Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Visiting Stockholm with young children

Stockholm is situated on 14 islands at the junction of Lake Malaren with the Baltic Sea. On our first walk in the streets of Stockholm I was surprised by how many prams I saw. Unlike other European cities I've visited, these were not chic and compact models but, rather appropriately, the Volvos of the preschool set, large Emmaljunga prams and similarly chunky three-wheelers. (Stockholm's traffic is likewise not dominated by ultra-compact cars but rather by Volvos and similar in station wagon size and up.) The reason was quickly apparent- Stockholms islands are hilly and must be tiring for small legs (and for large legs carrying small legs!!). Fortunately, pram/bike ramps are found on most street steps- though gauged for the large prams rather than the compact Maclaren model we brought. If I were fortunate enough to visit Stockholm again in the next few years, a pram would be high on my baggage list!

The Stockholm T-bana metro system is easy to navigate with a pram: there are pram/wheelchair gates, children under 7 travel free and the key word to know is hiss -elevator- which was easy to locate at all the stations we visited (admittedly we remained close to the city centre). Buses also accommodate prams, while ferries are another a practical and fun way to travel around Stockholm.

Stockholm Sightseeing for Preschoolers
As all the Stockholm guides make clear, the attraction-rich island of Djorgarden is a must for any tourist itinerary, and this is no exception for the youngest tourists. A ferry that crosses frequently between Djorgarden and Slussen, at the southern end of Gamla Stan, adds to the excitement of the excursion (Kr40 for adults, free for under 7s).

Highest on any child's itinerary should be Junibacken. This children's playhouse/museum comprises a series of rooms inspired by Swedish children's literature, dominated by the works of Astrid Lindgren (Pippi Longstocking etc). I wasn't familiar with a lot of the stories, so my naive description is that there were pirate ships, miniature cities to crawl through, various houses, a homemade aeroplane, light spots to chase, a steamroller and (bizarre as it sounds) a maze within the shell of a cream layer cake, with an emphasis on FUN. For both the adults and children of our family, the highlight was a modestly described "train" which turned out to be a capsule that rolled, glided and turned through scenes from Astrid Lindgren's books. I would highly recommend prospective school-age visitors to Junibacken try some Astrid Lindgren books before their visit to make the most of the experience (I wish I had!).

The Vasa Museum is the final resting place of a 17th century warship that sailed 15
minutes and then sank. She then spent 300 years in Stockholm Harbour before her discovery and retrieval. Although much of the museum is beyond a preschooler's interest, a quick wander through can be managed with something to see for everyone.

Nordic Museum: I can't review this thoroughly as we attended only as part of an evening function. However, the two galleries we saw kept both boys interested for several hours: the children's gallery/play area is set up as a wooden replica of a Swedish homestead from the turn of the last century. There are wooden chickens and wooden eggs to move around, a table and wooden food to be arranged, a pulley bridge, a milkmaids yoke, a wooden horse and cart.... The great thing about it was that, being wooden, everything was available for play. (This seemed to be a common theme throughout our museum visits: if it's intended for children, then there were few or no limits for children to touch, climb and totally experience the item.)

The other gallery that took my boys' fancy was a temporary display devoted to washing machines and the laundry room. But perhaps this wouldn't surprise frequent readers of this blog?

There is plenty for small kids to see at the Skansen "open air museum": a zoo featuring Nordic animals and traditional craft workshops (Big Bro was fascinated by the glass blowing) situated amongst buildings transplanted from different regions of Sweden.

Our boys were never into dummies (pacifiers) but depending on how desperate other parents are to shed the dummy, a trip to Skansen may be just what is needed: Swedish tots are brought to the Dummy Well to leave their dummies "for the baby animals".


Transport museum
A museum of buses, trains and trams: Big Bro would never have forgiven me for missing this one. On the east end of Sodermalm, it's definitely well off the tourist route- though easily accessible by bus or scenic walk along Folkungagatan and Katarinavagan (the walk along Stadsgardsleden is less hilly but somewhat less scenic).

The museum houses a range of Stockholm's former transport vehicles, from a replica of boats paddled between the islands in the middle ages to horse-drawn trams, electric trams, modern buses and trains. Many of the more recent exhibits allow access to the driver's area, some with
video displays allowing crude simulator-style "driving".

Non-Swedish speaking transit aficionados will have to interrogate the surly staff (at least at our visit they weren't feeling very conversant) to get more details on the individual displays, but for those happy to cruise between the vehicles the museum offers a fun few hours' entertainment for pre- schoolers with an interest in trains. Kr10 also buys you a seat on a small gauge train that makes a brief ride through the exhibits (closed for repair when we visited).

Adjacent to the Sparvargelsmuseet and included in the entry price is a toy museum which was of more interest to me than Big Bro. It was an eclectic collection of toys, most from the twentieth century: cabinets of smurfs, star wars figurines, Lego, Mecchano, toy cars, barbies... (And, according the The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mikael Blomkvist's toy tractor.)

