Stockholm - now just five hours from Dubai

A new Emirates route from Dubai to Stockholm makes the Swedish capital accessible for a weekend break, says Rosemary Behan.

A view of the waterfront in Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden (Photo by Rosemary Behan)
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Why Stockholm?

Stockholm markets itself as the “Capital of Scandinavia”, and, while this annoys the neighbouring countries, it’s hard not to agree that the city offers more than Helsinki, Oslo or even Copenhagen. There’s simply more of it — more islands, more world-class museums, more shops, more going on in more densely urbanised neighbourhoods, and a more diverse population. Geographically, and in terms of sophistication, it seems to have more in common with St Petersburg.

So if you haven’t been anywhere yet in Scandinavia, go here first. With fresh air, gorgeous scenery, a civilised population and a laid-back feel coupled with organised infrastructure, the city that spawned the Nobel Prize is both classically stylish and trendsetting. Its old-world history of palaces, monarchy and battle is almost as impressive as its modern, world-renowned brands — Ikea, H&M, Ericsson, Piratebay, ABBA, Swedish House Mafia — impressive given that the whole country has a population of less than 10 million. What the Swedes do possibly better than other Scandinavian countries is to translate their culture into English, making communication a breeze. I was surprised at how many people I met who sounded as if they came from London, so good were their accents. The benefits of this filter down to restaurants, museums, transport, nightclubs and anything else a visitor could possibly want to see or experience. A beautifully atmospheric old town, an unashamedly modernist shopping area, exciting restaurants and clean, green parks, there isn’t much not to like apart from the prices. But then Stockholm is a world city disguised as a small town, so these shouldn’t really come as too much of a surprise. Get creative and plan properly to avoid bankruptcy.

A comfortable bed

Stockholm has everything from grand old dames to business hotels, expensive boutique properties to budget hostels. There are also apartments and houses to rent for longer stays. Shop around and book in advance for the best rates. For no- nonsense comfort in a good location, look past the brutalist exterior of the Sheraton Stockholm (0046 8 412 3400) for clean, quiet, comfortable rooms with air con — but try to get a room on a high floor, preferably with a front-facing view. Doubles from US$175 (Dh642) per night including taxes but not breakfast. For history and a prime position on the Södra Blasieholmshamnen waterfront, the Grand Hotel (0046 8 679 3500) is pretty but more than a little fusty. Doubles from 1,360 Swedish kronor (kr; [Dh770]) per night including taxes but not breakfast.

For a real sense of both history and contemporary Swedish cool, try Berns in Berzelii Park (0046 8 566 322 00). The building dates back to 1863 and features a lavish front dining room with cavernously high ceilings and huge chandeliers, an adjacent theatre and basement nightclub and art gallery. The rooms are behind and above all of this – so you're not disturbed by noise – and feature original Swedish design. The best rooms are on the top floor and have terraces overlooking the city: doubles from 1,512 kr (Dh850) per night including taxes.

Find your feet

Head to Stortorget, the picturesque central square in the heart of Gamla Stan (Old Town) on the island of Stadsholmen. If that sounds complicated, don't be put off — it's actually very accessible by foot from virtually anywhere in central Stockholm thanks to its small scale and the number of bridges. Have a cup of hot chocolate at Chokladkoppen cafe to admire the architecture and fountain before visiting the adjacent Nobel Museum for a guided tour on cultures of creativity. Then, simply delight in wandering the area's narrow lanes before walking onto nearby Södermalm island and the contemporary photography museum Fotografiska for some hard-hitting exhibitions in an industrial building dating from 1906. Situated on the Stadsgardshamnen waterfront, there's a great view of the old city from its upstairs cafe. Fortified, walk back over Stadsholmen to Malmtorgsgatan on the mainland and the vast shopping area surrounding it. On your second day, hire a bike with Stockholm City Bikes (April- October) or take a boat trip to get a wider view of the city.

Meet the locals

Swedes are generally happy, friendly, relaxed people with a positive attitude towards visitors, so it’s easy to meet them simply by asking for directions or striking up a conversation in a shop or cafe. In Fotografiska, a staff member from Somalia started talking to me about the exhibitions I’d seen and gave me a link to a TED talk she thought I might like. It always helps to have a friend in a place, and it turns out in Sweden that if you meet up with one person, they’re likely to bring their friends along too. For nightlife, you can’t beat Södermalm (“Söder”), which has a dizzying array of bars-cum-nightclubs, especially along a street called Götgatan, where thousands of people gather both inside and out, until very late. It’s a bit like Las Vegas, but if you go out with the right attitude, you could make hundreds of new friends in a single evening.

