Six Tips for Exploring Stockholm on a Budget
Foreign tourists often skip Stockholm, Sweden’s capital, because it’s perceived to be out of the way or too expensive, and they miss out on this beautiful city, with its parks and museums sprinkled across a handful of easily navigable islands. And, while there may be no such thing as cheap travel to Stockholm, it is certainly possible to enjoy it on a small budget. From shopping in the fashionable Södermalm district (made famous in The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo) to exploring the museums in the Djurgården area, Stockholm is not just a city for the wealthy.
Stockholm combines the culture and museums associated with world capitals and the shopping for which large cities are famous, all condensed into a manageable city with English-speaking locals. Often ranked as one of the most livable” cities in the world, it is Sweden’s cultural and commercial heart, and the main entry point for most visitors to the country. Here are some tips for traveling to Stockholm on a budget.
Use a Stockholm Card
A Stockholm Card, the city sightseeing card for Stockholm, gives visitors free admission to museums, historical sites, and attractions plus free use of the bus and subway system. It’s available at many hotel front desks in 1-, 2-, 3-, and 5-day increments. The 72-hour card costs 650SEK (about $100), but when you consider that most attractions cost about 100SEK for entrance, it pays for itself quickly.
Use the card for admission to the most expensive museums and, because it includes transportation, the far-flung attractions, like Drottningholm Castle and Millesgården. Some of the top attractions to visit with the Stockholm Card include:
- Stockholm City Hall (Stadshuset), where the Nobel banquet is held every year. The perfection of its architecture is evident while on the tour, from the Blue Hall of Nobel fame to the Gyllene Salen, which could compete for the most gaudy room in the world. This 44-meter long hall, glowing with golden mosaics, is almost impossible to photograph, and a sin to miss. In the summer, take in the view from the top of the tower.
- Vasamuseet. In 1628, the king built an intricately carved fantastic wooden ship, which promptly sunk in Stockholm’s harbor on its maiden voyage. The Swedes dredged it from the mud in the 1961 and a museum was built just to showcase this ship, as well as some of its mummified sailors.
- Millesgården, the home of sculptor Carl Milles is a waterside villa across from the city. Seemingly relocated from the French Riviera, the sculpture garden of this Mediterranean-style home features dozens of Milles’ sculptures, some at ground level and some flying off elevated columns.
- Drottningholm Castle is not as grand as Versailles, even though you will certainly see some Versailles influences here. It’s a great introduction to the Swedish royal family, and the gardens will delight, even in winter.
- Skansen is a kid-friendly combination zoo and taste of Swedish folk life, with attractions like glass blowing and traditional dances. Eat some traditional Swedish food or bring a picnic from a market hall.
Explore Stockholm for less
- Use public transportation. The subway (Tunnelbana or T-bana) is easily marked, efficient, and clean. It’s best to buy a 24-hour or 72-hour pass from Pressbyrån, since it’s inconvenient and expensive to buy single-journey tickets. Or use your Stockholm Card.
- Get out of Gamla Stan. Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town, is great for wandering and photographing, but not for dining or shopping. Aside from a couple truly fine dining establishments, most of this small island is for daytripping tourists, looking for a souvenir stuffed reindeer or Viking hat.
- Enjoy free organ concerts and church visits. Entrance to nearly every church within the Church of Sweden (svenskakyrkan) is free and most host a weekly free organ concert (orgelkonsert), usually at mid-day on weekdays or on weekend afternoons. Other classical concerts have small, but affordable, admission fees. Some churches date back to the 1700s and most have events posted online and at the church. Churches include Adolf Frederiks Kyrka, Katarina Kyrka, Gustav Vasa Kyrka, and the famous Storkyrkan.
- Photograph. Stockholm is a delightful city for photographs, with historical buildings, parks, gardens, and water everywhere. Add in the Nordic light, and it’s easy to spend a day exploring.
Eat cheap in Stockholm
Dining and drinking in Stockholm is expensive, there’s no getting around it. But it is still possible to try some of Sweden’s cuisine without blowing your budget. Here are a few ways to eat well for less money:
- Eat the Dagens Rätt for lunch. This is the “daily special,” usually advertised in front of the restaurant, and offered only at lunch Monday to Friday all over Stockholm. There may be limited options, but it is usually less than half the dinner price. If you’re lucky, the price includes lingonberry drink. This can help take the bite out of the price of a restaurant meal, which can be considerable (150-220 SEK, or $23-$34 for an entree at a mid-range place).
