Photo by Anders Adelmark.

SWEDEN HAS ABBA, its blondes, IKEA, and a reputation for being ridiculously expensive. Living in Stockholm my whole life, most of it either broke or saving for travel, I’ve learned how to get the best out of the city without eating dog food. Here’s my advice:

Live on a boat

Accommodation can really jack up the cost of a visit — your best bet is to hit up an old (or very new) friend who can put you up. Most people in Stockholm actually live alone and would be happy to host you. Or, learn how to couchsurf.

If that doesn’t work out, head to the boat. This well-known ship/guesthouse, af Chapman, has a sweet location and charges 230 SEK (~$30US) per bed, per night. Yeah, that’s unfortunately on the cheap side for Stockholm.

Buy beer at Systembolaget

Alcohol is another big-ticket item (unless you’re coming from Germany and can import everything you plan to consume). You can save a lot by buying at one of the nationally run Systembolaget liquor stores instead of at a restaurant or pub.

According to old peasant rules, store hours are limited to 10am-6/7pm on weekdays and 10am-3pm on Saturdays. Stock up when you’re there.

Swedes are big on pre-partying, since a glass of wine in a club is the same price as a good bottle in the store (~70 SEK). You can drink in most parks, and most Stockholmers do. They also like to play kubb, a confusing traditional and extremely popular game where you throw pieces of wood at other pieces of wood. Join them.

The traditional game of Kubb. Photo by Johan Larsson.

Windowshop IKEA

Really, this is something people do. There’s a Swedish saying that no one gets out of IKEA without a pack of tea lights. Challenge yourself to prove them wrong.

Just don’t go on weekends — especially not a weekend right after payday (the 25th of the month). The crowds are terrible. Catch the free bus on a weekday instead.

One thing it’s okay to spend on is the budget-priced Swedish meatballs in the cafeteria.

Catch the lunch special

Most restaurants in Stockholm offer one of these, a multi-course meal with bread, salad, drink, and coffee for 65-95 SEK (~$9-$13US). You can shop around for the cheapest one, or this might be a good chance to eat in a fancy place for half the evening price.

My favorites are the casual ThaiBoat and more formal Källhagens värdshus.

Stockholm’s Sodermalm. Photo by pikadilly

Walk Södermalm

The heights of the south island (Södermalm) are a good place for a walk. There’s no charge to go up Katarinahissen, and close by, Mosebacke Terrace has views over the whole city.

You can buy drinks here, but remember tip #2: shop the liquor stores and save. Skinnarviksberget is a nice spot for a nip when the sun starts to set.

Scout for free museums

Last year, the government tried out a program of free museum admissions, but they’ve recently rolled this back. But even though most places charge for entry, they should also have a day or a few hours every week when it’s free.

Pick the museums you want to visit, then Google them and find out when they’re gratis. Note: the Vasa Museum is worth paying for.

Stockholm’s Gamla Stan Neighborhood. Photo by Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho

Don’t miss Gamla stan (Old Town)

There can be crowds in summer, and three-quarters of the people around you won’t be speaking Swedish. But Gamla stan is popular for a reason.

The city has done a great job of preserving a very 16th-century vibe in the Old Town.

Cafes have their original dwarf-height doors and dark stone chamber rooms, and some building exteriors have canon balls embedded in them from one historical attack or another.

Sneak away from the main streets, into the little alleyways, for more elbow room. Brända tomten (the burned yard) is my favorite spot here.

Explore the archipelago

An ironic pride of Stockholmers: it’s easy to escape the city.

There are thousands of little islands populated with red wooden houses surrounding Stockholm. You can get there in just an hour by boat, with tickets costing about 75 SEK. Go for the day and pack a lunch or go for the night and pack a tent.

It’s worth pointing out here that the exchange rate has been varying from under 6 SEK to a dollar (U.S.), up to over 11 SEK to a dollar during the last couple of years. Check the current rate before booking a trip.

This article was originally published on February 11, 2010.

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