Stockholm is one of my favourite places – a beautiful city of grand, tree-lined streets, a quaint old town and flower-filled parks. It’s built across a series of islands joined by stone bridges so you’re never far from the water. But I’ve come to the Swedish capital primarily to pay homage to the band that, arguably, did more to promote the country than Volvo, Ikea or Spotify. I’ve got my ticket and I’m queuing with the rest of ‘The Visitors’ ready to experience The ABBA Museum.
Unlike most museums, its subjects – the four members of this seventies supergroup – are still alive. As we walked around the museum, guide Caroline Fagerlind pointed out the personal possessions that ABBA’s stars have donated. She explained that Bjorn was closely involved in the project. “He is always keen to find out what is going on, what is new and what we can do,” Caroline said. The audio guide has also been narrated by ABBA’s stars.
The idea of an ABBA Museum was first suggested in 2008. This attraction opened four years ago and was inspired by the ABBAWorld exhibit that toured Europe and Australia between 2009 and 2011. I think you can broadly divide the exhibits into two themes. There’s nostalgic displays for fans who lived through ABBA’s years of chart domination and want to immerse themselves in memories from that era. There’s also fun for newer fans who discovered their music from tribute acts or the Mamma Mia musical and movie.
Nostalgia fans will love how they’ve recreated the look and feel of the 70’s and early 80’s. Museum curator Ingmarie Halling used to tour with the band and look after their costumes and make-up. She helped to reconstruct the dressing rooms that the band would have used in sports stadia. And they weren’t that glamorous. “Ingmarie even remembers which lotions and perfumes they used,” Caroline explained.
You can also view a replica of their manager’s office and the kitchen in Agnetha’s apartment. That struck me as quite simple, with its pine table and chairs. It wasn’t what I would have expected from a wealthy pop star. And there’s a reconstruction of the wooden hut on an island just outside Stockholm, where the men would visit to write words and music. You can peer into a mock-up of their recording studio as it would have appeared in 1978. There’s a piano, which is still linked to Benny’s studio. When it plays, Benny is working.
ABBA fans tend to walk slowly and linger in another area of the museum. Caroline pointed out a chunky, red telephone. “Only four people know the number,” she explained. “The members of ABBA. If the phone rings you better pick it up. They do ring it!”
Each member has rung the phone at least twice so far. Benny has called three times. The last person who answered the phone almost fainted. “It is a private conversation so we do not know what has been said during the phone call,” added Caroline. It didn’t ring while I was there, I’m sorry to say.
There’s a more interactive experience where you can dance and ‘go on stage’ with ABBA as a ‘fifth member’. Caroline explained that 3D avatars of the group are projected onto the stage and your performance is recorded. You can access the video file from the museum’s website using a code contained on your entry ticket. “It’s a memory that you get to keep and show your friends and watch over and over again,” said Caroline.
Throughout the museum there are sights that will be familiar to ABBA fans. You can be photographed on the park bench that was used in their Greatest Hits album or in a replica of the iconic plastic-bubble cockpit of the Bell helicopter, which you’ll recognise from the Arrival record sleeve. “It’s a fantastic photo opportunity that many guests take,” Caroline enthused.
ABBA of course shot to fame after winning the Eurovision Song Contest. The competition was held in Brighton in 1974 and there’s a large section of the museum devoted to the event, with pictures, videos and costumes that I suspect the band would not dare to wear today! “Bjorn’s trousers were so tight he could not sit down in the cab,” Caroline revealed. “So he stood up in the taxi from the hotel to the Brighton Dome.”
Next door is a Eurovision exhibition entitled Good Evening Europe. “The European Broadcasting Union has shared their archive with us so you can scroll and look for your favourite artists, favourite year, favourite competition and see everything that has been on through the years. There’s also a fun, fact-filled video. You can see who had the longest hair or who held the longest note. Everything is here,” said Caroline. Some people will spend the entire day in the ABBA Museum and Caroline recommended setting aside at least four hours for a visit.
You can stay next door in the stylish Pop House Hotel, which shares the entrance with the ABBA Museum. Its spacious rooms are decorated with ABBA inspired art. “We even have a Mamma Mia room. It is like walking onto a Greek island,” said Caroline. To quote another ABBA song, you can ‘eat and sleep and sing’ here.
The ABBA and Eurovision displays are well presented, interesting and well worth visiting, whether you’re obsessed the supergroup, who sold 500 million records, or just want to relive the fads and fashions of the era. “There’s a feeling of walking in and dancing out,” smiled Caroline.
The ABBA Museum and Pop House Hotel are situated on a leafy, park-filled island called Djurgården, which is connected to the main city centre by ferry or a bridge. There’s a yacht haven on one side and plenty of grand old palatial houses. Some are now used as galleries or museums dedicated to arts and crafts, architecture and Nordic life.
But I headed to Scandinavia’s most visited attraction. Over a million people visit The Vasa Museum every year. It’s home to a 17th century warship that was salvaged after sinking in the waters around Stockholm on her maiden voyage.
