Below are text of recent articles from the NYTimes and WashPost about visiting Sweden.

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August 8, 2004
FRUGAL TRAVELER; Stockholm Style
By KATHERINE ZOEPF (NY Times)

COOL. Stockholm is cool. During a long weekend that my boyfriend, Dan, and I spent there, I found myself chirping like a 13-year-old over whimsical hotel light fixtures and exquisite potato mashers, river buoys shaped like human hands, folding accordion-pleated ice cream dishes, and a functioning cocktail bar sculptured entirely from ice. So cool.

What accounts for the Swedish love of design? Is it the stark northern sunlight that floods through windows and illuminates any dingy crannies, fostering an appreciation of the clean and the sleek? The dense pine forests that ensure a supply of cheap raw materials? Good art schools? A social safety net so strong that it has created a huge, house-proud middle class?

Stockholm, Sweden's capital, is one of the most expensive cities in Europe, and we were on a tight budget. But we were optimistically determined that enjoying Swedish design on the cheap shouldn't have to mean stocking up on build-by-number furniture.

The city is something of a business conference destination during the week, so several famous boutique hotels offer steeply reduced weekend rates. We booked rooms in two, the Birger Jarl and the Nordic Light. Even at the discount rates, the rooms cost more than we would have paid in most other cities -- $148 and $156 a night, respectively. After learning that a night in one of the city's youth hostels could easily run over $90 for two, this didn't seem unreasonable. And from what we'd read about the Swedish passion for creature comforts, we figured it was worth running a little over budget on the hotels. To make up for it, we decided to stay the third night in a youth hostel, the Langholmen, and economize on meals.

Our efforts to eat cheaply were vastly aided by the Swedish take on street food. We arrived at Vasteras regional airport late one Friday evening in mid-May, and by the time we got to Stockholm's center about 80 minutes later via shuttle bus, we were ravenous. Walking in search of our hotel, we noticed a warm and oddly pleasant smell, a bit like beef bouillon, wafting on the chilly air.

We turned the corner onto Adolf Fredriks Kyrkogata and there, in front of the brick Adolf Fredrik church stood a kiosk hung with photographs of its wares: sausages, meatballs, potatoes, breads, salads and gravies, available in dozens of combinations.

We pointed to a couple of the photographs, then watched as the friendly Iraqi kiosk owner took grilled sausages, crispy fried onions, mashed potatoes, lettuce, tomato and a few generous scoops of a chilled salad made of shrimp, beets and mayonnaise, then wrapped them all up in two steaming pitas the size of manhole covers. The two bundles, plus two bottles of Ramlosa water, came to about $18, at 7.6 kronor to the dollar.

Our hotel for that night, the Birger Jarl, was built during the 1970's as plain, practical accommodation for the business traveler, but began reinventing itself as a boutique hotel in the mid-1990's. Designers were hired to decorate individual guest rooms, and the common areas were filled with earth-hued textiles, oddly shaped, hand-blown glassware, and warm Falun red accents, a reference to the traditional hue of Swedish country cottages. Our room, No. 205, showed me how much can be done with different kinds of wood. Light and dark woods contrasted, all polished to a high sheen, offering an aura of cleanliness, calm, order and space. A fluffy duvet, and curtains with softly undulating white lines contributed to the soothing effect.

In contrast to the sense of pleasant sobriety that pervaded the rest of the hotel, the breakfast buffet was a fever-dream of plenty. There were dense molasses breads studded with raisins and nuts, coffee cakes, waffles, stewed fruit compotes, pistachio-cream sticky buns, jugs of fresh fruit smoothies, smoked and pickled herring, cheeses and pâtés and charcuterie in endless profusion. It was impossible to taste everything, though Dan gave it his best shot.

We set out on foot to get our bearings in central Stockholm. Stockholm has a cheap and efficient subway system, the Tunnelbana (rides start at about $2 and go up with distance), but since we were hardly pressed for time, we preferred to walk. And the city is eminently walkable. Sprawling over a series of islands on the edge of the Baltic and planned with an eye toward preserving natural greenery, the city feels as if it is made up of graceful bridges, tiny parks and waterfront promenades. Combine that with buildings painted in pastel shades of orange, pink, yellow, green and blue, and the effect is marvelously picturesque.

We walked down Drottninggatan, a pedestrian thoroughfare hung with the flags of the newest European Union countries, noticing that, yes, there did seem to be more tall blonds per capita in Stockholm than in any other city we could think of.

