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Beauty, style & self-expression

TRAVEL: Stockholm is a gorgeous capital of design and good living

“Ikea might have re-invented the closet, but there’s little need for it here.” So reads the introduction to Stockholm’s official city gay guide. The Swedish capital is as welcoming of LGBT travellers as it is of die-hard ABBA fans (yes, they have fan tours). Gay-friendly, ABBA and Ikea is all I know of Sweden when I arrive. So Stockholm offers me a voyage of discovery, of beauty, style and self-expression.

Sweden always seems to make those happiest-countries-to-live-in lists, and now I know why. Not only do Swedes receive free health care and university, but they also live in one of the prettiest and cleanest of environments on the map.

It’s no fluke Ikea was created here. Swedes love good design. That’s evident right from the start, with the Arlanda Express, the train running between the airport and Stockholm Central Station. The train’s interior is an impressive display of elegance and funky innovation. The toilet doors have blinking red-pink hearts that make you go “aw.” It’s no surprise these high-speed carriages, which get tourists from the airport to Stockholm city in 20 minutes, won a 2011 Red Dot award, one of the largest design competitions in the world.

A city built on 14 islands, Stockholm is a paradise of saffron and terracotta-coloured buildings delicately placed around the sparkling shores of Lake Mälaren to the west and the Baltic Sea to the east.

More than 30 percent of the city is comprised of waterways, held together by some 50 bridges; while another 30 percent is made up of parks, which is probably why the air tastes so fresh, arctic fresh (the city is klicks away from the Arctic Circle.)

Being a green city is partly what motivated the European Union to name Stockholm as Europe’s first Green Capital in 2010. Since 1990, Stockholm has cut its emissions by 25 percent, and has bolder plans to be independent of fossil fuels by 2050. The water is clean enough to swim in. Buildings are smoke-free. Bicycles rule the winding streets. It isn’t unusual to count more cyclists than motorists waiting at red lights.

Not only is Stockholm good for your lungs, it’s also a good place to be gay or lesbian. Sweden legalized same-sex marriages in 2009, becoming the seventh country in the world to do so. Sweden’s Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, has marched in Stockholm’s summer Pride parade, which runs annually in late July/early August.

And Swedes are ridiculously — like ridiculously — good-looking. If men with broad shoulders, thick blonde hair, piercing blue eyes and chiselled jaws are your thing, then Stockholm is for you.

But it isn’t the good looks of Stockholm’s man market that draws my attention so much as the population’s willingness to put on a nice pair of pants and give glamour a go. Stockholm is an epicentre of style.

“When companies want to launch a product, where do they go? London, New York and Stockholm,” says Elisabeth Daude, a Stockholm city tour guide with 20 years of tourism experience. It’s one reason why she thinks Stockholm lives up to its reputation as a fashionable and trend-conscious community. There’s an inclination to try new things and look good while doing it.

“People here are willing to invest the money it costs to get dressed  up in the latest fashion, from high-end couture to H&M,” adds Daude. (H&M was founded in Sweden in the late 1940s.)

Stockholm’s Old Town (known as Gamla Stan) is a fairytale-like district with curvy, narrow cobblestone roads, medieval alleys, mustard-coloured townhouses, boutique design shops, gift stores that sell novelty Viking hats and pastry-packed cafés (not Starbucks). It’s where-old world charm meets the slim-fit blazer. Here, it isn’t unusual to see men — gay, straight, old and young — wearing bold jackets, bow ties, striped socks and pencil-leg pants ranging from cherry red to Smurf blue. Those cobblestone roads don’t stop women from wearing a pair of power pumps either.

Old Town, with its charming renaissance and medieval architecture, is where you’ll feel the soul of Stockholm. Some buildings are almost 300 years old. It’s home to the national cathedral, Storkyrkan, the Nobel museum and Sweden’s royal palace, Kungliga slottet, the enchanting 600-room official residence of Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia.

Old Town is also home to many gay-owned businesses. Chokladkoppen (Stortorget 18 111 29), which, means “cup of chocolate,” is a cozy café in the centre square that has a street-front patio designed for afternoon chatter. Inside, friendly gay waiters — one of whom, on this particular trip, is wearing white leotards with pixelated black patterns — man the espresso machine, which sits facing a collection of male erotic art on the walls.

Another Old Town gem is Torget (Mälartorget 13, 111 27), a living room-style pre-drink restaurant that’s busy every night of the week and plays NYC house beats to Judy Garland. The bartenders, like most Swedes, are extremely friendly and will become your go-to people when it comes to asking for directions to other nightclubs.

For a more upscale culinary experience, there’s Le Rouge (Brunnsgrand 2-4, 111 30), with scarlet-red upholstery and drapery and dramatic ornate lighting reminiscent of the original Moulin Rouge in Paris. Oysters and French cuisine put this place on the map.

Stockholm doesn’t have a gay village, so investigate other neighbourhoods, each of which have their own gay hot spots. SoFo, or “South of Folkungagatan,” located at Södermalm in central Stockholm, is a bohemian neighbourhood with tons of vintage stores and many local fashion brands. At previous Stockholm Pride events, businesses in this area have offered “SoFo goes homo” events where Pride revellers can show their festival pass and obtain special store discounts.

Keep tabs on what you spend in Stockholm, because it isn’t cheap. Second-hand stores don’t necessarily mean second-hand prices and eating at bars can pinch the wallet. A burger, fries and a beer can cost up to $40 Canadian.

Despite its northern location, Stockholm’s spring weather is relatively mild compared to other locations at similar latitude. During the winter months (December to March), temperatures tend to average between -5 to 1°C, there is usually snow and it gets dark early. From May to July, one can expect temperatures of around 20°C to 25°C and an entire evening of twilight (the sun never seems to fully set).

If travelling in spring or summer, a visit to Mälarpaviljongen (Norr Mälarstrand 64 112 35), a dockside restaurant that floats on water, is a must. Tucked within the confines of lush trees and romantic shoreline pathways, Mälarpaviljongen is a charming 15-minute walk from the Old Town. It’s for TGIF-ers and twilight cocktailers unwinding over a glass of blush pinot grigio. And it’s very gay-friendly. To see a young gay couple holding hands, cuddling, adjusting each other’s shirt collars and feeding strawberries to one another next to a group of sports-loving straight guys is a beautiful thing.

While nature, urban sophistication and cultural history can fill up a single day in Stockholm, it’s the live-and-let-live mentality of the people that impresses the most.