Main image: Green Trails
Inverted kayaks hang from the hotel ceiling. Climbing handholds, karabiners and rolled-up blankets fastened with neat leather buckles adorn the walls. Everywhere you look there is rope and living walls of green, while a campfire, albeit enclosed by protective glass, flickers in the lobby constantly. The gift shop even resembles those little stores you get at campsites, stocking enamel mugs, water bottles, packets of cereal and cookies, and sandwiches wrapped in paper, packed lunch-style.
Scattered newspapers include schedules inviting guests to join with daily hikes or twice-weekly runs. Or to hire a kayak or bike or longboard, on a deck sourced from a local sustainable forest. The centrefold is a detailed map. Yet this hotel with its nature vibes, outdoor adventure ethos and camping fetish is not in some remote wilderness; it’s not even in the countryside, it’s slap-bang in the middle of the central business district of a major European capital city.
Downtown Camper opened in Stockholm last September. It’s a new concept by one of Sweden’s most mainstream hotel chains – Scandic. From the outside, it looks like a modern office block in a generic global centre. But the nature and adventure sell you encounter inside is not as incongruous as it would be in most other urban centres given this is Stockholm, where residents are more tuned in to nature and the outdoors than most other city dwellers in the world.
“I think it’s inside us,” says David Fridell, chief marketing officer for Marathon Gruppen, who organise running events in and around the city. “From childhood in some kind of way. Lots of us had forests and green areas around the corner from where we grew up; we’d go Nordic skiing in winter or skiing in the mountains in the north of the country. If you live in Stockholm you’re here for that connection to nature, you can go from work in the city centre to the forest in five minutes. It’s good for our state of mind and the city has a really cool, unique atmosphere because of that.”
Sweden’s capital exists on a series of 14 islands with water, trees, parks and even slabs of rock all around. As David says getting outdoors really is embedded in the city’s consciousness, especially in spring and summer, when Stockholmers shake off the shackles of a long and very dark winter.
Sarah Benton, social media manager for the Swedish outdoor clothing brand Fjällräven agrees: “Swedes really do just love being outdoors in the sunshine. As soon as summer comes, they come out of hibernation and turn into a much friendlier, happier bunch of people. It’s crazy. They’re like a different breed.”
Sarah feels the green spaces and proximity to water make city life more bearable here than it is in other countries. She says: “I feel very lucky to live in a capital city – and a beautiful one at that – with all that it has to offer, but to be this close to nature. Stockholm isn’t that big, both in terms of population and landmass, but it still gets stressful travelling around on the underground and going to work. And having so many places to get out and be active is amazing. Everything is so clean and taken care of, as well.”
“Here, there’s more to weekends than just shopping and the pub. In England it feels like the majority like to go into the city"
“Here, there’s more to weekends than just shopping and the pub. In England it feels like the majority like to go into the city at the weekend. Swedes like to escape it or, at least, find their little slice of nature within it. You’re not an exception to the norm if you go for a walk in the woods on a Sunday afternoon with friends.”
If travel and taking a city break is increasingly about living like a local, as opposed to a tourist, then it figures that a trip to Stockholm should involve lots of outdoors and nature time.
Kristian Hell is the lifestyle concierge at Downtown Camper, a kind of updated bell boy who gives guests advice on all the outdoor activities and adventures they can have around Stockholm. He also guides the daily hikes and twice-weekly runs. Kristian was headhunted for the job as he’d founded a running community four years ago called Ssideline City based around running and socialising.
He says: “I was the front man for the biggest nightclub over here in summertime and I got to know lots of people, so when I started this running community lots of cool people joined up, which added a new flavour to running. Similar to what Charlie Dark did in London with Run Dem Crew.”
"When I started this running community lots of cool people joined up, which added a new flavour to running. Similar to what Charlie Dark did in London with Run Dem Crew"
When he took on the job at Downtown Camper, he integrated his running club into the hotel’s offering so the twice-weekly ‘Run Like Hell’ runs (a play on Kristian’s name) are also Ssideline City events. That means guests get to run with Stockholm locals and vice versa.
He says: “We’ve solved a massive problem that you have when you travel, in that you are foreign and essentially relying on a hop on-hop off bus to do Stockholm but it’s nothing to do with the city, and everybody sees the same thing. But this is different as we have a community of almost 250 members and you can come and run with us. We do different routes and have dinner or a drink afterwards. You have instant local friends.”
The runs don’t focus on distance or time but they do use Swedish words to give an idea of the pace, such as fika (chilled), lagom (not too fast, not too slow) and schwwp pace (“as fast as it sounds,” says Kristian, based on people who live in the north of Sweden who don’t talk much, they just breathe in and out quickly).
His favourite nature-based routes include Hagaparken, where I enjoyed a beautifully meditative waterside and forest run during my trip, Hellasgården and Djurgården, which I loved walking around too. He also encourages guests to take hikes in these parks alongside more urban routes such as through the hip streets of Södermalm.
In July, Kristian is organising a new festival called No Such Place at a secret spot that you can only reach by hiking, running or cycling a half marathon distance. It starts off with a night at Downtown Camper, an interesting move he tells me as “camping has long been seen as taboo in the hotel business” but he thinks there’s a real appetite for combining outdoor experiences with a city weekend break.
