The Smooth Guide to Stockholm (Financial Times How to Spend it)

There are white neon loops in the ceiling at Hötorget and painted blue vines at T-Centralen but it’s the radiation-green strip-lit Doctor Who space villain’s lair at Kungsträdgården that really takes the hallucinatory biscuit. Stockholm has the most extraordinary subway stations this side of Moscow’s crystal chandeliers, and the most extraordinary is artist Ulrik Samuelson’s work beneath the Grand Hotel: a glorious retro-futurist Vegas mess that looks like several 70s BBC sets fused together: faux ruined columns, a Jurassic cave roof, and polished stone curved benches in Italian tricolor stripes. It’s peculiarly Stockholm, a city that you think you know from its Christmas Market cobblestones all over Flickr, but which in the space of a few days turns your visual expectations upside down.

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If you start your weekend in the Swedish capital looking for the epicentre of the burgeoning contemporary art scene you’ll encounter a building so nondescript on a nowhere street that you might walk straight past it. Start at Galerie Nordenhake at street level on Hudiksvallsgatan and then work your way up inside this old office block through myriad white cube spaces, large and small. The galleries sell established but valiantly cutting-edge stuff, as does The Gun Gallery, a short taxi ride away, which handles the best art photography from the likes of fashion visionary Sølve Sundsbø and diarist JH Engström.

Any arrestingly blond, svelte, black-clad local will tell you that the modern Scandic eaterie F12 makes for one of the most dependable dinner reservations in the country, but it’s far better for lunch on a Friday. The menu may be shorter (often truncated to ‘traditional’, ‘grill’ and ‘ocean’) but when the afternoon sun shines through the acid-yellow window screens and bathes the clean lines of the lime-green room in a dramatic pop art glow, it’s a feast for the eyes.

For a very different experience, go to Allmänna Galleriet 925 for dinner. AG925 sprawls across an upper floor of an old silver factory and, with its industrial white tiling and bauhaus factory lighting, comfort-food bistro menu and hipster crowd, it feels more edgy derelict Shoreditch than Scandic. It’s a sparky and seductive nightspot and the only dining room in the city that plays decent music (intelligent 80s retro through to the more tuneful elements of classic punk). What Stockholm restaurateurs posess in ingredients and interiors they’ve abandoned in musical taste. You thought Abba was naff?  You’ve heard nothing until you’ve eaten out in Stockholm.

The Nordic Light Hotel is another example of clandestine urban regeneration and Stockholm’s appreciation of 70s concrete severity. It’s on a corner in the downtown part of the city that has all the elegance of Elephant & Castle in grey drizzle (much of the Norrmalm district was bulldozed and rebuilt in a shocking act of town planning vandalism) but inside it’s a meticulously white-on-white Design Hotel that doesn’t overplay its hand. It makes very effective use of its schtick: controllable coloured patterned lights in the rooms instead of artwork. It could be chilly, but it isn’t. And the beds and the lobby bar are state of the art high style but plush delights.

Enter a timewarp on Saturday morning. Walk to Gamla Stan, the old town, with its Palace and narrow cobbled streets. Everyone raves about the hot chocolate at Chokladkoppen in the square by the Nobel Museum, but the interior at Kaffekoppen next door is a prettier exercise in Name of the Rose chic, full of battered wood, mismatched chairs, pillars, bare plaster alcoves and candles. The white hot chocolate served in immense bowls gives the ultimate, creamy, sugar high.

The most striking building in the city by far is the rotund Stadsbiblioteket, the public library. Architect Erik Gunnar Asplund’s 20s neo-classical building is a real beauty, from its signage out front to the tiered circular balconies of the Lending Hall. It’s a paradigm of the kind of 20th century Scandic modernism that still perpetuates the image of every Stockholmer in a living room that’s a chapel of impossibly handsome minimalist wooden functionalism. It’s also a short walk from the best source of mid-century modern furniture in the city, the prosaically named Modernity. This isn’t just the best place in town to pick up interior treasures from Swedish masters, it’s also a treasure trove of international rarities. Modernity’s proprietor, Scotsman, Andrew Duncanson, has a unique museum quality stock of wildly-coloured 80s Ettore Sottsass and Memphis furniture.

Finish off your whirlwind tour of the Stockholm of yesteryear with lunch at Prinsen, a century old Grand Café with a slavish local following, which mixes innovative new elements into a menu that offers the best opportunity to find out why herring is such a big deal. Just about everyone orders the meatballs in cream sauce with cucumber as a main: they’re impossibly moreish.

After lunch, continue your shopping at Tjallamalla, a concept store in SoFo that sells spirited, frisky fashion, accessories and oddities by young Swedish designers you’re unlikely to have heard of before. It’s a fresh and ‘now’ cultural snapshot of the city.

