Stockholm: a midsummer’s dream on a shoestring | Stockholm holidays

Last summer I took a cruise of the Baltic. I wanted to know if a millennial could cruise independently and still have a laugh. (They can. Just.) I was writing a book about fun at the time, and fancied that two weeks of shuffleboard and Nordic stop-offs might prove a decent source of the f-stuff. And so it proved. Though I could have done with more than an hour in Stockholm.

Which is why I’m back in Sweden’s capital: to get a better look at the place, while spending as little as possible. I get off to a flyer (economically speaking) by proceeding to my accommodation on foot. The route I take from the central station to the island of Södermalm is a circuitous one – and fruitful therefore.

By going the wrong way, I see a fair bit. The Royal Palace is about as immodest as they come (it’s got 1,430 rooms, for Thor’s sake). The City Hall is dark-bricked and sharp-elbowed and looks for all the world like the building equivalent of a bouncer. And the public library resembles a squat redbrick wedding cake. I’d have them all in Portsmouth in an instant.

I pick up some bröd and ost (bread and cheese) from a Coop in the old town (Gamla Stan) and proceed to a bench at the edge of the Baltic, where I feast in the face of Stockholm’s celebrated archipelago.

From my waterside spot, I’m able to weigh up my options. There’s Fotografiska, a renowned centre of photography where the salads are as good as the snaps. There’s Moderna, a museum of modern art where you can ponder Picassos until you’re in the mood for a herring. And there’s the Vasa Museum, which contains a warship that went down like a lead balloon in 1628, to the disappointment of the nation, but especially those on board.

Bright summer cottages dot the isalnds.
Bright summer cottages dot the islands. Photograph: Johner Images/Getty Images/Johner RF

In the end, I choose to stay put, content to keep watching the slice of Swedish mellow drama playing out before me. Viz: someone’s forgotten to put the top on their sandwich; another person’s winning at life by drinking a blend of veg while roller-skating topless; and someone else has just had their hotdog snatched by an enterprising fiskmås (gull).

Upon the advice of the gentleman beside me, I hop on the number 80 ferry and do a loop of the inner archipelago for 26 SEK (£1.89). It’s a good-looking spin: sunlit pine forests, bright summer cottages, a chap on a jetski wearing black leather trousers and a white linen shirt unbuttoned to the navel. By the end of my rotation, I’ve formed the opinion that Stockholm must be the only city in the world where the average commuter wishes their journey were longer.

A few things are objectively and indisputably not fun in the slightest; among them Question Time and stubbing your toe. Another is discovering that your room at Skanstulls Boutique Hostel is underground, windowless, and no larger than a cupboard. Nonetheless, I’m taken by my nest. In terms of decor, it brings to mind a collaboration between William Morris and Louis XIV, if you can imagine such a thing. Moreover, there’s a chaise longue in the bathroom, a lending library stocked with racy Nordic paperbacks, and change from £40 a night. I’d say that was pretty damn bra (good).

‘In summer people drink a lot, dance in extremis, swim in the buff’
‘In summer people drink a lot, dance in extremis and swim in the buff’ Photograph: travelpix/Alamy

When I emerge from my bunker to have a mooch about the vicinity, it doesn’t take me long to understand why Södermalm has been bombarded with plaudits. (Vogue declared it one of the coolest neighbourhoods in the world.) If you’re into boutique galleries and independent small plates, you can fill your plant-based boots here. If you’re not, then by all means just lounge around on the public furniture and watch others fill theirs. It kills the time, believe me.

The Swedish winter is long and beastly, so when the summer finally comes, the people greet it with gusto. This is no truer than during the festival of Midsummer – a time when people drink a lot, dance in extremis, swim in the buff and frolic around a maypole in the manner of a randy amphibian. But that’s Midsummer. This is a week before. Which can only mean one thing: the people of Stockholm don’t mind putting in some practice.

I walk anti-clockwise along the island’s perimeter, beyond hillside allotments, basking estates of social housing, and hundreds of locals playing skittles and boules. When I come to a small beach, I apprehensively disrobe. The water proves nothing but a tonic.

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With the sheer and fulsome sun above me, and a mollifying breeze taking the edge off the heat, you could reasonably suggest that I’m having the time of my life – until I take a stray volleyball in the face and am forced to acknowledge that all things are fragile, including rare moments of bliss.

Meatballs for the people restaurant, Stockholm
Photograph: Ben Aitken

There is something in Sweden called mysigt. It’s a bit like the Danish concept of hygge, in that it pertains to cosiness and comfort and pleasure and so on. When msyigt happens on a Friday, two of the most powerful elements of Swedish cultural life come together to form something irresistible – Fredagsmys.

Over the next few hours, I score a sizeable whack of the stuff. First, I sample a portion of the bestseller at Meatballs for the People (spoiler: they’re better in Italy). Next, I spend a merry hour drinking cheap pints in a dive bar called Carmen. Finally, I sashay northward to the Glenn Miller Café, where I enjoy an intimate jazz concert (and the unbroken suspicion of an older couple who don’t seem impressed that I’m still in my trunks) for about a fiver.

Because too much cosiness can kill you – or give you a hangover at any rate – instead of rising early the next day and taking the bus out to the Björnö nature reserve, where the hiking and swimming are said to be sumptuous, I’m given no choice but to sleep through a healthy chunk of Saturday.

As a result, the only affordable activity I’m able to squeeze in before my departure is a session of sightseeing on Mosebacketerrassen – a large terrace up on a hill offering views over Lake Mälaren, Gröna Lund and parts of Södermalm and the old town. There’s no two ways about it: the view from here is priceless. Which is just as well because I’m fresh out of krona.

Ben Aitken is the author of Here Comes the Fun: A Year of Making Merry (Icon Books), available at for £16.71

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