’. Inside, the cosy, timber interior is heaving with chattering groups all shovelling back a fragrant vegetable curry smeared over hunks of artisan bread. I find my table in a charming conservatory area walled with windows offering more impressive views over the waters expanse and quickly begin to peruse the buffet.
My eyes are dazzled by bowls of colourful vegetable couscous, mounds of dewy emerald salad, piles of herb-roasted potatoes and dollops of paprika-sprinkled hummus. A piping tray of spinach lasagne and the previously spotted vegetable curry catch my eye and I can’t resist but help myself to both, grabbing a slab of freshly baked bread as well. I heap my plate high and, yet, still go back for seconds. Every mouthful is deliciously aromatic, the view over the water exquisite, and the atmosphere effervescent. The meal is finished with a mug of green tea and I feel satisfied that I have experienced Södermalm in the fashion of understated-hipster. By now, however, the sky has begun to turn a moody lilac, casting the wrinkling water silver and turning the naked trees on the cliff edge into menacing silhouettes.
In the last of this ethereal afternoon light I leave behind the beards and bicycles of Södermalm for the flares and frills of one of the city’s most iconic locales, ABBA: The Museum. In their heyday, the legendary Swedish pop group found themselves rocketed to the realms of global fame, having garnered an unprecedented popularity that saw them blossom into one of the most successful acts in music history. They remain as revered as ever (a staggering 60 million people have seen Mamma Mia! in theatres), though their music has inevitably realigned from on-trend 70s euro-disco to cheesy retro-pop, making the museum that celebrates their astonishing career something of a guilty pleasure.
On reaching the island of Djurgården, the museum is within a minute’s walk from the ferry. The ‘L’ shaped museum is stacked four stories high and coated in a lick of Stockholm’s ubiquitous saffron. A neon sign glowering in the window reads ‘Walk in, dance out’ and a charge of excitement pulses through me. I have a distinct feeling I’m not about to be disappointed.
Having purchasing my ticket I descend into the first room – a temporary exhibition celebrating decades of the Eurovision Song Contest – offering a sneak glimpse of what is to come. My eyes are affronted with a kaleidoscopic assemblage of colour, texture, light, and all-round glitz and glamour. An archway of LED panels in hot pink, violet, cerulean, and lemon glowers; screens playing vintage runs of Eurovision blare; a six foot ABBA sign made of light bulbs blazes; and cabinets of costumes dripping in sequins, chains, fringes and beads shimmer. I watch a middle-aged woman take to the karaoke platform to tentatively stammer out ‘Waterloo’, before ascending the staircase to begin the ABBA story.
The following two hours are passed weaving through room after room adorned with curving walls, heart-shaped doorways, atmospheric lighting and splashes of 60s and 70s design – each space as entertaining and visually exhilarating as the last, and almost never lacking the faint background hum of an ABBA track. It is a psychedelic journey portrayed through photographs and information boards; softly lit glass cases exploding with memorabilia, costumes and awards; uncannily lifelike waxworks; and sets fashioned to emulate the group’s recording studio and Swedish summer house. Every moment is a visual feast of ABBA gen and disco pizzazz, yet it isn’t garish. In true Swedish fashion the museum is brilliantly designed, aesthetically striking, and most of all, wonderfully interactive. I am presented with an enclosed LED dance floor where visitors are encouraged to unleash their inner disco divas; the chance to take to the stage as the fifth member of ABBA; and a room where we insert ourselves into a music video. It is thoroughly engaging and at the end I have to tear myself away from a cinema playing a gripping saga of the ABBA years to return to the present day.
The sun has set by the time I emerge from the museum’s scintillating depths, giddy with lengthy exposure to vintage euro-disco. With the day drawing to a close I catch the train back towards T-Centralen, passing the broad tree-lined streets and ornate buildings of Stockholm’s wealthiest district, Ӧstermalm. As I gaze out onto the shadowy, street-lit boulevards I am reminded of my journey into the city this morning. Stockholm had greeted me with the most insipid of ‘good mornings’, yet in just a few hours I had unearthed its inner vibrancy; the final stop on the pilgrimage proving a particular triumph. This city of islands is a variegated blend of the cool and the cultural, the hip and the historic, and even in the gloomy depths of winter it can dazzle and invigorate, surprise, and inspire in equal measure.
I think perhaps next time, though, I’ll visit in summer.
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