Much is talked about the SoFo area of Stockholm, the area south of Folkungagatan in Södermalm, but as is often the way with areas that have been christened by way of eye-roll-inducing truncation outside of New York City, it’s Not All That. That said, it’s a nice enough area to stroll around and enjoy the posing on display before stopping off at the nearby 10 Swedish Designers store for some brash, Marimekkko-esque homeware and textiles.

For central city shopping go to Grev Turegatan where you’ll find Anna Holtblad’s store. Holtblad’s womenswear is simple but effortlessly chic; her long sweaters are a cult item for women from fashion students to CEOs. Nearby you’ll find the flagship Filippa K store, housing the full range of Filippa Knutson’s ever growing global brand. There’s something reassuringly default about Knutson’s work – with its mostly monochrome palate and confident, stark contemporary lines, it’s the go-to label for men and women when they need the perfect black jacket or white shirt. If chic Stockholm was limited to one label, it would be this one. Her recently opened Second Hand Store in the city is a genius innovation – past collections and accessories are traded in by the owners and retailed as new.

The sexiest shop in town isn’t a clothes store, but a stationer. There is no branch of Bookbinders in the UK or the States yet, so a visit to the HQ in Stockholm is a must. The exquisitely displayed handcrafted cloth-bound paper products in vivid colours and variations of greige is something to behold and gives you an irresistible urge to start a journal, write a letter or even devote a whole room at home to colour-coordinated diaries and photo albums.

On Saturday night, set aside four hours for a lavish degustation dining experience. Have a blueberry sour and some sashimi in the Cocktail Bar at Pontus!, an ultra-modern multi-levelled destination dining space that looks like an interior designer ramraided Frieze one afternoon and reassembled it in Stockholm with a lot of very expensive trompe-l’oeil wallpaper. Move on to the Operahuset and the Operakällaren, a baroque, chandelier-sodden soaring-ceilinged fantasia of a space that’s been given a really swish makeover by cutting-edge designers Claesson Koivisto Rune. The huge free-standing brass-fogged mirrors positioned strategically around the oak-panelled room are expert high-style contemporary punctuation marks accentuating all that’s wonderful about the room. The food, a lengthy procession of small classically-French influenced plates, is pretty good too.

Just around the canal sits the Grand Hotel; peerless and stately, facing the Royal Apartments. The Grand’s recent refurb hasn’t exactly reinvented an already well-oiled wheel of plush and luxe but its new restaurant, Mathias Dahlgren, has you struggling for superlatives. The posher of its two tastefully 21st century-looking dining rooms, the Matsalen, serves a tasting menu that does things with traditional local ingredients (red beet, herring, roe deer) that are nothing short of sorcery. The beverage pairings are as inspired as the food (stout as well as stickies appear) while something as simple as a mouthful of bread is served hot and fresh, on scorched wood, to muster up Proustian memories of a Scandic childhood of forests and burning stoves. This is undoubtedly one of the ten best dinners you’ll ever eat.

The day after an epic dinner, have a relaxed Sunday buffet brunch of dim sum and bellinis at Berns Asiatiska, the dark and sexy oriental restaurant of the Berns hotel, Stockholm’s original haute boutique B&B. Terence Conran has turned what was an already splendid 1860 theatre into one of the most photogenic dining halls in the city, with just enough Chinoiserie to offset the rococo.

There are enough museums in Stockholm to devote a month to, but spend Sunday at the sexiest of the bunch, the Moderna Museet, annexed with the Arkitekturmuseet. Duchamp may be omnipresent in the early rooms, but this is as good an overview of art since 1900 that you’ll find anywhere and very slickly presented, particularly when they run special events – you might encounter performance artists in glass boxes as you wander from room to room, or full troupes of dancers moving en masse through the main corridor. From the Museet stroll across the water to the National Museum and upstairs to its permanent Design 19002000 show, a compact documentation of how Swedish functionalism was born and became so influential as a style as well as a philosophy.

Round off your Stockholm visual safari frivolously. No serious restaurants are open on a Sunday evening so go to a wonderfully silly one. Every weekend everyone from families to eccentrically-spectacled design types flock to Grill for a carnivorous buffet feast accompanied by live music. Grill is the perfect Stockholm full stop: nothing to write home about outside, but inside it’s Alice in Wonderland goes to the Moulin Rouge… with trays brimming with perfectly grilled sumptuous meats. The Swedish may love clean lines and black clothing, but they can also appreciate a dinner surrounded by polka-dot toadstools, tens of thousands of faux rose petals and a lifesized shark hanging over their heads. Functional chic is one thing, but everyone has to have a weekend off occasionally.

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