The building is an impressive wood and concrete exhibition hall with a copper roof. Its design was chosen following an architectural competition. When you walk into the vast concrete foyer you can’t fail to be impressed by the sight of the gently lit bulk of this huge wooden vessel, decorated with dozens of carvings. The ship is massive. It is 69 metres long and its masts cut through three levels of observation decks.
95% of what you see is original but ropes and sails have been replaced because they deteriorated on the seabed. It’s hard to believe that this entire warship lay submerged in the mud for 333 years, before being raised in the 1950s. “The ship was in one piece when they found her,” guide Ulrika Sager explained. “There were 700 sculptures lying in the clay which might have had a preserving effect on the carvings.”
Apparently the ship sank because it was top heavy. “The new design that the king wanted for his ship had two gun decks instead of one,” said Ulrika. “There were two levels for the cannons instead of one. It meant that the ship became unstable. She only sailed for 20 minutes during her first and last journey.”
The Vasa sunk in front of hundreds of spectators, just outside Stockholm on a calm Sunday afternoon. This naval disaster caused some embarrassment for the Swedish royalty. And I found it ironic that the ship, built to wage war on Poland, was constructed of Polish oak. There was an inquest but the investigation heard one witness claim that, “only God knew the answer” to what happened.
The museum exhibitions also display coins, jewellery and personal effects recovered from the seabed. You can sniff the rum raised from the wreck and smell some of the food that has been preserved. The 400-year-old butter raised with the ship smells like Parmesan cheese!
After visiting the city’s main attractions, it was time to discover Stockholm itself. The central area is very attractive and it is set across fourteen small islands. The Swedish capital appears to have avoided the disastrous developments of the 1960’s and 1970’s, which spoiled so many city centres. You can ride ferries to cross between the islands or take a longer ride out to the pine tree-lined islands that dot the waterways into the city.
“Stockholm has really clean air for a city. There’s a lot of water here too,” design store owner Jakob Uhlin told me. “The name ‘Stockholm’ is related to a place where land and water meet,” he added.
If you’re successful in Stockholm, chances are you’ll have a summer or weekend home in the archipelago. “It is one of the things you cannot miss when you are in Stockholm,” food tour operator Fredrik Linse told me. “You need to get on a boat and if you’re short of time, I’d recommend Fjäderholmarna, just fifteen minutes from the city centre. You will be able to visit a brewery and a place where they smoke their own fish.”
I took the hour-long boat tour along the wide canals and through parkland, under bridges and out into a wider waterway dotted with small islands, each with small yachting marinas. There are some impressive mansions and expensive-looking waterside properties on these islands.
Soon I was back on one of the central islands and I walked from the quayside through the winding, cobbled streets of Gamla Stan. “It is the original part of Stockholm. It is the smallest island. It’s the first place where tourists visit when they come to the city. It’s a beautiful area,” said Fredrik.
Here you’ll find the more touristy souvenir shops, but you can escape the crowds. Just climb up one of the narrow lanes between the tall houses and apartments, painted yellow, orange, terracotta or cream. They open out into squares faced by churches or stately buildings.
One of those is the huge stone fortress of The Royal Palace. At a quarter-past-twelve every lunchtime, you can watch the Changing of the Guard ceremony. Soldiers, dressed in cobalt blue uniforms and sporting golden spiked helmets, march into the palace’s semi-circular courtyard. Some of the men ride on horseback before completing a forty-minute circuit of the square, whilst playing instruments.
This part of Gamla Stan is filled with interesting craft and curiosity shops. I walked into one antique shop, intending to buy something I’d seen in the window. The eccentric shop worker started playing the piano when anyone tried to talk to him. I left empty handed!
My next stop was the nearby Nobel Museum. The exhibition reveals the extent to which discoveries made by the prize recipients have changed the way we live. The use of inventions like transistors and penicillin stemmed from research by its laureates.
Curator Olof Somell explained how the museum tries to make complicated discoveries relevant to everyday life. “We highlight the achievements, not necessarily in minute detail,” he told me. “We like to show what was accomplished and where it actually led to.”
Olof took to me to an exhibit that described the evolution of synthetic dyes. “Using indigo used to be very expensive but then artificial dyes were invented and people could afford blue jeans,” he explained, adding, “These are immensely mundane things but important in our culture.”
The museum isn’t stuffy at all. They’ve shared many human-interest stories about the people who have been awarded the Nobel Prize. “We ask the new laureates if they’d like to bring us something that matters to them personally,” Olof told me. “It doesn’t have to be connected to their award. It could be something from their house or childhood. One of my personal favourites is a pair of shoes that we have from a Swedish author Selma Lagerlof. She was the first female recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1909. If you look closely you’ll see that one heel is higher than the other. One of her legs was slightly shorter. She had bad self-esteem because of this limp and she felt that nobody would marry her. So she became an author and went off to write amazing literature.”
