Some might think that northern countries are far too grim and gloomy in the winter season, the days are gray and short and nights are dark and long. The sky is overcast and winter is not just coming, it is already there. Let me disagree. I visited Stockholm in February and fell in love with the weather, the people, the city and the country on the whole.
The Kungliga Slottet, or the Royal Palace
Often being called the ‘Venice of the North’, Stockholm lies on a number of islands and peninsulas at the outflow of Lake Mälar into the Baltic, which forms a deep inlet here. The charm of its setting lies in the intermingling of land and water - the skerries fringing the coast, the crags rearing up from the sea, the intricate pattern of waterways encompassing the city.
The Swedish capital has at least three distinct UNESCO World Heritage sites: Birka, Drottningholm, and the Woodland Cemetery in addition to world-class museums, theatres, galleries, and the Nobel Institute. Getting around couldn't be easier. The Tunnelbana (T-bana) underground system will you almost anywhere in the city, a highly efficient and regular bus network fills in any gaps between destinations. Yet Stockholm is a terrific city to absorb on foot. If you are too tired of walking, take a bike, the lanes are numerous.
Locals proudly call the city a levande stad, or living city, as a large part of the eclectic cosmopolitan population still live in the downtown areas.
The Opera House in the background, from Vasabron bridge
The sites and attractions here are grouped by the city districts, so you can cover them in one day and have a holistic impression of the area. If you want to economize on museums costs, buy a 3-day Stockholm Pass, it is really worth it if you are a museum freak like me. Personally, I bought it online for 895 SEK but would have spent 1790 SEK otherwise (my balance after 3 days of walking).
Area 1: Gamla Stan
Gamla Stan, photo taken on the boat ride
With the last war being 300 years ago, Stockholm is an amazingly well-preserved city. Gamla Stan, the Old Town, is one of the largest medieval city centres in Europe, and one of the foremost attractions in Stockholm. This is where Stockholm was founded in 1252. Some tour guides say a part of the Old Town, especially the one close to the channels was built on rubbish that is why the buildings are inclining and actually moving with the tricky foundation. However, Stockholm houses still feel much sturdier than that notorious Pisa Tower.
Galma Stan is the place to see the Royal Palace, the Nobel Museum, the Coin Museum, the Cathedral and many other attractions. It is popular with aficionados of handicrafts, curios and souvenirs, and is probably the only place to buy those, other city museums have more thematic gift shops. The narrow winding cobblestone streets, with their buildings in so many different shades of gold, give Gamla Stan its unique character. Even now, cellar vaults and frescoes from the Middle Ages can be found behind the visible facades, and on snowy winter days the district feels like something from a story book.
Västerlånggatan and Österlånggatan are the district’s main streets. The city wall that once surrounded the city ran inside these streets along what is now Prästgatan. In the middle of Gamla Stan is Stortorget, the oldest square in Stockholm, there is a very nice shop with local meat and fish. Stortorget is the central point from which runs Köpmangatan, the oldest street in Stockholm, which was mentioned as early as the fourteenth century. Mårten Trotzigs gränd (Mårten Trotzigs alley) is hard to find. It’s the narrowest alley in Gamla Stan, only 90 centimetres wide at its narrowest point. Another thing hard to locate is a 15/20 sm-tall Boy Looking at the Moon, the symbol of happiness and hope, you should rub his head and make a wish that will certainly come true.
The Boy Looking at the Moon
If you travel in summer, make sure not to miss Riddarholmen and the Riddarholmen Church. The church is a royal burial place and was built as a Franciscan monastery for the so-called Grey Brother monks in the thirteenth century.
The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace with Storkyrkan at the back
Kungliga Slottet, or the Royal Palace, resides on the ruins of Tre Kronor castle, which burned down in 1697 just because a fire watcher was off flirting with a kitchen maid, which explains rather vividly the meaning of 'run the gauntlet' (which in 1697 was how the court punished watchmen for flirting with kitchen maids while fire destroyed the castle).
Nicodemus Tessin the Younger was commissioned to redesign the surviving north wing and develop the leftovers into a new impressive building. The project took 57 years to complete. Highlights include the decadent Karl XI Gallery, inspired by Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors and Queen Kristina’s silver throne in the Hall of State.
