Perhaps the most remarkable statistic about Sweden is that the distance from the southern city of Malmö to the country’s northern border with Finland is slightly farther (1,250 miles) than that from Malmö to Rome (1,210 miles). Sweden is an unexpectedly big place — and yet has a population of just over 10 million people.
Stockholm feels unmistakably like a northern city, and indeed the Swedish capital lies at the same latitude (59 degrees north) as St. Petersburg, Russia. Afflicted with jet lag on the first night of a trip in early July, I was surprised to find that the sky was still quite bright at 2 a.m. and that the handsome buildings on the far side of the harbor were clearly visible from my bedroom window. A glance at a map, however, confirms that roughly two-thirds of Sweden — the vast, thinly populated region of Norrland — lies north of Stockholm. There you will find only remote ski lodges and a few one-of-a-kind properties, like the famous Icehotel, located inside the Arctic Circle, which is rebuilt each winter season from ice blocks hewed from the frozen river Torne. Then there is the Treehotel, located 610 miles directly north of Stockholm in Lapland, where seven architect-designed accommodations are set up to 30 feet above the ground in the forest canopy. (I briefly considered whether duty might demand a visit to the Treehotel, which styles itself a luxury property, but its communal shower block and the necessity of ascending to some rooms by a retractable metal ladder persuaded me otherwise.)
Stockholm is situated on the east coast of the region of Svealand, “Land of the Swedes,” the country’s historic heartland.
An exceptionally clean, stylish and attractive city, it is constructed on 14 major islands that are part of a vast archipelago stretching from Lake Mälaren to the Baltic Sea. The city’s landmark property is the venerable 280-room Grand Hôtel Stockholm, which has been at the center of the city’s social life since its debut in 1874. Today the Grand is deservedly famous both for the peerless lunchtime smörgåsbord at the Verandan restaurant and the Michelin-starred cuisine of chef Mathias Dahlgren. A one-minute walk away, the 46-room Lydmar Hotel provides an alternative for those who prefer smaller hotels. However, both properties are situated on the waterfront amid the downtown crowds, so on this trip I decided instead to go in search of tranquility and a degree of seclusion.
Skeppsholmen island is strategically positioned at the Baltic Sea entrance to Stockholm. Despite being surrounded by the city and connected to its center by a bridge, it is a peaceful place with no major roads and few cars. Pedestrians stroll along the gravel walkways that connect the Moderna Museet, the city’s principal contemporary-art museum, to the Östasiatiska Museet (East-Asian Museum) and the Teater Galeasen, home of a well-known avant-garde theater company.
The Hotel Skeppsholmen is contained within two long, creamy-yellow buildings called The Long Row, which date to 1699. Over the years, these served a variety of purposes. Originally, they were intended to provide barracks for the Royal Marines of King Karl XII. Later they served as a hospice for people infected with the plague, as offices and storehouses for the Navy, and as housing for naval officers and their families.
I arrived on a sunny Saturday afternoon to find guests lounging in white canvas chairs on a small patch of lawn from which they had a view of the harbor, a ferry terminal and the adjacent island of Djurgården. It was a calm and civilized scene. Inside, the small lobby extended into the attractive informal restaurant, which, outside of mealtimes, also serves as an open-plan lounge area, where people sit reading newspapers or scanning their tablets. The exterior of the hotel may be historic, but the interior is chiefly minimalist and contemporary, with stripped wooden floors, modern Swedish furniture and, at the time of my visit, an exhibition of large abstract color photographs.
The young staff on reception were extremely friendly and provided an immediate reminder that virtually everyone in Sweden speaks perfect English. However, there was no one to help with luggage, so I was obliged to wheel my suitcase down a long corridor to the neighboring building. There I gained admittance with an electric key and ascended a glass elevator to my third-floor Junior Suite.
This had a slightly strange layout, with the living room being connected to the bedroom by a small intervening space with a freestanding armoire. Being of historic significance, The Long Row is subject to preservation orders, and its conversion to a hotel clearly had to be achieved without greatly altering the original structure. (Every room comes with a plaque detailing notable former occupants. My accommodations had once been home to Fredrik von Otter, minister of naval affairs from 1874 to 1880, who subsequently became the eighth prime minister of Sweden.) As a result, the bath was small, with only a single sink and a walk-in shower. For one person, it was adequate. The bedroom, however, was light and spacious, with a wide-plank floor, a king-size bed, a round marble table, freestanding lamps, black leather armchairs and a glimpse of the harbor through large windows with white shutters. Despite the minimalist contemporary design, I felt immediately at home. The only sounds were those of children playing happily somewhere in the distance. The living area was a place to work rather than to relax and came with a large black-lacquer table. It was impossible to open the window, however, and as the space was not air-conditioned (unlike the bedroom), it was rather stuffy.
