It’s been called, like Amsterdam, a Venice of the north. And though not crosshatched by canals, Stockholm is indeed a city – a ravishing one – built on water, spanning 14 islands on Lake Mälaren, where it meets an estuary leading to the Baltic Sea and 30,000-odd additional islands that make up the Stockholm Archipelago. An estimated 30 per cent of the city is given over to water, which may explain its reputation as one of the most desirable places on earth to live. Frigid temperatures and darkness can besiege it during its long, at times brutal winters; so in high summer, when light lingers in the mild air until midnight, Stockholmers come out in droves to eat, drink and enjoy their city and its prodigious aqueous charms.
But ask any seasoned traveller what – besides quayside revelry and island hopping – Stockholm does best and the reply will likely be one of two things: world-class eating or world-class design. In recent years the city has given René Redzepi and his Copenhagen cohort a run for their money in the capital-of-Scandinavian-gastronomy trials. Local luminaries include Björn Frantzén, the charming, telegenic chef behind the two‑Michelin-star Restaurang Frantzén, on cobbled Gamla Stan (Old Town) island. This is great gastronomic theatre, where a fixed-course, flourishy menu thrills multiple senses (at one time iPods were distributed with dishes) in a smallish dining room in Scandi neutrals. Tables are notoriously hard to score, so the restaurant has introduced an early Saturday seating – a late lunch/very early supper – which starts at 3pm (and ends around 6pm, so still plenty of daylight left for an alfresco apéritif). A more casual Frantzén experience can be had around the corner at his gastropub, The Flying Elk. Here, in a dining room suffused with natural light, game, pork and potatoes take on creative permutations; the roasted ox heart was predictably moreish. Next door is Frantzén’s wine bar, Gaston – a tiny affair with a couple of tall communal tables, a backlit bar with some three dozen vintages sourced worldwide, and small plates sent over from The Flying Elk.
Mathias Dahlgren, Stockholm’s other culinary superstar, has been equally democratic in his diversification. Matsalen (dining room), his restaurant in the grand old Grand Hôtel – achingly elegant, with just 10 tables and one seating a night – serves a daily refinement of ultra-exclusive ingredients, from fern fronds to lake fishes, each consecutive dish a subtle artwork. The experience is further personalised at Matbordet (dining table), Dahlgren’s 10-seat, private-dining chef’s-table experience, which enlists guests in the menu-creating process. And next door at the Ilse Crawford-designed Matbaren (dining bar), diners sit at the open-kitchen counter and order à la carte dishes – markedly less precious, no less delectable. Warm bread arrives in small paper parcels, the cooks laugh and natter, and all is cheery and amenable (except, perhaps, the bill: two starters, a glass of white Burgundy and bottled water set me back about £75 – but then, such sticker shock is par for the course in this absurdly expensive city).
Set at the harbour’s edge and long chosen by heads of state and film stars despite interiors that had become a bit careworn, the Grand emerged not long ago from a rolling refurbishment complete with a stunning new fitness centre and spa, its sauna and whirlpool walls tiled in beautiful murals. Where other Stockholm landmarks assertively toe the modern-design line, the Grand’s charm is resolutely 19th century – rooms mix ornate sconces, Biedermeier antiques and a bold Empire palette (think vermilion velvet headboards against robin’s-egg-blue walls) – and the views of the harbour and surrounding islands from the French doors of its top-floor suites are just as appealing.
Much of the city’s appeal is how liberally its attractions are spread across those islands. A 15-minute stroll south of the Grand is Skeppsholmen island, atop which sits the Moderna Museet. The collection, with examples of Sweden’s own surrealist movement, as well as photography, drawings and a handful of major works by the likes of Dalí, Duchamp and Picasso, is nothing to sneeze at; but it’s the masterful brick-and-glass building by Rafael Moneo, which capitalises on panoramic views, that seals the deal.
To the west is Djurgården; here, Sweden’s historic narratives are on display at Skansen, an “outdoor museum” made up of buildings imported from all over the country, some more than 600 years old (Skansen itself was founded 125 years ago); with its zoo and general air of living history, it’s ideal for little ones. The Vasa Museet, dedicated to a single ship sunk in the harbour in 1628 on her maiden voyage – barely 1,300m from port – and salvaged in the early 1960s largely intact, is a must for any maritime-history buff (and easy to do in under an hour).
