How To Spend It

Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in… Stockholm

From cobblestones to concrete severity, century-old cafés to contemporary art, the cool capital of Swedish functionalism exceeds Mark C O’Flaherty’s expectations.

July 04 2009
Mark C O’Flaherty

Stockholm has the most extra­ordinary subway stations this side of the Moscow metro’s crystal chandeliers. There are white neon squiggles in the ceiling at Hötorget, painted blue vines at T-Centralen and, with its radiation-green strip lighting, the station at Kungsträdgården feels like the lair of a Doctor Who villain. The latter is a glorious retro-futurist Vegas mess designed by artist Ulrik Samuelson – all faux ruined columns, a Jurassic cave roof and polished stone curved benches in Italian tricolore stripes.

Indeed, for all the cobblestones and spires of old Stockholm, this is a city that can turn your visual expectations upside down in the space of a few days. Take the burgeoning contemporary art scene. At its epicentre is Galerie Nordenhake, a building so nondescript on such a “nowhere” street that you might walk straight past it. Still, it’s worth making the journey to this old office block and working your way through the myriad white cube spaces, large and small, where you will find established yet valiantly cutting-edge work. A short taxi ride away, Gun Gallery handles the best art photography from the likes of fashion visionary Sølve Sundsbø and diarist JH Engström.

By then it might be lunchtime, in which case most arrestingly blond, svelte, black-clad locals will tell you that the modern Scandinavian eaterie F12 is the place to be (especially on a Friday). The menu may be shorter than it is in the evening, but when the afternoon sun shines through the acid-yellow window screens and bathes the clean lines of the lime-green room in a dramatic pop-art glow, it’s a feast for the eyes.

For dinner – and a very different experience – consider Allmänna Galleriet 925, which sprawls across an upper floor of an old silver factory. The décor is industrial white tiling and Bauhaus factory lighting, but with its comfort-food bistro menu and hipster crowd, it feels more edgy Shoreditch than Scandinavian. It’s a sparky and seductive nightspot and the only dining room in the city that plays decent music (intelligent 1980s retro through to the more tuneful elements of classic punk). What Stockholm restaurateurs possess in ingredients and interiors they’ve abandoned in musical taste. If you think Abba are naff, you’ve heard nothing till you’ve eaten out in Stockholm.

The Nordic Light Hotel is another example of clandestine urban regeneration and Stockholm’s veneration of 1970s concrete severity. It might be located in a corner of the city that has all the elegance of London’s Elephant and Castle in grey drizzle (much of the Norrmalm district was bulldozed in the 1950s and 1960s and the replacement buildings are brutally ugly), but inside it’s a meticulously white-on-white Design Hotel that doesn’t overplay its hand. It makes effective use of its schtick with controllable coloured lights in the rooms. It could be chilly, but it isn’t. And the beds and the bar are less high style, more plush delights.

Compared with all this modernity, walking to the old town, Gamla Stan, on Saturday morning feels like entering a time warp. Everyone raves about the hot chocolate at Chokladkoppen in the square by the Nobel Museum, but the interior at Kaffekoppen next door is a prettier exercise in Gothic-monastery chic – battered wood, mismatched chairs, pillars, bare plaster alcoves and candles. And the hot white chocolate it serves in immense bowls produces the ultimate creamy sugar high.

Re-energised and warmed up, head to the rotund Stadsbibliotek, the public library. From the signage out front to the tiered circular balconies of the Lending Hall, architect Erik Gunnar Asplund’s 1920s neoclassical building is a real beauty – a paradigm of the kind of 20th-century Scandinavian modernism still perpetuating the image that every Stockholmer lives in a chapel of impossibly handsome minimalist wooden functionalism. It’s also a short walk from the best source of mid-century modern furniture in the city, the prosaically named Modernity. This isn’t just the best place in town to pick up pieces by Swedish masters, it’s also a treasure trove of international rarities, notably a museum-quality stock of wildly coloured 1980s Ettore Sottsass and Memphis furniture.

Finish your whirlwind tour of the Stockholm of yesteryear with lunch at Prinsen, a century-old grand café with a devoted local following. If you need convincing, this is the place to discover why herring is such a big deal in Sweden. Then do as the locals do and order a plate of meatballs in cream sauce with cucumber.

