Lola A. Åkerström explains Stockholm’s strong café culture and highlights some of the best places in town to grab a cup of joe.
Widely touted as having an open and progressive culture, Stockholmers love socializing with loyal friends and colleagues but are still fiercely private and are quick to leave the hustle and bustle of the streets to retreat into cozy dimly lit intimate cafés that cater to that sense of privacy.
“The café culture here in Stockholm among young people has its roots in the fika tradition, but truly I find that our generation has a bit of a rouge approach to work that makes cafés an important meeting place as well,” says Kendra Williams-Valentine who runs the Swedish-American culinary site, Americulinariska, and also contributes to Slow Travel Stockholm.
Because Stockholm is known for its creativity and strong design culture, Williams-Valentine points out that a lot of this creative work is done collaboratively and so keeping social networks alive beyond the internet is important in a small city. “Sometimes your favorite café is the only place you visit more than once a week,” she adds.
Both for work and play here in Stockholm.
According to the International Coffee Organization (ICO), Sweden is one of the top ten coffee-consuming countries. Swedes drink roughly 9-10 kilograms of coffee per capita annually as estimated by the government agency, Statistics Sweden. More surprising is the daily frequency at which people seem to drop everything to “drink coffee”.
While the actual act of drinking coffee isn’t the core of this long observed tradition, it’s the act of religiously sharing with friends, colleagues, and family in a social situation known as observing fika.
Pronounced “fee-ka”, it is widely translated into taking a break (fikarast) or pause (fikapaus) from work to socialize over cups of coffee, and Stockholm is peppered with small coffeeshops, cafés, and bakeries (konditori) that sell pastries to quickly cater to hourly fika crowds. Similar to observing afternoon tea in the United Kingdom with an assortment of scones and sandwiches, observing fika is accompanied with a slew of freshly baked goods collectively known as fikabröd.
Crispy buttery crusts filled with gooey, decadent almond pastes. Sugary tarts topped with marzipan and heavy whipped cream. The sounds of which elicit visions of dining in Parisian cafés.
Stockholm’s residents have successfully integrated eco-friendly living and a genuine care for their environment with the contemporary style and modernism Sweden is known worldwide for.
“We see a strong wish among customers in general to see all foods and beverages being part of a craftsmanship,” shares Jesper Bood, a professional barista who began his career in 2008. Bood also handles customer relations in Stockholm for da Matteo, a Swedish company which specializes in specialty roast coffees.
“Coffee as a fresh produce is a natural part of that interest. [Swedish] Society as a whole is attracted to this approach – transparence and closeness to the produce,” highlights Bood. da Matteo has an open production system where members of the public are invited to see the roasting process behind coffee they drink. The company buys its coffee from environmentally conscious growers, and their home coffee roasters are made with eco-friendly stainless steel.
From individual household recycling to public transport running on sustainable fuels to restaurants and cafés which serve organic and fair trade ingredients on their menu and play host to young dads on paternity leave with their baby strollers called “lattepappor” (Latte pappas/dads), this social awareness is what netted Stockholm the first ever European Green Capital award from the European Union.
David Landes, a bonafide lattepappa and editor of the Stockholm-based English-language site The Local, reminisces about a favorite spot of his. “I really like the views over Sergels torg and Drottninggatan from Café Panorama at Kulturhuset,” shares Landes who has spent many afternoons with his son at the children’s library on its fourth floor. “Afterwards, we go up to Café Panorama on the 5th floor for pancakes with lingonberry jam and cream,” he adds.
There’s no shortage of cafés in Stockholm – from outdoor Parisian style cafés lining narrow sidewalks in glitzy Östermalm and the cobble-stoned streets of Gamla stan (old town) to more hole-in-the-wall local favorites in Kungsholmen, and beloved fika institution Vete-Katten operating since 1928. But some of the trendier, offbeat coffeehouses can be found on the island of Södermalm (“Söder”) which was once a slum district for the poor during the 17th century and now remains the city’s heartbeat in terms of diversity, vintage shopping, artsy cafés, ethnic cuisine, and bohemian flare.
“Taking time to go have a coffee, despite the amount of time you have to spare, can be a great way to put yourself in a social environment – something we human beings need, “shares Williams-Valentine. “Not to mention, it’s a way to ‘see and be seen’ on Söder,” touting the district as one of the prime locations for people-watching in Stockholm.
Popping out of Medborgarplaten subway station on Söder, you’ll find yourself at the crossing of Götgatan and Folkungagatan – one of the busiest intersections in Stockholm. The large navy blue sign with “Wayne’s Coffee” written in white uppercase characters will immediately catch your eye. Patrons sipping coffee and surfing the internet in seemingly calm as life bustles on outside.
