Stockholm sparkles. Literally. The Swedish capital, which increasingly feels like the design hub of Europe, has an exhilarating Ã©lan about it. The salty Baltic air feels pure and sharp. The city’s central shopping streets – strung partly over the mainland, partly over 14 of the little islands that make up this ever-breezy city – can seem so clean they almost gleam. The light bouncing off the clear, ice-cold waters lapping at the harbour gives everything a pin-sharp clarity. And for a long weekend of inspired, energising shopping – and wandering via foot or tram, dipping into museums or chugging past rocky, pine forested islands on an enchanting, old, wooden ferry – it provides a city break like no other.
The city is a blend of Paris and St Petersburg, architecturally glorious, with lots to buy and lashings of style, minus the crowds. Despite being the capital of the third-largest country in Europe in area, after Spain and France, Stockholm has a population of barely 1 million, with the entire country playing home to only approximately 10 million. Thanks to the ever-cool climate – even in August, temperatures rarely exceed 26 degrees – and Sweden’s reputation for being expensive, the city doesn’t get the hordes of crowds that swamp so many other EU capitals. So although it’s relatively small, the centre feels comfortably spacious, even at the height of summer. And unless you enjoy the biting cold of winter, summer is the time to visit, with its long days and short nights.
As for the shopping, the goods tempt, the shops are airy and the sales assistants do their jobs with charm and efficiency. Sweden’s design ethos – pared-down, practical, comfortable, but elegant – is on show across the city. Everything is on offer – from blond-wood furniture, clean-lined crockery and clever lighting to sleek, lean-cut everyday clothing. Best of all, it’s at prices that suit everyone. This is, after all, the home of Ikea, the flat-pack furnishers to the world, and fast-fashion superstar H&M. It’s the more expensive stores, of course, that make you want to throw everything you own out and start again. But the allure of the homeware shops, alone, which abound across the city, means no one is likely to come home empty-cased.
Unless you’ve forgotten to pack the number-one city-break essential, flexible flat-soled shoes, it’s a pleasure just to wander, browsing your way south from the winding, cobbled boutique- and restaurant-lined streets of the island of Gamla Stan – the Old Town and medieval heart of Stockholm – to Södermalm, with its vintage stores, cutting-edge galleries, cool cafes, and great views of the city from its rocky heights.
Farther north, visitors will find the busier shopping streets of Norrmalm, mostly rebuilt in the 1960s, and the elegant boulevards between Stureplan and Norrmalmstorg of Östermalm, an area revamped in the 1980s and now the centre of luxury shopping. This is a small city, so you could walk that whole central loop, ending up back on Gamla Stan, in less than two hours – as long as you didn’t stop to shop, that is. All the shops mentioned here are in these central areas. But pre-planning what you want to focus on makes sense, and for this the city’s helpful website is a model of clarity, inspiration and information. Just remember smaller shops tend to close at 2pm on Saturday and stay closed on Sunday.
Department stores and malls
If you’re short on time, there are three key names to take note of. The city’s best department store, Nordiska Kompaniet, known as NK, in Norrmalm, is knockout fabulous for contemporary Swedish homewares, but can supply whatever you’re looking for in stylish form, from a cool rucksack or pair of cropped flared jeans to a cut-crystal vase by Lena Bergström for 2,820 Swedish krona (Dh1,295) or an understated Dyrberg/Kern man’s bronze and copper bracelet for 825 krona (Dh380).
Nearby, the block-long ÅhlÃ©ns City could be Macy’s to NK’s Bloomingdale’s: more mass-market, but full of items you didn’t know you needed quite so badly until you saw them. I absolutely needed those handmade wooden Iris Hantverk household brushes for 75 krona (Dh35), for instance.
As for malls, Norrmalm’s MOOD Stockholm is newer, but smarter still – in the whole of Scandinavia – is Östermalm’s Sturegallerian, all airy glass and chrome, and home to 50 upmarket fashion, watch, jewellery and homeware boutiques, as well as a clutch of chic cafes and restaurants.
