This story is part of a new series exploring the world through books. We’ve asked some of our favorite writers to recommend reading that helps you get to know their cities and tips on literary landmarks to check out. We’ll be traveling the world with them for the next few months, from Madrid to Mexico City to Istanbul and beyond. Sign up for the Books newsletter to make sure you don’t miss any stops!
To begin with, let us make it clear to everyone who has read our books that Stockholm is a very safe city, usually completely without serial killers. But our capital is not harmless — at least not in literature.
Authors have written about the light of snow and the winter darkness in the alleys, the melancholy of the short summer and the sadness of the autumn. Thanks to crime writers from Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö and beyond, there is probably not a street or park in the city where a fictitious murder has not been committed (and we acknowledge our extensive contribution).
Stockholm is situated in the passage between one of Sweden’s largest lakes and the Baltic Sea and has been settled since the Ice Age. The Riddarholmen Church, from the 13th century, is the oldest completely preserved building here. It is surrounded by medieval buildings, which in turn are surrounded by beautiful houses and theaters from the 19th century.
Although Stockholm is one of the most modern cities in the world (for example, we don’t use cash), the past is always present. We live on Oden Street. Near us, in the square next to the Royal Palace, the Stockholm Bloodbath took place in 1520, when about 100 aristocrats were executed. The amazing warship Vasa, which sank after traveling just 1,400 yards on her maiden voyage in 1628, can be seen intact at the Royal National City Park. The well-preserved city of Birka, a Viking-age trading center, is very close by, and many gods from Old Norse mythology, such as Thor, are buried — according to tradition — in the nearby city of Uppsala.
Authors have always been drawn to this city, which is the home of Sweden’s major publishers, the Nobel Prize and the Royal Dramatic Theater. This is where artists gather; where music is created; where film productions with Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman and Ingmar Bergman took off once upon a time; and where David Fincher shot the American version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”
What should I read before I pack my bags?
If you can get your hands on “Fredman’s Epistles and Songs” you will get a look straight into the Swedish soul, if there is such a thing. The author, Carl Michael Bellman, is our own burlesque, tragic, poetic version of Shakespeare.
Another warm-up reading tip is a novel by Selma Lagerlöf, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1909: “Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness,” a ghost story about a very bad man who dies on New Year’s Eve. He is the last person to die that year, and is doomed to carry the souls of the dead in his cart until he finds forgiveness and tries to mend what he has broken.
What books or authors should I bring along with me?
“Doctor Glas,” by Hjalmar Söderberg, is an iconic read — a classic book that is relevant for new generations of readers again and again, with its cocktail of perversions, oppression of sexuality, murder and melancholy in the city of Stockholm. You can even take an “audio walk” of “Doctor Glas ” when you arrive, where you listen to the book at the exact places that are described in it.
If I have no time for day trips, what books can take me there instead?
The amazing archipelago of Stockholm, with all its islands, beaches, cliffs, restaurants and sailboats, is really worth at least a day. In Sweden we have what we call the everyman’ s right, which is the general public’s access to wilderness, whether it is public or privately owned land, granted by our constitution. You may camp and fish almost anywhere you want.
But if you don’t have the time, read “Harbor” by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the author of “Let the Right One In” and our own Swedish Stephen King. “Harbor” is set in the archipelago and has all the great ingredients you need for a horror story.
What audiobook would make for good company while I walk around?
Why not a book by the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer? He won the Nobel Prize in 2011 and is considered a modern icon. His poetry seems simple, but it opens doors to the enigma that life is.
Who are the literary icons I might see named on street signs, statues or public monuments?
August Strindberg’s ghost walks the streets of Stockholm. There is a giant statue of the misogynistic, hateful, legendary but brilliant author, who wrote the novel “The Red Room” and the naturalistic play “Miss Julie,” in the Tegnérlunden park, and his words are quoted on the asphalt of Drottninggatan, the street where he lived during the last years of his life in a building known as the Blue Tower. If you can, you should visit: Standing there looking at Strindberg’s desk, with his pens, papers and books, gives writers a certain familiar feeling of discipline, dreams and isolation.
What literary pilgrimage destination — an author’s home or favored drinking hole, an incredible bookstore, a real site of fictional inspiration — would you recommend?
The Nobel Prize banquet is held every year at Stockholm City Hall, a beautiful building by the water in the middle of the city. In the cellar of the restaurant Stadshuskällaren you can try any of the dinners that were served at past banquets since 1901. Maybe you’d like to try the dinner served when Ernest Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954: smoked trout with cream-stewed spinach; beef tenderloin with artichokes, truffles and mushrooms; and pear with pistachio ice cream and chocolate sauce. Just remember to book your visit in advance.
On Dalagatan, a street in our part of the town, you can visit the humble apartment of Astrid Lindgren, who wrote “Pippi Longstocking” and many other legendary children’s books.
The National Library has built a space deep below the ground that is an exact copy of the home of the poet Nelly Sachs, who won the Nobel Prize in 1966. Visiting her “cabin” — an utterly small place where she sat and wrote in the darkness, trying not to disturb her ill mother — is very moving and strangely chilling.
What’s a good place to curl up with a book?
The House of Culture is a modernist meeting place in the middle of the city with art exhibitions, cafes and restaurants, theater, music and an international writers’ scene that has drawn authors such as Jonathan Franzen, Richard Ford, Margaret Atwood, Susan Faludi, Emma Cline, Philip Pullman, Hilary Mantel, Paul Auster, John Irving, Joyce Carol Oates and Dennis Lehane. It is, in a way, a socialistic vision of how culture doesn’t need grand salons or bourgeois interiors, and is the result of a desire to bring culture to where workers and families pass by every day. Anyone can stroll in, curl up with a book, have a coffee, play some chess or visit an exhibition.
Lars Kepler is the pen name of Alexander Ahndoril and Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril. Their crime fiction Joona Linna series, which includes novels such as “The Sandman” and “The Rabbit Hunter,” has been translated into 40 languages.