In the Footsteps of Lisbeth Salander: A Walking Tour of Stieg Larsson’s Stockholm

“Stieg Larsson has transformed Stockholm for many of us,” says Elisabeth Daude, my guide on the Millennium walking tour, an intimate look at Stockholm’s Södermalm district as seen through the eyes of one of Sweden’s biggest cultural sensations of all time. Larsson’s Millennium trilogy —The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels — has taken the world by storm in a way unprecedented in Swedish publishing history. You might call him the ABBA of Swedish literature, although his dark tales of murder, abuse, and revenge have little in common with the sunny songs of his musical compatriots.

Since the publication of first book of the trilogy, Stockholm has been catapulted to the top of readers’ travel wish lists. Tourists now flock to the Swedish capital from all over the world to walk in the footsteps of Larsson and his main characters, investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and hacker/social misfit Lisbeth Salander.

Run by the Stockholm City Museum, the Millennium tour is offered in Swedish and English; although I speak Swedish and read the books in the original language, I’ve joined an English tour to experience the Larsson phenomenon through international eyes. Along with a few other local and expat Swedes, my group of 30 includes travelers from Spain, Germany, Israel, and the United States. One American woman seems to have the books almost memorized; she hangs on to Daude’s every word and is the first to respond to any question.

The walking tour is an excursion into a historically working class part of Stockholm that’s now a trendy neighborhood with countless bars, restaurants, and nightspots. We begin at Bellmansgatan 1, site of the penthouse apartment where Mikael Blomkvist lives. From there, Daude’s route takes us through both slightly seedy and vibrant parts of Södermalm (usually known simply as Söder) as she shares her seemingly inexhaustible store of information about Larsson and his novels. On this warm July evening the streets, squares, and outdoor bars are bustling with people enjoying the Swedish summer’s lingering daylight.

At Bysistorget, a small square off busy Hornsgatan, we stop in front of Mellqvist Kaffebar, the café frequented by Mikael Blomkvist — and by Stieg Larsson himself, who used to sit on a barstool typing away on his laptop. Across the street is the ATM where Lisbeth withdraws her inheritance from her mother. Daude also points out the editorial offices of Blomkvist’s Millennium magazine, a fictionalized version of Expo, the publication Larsson co-founded. In the same block lies the 7-Eleven where Lisbeth shops for groceries after buying her penthouse apartment. The two-hour tour ends outside Lisbeth’s building itself, majestically situated off Mosebacke Square overlooking the waters of Saltsjön.

I know Stockholm extremely well, but even so, Daude’s tour provides more than a few “aha” moments. At a viewpoint looking out toward the heart of the city, she points out how the geography of the books reflects the morality of the characters. Larsson spent most of his adult life in Söder, and it’s here he’s placed most of the good people in his books as well — Mikael, Lisbeth, Mikael’s colleagues, Lisbeth’s boss Dragan Armanski, and her legal guardian Holger Palmgren. Most of the police reside on the island of Kungsholmen, home to Stockholm City Hall and the real-life police headquarters. The “stupid bad guys,” as Daude calls them — notably Nils Bjurman, who replaces Palmgren and sexually abuses Lisbeth — live in the Vasastan district northwest of the city center, while the smart bad guys — such as the corrupt tycoon Hans-Erik Wennström, whose libel suit sends Blomkvist to prison at the start of the first book — live in the posh Östermalm neighborhood, the traditional home of the Stockholm elite.

Larsson’s own working class background made Söder a natural home for both the author and his main characters. His parents were just 17 when Stieg was born in the north of Sweden, and for much of his childhood he lived with his grandparents deep in the heart of Lapland. Larsson’s grandfather, who died when Stieg was nine, was deeply committed to stopping the spread of Nazism — an interest that would become paramount in Larsson’s own life.

Larsson became a leading opponent of and expert on right-wing extremist groups — so much so that he became the target of repeated death threats. As a young man in Umeå, Larsson had met Eva Gabrielsson, who became his lifelong companion, but for security reasons the two never married and never even maintained the same official address. In fact, Larsson used to get off the bus in Stockholm a stop earlier than necessary and walk the rest of the way home in order to avoid revealing his true destination.

Larsson began writing his trilogy in 2001 and had finished the first two volumes and most of the third before contacting a publisher. Eventually the books were picked up by Norstedts, one of the oldest publishing houses in Sweden. Sadly, Stieg Larsson never lived to see the success — or even the publication — of his novels, nor the movie adaptations that followed. In November 2004 he arrived at the Expo office complaining of chest pain and shortness of breath. An hour and a half later he was declared dead of a massive heart attack at the age of 50. It was not until the following summer that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was released and the seeds of Millennium mania were sown.

Many critics have struggled to explain why Larsson’s books have become such an unprecedented success. Above all, it seems, it’s the character of Lisbeth Salander who has fascinated readers around the world. Larsson based Salander in large part on Pippi Longstocking, the beloved red-headed nonconformist created by another Swedish writer, children’s book author Astrid Lindgren. “Lisbeth is Pippi Longstocking as an adult, but with a much harder life,” says Daude. “Lisbeth is the doer, the one who takes initiative. The woman is the strong one in Stieg Larsson’s books.”

Whatever the reason, the Millennium trilogy is “one of the absolute greatest successes in Swedish publishing history,” as Daude puts it, and there’s no sign that the interest will fade anytime soon. The three Swedish film adaptations have done remarkably well overseas, and the big-budget Hollywood version starring Daniel Craig as Mikael and Rooney Mara as Lisbeth earned an Oscar nomination for Mara in 2012. Daude reckons the City Museum will continue offering Larsson-themed walking tours for at least several more years. That can only be good news for the legions of fans making the pilgrimage to Stockholm from all corners of the globe.

Practical Information: The Millennium walking tour is currently offered in English on Saturdays and seasonally (July-September on Thursday evenings. Check the Stockholm City Museum website for the most up-to-date details on tour days and times, as well as information about how to buy tickets. Tours meet at Bellmansgatan 1, a five-minute walk from the City Museum. Head west on Hornsgatan, then make a right onto Bellmansgatan and keep going until you’ve crossed Bastugatan.

For those who prefer to walk in Stieg Larsson’s footsteps at their own pace, a Millennium map is available for purchase at the Stockholm City Museum or the Stockholm Tourist Center.

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