Just by opening the doors to this popular coffee house franchise, you’re transported into a cozy place where you can hide away and watch the world go by through large windows. While visitors to Stockholm might compare Wayne’s , which was founded in 1994, to popular American brand Starbucks due to having over 90 cafés in Sweden alone, any comparisons are often viewed as borderline blasphemous by locals who fiercely hold on to their local brew and pride themselves in homegrown brands.
Swinging southwards along Götgatan will take you to indie theater Viktoria. There, you’ll find Barista, a small café where you can drink 100% fair trade coffee from Ethiopia, Mexico, or Guatemala while enjoying grilled hot Panini sandwiches. You can continue down Götgatan to an old classic, Gunnarsons, which was founded in 1946 and where head pastry chef Soren Resare whips out decadent berry cakes, chocolate pralines, and a variety of fikabröd.
Or you can venture deeper into Södermalm’s version of New York’s So-Ho district – the area south of Folkungagatan called “so-fo” where you will find Café String, a popular watering hole with scrumptious sandwiches, pancakes served with lingonberry and cream, tasty fikabröd, and various types of coffee and tea. While at Café String, if you fancy the chair you’re sitting on, you can walk right out with it (paid for, of course); just one offbeat quality of this eclectic café.
“Sometime during the 1990s, small ‘trendy’ cafes like Café String started showing up all over town,” recalls Evelina Roos, an actress and entertainer with her finger on Stockholm’s cultural pulse. “The trend of drinking not just regular coffee but lattes started, along with stylish interior décor and hip fika menus that appeal to a younger crowd.”
Bood agrees. “Like Café String started, I think the trend in cafés is more towards a total experience rather than just a focus on coffee, sourdough bread, or cupcakes,” he notes. “There’s a stronger focus on overall quality taste experiences.”
Whether patrons are drinking coffee or not.
Heading northwards along Götgatan, the main artery that connects Södermalm via a scenic downhill walk to more touristy areas around Slussen and Gamla stan, you’ll walk past Medborgarplatsen (“Citizen Square”) – a central and iconic square prime for catching a cross-section of Stockholm’s diverse residents from hipsters, fashionistas, and bohemian chic youngsters to executives in business suits, foreigners in ethnic garb, and guidebook-wielding tourists.
Götgatan itself, which translates to “Goth Street”, has been around in one fashion or the other since the 12th century and its blend of old historic buildings in pastel, burnt sienna, and dark orange colors juxtaposed against a sea of modern hip pedestrians is a testament to Stockholm’s lifestyle as a whole. The city has been able to grow and expand with modern times by converting, repurposing, and weaving itself around old architecture.
Ironically, a lesser known American coffee house brand has snuck onto Götgatan and is quite popular among locals. At the intersection of Götgatan and Högbergsgatan lies Tully’s Coffee which displays a large blackboard along the sidewalk leaning against a wall with over 30 flavors of milkshakes scribbled in white chalk. Built for people-watching, its large windows with bar stools facing outwards lets you watch the crowd walking down Götgatan as you sip coffee.
Heading further along Götgatan as it begins its scenic dip downhill towards Gamla stan is where you’ll find arguably the most popular café along that pedestrian stretch. Muggen’s instantly recognizable black awnings invite you into a dimly lit 70s style interior mixed with contemporary décor, caramel-colored leather sofas, and chandeliers. While its furnishings are a touch vintage, Muggen’s modern menu serves up fair trade and directly sourced coffee and organic teas paired with a variety of sugary sweet pastries, healthy salads, smoothies, and sandwiches.
While Stortorget right in the heart of Gamla stan may be the most visited square in town, that notoriety doesn’t stop locals from ducking into Chokladkoppen to enjoy large bowls of piping hot chocolate while sitting in forward-facing wicker chairs for watching people milling around the square. “Right next to Chokladkoppen is what I call the ‘Dungeon’ café,” jokes Landes referring to metal spiral staircases that take you down to the dark candlelit cellars of Kaffekoppen with old wooden furnishings and brass chandeliers. “I often take my family there every time they visit from the US and it’s become our ‘thing’ – to get massive cinnamon buns and kladdkakor (chocolate brownies),” Landes continues.
The Dutch-style gabled rowhouses now home to both cafés were built in the mid 1600s and restored in 1905 with touches of medieval décor and masonry throughout the buildings adding to their ambience and a testament to the city’s rich deep-seated history .
Best places to fika
Götgatan 67 (Viktoriabiografen)
Tel – 0709371531
Tel – 087148514
Sergels torg 3 (Kulturhuset, 5th floor)
Tel – 08211035
Tel – 08203170
Tel – 086419111
Tel – 08203170
Tel – 086411415
Tel – 0855601456
Tel – 08208405
Wayne’s Coffee (Numerous locations)
Tel – 086447120
A modified version of this article was originally published in Malaysian Airlines’ Going Places in-flight magazine.