- Take advantage of buffets so you can skip the next meal. Start with a hearty breakfast buffet if it’s offered at your hotel. My favorite Stockholm restaurant, Hermans (Fjällgatan 23B), is a mix of locals and travelers. A tiny entrance reveals a patio (climate controlled in winter) with an astounding view over the entirety of Stockholm. The expansive vegetarian buffet can even satisfy omnivores. Check their website for student discounts on Mondays. The tourist-free Hornstull Strand on the western tip of Södermalm offers a weekend brunch, including make-it-yourself waffles (but they take a summer hiatus). If you can’t make it for brunch, then come at night for drinking and live bands.
- Check out hot dog stands and food halls. Try tunnbrödsrulle, a sandwich with hot dog, mashed potatoes, and shrimp salad, at Maxi Grillen on Götgatan (at Medborgarplatsen in Södermalm). Or, settle for just a hot dog. Affordable dinners are few and far between, so for cheap eats in Stockholm hit Kungshallen (Kungsgatan 44),a mall-style food court with cuisines as varied as Greek, Texan, and Thai. Hot dogs and other cheap eats like kebabs and pizza slices for from 20-60 SEK (about $3-$9).
- Visit a market hall for fresh foods. Östermalms Saluhall, is a 19th century palace of sausages, cheeses, and fish. It also has restaurants and take-out stands inside. Hötorgshallen serves the same purpose, but doesn’t have the Victorian ambiance.
Shop like a local
If sticking to a tight budget is a big concern, you want want to limit your shopping excursions to browsing only. But if you’re determined to come with a few souvenirs, check out the following options for ways to bring home a little bit of Sweden for less.
- The shopping street Drottninggatan may be filled with chain stores, but a lot of these stores, like Weekday, are not found in America. In the Södermalm district, stroll down Götgatan from Slussen to Medborgarplatsen for some interesting boutiques.
- Discover fun Scandinavian-designed housewares at affordable prices. Designtorget (several locations) is filled with expertly-curated treasures a little to funky too sell at IKEA. It’s difficult to leave Lagerhaus (Drottningholm) without finding something you can’t do without, like a 32-ounce retro-chic rubber duck soap dispenser. Tiogruppen (10 Swedish Designers) features unique gifts made with unique fabrics (Götgatan 25).
- Find affordable European-cut clothes at Åhléns department store, as well as Scandinavian design housewares. I always pick up some Swedish pop music CD’s which are not available worldwide. The best compilations are from RIX-FM (a big radio station) or Absolute Music. At the Hemköpp grocery store in the basement, I buy grocery souvenirs (and picnic foods for myself). Scour the aisles for lingonberry tea, Swedish cookies, and other treats that travel easily and you can’t easily find in America.
- Plan your purchases for tax savings. If you spend a certain amount at most major stores, you can get a partial tax refund. Ask for a Global Refund tax-refund form when you pay, and read the form for how to get some money back at the airport when you leave.
Getting there and staying for less
Transport to Stockholm and accommodations will be your biggest expenses. While lodging in the city is very pricey, if you don’t need anything fancy, you can find more affordable options.
- Book online in advance for discounted airport transportation on the Flygbussen coaches. They operate from all Stockholm airports: Arlanda and Bromma airports in Stockholm, as well as Vasteras and Skavsta airports, which Ryanair pretends are in Stockholm (but are really 80 minutes away).
- To sleep as the Swedes do, try the Scandic Hotels chain. Not only is it one of the most eco-friendly hotel chains in the world (with a 4-compartment recycling bin in each room), but the classic Scandinavian décor will make you feel Swedish. Every room includes a huge Scandinavian buffet breakfast (eat enough and you can skip lunch!), and there are Scandics across the city accessible to the subway. There are also many hostels in Stockholm which will only set you back about $40USD. One unique and affordable option is the Red Boat Hostel, a hostel built aboard two ships in the middle of the city, which will set you back around 260 SEK ($41) for the cheapest dorm room.
Other affordable Stockholm tips
- Don’t bother buying a Swedish/English dictionary. Most Swedes speak near-perfect English.
- Skip the Archipelago. A boat trip to the nearby archipelago is certainly beautiful, but there is little to do on the islands unless you have access to a private home or cottage. If you need a quick getaway, opt for the city of Uppsala instead.
- Buy duty-free liquor or wine on your in-bound flight. Due to high liquor taxes, Swedes stock up when they are overseas. If you want to drink on your own, follow their lead or expect to pay around 100 SEK for a drink or 50 SEK for beer.
- Do your laundry somewhere else. There’s only one laundromat in Stockholm, Tvättomaten. The proprietor is very friendly, but it costs about 100Kr per machine.
- Visit Norway First. If you’re afraid Sweden will be too expensive, then visit Norway first. Suddenly Sweden will seem like a bargain.
Learn more about author Matthew Stone and read his other articles here.