I’d always found Scandinavia to be an interesting place. Compared to Great Britain it always seemed to be a place of outstanding natural beauty both in the people and the landscapes, and an area of arctic winters and European summers. All I really needed was a good excuse to head over there to visit, so when I found out that one of my favourite bands, In Flames, were doing a special one-off gig in Stockholm it was all the reasoning I needed to book my plane tickets. Along with two of my friends, we booked a hostel room for a couple of days giving us time to go to the gig and to see some of Sweden as well. Just a couple of months after booking and it was half past four in the morning and we were off to Heathrow.

I must admit I’m not the most eager to get up in the mornings, being very much a night-time person I struggled to get up at half past three when it was still dark and cold in order to drive us to the airport. Part of me wished I’d booked an airport hotel so we could have had an extra couple of hours in bed. Still, at least from Kent it doesn’t take long to get to Heathrow. Ninety minutes along the A21 and the M25 isn’t so bad, and at least there isn’t much traffic so early in the morning.

Six o’ clock and we’re waiting in the airport car park for the transfer bus to the new Terminal 5. We didn’t wait long and we were soon on our way and dropped right outside the departures entrance. I’d not been to Terminal 5 before and was quite curious as to how the new building would be. It was huge. The new home of BA is actually quite impressive. A large open building that looks like it is built almost entirely of glass it really is an engineering marvel. Our check-in was very easy too. We’d checked in online and already printed boarding passes so all that was left was to pick up some Swedish Kronor (SEK) and pass through customs and security. The whole process took about half an hour, which left us a little time to pick up some breakfast before our flight.

I enjoy flying, I like seeing the ground from so high up and I find some of the sights you can get of the clouds to be quite breathtaking. I feel entirely safe, I’m more at risk driving round London than flying over the North Sea. In fact to me, it almost feels like it isn’t real and you’re looking down at a map or a computer simulation. One of my companions does not feel the same way. This was his first ever flight and he was terrified. It seems an interesting condition to me, someone that is completely happy on a rollercoaster and doesn’t think twice about driving anywhere is suddenly petrified once on-board a plane. I guess his saving grace was that the flight didn’t last too long and after two and a half hours we touched down at Stockholm Arlanda airport.

Flying from Heathrow, the world’s busiest airport for international travellers, to Arlanda is quite a shock. It makes you realise just what a metropolis Heathrow is and really how busy London is these days. Passport control in Sweden was just a guy in a small booth who had a look at your documents before letting you through the small barrier. Once through I was hit by the fact that there were about three people in the entire airport. The whole country seemed to be like this. During the trip I was amazed at how quiet and laid back Sweden really is. I knew that the population was considerably smaller than the UK but I didn’t expect the capital city to be so quiet. It is a pleasant change from London where you struggle to walk along the street sometimes, particularly around tube stations.

Within 15 minutes we were on a bus heading for Stockholm. I’d just like to point out now that Sweden was hot, really hot. The weather was something you’d expect in a Mediterranean country, clear skies and sun for the whole trip – not bad, if unexpected. We’d left the grey drizzle behind and flown further north than any point in the UK to be greeted by amazing weather, so far so good.

We managed to get off at the wrong bus stop and had a ten minute wander round the city until we managed to find our hotel. Stockholm is a stunning city really. The roads and pavements are extremely wide and every single road has cycle lanes. Every crossing is a zebra crossing and cars will wait for you to cross. Pedestrians and cyclists really have priority. It is worth it too, with the emphasis on walking and cycling and the lack of congestion, Stockholm is the cleanest city I have ever been to. The air is remarkably fresh and it really is a pleasant experience walking around. The city was actually more ‘European’ than I expected, feeling quite similar to some of the other mainland cities I’ve visited, only cleaner. The Swedes seem to take great pride in their city and their country, I didn’t see any rubbish anywhere, no queues of traffic, no rats, none of that. For all it’s charms it makes you really see just how busy and dirty London is. I’d taken it for granted before and just assumed this was what capital cities were like, having been to Paris and found that very similar. Hopefully I’ll visit cities that can compare to Stockholm in the future, but I doubt I’ll find anything as clean and fresh.

Once we checked into our hotel it was pretty much time to leave for Gröna Lund to go and see In Flames. After a couple of stops on the underground train we were at our stop ready to catch a ferry boat across to the theme park where the band were playing. The train system is somewhere where I will give London credit in comparison to Stockholm. You had to buy your ticket from a small shop in the station and then have someone check it every time you got on or off a train, no ticket machines here. It seemed to cost about ten times as much as an Underground ticket as well. The London tube is far more efficient and quick to use, even if it is about a million times busier.

If you’ve ever been to Stockholm or seen photos of it then you’ll know it is on the coast and broken up by water. The band were playing at the Gröna Lund theme park which is on a peninsula in the city. We caught a ferry across before paying our 140SEK entry into Gröna Lund. If you ever go to Stockholm this is something you’ll learn; you must pay for everything, and usually quite a lot of money. It is an expensive city, more so than anywhere I’d been before. Anyway, once we were in we queued up for some food before heading over to watch the band. Gröna Lund itself is like a very compact version of Chessington World of Adventures, minus the zoo. There weren’t any particularly big thrill rides or anything that looked really amazing, but it seem like a solid small theme park and everyone seemed to be having fun.

