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Travel & Holiday

Frugal travel in Stockholm

Enjoy Sweden's capital by exploring art in the subway, cruising to the islands and going for walking tours
The Sunday Times - March 30, 2014
By: Lee Siew Hua Travel Writer
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Frugal travel in Stockholm The Stockholm archipelago is studded with tiny islands with cosy hamlets (above), or sometimes, a lone lighthouse. -- PHOTO: LEE SIEW HUA

Stockholm sparkles in such pure Nordic light that it is a joy to be jetlagged and irreversibly awake at 5am. From the picture window of my room at the waterfront Hotel Diplomat, the city is dipped in gentle gold light.

The city is so saturated with art that even subway stations look like little museums. I am relaxed and captivated as I navigate colourful tunnels.

And the Swedes love their fika moments, when they sit down for coffee and cake, and this delicious pause in the day is also perfect for the traveller.

Just because Stockholm has an expensive reputation - not untrue - there is no need to skip the Swedish capital and not relish these pleasures of sun, art and lingering.

I decide to travel frugally or freely in Stockholm, without behaving like a skinflint or denying myself a chance to splurge on occasion.

Singaporeans should be no strangers to the pursuit of value amid rising costs.

We know how to delight in living high and low. Serve us filet mignon or serve us bak kut teh - either we rejoice in the rich experience or the reasonable price.

For tourists, Stockholm is the third priciest city ranked by TripAdvisor last year.

The travel site's TripIndex Cities compares the costs for two people staying overnight at a four-star hotel, plus cocktails, two-course dinner with wine, and return cab fare for a 3.2km ride. The annual index covers key tourist cities in 49 countries that receive the most international arrivals according to the United Nations.

Last year, Singapore ranked 15th at US$400.96 (S$508). Oslo (US$581.08) topped the Europe-dominated list, followed by Zurich (US$523.41) and Stockholm (US$521.68).

Then last Wednesday, a fresh TripAdvisor survey revealed that Stockholm is the world's fifth priciest city for room service. Stockholm's bill for a basket of items such as mini-bar peanuts and drycleaning is $87.07. Singapore, in ninth place, is a whisker behind at $78.46.

I should be daunted. But I am armed with stacks of value propositions for Stockholm. Plans for my four-day visit are sealed after I e-mail the young founders of Free Tour Stockholm, Stockholm Visitors Board and Stockholm Metro.

I have read that the 110km Stockholm Metro is "the world's longest art exhibition". Out of 100 stations, 94 are emblazoned with paintings, mosaics and installations.

For the price of a subway ticket (44 Swedish krona or about S$8.60), tourists can take a free hour-long tour of four to five stations from June to August.

Since I am visiting the city ahead of the summer months, SL (Stockholm Public Transport, www.sl.se) arranges a complimentary tour.

Most eye-catching of all is the Kungstradgarden (King's Garden) station in the city centre. The ceiling has a design of harlequin diamonds in a burst of colours at the Arsenalsgatan exit. In the same station is a little walled archaeological dig artfully strewn with statues, gas lamps and marble columns. Children have peepholes in the wall to peer at the artefacts.

I must say Swedish public transport providers are unafraid of a little whimsy and activism. Peepholes at the base of the wall are created for even littler ones - mice.

And in another corner, an artist has fashioned a replica of a tree trunk to remember greenies who chained themselves to trees on the subway site before the Kungstradgarden station was built in 1971.

The mighty elms live on. My guide, Ms Marie Andersson, remarks: "The artist says you can change political decisions if there are enough people."

Other stations I whiz through include T-Centralen, where contemporary frescoes of blue vines soothe commuters at the busiest stop of the subway. The rainbow colours of the Olympic Rings at Stadion seem to bring the sky underground.

In summer, guided English-language tours start at 3pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from the SL Centre at the Sergels Torg exit of the T-Centralen station.

