Northern Light

Is Stockholm, Sweden the world’s gayest city? Its fabulous residents and 6.5 million annual visitors might say so. With a cosmopolitan attitude and enough activities and sights to keep tourists occupied for a month, the “capital of Scandinavia” proves that Sweden offers more than just meatballs.

Scattered among 14 islands between the deep blue Baltic Sea and the Lake of Mälaren, Stockholm is constantly described in superlatives: the most beautiful, the greenest and the gayest city in Europe are just a few of its accolades. With more than 750 years of history, Stockholm’s medieval origins are evident in its twisty street plans and ancient houses, while its role as a centuries-old seaport is obvious. Stockholm’s museums house world-renown collections of art, archeological finds and historical artifacts.

But Stockholm always looks forward. Thirty percent of its area is open green space, with an equal amount of waterways, making the city one of the most environmentally sound in the world; its air and water are unusually clean for a major metropolis. To get around, residents and visitors alike bike, sail and walk as a matter of course. The public transportation system is modern, reliable and dirt-cheap.

Stockholm’s reputation as an open, cosmopolitan city isn’t just marketing-speak. Sweden legalized same-sex marriage in 2009; civil unions had been legal since way back in 1995. Gender-neutral marriages have the support of the dominant Church of Sweden as well: in 2009, its leaders voted overwhelmingly in favor of allowing priests to wed same-sex couples in religious ceremonies.

“Stockholm is a fantastic city in many ways, although we also have things to work on,” says Pär Wiktorsson, president of Stockholm Pride. “We have rich nightlife with a great variety of different nightclubs for different tastes. The climate is usually warm and friendly when it comes to LGBT issues–and in general during summer—of which Stockholm Pride and our many visitors, participants and supporters are proof,” he adds.

The Swedish capital hosted EuroPride in 2008 and produces its own weeklong celebration in late July/early August. Stockholm Pride festivities begin with Pride House, featuring LGBT-themed panels and performances; and Pride Park, a festival with live acts, booths for political parties and vendors. Forty thousand people march in the parade that culminates the event, while 350,000 more watch from the side, making it one of Europe’s largest gay festivals.

“That we are a platform for participants to make their voices heard and gather for a lot of fun is extremely rewarding,” Wiktorsson adds. “The mix of party, politics and culture during the same Pride celebration offers something new to experience each year. This year’s theme is Openness (Öppenhet), because we want people to think about the norms in our society so that it can become more open to different people and different ways of living. Where do we draw the line for how much one may stand out and how much do one have to adjust to fit in? It’s a direct continuance of the previous years’ themes Hetero (2009) and Power (2010).”

Check QX Magazine’s online guide to gay Stockholm ( and download its essential “gaymap” to the LGBT clubs, shops and hotels. You won’t have to look far for a gay bar or restaurant in Stockholm—even ostensibly straight establishments are extra-friendly—and snogging your girlfriend in public won’t raise anyone’s eyebrows.

Gamla Stan (Old Town) forms the ancient heart of central Stockholm and its most picturesque neighborhood. Though the medieval streets are lined with Renaissance churches, 18th century palaces and museums, the quarter is also a hotbed of art galleries, restaurants, bars and upscale boutiques with rainbow flags fluttering in the breeze. One could poke through the antique shops and museums in the morning, then end your evening at a trendy bar, yelling Skål! (cheers!) at the top of your lungs with aquavit in hand.

South of Gamla Stan, Södermalm is the SoHo of Stockholm, brimming with art galleries, cafes and shops peddling effortlessly cool Scandinavian design. Its hottest neighborhood even has a similar name: SoFo, shorthand for “south of Folkungagatan [street].” SoFo is the bohemian quarter of Södermalm and thus a hotspot for lesbian carousing, with the city’s most popular lesbian hangouts. It’s the best place to go to avoid the very commercial “city” area and its crowds.

For unbeatable location–close to all of the city’s major sights and entertainment–choose a hotel in Gamla Stan. The mid-priced Lady Hamilton Hotel (Storkyrkobrinken 5, 46(0)8-5064 01 00, is decorated with hundreds of antique paintings, statues and drawings of the titular mistress of the British naval hero Lord Nelson—there’s even a ship’s figurehead in the lobby in the shape of a comely brunette. Rooms are cozily designed in a Swedish country motif, and every female guest receives a “lady kit” with beauty products, chocolates, mineral water, bathrobe, slippers and other goodies.

