Until European travel becomes fully open to Americans, here's a reminder of the fun that awaits us in Europe.
When sightseeing my way through Stockholm — which has a longer list of must-see attractions than any city in Scandinavia — I take full advantage of the local tradition of the fika — Sweden's ritual coffee break.
Swedes must drink more coffee per capita than just about any other country. The fika is to Sweden what the siesta is to Spain. While typically a morning or afternoon break in the workday, it can happen any time, any day.
Fika-fare includes coffee along with a snack or pastry — usually a cinnamon bun. You can get your fika-fix at just about any café or konditori (bakery) in Stockholm. Your coffee (usually with a refill) and a cinnamon bun will cost you about 40 kr (under $5). You'll see convenience stores advertising coffee and bun "to go" specials for 25 kr.
With my cheap coffee and bun in hand, I like to grab a park bench to relax and enjoy some of Europe's best people-watching. On a recent trip, I'd heard that Sweden was experiencing a baby boom, and sure enough, the city's grand harborside promenades were especially busy with baby strollers. I found myself playing a goofy little game of seeing how many parents and kids I could capture in the same photograph.
Sweden prides itself in being the most emancipated country in the developed world — 45 percent of its parliament members are women — and its family-friendly social policies are a big part of that success. Swedes get 480 days of parental leave (with 390 of those days paid at 80 percent of their regular salary), which they can take at any time until their child is eight years old. That includes 90 days allotted to each parent that can't be transferred to the other, which encourages dads to be as hands-on with their kids as the moms are.
While progressive and sleek, Stockholm respects its heritage. In summer, mounted bands parade daily through the heart of town to the Royal Palace, announcing the Changing of the Guard. They turn even the most dignified tourist into a scampering kid. With each visit, I'm sure to be at the palace at noon for the Changing of the Guard. The performance is fresh and spirited because the soldiers are visiting Stockholm just like I am — and it's a chance for young soldiers from all over Sweden in every branch of the service to show their stuff in the big city. Generally, after the barking and goose-stepping formalities, the band shows off for an impressive 40-minute concert. While the royal family now lives out of town at their summer palace (Drottningholm), the palace guards are for real. I thought they were just touristy soldiers until I tried wandering discreetly behind them for a photo and they snapped sternly into action.
While at the palace, you can "kill two flies with one swat" (as they say here) by dropping into the stunning Royal Armory. Royal armor and sword collections are a dime a dozen in Europe — but Stockholm's is the most interesting and best-displayed collection I've seen anywhere. The original 17th-century gear includes royal baby wear, outfits kings wore when they were killed in battle or assassinated, gowns representing royal fashion through the ages, and five centuries of royal Swedish armor — all wonderfully described in English. An added bonus is a basement lined with royal coaches (including coronation coaches), all well-preserved, richly decorated, and thoughtfully explained by an audioguide.
The palace and its associated museums fill a corner of an island called Gamla Stan — Stockholm's old town. The rest of the island is filled with antique shops, street lanterns, painted ceilings, and surprises. Until the 1600s, all of Stockholm fit on Gamla Stan. Today, it's been given over to the tourists. Seemingly unaware that most of Stockholm's major attractions are elsewhere, the tourists seem to wander mesmerized by the Old World quaintness of Gamla Stan's main drag, Västerlånggatan.
Stockholm has a long list of blockbuster attractions (including Europe's best-preserved old warship, its first and best open-air folk museum, and the ultimate scenic island archipelago cruises). Any visitor who reads the guidebooks and brochures will be directed to these. But most of these will fail to remind you: When sightseeing Stockholm, it'll all go better if you do as the locals do...and enjoy an occasional fika.