For a more formal experience, sign up for a guided tour with a local. A tour showing the author Stieg Larsson’s Stockholm, for example, might take you to Mellqvist Kaffebar, in the more bohemian part of Södermalm, where both the author and his fictional character took their fika (a cup of tea or coffee with a pastry). If the weather is warm, live like a local by relaxing on one of the many Wi-Fi-enabled platforms around the city centre islands, and, if you dare, go for a swim in the designated swimming areas. The bracing water is sure to be a bonding experience. If you have children, take them to a park such as Rosendals for a picnic or lunch in one of the sociable cafes.

Book a table

Stockholm has several Michelin-starred restaurants specialising in multi-course, seasonal molecular gastronomy. Two notable examples are Frantzén in the Old Town (Lilla Nygatan 21) and F12 (Rödbodtorget 2) near the Sheraton. At F12, a six-course menu featuring small portions of dishes such as red deer with chanterelles and juniper berries costs 1,250 kr (Dh710) per person.

If you prefer Asian food, Berns Asiatiska at Berns hotel is a good bet. It does a well-loved Friday brunch (350 kr; Dh200) and daily Yum Cha (2pm-5pm, 195 kr; Dh110) and its lunch and evening menus are extensive. Service is good and the atmosphere relaxed; 5 pieces of sushi cost 135 kr (Dh75), razor clams Thai style 115 kr (Dh65) and Szechuan duck 315 kr (Dh178).

For a classic fish lunch on an island, take a 25-minute boat ride to Stora Fjäderholmen and eat at Fjäderholmarnas Krog. Traditional dishes include three types of herring with aged cheese, new potatoes and bread (165 kr; Dh93), pan-fried cod (175 kr; Dh100) and crème brûlée (95 kr; Dh54). The hotel also has a Parisian-style bistro, Berns Bistro & Bar, and a new town house and restaurant on Norrlandsgatan, Nosh and Chow, offering a variety of global cuisines featuring Swedish ingredients.

Shopper’s paradise

If you’re planning on spending a lot of money here, remember the tax-free rule. Any visitor living outside the EU can receive a refund of up to 17.5 per cent on purchases of over 200 kr (Dh114) but you must tell staff at the time of purchase to receive your money back at the airport on departure under the Global Blue scheme.

Norrmalm is the city's commercial hub and main shopping area. Here you'll find countless branches of H&M and other high-street names. Nordiska Kompaniet, or NK Stockholm, on Hamngatan street, is one of the city's oldest and grandest department stores, selling everything from food to clothes by leading local designers.

If money is no object, hire a personal shopper for 2,600 kr (Dh1,500) and have the trained staff bring a variety of outfits and styles for you to try on in the comfort of its VIP area.

Stockholm's finest chocolatier is Chokladfabriken at Mästersamuelsgatan 9; a large box of its delicious liquorice and sea-salt-flavoured chocolates will set you back 400 kr (Dh225). Move on to the more upmarket Östermalm, just to the east, and you'll find a greater sense of style and affluence. Think designer boutiques and expensive furniture shops. It's worth a visit purely for a trip to Stockholm's finest food hall, Östermalms Saluhall. You can eat at restaurants in the market or simply wander around. For good-quality, affordable Swedish clothing that isn't H&M, Filippa K is a good option, and it has three branches in the city including a second-hand store. For modern interior design, check out Sibyllegatan in Östermalm; you'll find several high-end stores specialising in Nordic furniture and homeward, such as Asplund and Modernity.

What to avoid

Winter can be brutal, so unless you like the cold and very short daylight hours, avoid the period from January to March. December can be fun and bright thanks to Christmas and New Year celebrations.

Don’t miss

Even if you're not an ABBA fan, or don't know much about the group, a visit to the new ABBA Museum will give you an insight into Swedish pop music and leave you in a great mood.

Go there

Emirates flies direct from Dubai to Stockholm from Dh3,885 return including taxes. The flight takes six hours.