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Stockholm is the wateriest of world capitals, sitting on 14 islands in the much larger Stockholm archipelago. Roughly half the city faces a freshwater lake called Mälaren; the other half abuts the Baltic Sea. They are separated by a slender canal lock called Slussen—it means “sluice gate” in Swedish. You could say that Slussen made modern Stockholm possible by allowing ships to pass from the Baltic’s lower water level to the lake’s higher level and into the Swedish hinterland beyond.
Above the lock, a clover-leaf roadway connects Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s original settlement, dating to the 13th century, to Södermalm, the funky southern island where the main characters in Stieg Larsson’s Dragon Tattoo trilogy live. Much of Stockholm’s car and bus traffic passes over this central roadway, which badly needs an overhaul. A plan was drawn up a while back, but one thing or another has kept the cranes idle, not least Stockholmers themselves. “Every time there’s a new plan, people come out waving signs that say, ‘Don’t mess with my Slussen,’” says my Stockholm friend Elisabet Idermark. I get where the protesters are coming from. Looking out from the nearby island of Skeppsholmen, you can see that Slussen’s tangle of on-off ramps is kind of a mess. But everything about the whole setting is so perfect—the high cliffs of Södermalm on the left, the little white ferries tootling back and forth across the harbor, the strict redbrick tower of City Hall in the distance—that if I lived here, I’d probably be waving a sign too.
The great travel writer Jan Morris titled her essay on Stockholm “The Best of Everything,” and I agree. Stockholm isn’t Venice, even though some people like to call it the Venice of the North. (Amsterdam and St. Petersburg share the same dumb nickname.) It is a modern metropolis that demands periodic refreshment. But I would hate to take a wrecking ball to anything that might bruise, even slightly, what Morris calls “the most beautiful capital in Europe.” One that’s become even more attractive right now: The recent terrorist attacks on the European continent are pushing travelers toward “safer” destinations like Sweden. It’s an unfortunate motivation, but no one will regret ending up here.
I had spent the previous night at Hotel Skeppsholmen (rooms from $210; Gröna gången 1; 46-8/407-2300; hotelskeppsholmen.se), which shares its tiny island with several museums and the boat slips that line so much of Stockholm’s limitless water frontage. It’s a magical spot for a hotel, right on the island’s tip with nothing nearby but trees and a lawn that runs down to the harbor’s edge. You’re a ten-minute walk from downtown Stockholm, but you might as well have stepped into one of those Bergman films set at a lakeside country house. The long, two-story building was built around 1700 as a barracks for the Royal Marines, and the hotel has worked that Spartan spirit into the decor, but in a cozy, Scandinavian way. This is minimalism done right.
Water, fresh and salty, laps at so much of Stockholm that you could manage to enjoy much of what’s best here without straying more than a few steps from its edge. Directly across the harbor from Skeppsholmen sits an imposing Art Nouveau structure built in 1906 as a customs clearinghouse. Six years ago it was transformed into a first-class photography museum called Fotografiska (Stadsgårdshamnen 22; 46-8/5090-0540; fotografiska.eu). There’s no need to traipse across Slussen to get there; just hop on the harbor ferry that stops right outside Hotel Skeppsholmen’s front door.
You can catch the same ferry in the other direction and tep off at the old Gröna Lund amusement park on Djurgården, with its antiquated Ferris wheel and roller coaster. To appreciate the merry impact this has on Stockholm’s sober skyline, imagine relocating Coney Island to Wall Street. (Unless you have young kids in tow, you can skip actually going there.) The large island of Djurgården was once a royal hunting ground, but the fiercely egalitarian Swedes turned it into a vast urban playground centuries ago. Surprising museums and restaurants, bike trails, waterfront promenades, and grand villas—Prince Eugen’s turn-of-the-20th-century mansion, Waldemarsudde (Prins Eugens väg 6; 46-8/5458-3700; waldemarsudde.se), being one of them—hide among the trees.
Down from the ferry landing is a giant shed that houses the 64-cannon Vasa (Galärvarvsvägen 14; 46-8/5195-4800; vasamuseet.se). In 1628, the ship set out from here on its maiden voyage, heeled over not a mile out, and headed straight to the bottom. It was finally raised in 1961. I had been to Stockholm several times before and always passed the museum by. I figured, big boat, so what? Wrong. Fully rigged out and looming like a carnival float in a parade of ghosts, the massive Vasa took my breath away. I wish I could say the same about the new ABBA Museum (Djurgårdsvägen 68; 46-8/1213-2860; abbathemuseum.com) nearby. Nothing against Sweden’s safe hit makers, but the spangles of Anni-Frid Lyngstad’s ’70s jumpsuits may leave you unmoved.
Scandinavian fusion cuisine no longer dominates the foodie conversation the way it once did, but the Swedes are still doing astonishing things with ingredients both familiar and weird from the far north. One of the finest spots to sample this is the Michelin two-star Oaxen Krog (Beckholmsvägen 26; 46-8/5515-3105; oaxen.com), around the corner on a harbor slip in Djurgården. I knew where things were headed when, before the meal began in earnest, I was treated to deep-fried cod bladder topped with grilled and shaved scallops. This was followed by the best (and only) moose heart I have ever tasted.
