The one theme that repeats itself in Stockholm is quality.
I don’t mean that in the way one describes a blender, but rather a completeness of concept, a thoroughness of consideration—a well-roundedness to everything.
While places like Zurich may be very efficient, Swedes pride themselves on being efficient, stylish (in many moments nothing short of polished), organized, logical, and ultimately living a very quality lifestyle. This means processes, like navigation by walking across an entire city, work very well even without mobile data service (like me, restricted to wifi), and there are a million cafes, juice bars, and adorable shops along the way to entice and delight you.
The wifi network saturation of the city, all open and free, is the best I have experienced, and makes visiting without a local data plan so much easier.
Like some of the oldest cities in the U.S., Stockholm’s center, first settled in the 13th century, is in an area of extreme compactness, within and alongside lots of water. In fact, moving from north to south from one end of the urban area to the other requires crossing several bridges and traversing a few islands. And yet, movement by subway, bus, bike, UBER, or walking (which is all I did my last day) is simpler than you’d guess.
In these ways, Stockholm reminded me of New York, minus Midtown. In lower Manhattan and maybe parts of Brooklyn, the two cities could easily be mistaken for each other. Wide avenues, elegant brick architecture, trees and parks, and lots and lots of retail.
Moreover, despite its relative remoteness in the scheme of fashion and media, Stockholm feels glam. There are Chanel, Bottega Veneta, Stella McCartney, and Hermès boutiques. Celine will soon join. The main department store (NK) is historic and beautiful, much like Marshall-Field in Chicago or Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, though its product mix beyond main-floor leather goods and cosmetics could use an upgrade.
Many of the city’s most stylish dressers go to local multi-brand boutiques like Nathalie Schuterman and Mrs H to find designers like Alexander Wang, Isabel Marant, The Row, and Rachel Comey. Again, very “downtown [Manhattan]” designers and style. This is not the land of bling.
Whereas Paris and London are often about big names and soaring flagship boutiques, Stockholm excels at subtle good taste and local talent. Acne Studios is probably the most famous hometown brand, with an aesthetic that blends luxury with Scandinavian curiosity and cheek. I have my eye on a canvas tote bag that comes in coral pink with tan trim, pea green with white, or navy with navy, made in Italy of course.
Filippa K, Hope, J.Lindeberg, Tiger, Our Legacy, Nudie Jeans, and others fill the space below ultra-expensive designer wear and above Zara, much like Theory and Vince. do in the states.
Lest I forget, Sweden is also home to H&M and COS, which are global powerhouses that need no explanation. I didn’t find that either had a much more interesting selection in their home markets than they do elsewhere, which was a disappointment.
Of particular interest to me is the relatively newfangled Swedish fragrance brand Byredo. I was initially drawn by its slick, modern packaging and label, and found scents that were unique and worth the premium price. My first Byredo (oud immortel) came from Barney’s in San Francisco, and it is still one of my favorites.
Byredo now sells leather goods like handbags, wallets, and key holders, scent in other formats (like candles, hand wash), and eyewear in partnership with Oliver Peoples. Their only boutique is on Mäster Samuelsgatan, but there are counters around the world at stores like La Rinascente in Milan and Neiman Marcus in Dallas.
A well-rounded retail day in Stockholm might consist of Byredo and Acne, with a dose of vintage and home decor thrown in. I visited Herr Judit and Brandstationen in Sodermalm to check out what sorts of things locals have cleared from their closets.
Prices are higher than in Milan for comparable items, but the selection at Herr Judit was interesting: Prada and Helmut Lang t-shirts, a Ralph Lauren leather biker jacket studded with jewels (~6000SEK or 600€), and a pair of suede Hermès sneakers. A Canali trench coat and an Etro duffel bag. Not too shabby!
To eat, I tried both unique local cuisine, like the prawn salad at Sturehof and cardamom cinnamon bun at Fabrique, and international offerings like a delicious fig and prosciutto pizza at Taverna Brillo, and fantastic thai food at Koh Phangan. The city will never be accused of running short of coffee either. My favorite was a cold brew with sweet condensed milk from Espresso House. Paired with another unique local confection, the coconut-coated cocoa ball.
I stopped into a local deli, which reminded me of Locale Market in St. Petersburg for those reading in Tampa. I bought Swedish salt taffy and a pile of chocolate bars from Denmark in flavors like Fit Fiona, Grainy Sue, and Minty Cindy.
Ahhh, can you tell I enjoyed myself yet?
On Sunday night, while the weather was drizzly but not too wet, I indulged in a run south from my host’s apartment at Greta Garbo torg to the edge of Sodermalm, along the Norra Hammarbyhamnen, past beautiful modern residential buildings, offices, and an olympic-size swimming facility. Parts reminded me also of Seattle, another place that embodies the same qualities one finds in Scandinavia, like ubiquitous gray skies, hilly topography, robust bike infrastructure, and careful urban planning.
Luckily, I visited Stockholm in the summer, which is prime good-weather season, so despite one day of having to slosh, both Saturday and Monday (plus half of Tuesday before I departed) were gorgeous—clear skies, cool breeze, and plenty of sunshine. It certainly felt like early fall, with plenty of yellowing leaves.
I decided to visit Stockholm to see an old friend from my days in Bordeaux on a study abroad semester, circa 2008. Nahrin and I hadn’t seen each other since that time, though we kept up on Facebook. I had some initial fears that we’d get off to an awkward start, but like it has happened to me so many times previously, we picked up from where we left off eight years ago almost as though nothing had changed. That is, except she is now married with a precocious toddler named Frank.
We chased him around and caught up, finishing a few bottles of wine in her dining room. I also met her darling blond-haired and blue-eyed (classic Swedish look) husband Michèl and her sister Aylin, a beautiful single professional living a life very Sex-in-the-city in Stockholm.
I also met a new friend: Frederik. We were introduced through a mutual friend from Tampa, and he kindly offered his couch to me. Without overstating it too much, he was a fascinating person to get to know. He founded his PR firm at 21 and has build a career representing foreign and domestic fashion firms in the Swedish market. In other words, he is on first-name bases with Gucci, Acne, and knows people like Jennifer Tilly (the actress).
His flat is a comfortable modern penthouse with a loft bedroom and his personal aesthetic quite unique—there are more than a few examples of excellent taxidermy and he has a flair for the macabre. It was a total tickle for the eyes. But it wasn’t too much, and I felt perfectly comfortable there. ALL OF HIS LIGHTS WERE ON DIAL DIMMERS! Why don’t more people use dimmers??
From start to finish, across four nights and three days, I felt I was in the presence of impeccable taste (without arrogance or pretension about it). I’m sure my impression could have been different had I known no locals or they’d taken me to different places, but the overarching coolness of the city had nothing to do with my hosts.
This trip feels like a particularly poignant one. While there are no definites for the future, I could see myself in Stockholm for real. The attitude, the style, the respect for convenience was just so refreshing in comparison to Italy, which aggravates me more than I sometimes like to admit. Things just come together and do so with flourish in Stockholm. That cannot be said for Milan or even where I was just one week ago, in Zurich.
If you haven’t considered Scandinavia (including Norway, Sweden, and Denmark) as a destination before, I suggest you do. It will be expensive (somewhere north of Milan and about on par with Paris but cheaper than Switzerland), but it will be worth the extra cost. It is surprisingly Anglo-friendly with a charm similar to visiting New York, but without the chaos and jam-packedness of London.
I had a great weekend, and am very grateful for the new and old friendships that made it special.
Look at my map of Stockholm Spots if you plan to go there in the near future!