Named in this century as both Europe’s Cultural Capital and also the continent’s first Green Capital, Stockholm is the largest city in Scandinavia, with about 1.8 million residents in the metropolitan area — about one-fifth of Sweden’s total population. The city was founded in 1252 and comprises 14 islands.
Stockholm’s premier tourist attraction is Gamla Stan (literally, Old Town), one of the largest neighborhoods of 16th-century buildings in Europe. Block after block of these four- and five-story structures are painted in vivid colors typical of Mediterranean villages and occasionally feature wrought-iron signs symbolizing ancient craftworkers’ guilds or faces of religious figures. Cobblestone streets and arms-width alleys crisscross Gamla Stan. There, you’ll also find the 18th-century Royal Palace atop the crown of the hill upon which Gamla Stan is located. (Sweden is a constitutional monarchy and has a one-house parliament).
Boulevards defining Stockholm’s busy waterfront are also lined with photogenic architecture — turrets, spires, stucco patterns — mostly dating from before the turn of the 20th century. Elsewhere downtown, glass-and-steel retail centers and office buildings have replaced such older buildings. But the divergent styles tend to be clustered and don’t compete with each other for the viewer’s eye.
Offsetting the city’s bustle and buildings are large swatches of green space. The Ekoparken, or eco-park, curves for six miles through a couple of the busiest islands and along one side of the downtown business district.
A word to the pennywise: Stockholm is expensive. If you’re staying a few days and planning to visit some of the city’s museums, the Stockholm Card is worth the price; it includes admission to various museums and attractions, plus public transit. Pick it up from VisitStockholm.com before leaving home.
Stockholm’s top tourist spot is the island of Gamla Stan, the city’s Old Town, which is a fascinating step back in time. However, the area can be a victim of its own success. Summer visitors often clog the main streets, Stora Nygatan and Vasterlanggatan, and an overabundance of tourist shops selling moose-themed T-shirts and other knickknacks detracts from Gamla Stan’s charm. To escape the crowds, simply turn into one of the many alleyways and lesser streets between the apartment buildings. These less busy paths mostly lead uphill to the 600-room Royal Palace. On these narrow streets, you’ll find rare book dealers, small cafes that serve the residents, and small parks where locals and visitors go to relax.
Gamla Stan is also the site of the Nobel Museum, located in a 13th-century plaza. In conventional display cases, but also in movies and via a slow parade of overhead posters, this museum tells the stories of Alfred Nobel, who made his fortune by stabilizing nitroglycerin into what we call dynamite. It also addresses those who have been honored with his namesake prize in the categories of the sciences, the arts and peace. (All except the peace prize are handed out in Stockholm.) After learning about the laureates, have a staffer in the museum’s small bistro show its new, but hidden, prizes: Laureates have begun signing the bottoms of the chairs when they visit the museum. Hanging above all is the chair signed by the Dalai Lama.
Less than two blocks from the Nobel Museum is the huge Royal Palace, the in-city residence of Sweden’s monarchs. Tourists can stroll through the grand reception rooms, as well as museums displaying the crown jewels, armor and art. Take a spot in front of the Palace’s curved, open courtyard at 11:45 a.m. each day to witness the changing of the guard at noon; the troops are preceded by a band, and sometimes the soldiers are on horseback. The display may vary depending on the time of year, so check ahead.
If you want to get an elevated view of Stockholm, you have several options. You can head to the residential island of Sodermalm and the terrass (terrace) on Fjallgatan Street, which offers an elevated panorama of Stockholm’s sights and waterways. Or, you can buy a ticket to Skyview, two 16-passenger, glass-walled gondolas that travel up the side of the world’s largest spherical building, the Ericsson Globe arena. The ride lasts about 10 minutes in each direction.
The most challenging option is to take the Historic Rooftop Tour, where you’ll walk about 130 feet above the city, atop the former Parliament building. Up to 10 participants at a time don helmets and safety harnesses attached to a steel cable. The cable follows a 980-foot-long metal catwalk — about a foot wide, it lacks handrails and includes some stairs — around the top of the building. For the next hour or so, the guide explains the view below and adds dollops of local history. The tour sells out quickly, so reserve your spot early via Upplevmer.se.
Do as the locals do, and step aboard a Stromma sightseeing boat for a cruise through the archipelago, comprising an estimated 30,000 islands. Depending on the time of day, passengers can book a casual sit-down meal in the ship’s dining room. Narration of the passing scene is in English. The cruises last from two to eight hours; if you have enough time, step off the outbound boat to stroll the hamlets on various islands, have a meal and a drink, then catch a later boat returning to Stockholm. Some cruises operate several times a day, year-round; some cease in late November and return in February. Boats leave from the downtown harbor.
