I’ve had a love affair with Sweden from the first time I saw a Pippi Longstocking double feature dubbed in English. And coming from Minnesota, the Sweden of the new world, it’s hard not to feel a kinship with the motherland. The first time I visited Stockholm, I was 6 months pregnant and all too aware that this kind of travel would be put to bed for a while; so I covered up the Braxton Hix contractions I got after climbing stairs, guarded my regularity like an angry lion and said a little prayer before stepping my big, fat, swollen feet onto the cobblestones of the old town (who knew cobblestones were so razor-sharp?).
And though I assumed that having a child would prevent me from traveling to Europe, it seemed that everywhere I looked I saw children; every tall, blonde beauty (both male and female) had one or two children in tow. The sidewalks were clogged with stylish prams and the parks were dotted with sleeping babies on heirloom-quality quilts. And, yes, those sleeping babies sported beautiful Hanna Andersson ensembles complete with traditional rose-covered baby bonnets – while the tall, blonde caregiver (male or female) relaxed on the heirloom-quality quilt reading a book. Could babycare really be this easy? And stylish? If I weren’t already pregnant, I would have been by the end of the trip.
The ease with which we navigated the city, never once needing to rely on anything but our own two feet, the abundance of parks and places to run and play and sit and watch, the relaxed way people absorbed this city and the inclusion of children in everyone’s activities – all of it made me look at my pregnant belly and say, “Hey Baby, I think you’ll be coming to Stockholm again someday.”
And eight years later, we did exactly that. Liam was the perfect age to understand where he was going and how important it was. He made his own guidebook and learned some Swedish phrases and really helped us plan our trip with a child’s perspective in mind. This is what makes Stockholm such a great place to visit with kids; planning your trip through a child’s prism is not only possible but really, really fun.
But make no mistake, though children are present and welcomed everywhere, misbehavior and lack of supervision are not. Children are expected to be children until they start breaking the rules or interfering with the pleasure of others. And the Swedes will feel free to reprimand your children. Politely, of course, just like they reprimand their own children. There’s no yelling or threatening – just high expectations and gentle reminders. It was a good lesson for me; instead of succumbing to America’s favorite pastime, playing “Whose Kid Did the Dumbest Thing?”, I can expect more of my child. Swedes don’t sacrifice grown-up pleasures to cater to the whims of children, and everyone seems to be really happy, so I’m going with it.
Far from a full itinerary, the following suggestions are just a slice of what makes Stockholm a great choice for a family’s first trip overseas.
We prepped for our trip by reading Pippi Longstocking (the edition with Lauren Child’s illustrations is my favorite). It’s good to have a hero when you arrive and it gave us reason to visit Junibacken, the interactive Pippi Longstocking museum.
The Story Train is the foundation of Junibacken and takes you on a narrated journey through all the stories of Astrid Lindgren. You disembark at Villa Villekula, a child-sized replica of Pippi Longstocking’s quirky house, where the kids play wildly and the adults, well, they play wildly, too. You can climb Pippi’s horse, go down slides, play dress up, cook in Pippi’s kitchen – it’s a make-believe dream come true amped up with Scandinavian color and charm.
The onsite restaurant is big and beautiful with gorgeous views and lots of Scandinavian treats; it’s an easy and worthwhile place to dine as long as you plan to eat before or after the crowds. Also allow time to browse in the bookshop which boasts an impressive array of children’s books, toys, traditional clothing, music and art from the world of children’s literature.
In addition to Pippi, you may also want to read the other stories by Astrid Lindgren (spoiler alert: in The Children of Noisy Village, she refers to the fact that Santa is not real) and the Moomin books by Tove Jansson.
We chose Hotel Hellsten as our headquarters because it seemed like a good place to hang out – homey and comfy with lots of Swedish appointments (like the tile fireplace pictured). It sits on a quiet street just 2 subway stops from the center of the city. It’s also 2 blocks from a playground and surrounded by enough shops, delis and restaurants to keep the rest of the family busy should someone need to return to the room in the middle of the day. And when the kids get tired of meatballs, salmon and reindeer, there’s a pizza restaurant and a McDonald’s for emergencies just around the corner. In true Scandinavian fashion, the McDonalds sits next to a park so you can at least enjoy your Big Mac surrounded by natural beauty.
Hotel Hellsten is a townhouse renovated into a small boutique hotel. Rooms feature hardwood floors, 10 foot tall windows, vintage Swedish furnishings and modern bathrooms. Don’t forget to bring eye masks for everyone or those 10 foot tall windows, although heavily curtained, will let summer’s midnight sun leak through at bedtime.