Homeware design stores
It might have been the long, icy winters that keep everyone inside, that have made Swedish designers focus so successfully on interior design. After decades of producing furniture and fabrics distinguished by their clean, bold, pared-down, monochrome functionality, however, Sweden’s designers have let colour creep into their creations, showing softer, pastel colours and textures in the design stores. You’ll now find velvets, rather than canvas, used as upholstery, and softly gleaming brass, rather than shiny chrome, light fixtures. Östermalm is dotted with homeware and furniture stores, each more impossibly alluring than the last, but to save time it’s useful to check out the websites of the key stores before you go – then decide which you want to explore in person.
To Swedes, the most famous name in home design is probably the Östermalm district’s Svenskt Tenn, whose store opened in 1924. There are Endless brass candleholders for 1,600 krona (Dh735); a pewter place-card holder frog for 215 krona (Dh100); and a black and white cotton Elefant holdall for 1,650 krona (Dh758).
Next door is the legendary Malmsten, which opened in 1940, with wares such as vivid geometric and flower-printed lampshades for 1,525 krona (Dh700). There’s the serenely inspirational Garbo Interiors and the lighting and decor at Nordiska Galleriet. Also not to be missed are the 19th-century American Shakers meets Swedish minimalism at Norrgavel, the arresting Studio B3, and in the Södermalm neighbourhood, House of Rym.
Then there’s the wondrous Design House Stockholm, which would vie with NK as the best place to choose if you only have time to explore one store. The airy setting presents its lamps, rugs, serving dishes and cutlery ravishingly. If cotton-stuffed, pocket-sprung, blue-check Swedish mattresses – from a steep 126,000 krona (Dh57,900) – and striped or paisley-patterned bed linen is what you’re after, head to Hästens. Located in Östermalm, near the Ett Hem hotel, it is essential for anyone obsessed with sorting out the ultimate bedroom, plus prices are lower than in the Dubai branch.
Jewellery and perfume
About 150 years ago, Sweden was one of the poorest countries in Europe, so this isn’t a city to find much antique jewellery. Since the end of the Second World War, however, Sweden has flourished under a great economic expansion. Today, its wealthiest citizens continue to provide an enthusiastic market for contemporary jewellers, many specialising in the silver that works so well in Scandinavian light. Georg Jensen has been a celebrated name since the silversmith set up the company in 1904, and with items ranging from a simple silver pendant at 1,730 krona (Dh795) to a curvy little silver, amber and green agate box at 176,250 krona (Dh80,970) made in 1914, the brand remains internationally beloved. Contemporary local designers include the whimsically inventive Sebastian Schildt and ex-model Efva Attling, whose sculptural pieces include rings from about 580 krona (Dh266). Both have eponymous boutiques in Norrmalm. For perfume, the niche artisan brand Byredo, launched by Swedish basketball player Ben Gorham 10 years ago, feels archetypally Scandinavian, with its fresh, citrus, unisex scents and clean-lined packaging.
It’s rare to see anyone over about 35 in the city centre wearing any colour other than navy, black, putty or white, lightened with a delicate almond green or eggshell blue, a palette you still see in many clothing stores. But just as the furniture is gently becoming more colourful, so are younger fashion brands, such as the ubiquitous H&M and its subsidiary labels Monki, Cheap Monday, Weekday and & Other Stories.
Of the multi-label, luxury boutiques in Norrmalm, the best is probably Nathalie Schuterman, stocking the likes of Bottega Veneta, Miu Miu, 3.1 Phillip Lim and Manchesa. Among the mid-price boutiques and chains – besides H&M – good hunting grounds for womenswear include Filippa K, great for maxi T-shirt dresses for 1,360 krona (Dh625), linen-mix jackets for 3,050 krona (Dh1,400) and twill trench coats for 3,655 krona (Dh1,680). Acne Studios, which has three locations in the city, including its Norrmalm flagship store, could stylishly makeover the whole family – men, women, teenagers and children – and is another must. Prices are notably cheaper than Acne boutiques found outside Sweden, with men’s jeans starting from 1,730 krona (Dh795), a linen-cotton Gilda dress for 2,425 krona (Dh1,115) and a Hero crocodile-embossed shoulder bag for 10,415 krona (Dh4,785).