City Hall (the Stadshuset) is one of Stockholm’s top tourist attractions, with tours given in English and Swedish every day. Visitors come not to observe the 101-seat City Council in action but, rather, to admire the architecture and decor of the building, built in 1923 and designed as a romantic interpretation of an Italian villa. The big draws are the Blue and Golden Halls. The Blue Hall was designed to resemble the piazza of a villa; there is even a false balcony projecting from one wall and beneath it, a fountain. Every December, this vast room becomes the banquet hall for 1,300 guests celebrating the Nobel Prize honorees. (The awards are presented about a mile away.) After the banquet, dancing takes place in the spectacular Golden Hall, its walls covered by 18-million tiny tiles of gold leaf pressed between sheets of clear glass. The walls are further decorated with heroic-size images of figures from actual history, mythology and religion.
One of Stockholm’s 14 islands, Djurgarden, is both a huge park (part of the Ekoparken that stretches more than six miles) and site of some of the city’s most popular attractions. The Vasa Museum (featuring a restored 17th-century war ship) is there, as well as the eclectic Spiritmuseum & Absolut Art Collection, with its dozens of works commissioned for the state-owned vodka company’s ads. Also on Djurgarden is a small zoo of Nordic animals, formal gardens, walking/biking paths, a former royal palace, a kids’ park devoted to creations by the author of Pippi Longstocking, and a coaster-crazy amusement park.
Taking up the largest space on Djurgarden is Skansen, a collection of more than 150 authentic 19th- and early-20th-century structures gathered from around Sweden. They were taken there by a man who did not want to see progress obliterate remnants of the olden days. To do justice to Skansen and the other Djurgarden attractions, give the island a full day.
If you’re looking for a different take on the city tour, Stockholm has several unique and themed tours to show you the city in a new way. The Stockholm City Museum offers two-hour, English language tours that trace the haunts of the music group ABBA or Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” series. You can also pick up a map with the route to tour on your own. Alternately, try a 1.5- to 2.5-hour Segway tour, offered by Daytrip Stockholm.
If you’re interested in old coins, you’ll find the three-story Royal Coin Cabinet, or Mint Museum, just across the street from the Royal Palace. Humans have used everything from bones to stones, metal and paper as currency, and you can see collections of coins and other items here.
There probably are three constants in Swedish meals — lingonberries, open-faced sandwiches and pickled herring. Expect to find the tart berries, or sauce made from them, next to or on top of numerous entrees and desserts. Herring is served marinated in onions, garlic, dill and mustard, and is typically accompanied by boiled potatoes and bread. As for the sandwiches on one thick slice of bread, expect the toppings to range from herring to shrimp — a favorite — to game like reindeer and boar.
Swedes love baked goods, especially during their coffee breaks. A colorful favorite is the princess cake: layers of sponge cake separated by jam, custard and whipped cream, topped with icing in brilliant colors.
For more than 30 years, the Vete Katten (literally, wheat cat) has drawn Stockholmers for their daily fike — a ritualized coffee break. Vete Katten in central Stockholm is a bakery and cafe, offering multilayer, multiflavor cakes, sweet rolls (cinnamon, vanilla, almond, fruit, etc.), small sandwiches and salads.
At the Ostermalms Saluhall (Food Hall) downtown, set in a vast but handsome building that opened in 1888, vendors still offer the freshest seafood, meat (including reindeer and moose), produce, cheese and chocolate. Locals also head there for its many restaurants and delis.
There’s no better dining room panorama than the Operakallaren, the restaurant in the grandiose Royal Swedish Opera House. The menu is haute cuisine: foie gras, lobster tail, grilled zander with dried algae. It all comes with a view of the busy harbor.
Prinsen lacks such views; now in its second century, the restaurant is on a side street off a commercial boulevard. But contemporary prints, rich wood furnishings and leather chairs lend a clubby air, and its menu offers traditional Swedish fare, such as bigg rydberg (cubes of filet, onions and potatoes) or five kinds of herring, served with potatoes and cheese.
The island of Sodermalm was once a working-class residential area, and a few remnants of those times still remain. Among them is Pelikan, an understated restaurant that specializes in old-time Swedish cuisine and a variety of beers. This is a prime spot to taste dishes like meatballs in cream sauce (a Swedish tradition), fried herring, and potato dumplings stuffed with wild mushrooms and served with — what else? — lingonberries.
A bountiful vegetarian buffet is laid out each day at Hermans, complete with some 15 different cold salads as well as rice, potatoes and other hot dishes. Come on a weekend and catch one of the theme buffets (such as Middle Eastern or Indian). Best of all are the views across the harbor to Gamla Stan and Djurgarden.
Seafood lovers won’t want to miss a meal at Sturehof, where the ever-changing menu features dishes such as fried Baltic herring with browned butter, whole grilled char and bouillabaisse. When the weather is fine, you can sit out on the terrace. The place is always bustling, so make reservations in advance.
Shopping in Stockholm
Shopping in Gamla Stan is fabulous. The main commercial street is Vasterlanggatan, where you’ll find a lot of tourist fare and funky boutiques. But the most interesting shops — for travelers looking for beautifully made, original crafts ranging from clothing to ceramics — tend to be located along Osterlanggatan.
Downtown, the shopping scene is primarily along Drottninggatan, which is pedestrian-only in many places. Highlights: If you’re looking for Swedish-designed products, check out Svenskt Hantverk and the department store NK; both have fabulous selections of exquisite handicrafts and crystal.
–written by Robert N. Jenkins