Stockholm is a city in the flush of its second youth. In the last 15 years Sweden's capital has emerged from its cold, Nordic shadow to take the stage as a truly international city. What started with entry into the European Union in 1995, gained pace with the extraordinary IT boom of the late 1990s (strengthened with the Skype-led IT second-wave of 2003), and solidified with the hedge fund invasion of the mid-nineties continues today. And despite more recent global economic turmoil, which Sweden was able to coast through relatively unscatched, most of Greater Stockholm's 1.4 million or so inhabitants have realized that aspects of their city rival those in Paris, London, New York, or any other great metropolis. With this realization comes change. Stockholm has become a city of design, fashion, innovation, technology, and world-class food, pairing homegrown talent with an international outlook. The streets are flowing with a young and confident population keen to drink in everything the city has to offer. The glittering feeling of optimism, success, and living in the here and now is rampant in Stockholm. Of course, not everyone is looking to live so much in the present; for them, luckily, Stockholm also has plenty of history. Positioned where the waters of Lake Mälaren rush into the Baltic, Stockholm has been an important Baltic trading site and an international city of some wealth for centuries. Built on 14 small islands joined by bridges crossing open bays and narrow channels, Stockholm boasts the story of its history in its glorious medieval old town, grand palaces, ancient churches, sturdy edifices, public parks, and 19th-century museums—its history is soaked into the very fabric of its airy boulevards, built as a public display of trading glory. Stockholm can be mapped and interpreted by its archipelago landscape. For the inhabitants there's a tribal status to each of the islands. Residents of Södermalm are fiercely proud of their rather bohemian settlement, while those who call Gamla Stan home will tell you that there is nowhere else like it. But for the visitor, Stockholm's islands have a more practical, less-passionate meaning: they help to understand the city, both in terms of history and in terms of Stockholm's different characteristics, conveniently packaging the capital into easily handled, ultimately digestible areas. The central island of Gamla Stan wows visitors with its medieval beauty, winding, narrow lanes and small café-lined squares. To the south, Södermalm challenges with contemporary boutiques, hip hangouts, and left-of-center sensibilities. North of Gamla Stan is Norrmalm, the financial and business heart of the city. Travel west and you'll find Kungsholmen, site of the Stadshuset (City Hall), where you'll find the first signs of residential leafiness. Turn east from Norrmalm and Östermalm awaits, an old residential neighborhood with the most money, the most glamorous people, the most tantalizing shops, and the most expensive street on the Swedish Monopoly board. Finally, between Östermalm and Södermalm lies the island of Djurgården, once a royal game preserve, now the site of lovely parks and museums.
Due to the wave of "New Nordic Cuisine," Stockholm can hold its own with just about any other major European capital. Industry investment in training, receptivity to international influence and a flair for creativity all mean that Stockholm's best chefs have stayed ahead of the game. In terms of culinary experience per krona, mid-range restaurants represent the best value for money in town. Many of the city's better restaurants now offer more set-priced tasting menus and increasing numbers of wine by the glass—making even the most expensive restaurants relatively affordable. "Regional" and "local" remain key, with chefs looking no farther than their backyards for fine, seasonal, traditional ingredients, served with a modern twist. Of course, there are also many less-expensive restaurants with traditional Swedish cooking. Among Swedish dishes, the best bets are wild game and fish, particularly salmon, and the smorgasbord buffet, which usually offers a good variety at a reasonable price. Reservations are often necessary.
The last few years have brought with them a welcome surge in new hotels, including the Scandic Grand Central Hotel (next to the train station) and Radisson Blu Waterfront Hotel (near the waterfront congress center). But, while the hotel choices here are often not as trendy as those found elsewhere, they are plentiful and full of variety, with hostels on up to five stars. Most hotels here have a distinctly Scandinavian design sensibility. Who needs the latest designer interior when there are plenty of fresh, nonfussy, reasonably elegant and endlessly functional places to stay? Although Stockholm has a reputation for prohibitively expensive hotels, fairly good deals can be found in summer, when prices are substantially lower and numerous discounts are available. All rooms in the hotels reviewed are equipped with shower or bath unless otherwise noted. Unless otherwise stated, hotels do not have air-conditioning. Some hotels close during the winter holidays; call ahead if you expect to travel during that time.
Stockholm's nightlife can be broken up into two general groups based on geography. First, there's Birger Jarlsgatan, Stureplan, and the city end of Kungsträdgården, which are more trendy and expensive. At the bars and clubs in this area it's not unusual to wait in line with people who look like they just stepped off the pages of a glossy magazine. To the south, in Södermalm, things are a bit looser and wilder, but that doesn't mean the bars are any less hip. At night Söder can get pretty crazy—it's louder and more bohemian, and partygoers often walk the streets.
Many establishments will post and enforce a minimum age requirement, which could be anywhere from 18 to 30, depending on the clientele they wish to serve, and they may frown on jeans and sneakers. Your safest bet is to wear black clothes, Stockholm's shade of choice. Most places are open until around 3 am. Wherever you end up, a night of barhopping in Stockholm (and all of Sweden) includes fresher air now, since smoking has been banned since 2005 in all bars, clubs, and restaurants.
Stockholm's theater and opera season runs from September through May. Both Dramaten (the National Theater) and Operan (the Royal Opera) shut down in the summer months. When it comes to popular music, big-name international acts frequently come to Stockholm in summer while on their European tours. Artists of this type always play at Globen sports arena.
If you like to shop till you drop, then charge on down to MOOD, PUB, NK, and Gallerian, the four main department stores and malls in the central city area. All of them carry top-name brands for both men and women. For souvenirs and crafts peruse the boutiques and galleries in Västerlånggatan, the main street of Gamla Stan. For jewelry, crafts, and fine art, hit the shops that line the raised sidewalk at the start of Hornsgatan on Södermalm. Drottninggatan, Birger Jarlsgatan, Biblioteksgatan, Götgatan, and Hamngatan also offer some of the city's best shopping.
Before becoming a famous actress, Greta Garbo used to work at PUB, which has 42 independent boutiques. Today there’s little to suggest that past, but brands like Acne, House Doctor, and organic food vendor Blueberry keep things fresh and modern.
Just down the road from Sergels Torg, this large indoor mall has designer chic to spare, selling toys to fashion in beautiful surroundings.
Sweden's leading department store is the unmissable NK; the initials, pronounced enn-koh, stand for Nordiska Kompaniet. You pay for the high quality here.
For a good indoor market hit Hötorgshallen, directly under the Filmstaden movie theater. The market is filled with butcher shops, coffee and tea shops, and fresh-fish markets. It's closed on Sunday.
Stockholm's newest destination for high-end shopping spans an entire city block.