Art beautifies the subway, certainly, and helps to orientate commuters, children included. Art gives each station its own identity too and makes the subway feel safer, according to SL, which has supported subway art by 150 artists since the 1950s.

Beyond an artsy subterranean, Stockholm is set in a landscape of great beauty. A metropolis of blues and greens, about a third of the city is water and another third is parkland.

A lovely way to spend a few hours, or a day, is to book a cruise on the Stockholm archipelago of 30,000 islands, islets and rocks.

It is all serenity and beauty on my three- hour cruise in radiant Nordic light amid the city islands.

We pass tiny islands with a solitary lighthouse, or with a couple of red residences painted in Falu, a deep-red Swedish hue.

I like little Monday Island, which has a quaintly pragmatic story. Farmers would row their cattle to graze on it, then rotate to other islands named after each day of the week till Saturday, so there was no overgrazing. They rested on Sunday, as I learn from the English commentary on the ferry.

On bigger islands such as Vaxholm, where overnight stays are recommended, cafes and art studios abound.

As I cruise on the SS Stockholm, I have a whiff of the Swedish love for rusticity as much as elegance.

A Japanese spa of black stone sits atop cliffs. A gas-stove factory is repurposed as a luxury condominium. Apartments cost about three million krona apiece and some have glass floors for residents to peer underwater.

My cruise, an affordable 240 krona (S$46.80), is booked from a Stromma Kanalbolaget (www.stromma.se) booth on the pier at Stromgatan.

Stockholm itself sits on 14 large islands linked by many bridges. For hours, I walk all over Skeppsholmen and Djugarden, two islands studded with museums and meadows.

I imagine I have an inner Swede, as I observe how much Stockholmers love the outdoors, walking and cycling everywhere and even fishing for salmon outside the Royal Palace. All free of course.

Sometimes, Stockholmers have "walking meetings" instead of sitting down with a colleague or associate in a room.

I spend a long afternoon in Skeppsholmen, where I pass outdoor sculptures on lush slopes before sitting at an outdoor table at Hotel Skeppsholmen (www.hotelskeppsholmen.se), a boutique hotel converted from a 300-year-old military building.

It is fika time, a reflective coffee-break moment. In the crisp air - the hotel gives me a blanket - I sample a couple of modern Swedish dishes including porcini dumplings in a foam of mature cheese, and a creamy, caramel ale.

The bill is 410 krona (S$80.40), not cheap, but fair value for a quality Swedish experience I am willing to pay for.

Another day, on pretty Djugarden island, I have a wallet-friendlier but still luscious fika in the orchard of the hidden Rosendal Garden cafe. My Swiss roll with a filling of honey and apple, plus a coffee, costs 65 krona (S$12.75).

I roam Djugarden, which is loaded with museums, from a new one celebrating Swedish pop sensation Abba (www.abbathemuseum.com; admission 195 krona or S$38.20) to the popular Vasa Museum (www.vasamuseet.se; admission 130 krona or S$25.50, free for those under 18 years of age), which houses a 17th-century warship.

Noteworthy too is the world's first open-air museum, Skansen (www.skansen.se; seasonal admission from 100 to 170 krona or S$19.60 to S$33.30). Admission is free with the Stockholm Card (www.visitstockholm.com), which covers 80-plus museums.

I wander through five centuries of history in Skansen as I step into historical dwellings where tanners and other craftsmen in period dress appear.

Skansen is also a zoo with Scandinavian animals such as the European bison and wolverine.

I have a very soft spot for Junibacken, a children's museum, where I sit in a red train that "flies" over tiny, fabulous tableaux from stories penned by beloved Swedish author Astrid Lindgren.

The wee train transports me to the meadows and hamlets of her mischievous characters such as Emil, who hoisted his little sister Ida up a flagpole.

I see the red-eyed dragon birthed by a pig and hear Ronia's irrepressible yell of joy when spring arrives.

Elsewhere in the museum, playful Pippi Longstocking, another Lindgren character, has her house.