Currently, it is the world’s largest royal castle still used for its original purpose. The first royal family moved here in 1754. The palace is not a museum but rather a working government building; though it contains fine examples of baroque and rococo furnishings and interiors, each of the 608 rooms also bears the fingerprints of the many generations who have lived there. There are regular guided tours, but not in winter. The timetable is available on the official website.
The Royal Palace has several offers: the Royal Rooms, the Armoury, the Treasury, Tre Kronor Museum, Gustav III’s Museum of Antiques, the Bernadotte Library, and the Royal Chapel. When I visited in February, only the Armoury and the Treasury were opened, all the rest was under reconstruction or closed for visitors.
The entrance to the Royal Armoury
The Royal Armoury is in the cellar vaults of the palace but has a separate admission fee (you don’t pay if you go with Stockholm Pass). It’s a family attic crammed with engrossing memorabilia spanning more than 500 years of royal childhoods, coronations, weddings, and murders. There is Gustav II Adolf’s stuffed battle steed, Streiff; the costume Gustav III wore to the masquerade ball on the night he was shot, in 1792. Kids can try on a suit of armour in the playroom.
For girls specially, there is a fairy-tale collection of coronation coaches in the Treasury, in the basement, including the outrageously rococo number used for the crowning of Adolf Fredrik and Ulrika Eleonora in 1751. Temporary exhibitions draw interesting connections between royal history and modern pop culture. Free guided tours in English at 3 p.m.
In the basement Museum Tre Kronor, you can see the foundations of 13th-century defensive walls and items rescued from the medieval castle during the 1697 fire.
It's worth timing your visit to see the Changing of the Guard, which takes place in the outer courtyard at 12.15pm Monday to Saturday and 1.15pm Sunday and public holidays from May through August, and 12.15pm Wednesday and Saturday and 1.15pm Sunday and public holidays from September to May.
Admission to the Palace includes the Museum Tre Kronor, devoted to Stockholm's original castle; the Royal Treasury; and Gustav III's Antikmuseum (the museum of antiquities).
Admission price: 160 SEK
Storkyrkan or Stockholm Cathedral
The silver altar of the Cathedral
This magnificent red-brick gothic Cathedral is snuggly tucked away between the Royal Palace and the Nobel Museum, in the very heart of medieval Stockholm. Its high vaulted ceiling pleases the eye of the beholder, statues and old paintings tell about the splendour of Sweden, its glorious victories and nonetheless famous noblemen. It is the place of royal coronations and weddings, in 2010 the Crown Princess Victoria said “I do” to Prince Daniel and the ceremony was broadcast nationwide.
It is the mother church of the Church of Sweden Diocese of Stockholm. Catholic at the foundation (1279, consecrated in 1306), Lutheran in modern tradition (since 1527), it offers a warm welcome to people of all backgrounds and beliefs.
St George and the Dragon by Berndt Notke
Behind a baroque facade, the Gothic-baroque interior includes extravagant royal-box pews designed by Nicodemus Tessin the Younger, as well as German Berndt Notke’s dramatic sculpture St George and the Dragon, commissioned by Sten Sture the Elder to commemorate his victory over the Danes in 1471. Keep an eye out for posters and handbills advertising music performances here.
You can find more description on the route around Storkyrkan
.Admission price: 40 SEK
Is the second most important church in Stockholm, the Royal necropolis built by Franciscan monks in the late 13th century. It has served a royal grave since the burial of Magnus Ladulås in 1290 and is home to the armorial glory of the Seraphim knightly order. There’s a guided tour in English at noon (included with admission) and occasional concerts. However, it is closed in winter, so if you are travelling from October to April, enjoy the impressive darkish-red exterior that reflects on the waters of the channel.
Admission price: 50SEKWorking hours: 10am-5pm mid-May–mid-Sep
The Nobel Museum
The Nobel Museum backyard
The Nobel Museum is all about paying tribute to the great inventor and the modern masterminds of humankind. It's a slick space with fascinating displays, including the inventions themselves (where possible), descriptions of all the Nobel Laureates and their contribution to science, short films on the theme of creativity, interviews with laureates like Ernest Hemingway and Martin Luther King, and cafe chairs signed by the visiting prize winners.
