Stockholm- A Culture Capital

Stockholm- A Culture Capital
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine

Sunday, November 20, 2011



 To describe Brussels is a bit of a funny thing, because this capital is on a piece of land which has belonged to pretty much every country it currently borders upon and thus has influences from the Dutch, German, French, and in recent years the entire European Community as Brussels is not only the capital of Belgium but also of the European Union.

Despite it’s importance in the EU, Brussels doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously, after the diplomatic work is done the Belgians still do what they do best: Food, Beer, and Joviality.

My perfect day in Brussels looked something like this:

Waking up a bit late, having a latte and speculoos on toast. Then heading to the Atomium—a building in the form of an iron crystal atom blown up 162 Billion times and made into an exhibition center for the Universal Exhibition of 1958. A time where post war Europe needed unification and vision and Belgium delivered a message of peace and of social and scientific advancement. The building is there now with both a permanent exhibit regarding the exhibition and temporary exhibits changing quite regularly. It is also one of the best views of Brussels.

Next we went just outside of the Grand Place (Brussels main plaza) for Moules e Frites. A giant pot of Mussels done in a unique broth depending on the establishment paired with thick fresh fries sizzled in horse fat and served with house-made mayonnaise and beer. Divine.

After working over a pot of forty something black shells we went to see the statue of Jeanneke Pis (little woman piss) the less famous accompaniment to Manneken Pis a little boy pissing and a famous symbol of Brussels. The statue has been stolen many times but the current reproduction has been peeing since 1619. Many legends surround Menneken Pis, none of which are confirmed, but my favorite is that one day a little boy was passing by the city’s dam in a time of flood. The little boy noticed the hole and put his ‘peepee’ inside it to save the city.

Next stop was the cinema. You may think, how is the cinema Belgian? Well when you can see Tintin in 3D it becomes Belgian. It’s a fantastic film adaptation of one of the Tintin comics written by the Belgian artist Georges Rémi. The comics first appeared in a child’s section of the Brussels newspaper called Le Petit Vingtième. Some of the older works show the outdated ideas of colonialism that were held by citizens at that time, but the comic evolved into an all audience adventure series that has now been translated from the original French into 80 other languages.

Lastly, how to finish a great day in Belgium? Two words: Belgian + Waffle. At first I was timid but luckily my waffle chef swayed me into having the Waffle Royale. This decadent monster had Belgian chocolate, whipped cream, an array of fresh fruits, sprinkles, and caramel sauce all towering like an carefully crafted sculpture on top of a fresh cooked waffle.

And with that I went home to bed.
Bonne nuit!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Gothenburg: Endless Swedish Culture

 With no wind in my sails to Leave Stockholm I boarded the X2000 speed train to Gothenburg, which would drag me there regardless. It did. And with an additional tram journey I arrived at my 70 year old host’s flat. 

Skeptical at first I was showed my room and jeeringly asked if I could dress a bed. I was then greeted with a brute strength coffee meant to fuel the crypt keepers and simple cheese sandwiches. This was when I really met FLEXIMA. A Swedish Granny, who was well traveled, had a hodgepodge of careers, had survived a recent bus crash on her virgin voyage to Italy and was now playing host to international students and vagabonds as myself to keep things interesting and expand her mind. Flexima shared with me, I shared with her and at one point corrected her English homework.

Initial interview finished I took my 70 years of imparted wisdom and headed out into the Gothenburg sunset. (Romantic, I know)

Walking around Gothenburg is a rich experience where each new area melts into the next without dead space. Your senses are at full alert while jumping from handsome brick buildings, the scent of cinnamon buns woo you, busking musicians in your ear canals, and sun rippling off the waters of the port. The city is pretty easy to conquer on foot, in fact the best way to experience this city is just walk and discover.

There is one main drag of the city- Avenyn lined with restaurants and nightclubs that will lead you down into the center. Here you can find a huge amount of shopping and dining that appeals to the main stream. The area is stratified by canals and quaint cobble-stoned bridges and speckled with historic buildings, churches, and statues so even if you don’t have money to burn this area is lovely. 

