Up on the roof in Stockholm
“Are you scared of heights?” my guide Veerle, a Belgian transplant who has been living in Stockholm since 2007, asks as she double-checks my safety harness. I meet her eyes with a smile and before I answer, she responds: “I can tell you’re not”.
Helmets fastened, we climb out of an attic-like hatch onto narrow mesh metal rails. We clip on our carabiners which are roped to a 250-metre metal wire track running along the base of those rails. We drag our ropes alongside us as we begin our 43-metre high walk across the 19th century rooftops of the Old Parliament House (Gamla riksdagshuset) on Riddarholmen island in Stockholm.
The Old Parliament opened in 1833 and served as the seat of Sweden’s government until 1905. Its iconic national romantic style waterfront facade of burnt orange and pale green towers was added in 1911. Today, it serves as a courthouse.
Stockholm is spread across 14 islands interlinked by 57 bridges, waterways, and pedestrian paths, and seeing it from the vantage of a rooftop gives a real sense of its maritime geography. From my starting spot high above Riddarholmen, I watch Baltic cruise ships sail into the harbour next to Gamla stan (Stockholm’s medieval old town) to my left, and docked boat hotels bob gently along Lake Mälaren to my right. Mustard yellow and pale ochre buildings with charcoal-coloured roofs dot the islands like toy houses.
We start with what I consider the easiest stretch of the walk – short climbs up and down two metal ladders with south side views towards Stockholm’s hipster island, Södermalm.
Seven storeys up, exposed to the elements with chilly gusts of wind whipping around us, I begin to question my comfort with heights. At which point I have to tackle the most hair-raising walkway, testing my nonexistent tightrope walking skills. Veerle offers up some navigational advice. “Try going sideways, it’s easier that way.” I shuffle along the narrowest edge of the parliament building, side-stepping like a crab, not daring to look down.
Once across, I check my nerves and am instantly rewarded with views of Kungsholmen island and Stadshuset (city hall), another iconic building marked by a 106-metre tower where the Nobel Prize banquet takes place each year.
A few short steps up and I am now on the final stretch of the circuit, back towards our opening hatch, balancing with no hand support, walking down rails across the roof which now slopes sharply down on both sides, and picture-perfect views of Gamla stan ahead.
Exhilaration courses through me and I turn to Veerle with a cheesy grin across my face.
“I know,” she smiles back before I utter a word. “You don’t want to get off the roof.”
Sniffing around Vienna
A dozen or so people are standing silently in a park in Vienna, their eyes closed, concentrating on breathing deeply through their noses.
This is Smells Like Wien Spirit, a new tour that invites people to explore the Austrian capital “like a dog” by utilising one of our most under-used senses – smell.
It’s the latest attempt by culture group Space and Place to offer an alternative insight into a city usually associated with quiet coffeehouses and imperial palaces. Following on the heels of his ugly buildings tour, Eugene Quinn believes it’s time for olfaction to play its part in urban exploration.
“Why are there so many seeing tours but not smelling or touching tours?” he asks. “Vienna is a city of good smells. If you compare the city to 15 years ago, people are wearing less fragrance, cars have become much cleaner and there are fewer large trucks. Many buses are now electric.”
It’s not the world’s first smells tour, however; the late urban planner and academic Victoria Henshaw led similar expeditions around cities such as Edinburgh, Seattle and Barcelona.
“When does a smell belong to a city?” Quinn asks the group on our first stop, a Turkish bakery. “Migration changes the way a city smells. Some people might not think a Turkish bakery is a Viennese smell, but I think it is. All products are new at first, and then become normal. Coffee was originally a Turkish import but we couldn’t imagine Vienna without it now.”
Vienna is more multicultural than many may think. Around 50% of residents have a migrant background, says Quinn, originally from Britain.
The tour also takes in two of Vienna’s famous institutions: the Ottakringer brewery and the Manner chocolate wafer factory. While discussing the significance of the smells, Quinn interjects with personal stories, including one about a friend who loved the smell of chocolate so much she moved, to live closer to the factory.
Later on, the group pauses for breath at a public toilet in Yppenplatz, the square near the popular Brunnenmarkt. This is one of Vienna’s “fancy” toilets, kitted out with bird sounds and forest wallpaper. As Quinn explains, Vienna – which has the most public toilets of all metropolitan cities in Europe – has a special fondness for its waste management department, which “brings charisma to neighbourhoods.”
The monthly walking tour lasts about four hours, ending at Kaffee Alt Wien in the city centre. Not just for tourists, it’s for the Viennese as well. “The tour is a complete exploration of Vienna for visitors and locals,” says Quinn. “Because if you spend too long in a place, you don’t notice the smells any more.”
A drag queen’s tour of Hamburg
Looking for an induction into Hamburg’s adult night life? Let Germany’s best known drag queen, Olivia Jones, and friends – including Eve Champagne and Madame Veuve Noire – be your guides on this foul-mouthed walking tour through the city’s red light district. The “safaris” through the Reeperbahn in the St Pauli district include stops at a sex shop, S&M hotspots and cult watering holes, hearing stories of vice and mischief along the way.
Soviet photography tour, Riga
Indulge in Soviet nostalgia on a photography tour that encourages participants to forsake their DSLR and iPhone in favour of an old 35mm Zenit camera. You’ll spend two to three hours exploring the city’s Soviet-built neighbourhoods, markets and the old worker’s district while learning how to use the vintage snapper. Participants go home with both negatives and a CD of their pictures at the end of the tour.
On the run in Copenhagen
For those who find city walking tours too slow … Running Copenhagen’s race through the city at a more uptempo pace. Runs range from 6 to 15km and participants can choose which aspect of the city they want to learn about, from a basic city tour past Copenhagen’s key sights, to tours specialising on the Danish capital’s architecture.