Tickets for Junibacken (www.junibacken.se) cost 145 krona (S$28.40) for adults and 125 krona (S$24.50) for children aged two to 15.

Sweden is famously family-friendly and I love the scenes of young fathers pushing strollers and dining alone with their children on weekdays, possibly because they are taking their share of the 480 days of paid parental leave a child.

In the Kulturhuset cultural centre (Sergels Torg, 111 57 Stockholm), families on holiday can join Swede families for an urban respite to make crafts, read and enjoy exhibits. Admission is free.

Over four days, I also join two free, quality tours in the city centre and Gamla Stan, the mediaeval town.

These tours speedily orientate me and I return to highlights such as the Nobel Museum on my own later, with a good map.

I am also curious about enclaves with character, which, of course, are free to explore.

Sweden is known for design and the shops in hip SoFo will appeal to fashion and design lovers.

With a bit of imagination, Stockholm can be explored fully, without splurging or skimping too much.

Beauty in a cemetery

Stepping into the Skogskyrkogarden woodland cemetery, I imagine the end of life may be as beautiful as the Nordic wilderness around me. After all, Skogskyrkogarden upturned old norms of graveyards as grandiose parks when it was designed by two young Swedish architects, Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz, in 1912.

Instead, it is understated, with footpaths meandering to graceful ridges and pine forests, and many benches for contemplation. From the entrance, I begin walking on a very long path that conveys a sense of the unknown - I cannot see where it leads but I feel profoundly soothed. Indeed, the architects wished to make it possible for people to mourn with a depth of emotion and move on.

The monochrome tombstones, including one for screen siren Greta Garbo, have a strong simplicity and dignity.

There are few souls when I visit on a Sunday morning, though I see lone joggers, a father and his young son cycling past and an elderly man driving slowly.

Among the chapels is the small Woodland Chapel, illuminated by indirect light from its domed roof. The sole ornamentation is a small, gilded Angel of Death above the entrance.

Admission to Skogskyrkogarden (www.skogskyrkogarden.se) is free. Take the green metro line to the Skogskyrkogarden station, a 14-minute ride from the downtown Centralen station. The Unesco-listed site is one of a trio in Stockholm.

The others are:

Birka: The Viking city, established in the eighth century, has ancient remnants. Also known as Sweden's first city, Birka was an important marketplace, drawing travellers from afar. It sits on Bjorko island, which is lovely for strolls. Boat tours from Stockholm depart from the pier at City Hall.

Drottningholm Palace: The residence of the Swedish royal family is the Versailles of the Nordic region. The 17th-century palace, built in a French style, has royal jewels housed in the Treasury.

Drottningholm (www.kungahuset.se; admission 120 krona) is filled with salons, a Baroque garden and a theatre that deploys its original stage machinery.

Stretch your krona

For 90 minutes, I take a free and free-spirited walking tour of Gamla Stan, Stockholm's mediaeval town. Our guide from Free Tour Stockholm gives an entertaining, fact-rich capsule history of the Viking warriors who traded and raided during the Dark Ages.

He shows us the city's tiniest alley, Marten Trotzigs Grand, just 90cm at its narrowest point. We wander into an intimate ochre-walled square, off the tourist grid, with a "Morning Statue" of a damsel.

Tour over, our guide Lee Harris, Arkansas-born and married to a Swede, says we need not pay, but tips are accepted. "We also accept hugs and handshakes," he quips.

The price of a similar tour is 200 krona (about S$39), he does add, a point I verify online. Almost everyone, from Chinese students to Peruvian families, tip him, often 100 krona for two people, I notice.

No reservations are needed for this Gamla Stan tour and also the Stockholm city tour, where I gain insights into the royal family, Nobel Prize, gender equality, Abba hangouts in the 1970s and the Stockholm Syndrome, when hostages oddly bond with captors.

Both tours meet at the big staircase at Sergels Torg, atop the Centralen subway station. Tour schedules are posted on the website (www.freetourstockholm.com).