An amazing Swedish breakfast is included with your room and, if you play your cards right, it’s enough to sustain you long past lunch. The small hotel bar is sophisticated and cozy and close enough to the rooms that we felt comfortable leaving the kids behind (with Daddy’s phone and a ten year old travelling companion) while we had a lovely dinner in the bar. We ordered pizza for the kids and let them watch Spongebob in Swedish. Can you say win-win?
Stockholm’s old town, or Gamla Stan, dates the 13th century and is full of medieval alleyways, cobblestone streets and lots of tiny doorways. You could spend a whole day just taking pictures of beautiful, tiny doorways. It is also home to the Nobel Museum, the Royal Palace, the world’s narrowest street, the world’s oldest continuously operating restaurant (since 1722) and any souvenir you could possibly want. Seriously, ANYTHING Swedish can be found in the Gamla Stan—Dala horses, pottery, pewter, mittens, textiles, reindeer pelts, Pippi and Moomin merch, trolls and tomtens, and plastic Viking helmets aplenty. Is it touristy? Yes, the touristiest. But is it worth it? Absolutely.
Another totally mom-centric shopping destination is 10 Swedish Designers, a shop filled to overflowing with brightly patterned bags and satchels made from durable, wipe-able oilcloth. Each uniquely Scandinavian pattern is designed by one of three celebrated designers and replicated on anything from tiny cosmetic pouches to the world’s biggest mom-bag. Although, like an Ikea vignette, most of their bags have the magic ability to pack every convenience into a trim, minimalist footprint; in my small bag, I was able to fit my wallet, a guidebook, an umbrella, a windbreaker, a Ziploc full of first aid items and I still had room for souvenirs. How do the Swedes do it?
Stockholm sits on the water surrounded by the Baltic Sea and thousands of islands known as the archipelago. It’s crazy picturesque and lends itself to a lot of sitting and looking and sighing. You can walk most anywhere but boats are also an easy way to travel between city sites; in an era in which most public transportation smells like pee, it’s a fun and refreshing way to travel.
Visiting Skansen, the outdoor cultural museum, is like getting a tour of traditional Sweden in one day. It’s the Cliffs Notes version of Sweden. All things historical and cultural are presented in a natural and interactive environment as if you were actually there at that time – milking your cow, delivering the mail, tending to your baking and handiwork – just stops on the way as you walk through woods and meadows and villages. It’s easy to stay onsite for lunch, either in the big, Ikea-style cafeteria or at small cafes throughout the park (do I even need to mention that they’re charming? Or can we just assume?).
We stopped at a farm to see some woodworking. Liam was given an ax – a real ax – and told to whack a block of wood in two, while a woman in a traditional Swedish folk costume held the block of wood. With her hand.
He took the ax and looked at me like “I don’t think this is allowed.” I looked away, worried that the blood would stain her costume.
The stern Swedish woman says “Come on! You can do it.” Not in a kindly, preschool teacher way but in a “what are you waiting for?” kind of way. No blood was shed and I felt like a neurotic American.
Next, she hands him a knife and a block of wood and shows him how to carve. Again, I look away as he stabs and slices at the wood. After that, he begs for a knife as a souvenir so he can whittle on the plane ride home.
Yes, I am pathetically neurotic, but it still felt good to trust these children with activities that people have been doing for thousands of years. The costumed lady clearly had no qualms at all about letting children swing at her hand with an ax. I mean, seriously, how many people really chop off her hand each year? Although I did notice a basket of bandaids near her stool. I just won’t think about that. Moving on.
At Skansen, we learned that gnomes and trolls, known as “tomte,” figure prominently in Sweden. We were told that tomte are everywhere and we must take care not to piss them off. For instance, if you are going to dump a pot of boiling water outside (like we all do, every day), you should shout “WATCH OUT!” So the tomte can get out of the way.
We also heard a story about people who are not really people and they might have holes in their backs so you can see right through them – and if you buy a cow from them, it’s good luck.
The Vasa Museum displays the only fully intact (almost) 17th century ship that has ever been salvaged. The 64-gun warship Vasa sank on her maiden voyage in 1628 – she sailed for only 15 minutes before she started sinking in Stockholm’s harbor – and researchers brought her up piece by piece and put her back together like a giant lego set. This is a must-see for history buffs, lego lovers and vehicle fanatics.
So there you go.
The Swedish Archipelago is made of 30,000 islands, many of them just a short boat ride away from Stockholm. This is Stockholm’s playground, the weekend R&R destination for most of the local population. The simplest destination for us was the island of Sandhamn (mostly because we saw a boat dock on the city’s waterfront that said “Sandhamn” – so we made like lemmings and got in line.). Coincidentally, Sandhamn is the location of Mikael Blomkvist’s fictional vacation home in the Swedish thriller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
I’ll be frank, there’s nothing to do here – which is fantastic. You can pack a picnic and follow worn footpaths that wind between bright red cottages and through patches of wildflowers until you reach a spot so picnic-perfect that you’ll think it was staged by Walt Disney himself. Sitting on a rock next to the sun-dappled Baltic while fresh-faced blondes splash in the icy cold water (perhaps topless) will not be lost on your children. This is the essence of Sweden; the ability to sit and enjoy your surroundings without having to DO something all the time. And this kind of setting can have a remarkable effect on children – I’ve seen formerly plugged-in gadget addicts start skipping rocks and picking wildflowers – it’s like porn for parents! Note to children: if you want to make your parents happy, just skip some stones or pick some wildflowers.
