Stockholm

Sunday Express, June 10, 2012

TAKING STOCK IN A SCANDIC OASIS

Relaxed, green and picturesque, there’s something almost utopian about Stockholm in summer, as DUNCAN CRAIG finds out

OTHER cities play at being green; Stockholm drew up the blueprint. A thriving, modern capital with the feel of a perfectly preserved heritage town, the city’s enviable eco credentials are part accident, part design.

For more than a century, the Swedish capital has pioneered environmentally sensitive approaches to urban living (it had electric trams while Queen Victoria was still on the throne). Today, there are nearly 500 miles of bike lanes and half the city is given over to forest or parkland.

Its unique setting has certainly played a part, though. Presiding over the confluence of Lake Mälaren and the Baltic, Stockholm is arranged around 14 islands, and with development restricted by, and gravitating towards, 100 miles of waterfront, nature is most inhabitants’ neighbour.

These waterways are prized and therefore pristine; the water outside City Hall is reputedly clean enough to drink. Visit in summer and you’ll find these stretches of water alive with sailboats, kayaks and swimmers, while distinctively squat ferries purr back and forth connecting cultural attractions that include the highest density of museums in Scandinavia, some irresistible medieval architecture and a palace that would make even the Queen green with envy.

SEE: Not so much a green lung as a torso, the Royal National City Park is a six-mile arc of interconnected parkland running through the city. Flat, spacious and dissected by bicycle lanes, it is best explored using the city’s SvD hire scheme (a lightweight pre-cursor to London’s Boris bikes, and easier on the thighs).

A tale of nautical ineptitude that makes Titanic look like a triumph

The southern extent of the park is Djurgården, an island formerly used as royal hunting grounds in the 16th century and now Stockholm’s premier recreational area. Ignore the Coney Island-style cluster of amusements and rollercoasters on the shoreline. Beyond, you’ll find woodland, art galleries, cafés and Skansen (www.skansen.se/en), the world’s largest open-air folk museum (admittedly, not the most crowded of fields).

Historical buildings from all over Sweden have been dismantled and reassembled in themed gardens for you to stroll among. If you get bored of all the period costumes and architecture, follow the wolf howls to Skansen’s zoo where you’ll find other Nordic curiosities such as elk, lynx and brown bear.

DO: Compact and accessible, Stockholm is ideally suited to a walking tour. I’d advise a circular route, with the island of Skeppsholmen (see below) as your hub. First stop should be the Vasa Museum (www.vasamuseet.se/en) which showcases a tale of nautical ineptitude that makes Titanic look like a triumph. Top heavy and (quite literally) packed to the gunwales with weighty bling, this mighty war ship sunk a few minutes after setting off on its maiden voyage in 1628. Salvaged 333 years later, she now resides in a purpose-built, ship-shape structure, gloriously restored.

Follow the waterfront round to the cavernous, Italian baroque Royal Palace and try not to think about the rampant deforestation that once heated its 600 rooms. The lower-ground floor “woodshed” is now the Treasury, housing the sort of ostentatious regalia that has criminal masterminds rubbing their hands gleefully.

The palace borders the northern end of Gamla Stan, the medieval heart of Stockholm. All elegant spires and fairytale facades, you can easily lose yourself in its labyrinthine, cobbled streets. If, like me, you somehow keep finding yourself back at Stor Torget, the central square, give into temptation and visit one of its charmingly listing cafés. “Fika” (coffee and cake) is a Swedish institution; a generously proportioned Kanelbullar (cinnamon bun) and cappuccino will tee you up nicely for further rambling.

The room’s sink housed a whitewashed boulder over which the tap water flowed artfully on to my trousers. In this hotel, function comes a distant second to form

EAT: The T-shirt (“Give peas a chance”) tells you all you need to know about Hermans (www.hermans.se): it’s vegetarian, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. You’d come for the views alone. Its rear dining room and outdoor terrace boast a 180-degree sweep of the glistening harbour below and throughout the summer months are enlivened by the strains of everything from jazz to bossa nova bands.

Such is the array of international cuisine on offer, the mandatory buffet is entirely sensible. You’ll burn off plenty of calories going back and forth to sample everything from a dozen salads to bewilderingly tasty aubergine dishes but you’ll still find yourself rolling out of here several pounds heavier.

STAY: Hotel Skeppsholmen (www.hotelskeppsholmen.com) has, at various times in its history, been the quarters of King Karl XII’s troops; a martial court; a hospice for plague sufferers; a naval officers’ mess; and now a hotel. How’s that for recycling? Today, the elongated, mustard-coloured building on the intimate island of the same name is arguably Stockholm’s trendiest place to be billeted, a uber-contemporary hangout with the feel of a design museum (most calls to reception will be about where you can purchase the fixtures and fittings).

The rooms are spacious yet minimalist, with function a distant second to form; it took me several minutes and a faceful of water to work out the shower, while the sink housed a whitewashed boulder over which the tap water flowed artfully on to my trousers. There was some sort of catalogue shoot going on during breakfast, with effortlessly stylish model-types sitting amid the restaurant’s naked bulbs and nudey line drawings as I feasted on sweet bread, exquisite granola and gravid lax (dill-cured salmon). They were still there the next morning. Then it clicked: they were just your average Stockholmers. Doubles from £140 (two sharing), B&B.

GREEN FACT: There are 940 square feet of green space for every Stockholm resident.

* GETTING THERE: Scandinavian Airlines (0871 2267760/www.flysas.co.uk) offers return flights from Heathrow to Stockholm Arlanda from £129.
The Stockholm Card (www.visitstockholm.com/stockholmcard) offers free admission to 80 museums and attractions, free travel by public transport; free boat sightseeing; free bicycle sightseeing in summer.
Visit Sweden: 0207 108 6168/www.visitsweden.com