As you would expect, the area where In Flames were due to play was packed. We were a little late so had to be content with a spot a little further back than I’d have liked. Still, we could see and hear the band so it wasn’t too bad. They started and finished early, due to noise restriction requirements for local residents so it was still light while they were playing, which was a shame as they had some really impressive lighting, fire and fireworks as part of their stage show. It would have looked really amazing in the dark. The band ripped through their new material from A Sense of Purpose as well as favourites from older albums with aplomb. They played a really great show and they were clearly enjoying playing in Sweden again after playing in the USA for the past few months (the band is Swedish). For a heavy band Anders Frinden did a remarkable job singing the songs live and looked almost effortless even at the end of the set. It was an excellent performance and they played every song flawlessly, only downside for me was they didn’t play Cloud Connected, one of my favourite songs. The band enjoyed a good rapport with the crowd, although I couldn’t understand a word, and had friends and family watching from a gallery just above the main viewing area. It was a fantastic show and I’ll be sure to catch them later in the year when their European tour heads through London.

Once the band were done we caught a bus back to our hotel and collapsed into bed. A great first impression of Sweden and a very long day, I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to finally get to sleep.

Our second day started considerably later. I managed to rise out of bed at around midday and showered before we headed out to get some breakfast. While waiting for the others to get ready I flicked through some of the TV channels in our room. All the drama programs in Sweden are in English, as are their films. Seems they get a huge chunk of their TV from the USA, it is all just subtitled into Swedish, rather than dubbed. It is little surprise that every single person I met spoke perfect English. In fact many (most?) Swedes speak better English than many residents in the UK. It certainly makes you feel a little stupid when you don’t speak a word of Swedish and can only muddle by on some very basic French while abroad. While it is definitely convenient having the main international language as your native tongue I think it would be nice to be able to speak another language fluently. It just seems a little pointless when everything at home is in English, and then wherever you travel in Europe they can speak English as well as you can. Still, we picked up the odd Swedish phrase and they seemed pleased we were trying. Well, the others were trying at least, I couldn’t seem to get my head round the pronunciation.

The rest of the day was spent sightseeing in Stockholm. We spent our time ambling round the city and saw most of the sights, including the High Court, the Royal Palace, and the City Hall where they hand out the Nobel Prize. The city is quite compact and everything is within easy walking distance so we chose to walk it rather than get a tour bus. We picked a good day to see the city as there seemed to be plenty going on. It was the local school’s last day and there were lorries loaded up with drunken students parading round the city centre celebrating. Certainly an interesting sight and something I’d never seen in England.

I’ve already commented on how clean Stockholm is so I won’t go into that again, but it really was reinforced after spending the whole day walking round the city. Late afternoon we spent some time in Old Stockholm, an area that is more medieval in feel and less modern and urbanised than the rest of the city. The old parts felt a lot like Canterbury, with large areas pedestrianised and many small independent shops.

In the evening we grabbed some food and headed out with some friends who live locally. The night life in Stockholm seems vibrant and positive. No sign of fights or trouble that plague certain areas of the UK, everyone in Sweden is far too laid back for that. The weather remained warm enough for t-shirts, even into the early hours. Another interesting thing about Stockholm is that it didn’t get fully dark. It started to get dark at around 10pm and then got light again at 1am. I know that certain areas of Scandinavia experience times of perpetual light and perpetual darkness, but I didn’t realise an area this far south would have it too. While I wouldn’t call it perpetual light, it certainly didn’t get dark like I’m used to in Britain. On our walk back to our hotel it was getting fully light again, definitely a strange feeling.

The following day was spent getting back to the UK. We had to be out of our hotel room by midday so we were up a little earlier and went out for lunch in the sunshine before getting a taxi back to the airport. There were no buses running as it was the day of the Stockholm marathon so a large section of the city was closed off. On our way back we spoke about how this was one of the few times we’d been away where we were genuinely sad to be going back, and how we’d like to spend more time there. I admit it did seem a shame to be coming back so soon, just after you start to get a feel for the language. Still, I guess there is always another time. I’d like to see Sweden in the winter, and perhaps visit some of the northern regions to get to see a different side of the country.

Our flight home went smoothly and actually arrived at Heathrow slightly ahead of schedule. The pilot managed to give us a great flyby of London on our approach to the airport, I even managed to spot the road I used to drive to work every day. Once we were off the plane the contrast between Sweden and the UK was immediately apparent. There was a huge throng of people waiting to get through the five passport desks to cross the border. After a fifteen minute wait we were through and back onto the transfer bus to the Terminal 5 Long Stay car park. After the drive home I said goodbye to the others and collapsed into bed again, waking up twelve hours later.

It was a fantastic trip and I’d recommend visiting Stockholm to everyone. It is a beautiful city and the people are extremely welcoming. I’m already planning my next trip away but in the mean time hopefully we can keep interesting travel stories and thoughts coming from this blog.