Green-minded Stockholm is home to a million people, including the world’s most famous environmentalist. The water that surrounds the city's fourteen islands is clean enough to swim in or fish, so go for it. Contributing editor Kerri Allen looks into the design, the food, the ethos, the lifestyle and finds it all totally sustainable. Stockholm is more than a climate-forward European city break. It's is a model for how we should all be living.
STOCKHOLM – From the moment I landed in Stockholm, Sweden’s dedication to all things sustainable was clear. Looking to refill my reusable water bottle before even descending to baggage claim, I quickly found a public fountain. Above it, a clean blue-and-white sign proclaimed, “The drinking water at Stockholm Arlanda Airport comes from Lake Mälaren. The water is environmentally friendly, fresh, of high quality. What’s more, it’s good!”
And, honestly, it was.
Stockholm has been eco-chic long before that phrase was coined. Sweden, the first country to pass an environmental protection act (in 1967), hosted the first United Nations conference on the global environment (in 1972). What’s more, Swedish universities are legally required to include sustainable development in all curricula, from finance to literature. Little surprise then that Stockholm produced one of the most vocal environmentalists of our day: Greta Thunberg.
All of this helps make a getaway here relatively guilt-free and climate-forward. It’s actually hard to travel any other way.
Stockholm is composed of fourteen islands and surrounded by a larger archipelago of 30,000, which are connected via various ferry routes and companies. In spite of a population of more than two million people across the greater metro area, it’s easy to feel like you’re tucked away in a fairy-tale forest or a tranquil riverside, even when you’re never too far from the central city’s nerve center.
On the island of Nacka Strand, I spent a leisurely weekend at Hotel J, a chic Design Hotels property. Named after the J-class yachts of the America’s Cup, the 158-room hotel is pert and neat with an elegant nautical theme throughout. Swedish architectural firm Millimeter and designers at R.O.O.M. reimagined the 1912 waterfront structure as a paean to the yacht club aesthetic of New England. The tranquil Nyckelvikens nature reserve just one mile east of the hotel provides ample opportunity for forest bathing and people avoiding. The hotel property and its nearby Restaurant J are focused on sustainability and boast a Nordic Swan Ecolabel for excellence in their commitment to organic, fair-trade, and locally-produced menus; reduction of energy and transportation use; recycling efforts; and more.
On the nearby island Skeppsholmen, I stopped in at the eponymous Hotel Skeppsholmen, a lovely one-story affair in a waterfront building dating from 1699. Another Nordic Swan Ecolabel property, the structure was made using recycled material from old buildings and ruins around Sweden, under the vision and direction of Stockholm-based architecture firm Claesson Koivisto Rune.
For a green stay close to the center of the city — at yet another Nordic Swan Ecolabel hotel — look no further than Scandic’s Downtown Camper. Opened in 2017, the hotel has energy-saving LED lights throughout and refillable toiletry bottles to minimize single-use plastic. The housekeeping team uses organic, bio-degradable detergents when cleaning the rooms. Their main restaurant Campfire carbon-offsets all the meat they purchase — vegetarian options exist for nearly every dish — and all food waste is transformed into bio-fuel. To work off any indulgent desserts, bicycles and skateboards are available for guests to rent.
Get Around Car-Free
On the topic of petrol-free transportation, this clean and safe city is easily walkable — no Uber or rental car necessary. Some 850,000 people use public transportation in Stockholm every day, and it’s all remarkably sustainable. The subway system runs on green electricity, and all buses have run on renewable fuels since 2017. Travelers can buy a green SL card, for access to the metro, buses, trams, and ferries, in various increments, including 72 hours and seven days.
At docking stations around town there is also a bevy of green transport options for rent, including electric scooters and Bicelo bikes (standard and e-bike) at select hotels. If you’re feeling particularly intrepid, the waters surrounding the archipelago are clean enough to swim in.
