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Forget ABBA, Stockholm is the gay capital of cool

The Swedish capital is world center for design and style spread across 14 stunning islands, as well as ‘the world’s most gay-friendly city’
Stockholm's neighborhoods provide plenty of cool places to relax and people-watch.

Love them or loathe them, ABBA remain one of Sweden’s most successful exports with a special place in the heart of many a dancing queen. And ABBA fans are again beating a path to the new ABBA museum opening in May in Stockholm.

But there is a lot more you can do in what they call ‘the world’s most gay-friendly city’.

I have been traveling to Stockholm for over 20 years and watched it grow into a world center for design and style. But for as long as I can remember, its reputation as a cosmopolitan city where everyone is welcome has been very real.

Sweden is way ahead on LGBT issues and they legalized same-sex marriage in 2009, which can include a religious ceremony ordained by a priest. So you won’t find a gay district in the city but, as anyone will tell you, it is all totally gay friendly and you will see gay couples holding hands across the entire city.

There are of course some gay hot spots, of which more later, and in recent years the lesbian scene has really blossomed. Stockholm Pride in August is Sweden’s biggest gay party, attracting 50,000 visitors.

Neighborhoods

Stockholm is a stunning city consisting of 14 islands where natural beauty sits bang next to the coolest urban designer boutiques and cafes. There aren’t many places in the world where you can kayak in the summer or ice skate in the winter actually within a city.

The islands are well connected by bridges and the underground train network so you don’t actually have to kayak or ice skate between them!

Arriving in a city with 14 islands can be disorientating so we recommend getting your bearings by climbing the majestic 106m high City Hall to get 360 views across the city and its islands. The Golden Hall within the same building is worth a look – its camptastic glittering walls contain pieces of mosaic made from glass and 10kg of goldleaf.

For hardcore shoppers we recommend the chic shopping area around Stureplan square and Norrmalmtorg. You can get your designer brand label fix here. Everything from Acne to Design House Stockholm but the big new thing is the Södermalm district which is the SoHo of Stockholm.

Known as SoFo, this is the bohemian quarter stuffed with funky cafes, bars, galleries and boutique design shops. A great place to just hang out and watch the Swedish go about their business. My favorite coffee hang out in Sofo is the Café Rival and bakery serving lunch, delicious pastries and cookies. With its pavement dining area it’s perfect for alfresco dining and a good gawp at the locals.

One of my favorite shops in SoFo is Pitstop – a small, well-chosen collection of menswear, including Spalwart, a Swedish footwear label that uses 1950s molds and machinery from Eastern Europe to give their sneakers appealing imperfections. Good design is just part of how the Swedes live and I particularly love how they express their design ethos, – so simply, clearly and beautifully.

Gamla Stan (The Old Town) is on its own nearby island connected by bridges. As you might imagine it is a tourist hot spot but don’t miss the picture postcard medieval cobbled streets, churches and squares. Those cobbles can be hard on the heels so don’t forget to stop for the classic Swedish ‘fika’ – coffee, lemonade and a choice of buns, cakes and cookies.

Bars and restaurants

No one knows a city like a local so we asked Sean Naughton who is Further Afield’s Scandinavian reviewer and concierge at the Rival Hotel in Södermalm (owned by Benny Anderson previously of ABBA) for his top tips.

Roxy bar and restaurant: Gay owned and located in the SoFo neighborhood. He says its cozy, bohemian with multi-cultural cuisine leaning towards Spanish and great service.

Göken: Gay owned restaurant in a quaint neighborhood on the island of Kungsholmen. Open for lunch and brunch.

Torget: Located in Gamla Stan (Old Town). Good for dinner or just drinks. It gets quite crowded in the evening, especially on weekends, with people pre-partying before hitting the clubs. Clientele tends towards the younger and trendier.

Mälarpaviljongen: A floating Summer restaurant and bar on the waterfront of the island of Kungsholmen. Very popular on sunny days. Mot people come for the drinks, sunshine and atmosphere. The crowd gets gayer as the evening goes on with DJs and events.

Sidetrack bar: In the Södermalm area, a bit of an older gay crowd. Great staff with DJs too and they also serve dinner. Can get quite crowded.

Patricia: The gay Sunday club that has been around for ages… over 20 years! Located on a boat that is moored on the waterfront of Södermalm near Slussen on a boat which was used as Queen Victoria’s royal yacht.

You should remember that the gay nightlife scene is fickle… gay clubs come and go! All the bars and clubs in the above list have been around for a couple of years, but before visiting Stockholm you should check for updated information. A good place for that is the Stockholm Visitors’ Board’s gay and lesbian guide.

Where to stay

Hotels in Stockholm tend to be on the larger side but we found some smaller boutique hotels and some larger ones where clever design and hands on owners have created a feeling of intimacy and personality.

Stockholm has a strong cinematic back story. Ingmar Bergman and Greta Garbo are just a few of Sweden’s big box office movie exports. Who better than Abba’s Benny Anderson to restore an iconic Stockholm cinematic landmark and enshrine all that glamorous history under one roof with the creation of the fabulous gay friendly Rival hotel on the island of Södermalm near the cool SoFo district. It consistently tops the Trip Advisor rankings in Stockholm.

If you would like to live and breathe the Swedish design aesthetic in an oasis of calm by the water but within easy walking of the city, then Hotel Skeppsholmen is the one. It celebrates the very best of contemporary Swedish design and food.

If you are looking for somewhere bang in the heart of Stockholm’s up market shopping district then check out Hotel Stureplan – an intimate hotel with classic Swedish style and charm which also ranks consistently high on Trip Advisor for Stockholm.

Getting there and around

The main air carriers into Stockholm from the UK are BA, Easy Jet and SAS.

Getting from the airport is easy. Sweep into Stockholm city from the airport on the speedy (20 minutes) and regular (at least every 15 minutes) Arlanda Express and take in the quality of the ‘design’ of everything right down to the carefully molded birch window trim. No tacky plastic here and those comfortable train seats could grace any fancy restaurant.

This train runs totally on electricity from renewable sources too so stop worrying about the carbon footprint that you flew in with.

Getting around a round Stockholm is easy too. Nowhere is far and we walk for the most part or use the underground, but hiring a bike is another popular option.

For general LGBT tourist information on Stockholm, visit the tourist board's official site.

Simon Forrester is director of Further Afield, the LGBT travel specialists. Find out more about their options in Stockholm or around the world here.

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