ELLE DECOR Goes to Stockholm

ELLE DECOR - May 2009
Andrew Ferren

Not content to rest on its laurels as one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, the Swedish capital amps it up with high design, innovative cuisine, and unparalleled shopping.

Love is in the air this summer in Stockholm as Sweden celebrates the wedding of Crown Princess Victoria to Daniel Westling on June 19. The country’s last royal wedding was on the same date in 1976, when Victoria’s parents tied the knot and a million people reportedly lined the parade route—not a bad turnout for a country whose entire population is only nine million, nearly one tenth of whom call Stockholm home.

The capital was already hands down the chicest city hovering anywhere near the Arctic Circle. Now it’s ready for its close-up—and for the influx of visitors. Its grandest hotels have been spruced up with refurbished rooms and swank new bars and restaurants. At least a half-dozen hotels—from boutique to behemoth—have opened in the past two years. The ongoing gastronomic renaissance is gathering steam as a growing number of Michelin stars sparkle across town. It’s practically impossible not to love Stockholm.

"What’s so appealing? Well, for starters, it’s probably the most beautiful city in the world," says Andrew Duncanson, who deals in 20th-century Scandinavian furniture at his shop, Modernity, in the tony Östermalm quarter. "But what’s unique is the incredible freshness it has, both in terms of climate, since it’s surrounded by water, but also in attitude."

In 1996, Duncanson traded Edinburgh for Stockholm, lured by love, of course. The European Union also loves the city’s freshness, so much so that it recently declared Stockholm the European Green Capital for 2010, in recognition of its front-runner status in public transit, water conservation, and efforts to reduce fossil-fuel emissions.

Architect Lee F. Mindel of New York’s Shelton, Mindel & Assoc. is another self-con-fessed Stockholmophile. He finds inspiration thick on the ground, from the fabulous 18th-century tent buildings at Haga Park in the north to the Skogskyrkogården cemetery in the south. Mindel considers the latter, designed and built by Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz between 1917 and 1940, both an architectural and aesthetic revelation. "It’s the one place I visit every time I go to Stockholm," he says. "I like to experience its beauty at different times of the year. In theory, it’s about the passing of life, but really it’s all about the living of life, and the relationship between man and nature—you have these tidy rows of discreet, unadorned headstones beneath towering pine trees. It speaks volumes about the Nordic values of evenhandedness and restraint."

Stockholm’s beauty has many faces. Several towns vie for the title of Venice of the North, but Stockholm is the only one that really rocks it. Spread out over 14 islands at the junction of Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea, it truly appears as a floating city—albeit one with massive and architecturally ebullient buildings, such as the famous Royal Palace and City Hall, anchoring it into place.

In spring and summer, hundreds, if not thousands of boats—from ferries and skiffs to small sailboats—seem to be out on the water on any given day, darting and weaving between the spires and domes of the captivating skyline. Hop on the boat to the royal residence at Drottningholm Palace, with its elaborate gardens and fanciful Chinese Pavilion, and you’ll pass city beaches that are packed with so many sunbathing Swedes you’ll wonder if anyone actually works in this town. As it heads out to sea, the Stockholm archipelago comprises about 25,000 islands—some are mere rocks, while others are home to small villages and clusters of idyllic summer cottages.

The best way to experience Stockholm’s riches is by ferry for island-hopping, and then on foot, starting off on Gamla Stan, the small neighborhood that forms its medieval heart and offers delightful strolling on narrow cobblestone streets lined with charming shops, cafés, and restaurants.

To the north is Norrmalm, also known as City, home to the train station; the larger department stores, such as the upscale and exclusive NK; and the major chain stores. The area’s boxy office blocks may not offer the prettiest perspective in town, but it’s the neighborhood for hip fashion shops like Weekday and Fifth Avenue Shoe Repair, not to mention H&M’s debut flagship for cheap and cheery housewares.

The island of Djurgården is a nature lover’s paradise. Once the king’s private hunting ground, today it is home to the city’s busiest attractions, including Skansen, an open-air museum that celebrates Swedish history and culture, and the Vasa Museum, which houses the astonishingly preserved warship Vasa, which sank in Stockholm harbor on its maiden voyage in 1628. There are also the Rosendals Palace and Trädgård (the royal gardens and greenhouses, and now a café and a biodynamic¬-plant market) as well as two fascinating house museums, Thielska Galleriet and Prince Eugen’s Waldemarsudde, which both contain terrific collections of 19th- and 20th-century Scandinavian paintings.

Östermalm is Stockholm’s equivalent of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, with a similar density of high-end boutiques and artful home-design stores. Swedes, of course, have an innate knack for nest feathering, and any first-time visitor to Stockholm should come prepared for the scope and richness of the housewares-shopping experience (i.e., bring an empty suitcase). Standout vintage modernist galleries like Modernity and Jackson’s—one of Mindel’s favorites—share a stretch of Sibyllegatan (-gatan means "street") with design emporium Asplund and carpet weaver Märta Måås-Fjetterström. And that’s just a single street. You can plan a day out and about and not get much beyond the first block without having to return to your hotel to drop off your shopping bags.