On the embankments of the center is the port. The port area is a bit more tranquil than the center but on a sun-soaked evening everything here is painted gold and the seafood restaurants are bulging like a net full of fish. Here you can find the opera house, real sailboats, and departure points for day trips to islands off the coast of Sweden and even to Denmark.

Akin to Stockholm, once you get out of the center there are all sorts of trendy/ alternative neighborhoods that allow for something completely unique. Head east or west of the center for charming surprises- trendy fusion food, grungy yet artistic cafes near the university, and live music is set in and around hand made shopping treasures. I even stumbled upon a giant Swedish folk concert in the park.

Food in Gothenburg is diverse, but being my last stop I had to go traditional: divine Swedish meatballs! I would suggest the homey restaurant: Smaka (Swedish for taste) it has a pub atmosphere inside but on the side walk across from charming brick buildings with good wine it has a touch of class. They serve up the meatballs with whipped potatoes, gooseberries, and cucumbers in a sweet-vinegar glaze. Unbeatable.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


 It has been a long time since I have been in a city that I considered dropping everything and moving to. Stockholm did that to me.

Stockholm is the capital of Scandinavia and rightfully so. All the charms of the Scandinavian countries are amplified in Stockholm’s streets. There’s a spirit here- like people know that their city is amazing, they know their people are beautiful and well dressed, and they know life as a Swede is full of abundance and satisfaction. They have everything to boast about, but it doesn’t even cross their minds to brag. Swedes are unbelievably unpretentious. It is like Pleasantville, but minus all the boring, predictable, excess sweetness that makes your teeth hurt.

The fact is that cold winters, meatballs, reindeer, and IKEA are definitely not the highlights of Sweden. The biggest thing going on is Style and Design. Stockholm is one of the most refined cities that will ever grace the soles of my white loafers. Everything that stands on the archipelago is either a modern masterpiece or soaked in old charm. The defining hues of red, green and yellow reflect all along the shores of Stockholm, but these lovely buildings are just shells that contain the spirit of modern life. 

So after all the whistle blowing I have been doing I guess I should tell you what you might actually DO in Stockholm.

Every visitor to Stockholm needs to start in Gamla Stan- the old Island that takes the cake at the post-card stand. The island will give you a great first glance at the city. Stately buildings and lovely squares let you see Stockholm’s art nouveau style and an idea of life in the city hundreds of years prior. You can find great shops, restaurants, and all your touristy trinkets here, however it isn’t so saturated with tourist trash that it’s gone toxic. You will find the royal palace on the island, where you should spend an hour poking around, and then bridge the island to the mainland by passing through the courtyard of the Parliament building. You can pick up free tours in English several times a day.


The next area you will encounter starts touristy but soon transforms into a shopping paradise. You will be in the area from T-Centralen to Hötorget Tunelbanna stops and the streets Kunsgatan and Drottninggatan. Here you can find home furnishings so modern that they seem Spartan to exclusive pieces that are as much artwork as functional. To find hand-picked pieces of Nordic design check out Design Torget.

After the center it is best to tackle each neighborhood one at a time. The Tunnel banana is well developed and will get you anywhere you desire.


Fashion here is unique and in wild abundance. It doesn’t matter if a Swede is out for milk or out for a night on the town they look great. One funny fashion must-have I noticed in Sweden was white high tops and tight fitting jeans or black tights. You can find the gambit of Euro fashion labels here but the real fashion lovers will bolster their closet with the pieces from a treasure trove of ahead-of-their-time Scandinavian designers. Original stuff can be found off Drottninggatan, and for the daring (or sometimes too daring) Södermalm has a mix of new, vintage, and eco-design. A shop for men’s (and women’s!) clothes I was lucky enough to find was Grandpa.

Now it would be too easy to brand Stockholm as a realm of superficial beauty and design freaks. Stockholm is host to the most Museums in any one city and has a museum for some of the most obscure interests. I have been to a lot of museums and the list was a bit overwhelming so I chose one. I would suggest the Vasa Museum. The museum has a giant warship preserved inside it. The boat was design as an ornate vessel to lead the Swedish forces into battle and display the wealth of the nation. Alas the boat sank on it maiden voyage due to poor design and sat on the floor of the harbor for years before it was brought up and made into one bad-ass exhibit. Surrounded the enormous ship you will find a great deal of Stockholm history around the time of its building and get some insight into medieval Scandinavia.


