Stockholm & Helsinki*


You are walking up the same marble stairs where Nobel Prize winners have made their way since 1901 and will again make their way on December 10th of this year.

It’s the City Hall in Stockholm and you’re in the Blue Hall, gazing up at the granite pillars and exposed brick walls that stretch seventy-five feet from floor to ceiling. Called the Blue Hall and not a spot of blue anywhere? Designed by Ragnar Östberg, a Swedish architect who was inspired by Italian design, it was imagined as a soaring ceiling-free space with a view of an azure sky. The climate demanded a roof be added, but it’s been stuck with the misnomer for over a hundred years.

This year 1300 carefully chosen world citizens will await the five-allotted-minutes of winners’ speeches and the bestowing of the big checks. They will dine on menus prepared by 25 of the best chefs in Sweden and be served by hundreds of waiters dressed in black and white. Then they’ll proceed to the aptly named Golden Room, with its leaded windows and walls of Byzantine gold mosaic tile. This is where, under crystal chandeliers the guests will dance away the night.

As you stand right in the spot where the most coveted award in the world is celebrated annually, Stockholm comes very much alive, but it’s just part of reason to visit the city.

Built on fourteen islands and called “image-conscious”, “trend-hungry” and “tech-friendly,” it is richly historical as well, with its Old Town of narrow cobblestone streets and clutter of shops, its Royal Palace, National Museum, and the Vasa.

A Viking ship, buried in the Baltic since it went down in 1628, was discovered about three miles from the city some forty years ago, salvaged and rebuilt, the restoration finally recently completed. Pulled out of the deep complete with 27 bodies, casks of spirits, the bones of meat intended to feed the passengers, personal items like toys and other chilling artifacts, it is a whopper of an attraction, drawing 800,000 visitors to the museum every year. An on-site short film tells the story of the ship in several languages.
Other, cheerier landmarks can be found at the Storkyrkan, the cathedral famous for its statue of the city’s patron saint, George, (and a popular site for weddings) or at one of Stockholm’s many parks. These are everywhere, the most popular being Djurgarden, the former royal hunting ground, now quiet, scenic and vast, or for a livelier experience, Skansen, an amusement park/zoo well known for its exhibit of Sweden’s 19th Century rural roots, complete with old farmhouses, reindeer and craftmen’s shops.

Wherever you head in Stockholm, water views are not far away, and neither are some of the finest restaurants in Europe, as for example, the Operakälleren. Here you have a choice of casual dining at reasonable prices in one room, or, as one diner put it, going into “a food coma,” in the lush ambience of red brocade, Austrian shades and Victorian oil portraits of naked ladies (with foliage painted over the strategic spots)in another.
Feasting here on such dishes as “Baked Bass with vanilla flavoured sauce and vegetable ragout wrapped in chard” or “saddle of rabbit with olive sauce and a zucchini flowers stuffed with anchovies” should be high on your wish list if you care to spend the roughly $40 per entree. Other big-time restaurant choices range from the posh Fredsgatan known particularly for its Swedish specialties (order a Tamarind Sling drink to go with here!) to the easier-on-your-pocketbook Tranan, a local, casual beer café.

Should all this and more tempt you to go to Stockholm this year, it just happens there’s a special package available combining a visit to Sweden with one to nearby Finland. A luxury seven-day vacation connects Stockholm and Helsinki by one night on a Silja cruise ship (the size of a horizontal skyscraper with gambling, music, and shopping aboard gets you from here to there) and the entire trip is available for $1798 per person, SAS round-trip airfare and limo from the airport included. The efficient and inexpensive (approximately $1.50) public transit system in both cities makes getting around economical and convenient.

What’s in Helsinki besides the saunas? First, the Kämp, a world-class hotel considered the best in Finland, where you get to stay. Then, there’s design. Lots of it, everywhere. A visit to the Arabia factory, the showrooms of Ittala and Hackman, a chance to shop all three at a nice discount, is a good beginning. The home of the famous architect-designer, Eliel Saarinen, now open to the public at Hvitträsk, is not far from town. Finlandia, a concert hall designed by Alvar Aalto, has soaring ceilings, marble stairs designed for dramatic entrances, is also worth a stop. The new Kiasma Museum, dedicated to groundbreaking works of contemporary art, deserves a look as well, but one needs only to keep eyes open to see that Finland is art conscious, and blends the latest, sleek and functional design–think Fiskars scissors, Nokia mobile phones, Kosta Boda glass–with the best of the past.
An excellent example of the mix is the Kappeli Bar-Restaurant on the Esplanade in the center of town. Here is an old-world bar, cozy and intimate, connected with its alter-ego restaurant, sleek as a modern furniture showroom. It’s like stepping from one century to the next, with both sharing the same park view.

At Sundmans restaurant, you’ll find pale gold walls, ferns, 19th Century gentility, and feel as if you’re dining in some ancestor’s elegant dining room instead of a restaurant. Choose from one of their 5000 bottles of wine and enjoy a selection from a tasseled menu: “Breast and leg of wild duck á la G.W.Sundmans,” at about $35, or “Arctic char stuffed with crayfish tails, creamy crayfish sauce,” at $33. (Char is a local fish.) Or try the more contemporary Nokka; it’s multilevel with an open kitchen and walk-in wine cellar, but be warned that all alcoholic beverages are imported in Finland and therefore not inexpensive.

less costly option might be to grab a bite at Café Strindberg, and wash it down with the local beer, Lapin Kulta. The restaurant is two-level, buffet style on the ground floor, lounge chairs and table service upstairs. You can count on wonderful fresh bread here as almost everywhere in Helsinki, and menus with English translations are universal.
Strictly speaking, Finland is not a part of Scandinavia, but is considered a Nordic country. For centuries part of Sweden, later under Russian rule, it’s sort of a hybrid, with influences from both countries and a language and identity all its own. Since 1995 a part of the European Union, it uses Euros as currency (in Sweden it’s the Krona) and happily, almost everyone speaks English in both cities, making Americans feel right at home.