Let’s Go Exploring! Stockholm, Sweden: Dark, Twisted, and Beautiful

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Note: this post was written before the pandemic. We’re still hunkered down in Canada, waiting for the borders to open so we can go back to our nomadic life. This post is written for everyone who, like us, can’t wait to explore the world again.

I’ve wanted to visit Stockholm ever since I read Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” back in 2011. One of the main characters is Lisbeth Salander, a tattooed genius computer hacker who is my favourite anti-heroine of all time. And not just because she can throw Molotov cocktails and (spoiler alert!) sodomize rapists. She also has a kick-ass haircut, cool piercings, and fabulous taste in shoes.

And then in 2019, when the horror-drama “Midsommar” which takes place in Sweden came out, it heightened my curiosity about this dark and mysterious place. For those who’ve never seen it, let’s just say it’s been described by movie critics as “the Worst Best movie of the year.”

Everyone else just calls it “f*cked up”. I have no idea what the Swedes think about it, but I might be one of the few North Americans who kind of liked it. It’s definitely messed up, but in a good way. It’s somehow simultaneously sad and terrifying, but also smart and complex at the same time. Kind of like if Marilyn Manson and Hermione had a baby and the baby looked like Gary Busey.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, I’m fascinated by dark, macabre things. One time, I dragged Wanderer to a place 2 hours outside Prague to see a medieval church made entirely of human bones and he was not happy about it. I believe the words “psychopath” and “weirdo” were thrown around. But hey, if you’re not curious about how a 16th century monk fashioned an elaborate chandelier out of human pelvises then you’re the weirdo.

Anyway, so when I suggested going to Stockholm, Wanderer had no complaints. After all, Sweden is the land of lingonberries, meatballs, and IKEA. What could possibly be dark about that?

Surprisingly, a lot.

For one thing, it gets dark incredibly early. Like 4pm early. We were there in November and it was almost pitch black by the time we finished lunch and walked around the waterfront.

Apparently, it gets even worse as the winter drags on. In January, the sun rises at 8:47am and sets at 2:55pm! No wonder their writers are always coming up with dark twisted best-selling stories about vampires. They have the perfect atmosphere for it.

They also have a dark history with the other Scandinavian countries. Whenever we went on a walking tour in Denmark or Finland, the guides always seemed to hate on Sweden the same way Bostonian, Irish, and Scottish guides hated on Britain.

We finally found out why at the Swedish History Museum.

 

B20180, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Most people lump the Scandinavian countries together as a bunch of lingonberry-eating particle-board-loving hippies, but in reality, Sweden and Denmark have been sworn enemies for centuries, even holding the heavy weight title of “most wars fought between them” in all of Europe! Not even seething rivals England and France can compete, with their 16 wars since the 15th century, while Sweden and Denmark have tried to obliterate each other with 30 wars in the same period.

Talk about bad blood.

One of these wars happened in 1658, when Sweden invaded Denmark and tried to burn Copenhagen to the ground. This was led by king Charles X Gustav, who declared the Danes jerks for daring to shoot back at them and killing a handful of their advancing soldiers.

Justus van Egmont, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This historic scene was forever memorialized in a painting which honours the brave Swedish invade—er solders—who twisted their ankles tripping over large piles of Danish bodies on their way to capture the Danish castle. How annoying.

But that’s all ancient history now. These days, all the Scandinavian countries get along swimmingly and have nothing to be mad about.

Oh wait

But despite the dark days, history, and stories, in terms of aesthetics, Stockholm is surprisingly bright and colourful. I was expecting grey and haunting gothic cathedrals, but buildings of vibrant orange, red, and green greeted us along the glistening Baltic sea. Hell, even the subways stations are filled with rainbows and butterflies:

Arild Vågen, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Trees also line the streets in perfect symmetry like little green sentries, protecting the city.