We walked along the Riksgatan pedestrian bridge into Gamla Stan, the small island on which the oldest part of the city is built. From here we could see several other bridges fanning out to the east and west, a party of kayakers launching itself into the water, and the grand, Italianate Kungliga Slottet, or Royal Palace, to the south.

Predictably, many of Gamla Stan's narrow streets were choked with shops selling cheap woolens, Pippi Longstocking dolls and Swedish flag T-shirts. But farther from the palace, the streets became quieter, the shops less obviously aimed at foreign visitors. A handful of antique shops on Kopmangatan seemed to specialize in old nautical instruments, and we stopped in at a gallery on Sibyllegatan that sold Marimekko textiles from the 1960's and 1970's.

We were somewhat taken aback by the lunchtime crowds in Gamla Stan's cafes, swathed in blankets and huddled under umbrellas at their outdoor tables. Stockholm residents seem to be dedicated alfresco diners, whether or not the weather cooperates. While we were there, temperatures were in the low 50's with a bit of drizzle, and yet the sidewalk cafes were packed with customers. Each cafe seemed to keep blankets in its own signature color stacked neatly in a bin by the door.

We stopped for an hour at the Nobel Museum (Nobelmuseet), housed in an old stock exchange off one of Gamla Stan's medieval squares. Portraits of all the laureates circle overhead on an outsize version of the type of rotating rack familiar from dry-cleaning shops everywhere. A permanent exhibit explained the history of the Nobel Prizes, and another exhibit, ''Cultures of Creativity,'' examined factors that can lead a person to develop a lifelong spirit of creativity. On video monitors, laureates talked about how their childhood curiosity had been encouraged.

That evening, we checked into the Nordic Light Hotel, one of a pair of excruciatingly hip hotels near the main train station. Where the Birger Jarl had felt warm, the Nordic Light was all black granite and calla lilies, with lamps shaped like icicles and with most of the décor provided by the changing patterns of colored light on the walls and ceilings. Horizontal stripes of light on the walls in the lobby lounge faded in and out on four-second intervals, making it look as if the walls were breathing softly.

Our room, No. 616, looked much like the lobby: entirely in black and white, with a psychedelic pattern of orange light hovering on the wall behind the double bed. The bathroom -- again, all black and white -- was spruced up by a shower chamber with decorative blown-glass dimples.

We dropped our bags, then walked through a basement passage to the Nordic Light's sister hotel, the Nordic Sea. There, we watched as the members of a bridal party, all wearing matching fur-trimmed parkas, snapped pictures of one another in the lobby Icebar, a bar built of ice bricks inside a large, glass-sided freezer. I had thought it might be fun to visit, but what with the aquarium effect (nearly everyone who walked into the lobby peered in), eerie blue light and $16 entry fee (which includes a drink), my interest waned.

Instead, we decided to head down into Sodermalm, an artsier, hipper island. Much of Sodermalm reminded me of Smith Street in Brooklyn, where I spent a summer working as a waitress. There were the same cafes furnished with battered 60's-retro chairs and lamps that also happened to be for sale, the same spiky-haired, self-consciously Bohemian habitués. We looked around for a bar where we could have a drink, but as it was the night of the final round of the Eurovision Song Contest, every likely looking place was packed with young Swedes, all cheering, moaning and gesticulating at the television.

The commotion was fun, and Eurovision -- an annual riot of light, sound, dominatrix costumes and badly faked American accents -- is almost embarrassingly entertaining. But the bars were standing room only. Eventually, we found seats at Kvarnen, a friendly bar on a side street with high ceilings, scuffed trestle tables and banners indicating its regulars' devotion to the Hammarby football club.

WE spent the next day more quietly, exploring a couple of central Stockholm parks -- Observatorielunden, a hilly park topped by an old observatory, and Humlegarden, which has playground equipment dating from the 1940's -- in the morning, and visiting galleries and shops in the afternoon.

DesignTorget, a shop that promotes young, unknown craftspeople and design students by selling their products on commission, proved a trove of gift ideas. And we liked the Elisabeth Westerlund show at the Galleri Lars Bohman: in one section of the exhibit, hats and mittens were gradually unraveling into woolen pools on the floor, as if they, too, melted in the Swedish springtime.

In the evening, we made our way over to the quiet, green island of Langholmen, where we'd booked a room in a youth hostel housed in a former prison. The managers had run wild with the prison theme: a row of clocks opposite the check-in desk listed the times in Alcatraz, Sing Sing, Robben Island and Port Arthur, and thick black iron chains and bars were a frequent decorative motif. The mirror in our narrow room was shaped like a guillotine.

