To understand the intoxicating power of summer in Stockholm, when the sun rises as early as 3.30am in the morning and sets well after 10pm at night, it is necessary to bear in mind the intense darkness of midwinter. Having laboured through weeks with only six short hours of daylight, a brief and often chilly spring can transform overnight into perfect summer days. Evenings are no darker than a nautical twilight, with blue skies even after the sun has set.
The impact of summer upon the Swedish capital’s residents cannot be underestimated. The long, bright days and nights invite you to explore the city’s lush nature, for it is in its outdoor beauty that you will discover its personality.
City of islands
With a thousand green spaces and surrounded by more than 200 nature reserves, Stockholm was named Europe’s first Green Capital by the European Commission in 2010. Built on 14 islands connected by 57 bridges, water is everywhere. There are dozens of cruises that weave through the islands and along the waterways of the city. Red Sightseeing’s Royal Bridges & Canal Tour gives a fantastic overview of Stockholm on its route around the island of Djurgarden, as it passes through narrow canals and open bays. Locals tell me that up until 10 years ago, it was believed that the water was so clean you could drink it. Though this is not advisable anymore, it is certainly clear enough to swim in (below).
Mingle with residents as they go swimming and sunbathing on the old prison island of Langholmen. Find your spot on the cliffs or swim by its small beach. The prison building has been converted into a hotel (below) and restaurant. Sunday brunch here is a feast of Swedish specialities that range from herring, raw spiced salmon and thyme sausage to Langholmen’s house-made bread and waffles. I sit on the verandah and enjoy afternoon tea – scones with lemon curd, whipped butter, cream cheese and marmalade, all accompanied by house-blended Grunewald tea. A delicious blend of summery raspberry, rhubarb and bergamot, the tea is named after the Picasso of Sweden, radical artist Isaac Grunewald. He was a Langholmen prison inmate for a month in 1926, after getting into a scuffle with a train-station conductor.
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One of the most popular activities of the season is attending a free play, concert or opera in one of Stockholm’s many beautiful parks. “Buy a bottle of wine and bring a picnic,” advises teacher Ila Moldenhauer, whose daughter Erika has been living in the city for nearly 10 years.
My favourite summer pastime in Stockholm is taking a stroll. Tantolunden, a large park on the island of Sodermalm – another great swimming spot – offers one of the best summer walks in the city around the bay of Arstaviken. During this time of year, Tantolunden brims with Stockholmers of all ages playing frisbee, cycling or simply lapping up the sunshine.
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Outside the park, Boulebar is a fun new restaurant where you can play boules (a game similar to petanque) while sampling southern French cuisine. If you have never played the game, book a guide to show you how, while you dine on oysters and sip champagne. It’s the ultimate lazy-day luxury.
Possibly even more laid-back is chilling out in a sun chair, listening to reggae music while eating ice cream at Reggae Cafe nearby. Despite the Nordic climate, Sweden is one of the top 10 ice cream-eating nations in the world. Once you try its sweet, buttery, frozen treats, it’s not hard to understand why. Nogger Black is a popular flavour, with its salty liquorice outer shell and toffee centre, but I prefer wild blueberry, a taste that always takes me back to berry-picking in a Nordic wood. Another popular eatery on Sodermalm is Nyfiken Gul (open from April to August), where you can grill your own meat or fish at the outdoor restaurant.
Walk around Skeppsholmen island in the heart of Stockholm, and you will be rewarded with stunning views of other islands. Here, you can spend the night on board the AF Chapman, a fully rigged ship that has been converted into a hostel and looks across to Gamla Stan (above), Stockholm’s old town.
A time to celebrate
Midsummer is special to Swedes, possibly even more important than Christmas. It marks the unique nature of light at this time of year and brings together family and friends in festivities around the whole country.
On Stockholm’s island of Djurgarden, the Midsummer Festival (above) is held at Skansen, the world’s first open-air museum, where you can return to 19th-century Sweden.
“There are lots of midsummer games and dances,” says Stockholm resident Niall Byrne. “Other celebrations are scattered around the suburbs. We usually go to our local midsummer dance, where we ‘fika’ (drink coffee and eat cakes) and have a barbecue of traditional Swedish food – pickled herring, potatoes and meatballs.”
Most Stockholmers agree the best place to celebrate midsummer is outside the city, on one of the islands in its archipelago. Composed of 30,000 islands and skerries, just 20 minutes from Stockholm city, the archipelago feels a world away, with its diverse seascape from coves and sandy beaches to rugged cliffs battered by the sea, and hideaway islands with dense woods. Some of the islands are reached by bridges, while others involve a ferry ride into the Baltic (above).
Island life can be experienced on any level, whether you choose the vibrant harbour of historic Sandhamn town on Sandon island or take to the adventure of a sea-kayaking and wild camping tour.
There are also plenty of celebrations to join, such as maypole dancing at the island fortress of Vaxholm. A symbol of fertility, the midsummer maypole is decorated with wildflowers and honoured with ring dances, to ensure there will be a plentiful harvest.
“For me, midsummer is a celebration of summer, nature and our Swedish heritage; a time to spend with family and friends, and make new acquaintances,” says Stockholmer Maria Winterstrid. “To be in the countryside, eating smorgasbord (a range of hot and cold dishes; above) with herring and freshly harvested potatoes, drinking schnapps, singing silly songs with flower wreaths on your head and dancing around the maypole.”
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Back in Stockholm, I take a step out of the summer light to visit the ongoing Nordic Light exhibition (above) at the Nordic Museum. Again, I consider the significance of light in Scandinavia, especially before the advent of electricity. It also reminds me that the city’s contrasting seasons of light can be as bewitching in winter, whether you are snug in a candlelit cafe or following the silver trail of the moon glittering on fresh snow.
– TEXT BY NOELLE HARRISON
PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES, MEDIABANK.VISITSTOCKHOLM.COM, ANTHON HANSSON, LANGHOLMEN HOTELL FACEBOOK
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.