Jill Dienst, who specializes in Swedish antiques at Dienst + Dotter, her furnishings shops in Manhattan and Sag Harbor, New York, has developed a routine for her frequent visits: "After checking out some of my favorite private dealers, I like to meander over to the Östermalms Saluhall food market, where they sell the freshest fish, produce, breads, and sweets. I always grab a small table at Lisa Elmqvist’s restaurant there and pray crayfish are in season!"

Östermalm heats up even more after dark, especially the restaurants, bars, and nightclubs around the plaza known as Stureplan. Among the new hot spots is Story Hotel, which has become the preferred rendezvous for visiting hipsters. Designed by the cutting-edge architectural studio Koncept, the hotel’s moody lighting, rock-and-roll vibe, and exposed everything—ducts, pipes, and concrete walls—give it an industrial, loftlike feel that is light-years away from the pale woods and muted grays that have come to symbolize Swedish design.

Koncept’s creative fingerprints are all over the city right now—among the firm’s productions are the Acne Studios boutiques, the lively lobby bar of the Scandic Hotel Anglais, as well as the town’s most happening new restaurant, B.A.R., which opened last November near the Nationalmuseum and serves some of the freshest and most simply prepared seafood. Over a dinner of grilled baby octopus, roasted beets, and an indulgent potato gratin, Paola Padoan and her husband, Ulf Maxe, the couple who founded the firm with three other architects in 1996, were sharing their insider address book when Padoan declared, "And then, of course, you have the whole scene on Södermalm, which is where everyone wants to live now and where all the young people hang out."

As another Stockholmer pithily summed it up: If Östermalm is for the trendy people with teeny little dogs, then Södermalm is for the trendy people with great big dogs. Canine accessories aside, the city’s south island, which for decades was a blue-collar neighborhood far off the tourist map, has become all the rage in the past five years. It has two distinct centers of gravity. The first is Mariatorget, known for its beautiful 19th-century buildings, which are now packed with cafés and antiques stores, as well as the stylish Rival Hotel, which occupies what was once an Art Deco cinema and is owned by former ABBA member Benny Andersson.

The other blocks with buzz have been dubbed (big surprise!) SoFo—for "south of Folkungagatan"—though the area reads a bit more East Village than SoHo, with some of Europe’s best vintage-clothing stores, a slew of fashion boutiques with names like Grandpa and King Lily, and the kitschy novelty shop Coctail Deluxe. Some of the favored watering holes are around Nytorget, in SoFo’s southeast corner, and Urban Deli tops practically everyone’s list of favorite places to lunch or brunch before launching a retail assault on the neighborhood. You can also imbibe at enticingly named places like Snotty, Roxy, and Pet Sounds Bar.

Across the city, renowned restaurants are opening plush, intime little bars like the one at Le Rouge on Gamla Stan, or the no-name back room at Restaurang 1900 in City. Modeled on a 1920s-era speakeasy, the 1900 bar is famous for its Sazeracs and other old-school cocktails—the mixologists here won all three of the town’s major cocktail competitions last year. With no publicity, no entrance from the street, and a no-fuss attitude, the place quickly became a popular hangout for local celebrities—especially musicians, like members of the rock band the Hives.

The Swedish passions for both nature and craftsmanship combine especially well at mealtime. The current flag bearer of native haute cuisine is Mathias Dahlgren, whose Matsalen and Matbaren at the Grand Hôtel have been awarded two and one Michelin stars, respectively. The Ilse Crawford–designed Matsalen is perhaps the most beautiful restaurant in the world—even without its extraordinary setting across the busy harbor from the Royal Palace.

With two popular cooking shows on national television, Niklas Ekstedt, chef of Restaurang 1900, might be considered more the Everyman of the Swedish kitchen, where the freshest ingredients and a light touch are prized. "Unlike much of Europe, food here is still mostly wild," he points out. "We use lots of game and fish, herbs, mushrooms, and berries. And it comes from all over our big, beautiful country," he adds, by way of explaining the Swedish advantage now that the zeitgeist is tilting so strongly toward locally grown food. "In the past five years, chefs have rediscovered these roots—and the food critics have noticed—but the book on new Swedish cuisine is still being written."

For Jill Dienst, what’s on the menu isn’t a prime concern—merely arriving at one of the city’s restaurants is magic enough: "There’s just something about stepping out of the clean, cool air into a wood-paneled room with tables adorned with white tablecloths and a single lit candle. The elegance of Stockholm doesn’t bang you over the head, but creeps up and into you—and before long you realize you are in love!"