The gay-owned Hotel Skeppsholmen (Gröna gången 1, 46(0)8-407 23 50, hotelskeppsholm, on a quiet waterfront lane on tree-lined Skeppsholman island in the city center, is housed in a 17th century military barracks and completely redesigned in Scandi-modern style. Everything, from the perfumed toiletries to the furniture to the staff’s uniforms, is made in Sweden exclusively for the hotel. After a night spent enveloped in luxury linens, stroll to the nearby Moderna Museet (Museum of Modern Art, Exercisplan 2, 46(0)8-519 552 00,, home to one of Europe’s most comprehensive art collections; or the Östasiatiska Museet (Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Skeppsholmen 41, 46(0)8-519 557 50, for Chinese paintings, Indian sculpture and Japanese woodcuts.

Taste the good life with a stay at the opulent Grand Hotel (Södra Blasieholmshamnen 8, 6(0)8-679 35 00, in Gamla Stan. No, it’s not the one from the Garbo film–this 1874 landmark is even more grandiose, with rooms, suites and banquet halls inspired by Versailles’ lavish ornamentation. The celebrated Swedish chef Mathias Dahlgren oversees his eponymous, two Michelin-starred restaurant, while the hotel’s Swedish bistro, Veranda, serves Stockholm’s best traditional smörgåsbord: a hearty spread of herring, gravad lax (cured salmon), crispbreads, meats, cheeses and, of course, ice cold aquavit or schnaps.

While exploring Gamla Stan, soak up Swedish history with a visit to Kungliga Slottet (Royal Palace, Slottsbacken, 46(0)8-402 61 30, royal, the 608-room Italian Baroque-style official residence of His Majesty the King of Sweden and the world’s largest castle still used for its original purpose. In the compound’s Hall of State, find the silver throne belonging to the cross-dressing Swedish monarch Queen Christina—Americans might visualize Greta Garbo lounging in it as the titular queen from the 1933 film. The palace holds the Royal Apartments and three museums, including the glittering Royal Treasury stuffed with crowns, scepters and more regal bling. Recharge your batteries after the marathon tour at the cute, gay cafe Chokladkoppen (Stortorget 18, 46(0)8-20 31 70), next to the palace. Snack on Swedish treats and hot chocolate, and snag a table on the patio for the best people-watching.

Speaking of Garbo, she may have vanted to be left alone—but don’t leave Stockholm with paying your respects. She’s buried in Skogskyrkogården (The Woodland Cemetery, Söckenvagen, 46(0)8-508 301 58,, a lushly-landscaped memorial park amid pine groves, designed by Swedish Modernists Erik Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz between 1915 and 1940. Its Functionalist chapels put this homage to Nordic style on the UNESCO World Heritage List, making it well worth the seven-kilometer subway trip south of central Stockholm.

If you though hoarding was a recent psychological trendlet ripe for the reality show treatment, Hallwylska Museet (Hallwyl Museum, Hamngatan 4, 46(0)8-402 30 99, in north-central Stockholm will change your mind. The finely preserved, faux-Baroque mansion was completed in 1898 for the eccentric collector (and rumored lesbian) Countess Wilhelmina van Hallwyl, to contain her obsessively-acquired possessions. Among the holdings are Old Master paintings, silver, oriental carpets, armor and quotidian objects like kitchen spoons, toothbrushes  and several of her children’s baby teeth.

Design junkies should explore Fotografiska (Stadsgårdshamnen 22, 46(0)8-509 00 500,, Stockholm’s newest major museum and one of the world’s largest institutions devoted to photography. The bar and the restaurant employs Saarinen-style white dinette chairs, glass tables and exposed beams overhead–a chic meeting place for fika, the traditional Swedish tea-time ritual with coffee and kenalbullar (cinnamon buns). While you munch, survey Gamla Stan and the waterways from its large picture windows.