The museum is housed in the Börsen building – the old Stock Exchange – which forms the north side of Stortorget, the historic main square in Gamla Stan. The free guided tours are recommended (in English at 10.15am, 11.15am, 1.15pm, 3.15pm, 4.15pm and 6.15pm in summer).
Admission price: 100 SEK
Working hours: 9 am – 8 pm June – August, 11 am – 5 pm winter time (Wednesday – Sunday), Tuesday is a long day: 11am-8pm)
Area 2: SoFo
It is on the neighbouring island of Södermalm, the name comes from a contraction – the south of Folkungagatan. Yet it coolly puns with London Soho. The SoFo is the invention of local entrepreneurs who since 2003 have been successfully attempting to rebrand the area as a centre of creative and innovative Swedish fashion and retailing Although compact, SoFo is packed with interesting, cool and creative shops specializing in clothing, design, jewellery, knickknacks, vintage, housewares, music and much more. Several fashion brands have their own stores in this district. There are also scores of restaurants and cafés. The atmosphere is laid-back, yet highly aware. In the warm months, Nytorget Square is a bustling social scene. The closest tube stations are Slussen, Medborgarplasten and Skanstull.
Fotografiska from the top of the stairs
This chic, upmarket photography museum is a must-visit for everybody, not just those shutterbugs and hipsters who wish to have a nice drink on the museum’s fourth floor (by the way, the restaurant was rated second best World Museum Restaurant in 2016). It was founded in 2010 by brothers Per and Jan Broman and exhibits internationally famous photographers as well as upcoming talents. It also offers photography courses and workshops throughout the year. The permanent exhibition is small in comparison to the temporary projects. The temporary exhibitions are huge and diverse, check them out on the official site. I was blown away by the beauty of human bodies in Ren Hang’s “Human Love” & the black-and-white masterpieces of Patrick Demarchelier
’s “Lumiere”. Admission price: 130 SEK
Area 3: Djurgarden
This big green island is all about entertainment: open-air concerts run throughout the summer in Galärparken, kids enjoy wild rides on a Story Train and fairy-tale world of Astrid Lindgren in Junibacken, visitors of all ages see lush or humble historic interiors in Nordiska. There is an imposing ship captured in a building too small for its grandeur, a Spirits Museum where you can smell different alcohol and actually get high on it so that a hangover room will hit your head like an ax. A Biological Museum and the Aquarium with a little tropical garden will pacify the adrenalin raging in your blood after visiting Grona Lund, a cool amusement place. And the gem of the crown is Skansen, a magic gateway to old Sweden, where glassmakers blow fantastic creatures, milkmaids sell the freshest milk, and a 19th -century tavern serves mouth-watering pastry.
Breakfast at the Skansen Tavern, you can pick your own 19th-century porcelain cup
Some say it is a tranquil oasis in the heart of the city, don’t believe them, take tram No.7 or bus No. 69 from T-Centralen and plunge yourself into Abba world and the frolics of the youth.
The spirit of Junibacken through comics
Built in 1996 with an ambition is to continue Astrid Lindgren’s drive to imagine, inspire and stimulate kids’ creative powers, Junibacken is full of magic – and most importantly: you can create the magic yourself! Come and enjoy the spectacular peculiarities of Villa Villekulla
, take a ride on Pippi’s horse and play with friends old and new in Storybook Square
. Come dressed for play and don’t worry about making a mess! Junibacken’s installations and exhibitions are all about letting children discover the magic that can be found between the pages of a book, so get in there, start exploring and enjoy your time together.
There is a great children’s cultural centre that does not shirk from the difficult issues but dares to talk about everything that is important in life. Just as Astrid Lindgren did in her books.
You should get on the Story Train
that will introduce you to the fairy-tale world in 15 minutes. You’ll meet Madicken, Emil, Karlsson and the others on an enchanting journey between the Swedish summer of fairytales and stories and the roaring Karma Falls. Fabulous, exciting and a little sad – exactly as it should be.
The Story Train was actually the last text that Astrid Lindgren wrote and, if you listen to the Swedish version, it is Astrid herself you’ll hear from the loudspeakers.