Where to stop for coffee
Punctuating the day with frequent stops for fika, a Swedish concept that means “coffee and something sweet to eat”, is easy when you’re never more than about 10 yards from a glass and bare-wood cafe with blankets on its pavement chairs, or some cosily old-world tea room. Cappuccino in many establishments costs from 35 krona (Dh16) and cake from 55 krona (Dh25).
Some of the stores even have their own cafes. NK offers an inviting option on the ground floor, and there’s a lovely tea salon above the Svenskt Tenn design store. On a day when you’re museum-hopping or just taking it easy, rustic Blå Porten makes a lovely spot for sitting in the sunshine after a stroll on the shady, wooded museum island, Djurgården. Norrmalm and Södermalm both have branches of the cool and chic Urban Deli. Any of the little cafes dotted around the food hall, Östermalms Saluhall, currently installed across the street from its traditional location on Östermalmstorg while that is revamped, make a good place to stop. With stalls piled high with beautiful breads, cakes, sweet and savoury tarts, ice boxes displaying cured elk, bear and reindeer meats, and tangy local cheeses, the hall exudes an allure almost as powerful as the design stores themselves.
Where to stay
Searching out the smartest hotels in the city requires choosing between being in the middle of things or tucked away where you can feel more like a local. If you prefer to be in the centre of the action, head for the 19th-century-built Grand Hotel. Right on the harbour front, where the water, amazingly for a capital, is clean enough for swimming, and looking across to the royal palace on Gamla Stan, it’s grand in every way. The property invariably has some visiting politician or concert headliner checking in, and is close to the National Museum.
Rooms – there are 268 – are gracefully high-ceilinged, decorated with fluttering white curtains, in that classic Gustavian Swedish eggshell blue. The beds are so comfortable you never want to get up, and when you eventually do, the glass-sided, harbour-side Verandan restaurant makes the perfect place to linger over a truly wonderful breakfast. There’s also a two-starred Michelin restaurant, and the best lobby-level bathrooms – each cubicle a bathroom in miniature and extravagantly wallpapered – and the Nordic Spa that recreates a rural Scandinavian retreat.
The only downside is that the harbour-front rooms become a bit noisy if you like to sleep with the windows open. Double rooms are from 3,530 krona (Dh1,622) including taxes and breakfast.
For a more local touch, yet just about 15 minutes away by foot, in a quiet residential street, is the 12-room Ett Hem (“At Home”), a 1910-built arts and crafts house that opened as a hotel in 2012. Filled with books and flowers, flickering candles and fabulous lighting that shows off high ceilings and walls of pale grey, it’s a showcase for the work of StudioIlse’s interiors star Ilse Crawford. In the reception area alone you’ll find curly lambskin on a polished steel chair, a mirrored screen and a grey cashmere throw on a navy and grey striped flannel sofa. Move farther inside and you’ll discover the large, book-lined sitting/dining/tea room, and the alternative dining spaces in the conservatory and brazier-warmed garden.
In the rooms, the beds are sink-in blissful, the bathrooms large, with a bath and roomy shower, full-sized Kiehl’s amenities, Penhaligon’s scents and linen robes. Breakfast is a set menu of crunchy granola, yogurt and berries, toasted sourdough bread with cloudberry jam, and Swedish hard cheeses set on wild-flower-strewn asymmetrical plates. There’s even a two-room spa downstairs. Doubles from 3,900 krona (Dh1,790), including taxes and breakfast.
Emirates flies direct from Dubai to Stockholm with return tickets starting from Dh2,605 per person, including taxes.
Read this and more stories in Ultratravel magazine, out with The National on Thursday, May 19.
Source: art & life