A white line etched around where there’d been a stricken body. Two clues but no gun. And a detective in a beaten grey trench coat that makes him look like Humphrey Bogart. Then, more tales of grisly killings and dismemberment. A hand touches my shoulder and my heart pounds: I wonder if I’ll be the next victim? But my imagination is running away with itself; I haven’t come to the capital of Sweden for slaughter and mayhem, but am on a murder mystery tour as Scandinavian crime novels are all the rage at the moment. And the only foul play would be if I didn’t fully explore this city of 14 idyllic islands spread out like huge water lilies where Lake Mälaren meets the Baltic.
Founded by Birger Jarl in the 13th century, the nucleus of Stockholm is a mosaic of four districts (Innerstaden). The edgy, grunge-chic bohemia of Södermalm in the south is a pleasing antidote to the north’s more functionalist office block and chain store-peppered commercial hub of Norrmalm. Elsewhere, the wide, leafy boulevards of the East’s Östermalm are home to most of Sweden’s old money, reminiscent of London’s Knightsbridge. A 15-minute walk will take you to its counterpart, the up-and-coming Kungsholmen – all loft living, cool bars and chic bistros.
Before we go any further, let’s first dispel a cliché as overused as two teens bonking just before they get knocked off in a horror movie: all the guys here are not 6’ 4’ hunks with corn-gold crops of hair and six packs etched onto their torsos instead of in the fridge. Nevertheless, the exquisite, almost equal mixture of green open spaces, waterways and residential areas that make up this metropolis, definitely contains more than a few!
Last time I did a traditional city tour, it was about as exciting as measuring the amount of slime a slug produces every five seconds. But, as you’ve already witnessed, the murder mystery trail puts a rather hair-raising slant on such proceedings. To be sure, the spindly narrow streets and pastel facades of their 19th-century townhouses have never seemed more alive than when we creep around under moonlight, like we should be in CSI. And there’s a palpable sense of shock when we see where the prime minster Olof Palme was mowed down by a hail of bullets in 1986, on the road that now bears his name. In a similar vein, the Millennium Walk is just as interesting because it features the planet’s most kickass sleuth right now, Lisbeth Salander. The bisexual, cyberpunk vigilante is the heroine of Stieg Larsson’s three books and subsequent films (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo starts off the series) that have added a new dimension to crime fiction. And it is enjoyable to learn about her and get some general nuggets of information about this municipality as I swing by some of the imagined haunts in the novels. Some of Larsson’s characters’ apartments are right next to my favourite part of Stockholm, SoFo. Known by its Manhattan-inspired acronym, this neighbourhood “South of Folkungagatan”, is probably the hippest milieu in the whole of Scandinavia. Indeed, it would take me several visits to drop in on all of its trendy drinking dens and cafés like the Pet Sounds Bar and String. Fashion-wise the area’s bursting at the seams, whether it is due to Nudie Jeans, who specialize in raw and prewashed denim, or Tjallamalla and their smörgåsbord of young designers and stylish labels. And for the ultimate accessory look no further than Björn Borg. Renowned for fluffing up and spanking his opponent’s balls during consecutive Wimbledon wins (1976-1980), the tennis icon now has a hand in millions of pairs of goolies as they are wrapped in his brand of underwear.
When you get to my age, it’s comforting to know there’s something that looks even more of a wreck than I do in the morning. Stretched out before me is the ravaged oak hulk of the Vasa, with a plethora of canon hatches, and lengths of hemp rigging as intricate as any spider’s web. Built by King Gustav II Adolf in 1628, the 70-metre vessel was meant to be a fearsome war machine. However, she sunk just off the coast of Stockholm due to design faults, in less time – about two minutes – than it’s taken the Lib Dems to jettison most of their election promises. Remarkably, the boat was raised in 1961 and painfully preserved, and is now housed in the eponymous museum. Another great stop-off is the Moderna Museet. The gallery is partly famed for being the initial place to grant Pop Art meister Andy Warhol a solo show, in the 60s. Nowadays its permanent collection includes the breathtaking collision of colours and geometric shapes that amounts to the cubism of Picasso and the deceptive allure of Salvador Dali’s surrealism. Notwithstanding, what impresses me most about this institution is that it’s the first anywhere to offer a “Queer audioguide”. During it, I am constantly enlightened as the angst-ridden haunting canvases of Edvard Munch and other painters are analysed from sexual identity and gender role perspectives.
