The Swede Life, travel feature from our August 2014 magazine

Sweden’s beautiful capital is built on 14 islands at the confluence of lake and ocean, each with its own distinct personality. Fifty-seven bridges make all accessible by foot – the city is surprisingly compact – while interisland ferries offer a restful, scenic route and the chance to see Stockholm’s glorious skyline from the water.

Michelin-starred restaurants abound – many of them so buzzy and casual that only the inventiveness of the food distinguishes them from ordinary cafés. But in a country whose bread is the best in the world and the ‘fika’ – a social coffee break with a bite – is sacred, even ‘ordinary’ cafés and bakeries offer a culinary treat. Stockholm is best explored neighbourhood by neighbourhood, with copious food stops along the way:

Gamla Stan – the Old Town – is where Stockholm was founded in the 13th century. Visitors are inevitably drawn here first by the charm of cobbled streets and beautiful old buildings, including the Royal Palace, which boasts over 600 rooms. It’s also home to Frantzén, the city’s most inventive restaurant – a charming hole in the wall where you’ll need three hours to appreciate the 16-course tasting menu, which has earned Björn Frantzén two Michelin stars. He is proudest of the multicoloured seasonal veggie presentation, which follows sumptuous mouthfuls incorporating langoustines and foie gras, pointing out: “There are 46 varieties on every plate, but only what is in season right now.” With only 17 seats, booking well ahead is vital! www.restaurantfrantzen.com

Södermalm is the cool neighbourhood just over the bridge from Gamla Stan, where you could spend all day shopping for vintage fashion and eating delicious food on the hoof. It might be a pastry from the Urban Deli or a snack from the Vegan Soul Train food truck, or you could go all post-ironic and have lunch at über-cool Meatballs. It used to be a joke that Swedes live on the humble home-made staple, which this new restaurant, named for them, has elevated to gourmet status with a choice of rarebreed cattle and several kinds of deer as the raw material. Feast on them at candelabra-bedecked tables and mingle with locals who take them away to cook at home. www.facebook.com/Meatballsforthepeople

Östermalm is the elegant residential quarter awash with gorgeous Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) buildings decorated with fin de siècle curlicues. The big attraction is the Saluhall – an elegant, covered food market – and nearby chef Niklas Ekstedt is making waves with his eponymous restaurant, where all cooking is done over an open fire. “I wanted to explore the way we used to cook in Sweden years ago – and that meant all the possibilities of flames and smoke,” he explains. You have to stop loading up on the wood-fired bread and smoked butter at Ekstedt, or you’ll have no room for the sea cucumber and oysters, lobster and chimney-cured tomatoes, and grilled caramel-nut desserts that follow. www.ekstedt.nu

Djurgården is home to some of Stockholm’s best museums, including Skansen, a 75-acre park with over 150 historical buildings that tell the story of rural Sweden over the ages in the open air, and new ABBA The Museum, which celebrates the life and times of the country’s four most famous human exports. Perhaps most unforgettable is the Vasa Museum, home to an exquisitely decorated royal warship, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1628 but was hauled up after 333 years on the seabed and has been preserved in all its glory. There is good eating here too, notably at Oaxen, which attracted rave reviews for 18 years in the countryside before moving lock, stock and barrel to Stockholm. Oaxen Slip is a great choice for lunch and brunch overlooking the water in the atmospheric setting of an old boat house, while Oaxen Krog, hidden from view, offers fine dining and a private waterside terrace. Skansen has its own restaurant, where excellent traditional Swedish food is served, and the restaurant at the Museum of Spirits – where Absolut Vodka houses an outstanding collection of label art, including some Warhols – has just been taken over by Petter Nilsson, who has returned to Stockholm from Paris, where he made a name for himself at La Gazzetta. www.oaxen.com

Skeppsholmen, just a two-minute ferry ride from Djurgården or a 10-minute walk from the city centre, is home to both the fabulous Museum of Modern Art, which has a superb collection of contemporary masterworks, and the city’s most unique luxury hotel. Once a 17th-century naval barracks, the Skeppsholmen Hotel is a haven of minimalist, modern Scandinavian design, with all rooms overlooking water or woodland. The breakfast buffet may be the best place in the city to see how well Sweden does traditional breads and the crispbreads unique to the region, not to mention gravadlax – salmon cured with dill, salt and sugar – and a wide range of local, fresh produce. www.hotelskeppsholmen.se

Fjäderholmarna is the most accessible island of the 30 000 which form the archipelago, where city dwellers spend every weekend from May to September fishing, cooking, imbibing and taking saunas in the summer houses, which are so vital to the spirit of Swedish urbanites. This little spit of land is a foodie’s delight, thanks to its smokehouse restaurant, Rökeriet, the brand-new Brewpub microbrewery and the tasting cellars of Mackmyra, Sweden’s award-winning whisky. Allow at least 90 minutes between ferries to get a taste at all three.
www.stromma.se/en/Stockholm/The-Archipelago/Day-trips/Fjaderholmarna

The city centre has some unmissable sights, including the distinctive City Hall, topped by three golden crowns. Most famous for the Nobel Prize ceremony that takes place here every December, its greatest glory is the Golden Hall decorated with dazzling gold mosaics. Take a guided tour or climb the tower for a spectacular view of the city skyline. Also not to be missed is the grand waterfront esplanade Strandvägen, from which the shoreline of Gamla Stan can be admired, and the venerable Grand Hotel, one of the world’s oldest. It’s home to Stockholm’s first two-star restaurant, Mathias Dahlgren, whose dining options include the formal Matsalen, the more casual Matbaren, which has its own Michelin star, and a great new chef’s table, Matbordet. www.mathiasdahlgren.com

Stockholmers also have the home-baking bug so badly that the city is the first to have its own ‘sourdough hotel’! This is where city dwellers pay the Urban Deli £27 (just under R500) a week to look after their sourdough starter – it needs to be ‘fed’ with flour every few days – while they’re away on holiday.

Not your typical lunch lady:

Organic food is big in Stockholm, with many city dwellers raising their own vegetables on urban farms. Several chefs have created their own kitchen gardens to grow rare herbs and a cornucopia of vegetables, which thrive in the Nordic climate (expect to encounter a whole rainbow of candy-coloured beetroot and chard). Södermalm is a hub of organic produce, some available at the Urban Deli, more at Goodstore around the corner, and is also home to the Katarina Södra primary school where lucky pupils are fed all-organic lunches by gastronomic dinner lady Carola Magnusson. She presides over three other schools, as well as the restaurant at the Museum of Ethnography, and manages to feed children on the limited budget of less than £1 (just over R18) a day allotted in Sweden, where all pupils get free meals. She has no doubt it’s worthwhile expending so much energy to feed her charges really good food and educate them about it.

For more travel advice on Sweden, visit visitsweden.com and visitstockholm.com.

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