If my work colleagues are anything to go by, the city we aspire to live in is Paris. Imbued with a characteristic insouciance, it calls to mind rainy street scenes, peeling shop fronts and pastry chefs in tall hats.
But these tableaus have never grabbed me and by-and-large I’ve always felt as though France was too cool for me, or perhaps I was too earnest for France.
Over the years though, where others have dreamt of Monet-like scenes of the Seine, I’ve been infatuated with misty images of Scandinavia, cobbled together through Danish television series.
In particular, I’ve developed a fascination with Sweden, which for me embodies something incredibly exotic yet remarkably familiar.
My curiosity was initially roused by Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, but developed through an interest in online fashion and particularly Swedish brands Acne and Cos.
EventuallyI decided I was going to move to Sweden and immerse myself in this glacially cool culture. The only issue was I’d never actually been there. What if I didn’t like it?
Getting to Stockholm proved pricey (€270 with a suitcase thrown in) and my flight, which originally went on a Sunday, was moved to Monday after Aer Lingus suspended all weekend service to Stockholm for the month of January.
In the build- up to my trip, I spent several weeks learning up on Stockholm and marking off what I’d do when I got there. I wanted to enmesh myself in the culture and if that meant learning how to take a photo with my mittens on, then so be it.
The city itself is made up of 14 islands, with one-third consisting of water, another of green space and a final third entrusted to urbanity. Nothing feels concentrated or clustered and fresh air is in abundance.
Visiting in late January however, the temperature was a brisk subzero and moody, atmospheric light punctured the grey skies as well as intermittent snowfalls.
Stockholm’s medieval architecture unfurls like a fairy-tale town in a children’s pop-up book and the compact layout allows travellers to navigate it easily by foot.
The Old Town (or Gamla Stan as the locals say) is cobbled around the Royal Palace, which is located near Stockholm’s oldest building, Storykyran. This ‘Great Cathedral’ dates to the mid-13th century and features a rich, robust interior with redbrick columns and a whitewashed ceiling. Home to royal weddings and coronations, it also boasts a dramatic sculpture of St George and The Dragon adorned with genuine elk antlers. Best of all, it’s free.
Nearby on the neighbouring island of Skeppsholmen, Stockholm’s Moderna Museet (admission 120 sek) presents Irish tourists with a somewhat familiar sight: four towering sculptures by Alexander Calder — the same artist behind Trinity College’s Cactus Provisoire. It welcomes pilgrims who’ve toiled uphill and prepares them for the preeminent collection of art shielded behind the gallery’s glass shell.
Inside, the museum’s permanent collection is presented chronologically and draws parallels between Swedish art and the European avant-garde. It moves seamlessly from the turn of the century to the inter-war years and displays works by a range of artists including Munch, Pollock, Bacon, Rauschenberg and Richter.
In 1968, at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, Andy Warhol coined his prescient remark ‘In the future everybody will be world famous for 15 minutes’. If you’re anything like me, then you’ll use this phrase as leverage to take a quick selfie on the terrace of the museum’s restaurant which offers a beautiful view towards Östermalm.
Coming from a retail background — as well as a general addiction to shopping — I was hyped to visit the brands that had piqued my interest in this North European city.
For many, myself included, Swedish fashion is synonymous with structured, minimalist tailoring. Brands like Whyred, Filippa K and Tiger of Sweden (all high-end labels) are imbued with that signature Scandinavian silhouette. Gina Tricot, Monki and & Other Stories meanwhile are aimed at a younger, eclectic audience, similar to H&M.
Acne is one of Sweden’s best-known exports, originating as an advertising agency and jeans manufacturer, but now renowned for its relaxed yet pricey clothing. There are several Acne branches based in Stockholm but the Östermalm store (Hamnagatan 10-14, Östermalm) is located, rather significantly, in the same building that introduced the world to the concept of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’.
For those with high-end taste and low-end budgets however, it’s worth noting that Whyred Outlet (No 94 Drottningattan) and Acne Archives (No 53, Torstagatan) sell past collections for men and women at significantly discounted prices. Be warned though, sizes run on the small side.
Once you’ve wriggled your way in and out of some close-fitting skinny jeans, it’s time for a coffee break— or Fika — as the Swedes call it. Coffee and cake are an institution in Sweden and post-lunch slumps are tackled with a strong java that’s washed down with a semla or cinnamon bun (kanelbullar).
Home birds on the hunt for Starbucks might be a little put out by the lack of franchised coffee chains but Wayne’s — Sweden’s equivalent to Insomnia or Butlers — is located on most main streets and sells rich, quality coffee.
Travellers seeking something more traditional however should visit Kaffekopen (Stortorget) in the Old Town, which sells magnificent semla buns (edible, geometric pastries made with almond paste and whipped cream and which more-or-less beg to be slathered over your face) before taking a stroll across the way to Chokladkoppen, a dimly lit chocolate café that sells bucket-size mugs of cocoa.
Tak meaning thank you was the only arsenal I had in a country where most speak English but where I insisted on pretending to be a Swede.
Sure, I was an imposter and a phoney dressed head-to-toe in Swedish garb, armed with a litany of facts, but I left Stockholm feeling somewhat satisfied that I could live there and get by in my earnest ways.
Sweden, like its Scandinavian cousins, has been described as one of the happiest nations on earth. There’s nothing cool about being cheerful but then who put such a high precedence on being cool?
Cards are widely accepted but don’t forget to change your pocket cash to Kroner before leaving the country.
Aer Lingus fly between three and four times a week to Stockholm. A return trip booked three months in advance will set you back between €200 and €300.
Arlanda Airport runs a non-stop express train between the airport and city centre (490 sek return).
I stayed in Hotel Birger Jarl, which was pricey but offered a beautiful, spacious room, a nice bathroom and featured a top-notch breakfast and free in-house gym.
Watch out for the off-licence (Systembolaget) closing time: 7pmon weekdays, 3pm on Saturday and closed all day Sunday.
Söders hjärta, Bellmansgatan 22: chilled out grown up bar for trendy locals. Nice place to start a night out or for after dinner. Alternatively head to Stureplan for a young, glossy crowd and a good selection of nightclubs.
Råkultur, Kungstensgatan 2: Excellent sushi restaurant, great for lunch, no reservation needed and Tamaki rolls highly recommended.
Try rosehip soup for desert – it’s hot, sweet, traditionally Swedish and tastes bizarre.