Usually going to a theme park means that you need to drive to some remote outer-city area where the steel dragons hide. However the roller coasters are right on the islands of central Stockholm- the dragons live right in plain sight at Grona Lund (Green Grove) Amusement park. Now I have to be honest. The theme park is better than a state fair, but holds no thunder against the big wigs like Six Flags, Disney, Universal and the likes. It is however a great place if you are a roller coaster junkie, if want a great time with family and friends or you want a high-sky view over the city before your screaming decent. Aside from the rides and carnival games Grona Lund has musical events throughout the season and attracts some big names in Sweden and international music scenes.

One of the greatest things about Stockholm is that it has an entire Archipelago at its disposal. The city dwellers escape the rush of life on a variety of small islands where they can hole up in their cabins, fish, boat, and swim. There are a variety of cruises offered to tour some of the more known islands and I can imagine in fair weather they would be breathtaking and give you a glimpse of small town sea-faring Swedish life.


The food here is an international mix and you can find anything. A lot of modern fusion fare is around. You can also rely on some fairly homey Swedish classics and it would be a crime not to hunt down some meatballs on your trip. Also: Swedes have cinnamon buns everywhere. And they are good. Even in Press Bryan- the equivalent of 7-11 has supremely baked fresh buns all day. My favorite part is that they sprinkle them with rock sugar. YUM!

To Sum it up: Stockholm is a Northern Gem where style is the lifeblood of a sophisticated city. But Sweden has strong ties with nature that keeps people rooted to reality. This is a place for anyone who loves city life and design but don’t need to be swarmed by millions of people like in London and New York.

Just buy a ticket and GO!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Helsinki: A Sea-Side Gem

Have you ever run smack dab into a metal pole on the sidewalk? Leaving you squinting and thinking ‘what the hell just happened?’ I have- literally, when I was a child, but figuratively when I arrived in Helsinki.

I was nothing short of bored with the idea of going to Helsinki because I had heard so many bad reports about it during my time in Russia. I was told it was sleepy, boring, and fruitless. So once I arrived and was greeted by a girl on a pink and gold bike who would soon tear these reports to shreds I was pleasantly shocked. Johanna- A Helsinki native with a killer laugh was kind enough to welcome me into her trendy loft apartment. She also turned my stay into a crash course in Scandinavian design and underground art and design scene.

Upon arrival I was introduced to Helsinki’s 100-meter long Graffiti wall- a street art project designed to provide a place for artists to express themselves without defacing property. On the same pier there were temporary art exhibitions and a seasonal café. I was given my bearings and finished the evening sipping wine in the sunset by the sea watching the boats drift around the small islands spotting the Finnish coastline. 

Helsinki is gorgeous in summer and every street should be surveyed with intrigue and expectation. Compared to The Baltics, Scandinavia feels more refined and cosmopolitan. The Finnish capital however is a great mix of class- design shops, fancy labels, swanky and interesting restaurants, green parks, and sophisticated museums. But also trendy underground boutiques, cafes, vintage, and flea markets all found in a cats-cradle game of streets in the downtown area. 


I would suggest seeing Helsinki on foot or by bike, made easy with ample bike lanes. This is a lazy capital in July and jokes are often made that the city is on vacation all month, so follow suit and sleep in during the summer. There are a lot of markets in the city and I would suggest going to Kauppatori Market Square for a light breakfast in the morning sun. 

Take a jaunt around the nearby lakes and follow the park up near the train station. The city will start its gradual wake up between 10 and 12 and you can delve in. There are a lot of shops are galleries to browse around the Kamppi area across from the station and then zig-zag down the side streets off of the main drag- Fredrikinkatu (or Freda).

