Amid a sea of Swedes watching the World Cup quarterfinal match, my friend Francine jumped up and down, cheering wildly when England scored the winning goal against Sweden. Disappointed locals — many wearing yellow Sweden jerseys, some with the national flag painted on their faces — watched her silently. Some seemed amused. Or curious.
So much for blending into the crowd.
We were in Stockholm’s Södermalm district, decidedly off the beaten tourist track, yet we were exposed as outsiders. Francine and her husband, Russ, are from London; my husband, Dirck, and I are from Des Moines. No one appeared to mind. Some even shook Francine’s hand and offered congratulations. One requested a photo with her.
Swedes, we learned that July day at a packed Södermalm bar, are tolerant, polite, avid fans and good sports.
For our first visit to Stockholm, we stayed in Södermalm primarily because it is not a major tourist hot spot. When I travel, I’m often torn between visiting the must-see sights and hanging out in real neighborhoods that offer glimpses of how life is lived. Södermalm, also known as “Söder,” proved to be a great home base to do both.
A sprawling residential island surrounded by Lake Mälaren, Södermalm is known as Stockholm’s Brooklyn. The SoFo (south of Folkungagatan Street) neighborhood best captures why: Home to the young and hip, it bursts with artisanal restaurants, trendy bars and design-conscious shops.
In Söder — a mix of Old World and workaday enclaves — we encountered unexpected delights, including a cutting-edge photography museum, Fotografiska, where we chanced upon a Linda and Mary McCartney “Mother Daughter.” We also saw stunning views of some of Stockholm’s 14 other islands. One day, we took a high pedestrian bridge in northern Söder and discovered a viewing platform connected to the Katarina Elevator, a now defunct lakeside public elevator. In one direction, the steeples of Gamla Stan cut through the sky; it is one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval old towns and still home to the Royal Palace. In the other direction, Djurgården, an island park dotted with museums, shimmered green.
These distant places looked alluring — and we eventually made our way to them — but for the moment, we were happy to stay in quiet Södermalm.
A Bohemian oasis
During our four-day visit, my husband and I felt like the only tourists in the unremarkable southwest Södermalm neighborhood where we bunked in an affordable Airbnb. Ours was a small but comfortable guest room with shared bath in a modern apartment. Our English friends were similarly tucked away in another nearby Airbnb. They had a tiny private apartment on a sleepy residential street.
Every morning, in the hall outside our room, we found traditional Swedish cinnamon buns, known as kanelbullar, left for us by our host. She gave us another gift, too: recommendations of places we never would have found without her guidance.
That is how we ended up on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Eriksdalslunden, a surprisingly rural Bohemian oasis hidden on Södermalm’s southwest shore. It lies a short walk but a world away from our urban Airbnb.
Strolling along a waterside dirt path through parkland and gardens bordering Årstaviken Bay, we passed young sunbathing and swimming Swedes, salsa dancers on a small shaded platform and a guy playing an out-of-tune piano in the woods. Families packed into a public pool. A few food trucks offered global fare.
Beside the occasional brightly painted small rustic cottage with a picket fence, older people tended to gardens bursting with vegetables, fruit and flowers. I later learned that this seemingly secret garden community is among several kolonilotter, or colony gardens, across Stockholm, and it happened to be among the oldest.
The rest of Stockholm beckoned, so we hopped on brief bus, subway and tram rides out of Södermalm to tourist hot spots.
To get oriented, we took an engaging two-hour Under the Bridges sightseeing cruise, passing under 15 bridges and through locks connecting Lake Mälaren with the Baltic Sea. The English-language recording we listened to on headsets not only helped us identify Stockholm landmarks but offered surprisingly frank commentary on contemporary Swedish life. Immigrant workers’ assimilation challenges and local rock climbers’ strong thighs both merited mentions.
On a Sunday morning, we landed in lovely, leafy Djurgården, a national park that seemed to draw a mix of locals and tourists who walk, run and bike on trails that wind through parkland and along the waterfront. At Rosendals Tradgard, a biodynamic garden, we wandered past patches of roses, vegetables, herbs and orchards, then dined for lunch on some of the organic bounty in the cafe, which served gorgeous fresh salads and open-faced sandwiches inside a greenhouse.
After lunch, Dirck and Russ went to the Vasa Museum, home to an infamous dud — a perfectly preserved 17th-century warship that sank in shallow water in 1628, soon after it was launched. (My husband’s takeaway was that the ship sank because none of the shipbuilders dared tell the then-powerful Swedish king that it was top-heavy with too many cannons aboard.)
Francine and I visited ABBA: The Museum. Though neither of us are huge fans of the wildly popular Swedish pop group, we soon realized we knew many of their catchy songs, from “Waterloo” to “Mamma Mia.” The museum offered impressive interactive elements. We didn’t dare go on stage in a dark room to perform alongside dancing life-size holograms of Abba members. But we each auditioned to be Abba’s fifth member by singing along in a sound booth, karaoke-style, to a hit of our choice, after which our performance was scored by computer. Neither of us made the cut.
In Gamla Stan, the city’s historic 16th-century heart, we joined tour groups squeezing into winding narrow cobbled lanes, browsing but not buying in little shops selling $49 Stockholm T-shirts. We admired the rouge- and ochre-colored medieval buildings in Stortorget, Stockholm’s oldest square. Among them is the Nobel Museum, located in an imposing former stock exchange building, which shares the history of the prestigious prizes begun by Stockholm-born Alfred Nobel.
Young musicians busked energetically near the Royal Palace, where we happened to arrive at midday, just in time to watch the changing of the guard, complete with a marching military band.
Afternoon’s bakery stop
We enjoyed our daily forays into tourist-land, but by midafternoon, we were eager to return to quieter, cooler Södermalm. At what became our favorite bakery, Fabrique Stenugnsbageri (with several Stockholm locations including one near our Söder Airbnb), we relished the Swedish coffee-and-cake break known as fika, dining on Swedish pastry cardamom buns, or kardemummabullar.
Exploring the heights north of SoFo, we came upon charming cobbled narrow streets including Fjallgatan and Stigbergsgatan, lined with 300-year-old houses, well preserved cottages and terraced gardens. Near Mosebacke Torg (or square), we found an outdoor beer garden called Mosebacketerrassen with stupendous views. Along a quiet pocket park, we stopped for a drink at Woodstockholm, a restaurant and furniture design shop. Francine’s guidebook informed us that actress Greta Garbo was born in Söder.
For dinner, we were always lured back to SoFo, especially the lively restaurants, outdoor cafes and bars around Nytorget Park. One night — although night was a bit of a misnomer since it never seemed to get dark — we joined the local crowd eating outside at Urban Deli, a trendy restaurant and gourmet market, complete with a disc jockey.
Another night, we enjoyed dinner at Nytorget 6, a quiet bistro that a local had recommended while we watched the World Cup match.
In the soccer match crowd, we spied plenty of tattoos, piercings, man buns and well-groomed beards. We also encountered several dads pushing babies in strollers.
I got to chatting with one such dad, accompanied by his 6-month-old daughter and wife. As with most Swedes we encountered, he spoke perfect English.
The young dad spoke matter-of-factly about Sweden’s famously generous family-friendly policies, including up to 480 days of paid parental leave that can be shared between the two parents and a monthly child allowance from the government.
When I asked if Södermalm was as young and hip as I’d heard, he smiled somewhat wistfully, and said “It used to be. Now it’s kind of grown-up hipster.”
Betsy Rubiner, a Des Moines-based travel writer, writes the travel blog TakeBetsyWithYou.