The Art Of Cool
Stockholm is Baltic breeze, fresh and effortlessly sophisticated
11pm on a Friday night and deep in the heart of Stockholm’s old customs house is the hippest party in town. There is Joni Mitchell looking cool and ephemeral; members of the band REM pulling orange peel grins; the Sex Pistols’ John Lydon getting snarly; Mick, Keith and the guys wearing spooky masks and—best of all—U2 trying not to look really, really cold. Tragically, they are an alternative photographic reality: Two-metre images produced by photographer Anton Corbijn as part of an exclusive Stockholm exhibition, 1-2-3-4 at Fotografiska.
But despite the magic fairy dust of Bono, Lydon, Jagger et al, and the meticulous lighting of Corbijn, the star of the show is the venue itself. Wrapped in chic Art Nouveau brick with endless exhibition space, a lounge-style bistro and a DJ playing as the sun goes down over the city’s archipelago, Stockholm’s Fotografiska Museum is a triumph of effortless sophistication.
Within just a few years, the venue with its roll call of international big names—Leibovitz, Van Sant, Watson—has raised the capital’s cultural currency. But Stockholm doesn’t like to boast. The city may have more than 100 galleries but modesty is the most prized exhibit on show here.
You can see it in the fashions, the furniture, the food. Urban Stockholmers dress expensively but simply. This is the capital of anti-bling and that’s as heartbreakingly cool as the city’s statuesque white blondes. In the rest of the world, simplicity is criminally under-rated, but Swedes dash off cool at their coffee breaks.
Just what powers Stockholm’s cultural cutting edge? Taking a walk, early Saturday morning, there were plenty of possibilities to ponder. Perhaps it’s a fresh perspective bred from breathing crisp Baltic air. Perhaps it’s being surrounded by water. There are 14 islands here, lots of bridges, but only 910,000 people. So there’s space to breathe, space to move and lots of boats to jump on for a short cruise.
There’s also plenty of fairytale architecture that’s been dipped in comforting tones of fawn, russet, sepia, chocolate, mahogany and ochre. Of course, there are centuries of history packed into these tiny islands. Saunter the old streets of Gamla Stan in the shadows of the ancient merchant houses, churches, restaurants and the bright baroque of the palace and you’ll soon discover you are always just minutes away from a medieval square, café, bar, cool lapping water or photogenic bridges.
It all feels wonderfully manageable and easily walkable. And it’s been like that since 1252. No wonder the city became known as the Venice of the North. When the sun comes up, the glittering high roofs and spires are as unforgettable as an Abba melody.
Talking of which, let’s not forget Stockholm’s ABBA The Museum. It’s hard not leave with a spring in your step—cynicism doesn’t stand a chance here. It is powerless against the infectious melodies that sold 379 million records and the endless collection of flamboyant flares.
For visitors of a certain vintage, the Arrival helicopter prop, Eurovision memories, Benny’s piano and Mamma Mia stage show will resonate deeply. But really, the star attractions are singing with hologram versions of the band and trying on costumes. Thank you for the music indeed.
When in Stockholm, embrace the Swedish tradition of fika, better known as a big coffee and big pastries. The Johan & Nystrom coffee shop has finessed the fika to perfection, with shelves wheezing under the weight of hundreds of buns sourced from Dessert & Choklad, the bakery that rustles up thousands of pastries for the annual Nobel Prize dinner nearby.
Then there is the siren call of SoFo— “South of Folkungagatan”—on Södermalm. Crammed with independent boutiques, vintage stores, bookshops and young designers, this is a place to pick up 20th century crockery and lamps from Silvia Design, 1950s Scandi furniture from Stalands, contemporary pottery from Krukmakeriet Anne Junsjö and retro clothing classics from Lisa Larsson, Grandpa, Beyond Retro or Sivletto. Alternatively, Nudie Jeans Co and Matilda Wendelboe provide cutting-edge Stockholm eco wear.
Next, drop by Pet Sounds Bar for refreshment. It may be the mutant offspring of an independent music store, Italian-French restaurant, basement club and too many men with giant beards and shortened trousers, but it’s just what you need as a Saturday night aperitivo before heading to the Pelikan Hall. Beneath its hand-painted ceiling, tuck into a herring platter followed by a plate of fried elk and potatoes garnished with pickled beetroot. Alternatively, head for the very popular Gondolen bar and Tradgard cafe perched above Slussen. They draw in the crowds and it’s easy to see why: the glittering views of the city from the hill at night are truly extraordinary.
Stureplan, the epicenter of Stockholm’s lounge club heartland, is a must-stop. For those who understand the delicate machinations of negotiating bouncers, the long queues that snake around the block to the likes of Spy Bar (stureplansgruppen.se/en/nightlife/spy-bar/) or Hotellet are a magnet. As for those whose names are allergic to guest lists, there is a smorgasbord of snug bars and relaxed lounges around the city.
Always popular is Riche. It’s been around for decades but looks like it opened yesterday. The clientele is relaxed, the music more chillled than John Coltrane’s fridge, and at 1am, the party will just be getting started.
For a city that is relatively small, Stockholm has an impressive number of museums—70 to be exact. For design fans, the design section of the National Museum known as 19002000, is an eye-opener. Overflowing with Swedish cleverness from the last century, and produced by visionary men and women with complicated-looking vowels in their names, this is a celebration of smooth ceramics, bold textiles, crystal clear typography, industrial design, airline posters, pop art chairs and angular furniture—even the road drills were hip. Just one look here and you can see why IKEA’s no-nonsense designs became such a worldwide phenomenon.
Still, it’s fair to say that Sweden’s global ambitions have not always been about flat-pack furniture. Five hundred years ago, the country was aggressively trying to gobble up half of Europe in sustained military campaigns. Today, the most poignant symbol of those times is sealed in the temperature-controlled hall of the Vasa Museum.
Here in this giant low-lit space is the Vasa, the flagship of King Gustav Adolf. When it set sail on its maiden voyage in 1628, it was a fearsome symbol of kingly power. With 64 guns, 300 soldiers and bristling with hundreds of warrior sculptures, it was a terrifying battleship that had taken more than two years to build. Unfortunately, it was built badly—it sank just minutes after setting sail.
In 1961, the ship was raised from the soft silt that had protected it for centuries and a giant jigsaw puzzle began. Now the reconstructed Vasa and the museum that was built to protect it are Stockholm’s most popular attractions. The rebuilt ship is mesmerising and the reconstruction work that brought faces to the broken skeletons discovered on board deserves its own CSI series.
Like everything else in Stockholm, the museum is surrounded by parkland. The city fiercely defends its spaces—these were the first modern public parks in Europe—with more than a third of the capital given over to greenery. And where the parkland ends, the lapping Baltic waters begin.
By Andy Round