It’s not all IKEA, Swedish meatballs, pickled herring and prinsesstårtas here in Stockholm (Although those are delightful). Beautiful Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, is full of fascinating history. The whole city looks like the setting for a Disney fairy tale. Set off the Baltic Sea, it’s not just one island, but 14, connected by over 50 bridges, and you’ll love exploring it by boat and by bike. While the name origin of Stock-holm may be humble (it means “log island”), its city is grand with baroque palaces, medieval streets, folk traditions and a royal flair. Here’s my top recommendations for places to visit – it can all be done in 2-3 days if you’re short on time, but stay longer if you can. Välkommen till Stockholm!
1. Gamla Stan – My favorite section of Stockholm. Put on those comfortable walking shoes and explore the narrow winding cobblestone streets of ‘Gamla Stan’, which translates to ‘Old Town’. Gamla Stan is one of the largest and best preserved medieval city centers in all of Europe, and it’s where Stockholm was founded in 1252. You can still walk where the medieval city wall used to be, now called Prästgatan street. You’ll notice the colors here are unique: all different shades of gold and ochre. Even if you can’t pronounce them, wander slowly down Gamla Stan’s other main streets, Västerlånggatan and Österlånggatan. Look up, and you’ll still be able pick out a few medieval architectural details. The main square is called Stortorget, where you’ll find the Nobel Museum, cafes, and the old town water well. And also look for the narrowest street: Mårten Trotzigs alley, only 35 inches wide at its narrowest. So, go easy on those prinsesstårtas!
2. Storkyrkan: Within Gamla Stan, you’ll find Storkyrkan, or Stockholm Cathedral, Sweden’s National Cathedral, built in 1279 in the Swedish Brick Gothic style. It houses a copy of the oldest known image of Stockholm, the legendary Vädersoltavlan. It’s a painting of halo-like shapes (known as sun dogs) reportedly seen in the sky over Stockholm on April 20, 1535.
3. Riddarholmskyrkan: Separated slightly from the core of Gamla Stan, on its own little island, Riddarholmen, is one of the oldest buildings in Stockholm: the breathtaking Riddarholmen Church, where the Swedish monarchs are buried. It is Stockholm’s only preserved medieval monastery church, and parts of this historic building date back to the 13th century, when it was a Franciscan monastery.
4. Royal Palace – Ah, to live like a King for a day. While the site of Kungliga Slottet has been the official residence of the Swedish Royal Family since the 13th century — the baroque beauty you wander through today was built in the 17th century. It is one of the largest palaces in the world, with more than 600 rooms. Don’t miss the changing of the guard, the Royal Armory, the Royal Apartments, and my favorite: The Silver Throne of Queen Christina in the Hall of State. The throne was crafted in 1650, and has been used by Swedish monarchs at coronations and the state opening of parliament over the centuries.
5. Royal Canal Tour – Great way to get an overview of all the sites. As you leave the main city center, you’ll see the Parliament House, The Royal Palace, Gamla Stan, and then high up on the hill: Skansen. Then the canal turns, and you’re in the beautiful countryside. You’ll cruise the picturesque Djurgarden Canal, built by King Charles XIV in 1825. Then you’ll get a glimpse of Djurgården, the former hunting grounds of King John III. Today it’s a beautiful public park, complete with historic buildings, monuments, Gröna Lund amusement park and the Nordic Museum.
6. Skansen Open Air Museum – If you’re looking for the traditional Swedish folk culture, this is the place. Guides and performers are dressed in beautiful traditional costumes, complete with bonnets and braids. Don’t miss the Skansen fiddlers and Skansen folk dancers, performing songs and dances from the different regions of Sweden. Opened in 1881 to preserve its history and traditions, entire historic buildings and farmsteads have been relocated here from all over Sweden. Skansen is also popular for its Christmas market – it’s been held here since 1903!
7. Seglora Church — My favorite historic building was the Seglora Church, an 18th century wooden church, with portions dating back to 1700. The organ is form 1770, it’s a popular spot for weddings, and look for a long rod, used to whack visitors who fell asleep during the sermon. Look up and see the ornate ceiling frescos painted in 1734 – 1735, with symbols that may a little surprising, including: an all-seeing eye and a pink triangle with the name of God, or Yahweh in Hebrew letters.
8. Vasa Museum – Have you ever seen a museum built entirely around one really super-sized ship? Well, that’s exactly what you’re in for at Vasa Museum, home of the world’s only preserved 17th century ship. The Vasa ship is a monstrous 226 feet long, 172 feet high, weighs over 1200 tons, has 64 cannons and hundreds of ornate carved wooden sculptures. It was intended to be the most powerful warship in the Baltic, built in Stockholm in 1628 by the King of Sweden, Gustave II Adolf, ‘The Lion of the North’. The only problem is that it sank about 1400 yards offshore, on its maiden voyage. But what began as one of the most embarrassing fiascos in Swedish history, became the most visited museum in all of Scandinavia.
9. Nobel Museum – Dedicated to Alfred Nobel, the namesake of the famous Nobel Prize, you’ll learn about the more than 800 Laureates that have been awarded the Nobel Prize since its inception in 1901. You’ll learn about the six categories: Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, Economic Sciences, and perhaps the most well-known: Peace. Interesting tidbits: You’ll learn what Albert Einstein did with his prize money, and that Alfred Nobel created the Nobel Prize in part because of his guilt over inventing a more powerful form of dynamite.
10. ABBA Museum – Let out your inner Dancing Queen and wrap up your visit to Stockholm at the ABBA Museum. Sweden’s most famous pop group sold more than 379 million records (Mamma Mia!), are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and are still one of the best-selling music popular music groups in the history of recorded music. But you know what you really love are those over-the-top 70s Roller Disco Queen fashions. So the geniuses here at the ABBA Museum let you try on those legendary stage costumes, and make your own music video. Now, the only question is: Will your choice be “Money, Money, Money” or “Gimme, Gimme Gimme” or “Take a Chance on Me”? Whichever you choose, just make sure to deliver it with sparkly blue eyeshadow and wistful looks off into the distance.