In Stockholm, Greg Bruce experiences the art of thinking differently.
I was staying at Downtown Camper, a high-end hotel in the heart of what used to be Stockholm's red light district. It's a place that has the aesthetic of a camping hut or an old school bach. The vibe is relaxing, even chillaxing. One example: Hanging above the lobby is a giant net where every night at 6pm, with a bunch of others, you can climb in, lie down with headphones on and be guided through a half-hour body scan meditation. I never once got into that net but walking into the hotel every night and seeing it, knowing it was there, made me feel like this place was the right choice.
The hotel has regularly scheduled group runs, group walks, group yoga and a film night in their in-house cinema. They have a killer rooftop bar — sexy, dark and cool — and an outdoor rooftop pool that's heated so you can sit in it even when the weather's freezing, which it is for a good portion of the year. The hotel is the type of place that, when you leave, you leave with deep regrets for all you failed to do.
It's important to get out of the hotel though because, for instance, it's close to the photo-friendly old town and the hipster hood of Sofo and it's just a 10-minute walk to City Hall, the astonishing building where the Nobel Prize banquet is held every December. You can ascend the stairs, stand behind the podium where the prize is given and imagine doing something so worthwhile that you'll be standing there again one December night in, say, 2035, when it probably won't be nearly so cold.
City Hall is filled with rooms that open out and narrow down and open out again, and many of them are delightful and surprising. One, for instance, for no obvious reason besides gratuitous beauty, is covered entirely with gold mosaic.
The building is still the working home of the city council — and you can see councillors' names on placards around the empty tables at which they sit when in session — but it is also a place of high art, great architecture and surely some of the best views of any city council facility anywhere in the world.
It's also made entirely, incredibly, of brick.
"How many bricks must they have used to build that?" I said, rhetorically, when we first arrived.
"Eight million" the tour guide said.
And that's the value of a tour guide.
Something that gets lost in the usual narrative about Stockholm is that it's a city of water, built on 14 islands, surrounded by thousands more. A river runs through it and right out to a seemingly endless archipelago. Cruising through the archipelago is an unexpected pleasure in a place where you expect to spend all your time cycling or on a world-leading public transport system.
On our second day in Stockholm we cruised out to the island village of Vaxholm. There, in the garden of a bed and breakfast owned and run by the couple who live there, was a glasshouse set for lunch. It was close to freezing outside, but the gas fire inside made it toasty. There was mulled wine, hot green soup with blue cheese, cinnamon buns and alcohol-free pilsner. The owner, Linda, who had been voted Sweden's home baker of the year, had also baked cardamom buns. They were warm and spicy and one of those surprises you get, where you have no expectations, no reference point, and then — bam! — you wonder why you haven't been eating them all your life, and you regret living somewhere you will no longer be able to.
We returned to the city, full and content at about 2pm, in the soft lavender gloom of the Swedish afternoon.
The world's great cities all give off a vibe, an aura: New York has the smell of money; Sydney has its sparkling superficiality; Singapore is very, very humid. Stockholm gives off a sort of great thrum of creativity, and you feel it almost everywhere you go: so much about the city seems to be oriented towards thinking differently, being open to new ideas, and nowhere more so than the Metro, which tags itself as the world's longest art gallery.
For decades, the city has liberally poured money down holes in the ground to fill its subways with works of astonishing public art that prompt you to look up, look around, and to think about life beyond your commute.
As a visitor, these works are surprising and often wonderful — the great raw red rock cavern of Radhuset, for instance, with its collections of imaginary archaeological findings, looks less like a train station than a fantasy theme park.
One of the great under-discussed aspects of international travel is the amount of time you spend physically shifting your body between places, and the effort that requires, and the drudgery it entails.
What the Stockholm subway gives you is the reshaping of that relationship, so that the moving between places and the being in a place are no longer divided. You are fully present. If this sounds like an ambitious mental stretch, welcome to Stockholm.
The city also makes its more classically structured art experiences available for free, and not half-arsed ones either. The city's architecture and design museum, ArkDes, for example, is far more than just a place to look at beautiful objects — it's a thought-provoking place designed to induce us to ask grand questions about how we live and how we might live differently. Like so much in the city, it's a provocation to be better.
ArkDes's public luxury exhibition, which has just finished, asked what cities should look like, but more importantly how cities might affect people and how people might affect cities, which is not a design question but an existential one. This is the type of thing Stockholm seems to throw up again and again. Go deeper. Don't settle.
Also free: the National Museum, which reopened last year after a massive five-year renovation that has made it into surely one of the most beautiful art museums in the world. No longer a white box, its rooms are painted in a variety of bright shades carefully chosen to complement the artworks they hold.
So much thought has gone into the reshaping of the museum that an exhibition is dedicated to it, displaying, for instance, the astonishingly complex commissioning and developing process that went into every piece of dinnerware in the museum's restaurant.
The restaurant is world class, the head chef Fredrik Eriksson one of the country's highest profile chefs. He spent a decade as a gastronomic adviser for the Nobel Foundation, helping develop the menu for the Nobel Prize Banquet, one of the most important and high-profile dinner parties anywhere in the world and he is regularly on television in Sweden.
The food he serves in the National Museum restaurant is spare and elegant, perfectly constructed, with flavours that are clean and precise. It's a meal that feels deliciously Swedish. The room in which it's served is a wonder all its own. You can feel its history and importance. A meal here is not just basic sustenance at the end of an art marathon, but a highlight of your visit to the city.
Stockholm is a city of restaurants. A highlight, both for its beauty and the quality of its food is the restaurant at Fotografiska, Sweden's museum of photography. Like Fredrik Eriksson at the National Museum, head chef Paul Svensson is a big deal. He focuses heavily on plants that frequently give deep illusions of mouthwateringly rich and fatty proteins.
At one stage his kitchen produced a single long, sliced carrot that looked so much like a salmon fillet I was filled with disappointment when I found out it wasn't.
At Oaxen Slip, a waterside bistro attached to its fancy two-Michelin star sister restaurant Oaxen Krog, the sense is of a heavily and carefully designed experience. This is as it should be in a leading restaurant but like everything in Stockholm, it goes a step further. Old fishing boats that once operated from here now hang above the dining room. The fact the food is organic, local and sustainable hardly rates a mention anymore, so deeply has this level of care been incorporated into the Swedish way of life. Every utensil at Oaxen Slip, every glass, the cant of every seat — as with everywhere I eat in Stockholm — feels carefully managed to deliver maximum human pleasure.
The more time you spend in Stockholm, the more you bind all this to the way the city is designed and run to encourage and facilitate thoughtfulness and creativity.
There's this feeling everywhere in Stockholm of opportunity, not in the American wealth creation sense, but in the anything is possible sense. At the hotel Downtown Camper for instance, there are corkboards and contemplative spaces in the guest rooms and odd little places throughout the hotel — like a games room — just the existence of which asks you to think differently.
It's the city in microcosm, a place that's been put together to bring people into contact with each other and by extension into contact with others' ideas.
Art in the subways? What better way to open people up to new experiences, people and ways of thinking? The rest of the world designs public transport using mathematics. The fact that Stockholm designed theirs with art tells you everything you need to know about this place.
Singapore Airlines flies from Auckland to Stockholm, via Singapore, with return Economy Class fares from $2126.