The festival’s timing chimes with a new breed of events in Stockholm, which tap into the Swedish love of nature, and, increasingly, exercising outdoors with friends.
Marathon Gruppen has organised the Stockholm Marathon for the last 40 years, but David Fridell tells me their biggest growth now is coming from a series of trail running events in and around the city called the Sthlm Challenge. He says: “Before people went to the forests by themselves or with their family but now we have this trend where people want to enjoy the unique atmosphere that we have here in Stockholm, they want to be there in nature, but they also want to be part of a mass participation event.”
“Hiking and trail running are popular all over Sweden but the Classic Trail Run, which starts near the city centre, is now the biggest trail run in Sweden because it’s easy to get there and a good way to start trail running. It’s not a race for trail running experts, it’s for people who want to try out this kind of thing and be in the green areas and forests and feel the atmosphere. It’s only in its second year but in last month’s race we had almost 4000 participants. It’s a Stockholm phenomenon right now.”
Another hugely popular new event, albeit slightly more random, is the Sthlm Urban Trail Run. “A very different kind of race,” says David. And he’s not wrong as it involves entrants actually running through some of the city’s most famous buildings, using urban features such as escalators and steps to replicate the natural undulations you might encounter on a trail run. Last year the course included the Royal Theatre, a cinema, a hip grocery store, offices, and a design hotel. This year’s race is in August and again over 4000 people have already signed up.
“It’s funny,” says David, “we arrange the Stockholm Marathon and 20 other races a year, but I’ve never seen so many happy people as I have on the Urban Trail Run. You know like really smiling, you could tell in the race they thought it was so cool. We didn’t have any results or timing, it was just for fun and I think that was one of the things that was popular as well.”
"They all come back to settle in Stockholm as they appreciate that accessibility to nature"
Back to actual non-simulated nature and for me the biggest way Stockholm wins on the outdoors front is through its archipelago, a series of 30,000 islands, islets and rocks that begins virtually on the city’s doorstep. It’s where many of the capital’s residents have summer cottages, which they decamp to on weekends and for much of July.
At Downtown Camper I hop in a mini-bus with Pieter Dingemans, founder of Green Trails, who specialise in guided outdoor experiences in and around Stockholm. Forty minutes later, we’re clambering up beautifully rounded granite rocks, smeared with lichen, on Björnö (Bear) Island. Though Pieter tells me its poetic name is inaccurate these days, as you have to head deep into Sweden’s interior to spot brown bears, where there are many. Here, on what’s known as the mid- (as opposed to inner or outer) archipelago, it’s just us.
We cut through dense and deliciously-scented Norwegian pine forest, the ground feeling spongey and bouncy underfoot, and emerge onto a deserted beach in the sunshine. Our view is a seemingly endless sea dotted with forested islands in the foreground. The setting shouts adventure and I take the obligatory phone pics to post on Instagram later.
Pieter tells me that for some visitors that short hike would be enough, they just want the remote beach selfie and then to chill. Thankfully that isn’t us and we walk on alternating between coastline cliffs and moss-rich forest as we go. Most day hikes with Green Trails average 15km a day though they also have some groups who want a sportier pace doing up to 25 km or further if they request a trail running tour.
Pieter is originally from Holland but he moved to Stockholm because “it’s hard to have an adventure there as it’s so flat”. He’s witnessed many of his Swedish friends travel the world but they all come back to settle in Stockholm as they appreciate that accessibility to nature.
Green Trails run a range of hiking and camping breaks, wildlife watching tours, kayak trips and ice skating in the winter, but Pieter is especially excited by the archipelago which he calls “living mountains”. He’s been exploring here for four years but feels he hasn’t even scratched the surface of what there is to experience. He likes the diversity of plant species here and the purity of the air. “We know the air is clean as we can see this beard lichen on the trees,” he tells me, pointing to a mass of white threads hanging off a branch.
Björnö is part of a nature reserve but as with the rest of Sweden, you can camp and roam where you like as long as you leave no trace. A right that is even written into the country’s constitution and key to the nation’s cultural identity. He warns me locals would have no trouble telling off a visitor if they caught them littering. Campfires are allowed in designed fire pits, which often have supplies of ready-stacked wood, but fires are not allowed on the rocks as they can cause them to crack.
We’re here in early May and we practically have the island to ourselves but Pieter tells me Björnö gets popular in summer, especially around midsummer when it’s light for almost 24 hours. At that time of year, they tailor their tours to other, quieter spots on the archipelago and Sweden’s interior.
During my time in Stockholm, I loved running around Hagaparken, and walking in Hellasgården and Djurgården but the head-clearing feeling of remoteness I got on my day in Björnö made it the highlight of my trip. To be able to enjoy all the trappings of a city, in this case excellent vegan food, top coffee, a unique take on music and design culture, but also get to experience such amazing nature felt simultaneously unusual and uplifting.
As Downtown Camper write in their newspaper: “We want to live in the city but be able to enjoy nature…to seize the day… to discover new paths in the forest and new streets in the city…” In summer, in Stockholm, you can do just that.
For more info on Downtown Camper