Oh, that’s another thing about the Swedes. They are insanely passionate about their trees. So passionate that one time when the city tried to cut down 13 Elm trees to make way for a subway line, 1000 Swedes showed up and encircled the trees, holding hands, to shop the advancing army of whirling chainsaws. Eventually the government gave in and this incident became known as “the Battle of the Elms.” 

Their love of the environment and beautiful architecture was also apparent in their car-less pedestrian island called “Gamla Stan”.

Gamla Stan

Albertyanks Albert Jankowski, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dating back to the 13th century, Gamla Stan (which means “Old Town” in Swedish) is one of the Europe’s most well-preserved medieval city centers. We loved wandering the cobbled stone streets and alley ways and exploring the warm and cozy coffees shops.

Is it crowded? Yes. Is it touristy? Yup. But it’s also free of noise pollution (and actual pollution) from traffic since it went car-free in 2015.

It’s also home to 3 different palaces (Royal, Tessin, Bonde) if that’s your thing.

 

Drottningholm Palace

Like many of the palaces we’ve visited in Europe, this one was adorned with opulent chandeliers inside and surrounded by perfectly manicured gardens outside.

But what I liked the most about Drottningholm is its white and gold library, which was commissioned by Queen Louisa Ulrika, who spoke 5 languages, and stocked the place full of books about mathematics, history, science and architecture.

The sexiest place in the house: the library

She was said to have “more knowledge, and insight into the sciences than a lady needs” and saw herself as intellectual equal amongst her brothers.

Yes, speak math to me. That always gets me hot and bothered. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Hellasgården Sauna

The Swedes, just like the Finns , know how to turn winter from a prison sentence into a relaxing amenity. It’s what I love the most about Scandinavia—the sauna culture.

That’s how I found myself plunging butt naked into a freezing cold lake screaming “IT HURTS SO GOOD!” (or “det gör ont så bra” in Swedish). My whole body felt like it was being stabbed by pins and needles and, in less than a minute, I stopped feeling my toes but I made up for it by roasting myself like a marshmallow inside the steamy hot sauna afterwards. 

Hellasgården sauna in the woods

 

Hellasgården outdoor dip pool

Centralbadet Pool

If you’re not into freezing your vag off, there’s an gorgeous 1920s style indoor pool inside the Centralbadet spa, where you can float around pretending you’re Daisy from the Great Gatsby:

Centralbadet

Fika

And you can also get a coffee afterwards to warm up, in a tradition the Swedes like to call “Fika”

We fika-ed in a different café every day in Sweden and their decadent hot chocolate and coffees were to die for:

I downed this hot chocolate so fast I ended up with whipped cream in my eye. It was worth it. 

Their meatballs? Not so much:

Yup. Tastes like meatballs.

I guess I’m a kind of a food snob now that I’ve eaten everything that isn’t nailed down all over Mexico, Europe and Asia. Or maybe I just don’t know enough about Swedish food. Swedish readers, feel free to school me on your cuisine. 

So, for those of you curious about Stockholm, I say definitely go. It’s one of the most pristine and prettiest cities we’ve ever been in. And if you ever want to befriend a Swede, just tell them how much you think the Danes suck (and vice versa for Danes). Ta-da! Instant BFFs.

Here’s how much we spent:

