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The Sweet Secret of Local Life in Stockholm

Think of iconic Sweden and you may point to pickled herring or social progressivism or the spangled cutout catsuits of ABBA. But for a sweeter vision of Swedish life, you shouldn’t look past the tradition of fika.

Both a noun and a verb, this Swedish ritual is loosely translated as a super-social coffee break. But it’s more than a mere coffee hour: In a culture often known for being fiercely private, fika is a short but sweet time to catch up with friends and spouses, officially built into the everyday.

“I’d love to pack up and bring home the entire concept of fika … But it might be a harder sell here, where caffeine means ‘go,’ not ‘stop.'”

There is no best time at which to fika. You can enjoy a morning fika or a midafternoon pick-me-up. You can fika for a first date, or you can fika with coworkers. The only requirements are a cup of coffee (which needs not be fancy), a bite to eat, and in warm-enough months in Stockholm, a street-side table from which to observe the urban bustle and flow.

Pastry is an integral part of fika culture. Kanelbullar are perhaps the most famous (and most consumed, with Swedes eating some 326 million pounds of cinnamon buns each year). These buns aren’t the drippy sugar bombs I squeeze out from a blue can each Christmas. Rather, they are soft, delicately spiced with cardamom and cinnamon, and topped with tiny globes of pearl sugar or slivers of almond. Apple cakes, cheesecakes, and tarts of cloudberry or lingonberry are mainstays, as is prinsesstarta, a sponge cake crowned with whipped cream, a fine dome of green marzipan, and a tiny pink edible rose.

If you’re not in the mood for sweets, it’s perfectly acceptable to opt for an open-faced sandwich or simply nothing but coffee; after all, the food is secondary to the conversation.

In Stockholm, cafes and coffee shops dot nearly every corner. At most hours, busy students, power-suited workers, and moms and dads rolling strollers crowd the cafe tables for fika.

Outposts of Wayne’s Coffee, a homegrown coffee chain, can be found all over, but Stockholm’s twisting streets and open squares offer more options, each with its own deep-seated atmosphere. Here are some favorites (with photos below).

Climbing up the stairs to Sturekatten is like entering the home of an eccentric elderly relative. Beyond the bakery cases, you’ll find a series of small rooms decorated with knickknacks, floral paintings, and jewel-toned damask chairs. Order a cup of coffee or tea and sit among your fellow patrons, who can be found in hushed conversation or simply reading the day’s paper, their only companions the staring cat statues curled up on Sturekatten’s windowsills. 

On the island of Djurgarden, near the ABBA Museum, Bla Porten‘s self-serve pastry table is piled high with sweets and savories. Choose from Brie sandwiches and full-sized fruit pies, peaked coconut macaroons and a silver platter mounded with cinnamon buns. Grab a cafeteria tray and pick your spot in the shaded garden’s pale summer sun.

Further afield, among a grove of wildflowers and patches of organic vegetables, Rosendals Tradgard cafe is a popular stop for the locals who bike and run the island’s wooded trails. Explore the gardens and enjoy a spread of items from the on-site bakery: cinnamon and cardamom buns, soft sourdough and loaves of pain proletaire. Wash your choice down with local cold-pressed rhubarb nectar from a glistening glass bottle.

In the medieval city center of Gamla Stan, tourists take in the palace, museums, and rows of Stockholm’s historical terracotta-colored houses. Between stops, the crowds can take a long break at Chokladkoppen. Pair conversation with a bowl of creamy hot chocolate and a slice of kolapaj, a sticky-sweet caramel pie. The cafe sits beside a cobbled square that hums with bicyclists, pigeons, and tour groups; if you can nab one of the outward-facing wicker chairs, you won’t move for hours.

If you like your seat at Cafe String and wish to take it with you, you can buy it. The coffee shop is perfect for a hipster’s repast, with checkerboard floors and a mishmash of vintage furniture available for sale. It’s a prime spot for people-watching in trendy Sodermalm (bring sunglasses and a thick novel you’ll never read). 

And finally, if you want to host your own fika at home or hotel, Bakery and Spice in Vastastan has plenty of sweet kanelbullar to go, plus soft sourdough and crisp knackebrod studded with sunflower seeds. Visitors may find themselves wishing for a way to ship these goodies home. 

I’d love to pack up and bring home the entire concept of fika: time to put aside work and spend a moment with a significant other, or friends, or books, or simply oneself. But it might be a harder sell here, where caffeine means “go,” not “stop.”

Of course, if I can’t have fika here, a simple cup of coffee and a sweet cinnamon bun are reason enough to find my way back to Stockholm.

Check out of a collage of my photos below. Have a question about my trip to Stockholm? Want to share your own fika experience? Leave a comment below or contact me via You can also follow me on Google+.

(Photos 1—7: Dara Continenza; 8: Getty Images/Hemis)

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