The biting temperature was the first thing I noticed when I stepped out of Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport to catch the train into the city. At -15 degrees Celsius, it was a rather mild day by Swedish standards. I wrapped my scarf tighter around my face to protect it from the sharp wind and I silently thought to myself: “why would anyone in their right mind choose this place to establish a civilization?”
Obviously, the Vikings weren’t afraid of the cold and for almost 1000 years, Stockholm has been Scandinavia’s unofficial capital. Millions of people visit Stockholm every year, yet it remains an unpopular destination among non-Europeans. It’s a shame. Stockholm is an ideal destination. It is tourist-friendly, teeming with palaces, canals, cultural activities, museums, and parks. Swedes are friendly and most speak perfect English.
Stockholm’s history is everywhere and its oldest structures are better preserved than in most European capitals. When strolling along Nybroplan, one of Stockholm’s ports, one can almost imagine when Vikings ruled this region. Yet, in the Old Town, Stockholm’s royal past and present dominates. Here are five ways to touch this rich history in the present.
1) Exploring Gamla Stan
Gamla Stan, or Old Town, lies at the heart of the city. Founded in the 13th century, it is the oldest part of Stockholm. Its winding cobble stone streets have been used for centuries and they crisscross the island centre without a linear direction. Quaint restaurants and tourist shops line the alleyways, hawking souvenirs at high prices. Exploring these narrow paths feels like being transported back into time.
This area of Stockholm is also famous for its landmarks. Sweden’s parliament is located here. The Stortorget, the Old Town’s largest square and home of the Stockholm Stock Exchange, was the site of one of the largest massacres in Swedish history. Stockholm Cathedral dates from the 13th century and is home to the revered Saint George and the Dragon Statue. The house of nobility (Riddarhuset) dominates the northwest corner of the island.
2) Natural Beauty
A canal boat cruise is a must do in Stockholm. Not only is this more unique than the usual hop-on hop-off bus tour, it is the best way to see many beautiful areas in a short amount of time. Stockholm is built on top of a cluster of small islands and its waterways give Venice a run for its money. This is also a great opportunity to learn more about the history of Sweden’s capital: the cruise includes a guided tour in a variety of languages. There are many operators that offer different kinds of tours; I took a Stromma Royal Canal Tour included in the price of my Stockholm card.
If the temperature isn’t too far below freezing, Stockholm has several beautiful parks that are worth a visit. The Kungstradgarden, literally King’s Garden, is a magnificent park in the downtown area. There are many outdoor cafés and is great for people watching. It is a popular place for tourists and locals alike to enjoy the summer weather. Another nice green space is Djurgarden, an island with prime walking and cycling paths and picnic spots. It is just a short jaunt from the city centre and boasts some of the best views of Stockholm.
3) A Royal Glimpse
Stockholm is a royal city-it’s no wonder that it boasts six palaces scattered on prime real estate. Gamla Stan is home to the magnificent Royal Palace. Although Stockholm is teeming with royal abodes, this baroque behemoth is the official residence of King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia. The palace is open to the public as a museum and recounts the long history of Sweden’s royal family. There are even recreations of royal apartments throughout the centuries, providing an inside peek into royal life. The museum is open most days between 10 am and 5 pm (the schedule depends on the season). Entrance fees are 150 SEK for adult and 75 SEK for students.
Another beautiful palace is the Drottningholm Palace. This French-inspired 17th century giant was the first Swedish addition to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list. It is also the permanent (not official) residence of the royal family, and is surrounded by a sprawling park. The site even has its own theatre and a Chinese Pavilion. Both the palace and the park are open to tourists almost all year round and can be reached via ferry or on a boat tour. Entry is 100 SEK for adults and 50 SEK for children and students.
4) Touching History
Saying that Stockholm is a city of museums isn’t an understatement. There are over one hundred different kinds that cater to all tastes. The most well known museum is the National Museum in Blasieholmen. Its collection holds more than 500,000 pieces dating from as early as the Middle Ages. It is my second favourite museum in Europe, after the Louvre in Paris and one could easily spend an entire week exploring all its offerings.
Two of the most popular museums in Stockholm are the Vasa Museum and Skansen. The first is a refurbished 17th century ship that has turned into a large tourist draw. Exhibitions tell stories of the history of the ancient boat building industry in Stockholm. Skansen, the world’s first open-air museum, provides visitors with a glimpse into life and natural history in Sweden from the 18th century.
5) Artistic Adventure
While Stockholm is rich in history, it also has a modern artistic side. In almost every corner of every neighbourhood, street art can be found. Tons of young, hip artists flock to this urban centre. Even Stockholm’s metro is known as the longest art gallery in the world. Metro stations are painted in different colourful themes that tell stories to commuters. Photographers spend hours trying to recapture the stunning artwork but images never seem to replicate the awe-inspiring effect.
Scandinavia’s capital isn’t solely known for its famous paintings, it is arguably one of the design capitals of the world. Sweden is the home of huge brand names such as Ikea and H&M, both which have shook their industries with innovative and creative wares. Stockholm is also home to famous furniture designers such as Carl Malmsten, whose creations are hailed from New York to Beijing. The National Museum even houses a special exhibit exclusively dedicated to modern Swedish design.
Music pumps through Stockholm’s veins. Although it may not be known for its edgy music styles, its population remains steadfast in their dedication to rock and pop music. Some of the hottest up-and-coming pop bands make it big in Sweden before heading to the North American Market. One of Stockholm’s own, Loreen, won the 2012 Eurovision song contest with ‘Euphoria’.
Stockholm is home of the smorgasbord and has many unique culinary specialties. (Fish in a Tube?) There are simply too many bars, clubs, cafés and underground music hot spots to name but Stockholm is one of the best places in Scandinavia to have a great night out on the town.
Ancient, old and young Stockholm meshes seamlessly into one city. Yet, expect the unexpected. It can be proper one minute and wild the next. As a traveller, it is exciting to see such a dynamic city and I have the feeling that with every visit to this enchanting town, Stockholm reveals another side of its sometimes-chaotic nature.