Nearly every day, Jonathan and I look around at our surroundings, in appreciation and awe of this stunning and diverse city. We've been here for six weeks now and we are absolutely in love.
For one thing, Stockholm is an incredibly international city. The population is 1.6 million, a third of which is foreign-born. Often, when people think of Sweden they picture tall blonds. I imagine that assumption is accurate in some areas of Sweden, but in Stockholm there’s a large variety of people, backgrounds, nationalities, and languages. It creates such a sense of possibility.
New and old buildings work together to create a charming cityscape with art around every corner, for instance the subway is the longest art exhibit in the world.
Medieval buildings sit next to modern ones. Whole blocks of red and yellow-roofed buildings butt up against more standard cream-colored buildings with matte-black roofs. Stockholm’s historic buildings have been conserved well since the city escaped the destruction caused by war that so many of the other cities in Europe experienced.
From the center of the city, the oldest part, Gamla Stan, or The Old Town, many of the longest-standing buildings exist—mostly churches and royal buildings. These buildings were built between 1250 and 1600. They are low-ceilinged, sometimes leaning, and heavily-packed together. Very similar to medieval areas that we saw in Barcelona. The co-working space that Jonathan and I work from is on Gamla Stan, right across from the palace, where every day we see the changing of the guard from the most beautiful space I’ve ever worked out. It's named, The Castle, and is a five-story space, housed in what used to be an old church.
Among all of the man-made beauty, the forests, parks, and water make Stockholm an idyllic combination of urban landscape and nature getaway.
Throughout the city there’s an abundance of home goods and Scandinavian design stores. One of our favorites is DesignTorget. Fire, candles, and cozy blankets are everywhere here. It’s one of those stores where you want to buy every single thing. Chambersticks, linens, knick knacks, plants, hanging lights, cookbooks, and the mortar and pestle that I never need but feel like I have to have. All of it is beautifully designed and made of quality, sustainable materials.
But, for us, the shopping is the least interesting part of this city. We’ve spent many days visiting Stockholm’s museums like, the City Hall, built of eight million red bricks, featuring a tall spire and tower that visitors climb. This building is an icon of Stockholm. If you see any skyline photo or illustration, it likely includes City Hall.
We visited City Hall one lazy Sunday and it was well-worth it. Set on the edge of Kungsholmen, one of the 14 islands that make up Stockholm, it has a stunning view of the entire city. This building is where the Nobel Prize dinner is held every year and also where the offices and meeting rooms of the 200 people in the municipal council are housed. Its huge halls are covered in paintings and tapestries. It’s almost overwhelming how immense and decadent these rooms are, especially the grand hall whose walls are lined in actual gold.
In the center of the city, one island, Skeppsholmen, is almost entirely dedicated to museums, the Modern Art Museum and the Architecture and Design Museum (ArkDes). We visited the ArkDes to catch the tail-end of an exhibit—The Future Starts Here—an exploration of how technology is shaping our lives and its potential impacts on each of us and the world. It was a fantastic exhibit, featuring art, design, and cultural objects that we use in our day-to-day lives, technology that is shaping politics, design of cities and space, and the future of technology and humanity.
Outside of the temporary exhibit, is the primary museum, the core of which is a large room with stations, along the walls featuring displays with pictures and descriptions sharing information on the architecture through time periods in Stockholm. Set away from the wall, at each station, there is a dedicated table filled with models, materials, and actual relics from the architecture of that era. It’s one of the coolest exhibits I’ve seen and was a wonderful way to see how the city has evolved.
In addition to the museums, the libraries in Stockholm are incredible. They are built with the purpose of showcasing the books and providing an abundance of workspace. All of the libraries I’ve visited are regal on the outside and cozy on the inside, with dark wood and green bankers lamps. They are everything libraries should be. And what is best about them is how incredibly accessible they are. The space isn’t just reserved for students or members or some exclusive group of PhDs like other libraries I’ve tried to visit on our travels. Instead, it’s open to everyone, as I believe libraries should be.
It’s this commitment to accessibility that makes me love Stockholm so much. When we visited the Stockholm City Museum, (a beautiful free museum in our neighborhood) I read about how when they started their planning efforts, in the 1800s, to expand the city out of the Old Town, the planning committee worked to design residences and commercial spaces prioritizing access to light, functional places to live, an abundance of public spaces, and accessibility. It’s amazing to me that this kind of foresight existed even then. Today, there is a Stockholm City plan in the works to support the Stockholm of 2040. Its core focus is a "Stockholm for everyone.” And its goals are :
- Provide good accessibility to accommodate a growing city
- Create a cohesive city where “people with different backgrounds must be able to encounter each other”…and “must be accessible to all of the city’s residents."
- Provide good public spaces to “offer a good environment in which to live with good access to the benefits of urban living and well-designed, safe public spaces encouraging participation and engagement in local community life."
- Create a climate-smart and resilient city “in which efficient land use and transport-efficient lay-out foster greater accessibility, a lower climate impact, and limited consumption of resources."
In no other city have I seen such recognition of and building for not just functionality, but quality of life for everyone. There’s an honest acknowledgement of human needs. The benefits of being connected to one another and nature, to exist in nice and comfortable spaces, and designing for accessibility for all.
Unlike the UK, where many parks are private and libraries had limited access or in the US where walkability and public transportation are seemingly last on the list of priorities. There are open beaches, parks, libraries, free museums, and seating areas all over this extremely walkable and subway-connected city.
I’m sure that Sweden has its faults and that many cities have very similar initiatives as the ones I’m describing here in Stockholm, but I’ve yet to see a city that works as well as this one does.
I've also never seen a city with a hat exhibit in the street!