We recently got back from a fabulous end of school break to Sweden’s sometimes-sunny capital, Stockholm. Despite its reputation as an expensive city, we found that with a little bit of budget planning it was a great value family destination – and despite the unreliable and variable weather, still a really beautiful city packed with architectural gems for the grown-ups to sigh over.
I’ll be breaking down a few individual recommendations for places in separate posts and sharing more photos, but if this is a destination you’re thinking of going to with kids, here are some reasons to make the leap and book away. If you’re not somebody I know IRL, then it might be helpful to know that ours is a family of three with a 5yo who starts Year 1 in September.
1. Family-friendliness and fun
Kids are welcome everywhere in Stockholm, and there’s loads for them to do. For the most part (unless – like Junibacken or Skansen – it’s particularly aimed at children), they get in free to museums and the youngest travel free on both public and some private transport. Attractions have children’s menus, and ordinary cafes and restaurants we went to were very relaxed about making minor modifications to freshly prepared food – eg leaving off dressings – to accommodate children’s requests.
As previously mentioned, there are attractions that are specifically aimed at children; I’ll write about the amazing Astrid Lindgren story centre, Junibacken, separately as well, but it’s an absolute must do. With a permanent play village based on classic Swedish children’s literature and a play house designed after Pippi Longstocking’s Ville Villekulle, it’s an absolute joy.
To make matters even more perfect, this year it’s host to an amazing 70th anniversary Moomin Valley play village, complete with Moominmama’s house, the tiny carousel from Who Will Comfort Toffle?, darting fish in the river by Snufkin’s boat, fruit falling from the trees and a glowing campfire for the grownups to sit around while the kids go mad.
Another one for the to do list is the huge outdoor cultural centre / museum / zoo, Skansen, at which it’s all too easy to lose a whole day – or at the very least half of one – meandering about.
Both of these – plus the famous Vasa museum and quite a few others – are on the royal park island of Djurgården which is very easy to get to from central Stockholm – another consideration with kids. If you’re staying near the main waterfront it’s a short ferry ride or a few miles’ walk.
Most of all, if you’re not linguistically blessed – my husband and I are both bilingual but in different languages, neither of them remotely Nordic – the stress of trying to navigate overseas is drastically reduced by the fact that everyone speaks English very well and even announcements on the commuter trains are made in Swedish and English as a matter of course.
More great suggestions – including ones for libraries that I really wish we’d had a chance to try – are in this budget-conscious Guardian article.
Stockholm is a busy capital city, and as such every kind of food – and price point – is represented. As a family with a young child we often couldn’t plan lunchtime restaurant meals so ate in the museums, and found the quality to be high. The costs are roughly equivalent to London (eg a meal for three with cooked dishes in a museum cafe was around 400SEK or £30, but there were plenty of cheaper city-based cafes, fast food restaurants and tea houses). However, the quality was very decent and the quantity substantial, even for kids.
Our hotel also had a fulsome breakfast buffet, and you might find you end up eating a bit more often, particularly if you go in for the Swedish fika (afternoon coffee and cake break), but with local traditional foods such as open shrimp sandwiches, meatballs, pancakes and sweet, bready cinnamon rolls, you certainly won’t be short of things to tempt even the fussiest eater.
As for me, I was knee deep in bread and crackers – my carb-heavy happy place – and am pretty sure that after five days I was around 67% knackebrod (crispbread).
Cars are definitely not needed as Stockholm is a very walkable – and what isn’t is catered for by boats, trains, taxis and buses. It’s a city of mainland and islands, linked by bridges and boats, Djurgården being, as I said, the one you’ll want to spend the most time on, as it includes the Vasa museum, Junibacken, Skansen, the Tivoli amusement park (we didn’t go in but it did not look suitable for the faint-hearted!) and many more museums and galleries.
I already mentioned that Djurgården is very walkable from the mainland, and we did it in 40 minutes from our hotel which was opposite the bridge into the old town (a distance of a little over 2 miles, but with short legs accompanying us!). If anyone in the party is not up to walking or you just want the fun of the ferry, a one-way crossing is about 50SEK per person – free for under 5s, and reduced for older kids – or an all day “Hop On, Hop Off” boat pass starts at 175SEK per adult; or there are combined bus and boat options if you plan to cover a lot of ground. I would note here that I didn’t see any easy accessibility options on the boat – certainly if we’d had my mum, who uses a wheelchair, with us we’d have had to go for a commuter boat instead – but you can fold and pop a buggy on the deck.
You can also get combined deals with the My Stockholm Pass, which includes a lot of attractions and dining discounts. We felt it was better value to pay individually – the concierge at our hotel pointed out you needed to be able to go to at least 2-3 attractions a day to make it worth it – but it depends on how much you’re intending to do.
A transport tip: Stockholm’s Årlanda airport is quite a way out from Stockholm itself; you’ll be encouraged to pick up the Årlanda Express, a 20-minute fast train straight into Stockholm Central Station, from the Sky City train station between Terminals 4 and 5. However, hop on the SL commuter train at the same station and it’s about 100SEK cheaper per person, per trip to the very same destination – and it only takes 18 minutes longer. The trains were clean, spacious and easy to navigate, since everything is in English and Swedish. (Note: On the way out, you need the Uppsala train.)
4. Perfect for short breaks
While sometimes the whole joy of a family holiday is in being able to go away together for a good long time – whether to Dorset or Disney World – both budgets and the constraints of annual leave and school holidays can render shorter breaks more desirable. The flight is around 2 hours out and a little more back, and that allows you to really maximise time – we arrived at lunchtime on Monday and left on Friday evening so we had pretty much the whole five days to play with.
On budget – our 5 day break in the last week of July including upgraded flights, 4* hotel and spending money came in at around 80% of the cost of our mid-September 3-key hotel break at Disneyland Paris (and that was in 2013 with the 2 days and nights free option thrown in). Now while that’s not exactly cheap, we were lucky to be able to take the opportunity to blow out a bit, and did. Using options like Air BNB, booking cheaper flights, minimising our trinket shopping and planning our meals a bit more carefully, we could have made it a substantially cheaper break. Also, had it just been me and him going we could have hit the highlights in fewer days – as it was, we dropped the pace to a 5yo’s, and stuck to one attraction and a walk around the Gamla Stan (gorgeous but touristy medieval old town) every day.
In all, Stockholm was definitely one of our favourite family breaks to date. Our daughter declared that, while nothing could beat Florida, this was her second favourite holiday ever – high praise indeed considering the distinct differences between a city break and a theme park extravaganza. She particularly enjoyed knocking around the old town and developed such a fondness for the Chaikhana tea house (she’s her mother’s daughter) that we ended up making three visits. Even though we ended up caught in a couple of deluges, she really enjoyed pottering around the city and exploring, and it made it a very relaxing break for us adults too.
Are you tempted? I, for one, can’t wait for an excuse to go back.