Katarinahissen: this rather ugly structure to the east of Slussen T-bana station is in fact a tourist elevator that was first built over 100 years ago. It is Kr10 per ride (children under 7 free), or if you are travelling without a pram (and with energetic children!) it is free to take the stairs. At the top there are views of Gamla Stan and Djorgarten, and a walkway through to deeper Sodermalm (not far from Medborgerplatzen). We never lasted long up there as the boys were rapidly chilled by freezing winds- in other seasons there is evidently a cafe of some sort up there.

Gamla Stan (Old City)

The Changing of the Guard: not as fancy as Buckingham Palace, but every day the Royal Palace's guards change with a bit of choreographed goose-stepping and flag waving. And unlike Buckingham Palace, you can be within metres of the action.

Nobel museum: We visited the Nobel museum twice, and both times ended up in the "Bubble Tank" children's area. There is a small display, a puppet theatre, books (mostly Swedish) and my boys' favourite area, a cabinet with drawers containing activities representing the seven Nobel prize categories: peace, physics, chemistry, medicine/physiology, literature and economics. For example, one of the chemistry drawers had magnetic model atoms to stick together into various molecules (Little Bro's favourite) while an economics drawer housed an activity involving paper money. Older children would find plenty to interest them in the
rest of the museum: one of Galilleo's telescopes, personal items from laureates, and (as one Nobel laureate described it to me) a "drycleaning rack" system zooming photos of the laureates around the museum, "hanging the laureates out to dry".

(Parents of small children would also benefit from a tip the lovely Nobel Museum staff passed on: their building houses one of the only nice nicest public toilets in Gamla Stan!)

Boat tours: Stockholm's islands mean that boats are a great way to see the lie of the land. Options in December were fairly limited, so we took the one hour "Royal Canal" tour, which took us around Djorgarden and showed the adults many of Stockholm's highlights- and the children saw boats large and small. In warmer weather many longer tours operate inwards into Lake Malaren or further out into the archipelago.

Our pick of Stockholm eateries for small children

Stockholm's food scene was a pleasant surprise to me. Where possible, avoid the touristy Gamla Stan's overpriced and bland eateries dominated by Italian restarants and Irish pubs and head a little north or south to eat with the locals in the hip suburbs of Södermalm or Östermalm.

Unsurprisingly, Ikea high chairs are widely available, and we found menus to be generally accessible for the boys. And, as everywhere in Stockholm, when in doubt, ask a local: chances are they speak English.

Cafe Crema (Nybrogatan 16, Östermalm opposite Astoria theatre) We found ourselves hungry in Östermalm, and happened across this cafe. It was certainly no tourist haunt, and a glance through the window suggested we would fit in there: there were already a few prams parked in the entranceway and the prices were reasonable. We had fish with vegetables in a dill sauce and an amazing chicken and bacon burger with a tangy mustard aioli which went by the humble "club sandwich" moniker. Meals come with self-service salad: lettuce or the most awesome coleslaw-type salad I have tasted, shredded vegies with a tasty seasoned oil dressing including caraway seeds (I *need* the recipe!!).

SöderManna Medborgarplatsen, Södermalm Self-catering or budget-minded travellers should visit Stockholm's answer to New York's delis, Saluhalls. We dropped into the Södermalms Saluhall on the west side of Medborgarplatsen and drooled over the range of ready-to-heat dishes (take away or eat there), finally settling on a vegetarian lunch alongside office workers at SöderManna. 75 Kroner ($A12) bought a huge and tasty slab of spinach lasagna with a side salad plus unlimited bread and dips.

Creperie Fyra Knop Svartensgatan 4, Södermalm Hidden in a sidestreet in Södermalm, this gem has not escaped the eye of guidebook authors, but maintained the "local" feel despite several tables of non-Swedes when we visited. The extensive menu starts with simple fillings (combinations of cheese, egg and ham) and progresses to more complex offerings (prawn, salads, meat) and sweet fillings. The crepes are made of a buckwheat-type flour and are a great meal for a cold day.

Cadierbaren, Grand Hotel S. Blasieholmshamnen 8 The Grand Hotel, with prices as grand as its name, certainly isn't a place for the budget-minded traveller to frequent. However, for a memorable coffee stop only minutes from Gamla Stan, the Cadierbaren lounge is not bad for a family friendly location: we weren't the only parents enjoying a brief good coffee and cinnamon bun while our children were mesmerised by the view of buses, limosines and ferries out the window.

Family friendly accommodation: I can't provide a thorough review or comparison, but we were very happy with Guldgränd Apartments (Guldgränd, Sodermalm, opposite the Hilton Hotel) which were quiet, comfortable and self-contained, and within walking distance of Slussen Station and Gamla Stan.

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