Category Cost in USD/couple Cost in CAD/couple Notes
Accommodations: $72 USD $95.36 CAD In terms of Airbnb, this is one of our best finds–and in expensive Stockholm of all places! It took around 15mins by subway to get to the city center and was surrounded by nature and parks. Stockholm is one of the most expensive cities in the world, so I was pleasantly surprised to find affordable Airbnb rentals.
Food: $36 USD $47 CAD ($24 for eating out, $23 for groceries) I'm sure we could have dropped some major mulah on fancy meals in Stockholm, but since it's more known for nature, we decided to focus on that. After a lukewarm experience with their signature dish of Swedish meatballs, we decided to wait for our next destination–Thailand–to pig out. Groceries were surprisingly affordable. But it could also be because Wanderer decided not to drink due to the high alcohol prices.
Transportation: $46 USD/day $61.05 CAD/day Since the flight for 2 to Stockholm from Barcelona and train ride from the airport ended up being over $300, that pushed up our average daily transportation costs. Actual daily cost of getting around on the subway was around $8/person/day.
Entertainment: $16/day $21 CAD/day Museums and saunas ended up costing us around $21 which is pretty reasonable.
Other: $1.37/day $1.80 CAD/day We spent a small amount of money for toiletries during the week.
Total: $171 USD/couple/day $226 CAD/couple/day Most of the high cost for Stockholm comes from the flight cost of over $300 for 2 people to get there, divided over only 7 days. If you stayed longer or used points, you could bring down your average daily cost to a more realistic $126 USD/ $166 CAD per couple per day. Still expensive, but surprisingly doable because accommodation and grocery costs are far more reasonable than you think.

For a summary of the yearly adjusted cost of all the places we’ve travelled to, check out Nomad Purse, created by my friend and fellow early retiree Mr. Nomad Numbers. You can also use this FREE handy tool to track your travel expenses and discover crowdsourced average costs for places around the world. (FYI, this is not an affiliate link. I’m friends with Mr.NN and I think Nomad Purse will help your budget while exploring the world. It’s also free so you have nothing to lose.)

Here’s the Airbnb we stayed in in Stockholm:

Swedish living room (complete with IKEA couch of course)

 

modern kitchen

What do you think? Have you ever been to Stockholm? Did you eat any Swedish meatballs (or just “meatballs” as the locals call it)?


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31 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! Stockholm, Sweden: Dark, Twisted, and Beautiful”

  1. If you didn’t get to Meatballs for the People, you were TOTALLY missing out. We had multiple meals of meatballs while we were there, but MftP was absolutely the best. We had bear meatballs, reindeer meatballs, and moose meatballs which were all amazing. I liked their lingonberries the best too.
    We ate like kings while we were in Stockholm- there were so many amazing restaurants!!

    1. Funnily enough, Meatballs for the People is exactly where we went (was recommended by all the travel bloggers and foodies). Even had a 1 hour wait to get in. Maybe that’s why my expectations weren’t met because they were sky high for a wait that long.

      Which other restaurants did you go to in Stockholm?

      1. Oh, dang, I’m sorry to hear you had a less than optimal time there. Definitely my fav. We went around 6pm on a Tuesday in February, so we walked right in and got a table immediately.

        Other food highlights were Ekstedt, a fine dining place where everything is cooked on an open flame or charcoal. Also Fotografiska in the photography museum, and The Veranda, the tasting room up at the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi.

        Man, I’m getting hungry just thinking about all the great things we ate. Not cheap, though, I agree with you!

  2. If you ever get back there and want a fun, cheap excursion, take the overnight ferry to Riga, Latvia, from Stockholm. Lot’s of working-class Swedes whooping it up, cabaret-style performances late into the night, and you wake up in Riga–where I used to live and one of my favorite capital cities in Europe.

    1. Yeah, we’ve been to Riga before. Also, Tallin, Estonia. Took the ferry from Helsinki from there. Riga was great but I liked Estonia just a tad bit more (because of the digital nomad scene). Have you been?

      1. I’ve spent a lot of time in Tallin and Vilnius as well. I love ALL THREE, but my heart is in Riga (I learned Latvian while living there!). You are right that Tallinn has a better nomad and tech scene. So I get that.

  3. Hi there, Ever heard of the Vikings ??. Think Thor, Odin, Valhalla. They are the Viking
    gods. And in the 8-10 Centuries, the Vikings terrorised Europe, and, apparently they discovered North America long before any other Europeans. They were first and foremost
    the warriors warrior. You’ll probably enjoy reading their history.

    1. Yeah, we went to the viking ship museum while we were in Oslo. Very interesting. Have you see the Vikings series on Netflix? Looks interesting but haven’t gotten around to it yet.