The feisty mouse in Simon Small and Katla, the dragon (which actually was made less scary about 10 years ago because kids got frightened when seeing it), are two figures that can be a bit awe-inspiring.
There is a theatre and the best children’s bookshop here.Admission price
: 159 SEK for adults, 139 SEK for children aged 2-15, children under 2 get in for freeWorking hours: 10am-5pm Tue-Sun in winter, 10am-5pm Mon-Sun in summer, see the site for more details
Tube: Karlaplan (and then bus 67), T-Centralen (and then bus 69). Get off at the stop called Djurgårdsbron walk over the bridge and then take the first turn to the right (before you get to the Nordiska Museet), and follow the signs. Or Kungsträdgården (and then tram 7). Get off at the stop called Nordiska Museet/Vasamuseet/Junibacken The directions are valid for other museums on Djurgarden.
The Nordiska Museum
The Nordiska Museum
This epic museum of cultural history could have been even bigger if the Swedish king had not banned the architect Isak Gustav Clason from doing so. The building itself (completed in 1907) is an eclectic, Renaissance-style castle where Aetur Hazelius, who also founded the open-air museum Skansen, brought or got donations of objects like furniture, clothes and toys from all over Sweden and the other Nordic countries. He was more interested in the peasant culture, but his successors increasingly started to collect objects reflecting bourgeois and urban lifestyles as well. Now the museum hosts various temporary exhibitions related to interior design (like the one I saw – The Northern Lights – is all about lamps and lightning in the houses).
The core of the “cathedralesque” building is taken up by a huge main hall (126 meters long) passing through all the stories up to the roof and dominated by the enormous sculpture of King Gustav Vasa, the Swedish so called founder-king. For the construction, brick and granite was used for the walls, while concrete was used for the roof.
Inside you’ll find a sprawling collection of all things Swedish, from sacred Sami objects to fashion, shoes, home interiors and even table settings.
The Nordiska Museum merely three hours after
The museum boasts the world’s largest collection of paintings by August Strindberg, as well as a number of his personal possessions. In all, there are over 1.5 million items dating from 1520 to the present day. You will find a sprawling collection of all things Swedish, from sacred Sami objects to fashion, shoes, home interiors and even table settings. The insightful audio guide (free with admission) offers several hours of English commentary and some Swedish music.
Admission price: 100 SEK
Tube: Karlaplan (and then bus 67), T-Centralen (and then bus 69). Get off at the stop called Djurgårdsbron walk over the bridge and the Nordiska Museet is in front of you. Or Tube station Kungsträdgården (and then tram 7). Get off at the stop called Nordiska Museet
A good-humoured glorification of some dodgy calculations, Vasamuseet is the custom-built home of the massive warship Vasa; 69m long and 48.8m tall, it was the pride of the Swedish crown when it set off on its maiden voyage on 10 August 1628. The ship sank 20 minutes into the sea, it tipped and lay at the bottom of Saltsjön for over 300 years.
The ship was painstakingly raised in 1961 and reassembled like a giant 14,000-piece jigsaw. Almost all of what you see today is original.
On the entrance level is a model of the ship at scale 1:10 and a cinema screening a 25-minute film (in English at 9.30am and 1.30pm daily in summer) covering topics not included in the exhibitions. There are four other levels of exhibits covering artifacts salvaged from the Vasa, life on board, naval warfare, and 17th-century sailing and navigation, plus sculptures and temporary exhibitions. The bottom-floor exhibition is particularly fascinating, using modern forensic science to recreate the faces and life stories of several of the ill-fated passengers.
The bookshop is worth a browse and there is a restaurant for a well-earned pit stop.
Admission price: 130 SEK
Working hours: 8.30am-6pm Jun-Aug, 10am-5pm Sep-May
Tube: Karlaplan (and then on foot), or Hamngatan/ Kungsträdgården (tram number 7 towards Waldemarsudde)
The Spirits Museum
The usual dilemma: the heart and the mind want different things
Leave your kids hang out in the Aquarium or in Grona Lund and come to a surprisingly entertaining museum devoted to Sweden's complicated relationship with alcohol. Sweden practices a Prohibition Law. You can buy only low-alcohol beer or cider (3.5% alcohol) in general supermarkets, should you wish for something stronger – visit a Bolaget
store, which is usually closed on Sunday
System Bolaget is a government-owned chain allowed to sell alcohol to those who passed the 20-y.o. mark. However, you can buy a drink in bars and restaurants if you are over 18, though some bars and clubs may voluntarily set an age limit higher than 18 if they prefer. Also, under the system, discounts, such as "Buy 1, get 1 free" and "One can 1.50 two cans 2.50" type deals, are prohibited.