But walking along the third-floor gallery near our room, peering up through the skylight and looking at the tiers of doors arranged around a central courtyard, I became aware of a now familiar feeling. There was a feeling of airiness and order about the pastel walls and clean linoleum floors. Even in prison, I thought, there was a design sensibility that seemed uniquely Swedish.

The bottom line in a stylish city

Together, Dan, my boyfriend, and I spent $166 a day, at 7.6 kronor to the dollar, on transportation, food, hotels and activities during a long weekend in Stockholm in mid-May.

Lodging

We stayed at the Birger Jarl, Tulegatan 8, (46-8) 674 18 00, fax (46-8) 673 73 66, www.birgerjarl.se, booking a room through uk.hotels.com, a British discount hotel site, where a double room cost us $156 at $1.90 to the pound, including private bath and a lavish breakfast buffet.

A double room at the Nordic Light Hotel, Vasaplan 4, (46-8) 50 56 30 00, fax (46-8) 50 56 30 90, Web site www.nordichotels.se, cost $157 at the hotel's special weekend rate; all 175 rooms have private baths and include breakfast.

We booked our room at the Langholmen youth hostel, Langholmsmuren 20, (46-8) 720 85 00, fax (46-8) 720 85 75, www.langholmen.com, on the International Youth Hostel Federation Web site, www.hihostels.com. A double room (bunk beds plus a tiny private bath with shower stall) in this former prison building cost $77.

Food

Kiosks all over the city serve sausages, gravy and potatoes, or meatballs, lingonberry sauce and potatoes. Menu combinations at the stands we visited cost $4 to $7. The following restaurants provide nice food and atmosphere without breaking the bank.

Pelikan, Blekingegatan 40, (46-8) 55 60 90 90, is an old-fashioned working man's restaurant specializing in traditional Swedish specialties. We liked the pytt y panna, a Swedish hash of bacon, potato, fried egg and pickled beets, and the kraftstromming, herring cooked in tomato sauce. Dinner for two came to $22.

The vanilla-cardamom buns at the Vete-Katten bakery and cafe, Kungsgatan 55, (46-8) 20 84 05, are not to be missed. Two buns cost $3.25.

The Ostermalms Saluhall on Ostermalmstorg, a giant market hall built in 1888, is quite beautiful and a good place to sample Swedish specialties cheaply. We counted 14 herring preparations at a single one of the Saluhall's fishmongers. There are tables around the sides of the hall where you sit to eat your purchases.

Activities

Admission to the Nobel Museum, Borshuset, Stortorget, Gamla Stan, (46-8) 534 818 00, www.nobel.se/nobel/nobelmuseum, is $6.50.

Kvarnen is a friendly bar we found at Tjarhovsgatan 4, (46-8) 643 03 80.

Galleri Lars Bohmanis at Karlavagen 16, (46-8) 20 78 07, www.gallerilarsbohman.com, is open daily. KATHERINE ZOEPF

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Summer Stockholm
Urban landscapes, living history, Viking lore: From May to September, Sweden's capital enjoys its season in the sun.

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2004; Page P01


In Stockholm, I walked from breakfast into history. On the elegant, cobblestoned Stora Torget square, a few footsteps from my hotel, I asked a passerby for directions to the scene of the city's most notorious tragedy: the 1520 massacre, when Danish King Christian II had more than 80 Swedish aristocrats and others rounded up during a banquet and beheaded or otherwise executed.

"You're standing right on it," came the answer.

Before the week was out, my tour of the Swedish capital would take me on a zigzag through the past, from the location of a royal 18th-century assassination to a re-creation of a 14th-century farmstead and a restored 17th-century shipwreck.

For aficionados of European history, this stately 750-year-old Scandinavian stronghold is a destination waiting to be discovered. It's more novel than London and easier to navigate than Berlin or Paris. The heavy concentration of museums, medieval enclaves and historical monuments, including an ancient Viking trading ground and cemetery within easy reach, make for a rich itinerary.

Even for the traveler with only a casual interest in fallen monarchs and thousand-year-old antiquities, the city should be a top-of-the list stop. Set along the craggy Baltic coast, composed of an equal mix of waterways, inviting neighborhoods and green spaces, it has more than its share of distractions for a city of its size Boutiques throughout the city feature an attractive range of Swedish glassware and other crafts. A ferry excursion to Sandhamn or one of the other islands scattered around the city makes for a fun day trip. And the after-hours scene is hopping. One night I breezed from a bar featuring locals rapping in Swedish to the Icebar, where everything from the cocktail glasses to the bar itself is made from ice.