  4. Glad you guys enjoyed Stockholm! We moved here from Toronto mid-pandemic (trading one cold ass expensive city for another) and have loved it since. Miss the Chinese food though…

    1. Whoa, you moved from TO to Stockholm! That’s so exciting. Was it for work? Or do you work remotely and just decided to live there? Yeah, options for Chinese food was very limited there. Whatever we could find was crappy bastardized Cantonese takeout food. Blegh. I bring Sichuan peppercorns and dried chills when I travel now.

      1. Yeah my wife and I both found jobs here – if you’re gonna be locked down it might as well be in a beautiful old Gothic capital 🙂 Thankfully there’s Wechat communities of underground Chinese chefs who operate less than legally here, but since everything is cashless you need to have national ID cards and bank IDs (took us 5 months!) before you can send money to people. Now we can have all the Peking duck we can handle 🙂

        On another note we had some accountant friends tell us to liquidate our non-registered accounts if we plan on having a permanent address outside of Canada long-term. Found lots of resources about Canadians living in the US but not so much for abroad. Might be good for a future series from you or Wanderer.

        1. Oh wow! Very cool that you found jobs in Stockholm. Are you learning Swedish? 🙂

          Thanks for the suggested topic of tax implications of living abroad. One of our friends, Kyle (founder of Young and Thrifty), moved to Qatar to teach English recently and is putting together a resource for expat Canadians. Will share when he’s ready.

          1. Learning Swedish here is generally done if you need to use it for work (my wife does, I’m fine for now!) — it’s pretty hard to make friends here whether or not you know the language which takes away the primary motivation for learning it.

            Thanks for the tip about the expat Canadian resource. Hopefully what Kyle comes up with will “Qatar” to our needs 😀

  5. I loved Stockholm, I found it, like everywhere else I went in Scandinavia, to be so bright and happy – I went in summer, when it doesn’t get dark until 11pm. The expense drove me nuts though (even though it wasn’t as expensive as Copenhagen or Oslo), I got quite a workout because I couldn’t bring myself to pay for pricey subway tickets if walking instead was possible! I really loved the food, there was a food festival on while I was there where fancy restaurants had stalls selling their specialties for a fraction of what they usually charge – heaven for seafood lovers, and for anyone who loves delicate, refined food.
    I also loved the bone church outside Prague, I can’t believe Wanderer didn’t??!! Have you been to Vienna? It’s got lots of macabre stuff (every second attraction seems to be some sort of tomb, and the art of local notable artist Egon Schiele is confronting to say the least), yet the people seem really chilled and happy – I’ve heard that contemplating mortality actually increases happiness. It’s also an amazingly affordable place!
    Please keep the Let’s Go Exploring posts coming, I’ve been missing travel like crazy!

    1. Ooh I had NO IDEA what Vienna has macabre stuff? What?! To think, I went there twice and totally missed out both times. Oh well. Next time. I did it as a touristy thing back when we were working.

      I miss travel like crazy too. Have been binging on “Emily in Paris” on Netflix. Not the best show ever but can’t help living vicariously through her.

      Can’t settle down anymore. My feet are too itchy. Hope borders open soon so we can get back to our normal lives!

      1. Yeah, I really enjoyed Emily in Paris despite its corniness! I’m also living vicariously through travel memoirs, I’m currently reading The Geography of Bliss, by an NPR correspondent who sought out the world’s happiest countries – that’s where I got ‘contemplating mortality increases happiness’ (the author got it from a Bhutanese guy who got it from Buddhist teachings).
        If you really love macabre things, if you visit Australia (which is an expensive place, but less so than Scandinavia) you must visit the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania – also known as the museum of sex and death, it’s got everything from Egyptian mummies to the ashes of recently deceased people who paid $75000 to be displayed! In June it runs an insane festival, I went to a festival event where we sailed out into the river and then were told to look out at the water and push play on what turned out to be a recording of someone explaining, in great detail, what would happen to our corpses if they were to end up in the river – so weird, but oddly peaceful.
        I can’t wait for borders to open either, when they do I’m definitely going to take a sabbatical to make up for not having been able to travel for so long!