Before saying goodbye to the island, we sat for a few minutes in one of the island’s few cafés which gave us an opportunity to chat with the locals. Struck by the smallness, the nothing-to-do-ness, the beauty that would disappear come winter, I had to ask our waitress, “What exactly do you do here in the winter????” Her answer was so simple, so unconcerned: “Ohhhhhh we drink the coffee, play the Yahtzee.” Man, how much money would I pay to be that relaxed? This must the magic of a day on a Swedish island.
Take a Chance
The ABBA Museum just opened this summer! So I will obviously have to go back yet again to Stockholm, this time to get my Dancing Queen on. If you like glitter, karaoke and dance parties, this museum is for you. Oh, come on……you know you want to.
When you ask Liam what his favorite part of the trip was, he will say Grona Lund Tivoli; Tivoli being the most famous amusement park in the world (without mouse ears) and Grona Lund Tivoli being it’s Swedish counterpart. There were several things that set this place apart from our American amusement parks (besides umlauts):
For one, coffee is considered an amusement park treat. And a necessity. It would be unthinkable to skip your 4pm coffee ( known as Fika and often accompanied by a sweet treat) just because you’re at the amusement park with the kids.
Can amusement parks be described as quaint? Or adorable? Because Grona Lund is definitely quaint and adorable. The premise, the architecture, the lighting, the coffee stands, the lounge chairs for relaxing (who relaxes at Disney World?!) – complete with sheepskin lapthrows for chilly evenings. All of it made our American amusement parks seem garish and plastic.
Like velveeta cheese.
One reason that Grona Lund is so charming is that most of the buildings are old residential and commercial structures dating from the 19th century. The buildings are therefore not built for the park; instead, the park is built around the buildings. And at just 15 acres, you can pop in for a few rides and be on your way, devoting the rest of your day to exploring Djurgarden, the island on which it sits. Djurgarden is full of woodland paths, grassy areas on the water, ice cream stands, quaint restaurants and several museums making it an easy place to spend the day, either sightseeing or just relaxing.
There are lots of fun restaurants and cafes in Stockholm but when you travel with children of any age, eating in restaurants for every meal can get tiresome. If sitting nicely and waiting patiently aren’t going well, Ostermalms Saluhall will be a refreshing change. Named the 7th best food hall in the world by Bon Appetit magazine, Ostermalms Saluhall is home to 17 vendors of high quality, mostly traditional over-the-counter fare. Even if you’re not hungry, a walk-through will keep your kids happy and immersed in local culture; food cases full of reindeer, decorated candies and cupcakes and a coffee vendor that puts a picture of a naked lady on its labels—there’s truly something for everyone ( we spent a lot of time at the coffee counter). And, like everyplace in Stockholm, you can enjoy your wares in the park across the street.
But there’s always one kid who can’t find something to eat, right? Don’t worry—the presence of hot dog stands, or “korv kiosks,” makes eating a lot easier when traveling with a picky eater. Although ordering a plain hot dog with just ketchup is tricky. It’s like a special order and you have to describe it for them very carefully. A couple of times. Otherwise you may end up with a cherry-colored footlong covered in shrimp salad. Which, actually, was not bad—just a little scary for the picky eater.
We used 8 year old Liam as a guide and asked him what he would like to get out of his trip to Sweden. One of his list items was “find a new candy.” See how kids view travel through a different lens? Finding a candy bar called “Plopp” was just the kind of cultural experience he was looking for.
And, because we learned that Sweden leads the world in ice cream consumption, he also wanted to eat ice cream (or “mjukglass”) every day. Trust me, it wasn’t hard. Finding an ice cream shop in Stockholm is like finding a Starbucks in America—just go around the corner. This was a great ritual for us; a little something to look forward to and a happy, mellow way to wrap up each day.
And as our trip wrapped up, I couldn’t help but feel like we had just taken a very important step for our family, a leap into the unknown of a foreign land with a foreign language and foreign food and foreign customs. We had not just survived—we had settled into the rhythm of this happy place and really had fun together, as a family. I don’t even remember anyone crying. As we boarded the plane for home and settled into our seats, my almost 9 year old son covered himself with a blanket, plugged into his iPod and then reached over and grabbed my hand for the plane ride home.
Thank you, Stockholm.