Stockholm may be the capital of Sweden, but for ABBA obsessives, it’s musical holy ground. Examining the group’s “Waterloo” outfits in person or seeing the building where Björn Ulvaeus and Anni-Frid Lyngstad lived in the 1970s excited me the way meeting Tom Brady might excite other Bostonians. You can keep Brady, I’m much more fascinated by the intricately layered songs written by Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson. I may have been drenched by persistent rain in Stockholm, but no amount of rain could dampen my enthusiasm for this long-awaited ABBA pilgrimage.
The easiest and most effective way to start exploring ABBA’s legacy in Stockholm is to ABBA The Museum. The museum has been open for nearly 10 years, but this was my first visit, hence the tingle at the sight of the aforementioned “Waterloo” polyblend outfits on display here. I’ve been to both the Liverpool Beatles Museum and now the ABBA Museum, and at the risk of getting smacked in the face with a silver platform boot and a dazzling blue crochet cap, I have to say that the ABBA Museum packs a plus big punch.
Stop swearing and let me explain. The Beatles Museum is a collection of memorabilia. It is, by definition, a museum. The ABBA Museum has memorabilia for days on end (the ABBA brand clogs everyone?), but it also has mock recording booths where you can get in touch with your inner Agnetha and sing along to the ABBA hits. There is also a stage where you can dance with ABBA holograms. The hologram technology is a little dated compared to ABBA’s new avatar show in London, but it’s still fun to take to the stage and embarrass yourself in front of other visitors. This museum is best described as an immersive experience. I even sat in the helicopter featured on the cover from ABBA’s “Arrival” album and the bench that appears on the cover of the band’s 1976 greatest hits album – or at least a very close approximation of the famous bench.
The museum has a new restaurant and also shares an entrance with the Pop House Hotel. Pop House has ABBA themed rooms and I almost booked one of those rooms. However, the hotel is currently undergoing renovations and will be rebranded as Backstage in September. It turns into a boutique hotel. I don’t know how different it will be after the renovation, but it gives me an excuse to come back to Stockholm in September, so that’s fine with me.
There are other accommodation options related to ABBA in Stockholm. I focused on Rival Hotel, a hotel actually owned by an ABBA member. Located in a converted art deco cinema in the Södermalm district, the hotel is owned by Andersson and says “ABBA” in a subtle way. There was a large, tasteful black-and-white photo of the band above my headboard. The picture was printed on a blind that could be rolled up if you didn’t want to watch ABBA. But if you don’t want to watch ABBA, why the hell would you book a room in a hotel owned by an ABBA member? Rooms average around $200 a night depending on seasonal demand.
Even if you’re not an ABBA fan (too bad!), I still recommend the Rival Hotel. It’s a cozy respite in the city located just opposite the leafy Mariatorget Park and close to several cool pubs, tavernas, restaurants and shops. It also has a stunning cocktail bar, perfect for people-watching on a Saturday night.
From Hotel Rival, I started a deep dive into ABBA’s roots in Stockholm. It may sound like the act of a deranged ABBA fanboy, and it is. But it’s also a convenient way to explore Stockholm. I have long been in love with the 1982 ABBA song “Head Over Heels”. It came out as the band’s popularity was rapidly evaporating, so it is criminally ignored. Video for the song features Lyngstad running around downtown Stockholm, dropping into shops and generally acting frantically with a crazy raspberry hairstyle. So I did what any semi-normal ABBA fan would do. I found the locations where the video was filmed and visited them all.
Thanks to the video, I ended up at NK (Nordisk Kompaniet), Sweden’s most luxurious department store. It’s like Harrods in Stockholm. I guess even ABBA stores retail. If you’re not looking to shop, the department store has an expansive food hall with Swedish specialties, as well as an Italian cafe, bakery and restaurant run by chef Björn Frantzén, described as “the Swedish answer to Gordon Ramsay”. You can even have afternoon tea at NK. It’s all housed in a beautifully designed 1915 building.
Would I have come here without ABBA? We probably will. But let’s not dwell on the details.
A great hangout of ABBA, as evidenced by multiple group photos and album covers, was the island of Djurgården. It is the greenest island in the city and is full of museums, including the ABBA museum. Once you’ve finished spending all of your crowns at the ABBA Museum Shop, stroll to the Vasa Museum. The Maritime Museum takes its name from the impressive 17th century ship on display. The Vasa may have sunk on her maiden voyage in 1628, but how many other 17th-century ships are still intact and have a museum named after them? I’ll give you a hint: the answer is none.
Another favorite ABBA spot in Djurgården is a curious place called Skansen. It is the oldest open-air museum in the world, spread over 75 acres. It includes 150 buildings imported from all over Sweden, dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as small farm plots and animals you may have encountered in pre-industrialized Sweden. It’s like Old Sturbridge Village or Colonial Williamsburg, but with boars and bears. There is also a modern zoo with animals from Africa, a Baltic aquarium, a science center and several dining options. If you’re not feeling ambitious, you can just sit on the grass and look across the water to downtown.
My main goal at Skansen was to enter Julius Kronberg’s art studio, which was built in 1889 and moved to Skansen after his death. ABBA used the interior of Kronberg’s studio to shoot the cover of his 1981 album “The Visitors”. The studio still looks the same as it did in this photo shoot, or so I was told. If you are lucky you can find a day when the studio is open. It is only open one month a year. What month are you asking? When you understand this, let me know. I am still looking for the answer.
The magic of ABBA continued to guide me to some of Stockholm’s most scenic spots. Andersson gave his first concert at Stockholm City Hall. The grand brick structure from 1923 sits at the tip of Kungsholmen Island and is surrounded by Lake Mälaren. In addition to its significance to ABBA historians, it is also one of Stockholm’s most famous pieces of architecture. I also heard that this is the venue for the Nobel Prize banquet every December. Public visits of the building are available from June to August.
It’s hard to drive through Stockholm and not come across pieces of ABBA history. I even looked for the Sheraton where some parts of “ABBA: The Movie” was filmed. You can see (outside) Polar Studios, where the band recorded their last three albums. ABBA The Museum recreated the studio as it would have looked in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the band was active there. The ornate Royal Opera House is where ABBA performed ‘Dancing Queen’ in a ridiculous 18th century costume on the eve of Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf and Silvia Sommerlath’s wedding in 1976. Naturally, I had to go there too .
ABBA’s platform shoe prints are everywhere, including in beautiful Stortorget Square. Many of the most photographed buildings in the square are over 200 years old and were designed in a German-Dutch Renaissance style.
Being surrounded by history and tourists in Stortorget Square, I was pleasantly surprised to come across an innovative cocktail bar called Pharmarium. The interior looked like a mix of a 16th century apothecary and a 1920s speakeasy with a Nordic hunting lodge smattering. The menu included a cocktail called the Electro Lover, which caught my eye because it was described as “a reformation of bubblegum washed down with a piña colada. If a drink could be a soundtrack, this is it. Yes please!
I took a sip, and it tasted exactly as described – deliciously alcoholic adult chewing gum in a glass. I took another sip and realized that if ABBA music had any flavor, it would be this cocktail. Like the drink, the band’s music is tasty, has hints of bubblegum, but is also intricate and carefully crafted. Or, maybe I came to this deep philosophical conclusion because I had spent a week obsessing over ABBA and getting drunk on a bubblegum-flavored cocktail in Stockholm.
Either way, I was ready for another round and, more importantly, another song.