Island hop in Stockholm

Sunday Times
Published: 2nd September 2012

On Stockholm’s trendy southern island, Sodermalm, haughty seagulls strut through the square, past the beautiful people eating at Urban Deli and Roxy in the long, warm evening. We choose Roxy, finding ourselves beside Jodie Foster, who is eating alone.

“It’s a little big city,” the waitress tells her — and she’s right. If I were a movie star, this is where I’d be, in this peaceful metropolis by the Baltic, where I could make like Greta Garbo and disappear into the solitude.

Sodermalm’s rarefied restaurants and vintage clothes shops shimmer high above the water, overlooking the medieval city of pale apricot buildings and cobbled streets. Nearby, at Fiskaatan 9, is the block of flats where Stieg Larsson’s fictional heroine Lisbeth Salander bought her penthouse. Yet for all its cool, it is curiously calm here — as it is everywhere in Stockholm, a city whose rush-hour might mean a three-car queue at the main intersection.

The Swedish capital is built on 14 islands linked by bridges and canals. Ingmar Bergman insisted it wasn’t a city at all, but a large village set in the middle of some forests and lakes. It has been called the Venice of the north. Yet while Venice reveres the past,

In this utopian city, public transport runs well, the streets are wide, with fountains and fine statues, and there is little crime. Each island has its distinct personality. On Skeppsholmen, the museum island, we wander among architectural and East Asian collections, and visit the exuberant gallery of modern art to look at Warhols and Giacomettis. Across the bridge, on the waterfront opposite the Royal Palace and Gamla Stan, the old town, we explore the grand National Museum, with its Renoirs and Rembrandts.

The most surprising island is Djurgarden, once a royal hunting ground. Today, it is a kids’ kingdom, rugged with fir trees, crags and meadows. People ride horses, whizz by on bikes and clank in by tram or ferry to visit the zoo or the funfair. This must be one of the world’s jolliest cities to be a child, and all the youngsters we see look astoundingly pleased — they’ve probably just visited a beach or been on the dodgems.

We’re here in summer, reclining through limpid sunlit evenings on the stylish terraces of the Sodra theatre and the photographic museum, and watching hot-air balloons drift over the skyline. Even the shrieks from the funfair across the water on Djurgarden, its rollercoaster twisting pale blue against a still blue sky, seem softened by the warm air.

The next afternoon we spend a couple of heady hours at Grona Lund funfair ourselves, riding high above the silvery water on the carousel, and decide that this is the most likeable and beautiful funfair we have ever visited. We skip the free-fall tower — 260ft... straight down.

Stockholm’s dining is as innovative as the city itself. In the chic restaurant Matbaren, for example, the tables are set with wooden trays and paper menus, but the food created by the chef, Mathias Dahlgren, is sublime. Each portion is half-size, so you can try a number of dishes: baked wild - chocolate from Bolivia, with sour cream, toffee ice cream and nuts, was particularly fine.

Apparently, the Nobel prize committee holds an informal dinner after its regular Thursday meeting in an upstairs room at Den Gyldene Freden, in Gamla Stan, again with an adventurous menu that includes hare pâté with summer onions, goat’s cheese and beets. Even the pizza places in the old town can be a treat — some load their creations with elk or reindeer meat. In one restaurant on Stortorget, the oldest square in Stockholm, I snack on moose carpaccio with cheese and pine nuts, garnished with basil, olives and bay leaves.

For weekends, I can recommend the gorgeous brunches in Berns Asiatiska’s huge chandeliered dining room, where for about £35 a head you can eat like a hungry Swedish king, gorging on sushi, oysters and row upon row of dainty puddings. Possibly the world’s poshest all-you-can-eat buffet. I’m told Swedes don’t eat out habitually, because of the hefty prices (higher than London), so when they do, they expect excitement.

Summer here is beautiful, but I also like Stockholm when it’s cold. When I visited in early March, the trees were frosted and the waterways were frozen but

cracking in the dizzy sunshine. An hour’s boat ride from the port took us out further into the Baltic, by pine forests and dreaming houses overlooking the water. We sat on reindeer skins, wrapped up in red blankets.

There are about 30,000 islands in the wider archipelago, some with chic boutique hotels and sandy beaches, and I dreamt of travelling further over that glittering sea and not coming back to rainy England.

Whatever the season, however, visit one of Stockholm’s celebrated spas. Go for the Centralbadet, which has an oval indoor pool and sauna. Or try the Grand Hotel and enter a world of waterfalls, bucket showers, cold plunge pools and assorted blissful pamperings.

The nifty city card is a good investment: it costs about £70 for three days and allows admission to museums, passage on the city’s hop-on, hop-off buses, even some boat excursions. Beware of taxis, however. One picked me up in front of the Grand Hotel and charged more than £80 for a 20- minute trip. See, I thought Stockholm was perfect, but nothing is... 

Need to Know

Sally Emerson visited Stockholm as a guest of the Grand Hotel.

Getting there: airlines flying to Stockholm include SAS (0871 226 7760,, Norwegian Air (020 8099 7254, and British Airways (0844 493 0787,

Where to stay: the Grand Hotel (00 46-8 679 3560, is on the waterfront, historic and opulent; doubles from £180, spa entry from £76 for non-guests. The boutique-style Rex (08 160 040, has doubles from £65, B&B.

Where to eat and drink: Urban Deli (; mains from £18); Roxy (; mains from £17); Matbaren (; mains from £13); Den Gyldene Freden (; mains from £18); Berns Asiatiska (; brunch £35).

What to see: Museum of Architecture (; £6); Museums of World Culture (; £6); Museum of Modern Art (; £9); National Museum (; from £9); Museum of Photography (; £10); Grona Lund funfair (; from £9); Centralbadet baths (; from £21)

Further information:,