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the Good Life in Sverige
tour guide in Copenhagen told my wife Ruth and me that Danes tend to
dislike English-speaking visitors. “So say something bad about the
Swedes,” he added, “and Danes will become immediately friendly and
agree with you…in English.”
Why is that? They’re probably jealous. Swedes are just about the
most fortunate people in the world. They
have not fought a war or even had a major conflict with another country
for over 180 years. Taxes are high, but the social safety net (which the
government is trying to poke holes in) makes almost everyone prosperous.
The law mandates five weeks of paid vacation annually.
Sexual equality is a given here, so the percentage of women in
government is the world’s highest. Male
and female salaries are almost equal, as are child-rearing
Saab, IKEA, Orrefors, Ericsson, Electrolux, Volvo. Swedish products
are known throughout the world for beauty of design and high quality.
Fewer than nine million people produce them. The safety match and the seat
belt were Swedish inventions, as was Alfred Nobel’s dynamite.
Nobel’s name is one of the world’s most recognizable because
his will was full of prizes. The ceremony to award them is held each
winter in Stockholm’s Italian Renaissance Town Hall (Stadshuset), a
magnet for visitors, who must take a guided tour to see the banquet room.
Sweden, the fifth largest country in Europe, is slightly larger
than California. Our Guide to
Stockholm, its capital, as, “The essence of a country in one city”,
and so it is. Home to one and a half million people, Stockholm rests
elegantly on several islands between the Baltic Sea and Lake Mälaren. It
is where most travelers will visit and most immigrants (one out of nine
people here) will reside.
Besides Town Hall there are many other must see and easily
accessible attractions in Stockholm.
Its number one draw is the Vasa Museum. The Vasa is a 1628 warship,
the flagship of the Swedish Navy, which sank embarrassingly fifteen
minutes into its maiden voyage. Risen
and restored, the only one of its kind in the world, the Vasa is
surrounded by fascinating, historical displays.
Skansen, the world’s first open-air museum, sits on a hilltop on
Djurgarden (also home to the Vasa Museum), the former royal hunting ground
but now a recreational island and a sunny day magnet for Swedes.
Strollers in Skansen see rustic houses, farm buildings, tiny
one-room cottages, and complete manors, all brought here from other places
and painstakingly rebuilt. Formal gardens, folk dancers, a children’s
zoo, an aquarium, and professional entertainers add to the enjoyment.
Contiguous are the Grona Lund Tivoli, an amusement park with an old
fashioned tunnel of love and a new fashioned, 347-foot free-fall tower.
One of the best restaurants in Stockholm, Ulla Winbladh, is nearby.
The Royal Palace in Gamla Stan (Old Town) introduces outsiders to
the much-respected royal family, King Carl Gustav XVI, his wife Silvia,
and their three photogenic children. Real power rests in the Prime
Minister, a single-chamber parliament, and seven political parties. The
King now resides elsewhere and only uses this palace for official duties.
As part of a tour, visitors have access to many important rooms (there are
more than 600 of them, making it the largest palace in the world still in
use), including the guest chamber where many rulers, like the Emperor of
Japan, have resided.
The Gamla Stan, a real neighborhood on a small island connected by
bridges to the mainland, is the oldest part of Stockholm, dating back to
the 13th century. Its
Hanseatic streets still look medieval, and many of its stores are more
upscale than those found in the usual tourist areas.
The Nordiska Museet has great displays of Swedish athleticism,
scientific smarts, and culture (crayfish parties and, of course,
smorgasbord) and a not-to-be-missed area devoted to Abba, the 70s super
music group that put Swedish pop on top and has had a resurgence due to
the success of Mama Mia.
There are 70 museums in this city but only one Laundromat, the
welcoming Tvättomat at Västmannagatan 61 (visitors must bring clean
clothes or rely on reportedly unreliable and slow hotel service).
One of the more offbeat museums is the International Puppet Theatre
Museum (over 4,000 puppets from all over the world). The Postmuseum doesn’t sound especially interesting, but it
is. Its stamps, letter
delivery displays, and library are in a beautiful building in the Gamla
Stan, which has been owned by the Postal Service since 1720.
The Wine & Spirits Historical Museum is both instructive and a
curious enigma in an Evangelical Lutheran country.
Shopping in Gamla Stan’s charming streets is easily done on foot.
And it’s a brief walk from there to the main department store, NK (Nordiska
Kompaniet), purveyor of quality goods since 1902. Drottninggaten, a carless street with lots of human traffic,
is also fun. Those who wander
into Ostermalm, this city’s poshest neighborhood, will think they are in
Paris on a shopping spree. Authentic
Swedish crafts can be purchased at Svensk Hemslojd at Sveavagen 44.
While prices everywhere are generally high, quality is exceptional,
and two factors help the visitor. Shoppers
who spend more than SEK200 (about $23 at the time of our visit) are
entitled to refunds of 15 to 18 percent on purchases.
Moreover, Sweden is part of the European Union that has adopted the
euro, so other currencies currently benefit.
Despite its reputation, a visit to Stockholm need not be
outrageously expensive. A
one-day Stockholm Card can be purchased for about $21.
It allows free admission to seventy museums and attractions, free
travel on the efficient Stockholm underground, local buses and trams, and
commuter trains, free parking in metered spaces, and free boat
sightseeing. It’s a genuine
bargain, and the explanatory guidebook, which comes with its purchase, is
a gem. A two-day pass costs
$37 and a three-day about $53. The Stockhohm Card can be purchased in
several places, like Central Station; but the most convenient place is
Sverigehuset (Sweden House), Stockholm’s busy main tourist information
center at Hamngatan 27. Kungsträdgården,
a delightful, popular park, is just to the right as you exit.
Nordiska Kompaniet is across the street.
Accommodations need not bankrupt travelers either. Two hundred
hotels in Scandinavia (Rainbow, Sweden Hotels, etc.) have joined together
to offer a Scan+ card for 12 euros ($10.91), which entitles two adults and
accompanying children to discounts of up to 50% on accommodations at
participating hotels. Eighteen of them are in Stockholm. The Kom, for
example, is well-located and comfortable, with large rooms and competent
service. Most room rates include a breakfast buffet with lots of
choices. The Scan+ is valid
from May 1 until September 30 and all weekends the rest of the year.
Every fifth night is free. Scan+
cards are available at www.scanplus.no or you can buy and use one at
your first accommodation, like we did.
Should a visitor to Sweden fall in love with the place and decide
to stay, he or she might find a welcome, especially if one has skills in
the technical manufacturing area.
Sweden has the oldest population in the world (one in five has
blown out 65, or more, candles), so it has welcomed emigration.
Most Swedes speak English. It is taught in the schools, which
produce 100% literacy. English
is so entrenched that TV programs and English language films are neither
dubbed nor subtitled.
(Editor's note: A Swedish reader tells us that this is not true for all
The assumption that simply being here gives you access to the
complicated health system is false. Many surprised foreigners have been
presented with bills for the entire cost of treatment and medicine at both
private and public clinics. Special travel health insurance is advised.
Swedes call their country Sverige (pronounced sver ee uh)
and, though I asked several contented Swedes this word’s origin, no one
could tell me what it means in English. It probably means the good life. If it
doesn’t, it should. But
don’t say that to a Dane.