I love living in or near big cities. But I also have a taste for nature. That’s why I live in the Bay Area: I can have both.

That’s also why I find Stockholm so appealing.

Of the three Scandinavian capitals we visited, Stockholm is the most hardcore urban. But it also has miles of open space, much of it riparian since the city is on seventeen adjacent islands. The Fabulous Wife and I stayed toward the east end of Norrmalm, the main island. Downtown Stockholm occupies the west end, a forty-minute walk or ten-minute bus ride away. We almost always walked rather than rode because we wanted to keep up on a nearby estuary full of birds like this gray heron.

“Here fishy fishy fishy!”

Good friends who visited Stockholm a few years ago recommended the hot chocolate at a downtown café called Vete-Katten, so we gave it a try. The varm choklad is wonderful, but (sorry C and D!) not the best we’ve had. The winner and still champeen is the chocolate L’Africain at Angelina on Rue de Rivoli in Paris.

During our first day we scouted Helgeandsholmen and Gamla Stan, the small islands from which Stockholm sprouted. They’re filled with grand buildings, bombastic monuments, and narrow alleys. The Royal Palace is undergoing renovations so we didn’t venture inside. Nor did we go in the Riksdag, Sweden’s seat of government. Although today Swedish design is associated with sleekness and simplicity, in earlier times the aesthetic leaned more toward the stolid. Not that it isn’t nice, but the stone and brick architecture was clearly more intended to withstand the elements than to stoke the imagination.

The Riksdag, on tiny Helgeandsholmen Island.

Later in the day we went to the Vasa Museum, home of the Titanic of 1628, a ridiculously top-heavy battleship (the Vasa) built at the insistence of King Gustavus Adolphus. After sailing less than a mile, the Vasa encountered a gust of wind and capsized, drowning thirty people and Gustavus Adolphus’s fantasies of consolidating power along the Baltic coast. The Vasa remained submerged until it was located in 1956 and raised in 1961. Its restoration continues to this day. Despite its lethally incompetent design, it was intricately embellished, and four centuries on, what endures is not the royal ambition but the staggeringly skilled craft.

The Vasa’s stern.

The next day we headed to Södermalm, which we’d heard described as Stockholm’s Brooklyn, i.e. where the creative types who can’t afford Norrmalm hang out. Gotgatan, Södermalm’s main drag, is overhyped. As you walk down it, this unsettling apparition — a cross between a UFO and an overgrown golf ball — rises menacingly from the south:

Lock phasers, Mister Sulu!

It’s the Ericsson Globe, which hosts hockey games and other events, and it’s apparently the largest spherical building in the world.

Other than that, the only exceptional discovery we made along Gotgatan was the Magnum make-your-own ice cream bar store. You start with a vanilla ice cream bar. You choose whether to coat it in dark, milk, or white chocolate. You next pick three toppings from about a dozen options. Finally, you pick another type of chocolate to drizzle over the whole thing. I topped mine with pistachio crumbs, salted cashew crumbs, and coconut. The Fabulous Wife topped hers with pink sprinkles, cookie pieces, and coconut.

These are actually from our second visit.

The next day we were off to the Moderna Museet, or Modern Art Museum of Stockholm. More on that soon, when I post about art.

On our last full day in Stockholm we returned to Södermalm, this time eschewing Gotgatan and charting our own path, which proved more rewarding, although of course we had to make another pilgrimage to the Magnum store before leaving. As we headed back toward Norrmalm I snapped this photo of City Hall and environs. Then we had a last varm choklad at Vete-Katten.

The dark brown building on the left is City Hall.

It was during that last long day of walking that The Fabulous Wife and I confessed we’d been nursing the same impulse: to change our hair styles. We passed lots of salons, which no doubt had something to do with it. But I’m sure there was a psychological element as well, a need to gesture defiantly (if emptily) at the workaday world we were soon to rejoin. The Fabulous Wife wanted to dye her hair Scandinavian blonde, which I took to mean really, really blonde. I wanted to have my hair shaved along the sides and left long on top, with my beard more or less untouched. The Fabulous Wife would have looked spectacular as a Scandinavian blonde. But my haircut would have made me look like a pathetic wannabe millennial.

The cost in terms of time and money was too high anyway.

Still, had I said to The Fabulous Wife “let’s do this!” I suspect she and I would look very different right now.

Looking west from the Kaknästornet, a communications tower that was the tallest structure in Scandinavia until the Twisting Torso came along. That’s Djurgården Island straight ahead; the big brown building is the Nordiska Museet (Nordic Museum). Behind the Nordiska Museet are Skeppsholmen and Gamla Stan Islands. Behind Gamla Stan is Södermalm. On the right, that tall square tower is City Hall. Downtown Stockholm is out of the photo to the right.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

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