Morris called Stockholm’s beauty “spare, not lavish,” which is perhaps one reason why the city rarely elicits the kind of moist-eyed gushing that Paris or Rome does. This would likely embarrass the self-effacing Swedes anyway. But Stockholm can’t hide the fact that it is extremely rich and that it has been rich for a very long time.
The walk from Djurgården to the Grand Hôtel (rooms from $685; Södra Blasieholmshamnen 8; 46-8/679-3500; grandhotel.se), where I was staying that night, runs along Strandvägen, or Shore Road. In 1886, a timber magnate, Friedrich Bünsow, engaged the young architect Isak Gustaf Clason to build an apartment complex there. Clason made Bünsow House into a redoubtable bourgeois fortress of ornate brick, slate-roof turrets, and dormers. (Clason also designed the stately food hall on nearby Ostermalmstorg, a holy place for herring lovers like me.) Bünsow House set the tone for a whole avenue of residential castles that rose up in the years preceding the 1897 Swedish world’s fair. I challenge anyone to find a nobler harbor esplanade. When strolling by, consider stopping into the design store Svenskt Tenn (Strandvägen 5; 46-8/670-1600; svenskttenn.se). Founded in 1924, it is a wellspring of Swedish modern taste, with a helping hand from the brilliant Viennese transplant Josef Frank, who worked there in the 1930s.
After Strandvägen, it feels right to end up at the aptly named Grand Hôtel, opened in 1874. It’s where the first Nobel Prize winners ate dinner in 1901. Recently, though, the hotel had begun to look as if the staff had only just cleared the plates. The good news is that the Grand completed a freshening up last year, and it now looks cleanly modern, albeit still quite formal. One thing the Grand will always have going for it is its unbeatable view, gazing straight out at the humongous Royal Palace across the harbor. (The king and queen can choose among hundreds of windows to gaze back from.) The same view in a hipper setting can be had right next door at the sleek Lydmar Hotel (rooms from $340; Södra Blasieholmshamnen 2; 46-8/233-160; lydmar.com).
As you hop between the city’s 14 islands, it’s easy to forget that they form just one constellation in a 24,000-island milky way. Less than half an hour’s drive from the Grand Hôtel, a world of granite, sea, and spruce begins. Sparse clusters of simple wooden homes appear, mostly all painted the color they call falu red. Come summer’s endless days, the islands teem with marvelous-looking Swedes who might have stepped out of a fancy watch ad.
The next morning, I took the bus 45 minutes from Slussen to Stavsnäs on the island of Fågelbrolandet. There, I grabbed an hour-long ferry out to Sandhamn. The sheltered harbor is a headquarters for the summer sailing season—the prestigious Round Gotland yacht race starts here. As this was late October, the area was largely empty; fine with me. I walked the sandy alleyways—there are no cars—and peeked into the orderly summer houses, now shut up, with their fading hydrangeas out front. I sat on a granite slab, gazed across the Baltic, and brooded agreeably. I read Still Waters by Viveca Sten, who sets all her crime novels on Sandhamn.
Sten’s great-grandfather bought a home here in 1917, and she ferries out from Stockholm whenever she can. “That’s the nice thing about living in Stockholm,” Sten says. “Lots of people have boats and summer homes.” Sten stands at the cozier end of the gruesome Swedish crime-writing tradition, but the bodies still pile up pretty fast on Sten’s Sandhamn. “We live in such an incredibly safe, tranquil world here that we can permit ourselves the luxury of fantasizing terrible things,” Sten says. “You wouldn’t feel this way if you lived in Ukraine.”
When I got back to Stockholm, the temperature had dropped and night seemed to fall earlier than it did just the day before. I have often thought that Stockholm would be an ideal place to live if it weren’t for the cold and dark of a long Swedish winter. I asked a friend who moved back here from the U.S. how the Swedes handle it, and she said, “Hygge.” It’s a Danish word that takes candles, hot soups, fireplaces, furry slippers, board games, and mulled wine and makes a kind of religion out of them. (I won’t explain how to pronounce hygge; you’ll only hurt yourself.)
Fortunately, I was due to check into the hotel Ett Hem (rooms from $455; Skoldungagatan; 46-8/200-590; etthem.se), a kind of hygge shrine. Ett Hem means “a home,” which is what owner Jeanette Mix and British designer Ilse Crawford labored for almost four years to make this 1910 brick house feel like. Every detail is impeccable—I noticed that the grain of the veneer paneling in my toilet matched the walls—but nothing feels fussy or overprogrammed. There is no dining room: You eat anyplace in the snug sitting rooms or glassed-in veranda that you feel comfortable.
Ett Hem isn’t near the water, from whence the cold winds blow, and there’s not much to do in its sleepy, out-of-the-way neighborhood. That’s okay too. All I really wanted was to hole up here for the entire winter.