Stockholm’s much smaller than London, with a population of only 820,000, so the gay scene is of commensurately modest size. Nonetheless, I have more of a thrill than the A-Team’s Mr T in a jewellery outlet, whenever I hit town. It’s hard not to, when you can let it all hang out in slick nightclubs like Zipper (Saturday’s only). Inside, the basement shindig hordes of hunks cut loose to everything from classic soul to pop and RnB. The night after the morning before (Friday) – sorry, I always get confused after so much booze – I was in Kolingsborg. Its three floors were packed to the rafters with hot to trot totty, especially in front of the main stage where there was a Lady Gaga impersonator. Even though she wasn’t the real thing, no one had a “Poker Face” or cared about their last “Bad Romance”, because she was so fab. And I don’t know whether to sink and swim or do a hop, skip and jump when I enter the fun and frivolity of a boat that really rocks: Patricia. Over 70 years old and formerly used as a luxury yacht by Queen Elizabeth II, she’s now permanently moored in Södermalm. I stand out on deck with schlager (Swedish Eurovision) spilling out from one of the several dance areas, watching the last odd twinkle of stars which indicate that night is falling into dawn.
Truth be told, Gordon Ramsay might not get a hard-on when it comes to Stockholm’s number of Michelin starred restaurants, given there are only six. Even so, I find there are enough swanky eateries to make me as ravenous as an aardvark in a termite mound. One of the new kids on the block is Monarki, which was named in honour of their nation’s royals (before their recent sex and Nazi scandals, the owners hasten to add). Its interiors have a classic elegance, but with a touch of avant-garde. The burgundy wallpaper is alive with patterned pink flowers, thick olive curtains surround trestle tables, and there are half-ovoid lights which could almost be Lilliputian spacecraft. A friend and I tuck into king prawns and seared scallop in coconut and lime broth with udon noodles. The explosion of flavours is so scrumptious, I think my tongue’s going to flip out and do a cartwheel.
Next time I grab some grub, I’m in a place that’s cold enough to freeze the bollocks off an Eskimo. Quite literally – welcome to the Absolut Ice Bar. Part of the Nordic Sea Hotel (which also serves tantalising local food), it was the first such permanent ice structure in the world, made entirely from the frozen white stuff brought especially from the north of the country and then sculpted. Of course, in the hazy-blue glow of such frosty environs (the temperature is kept at -5˚C), I normally would be chilled to the bone. But I’m wearing a fetching charcoal-grey Parka that makes it look like I’m off to the Himalayas to wrestle with a Yeti. Added to which, I sink a delicious passion fruit and vodka cocktail that puts more than a bit of fire in my belly.
Coming to this metropolis without visiting its picturesque archipelago (skärgård) would be about as crazy as trying to stop an avalanche with a thimble. And I feel like James Bond as my rigid inflatable boat zooms – it can reach speeds of up to 109 km/h – over the deep blue swirls of the Baltic. There are over 24,000 islands each with their own distinct character, from the woody expanses, ambrosial meadows and sheltered coves of Finnhamn, to the lush beaches and stripy red-and-white 19th-century lighthouse on Arholma. Heading back as squawking gulls dip and swerve under the monochrome horizon, I realise my memories of Stockholm will last a whole lifetime.
Xav travelled with SAS (0871 226 7760; flysas.com), which flies from Heathrow, Edinburgh and Manchester to Stockholm, with returns from £124. Staying there: Lady Hamilton Hotel, Storkyrkobrinken 5, 0046 8506 40100, thecollectorshotels.se, double rooms from 1690kr (£162). Ice Bar, 0046 85056 3520, nordicseahotel.se. Monarki, 0046 8400 2040, monarki.eu. Murder Mystery Tour, stockholmmurdertours.com. Rigid Inflatable Boat, ribsightseeing.se. Stieg Larsson Millennium Walk, stadsmuseum.stockholm.se. Lonely Planet Guide to Sweden, lonelyplanetguide.com.
Words: Xav Judd