        1. The Geography of Bliss –> I LOVE this book! Read it more many years ago but still remember it. So good.

          museum of sex and death in Australia–> Sold! We were SO close to Australia (Bali is only 2.5 hours away) before we had to cancel our flights and accommodations and fly back to Canada. So definitely going to go after pandemic is over. Thanks for the suggestion! (Also, people pay $75K to have their bodies displayed?! So weird…and oddly intriguing).

  6. Hey Kristy! We need to add Stockholm to our list of destinations once it will be safe to travel again. Hopefully in 2020?

    Also thank you for mentioning Nomad Purse on your blog. I’ve noticed that you are currently linking to our product page where people can learn more about the tool. If they want to directly access the cost of living (adjusted to a year) of all the 40 destinations you’ve been to, they can access the data directly from here: https://nomadpurse.com/page_discover_col.php?col_filter=MR&src=MR

    I am still working on an Android mobile version of the app, that should be coming out soon. This will be a companion for people that want to track their expenses while on the go. The best way for people to get notified when the Beta will be available will be to simply sign-up for the tool.

    1. Done and done! Great job all on the hard work you’ve put into the tool! You rock, Mr. NN!

      Hope you end up going to Stockholm with Mrs.NN in the near future! It’s an amazing city.

  7. I do enjoy your blog since you started in 2016. There is one thing that bugs me for a while though. Originally, you went along the lines of frugality. In other words, you said we’ll live on $40,000 per year because it’s 4% of what we have invested (a $1 million investment portfolio). Considering you don’t want to run out of money, I thought that was reasonable. But now, it feels like it’s not about frugality anymore but about cheapness. I see the comments, “Look, we spent less than $40,000. High five”.

    It feels now like you’re shooting for who’s going to get to zero dollars spent first. Don’t you want to aim for maximum potential and utility? I’m not saying that you should live like the Kardashians (trust me, I wouldn’t want to either – too flaky) but being a bit of a baller is ok too. You’ve worked really smart to get to where you are but it seems like you’ve become trapped in some sort of artificial reality with arbitrary financial targets. Maybe that’s what your audience wants to see. It’s not for me though. I don’t see you growing anymore and personal growth/discovery is important, at least to me.

    I really do like you both and what you’ve achieved to date. Just felt a need to provide that constructive (and I really do mean constructive) feedback.

    1. Remember that my $40K/year travel budget isn’t actually only including cheap places like Thailand. It’s a yearly AVERAGE of all the places we’ve been too. That’s why if you look at all the places we’ve been to throughout the series, it includes Japan, UK, Switzerland, Iceland, etc. But the trick is to spend less time in expensive places (eg 1 week in Stockholm) and more time in cheaper places (with better weather) like Thailand. So even though we averaged $226/day in Stockholm, we only spent 1 week there, Thailand is only $75-85/day and we spent 3 months (or 12 weeks) there. So 1/13 = 0.08. Averaged out, that’s 0.08*$226 + 0.92*$85= $18.08 + $78.2 = $96.28/day per couple. So the average of $96.28/day *365 is still only $35,142.2/year per couple. So essentially you could spend a week every 3 months in Stockholm, then go to Thailand or Poland and still be within $40k/year.

      I know, it’s hard to grasp this averaging concept until you’ve actually been travelling for a while. But the point of the nomadic life isn’t to only go to cheap countries. It’s to pick and choose and average out the cost so you can go to expensive places too and still spend less than in North America over the year. I didn’t grasp this concept either until I started travelling and learning about it from other digital nomads.

