Landing in Stockholm, bleary-eyed and frizzy-haired, I wondered if this was all going to be a bit too cool for me. People have got their act together in Sweden. They eat well, they look immaculate and everything they do is world-beating – from their achingly cool subtitled dramas, to their forward-thinking paternity leave policy and affordable flat pack furniture. They even make the bitterly cold weather look sexy.
Schlepping through arrivals was like blagging your way into the popular girl’s birthday party. Everywhere I looked, Stockholm was screaming about how efficient it was, and, by insinuation, how inadequate I was.
Did I know the city was the birthplace of communication (according to the Ericsson billboards at least) and home to squillions of over-achieving start-ups? Would I care to ride an exercise bike to charge my phone? Or get some work done on the wi-fi enabled express train, the arrival of which I could count down in seconds on the info boards? To be honest, I could have just done with a coffee.
You must understand that me and 90 per cent of the passengers I arrived with were here to attend this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Spotting Bucks Fizz legend Cheryl Baker on our flight had given us a real sense of purpose and we were ready to leave our street cred at the baggage carousel.
After gliding across stunning Swedish countryside (rugged pines, shimmering waters, that kind of thing) and navigating Stockholm’s unnecessarily confusing underground system (were they trying to make it difficult?) it was time to ditch my bags and seek out some fun.
I decided to start in Gamla Stan, the city’s old town at the heart of the archipelago, just a few minutes walk away from the depressingly identikit modern town centre, dominated by H&M. The sun was shining, and the omnipresent Eurovision flags were the first sign that Stockholm might have been loosening up.
Wandering past the Royal Palace and along the winding medieval streets, I then made my first gloriously kitsch discovery of the trip. Want to cross the road? Press the button and the pedestrian crossing plays the dulcet tones of Sweden’s Eurovision hero Mans Zelmerlow singing last year’s winning song, Heroes. Well, you certainly don’t see that on The Bridge.
The old town is an undeniably charming blend of al-fresco bakeries (with sheepskin blankets on every chair of course), plentiful museums (including a surprisingly fascinating shrine to famous son Alfred Nobel) and stunning 13th century architecture. But I was keen to explore the sillier side of the city and, inspired by the pop-tastic road crossings, I ventured on.
Djurgarden is an out of the way alcove that’s home to theatres, museums, a theme park, a zoo and, wait for it… an ABBA museum. Obviously. It’s accessible by train, but why slum it on the metro when you can jump on a ten minute commuter ferry with the locals? Just tap your Swedish Oyster equivalent and you’re off.
It was a bit of a tourist trap, but with good reason. Ignoring the ridiculously long queue of people waiting to Instagram Agneta’s sequins, this part of the city is home to Vasa, the huge 17th century warship that was almost perfectly preserved on the seabed after sinking on its maiden voyage. The vessel is now restored to its full former glory for all to gawk at. It’s Sweden’s Titanic and, at over 220 feet long, it’s genuinely breathtaking.
But just when I worried things were getting classy again, I popped next door to find Stockholm’s Museum of Spirits (or the Spritmuseum). I was lulled into a false sense of artiness by the visually arresting exhibition of Absolut vodka’s mould-breaking ad campaigns (featuring Andy Warhol and Annie Leibovitz no less), but the rest of the museum soon revealed a few gimmicks.
Where else can you “experience a hangover” in a special art installation while stone cold sober? The trick was to lay on a grey bed and let a blurred video and a city soundscape evoke a stomach-churning sense of regret. Admirably weird.
It was the night before Eurovision and there seemed only one way to mark the occasion. Why stop at an ABBA museum when the real shrine to our pop overlords can be found at Mamma Mia: The Party, a Secret Cinema-style immersive experience transporting you to the Greek island Pierce Brosnan embarrassed himself on all those years ago.
And transported I was. The set was incredibly realistic; taverna-style tables were laid with blue checked table cloths, tzatziki and olives, ouzo was flowing and we indulged in a five course Greek feast while actors performed a show that was low on plot but stratospherically high on ABBA songs.
The performance is in English for the first time ever this year, but my Swedish table companions didn’t care. “The show is so popular, the language doesn’t matter. We had to come!” they insisted, before we unashamedly danced the night away to Waterloo and Voulez-Vous.
Buoyed by the tacky fun and excited to tick off every cliché, on the way out I decided to ask my new friends where I could grab some authentic Swedish meatballs the next day. They laughed in my face.
“Nobody really eats them,” they scoffed, seemingly less eager than I to embrace Sweden’s culinary stereotypes.
While they may have hosted an energetically camp Eurovision, perhaps Stockholm still has a little way to go to fully embrace its own chintzy charm.