Slow Stylish Shopping
Of course, no place is a utopia. Sweden was the launching pad of some of the most waste-producing brands of our age, including the fast-fashion empire H&M and the not-your-grandma’s-heirloom furniture maker IKEA. (Both have rigorous sustainability programs in place today.) Yet both were born from the country’s heritage in sleek artisanship in apparel and design.
One such company rooted in durability and design is the House of Gärsnäs. Making long-lasting furniture since 1893 — and still as chic as ever — they avoid greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions where they can, shipping their goods within a relatively small European radius. (Americans can buy Gärsnäs furniture from Suite NY in Manhattan, which ships throughout the continental United States.) When I visited their Skepsholmen showroom this spring, CEO Dag Klockby told me, “After Covid, we have a new paradigm of how we live and how we produce. Now it’s time we fight for the sustainability of objects, whatever they are.”
For those yearning to bring home a more packable sustainable item, Stockholm does not want for secondhand shops. Forget the old Goodwill bargain bin. Circularity and style are considered in equal measure here and are available to all income levels and lifestyles. The popular Arkivet Second Hand was opened by Caroline Hamrin in 2017 and now has three Stockholm locations. “Arkivet wants to make it easy for customers to consume fashion in a sustainable way,” she explains on the company website. “The concept is simple; submit what you no longer use, but could yourself consider buying.”
ReRobe was founded in 2019 with a mission to help shoppers “achieve a more sustainable and fashionable lifestyle.” I nabbed a bold vinyl cape by Swedish fashion brand Stylein (which I can’t wait to debut this fall at home in New York) at its Södermalm outpost. Judits offers lightly used items from Dior to Zara, one of countless other similarly chic second-hand shops throughout the city.
Stockholmers tend to fit into their lovingly pre-worn pants thanks to an active lifestyle and an abundance of local, healthy, and veggie-forward dining. With livestock-based food production responsible for upwards of 20 percent of the world’s GHG emissions, many Swedes forego meat altogether. As a result, Stockholm is home to plenty of excellent vegan and vegetarian restaurants, as well as those focused on zero-waste operations.
Rutabagah is a beloved, vegetarian restaurant tucked inside of the Grand Hotel Stockholm across from the Royal Palace. Another of the city’s darlings, Gastrologik, boasts a constellation of Michelin stars; their founders Jacob Holmström and Anton Bjuhr have written that their menu is “based on close cooperation between us and passionate farmers, growers, breeders, fishermen, and hunters who share the same values as we do…environmentally and ethically.”
Nearly a century ago, fishmonger Lisa Elmqvist was already operating a locally-sourced food stall in the Östermalm's Market Hall. Now in its fourth generation of family ownership, the eponymous seafood restaurant is a reliable spot for a sustainable plate of prawns, herring, and all things fresh from the sea.
Outside the city center, Rosendals Garden Café might be the most picturesque place for a farm-fresh meal. Located in a greenhouse on the verdant island of Djurgården, the nonprofit-run café sources all ingredients from its biodynamic garden. Rosendals also works with 30 different preschools in Stockholm to teach city children about growing food and the value of sustainability.
“We can’t save the world by playing by the rules, because the rules have to be changed,” Greta Thunberg declared at TEDxStockholm when she was just 13. “Everything needs to change and it has to start today.”
The rules of travel must change, too. By taking public transportation whenever you can, booking rooms at eco-certified hotels, and eating green and local, you can enjoy the splendor of a well-deserved holiday with a lighter impact in our precious but imperiled planet.
Kerri flew direct from New York City to Stockholm on Finnair, another Scandinavian travel company that combines creative design with sustainable practices. Finnair’s newest aircraft, the A350, was introduced this year and produces 25 percent less carbon emissions than older models. The carrier also offers passengers a simple way to calculate and offset the CO2 from their flights, from choosing sustainable aviation fuel or supporting climate projects that reduce, capture, or avoid greenhouse gas emissions. Read more about her flight here.