Lured by the comfortable weather, long days and inexpensive Norwegian Air flights from JFK, I took my family to Stockholm at the end of July. I was expecting picturesque water views (the city is made up of 14 islands, linked by bridges, ferries and an efficient subway system) and meatballs galore. But I wasn't prepared for the quirky cultural offerings, irresistible design shops, and welcoming cake and coffee bars staffed by extremely nice Alexander Skarsgård look-alikes.
Thinking about a visit? Here are five ways to enjoy this beautiful and friendly city before the darkness of winter falls.
TRY THE LOCAL SEAFOOD
Stockholm is surrounded by water, and fish figures prominently on most restaurant menus. Bla Porten (blaporten.com), a charming cafe on Djurgarden (the city's museum island), is the perfect place to sample sweet and tiny North Sea shrimp. Order toast skagen, an open-faced sandwich consisting of a plate-like piece of toast slathered with dill mayonnaise and piled amazingly high with shellfish.
Top fishmonger Lisa Elmqvist (lisaelmqvist.se) has a shop in the posh Ostermalm Saluhall as well as a restaurant with the freshest fish in the city. The restaurant's silky dill-cured salmon served with piquant mustard sauce is a splendid rendition of this classic Swedish dish.
The modern Swedish bistro Oaxen Slip (oaxen.com/en), with its spectacular harborside location and nautical decor, was the perfect place to conquer my childhood fear of herring with a plate of crisp, deep-fried fish. The Norwegian king crab in curry sauce was worth the trouble it took to extract the juicy meat from the gigantic shells.
ABSORB SWEDISH CULTURE
Although Stockholm's world-class photography and modern art museums deserve a visit, our favorite galleries had a distinctly Swedish flavor. The Vasa Museum (vasamuseet.se/en) is home to a 1628 warship that sank in Stockholm harbor on its maiden voyage and was salvaged from the sea after 333 years. Reconstructed inside a stunning building devoted to the study of early 17th century Sweden, this Swedish Titanic is an awesome sight.
The Millesgarden Museum (millesgarden.se) was the home and studio of Sweden's most celebrated sculptor, Carl Milles, best known to Americans for the wooden reliefs decorating the walls of 1 Rockefeller Center. Today visitors can admire Milles' monumental outdoor sculptures situated in a cliffside garden overlooking one of Stockholm's many lakes. In addition, Milles' impressive collection of antiquities is on display inside his former home.
My husband complained about the high price of the tickets to the brand-new ABBA Museum (about $30 for adults, $23 for children, abbathemuseum.com), but we were all won over by the loads of memorabilia, animatronic band members singing "Waterloo" and a phone that supposedly rings every once in a while when Agnetha, Anni-Frid, Björn or Benny feels like speaking to a fan. A bonus: Tickets include entry to the Swedish Music Hall of Fame, where you will discover that RedOne, the producer of Lady Gaga's "Poker Face," is Swedish, as is Carl Anthony Falk, co-writer of One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful" and Nicki Minaj's "Starships."
RIDE A ROLLER COASTER
The quickest way for us to get to Djurgarden was by a ferry that makes a dramatic approach right to the entrance of Grona Lund (gronalund.com/en), Stockholm's wholesome version of Coney Island. After torturing our children several times by landing at the gates of the amusement park only to hustle them along to one museum or another, we finally agreed to spend an evening at the park. I enjoyed the stunning setting while the teenagers enjoyed the view of the city from a giant swing suspended 400 feet above ground.
A summer concert series features big U.S. acts (earlier in the summer Ke$ha and fun. played) as well as local stars. We were lucky to catch singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson, aka The Tallest Man on Earth. Billed as the Swedish Bob Dylan, he delivered on this comparison with intricate lyrics (all in English) and a powerful stage presence. He is a future inductee into the Swedish Music Hall of Fame, no doubt.
HANG OUT IN SODERMALM
After reading "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," I was expecting the bohemian district of Stockholm to be gritty and menacing. Yes, there are tattoo parlors in the gentrified area around pretty Nytorget Square, but they are the most unthreatening tattoo parlors imaginable. And they are scattered amid chic cafes, artisan food shops, charming vintage boutiques and trendy neighborhood restaurants.
A day in Soldermalm must begin with an espresso and a traditional cinnamon bun at hipster magnet Il Caffe (ilcaffe.se). Stylish young people working away on their laptops at sidewalk tables will make you long to be a Swedish freelancer. Pop into concept store Grandpa (grandpa.se/en) a few doors down, where you can browse Swedish fashion brands such as Hope and Rodebjer and maybe pick up a cool flashlight made of birchwood or some postcards featuring the Swedish royal family. Another block and you'll be at Smiley Vintage (smileyvintage.com), whose designers transform tattered old garments into floaty dresses and tops.
For a light bite, go to Urban Deli (urbandeli.org/hem), a combination bistro and upscale grocery store, for a Stockholm Brewery beer and a plate of smoked shrimp. Afterward, pick up a few salted licorice-flavored caramels at Parlans Confiture, where you can watch pastry chefs pull and cut a dozen different flavors of the buttery candy. Swedes were early adopters of skinny jeans, and there are plenty of outlets for them in Sodermalm, including Cheap Monday (Gotgaten 21), Nudie (Skanekaten 75) and Acne Studio (Nytorgsgatan 36).
Dinnertime already? Park yourself and your shopping bags in a booth at Bar Central, a casual tap and dining room specializing in the food of central Europe, for a glass of Slovenian chardonnay and a perfect plate of schnitzel.
BRING HOME A SOUVENIR
If you failed to get your shopping fix in Sodermalm, head over to the upscale Ostermalm neighborhood, home to Stockholm's gilded Opera House, its grand hotels, and many design and home furnishings stores. First among equals is Svenskt Tenn (svenskttenn.se), where the legacy of designer Josef Frank is kept alive with reissues of his boldly patterned prints. It might not be practical to carry home enough Frank wallpaper for your living room, but you could certainly pack a set of place mats or a deck of playing cards displaying iconic Frank elephants.
Next door, the Malmsten store (malmsten.se) celebrates Swedish furniture designer Carl Malmsten, selling his Swedish country manor furniture alongside modern Swedish handicrafts, including attractive wooden tabletop accessories.
And just around the corner, DesignTorget (designtorget.se/en) showcases a juried selection of the work of new Swedish designers, stocking limited runs of inexpensive kitchenware, desk accessories, paper goods and jewelry, all with a clean and pleasing Swedish look.
IF YOU GO
With the recent purchase of four 787 Dreamliners, low-cost carrier Norwegian Air (norwegian.com) has expanded its service to include nonstop flights from New York to Stockholm and Oslo. Prices are hard to beat, with tickets as low as $297.50 one way in October.