Coming back to the museum, it is a slick space, in two 18th-century naval buildings. The Museum covers the history, manufacture and consumption of all kinds of booze, plus holiday traditions, drinking songs, food pairings and so on. Best of all, you can combine your visit with a tasting kit (SEK200), including various flavours of liquor to be sampled at specified points.
There's a 'hangover room' with a head-throbbing soundtrack and painful light, as well as a small theatre in which the seating angle and first-person-perspective film make you feel slightly drunk. Multimedia displays dispense titbits about the alcohol industry ('The first entirely Swedish whiskey was a thundering fiasco', for example). There are also well-staged temporary exhibits. The Absolut Art gallery displays collected works on the obvious theme by the likes of Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. And there is an awesome cartoon character and his escapades with alcohol written in comics-style dialogues. I wish I knew Swedish!
There is the whole shelf of those funny cartoons
Admission price: SEK 120
The world’s first open-air museum, Skansen was founded in 1891 by Artur Hazelius to provide an insight into how Swedes once lived. You could easily spend a day here and not see it all (this is a summer time feeling, however in winter half of the treats are closed, so check out the official site before planning a visit). Around 150 traditional houses and other exhibits dot the hilltop – it’s meant to be ‘Sweden in miniature’, complete with villages, nature, commerce and industry.
The glass-blowers’ cottage is a popular stop. Watching the intricate forms emerge from glowing blobs of liquid glass is transfixing. The Nordic Zoo, with elk, reindeer, brown bears, wolves and other native wildlife, is another highlight, especially in spring when baby critters scamper around.
Buildings in the open-air museum represent various trades and areas of the country. Most are inhabited by staff in period costume, often creating handicrafts, playing music or churning butter while cheerfully answering questions about the folk whose lives they’re recreating. Part of the pharmacy was moved here from Drottningholm castle; two little garden huts came from Tantolunden in Södermalm.
There’s a bakery (still operational, serving coffee and lunch), a bank/post office, a machine shop, botanical gardens and Hazelius’ mansion. There are also 46 buildings from rural areas around Sweden, including a Sami camp, farmsteads representing several regions, a manor house and a school. There's even an aquarium (per adult/child Skr100/60). The closing times for each workshop can vary, so check times online to avoid disappointment.
There are cafes, restaurants, and hot-dog stands throughout the park. Carrying water isn’t a bad idea in summer, and it’s not cheating to take the escalator to the top of the hill and meander down from there.
Daily activities take place on Skansen’s stages, including folk dancing in summer and an enormous public festival at Midsummer’s Eve. If you’re in Stockholm for any of the country’s other major celebrations, such as Walpurgis Night, St Lucia Day and Christmas, it’s a great (if crowded) place to watch Swedes celebrate.
From mid-June through August, Waxholmsbolaget ferries run from Slussen to Djurgården; the route is part of the regular SL transit system, so you can use your SL pass to board. Buses leave from Cityterminalen.
Admission price: SEK 120
Working hours: 10am-5pm generally, but the times vary for the historical buildings, the park & the zoo.
These are not all the sites I visited on my six-day stay in Stockholm. There was a fantastic Technical Museum, and the neighbouring Maritime Museum, the Butterfly house which is off the touristy-beaten track, the Aquarium, the Medelhavsmuseet and many other nice nooks Stockholm holds for an open-minded traveller who sometimes looks at the Moon, just like the new symbol of this old city.
P.S. I am writing another article on a ‘moving around Stockholm’, there will be my boat trip around the islands, hop-on-hop-off bus experience and seeing Stockholm from the bird’s view. So, keep checking out the updates that will make you loooove Stockholm.
View towards Riddarholmen and Stockholm Stadshus