The way of the dragon

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 January, 2011, 12:00am

Until a fictional character with attitude usurped her position, the most famous resident of Sodermalm, a Stockholm neighbourhood undergoing gentrification, had been Greta Garbo. The reclusive silent-film-era movie star, born and raised at Blekingegatan 32, is remembered in Sodermalm with a statue, but the Swedish capital's largest and most populated district is these days better known as the neighbourhood where the girl with the dragon tattoo lives.

Stockholm is made up of 14 islands, each with distinct characteristics, such as Baroque or Renaissance castles, harbour fronts and rocky cliffs.

Sodermalm, connected to the rest of the city by bridges, has become one of the most visited places in Sweden due to the worldwide success of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, which began with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Every year, thousands of fans walk in the footsteps of computer hacker Lisbeth Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist, the books' lead characters.

'Today, when you hear about Stockholm, you think of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,' says Yan Huang, a Chinese citizen working in Sweden. '[The characters] are the most famous Swedes in the world right now and everything about Sweden is popular, especially the female character. Many women want to be as strong as she is.'

Sodermalm, the origins of which can be traced back to the 13th century, was once an agricultural area and was, until a few decades ago, a working-class neighbourhood. With its sheer cliffs and cobblestone streets, the area is a great place for walking, its steep climbs rewarded with panoramic views over the city's skyline.

Sodermalm, often shortened to just Soder, has become a magnet for bohemian, alternative cultures, its streets dotted with shops selling organic products and fashionable second-hand stores.

One of the area's most popular hotels, the Hotel Rival, is the brainchild of Benny Andersson, a member of the hugely successful 1970s band Abba. Its art deco- and retro-style rooms are decorated with images of Swedish icons, from the popular disco group to Garbo.

Stockholm City Museum, in the heart of Sodermalm, offers 90-minute walking tours of the area, taking visitors to the real-life locations mentioned in Larsson's trilogy. Fans will be familiar with the tales of government conspiracies, errant Soviet spies, mysterious pasts and family secrets that unfold here.

The District Courthouse, which appears in the opening scene of the first novel, is a short walk from Bellmansgatan 1, on the ancient street where Blomkvist lives in an attic apartment with a view of the water and Gamla Stan, the Old Town. The courthouse can be seen from Montelius Vagen, a winding path that leads from a residential street to a cliffside that boasts one of Stockholm's most impressive views, over the bay of Riddarfjarden. From this vantage point, you can see City Hall, the red-brick building with a bell tower in which the Nobel Prize dinner is served every year, and the cast-iron spiral roof of Riddarholmen Church, a burial site for Swedish monarchs.

From Montelius Vagen, it is a 10-minute walk past Lundabron Bridge to the Mellqvist coffee bar, on Hornsgatan Street, another Millennium landmark. The bustling cafe, on one of the two main shopping streets in Sodermalm, was a favourite hangout of Larsson and serves as a meeting place for characters in his books.

The other main street is Gotgatan, one of the city's oldest and longest. Just as in the book, Greenpeace has an office on the street, but instead of Millennium magazine, where Blomkvist works, being located above the premises of the environmental group, there are residential apartments.

Down the block is the 7-Eleven where Salander stocks up on pizza, pickles and cigarettes.

Guide Lena Erlandsson says that when the first book was published, locals thought it would attract mainly Scandinavian visitors, but it captured the imagination of German, French and Spanish readers, who were among the first Larsson fans to visit. She also says that due to burgeoning demand, tours in Asian languages, including Putonghua and Japanese, will probably start soon.

'Lisbeth Salander is a very modern girl and she is giving people from abroad a picture of the Swedish state in terms of our society, our legal system, our government and how people cope with violence,' says Erlandsson. 'She has given people all over the world something to think about; of what Swedish society is like and what their own society is like. The books have become a lens into life.'

Getting there: Many airlines fly from Hong Kong to Stockholm, though all have at least one stopover and prices vary considerably. Check Air China (www., British Airways ( and Cathay Pacific (