Often called “The Venice of the North”, Stockholm lies picturesquely on 14 islands where the fresh waters of Lake Mälaren join the Baltic Sea. The charm of its unique setting lies in the mixture of land and seascape, enhanced by the beautiful architecture of the buildings that line its quaysides and waterways. Amazingly, these attractive waterways make up as much as one third of the metropolitan area and another third is taken up by parks and greens spaces.
Stockholm is one of the cleanest and greenest capitals in the world. East of the city and stretching out into the Baltic Sea lies the Stockholm Archipelago, a beautiful chain of thousands of islands. We arrived by train from Copenhagen, a five-hour journey that began by crossing the impressive Øresund Bridge, the longest combined road/rail bridge in Europe, which links Denmark with Sweden.
The journey continued through Sweden’s seemingly endless woodlands before finishing at Stockholm’s main station, right in the middle of town. Our hotel was just a short walk from the station and close to the bridges that linked the mainland with Gamla Stan, the site of Stockholm’s original and well-preserved medieval city centre.
Our three-day ticket for the comprehensive Hop-on Hop-off bus and boat network provided us with all our transport needs and was good value at €45 per person. The bus visited all the main areas of central Stockholm – the City Hall, Royal Opera, main museums, markets, shopping streets and the lovely wooded island of Djurgården, which is a fantastic eco-playground for the local residents.
The bus linked up with the Hop-on Hop-off boat tours at the busy Nybroplan Marina. The boat tour was far more scenic than the bus and there were no traffic delays (!), stopping at eight different points around the harbour, including The Royal Palace, Tivoli Gröna Lund Amusement Park, the Vasa Museum and the cute little island of Skeppsholmen.
Gamla Stan – the Old Town
As soon as we strolled across the bridge deep into the heart of Gamla Stan, we felt we had been transported back in time by hundreds of years. The narrow pedestrian streets (the narrowest is less than one metre wide) wind their way between beautiful churches, souvenir shops, ancient houses and old cafés, all seemingly focusing on Stortorget, the city square at its centre.
In the 1950s, Gamla Stan was targeted to be demolished in a fit of modernisation madness. Happily for the enjoyment of today’s many visitors, a successful campaign was waged to save this beautiful old town from the bulldozers.
We visited the intriguing Nobel Museum, which is situated in one of Stockholm’s most beautiful 18th century buildings in Stortorget. Here we learned about the extraordinary life of Alfred Nobel, his lifelong quest to solve difficult problems and his greatest legacy, the Nobel Prize. He wrote in his will that physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace would each year receive a part of the revenues of his fortune. The interesting hands-on exhibition included information about the more than 900 Laureates who have been awarded the Nobel Prize.
From the harbour, the Baroque-style Royal Palace (Kungliga Slottet) dominates Gamla Stan’s skyline. This huge and rather ugly building is one of the largest royal palaces in the world, and is used for most of the country’s official receptions. The Changing of the Guard Ceremony, together with a Military Band, takes place at the Palace daily in summer. Much more appealing to the eye is the stunning architecture of the Riksdagshudet (Parliament Building), right next door to the Palace.
The Vasa Museum
In 1628, an impressive Swedish warship, named the Vasa, set sail on her maiden voyage across Stockholm Harbour. Unfortunately, she was dreadfully top heavy and had insufficient ballast in her hold. As soon as the wind caught her rigging, she capsized and sank after sailing only 1,300 metres!
However, in 1961, the Vasa’s remarkably intact hull was raised from the seabed after 333 years under water. What started as a 17th century fiasco has now become a world-wide success, as this magnificent wooden vessel is now on display to an admiring public in a specially constructed spacious museum on Djurgården Island. She is kept under carefully controlled conditions to prevent decay.
The museum is spacious so there are good views of the Vasa from below, from the side and from above. There are many supporting exhibits, describing her construction, her decorative sculptures, naval warfare of the period, life on board, salvage operations and the fascinating artifacts found inside. This is probably the finest museum we have ever seen. If you only have time to do one thing when you visit Stockholm, go and marvel at this amazing ship.
The Stockholm Archipelago
The spectacular Stockholm archipelago has 30,000 islands and stretches 60kms east from the city towards the Baltic Sea. Around 150 islands are inhabited. Some people live here permanently whilst others just have summer cottages, often painted a distinctive red colour. It is a paradise for sailors, paddlers, fishermen, swimmers and all who love life near the water.
Regular ferry services serve the needs of the archipelago’s towns and villages and there are many short ‘cruise’ options for tourists. We chose an excellent guided half-day cruise of the inner archipelago on the M/S Östanå. Built in 1906, this elegant old steam ship (now diesel-powered) chugged gently along the waterways between the islands towards Vaxholm, the main archipelago town, sailing back by a different route.
The informative guide told us much about the history, geography and wildlife of this scenic region. Therefore, by the time we had returned back to the quayside in Nybroplan, we fully understood why these islands have inspired so many writers and painters – and also just why they are so popular as a holiday destination for the Swedish people!
It would be most remiss of me to write about Stockholm without mentioning Fika. Simply put, Fika is the Swedish word for coffee break. Together with family or friends, people get together to drink a cup of coffee and eat sweet baked pastries called Fikabröd. It is a wonderful way of socialising and has become embedded in Swedish culture.
The city has an endless choice of great coffee bars, all packed with happy chattering locals throughout the day. However, our own personal favourite was the shabby chic Kaffekoppen in Gamla Stan’s Stortorget, where we luckily found a table overlooking the busy square. The coffee was good, the ambience cheerful and the fragrant cardamom buns unbelievably delicious. Well-done Stockholm!
By Nigel Wright
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Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal 13 years ago and live near Guia. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and seek out new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening and photography.