But those intrigued by the events and personalities that have shaped Scandinavia, a corner of Europe little known among Americans, should make it a point to see Stockholm. "Our history is a bit different from other parts of Europe," explained Pia Harjemo, a Stockholm tourism official. "A lot of outsiders leave amazed at what they discover here."

After a week-long visit, I knew what she meant. Every day brought a new lesson in the vivid and sometimes dark chronicles of this region and the boldly defined characters who lived here.

Stockholm is one of the most underrated destinations in Europe, perhaps because of its generally foul climate (in January and February the mean temperature is 27 degrees Fahrenheit) and its distance from U.S. gateway cities (reaching it takes 9 1/2 hours and at least one connection from Washington, compared with a seven-hour nonstop flight for London).

As a former correspondent covering Central Europe and Scandinavia who has traveled widely through the region, I rate the city as the most scenic in the vast stretch of Europe between Munich and St. Petersburg. Views across the waterways of the stately baroque and renaissance buildings easily rival those of Paris or Prague.

Even the novice traveler will find it easy to move around. Where else in Europe outside of Great Britain do almost all of the locals speak flawless -- if sometimes outmoded -- English, honed from watching "I Love Lucy" and "Miami Vice" reruns? And in what other monarchy can a visitor walk right into the residence of the royal family and take a self-guided tour? I did just that, in the reigning monarch's appropriately grand palace in the suburb of Drottningholm. For an hour and a half, I wandered about this 18th-century mansion, goggling over the massive marble staircase in the foyer and the rococo decor in the sitting area and bedrooms. The adjacent theater, built in the 19th century, still stages operas in the summer.

During my stay, none of the stock guidebook cliches of Stockholm rang true. Although by reputation one of Europe's priciest destinations, the city is manageable on a budget; my room in a B&B ran $85 a night. Stockholm is also known as the capital of gravy-covered mystery meat. But my meals, ranging from curried chicken to simple chicken salad lunches and the inevitable grilled Atlantic salmon, were imaginatively prepared. The only meatballs I had were a gourmet dish spiced with cumin and garnished with lingonberries, served in the chic restaurant Operabaren.

The city's population of 1.8 million is blond and Nordic by stereotype, but following a heavy influx of immigrants since the 1960s, 15 percent of the residents are immigrants, many from Africa and other parts of the underdeveloped world.

The locals, reticent by reputation, were gracious to this stranger. By my third morning, Sven, the amiable waiter in the corner bakery near my inn, called me by name and knew that I prefer coffee with lots of milk, love bran muffins and shy away from cheese.

And when I got lost looking for an art gallery in the trendy bohemian neighborhood of Sodermalm, I wandered into a compound of small wooden cottages and asked a woman for directions. "Oh, wait," she said, and leaned across the picket fence to query one neighbor, and then another.

"We're not sure," came the answer. "But in the hotel next door they should be able to help you." And so off I went, into the Clarion, a swank place with a lobby that had the airy feel of a bowling alley, albeit one with brightly colored modern furniture and a bartender mixing apple martinis. The front desk clerk made two clicks on a computer. "Oh, yes," he said. "It's near." And then he took me to the corner to point out where to go.

Even the notoriously punishing weather was sunny and bright every day during my mid-May stay. On wintertime visits, I have watched snow pile up outside my hotel window at the rate of two inches per half-hour. But between mid-May and September, when the light of day extends until late evening, the breezes are generally calm and the days long and sunny.

Gamla Stan, or Old Town, with buildings dating to 1255, is the logical starting place from which to explore the city. A lattice of attractive low-rise buildings connected by narrow stone streets, it's 20 minutes by foot from Stockholm's center or five minutes by light rail or bus. You can easily spend a whole morning or afternoon wandering the streets. Originally merchant homes and offices, most of the buildings have been converted into boutiques, cafes and restaurants.

Guided tours are available, but it's just as fun to take a good map and guidebook and chart your own way. I did both. When I asked shopkeepers about the history of their buildings, they would often happily recount the line of ownership going back several hundred years. At the Kallaren Diana restaurant, for example, a waiter told me that the narrow stone building once belonged to Jonas Alstromer, a manufacturer who introduced the potato to Sweden by smuggling a couple of bags from England.

The Royal Palace, built in the early 1700s after the original burned down, is the most visited attraction in this area. Curious about Sweden's aristocratic past? A stop here is a must. The exterior, painted burnt orange, is appealing. But the endless network of drawing rooms and state rooms inside are even more so, with their intricate baroque and renaissance fixtures and period furniture. The Swedish monarchy dates to the Middle Ages. The current ruling family, the Bernadottes, have held power since 1810.