Stop for lunch at Café Number 9- a simple place with great food that all Helsinki natives know. Plus you can’t pass up dishes like the Kill Bill Stir fry, Sauteed Reindeer, or my choice NUTTER- a peanut butter noodle dish inspired by pan-asian cuisine.

Browse the classic Boulevardi and get a cinnamon bun at the famous Ekberg bakery where you can find Debonair Finnish women meeting over tea and coffee.

Thousands of shirts hung a la Aladdin for a Gallery
Once you have had enough of the finer things get into the underground scene in Punavouri area check out the shops, flea markets, and galleries in the area to find the most unique treasures.

This route will keep you away from the most touristy areas but once you are ready for the human swarm go to the gorgeously long green strip where people bask in the sun, splash in the fountains and in indulge in ice cream all summer. This is between Pohjoisesplanadi and Etelaesplandi. Then turn up to the most famous landmark in the city- The Lutheran Cathedral.

Personally I had only a few short days in this amazing capital and I fell in love so fast. This is a sea-side pleasure not to be missed.

For further info on sites check out: We Are Helsinki 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Baltic Series: Tallinn Estonia

 Tallinn, the most compact and medieval of the Baltic capitals. The old town is clearly corralled by ancient brick walls with plenty of red piqued towers. But the towers don't stop at the walls- the old town is a labyrinth of steeply stacked churches, historical architecture, and spiky red roofs displayed high on a hill with streets slithering haphazardly at all elevations. This is by far the best capital to enter without a map-it is not very easy to navigate but once you are inside the city walls every corner you turn and arch you pass through will present something interesting. Luckily, it is small enough that you won't miss anything out. 

In the old city you can easily be satisfied by the ambience alone, but it would be a shame not to seek out the highlights. Near the top of this twisty city you will find the palace and a small cliff-side garden where you can learn about the history.

 Also near the top is a section of wall that you can climb, get a great vantage point over the town and even practice your archery. There are a lot of churches, some very tall and grand, some orthodox style, and some so small that maybe 4 people could squeeze in. Each of which has it's own story and it can be read on placards or tourist booklets can be found by the entrance to the old city. 

Just outside the walls of the city is where you will find modern European shops and cinemas. Crossing the street will take you from bricks to decorative glass paneled buildings, and just a few steps further will land you in a fully converted area where old factories have become swanky chocolate boutiques and the home of popular fashion labels. This recently updated part of town is just what the doctor ordered- a touch of class for those urbanites who love tallinn's scenery but don't want to eat at a pub every night.

Tallinn has some fairly diverse offerings and looks like it will continue in a great direction in the future. It is also a 2 hour ferry ride from Helsinki which allows for travelers to dip their toes in the Nordic countries on a day trip or more.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Baltic Series: Jurmala Latvia

After the influx of city energy from Riga I took a short jaunt to the coast of the Baltic sea. The city of Jurmala has been a favorite vacation spot of fortunate Russians for decades. In soviet times 'good citizens' were rewarded with holidays on the Baltic sea, and to this day the Russians come here to bask in the sun and cycle down the lovely beaches of Jurmala. The small city is serviced by local train and boasts a main tourist street which is beautiful and bustling with restaurants and shops and even carnival games. Most of these are quite chic and offer sheesha smoking, live music, and are a great place to watch the world go by. However with the exception of a few Latvian and Russian restaurants it is no more Latvian than any other resort town I have seen.

If you walk off the main drag you will start to see the lovely old style houses that are still inhabited by the locals. Many of which are labeled as 'villa something' like good old pippi Longstocking. However buying your own Villa here is becoming increasingly expensive due to the ever-lengthening list of Russian celebrities buying places here or renting them for huge prices during the annual New Wave Festival.

The real draw here is the beach. Long and wide with soft smooth sand. Spending the afternoon lying out and listening to the waves is serene and when you get too hot you can plunge yourself into the cool water or take a stroll from one of the many ice cream vendors. The people watching is some ofthe best a beach can offer, and as the beach is so long you can rent bicycles to optimize your time. I suggest coming to Jurmala with intention of fully exploiting the sea side and enjoying nights of live music and dancing on restaurant patios.