Tired after the transatlantic flight, I decided to have dinner at the hotel’s Restaurant Långa Raden, managing to secure the last table on the terrace. At least half of the diners seemed to be natives of Stockholm rather than hotel guests, which contributed to a strong sense of place. Chef Magnus Johansson’s menu features simple, well-prepared Swedish dishes such as meatballs with potato purée, pickled cucumber and lingonberries, and grilled mackerel with brown butter, marinated fennel, baked tomatoes and grilled lemon. The atmosphere of the restaurant is informal — one of the servers commended my choice of wine by patting me on the shoulder — but nonetheless I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The following morning, the restaurant’s breakfast buffet was varied and extensive. The hotel offers no other amenities aside from a small gym.
Overall, the Hotel Skeppsholmen provided an enjoyable and relaxing first stop. Though it is not without failings — small baths and the lack of turndown service being perhaps the two most egregious — it is a true hideaway in a beautiful setting with an agreeably relaxed and bohemian atmosphere. The views alone would make a stay worthwhile. At times it is hard to believe that somewhere so calm can be located quite so close to the center of a major capital city.
Tranquil and verdant location; stunning views; historic atmosphere; friendly staff.
The small bathroom; the non-opening window in my living room; lack of turndown service.
The museum of modern art, Moderna Museet (and its excellent casual restaurant), is a five-minute walk away.
Having spent a pleasant morning wandering through the galleries of the Moderna Museet, followed by a Swedish “summer brunch buffet” in its excellent casual restaurant, I took a 15-minute taxi ride across town to the upscale residential neighborhood and embassy district of Östermalm. Ett Hem (“A Home” in Swedish) was built in 1910 as a substantial private residence; it is now a 12-room boutique hotel, decorated by the well-known British interior designer Ilse Crawford. The property stands on a quiet street, a 30-minute walk from Stockholm’s Old Town. High brick walls shield the building from inquisitive eyes, and on arrival you must ring a bell and wait for a member of the staff to open the heavy wooden gate. Once inside, you find yourself in a sizable private garden with cobbled walkways, scattered tables and a greenhouse.
The ground floor of the house comprises a series of inviting and stylishly furnished rooms, which seamlessly combine traditional and contemporary elements. The principal living room comes with a pale-wood floor, bright area rugs, a traditional ceramic stove, a log fire, a grand piano and an honor bar. The adjacent library has overstocked shelves and a large communal dining table.
The hotel’s accommodations are all individually furnished and range from relatively small Doubles to a sizable Suite with a four-poster bed. Our Junior Suite, No. 5, created an immediately favorable impression, thanks to its harmonious color scheme and peaceful atmosphere. Although it was not especially spacious, it was large enough to contain a king-size bed, a leather sofa and a soaking tub set on a dais in a window alcove. One corner of the room was dominated by a splendid floor-to-ceiling, blue-and-white ceramic stove. And a door led out to a small balcony with an iron railing and a view over a quiet street to an imposing church with a green copper cupola. Small details such as the wooden clothes brush, shoe brushes, linen shoe bags and slippers were attractively presented in a pale-wood drawer. Drawbacks included the lack of a work desk and an espresso machine. And although the hanging space was adequate, there was nowhere to stow my suitcase, which remained on the bedroom floor throughout my stay. The well-lit bath provided two sinks, an excellent monsoon shower and an abundant supply of towels and toiletries.
To enhance the sense that Ett Hem is home rather than a hotel, there is no fixed place for guests to eat. Should they wish, they can dine at the grand table in the candlelit library, but they are equally welcome in the kitchen, in the greenhouse or at a table in the garden. On my first evening, I opted for the greenhouse, where I chose three large appetizers: quail egg with peas and nasturtium leaves, baby potatoes with cabbage and caviar, and steamed salmon with fennel and radish. Accompanied by a glass of chilled Sancerre, my light supper was delicious. Service throughout the meal was friendly and helpful without being overfamiliar.
Somewhat surprisingly, given that it was originally a private house, Ett Hem finds space for a gymnasium (with Technogym equipment), which is open 24 hours a day. Personal trainers are available. In addition, there is a relaxation area for massage, plus a Swedish sauna and a hot stone slab. Overall, Ett Hem is the definition of a refined urban hideaway.