  8. You and Swedish history are a match made in Heaven. I just learned more about World History in one post of yours than I remember from a whole year of World History when I was…16? History is wasted on the young. I know it’s important for us to learn it, but…did I? lol. I did take Russian History in college and still retain some of that, it’s fascinating, also. Anyway, great post, and as always, so very funny!

    1. LOL. I hear you, Dee. Yeah, I never saw the point of learning history in my teens either. But it really comes alive when you travel.

  9. My family went to Iceland, Norway and Sweden in the summer of 2018. We had a great time walking around Stockholm and taking some boat rides and visiting museums. The public transportation was very good. Personally I liked Norway better though, because of the natural beauty.

    1. We were in Oslo for a few days. Wanted to spend a whole week there to see the Fjords but had to cut our time there short to fly to UK to record my audiobook (champagne problems, I know). I’m DESPERATE to go there to see the Fjords though. Were they as amazing as people say?

  10. Awesome read as usual you two. If you love scandinavia, and dark slightly macabre city scapes you have to go to Saint Petersburg Russia next. There’s a museum of shadows there, and hundreds of spooky alleys and dostoyevsky inspired squares. It’s beautiful and much cheaper than Scandinavia.

    1. Oh yeah. St. Petersburg is SO on my list. Love the name “museum of shadows”. Was that your favourite attraction there?

      1. I’ve been to Saint Petersburg five times because I met my now wife there on my second visit so it’s become my second home of sorts after Boston. It’s hard to say what my favorite attraction is. It might be the Grande Maket of Russia which is a giant toy model of the while country of Russia that’s illuminated and fills a whole warehouse. Oh I know what you’d love though! The Kunstamera Museum. It’s a museum of experimental science that shows Peter the great’s science experiments with human babies. It’s weird. There’s babies floating in jars of formaldehyde among other things. Peter was controversial because he believed in science over religion and was always pushing to find more about the human body. Then after that are the two amazing cathedrals, Church on the Spilled Blood of course which is so freakin cool. It’s like no church you’ve ever seen. And Saint Issac’s Cathedral. The hermitage museum and the museum of Russian art are also amazing. Then there’s two little jazz bars that I love. One is called Dom7 or house 7 and the other is the Hat Bar. Both have live music every night. It’s important to visit in the winter as well as summer. The city is two completely different places those two seasons because of the weather but also the schedule of the sun as you mentioned in Stockholm. Summer is the white nights when the sun hardly sets at all. Winter the sun rises at 11am and sets at 4! I could go on and on but those are my favorites. Oh and of course Petergof, in the summer take a boat there to see the fountains at this amazing palace. And visit also Pushkin and the Catherine Palace which they are STILL repairing from Nazi raids and its nit because they are slow… it’s because the Nazis destroyed this beautiful place for no reason except contempt for Russian leadership and prowess. Seeing that made me cry. As a US citizen I was brainwashed to think the USA won WWII. NOPE. it was Russia. And it was Russia who lost devastatingly more lives than anyone. You can still feel the occupation in the souls of the population. It’s a beautiful city and the people are deep, complex and creative. Clearly I think so because I married one. ;). If you go feel free to reach out for more tips. My wife was a tour guide there for five years so knows where all the bodies are buried ;). Thanks for your super cool blog and for inspiring us to FI.

  11. Hmm, Sweden was my first international trip in 1996 without my parents. That was a long time ago and I don’t remember that much about it.

    Being stuck in NZ during this pandemic year has been a quite interesting experience. Pretty normal except no international travel.

    1. Oh I’m so envious of NZ. You guys did such an amazing job (love your prime minister!) of containing the virus and I’m so in awe of your no bullshit attitude and efficient response. We need to learn from you!

      Can’t wait to visit your beautiful country after the pandemic.

      1. Well, normally I’d be living in Waterloo, but am really glad not to be this year. The NZ response is pretty much world class and it’s been interesting to compare it to the Ontario response. Definitely highly recommend visiting NZ or getting a working holiday visa (though it’s not nearly as useful as a European one).

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