This summer saw my childhood dream come true: visiting Sweden, home to Astrid Lindgren’s wonderful children’s books such as Pippi Longstocking, the Emil series and Karlsson, who lives on a roof. Like many Europeans, I had grown up following Lindgren’s anarchic characters on their wild adventures. Things have changed, though, and nowadays I like to keep anarchy at bay, preferably without missing out on an adventure or two!
Even if you’re not familiar with Pippi Longstocking, Sweden is a great place to visit with children. For a start, it’s one of the safest countries in the world and the impressive infrastructure makes it easy to explore the length and breadth of it. Museums, castles and parks are plentiful, and whether you’re in the city centre of Stockholm or on one of the tens of thousands of islands spread around the coast, the great outdoors are always just around the corner.
The only drawbacks are that, like in the whole of Scandinavia, everything is dreadfully expensive and the weather can be, well, a little challenging. But, as the Swedish proverb goes: Det finns inget dåligt väder, bara dåliga kläder: there is no bad weather, there’s only the wrong clothes. So plan ahead and bring a range of waterproofs. And arrange for an overdraft.
1 Visit Stockholm
The capital Stockholm is scattered around fourteen different islands, loosely connected by bridges, ferries and all sorts of boats. And if that is not enough, Stockholm’s archipelago, which connects the city with the Baltic Sea, comprises another 30.000 islands, spoiling you for choice.
Gamla Stan, the old town, is the touristic centre of the city. Its beautifully painted houses date back as far as the 13th century and the medieval flair is best explored in the early hours of the morning, before everybody else gets up to do that. We’re not exactly early risers so we simply stayed in the middle of it, in one of the quieter side streets of Gamla Stan:
From Slussen Kajen with it’s fabulous bakery you can catch a ferry to Djurgården, where you find some of the most famous landmarks of Stockholm: the Skansen open-air museum, which allows you to take in the whole country in one leisurely stroll, and without even leaving the city:
The nearby Vasa Museum was built around an over 300-year old warship that had sunk at its launch, which explains the ship’s excellent condition. Over several floors you can explore the boat as well as many of the artefacts found at the bottom of the harbour:
With smaller kids, it helps to pretend it’s a pirate ship, and to send them on the quest to find the skeletons of the pirates. The remains of a handful of the people thought to have sunk with the ship are on the lower ground floor, providing you with a glimpse of what life was like in the 17th century. No need to let the little ones know that they weren’t really pirates…
Our favourite museum in Stockholm, however, was the Tekniska Museet, the museum of science and technology, which lies beyond Djurgården but can easily be reached by bus. We spent an entire afternoon there, exploring the science behind winter sports by competing on virtual cross-country skis against a group of elderly Finns who knew a thing or two about biathlon. Unlike us. A brilliant space for the whole family!
2 Visit Birka
Dotted around the centre are several boat companies trying to get you out of the city. And here’s why you should:
Just around 20 miles or two hours away via boat is Birka, a Viking settlement dating back to the 8th century. From this island in Lake Mälaren, Viking traders went out as far as Baghdad, establishing Birka as an important trading centre.
Although the excavations have all been covered protect them and the artefacts are displayed in Stockholm’s Historiska Museet, Birka is still worth a visit. For a start, the island is breathtakingly beautiful and there’s plenty of time to walk around and enjoy the scenery. A small museum gives you a good insight into Viking life and guides give tours or introduce you to the finer details of the origins of nordic cuisine:
Should the day turn out to be nice, there’s even a little beach for you to go for a swim in Lake Mälaren. Or not.
3 Explore the Stockholm Archipelago
When in Stockholm, do as the locals do and leave the city by taking a Waxholmsbolaget boat and head eastwards. Astrid Lindgren’s Seacrow Island describes an idyllic summer on one of the thousands of islands that line the passage from the capital to the Baltic Sea, with endless adventures, tame seals and a cottage with a leaking roof.
Like the Melkerson family on Seacrow Island, we had booked our a beautiful little cottage beforehand. Unlike theirs, ours was fully rainproof. One boat, a ferry and a short bus trip later and we were in paradise:
We spotted deer, woodpeckers and various fish, all at close range, and we caught glimpses of giant cruise ships making their way around the islands from the Baltic to Stockholm. The water was warm enough to swim in, or at least pleasant enough to look at.
All over the archipelago, regular buses and free ferries make island hopping easy, and the Waxholmsbolaget boats reach even the remotest islands.
4 Go Self-Catering
The downside of self-catering holidays is that you end up spending a lot of time cooking and washing up, but this is easily outweighed by the fact that you don’t have to sell one of your kidneys to be able to afford a holiday in Sweden.
To not miss out on the local cuisine, I had collected a couple of easy and child-friendly meals beforehand, using Bronte Aurell’s beautiful ScandiKitchen Cookbook and the internet for inspiration. Just reading about the foods made my mouth water! I decided on specific ingredients I wanted to try, such as pickled sprats and frozen reindeer, made a note of the recipes and measured out and pre-packed the necessary dry staples such as breadcrumbs to avoid having to buy unnecessary quantities once there. A few teabags, sugar and cocoa powder did also come in handy as our hosts provided the essentials.
That way we were able to make the most of the local produce without having go out every night for a meal. Having a range of recipes ready means you don’t have to worry about planning meals or navigating foreign supermarkets, as you can make a note of the ingredients you want to buy in situ. Don’t forget to look up the Swedish words, such as the difference between whipping cream (vispad grädde) and sour cream (gräddfil), before you head to the shops…
And with that view, who wouldn’t mind staying in for lunch?
5 Plan beforehand to go with the Flow
Going away with kids, you need to go with the flow. But if you know what you would like to visit and where you can find it, you can easily accommodate a turn of the weather or the general mood without missing out on anything. My top tip for travelling with children is therefore to plan ahead! Read up on the places you want to see and mark them out on a map or similar. That way you can quickly adapt your route, take a break or take in a sight, or simply hop on a boat to avoid a sudden downpour.
Long journeys can put a dampener on things, especially with smaller kids. We managed to stay as close to the action as possible, spending the last few days on board the af Chapman, a fully rigged 19th-century sailing ship that now serves as a youth hostel. You can’t get much closer to the royal palace than this:
I didn’t even have to get up for that picture: that was the view from the top bunk.
All in all, we found Stockholm a very child friendly city, perfect for a long weekend with the whole family. And when everything gets a bit too much, you’ll aways find a nice spot to chill:
Best of all, this giant bunny sits in full view of a lovely cafe in the middle of Kungsträdgården in central Stockholm.
How do you manage to keep your family happy on your holidays? What are the compromises you’re prepared to make? I’d love to hear your secrets before I start planning next year’s hiking adventure …