Stockholm City Hall

[dropcap size=small]T[/dropcap]he Danish may have their hygge, but the Swedes have their fika. And in our books, any culture that builds its very existence around a cinnamon bun and coffee has got to be – sorry, Bhutan – the happiest one in the world.

It’s all part of the Scandinavian way of life that is, for a change, one of the few positive trends slowly seeping through the rest of the world. Hygge is a way of life that addresses the soul – a feeling of calm and positivity that you can’t wear or fill your home with. It’s a simple act of connecting with oneself and others over a cup of tea, heartfelt conversation and not sweating the small stuff. When you think about it, this is a place where the sun sets at 3pm in the latter part of the year – with so little light in the day, you don’t really have a lot of hours to annoy other people in.

And the Swedes are a calm, chill and inclusive lot who provide a warm welcome in a country where ‘Baby, it’s Cold Outside’ is more of a painful cry against the elements than a Christmas song with misogynistic undertones.

Stockholm is the pulse of Sweden – a cool, not-so-bustling city scattered over 14 islands where commerce, academia and culture somehow find a place to meet. You’ll be hard put to figure out where one island ends and the next one begins, because they’re seamlessly linked by parks, waterways, trams and bridges – all offering lovely views and historical architecture. It’s also the home of smart people, when you consider its iconic city hall hosts the annual Nobel Prize ceremony in ornate, medieval castle-like premises.

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Summertime is easy in Stockholm, but there’s magic in the air in the run-up to Christmas and the New Year. That’s when you catch the city in the midst of its festive decorating and setting up of its many Christmas markets starring myriad permutations of mythical tomte gnomes and colourful dala horses. Just make sure you time your visit for no earlier than Dec 1, because unlike Singapore where Christmas starts by end-October, Stockholm literally follows the advent calendar.

Even if you’re a week too early, and the giant Christmas tree being assembled by the waterfront is just three-quarters in place, let your imagination fill up the rest from where you stand on the edge of Gamla Stan, aka Stockholm’s Old Town.

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This cluster of perfectly preserved medieval houses dates back to the 13th century, so put aside your modern day cynicism and waltz through this living, ‘page out of a story book’ cliché – especially after dark, when the warm lights beckon you into one curio store after another. Enjoy a fika in any of cafes while you’re at it. And if you’re in time, head to the Stortorget in the middle of Gamla Stan – the oldest square in Stockholm and site of its biggest Christmas market.

If your tastes lean towards the kitsch and vintage edginess, then do a Stieg Larsson and head out to Södermalm, the home of his main character Mikael Blomqvist and Lisbeth Salander – his favourite girl with the dragon tattoo. Retrace his footsteps at the Kvarnen bar or just browse through the quirky vintage and ornate decor stores. For more conventional refreshments, stop for soup and desserts at Chokoladfabriken, which makes artisanal chocolates in its own old-fashioned factory beside it, or pick up delicious chewy caramels at Pärlans Konfektyr.

For the ultimate fika, take a scenic boat ride to the Stockholm Archipelago, made up of 30,000 islands. The one you want is Vaxholm, which looks like a turn of the 20th century town with rambling pastel-hued wooden houses dotting the sleepy landscape. Stop over at Vaxholm B&B – the home of Linda Wahlström and her family, which has been turned into a achingly charming bed and breakfast complete with a resident dog that can’t wait to welcome you.

You don’t have to be an overnight guest to enjoy homemade creamy broccoli soup chased down with an excellent spread of cakes and cinnamon buns baked by Linda herself. Warm yourself with hot mulled wine and thin, crisp gingerbread cookies (pepparkakor) that beat any you’ve sampled in your whole visit. That and her tender, yielding cinnamon buns – resistance is futile in her bright cheerful conservatory complete with roaring fire.

The only other place that you can find similar quality baked goods that you can actually buy is Rosendal Gardens in Djurgården – an organic plant and vegetable garden during the year but transformed into a twinkly Christmas wonderland for the festivities. Inside the large sheds are tables heaving with enough food to rival a Hogwarts’ school dinner.

The shop next door is equally overflowing – bread loaves piled haphazardly, cookies spilling out of shelves, homespun apple jams – the works.

Apart from cakes and bakes, traditional Swedish food is on the heavy, salty side with their fondness for pickled herring, golf ball-sized meatballs in creamy red sauce and lingonberries with a day’s worth of vitamin C in each teeny insanely sour fruit. Forget calories at Restaurant Pelikan – the unapologetic, cholesterol-inducing eatery that’s been serving up toast skagen and roasted reindeer since the 1960s.

For more delicate tastebuds, the fine dining Frantzén has three Michelin stars but a totally unpretentious setting – the meal is high-priced but the experience is also an elevated one.

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There is also Slipen/Oaxen – a locavore-centric waterside eatery helmed by chef-owner Magnus Ek and his life partner Agneta Green. The fine dining Oaxen has two Michelin stars but its bistro Slipen serves some equally high quality casual fare. Goat’s cheese and pumpkin shavings taste super fresh, while crunchy buttered toast with venison tartare is the next best thing to a great fika.

Sustainable produce is a big thing for eateries in Stockholm and no more so than in Urban Deli – a local gourmet store-cum-restaurant that combines the drudgery of grocery shopping and the fun of eating out. Or you can combine high art and cuisine at the Nationalmuseum, which re-opened a month ago after a five year, US$132 million refurbishment of the 150-year-old monument. When you’re tired from studying the sprawling display of paintings and sculptures from the Renaissance to 1900, you can rest up at the restaurant which is no mere afterthought. It’s run by Bocuse D’or jury member Fredrik Eriksson, who serves up streamlined Swedish cuisine in equally understated surroundings.

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Art and culture isn’t limited to the Nationalmuseum, especially when Stockholm’s commuters come face to face with it every day. The city’s subway system is a subterranean art gallery, with over 90 stations decorated with works by artistic pioneers from the 1950s till today.

For something even older, there’s the maritime Vasa Museum – a fascinating but almost creepy exhibit of a 17th century warship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628 and salvaged in its near entirety.

A little less depressing and a lot more fun is the ABBA Museum – a tribute to the singing Swedish sensation that is as synonymous with Sweden as IKEA.

Listening to their songs gives you a warm fuzzy feeling, and you realise that you feel the same way about Stockholm – where the weather outside may be frighteningly cold, but the fika (and lifestyle) is just so inviting.

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This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photos by Dimitry B, Jaime Ee & Visit Stockholm