Stockholm has been called the Venice of the north, and certainly the city has an intimate relationship with the sea. It is situated on a number of islands, today connected by bridges, and grew outwards from the central islands of Stadsholmen (“City island”) and Riddarholmen (“Knights island”) already in Viking times. Walking in the central district, including the Old Town, it is never far to a quay and lapping waves, marinas with sailboats or the mooring places for the regular boats that connect the far flung archipelago with the capital. And the sea of course is one of the main things that capture the imagination of visitors to Stockholm.
Perhaps the best thing to start with is to get a birds-eyes view of the glittering streams, the bridges and the landmarks to visit.
Walk up to the highest natural point of Innerstan (the inner city, as opposed to the suburbs), the mountain Skinnarviksberget in the middle of a large park. The name comes from the sea shore below, where tanners (skinnare) plied a stinking trade in the 17th century, but today the air is clean and bracing, and the mountain is a favorite pick-nick spot of the Stockholmers, used for midsummer parties. How to find it? Take the Tunnelbana (the Stockholm metro, stations are marked with a large T-sign in blue on white, there are maps for all lines on the station walls) to Zinkensdamm and head due north. You will pass some nice old houses, and end up taking the few last steps up to a magnificent view. Here, you will get an understanding of how large an area Stockholm really spans – after all, with about 1 million inhabitants you may have thought this will be a city easily explored on foot – and realize the necessity either of acquiring a metro-card, a metro-map and some determination in learning how the different lines interconnect, or else a really good street-map and some sturdy hiking shoes.
Now, you are actually standing on the north part of an island called Södermalm, to which Stockholm expanded already in medieval times. In the 19th century this was a working class district, with houses encircling inner courtyards. If you walk around and peek into vaults and large doors in the area around Katarina kyrka (church of Saint Catherine) you may catch a glimpse of an era gone by. This is worth the effort, since these are milieus often described in Swedish literature and films, and central to Stockholm culture and self-image.
Right in front of you are the Stadsholmen and Riddarholmen islands with Gamla Stan, the Old Town. This of course is a must, since it is the original “City Between the Bridges” from the 13th century. Then it was a large fortification, with a maze of small lanes and wooden structures inside. Some centuries later large castle walls were not as important, and city planning caused two arteries, today lined with artisan’s shops and cafés, to be drawn through it all. But if you deviate from the tourist flow on these, you should know you are still walking the outlines of the medieval alleys. The facades you see are the facades of the 17th and 18th centuries, when Sweden was a political power to be reckoned with and medieval charm was not the image to project. Inside, there still occasionally exist ancient vaults, and if you stop at Café Sten Sture in the middle of Gamla Stan, you can sip your latte under them. The present castle, the official residence of the king of Sweden, was built in the north part of Gamla stan in the 18th century, and resembles nothing so much as an Italian noble residence of these times. It is open for visitors the year round, and you can take a tour through the official halls and apartments and imagine yourself an important foreign guest invited to a royal dinner, look at the crown jewels and a museum telling the history of the castle. In Gamla Stan you also find the cathedral, Storkyrkan (the Big church) where crown princess Victoria married her Daniel last summer. The church was first built in medieval times, and has continuously been altered and rebuilt up to the present day. Take your time and listen to an organ consert in the majestic surroundings, admire the wooden sculpture of St George rescuing the maiden in distress, and pay a visit to the souvenir shop with lots of “fair trade”-marked handicraft while you are there. A tip if you want to really experience history close on, and feel a pleasant frisson of horror at the stories of people who once lived, loved, committed crimes and possibly became ghosts to haunt castles and back streets alike – sign up for an evening tour with stockholmghostwalk.com or stockholmghoststories.com. Tours in English are offered, and horror stories are guaranteed! Gamla Stan is on the agenda, as are many other districts just as interesting.
East of the island of the Old town you will find Skeppsholmen, (Ship island), connected to the rest of Stockholm with a bridge, and originally a naval base. You might book your accommodation on the floating boat hostel “Af Chapman” moored here, but that requires planning and booking in advance, since it is one of the most popular places to stay in Stockholm.
Floating hostel or not, the sea and sailing upon it may have become irresistible in the midst of so much water, and a day trip out into the Stockholm archipelago is really worth its while. If you are pressed for time the best is to go to Fjäderholmarna (Feather islands), only a 20-minute boat trip from downtown Stockholm. A restaurant on these small islands is open during the summer season and for Christmas, and there is an adventure playground for children. The environment here gives you a taste of what the archipelago is like – vast expanses of water under a blue sky, sun-scorched cliffs, seagulls, red-painted boathouses and the occasional farm or village amid green trees on a small island flung out into the sea… With time on your hands you could easily spend weeks going from island to island with the regular boats, staying at hostels or on camp sites, finding your own special paradise. If you are an island fan, then surely Fjäderholmarna will make you come back for more another day. Enquire at the tourist office for boat schedules!
Climbing to outdoors panorama sites, walking through Gamla stan, admiring 19th century houses and going on boat trips is all very fine, as long as the weather smiles on you. That can never be guaranteed, but on a rainy day there are some other, very special things to do and to see, even if you don’t feel like spending the day in a museum. Go on a tour in the Stockholm metro and admire the modern art that graces many of its stations! Spend your day making a journey through an exciting art history from the 1950’s to the modern artistic experiments and expressions. More than 90 of the 100 metro stations in Stockholm have been embellished with sculptures, mosaics, paintings and relieves. Actually, the metro has been called “the longest art gallery in the world”, and one of the more spectacular stations is at Solna Centrum, where the strong red and green colors of the Swedish countryside dominate, and the theme is Sweden in the 1970’s. You could also go for a swim in the pool of Centralbadet from 1904 with its Jugend-style decor– it feels like swimming in a palace with chandeliers and frescoed walls, and spa treatments can be booked. Not ideal for children, though, as splashing and playing is not allowed – rather take them to a place where interactive learning, testing, touching and experimenting is the order of the day. Tekniska museet, the Technical Museum, is not so much a museum as a 3D-cinema, a giant lab and workshop, and presents activities that will delight both old and young. Then, if the sun comes out again you are already halfway between Gamla Stan and Djurgården, a large island in the east part of Stockholm that you will have seen from your vantage point at the start.
So why not continue here to see typical houses from rural areas of Sweden, brought together in one place in Skansen, the large outdoor museum and zoological park? As a bonus you’ll be able to see brown bears, wolfs and elks as well, which after all is what your friends will expect you to have done on a Swedish holiday. Just opposite Skansen you find the amusement park Gröna Lund, so if you wish for a roller coaster ride to round of your day, nothing could be easier…