Serene atmosphere of a private home; exceptionally stylish interior design; delicious food; friendly young staff.
The distance to the city center and the waterfront.
As well as a massage room, there is a Swedish sauna and a hot stone slab; the gym is surprisingly well-equipped.
Sweden can be a strange country through which to travel, as so much of it is comparatively empty. This is to be expected in the vast Arctic wilderness, but even to the south of Stockholm, the land is flat and covered by countless lakes and seemingly endless tracts of forest. Once in a while you come across a wheat farm, typically with a red barn that is strangely reminiscent of New England, but otherwise you can drive for mile after mile and see little but water and trees. The major cities and centers of civilization tend to be on or near the coast.
Six centuries ago, trade in the Baltic was dominated by the coastal cities of the Hanseatic League. One of the most important commercial centers was Visby on Gotland, Sweden’s largest island, located approximately 50 miles to the east of the mainland. Today Visby is a preserved medieval city and a UNESCO World Heritage site, accessible from Stockholm by either air (40 minutes) or ferry (five hours). It can also be reached by ferry from east coast towns such as Nynäshamn, Oskarshamn and Västervik (two and a half hours).
Most travelers to Gotland are summer visitors who come to camp or stay in small local hotels. They are drawn by the island’s untouched landscapes, magnificent deserted beaches and large seabird colonies. Although my research turned up few hotels with obvious potential for Hideaway Report members, I had long been intrigued by Visby, so on a cloudless summer morning, I boarded a ferry on the mirrorlike Baltic in the resort town of Västervik. (Swedish ferries are typically large, fast and utilitarian, with airline-style seating and little access to fresh air.)
At the height of summer, Visby is a fixture on Baltic cruise ship itineraries. Even so, on arrival I was rather taken aback to find both Cunard’s Queen Victoria and Silversea’s Silver Spirit moored along the quayside. Summoning a taxi, I headed for Hotel Slottsbacken, set on a steep hillside overlooking the port and fronted by a cobbled road that ran along the edge of a small, tree-shaded green. It turned out to be a comfortable and attractive 29-room property but one that falls someway short of Hideaway Report standards. My Deluxe room was small (215 square feet), most of the space being taken up by a large bed and a writing desk. And although the bath was modern and well-equipped, it was suitable for only one person at a time. With the exception of a pleasant outdoor terrace, the public areas were also rather cramped. (The excellent breakfast buffet is served in a windowless basement.)
Despite its deficiencies, the Hotel Slottsbacken has an ideal location, which is extremely tranquil despite being only a 10-minute walk from Stora Torget, the town’s bustling main square. There I found many of the cruise ship passengers sitting outside the numerous restaurants and cafés. Fortunately, as it was a warm and sunny day, there seemed to be little demand for tables inside, so I was able to partake of an excellent lunch of marinated herring and superlative fish cakes at Bakfickan, a charming seafood restaurant that enjoys a deservedly high reputation.
Tranquil and pretty location; excellent breakfast buffet.
Even the more expensive accommodations are on the small side, and the public areas are cramped.
It is a pleasant 10-minute walk to Stora Torget, the town’s central square.
After lunch, I soon discovered that a few hundred yards away from Stora Torget, most of the enchanting narrow streets were completely devoid of tourists. Architecturally, Visby is remarkably well-preserved, and it is surrounded by a magnificent, 2-mile-long 13th-century defensive wall. (UNESCO describes the town as “the best fortified commercial city in Northern Europe.”)
The highlight of my afternoon was an extended visit to the Gotlands Museum, which contains an astonishing collection of the “picture stones” for which the island is famous. These were created between the fifth and 12th centuries, from the Iron Age to the Viking Age, and display images of gods and supernatural figures incised, along with runic inscriptions, into slabs of gray limestone. The museum also has an extraordinary vault containing a hoard of Viking silver and gold. Having had my cultural knowledge expanded exponentially, I concluded my day by some desultory shopping at Akantus (S:t Hästgatan 7B), an attractive design store that contains a wide range of products that are suitable for gifts, followed by a glass of wine at nearby Vinäger (Hästgatan 4), a chic bar that is clearly a favorite among the well-heeled yachting crowd that frequents Visby’s sizable marina. Visby may not have an especially distinguished hotel, but the town is eminently worth a short visit, ideally in either late spring or early fall.
Gothenburg, Sweden’s second city (population 580,000), lies approximately 295 miles southwest of Stockholm on the Kattegat, the stretch of sea bounded to the west by Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. Although it is a major port, as well as Sweden’s primary center of commerce and industry — the Volvo Car Corporation has its headquarters in the city, as does Saab Ericsson Space — it is also a prosperous and attractive metropolis of wide boulevards, fashionable shopping streets and excellent restaurants.