With parks and waterways covering more than half of the city’s area, Stockholmers make the most of their long summer days. A morning stroll followed by a coffee break in a rustic waterside cafe is de rigueur for locals and a cheap way for visitors to get to know the city.

Frolic in the Djurgården, a massive public park situated on royal land and one of Stockholm’s must-see sites. Rent a bike to get to the park’s numerous museums and landmarks. A microcosm of Sweden, Skansen (46(0)8-442 80 00, features more than 150 traditional buildings and industries, with workers in traditional costumes; there’s a Nordic zoo with reindeer and elk, plus craft shops and cafes serving Swedish husmanskost (home cooking). The Vasa Museet (Vasa Museum, 46(0)8-519 548 00, houses the fully-restored warship Vasa, which sunk on its maiden voyage in 1628. The massive ruins were recovered in 1961 and pieced back together with almost all of its original parts intact–believe it or not, Vasa Museet is Scandinavia’s most popular museum. More royal palaces, amusement parks and art museums are scattered throughout Djurgården’s lush hills.

Hop on the Djurgården ferry from Gamla Stan, or better yet, take a boat tour through the canals and rivers that form the Stockholm archipelago. Weave around islands dappled with castles, fortresses and Viking ruins. Stromma Kanalbolaget ( offers lunch, dinner and day cruises to Birka, the first Viking city in Sweden, dating from 750; the royal residence at Drottningholm Palace and other scenic sites. Try the Thousand Island Cruise, a day-long excursion including swimming (in summer), guided tours at coastal villages, meals and drinks.

Stockholm is famed for its nightlife, despite the lack of actual night: in midsummer, Stockholm’s northern latitude extends daylight to 18 out of every 24 hours. Nonetheless, dozens of gay and gay-friendly bars dot the streets in Gamla Stan and Södermalm, and independent promoters produce weekly parties around town for every segment of the LGBT population. Local law requires that all bars serving liquor must also serve food, so high-quality munchies are available when hunger strikes.

In Gamla Stan, spend a few kroner at Torget (Malartorget 13, 46(0)8-20 55 60, torgetbaren. com), a decade-old gay restaurant and bar that serves as the unofficial meetup location for gay Stockholmers and visitors in the city’s center. Check out Lezzie Weekend on the first weekend of every month at lesbian-owned cafe/bar Momma (Renstiernasgata 30, 46(0)8-640 19 19, in SoFo, where the featured DJs are always female. Also in SoFo, the Swedish/Spanish menu at Roxy (Nytorget 6, 46(0)8-640 96 55, attracts a hip, very lezzie crowd. Side Track (Wollmar Yxkullsgatan 7, 46(0)8-641 16 88, lures a primarily male, but woman-friendly, mix of people that’s more eclectic than the better-known bars.

Högkvarteret (“the Headquarters,” Närkes-gatan 8, always has something edgy going on for younger queers, whether it’s a tribute night honoring Nina Simone or Kate Bush; Swedish R&B and hip hop acts at the Resurrection of Hip Hop party; Balkan live bands or opening nights at its Gallery Lundh Åstrand.

The SoFo bar/workshop/party/gallery/cafe opened in 2009, spokesperson Lina Puranen tells GO, “with the dream of creating a space in Stockholm for queer and feminist art, music and people. We wanted a space where you could just go and have a drink, as well as watch a great exhibit or show, or have a night out on weekends. Högkvarteret is the kind of space where feminist and queer art, performances and music isn’t a sideshow, it’s the main attraction. Not just on special nights, but every night.” Check the website for upcoming live performances and exhibits.

Pop into Hallongrottan (Bergsundsgatan 25, 46(0)8-658 13 20,, a queer and feminist bookstore named after a raspberry pastry resembling your favorite part of the female anatomy. Pick up flyers for upcoming gay parties as well as LGBT books. In the same area, grab tasty sandwiches and coffee drinks at the hugely popular lesbian-owned Cafe Copacabana (Hornstulls strand 3, 46(0)8-669-29-39, kafecopacabana. com) for a low-maintenance picnic in nearby Tantolunden Park.

Stockholm is about 9 hours’ flight from New York City, and several carriers, including KLM, Icelandair and SAS Scandinavian Airlines, offer nonstop or one-stop flights. n

What Do You Think?