Mr Harris and I are joined by the Swedish co-founders of this enterprise, Ms Annelie Drakman and Mr Freddie Kaplan - all barely thirty.

It is time for fika, a pause for coffee and companionship. We walk to Chokladkoppen (www.chokladkoppen.se), a tavern in Gamla Stan that serves inexpensive hot chocolate in bowls.

Ms Drakman, a PhD student in the history of science and ideas, and her husband Mr Kaplan, the company's main adminstrator, plan tours that are fun, fascinating and accurate.

Their dozen storytelling guides are mostly outgoing people in their mid-20s from elsewhere.

"They are enthusiastic about the city they chose to live in,'' observes Ms Drakman.

Free, tips-based tours have popped up in several European cities. Indeed the couple, honeymooning in Europe in 2009, found such tours funnier and more interesting than paid excursions.

The next year, Ms Drakman appointed herself the first guide in Free Tour Stockholm, beginning with two befuddled German tourists. "I see the city in a new light when tourists ask questions."

One question, of course, is how to travel well in a high-priced city.

The trio offer tips to enjoy Stockholm in a non-extravagant style, which is very much in the Swedish spirit. Wealthy individuals - famously, Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad - and also the royal family live unostentatiously.

Mr Harris says: "The Scandinavian style is to have just enough and not to be extravagant. It is minimalist, but elegant."

Tourists are often deterred by prices of food and drink. Take a cue from Swedes, who may drink at home before a night out, says Ms Drakman, since alcohol costs more in Sweden than most of Europe.

To control Swedish alcohol consumption, only the state-controlled Systembolaget retails wine, spirits and beer with an alcohol content above 3.5 per cent.

At the outdoor market Hotorget, produce is discounted steeply before closing - before 6pm on weekdays and 4pm on weekends.

Mr Harris enjoys a burger and beer for 90 krona (S$17.60) during happy hour at Bryggeriet (Odengatan 60, 113 22 Stockholm).

Students manage on 8,000 krona (S$1,567) a month, says Ms Drakman: "You can live in Stockholm and not go bankrupt.''

More Tips

Bakficka: The Stockholm Visitors Board (www.visitstockholm.com) lists restaurants that are kind on wallets. Top-end restaurants often have a bakficka that serves bistro fare.

At Operakallerens Bakficka (www.eng.operakallaren.se), around the corner from its main restaurant at the Opera House, I order the all-Swedish dish of meatballs with red lingonberry and a coffee for 165 krona ($32).

Stockholm Card: The Stockholm Card (www.visitstockholm.com) covers more than 80 museums, free public transport including the subway and the SL Sjovagen ferry line, plus sightseeing such as bicycle tours. A three-day card costs 795 krona ($156) and can be purchased online. Cards for one day or five are also available.

Three museums I visit with the card are the Junibacken children's museum (www.junibacken.se), Skansen open-air museum (www.skansen.se) and Fotografiska (fotografiska.eu), with artistic photography shows. Its cafe has windows that frame Stockholm dreamily, so the city seems suspended between reflective water and tinted evening sky.

Special events: Watch out for festivals and events, such as the free public Nobel Lectures in December.

Wi-Fi: In much of wired-up Stockholm, such as museums, Wi-Fi is available. Otherwise, pre-paid SIM cards are inexpensive. I pay 100 krona, less than $20, for four days and it is more than enough to surf, text and e-mail.

Lodging: Airfare and lodging are typically the two costliest items. I tag on three days of Stockholm travels and an extra day of interviews, after a media programme on family policy.

Hotel Diplomat (www.worldhotels.com) sponsors me for a two-night stay. It adds two weekend nights with breakfast at a media rate. Currently, a promotional weekend rate is 1,650 krona a night in a standard queen room. It is a general rule that weekend rates are attractive, more so in business hotels.

The family-owned waterfront hotel is heritage with a modern twist. Think antique lifts and Friday house music nights.

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