But Djurgården’s soul is its gardens. Amid extensive parks and rose beds by Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte – the Napoleonic marshal who acquired the land in the late 1700s and eventually became Karl XIV Johan of Sweden – is the Rosendals Trädgård (traditional garden), which champions organic and biodynamic growing methods. Some of the city’s top chefs, Dahlgren among them, have its produce delivered to their restaurants. On a summer day there are few more pleasant places to loll – or enjoy a modest, simple, flawlessly executed (read: very Swedish) asparagus salad or salmon sandwich at Rosendal’s greenhouse café and bakery.
That is, of course, not counting the myriad locations right out on the water, which, in high summer, are arguably without peer in northern Europe. A cult hit when set on a tiny island in the archipelago, and an international destination since moving in 2013 to Djurgården, is Oaxen, a two-restaurants-in-one phenomenon. Don’t be fooled by the industrial-chic look of Oaxen Krog (which just garnered its second Michelin star last year) – chef Magnus Ek is all about the very fine dining, his menu a six- or 10-course tour de force of seasonal seafood (cockles, oysters, scallops and langoustine all feature in summer). At Oaxen Slip, things are more relaxed, with its triple-height ceilings from which old wooden fishing boats are suspended, elevated “Nordic-bistro” fare (herring three ways, smoked perch, oxen sausage), and an appealing air of smiling alacrity among the staff. South across the strait is the Grill on J’s Pier, where visitors and locals pitch up in RIBs or sailboats to join the happy, rammed Sunday brunch scene, sitting in simple canvas directors’ chairs, under a conservatory. And right in town is Mälarpaviljongen, a floating bar-café, ideal on a warm weekend afternoon for easy contemplation of the absurdly pretty cityscape over a bottle of wine and some fruits de mer. (NB: unless you’re in the romance market, best vacate before evening, when the clientele reportedly begins to skew decidedly single).
Natural beauty here is gratifyingly complemented by the manmade kind; Stockholm’s long and illustrious aesthetic traditions of furniture, textile and product design draw aficionados from all corners of the world. First stop for many is Svenskt Tenn, which Estrid Ericson and Josef Frank parlayed into Sweden’s preeminent design house in the 1930s. Its signature exuberant prints, pewterware and pared-down furniture – spread across two floors of a beautiful building facing the harbour on the Strandvägen – still epitomise exquisite style. Equally stylish but firmly contemporary – and, like Svenskt Tenn, something of a pilgrimage site – is Asplund, a showroom that combines eponymous-brand furniture with a sharp edit of one-off modern pieces selected by the owners. And while Stockholm isn’t Paris or Milan, a handful of womenswear and accessories designer names will be recognisable to the fashion au fait: among flagships worth seeking out are Carin Rodebjer, whose Marc Jacobs-like downtown-girl style (she shows her collections in New York) has made her a small hit on both sides of the Atlantic; and, of course, Jonny Johansson’s Acne Studios in Ostermalm – the where-it-all-started showcase for the tongue‑in-cheek denim label that emerged as Sweden’s most accomplished and directional fashion house.
And where to stay, besides the Grand? The dead-centre location and old-made-sleekly-new ambience of the Nobis (right next to Acne Studios) have won it multitudes of fans since its 2010 opening. As full-service hotels go, you can’t really go wrong here, from the Orla Kiely bath products to the absurdly delicious mozzarella di bufala and 30-month-aged prosciutto at Caina, its Italian restaurant. But the apotheosis of Swedish home is a villa in the north of town, whose unassuming brick façade belies one of the most stylish interiors, not just in Stockholm but in urban hospitality anywhere. Every one of Ett Hem’s 12 rooms and suites – all designed, like Dahlgren’s Matbaren, by Ilse Crawford – is totally unique: a sheepskin throw in this one; a cheminée clad in porcelain tiles in that; no Dutch blue wall or ponyskin-clad chaise replicating another. Breakfast in the gorgeous walled garden is about as Swedish as it gets: organic granola, freshly baked breads and house-made lingonberry jam, its tartness echoed by the salt tang of the ocean in the air – a reminder of the water that’s never far away, even if momentarily out of sight.