Sjömagasinet (Adolf Edelsvärds gata 5) is a Gothenburg institution specializing in classic seafood; located on the picturesque waterfront of the Göta älv river, it is contained within a wooden 18th-century building that was formerly used as a warehouse by the Swedish East India Company. Gothenburg is also the jumping-off point for the vast, unspoiled archipelago that extends up Sweden’s west coast as far north as the Norwegian border.
I had opted to stay at Upper House, a modern 53-room boutique hotel that occupies floors 18 through 25 of a tower (one of three, known collectively as Gothia Towers) opposite the city’s famous Liseberg amusement park. Its location is relatively convenient, though not ideal, being a 30-minute walk, or a short taxi ride, from downtown. However, the property’s panoramic view of the city is truly spectacular.
Emerging from the glass external elevator, I found myself in the light, white reception area on the 25th floor, an expansive open-plan space that extends into the bar and the Michelin-starred restaurant. At check-in, the young staff member could not have been more friendly, charming or efficient. Indeed, she created an extremely favorable impression that did not dissipate during my three-night stay. Formalities complete, I boarded an internal elevator and headed down to my Deluxe Suite on the 24th floor.
This was dominated by a floor-to-ceiling glass wall that afforded a stupendous view all the way from downtown to a ridge of distant low hills. Although light and spacious, with sleek, modern furniture and pale-wood built-in cabinets, my accommodations came with a dreary color palette — brown curtains and a brown sofa — that was decidedly not to my taste. Fortunately, as the bedroom was awash with light, I didn’t find it depressing. The large, well-lit bath provided an unusually long tub, plus a glass-enclosed walk-in shower, and a single rectangular sink set into a white-marble surround. Overall, my accommodations had a slightly sterile atmosphere, but they were undeniably comfortable.
That evening I enjoyed dinner in the hotel’s flagship Michelin one-star restaurant, opting for the seven-course tasting menu with wine pairings (though the herring with egg yolk and chives was accompanied by both beer and aquavit). Most of the Swedish-European dishes were uncomplicated, such as a bowl of assorted crudités served with bleak roe, while others, like the chicken with carrot and apple cream, were, to my taste, rather bland. But they were all well-prepared and stylishly presented. Upper House’s other principal distinction is provided by an exceptional spa with a hammam, sauna, two indoor pools and an outdoor pool, which, being on the 19th floor, is definitely not suitable for those with a fear of heights.
The panoramic views; friendly and efficient staff; exceptional spa; notable restaurant.
The modern décor and furnishings of my Deluxe Suite were subdued to the point of being gloomy.
A skybridge on the 20th floor connects the hotel to an adjoining tower, in which there is a second, more casual restaurant.
Many of the islands in Sweden’s northwestern archipelago are accessible only by ferry or sailing boat. Traffic-free Käringön, for example, is reached by a 30-minute ferry ride from Tuvesvik on the island of Orust. However, I am told that some of Gothenburg’s wealthier citizens arrive by helicopter in order to have lunch at the celebrated Käringö oyster bar, where the local oysters are served with Champagne in a tiny rustic restaurant or in a hot tub on the edge of a jetty. The whole region is a paradise for yachtsmen, with the most famous sailing center being the enchantingly picturesque island of Marstrand, which lies just 45 minutes by car from Gothenburg. Dominated by its imposing 17th-century hilltop fortress, Marstrand is a collection of elegant red-roofed houses, which provide summer homes for many of Sweden’s most prominent and affluent families. It is also the venue for the prestigious Match Cup Sweden sailing event, part of the World Match Racing Tour, held at the beginning of July each year.
With its numerous quayside café’s and restaurants, Marstrand makes a delightful day trip from Gothenburg. But those wishing to stay longer may want to consider the Grand Hotel, a 23-room classic property that began life in 1892 as a summer residence for King Oscar II. Although this is not a hotel that provides the levels of luxury that Hideaway Report members customarily require, it is nonetheless exceptionally charming and atmospheric, with comfortable, traditionally furnished rooms (some with harbor views), adequate baths and an iconic restaurant, Grand Tenan, which, in summer, is the epicenter of the town’s nightly social scene.
From Gothenburg, it is a drive of just 180 miles to the Norwegian capital, Oslo. I headed south, however, and after three hours and 40 minutes I crossed the spectacular, five-mile-long Øresund Bridge to enter the outskirts of Copenhagen.