I noticed a wooden oar suspended from the ceiling. It represents Cambridge University, an institution that 10% of laureates have attended. There’s a cash award for the Nobel Prize winner, but Olof says that’s increasingly less important. “The amount is roughly the same, corrected for inflation. It is around €1 million. Today, that will buy you a fancy microscope and a few years use by grad students but it won’t change a career in the way that it did when the Nobel Prize launched,” Olof said. He believes that the greatest honour is being admitted to an exclusive club. “It’s the same club as Einstein, Churchill and the Dalai llama,” he enthused.
There are two ways that you can learn who has received a Nobel Prize. Many recipients have been asked to sign the underside of chairs in the dining room. “After you’ve had a meal in the restaurant, you can see ‘who’ you have been sitting on,” Olof explained. “You can be sitting in the company of Barrack Obama or some unknown physicists from twenty years ago that you have not heard about.”
You’ll also see the names of laureates pass overhead on posters, suspended on a long conveyor belt hanging from the ceiling. “The beltway was custom-made for us by a company that normally makes these for dry cleaners. A full revolution takes between six and seven hours. If you’re looking for somebody in particular I’m afraid there is no order. They are totally random!” The Nobel Museum is well worth discovering. It is a celebration of great minds who have improved life for humankind.
I crossed a bridge from Gamla Stan to the neighbouring island of Södermalm. There’s a fantastic viewpoint here. A metal walkway juts out from the hillside to an elevator. The Katarina lift shaft shoots up 33m and was built in the Victorian period to take the stress out of climbing the hill. There’s a swanky restaurant at the top offering panoramic views – which are as stunning as its prices!
Jakob Uhlin owns a stylish boutique, Butiken Republiken, nearby. The area of this island is Mosebacke, Stockholm’s design district. “People are opening restaurants. You also see a lot of galleries and shops selling unique objects. They tend to pop up. You get to meet the manufacturer, designer, and the store owner and it might be the same person,” Jakob explained. “These are people who have done something with their passion and are now trying to gain an economic profit from it.”
Fans of Stieg Larsson’s dark Millennium crime novels also visit this district on guided tours because a key character from the books and movies lived here. “A lot of people will be familiar with the character Lisbeth Salander,” Jakob explained. “She acquires a big apartment in one of the stories. It is in this street. Many people come to look at that.”
Moseback is the hip part of the city and the place where you’ll find the craft breweries and trendy bars. In fact, each of the city’s island-based neighbourhoods has something different to offer. I met with Fredrik Linse, who operates Food Tours Stockholm, to find out more. Fredrik was on a food walk in Bangkok when he had the idea to showcase Stockholm’s vibrant food scene. He offers three sampling tours, which cover the multicultural, Nordic and sweet-tooth tastes of his hometown. Fredrik offers a cocktail walk too.
We met in the ninth floor roof garden and bar of Urban Deli and chatted over coffee on a wooden picnic bench, taking in the panoramic views of the city’s rooftops and steeples. Recently, food magazines have been raving about Nordic cuisine. I wanted to know what to expect.
“There has been a lot of talk about the new Nordic food. It’s an upgrading of the traditional Swedish food like meatballs,” Fredrik told me. “You use the old flavours and present the food in a new way. A lot of chefs are starting to use old, traditional plants that were used many years ago and which we can go out into the forest or on the roadside and pick.”
Swedes do have a sweet tooth too and you’ll see signs for fika outside cafés all over Stockholm. “It really means having a break – a coffee and socialising with your friends – whilst you enjoy something sweet,” explained Fredrik. “If you get invited to someone’s house for fika you will be offered seven different kinds of cake. Anything less than seven would be considered cheap. Anything more would be bragging,” Fredrik smiled.
If you love fish, you’ll become fond of Stockholm rather quickly. “The traditional food is still pickled herring. You have new flavours and new pickling methods all of the time. And there is cured salmon, or gravadlax, too,” said Fredrik. He recommended trying the local snack of crisp bread topped with fried herring, pickled onion and mustard sauce. “You can get it at any of the seafood stalls or shops. The best is called Gamla Stan Fisk. It is the oldest fish store in Stockholm and is a great place to call in,” Fredrik advised.
Sweden isn’t a cheap place for accommodation, drink or food. So I took up another of his suggestions to save money while eating well. I visited the high-end foodcourt in a small, Södermalm shopping mall called The Ringen. “Some of the best Michelin-rated restaurants in Sweden have opened fast food stalls here,” said Fredrik. “They offer a good deal. You can get a high quality fishburger, roasted new potatoes and a beer for around £15. That’s a great deal for Stockholm!” You can find Fredrik’s tours at FoodToursStockholm.se.
As a major European capital, filled with museums, Stockholm is a great place to visit all year round. Locals reckon that the city is at its best during in the spring or the long, light days of summer.
You can take the two-and-a-half hour flight from Heathrow or Gatwick from £45 one way. Just be aware that the main airport, Arlanda, is 26 miles out of the city centre and the express train into central Stockholm costs just over £50 return.
When you get here, it won’t be a cheap break, but you know the saying – you pay for quality. That’s definitely the case with Stockholm.