Stockholm, where Lake Malaren meets the Baltic Sea, is a city where dozens of islands mean that one is almost always within sight of water. Besides being the capital and the main city of Sweden, it is a major cultural center. Ingmar Bergman made movies there, and directed plays and operas in the city’s gorgeous opera house. The city dates to the 13th Century and its population of almost two million people compromises almost a fifth of Sweden's total.
We spent almost a week there in late July, and stayed on the island of Gamla Stan, the heart of the old city, with our hotel just across the street from the area where the lake and the ocean merge. While there is automobile access, a subway stop, and quite a few bus lines, this is still old Europe, with narrow, winding streets, and centuries-old buildings (including the Royal Palace), the sort of place that demands to be explored on foot. Yes, there’s a touristy street, Vasterlanggatan, with crowds of tourists fresh from the cruise ships, but around the corners, things calm down considerably though there are many shops, bars and ice cream parlors to rest feet worn out by the cobblestones.
We hadn’t planned on eating on the island every night. But enough places caught our eye to make it the end result, aside from a lovely dinner with a Swedish couple who were friends of friends. It was just so pleasant walking that we couldn’t come up with any reason to go farther afield, and we were more than happy with our meals there.
Fem Sma Hus translates as "Five Small Houses." The restaurant is in its 40th year, but the oldest of the houses where it resides goes back to 1651. It’s a series of rooms at and below ground level, warm and intimate from the decor and the soft glow of candles which seem a permanent fixture everywhere in Scandinavia no matter the season; they serve as a mark of hospitality and welcome. The menu is bilingual, Swedish and English (most restaurant menus are), so it’s easy to manage, and our waitress, who we suspect had been there for decades, was smiling and just a little feisty in the best possible way.
There are several fixed-price meals with dishes from the regular menu, and we tried two of those. It served as our introduction to bleak roe, a pinkish-beige caviar served with sour cream, red onion and chives, and quite yummy. The fish roe is a little larger than shrimp roe and has a lovely texture and a hint of salt, but it lacks the burst of flavor that the larger caviar–like salmon or sturgeon–will offer. Among our other dishes, special attention must be paid to the filet of reindeer, which came with a sauce of the tiny, tart lingonberries, were seasoned with horseradish and probably the best dish of our entire Stockholm visit. Smoked salmon with a sweet mustard sauce, veal with morels and a gorgonzola potato gratin also were delightful, as was a raspberry cheesecake. Swedish cheesecakes resemble tarts rather than the relatively-gargantuan versions we see here. A most notable dessert was a cloudberry panna cotta. Cloudberries resemble wee golden raspberries, and are tart-sweet. They’re a big deal in the Nordic countries–in Finland, they’re a base for liqueur, for instance.
An excellent meal, not cheap, but almost nothing is in this part of the world. Alcoholic beverages are really expensive. Scandinavian countries do not deal in Euros; their currency is called kroner (crowns), as it has been for centuries.
Fem Sma Hus
Nygrand 10, Gamla Stan, Stockholm
46 08 10 87 75
Prix-fixe: 415-575 SEK (at this writing, that’s $65-90)
Credit cards: All major
Bistro Ruby looks like a French bistro (rowdy drawings on the red walls), but the food seems more like Swedish Modern. Vichyssoise, yes, but cold shrimp to go with it, for instance. Local white asparagus wore a garnish of lardons of bacon and some watercress. The steak tartare was classic, but a fat, perfectly grilled pork chop came up to American Midwest standards though pork is unusual on the menus we saw. Good people watching, snug quarters, good by-the-glasswine list. The surprising e-mail address is a reference to the outstanding movie written by Sam Shepard and directed by Wim Wenders; a poster for it is on a restaurant wall.
Osterlanggaten 14, Gamla Stan, Stockholm
46 08 20 57 76
Credit cards: All major
Entrees: 189-275 SEK (at this writing, $30-43)
Almost at the waters’ edge on the eastern edge of Gamla Stan, Pontus By The Sea is one of two outposts of one of Stockholm’s big-deal chefs, although we didn’t know it at the time. (Beautiful glossy-paper cookbook for sale in foyer.) Located in an rather drab-looking-from-the-street old customs house, the interior and the very large terrace overlooking the sea comes as a delightful surprise. At night, the lights of Grona Lund, the amusement park on Djurgarden in the distance add to the festive feeling. Part of the terrace is a bar, complete with heaters and–hey, these folks are determined to enjoy sunlight as long as they can–blankets, which match the seats and the large ceramic pots full of (real) greenery. The crowd seem to be almost exclusively the young and fashionable, who, not surprisingly prefer the outdoor dining area. We ate inside, where it was quieter, a dark, pleasant room that centered on a couple of gigantic copper kettles from the site’s last incarnation, a microbrewery.
The menu was about to be updated, but we can tell you that there’s plenty of seafood, of course. But we were bowled over by a swell locally-made duck sausage and duck confit. Serious wine list and absolutely excellent service.
Pontus By The Sea
Skeppsbrokajen, Tullhus 2
46 08 20 20 95
Lunch and Dinner daily (winter hours reduced)
Credit cards: All major
Entrees: 230-445SEK (at this writing, $37-70)
And when it comes to sightseeing, there’s one place in particular that we’d encourage visitors to visit, especially St. Louisans. While the boat excursions are delightful, the architecture strikingly distinctive and handsome, and the museums excellent, take advantage of the Stockholm Card, a pass for public transportation and museums, and head out to Millesgarden.
Carl Milles is best known to us as the sculptor who created "The Meeting of The Waters," that evocative work across Market Street from Union Station. More of his creations are found in the St. Louis Art Museum and the Missouri Botanical Garden. He was Swedish and, with his Austrian wife, Olga, also an artist, bought land and made a home in northern Stockholm. This year is the 100th anniversary of Millesgarden, which now includes an art gallery, a multilevel terraced garden that overlooks the skyline, lots of fountains, a café, the Milles home, including a surprisingly small kitchen with cabinets painted by Olga, and Milles’ personal art collection, as well as plenty of his own work, of course.
Between the view and the art, the garden alone is worth the trip. Lots of benches to sit back to enjoy life. We had the only rainy day of our entire trip, but it wasn’t enough to keep us from being enchanted with this place.
Directions: Take the T-bana Red Line in the direction of Ropsten. Get off at Ropsten, the last stop. Next to the T-bana station is the bus stop. Bus 207 goes directly to Millesgarden; 201, 202 and 204 stop about 300 meters away, and the signs to Millesgarden are clearly visible. Transit workers of our experience, including bus drivers, all speak English.
Herserudsvagen 32, Lindingo
46 8 446 75 80
A second worthy journey is a closer one, to the Vasa Museum, on the island of Djurgarden, where the 47 bus also stops at the aquarium, an amusement park and several other museums. The Vasa was built in 1268 to be the flagship of the Swedish navy. It was launched with great pomp and circumstance, sailed about 1500 yards and went to the bottom of the Baltic Sea, where it remained for 333 years. Faulty design probably was to blame.
After it was raised, a museum was built around it, and the Vasa now is restored; 95 percent of it is the original ship. Painstaking restoration led the way to the rebuilding, with paint and other reconstruction so that it looks like it did when it slid down the ways. Multimedia productions have re-created the 13th century to show sailors’ life and the many seafaring techniques that made the Swedes one of the world’s primary nations in the Middle Ages. Restaurant, gift shop and all the other amenities, and a fascinating place for those who want to know more about what once was.
Galarvarvsvagen 14, Djurgarden
46 8 519 548 00