Generally we base our travel decisions on what we already know about the countries we plan to visit. Many decide they want to explore France, for example. It’s a popular country for tourists because of what it’s known for. We’ve heard they have great food, interesting architecture, and arguably one of the most beautiful languages. There, I did it, I finally gave France a compliment. Post after post, I’ve cheap-shot, lamb-basted, and all together roasted that crêpe eating country every chance I could get. I figured now was a good time to ease up a little. They really do have fine cuisine and beautiful surroundings. So, for at least the duration of this post I’ll try to do my best to be kind towards France. After all, I could have listed the things that it isn’t known for, like friendly people or occasionally, deodorant.
However, the real star of this post is Sweden. And, what do we know about Sweden? “Um, well…lot’s of things. They have meatballs, they have Ikea, and uh…did I mention the meatballs?” The sad reality is, at least for most non-Europeans, we don’t really know much about the place. Which, in turn, causes many to overlook Sweden as a tourist destination. In fact, the only reason I had the chance to visit was because I was on my way to Norway. I figure if I’m going all the way to Scandinavia (an area of Northern Europe consisting of: Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, and various Nordic islands), I might as well see a couple of its countries.
Most likely, the cheapest Swedish airport to fly into would be Stockholm-Skavsta. It is a bit out of the way, but if you don’t mind taking the scenic route you can be in Stockholm city center in about 1 1/2 hours. A one way (enkel resa) ticket for the bus costs about $18.
Speaking of cash, I’d like to address a common conundrum when it comes to foreign currency. I’ve noticed many will bring along a stack of bills from home in hopes of converting it upon arrival. While conversion booths would love for you to do this, it is by no means the most economical option. I remember my very first visit to Europe, I brought some US Dollars with me. I have to admit, there’s something reassuring about having cold hard cash with you, especially when you are in a foreign land. I practically skipped up the steps to the nearest money conversion office, ready to receive my crisp new UK pound notes. “Sure”, the man said, “the current rate is 1 pound for 2 dollars”. Ridiculous! At the time, the real rate was around £1 to $1.50. I wasn’t about to lose .50¢ on every pound I spent. Fortunately, a friend of mine was headed to the U.S. and he needed dollars. So, we did a clean swap to both of our advantages. Money changing booths always charge something for their services, and it adds up quickly. Instead of bringing cash along, call your bank or credit card company ahead of time. Inform them of which countries you plan to visit, and check on their foreign transaction fees. Personally, I shopped around until I found a bank that didn’t charge those fees. Anyway, once you arrive, head to any ATM in the train station or airport. Here in Europe there’s generally no extra fees for making withdrawals, and you get the absolute best exchange rate in your favor. (Though your bank may charge its own fee.)
So, back to Sweden. If you take the bus from Skavsta, you’ll be dropped off right in front of Stockholm Central Station. There’s a perfect opportunity for you to head over to any “Minibank” (ATM) and withdraw some Kronor. As with all of the Nordic countries, (besides Finland) Sweden is not on the Euro. While the exchange rate appears to be in most tourists’ favor (i.e. 1 Euro = 9.40 Swedish Krona), do not be deceived! Most of Scandinavia is not at all cheap. To do a quick mental conversion, when you see the price, simply move the decimal point once to the left. If it’s 135.00 Kronor, then it’s about €13.50. If you are on the dollar, then add about 10% to that. Keep in mind each Scandinavian country has their own Crown, meaning you’ll need to withdraw different currencies whenever you cross the border. The exchange rates are practically identical, so you don’t have to worry about doing extra math.
As far as accommodations go, be sure to read the hotel description thoroughly. You can get stellar deals on hotel rooms, but it usually comes with compromise. Nothing too major though. The room I booked in Stockholm was only missing a bathroom, a mini fridge, a microwave, a TV, a phone, tissues, cups, mini shampoos, those, often dusty, decorative soaps, and, oh yeah, it was in a windowless basement. Imagine being taken hostage and trapped in an abandoned Ikea warehouse overnight, and to think, I paid to be trapped there! While it may not be a luxury retreat, if all you need is a place to sleep, it will definitely get the job done.
Considering I was already staying in an Ikea warehouse, the only thing left to check off my Swedish checklist was the meatballs. I searched high and low, up and down alleys, through people’s homes even, looking for those elusive edible orbs. You’d think if it was one of the two things your country was known for, they would make signs for aimless tourists like me. “Meatballs 200m this way” with some sort of flickering neon arrow.
After hours of searching, weighed down by bags of Swedish moose key chains, I finally found someone eating a plate of meatballs at a small, but packed little bistro. (I have to admit, I was slightly tempted to yell out: “Hey look! It’s ABBA!!, which in Sweden would have caused sudden panic followed by a dangerous stampede of excited fans. The perfect opportunity to slip behind the scenes with the meatballs, but I restrained myself. If the lady hadn’t already eaten one, it may have been a different story…) After reading the menu, I learned the Swedish word for meatballs is köttbullar. Had I known that, I would have realized I was surrounded by meatballs the entire time (that actually sounds kind of creepy. Maybe it’s better I didn’t know). Once you sink your teeth into one of these mouth-watering spheres of Sweden, you’ll never set foot in an Ikea cafeteria again. I had no idea meatballs could taste so good, especially when they are accompanied by homemade mashed potatoes, lingonberry compote, and the most amazing tart cucumber salad translated as “pickles” you’ll ever lay taste buds on. My recommendation, start with a smoked reindeer salad, then enjoy the köttbullar, of course. (If you’ve finished the appetizer and someone receives their meatballs before you, feel free to use the ABBA maneuver at this point.) Tie it all together swimmingly with a delicious local apple cider. I didn’t realize this at the time, but afterwards you should go for an ice cream. Apparently they’re known for their waffle cones which they make right in front of you. The smell in itself is seductive.
Sadly, the extent of my trip only included spending an evening and a morning in Stockholm, so my advice is quite limited. Although, if you are on some sort of blitz trip through Europe, and you’re searching for a unique destination, a day in Stockholm would be very well spent. The city is situated right on the water, on the banks of the archipelago that connects Lake Mälaren to the Baltic Sea, making the views nothing short of extraordinary. If you are visiting in the summer time don’t expect the sun to go down any time soon. Though it is considered “Southern Sweden”, bear in mind you’ll be sharing the same latitude as Juneau, AK. With sunsets around 10:30-11:00pm and restaurants staying open till dark, you’ll have plenty of time to meander Stockholm’s many unique alleyways and cobble stone roads, looking for meatballs, of course. Or you could spend your time perusing the many gift shops playing the “try to spot a souvenir that doesn’t have a moose on it” game (never did win that…). Another word of advice, if you do decide to go big and book a room that has a window in it (someone’s fancy), make sure you close the curtains. That is, unless you don’t mind being awoken at 4:00am with the sun burning through your eyelids. Who knew staying in a basement had its advantages?
So, if you’re planning to make a trip up to Scandinavia, I’d certainly recommend paying a visit to Sweden. Planning a trip to the Fjords in Norway? Check out the option of flying into Stockholm first and take a train over. In my case, it was almost the same price. Swedish trains are both ultra modern and impeccable, and with the going rate for a ticket from Stockholm to Oslo being around €30, it’s the most affordable thing you can find there. Not to mention the phenomenal views along the way.
Sweden may not be the most well-known (or the warmest) travel destination, but windowless accommodations, excessive moose memorabilia, and confusing exchange rates aside, giving Sweden a chance will undoubtedly leave you coming back for more…meatballs.
Editor’s note: No reindeer were hurt during the writing of this post. Well, I mean I had nothing to do with it. It was dead when I got there, I swear.