Assuming you are in the mood to shop, start the afternoon at Tjallamalla, a concept store in SoFo (as the area south of Folkungagatan in Södermalm has become known). It sells spirited fashion, accessories and oddities by young Swedish designers and offers a fresh cultural snapshot of the city. Stroll around the area and enjoy the posing on display before stopping at nearby store 10 Swedish Designers, for some brash, Marimekko-esque homewares and textiles.

For central city shopping, head onto Grev Turegatan, where you’ll find Anna Holtblad’s store. Holtblad’s womenswear is simple but effortlessly chic; her long sweaters are a cult item for fashion students and CEOs alike. Nearby you’ll find the flagship Filippa K store. There’s something reassuringly default about Filippa Knutsson’s global brand – with its mostly monochrome palette and confident, stark contemporary lines, if chic Stockholm were limited to one label, it would be this one. Her recently opened Second Hand Store is a genius innovation where past collections and accessories are traded in by the owners and sold on commission.

The sexiest shop in town, however, isn’t a clothes store, but a stationer. There is no branch of Bookbinders in the UK or the US – yet – so a visit to the HQ is a must. The exquisite handcrafted cloth-bound paper products, both in vivid colours and variations of greige, generate an irresistible urge to start a journal, write a letter or even devote a whole room at home to colour-co-ordinated diaries and photo albums.

Set aside Saturday night for a lavish dégustation dining experience. Start with a blueberry sour and sashimi in the cocktail bar at Pontus!, an ultra-modern multi­levelled destination dining space that looks as though an interior designer ram-raided the Frieze Art Fair one afternoon and reassembled it in Stockholm, with a lot of very expensive trompe l’oeil wallpaper. Move on to the opera house and the Operakällaren, a baroque soaring-ceilinged, chandelier-strewn fantasia of a dining room that’s been given a swish makeover by cutting-edge designers Claesson Koivisto Rune. The huge free-standing brass-fogged mirrors positioned strategically around the oak-panelled room are expert high-style contemporary punctuation marks. And the food – a lengthy succession of small classically French plates – is pretty good too.

Just around the canal sits the Grand Hôtel – peerless, stately and facing the Royal Apartments. Its recent refurb hasn’t exactly reinvented an already well-oiled wheel of plush and luxe, but its new restaurant, Mathias Dahlgren, had me struggling for superlatives. The more formal of its two tastefully 21st-century dining rooms, the Matsalen, serves a tasting menu that does things with traditional local ingredients (red beet, herring, roe deer) that seem nothing short of sorcery. Something as simple as a mouthful of bread, served hot and fresh on scorched wood, conjures Proustian memories of a childhood of forests and burning stoves. And the way they pair food with drink is just as inspired. I hazard this will be one of the 10 best dinners you’ll ever eat.

You probably won’t need breakfast after that, so hold out for the buffet brunch of dim sum and bellinis that is served on Sunday mornings at Berns Asiatiska – the dark Oriental restaurant of the Berns Hotel, Stockholm’s original haute boutique B&B. Terence Conran has turned an already splendid 1860s theatre into one of the most photogenic dining halls in the city, with just enough chinoiserie to offset the rococo.

There are enough museums in Stockholm to devote a month to, but the best of the bunch is the Moderna Museet, which adjoins the Arkitekturmuseet on the island of Skeppsholmen, just across the bridge from the Grand Hôtel. Duchamp may be omnipresent in the early rooms, but this is as good an overview of art since 1900 that you’ll find anywhere – and very slickly presented, particularly when they run special events. You might encounter performance artists in glass boxes as you wander from room to room, or a troupe of dancers moving en masse through the main corridor.

From the Museet stroll back across the water to the National Museum and upstairs to its permanent Design 19002000 show, a compact documentation of how Swedish functionalism was born and became so influential as a style as well as a philosophy.

No serious restaurants open on a Sunday evening in Stockholm, which justifies choosing a wonderfully silly one. At weekends everyone from families to bespectacled design types flock to Grill for a carnivorous buffet feast and live music. And in many ways it is the perfect close to a weekend in the city. From the outside, it is nothing to write home about, but inside it’s Alice in Wonderland goes to the Moulin Rouge, with sumptuous, perfectly grilled meats. The Swedish may love clean lines and monochrome clothing, but they can also appreciate a dinner surrounded by tens of thousands of faux rose petals and a life-size shark hanging over their heads. Functional chic is one thing, but everyone has to have a weekend off occasionally.