The museums spread across Stockholm are even more intriguing. With options ranging from the Vasa shipwreck to the National Museum, which showcases fine art, to the home of playwright and novelist August Strindberg, choosing can be tough. After visiting eight museums over six days, I whittled my list to three favorites.

Skansen, billed as the world's first open-air museum, is a re-creation of 150 houses and farmsteads built between the 18th and 20th and taken from across Sweden. Among them are the Town Quarters, a traditional settlement of low-rise wooden homes and workshops taken from Stockholm in the mid-1800s, and the Alvrosgarden, a cluster of wooden structures ranging from a barn to a stable and farmhouse. It would take a full day to see everything here up close, but in the course of a morning of moving between displays, I gained an excellent sense of Sweden's cultural history.

The Nobel Museum, housed in a stately building in Gamla Stan, offered a glimpse into one of Sweden's best-known institutions. A display showed an unvarnished biography of Alfred Nobel, whose fortune funds the esteemed annual international prizes for peace and other academic accomplishments that bear his name. At the time of his death in 1896, the reclusive Swedish-born inventor owned 16 explosives factories. Another exhibit explained how the prize was started and how the selection process works.

More interesting to me were displays devoted to the recipients since 1901, when the prizes were first initiated. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, I learned, was offered an award in 1964 but declined, saying all prizes made the recipient less free. I also listened to tape recordings of prizewinner William Faulkner. "I'm a far better farmer than writer," the 1949 Nobel laureate said, in a tone so modest I believed it.

By far, my most memorable afternoon was spent touring the Vasa, the massive oak ship that sank off Stockholm's harbor in 1628, 20 minutes after departing on its maiden voyage with 150 people on board. Specialists later said the 64-gun warship was too top-heavy to sail. Lost for centuries, it was dredged up 43 years ago, complete with the bone combs used by crew members. The museum housing it, on the island of Djurgarden, a 20-minute walk down a couple of pleasant streets and over a bridge from the city center, offers a breathtaking account of one of the biggest dramas in the Baltic's seafaring heyday. Seeing the awesome 228-foot-long vessel, covered with 700 intricate figureheads and other wood carvings, is alone worth the price of admission. The adjoining exhibitions, chronicling the ship's sinking, discovery 328 years later and painstaking restoration, absorbed my attention for three hours.

One more reason to visit Stockholm: Historical sites elsewhere in Europe are swarmed with busloads of tourists, particularly in summertime. On the day I toured the Vasa, I shared the place with only a couple of dozen other visitors.

And yet the events that occurred in these parts were as profound as any in Europe. This was, after all, a gathering place of the notorious Vikings as long as 1,200 years ago, and the center of tugs of war for royal power in the Middle Ages.

On my last day, for a look at another side of Stockholm, I toured the Hallwyl palace, the former home of Countess Wilhelmina and Count Walther von Hallwyl, five minutes by foot from downtown. The couple, one of Sweden's wealthiest in the 1800s, built a lavish home and furnished it in grand style. The art nouveau structure is a riot of Venetian arches, marble stairways and oak-paneled sitting rooms. The Hallwyls' collections include Belgian tapestries, Meissen ceramics, armor, swords and oil paintings from throughout Europe.

The place has been left exactly as it was when Wilhelmina died in 1930, right down to the table set for servants in the downstairs kitchen. The countess had wanted it that way. "I want everything included, such as brooms, dust brushes and suchlike," she had instructed. "One day, when everything is being done by electricity, these will be the most remarkable thing of all."

Add'l Comment from Post message boards: "No question, just an (overdue) comment concernoing the recent article on Stockholm. As a former exchange student to Sweden & someone who gets back there as often as possible, I'd say the article was right on the money. It really is a -fantastic- city!

The Vasa ship & Skansen are 2 must sees for the first time visitor. I also highly recommend the Castle & related museums, Storkirchen ("the Big Church" next to the castle), the Nordic Museum, the National Art Museum, and for something a little different, try the Music Museum. One of the best things, tho, is just to wander around the city exploring the various neighborhoods: Gammlastan, Kungsgarden, Ostermalm, etc. There really is something for everyone!

One thing that I didn't see mentioned was the "Stockholm Card". You can buy this seperately or many hotels offer it as part of a room package. This card gives you free entrance into many museums, plus unlimited subway & bus travel. We've paid a little bit more for the hotel, but more than made up for it by saving entrance fees & public transportation fees."