While the most charming elements of some major world cities take a little hunting down things are a little different in Stockholm. This coastal capital city is made up of numerous islands interconnected by a host of scenic bridges with its waters flowing in between and lapping all around. As a result much of Stockholm is intrinsically infused with elements of that beauty which instantly captivate and delight its visitors.
Often referred to as the Venice of the North, this intermingling of land and sea without doubt gives the city its overall magic but within this whole can also be found a liberal sprinkling of the exceptional. An exploration of Stockholm will reward the visitor with royal palaces, lush wilderness spaces and parks, streets little changed since medieval times, world-class museums, three UNESCO World Heritage Sites and immaculate waterfront walks lined with cafés, bars and restaurants. Into all of this can be added an air of serenity which is not typically something associated with capital cities.
Stockholm is a wonderfully walkable city but for anyone who wants to cover as much ground as possible in the minimum amount of time things couldn’t be easier. The city has an extensive underground system called the Tunnelbana and traveling on this subterranean railway is an adventure in itself. There are also island-hopping ferries, a variety of scenic boat tours and hop on hop off options in both land and water form. There are even those which offer a combination of both together.
It is almost impossible to spend any time in Stockholm without becoming enchanted by all that it offers. To further enhance your whole Swedish adventure the following suggestions will ensure a good portion of Stockholm’s major highlights are included somewhere in your day.
A Morning in Stockholm
What better way to start your morning than getting above the city on the Skyview for a birds-eye view of the landmarks and treasures you will be exploring during your Stockholm day. Arriving here early means you can avoid the lines and climb straight aboard for a half hour journey which will carry you 130 meters into the air.
Located on the city’s southern edge, the enormous Ericsson Globe is the planet’s largest spherical structure inside of which is a spacious arena used for concerts and sports matches. Two rails run up and over this giant sphere carrying two clear glass balls designed to take passengers on an unusual and unforgettable gondola ride.
Interestingly, the Globe is the centre of Sweden’s solar system –or at least the country’s 1:20 million scale representation of it. Scattered around Stockholm and beyond in other cities are a variety of structures,each playing the part of a planet in our solar system. Together this collection –of which the Globe is the sun –makes up the largest solar system model in the world. Tiny 65 cm ‘Earth’ can be found at the Swedish Museum of Natural History while the 7.3 meter diameter gas giant ‘Jupiter’ is a flower decoration located on a roundabout at the Stockholm-Arlanda Airport.
Underground Art on a Grand Scale
Once you have taken your journey around the ‘sun’ and have your feet firmly back on the ground you can start making your way to one of the world’s finest preserved examples of a medieval city centre–the Gamla Stan. Those with energy to spare can make the 40 minute walk from the Globe to this fascinating area but otherwise just hop on an underground train for an easy transfer of just a few minutes. The subway system known as the Tunnelbana (T-bana) has three separate lines –red, green and blue –and aside from the convenience element there is another very good reason to make this a part of your day.
Almost all of Stockholm’s stations come complete with some kind of elaborate artwork in the form of mosaics, sculptures, installations and paintings; collectively these represent the world’s largest art exhibition. Dating from the 1960s to the present day, some exhibits are small or tucked away and necessitate a treasure-hunt to locate them while others are on such a grand scale you couldn’t miss them. The wonderfully atmospheric ‘cave’ stations of the blue line with their bare rock walls and grotto-like appearances are considered by many to be the icing on this incredible cake, most notably the underground ‘garden’ of the Kungsträdgården subway station.
Totally free to view and offering a wealth of half-hidden secrets and beautiful surprises the subway’s artwork is generally considered so exceptional that it is worth making various detours to view it even if you don’t intend to take any trains.
The Old Town -Gamla Stan
While much of historic Stockholm can take you on a journey through the centuries nowhere is this more easy to access and stunning than with a visit to the Gamla Stan on Stadsholmen island. The best way to explore this treasure chest of delights dating from the 13th century is to simply wander its labyrinth of ancient cobblestone streets and weaving alleys. Every turn seems to offer up another perfect photo opportunity or uncover another fascinating feature so it takes very little imagination to find yourself transported back in time to the days of medieval Stockholm.
Crammed within this lovely district are a wealth of cozy cafés which spill tables and chairs out onto the streets when the sun shines, art galleries, atmospheric restaurants with secret garden terraces, antique stores, cellar bars with flickering candlelight and one-of-a-kind craft shops which make hunting down memorable souvenirs easy. In winter this living museum is transformed into something straight from the pages of a fairy tale when the Christmas market comes to town.
While exploring the Gamla Stan be sure to take a look inside the magnificent Storkyrkan S. Nikolay–the city’s oldest Cathedral dating from the 13th century. Its relatively plain exterior suggests nothing of the splendor which can be seen on stepping through its doors. For many centuries the coronation venue for Swedish kings, the cathedral’s interior architecture blends a variety of styles and has several priceless features. These include the St. George and the Dragon carving dating from the 1400s, a 1632 painting, the triptych altar with its silver relief work and its giant 17th century Baroque-style pulpit.
Another important landmark worth a look while you are in the vicinity – just a 10 minute or so stroll across a couple of bridges from Gamla Stan – is the iconic golden-roofed Stadshuset or City Hall. With the appearance of a waterside Italian Renaissance palace, this lovely building is definitely a feast for the eyes but it has enormous significance besides its evident beauty. Once a year the latest Nobel Prize winners gather here for the prestigious award banquet. Visitors can tour the banquet hall itself and also the Golden Hall where the official ball is staged –a room aglitter with millions of mosaics. Those with the energy can also make the winding ascent up the 106 meter tower for far-reaching views over Stockholm.
Morning Coffee Break in Stockholm
Stockholm has a firmly established coffee culture which carries with it an embedded tradition for mixing this coffee drinking with good company and a small bite – typically sweet and pastry-based. So important is this aspect of Swedish life there is even a word for it – fika. To enjoy your very own little helping of fika you couldn’t be better placed than the Gamla Stan with its multitude of cafe choices. At the very heart of this medieval district can be found the main square and Chokladkoppen. This cafe sits at the foot of one of the square’s distinctive and historic tall narrow buildings whose picturesque qualities make them a popular choice for Stockholm postcards. While the sun shines Chokladkoppen’s customers lounge around on street-side wicker chairs and tiny tables soaking up the atmosphere of this lovely location. In cooler months when alfresco is less of an option customers move inside to the cozy interior. This cafe, beloved by both locals and tourists, is known for its exceptional hot chocolate varieties served in bowls while the sweet accompaniments also tend to get consistent rave reviews. Take your pick from cinnamon buns –a real Swedish staple for pairing up with coffee –or such treats as chocolate balls, muffins and several sweet pies with vanilla sauce.
Understandably Chokladkoppen can get a little crowded and if you prefer a tucked-away corner of tranquility to enjoy your morning coffee you would be hard pushed to find anything better than the enchanting Brända Tomtensquare. Dominated by a large central tree and surrounded by foliage-draped buildings in a variety of colors, this cobbled gem is home to Under Kastanjen whose fika fare of both traditional choices and some interesting alternatives is served up by two on-site bakeries.
On one of Stockholm’s lower temperature days head to Kaffekoppen and then make your way down the spiral staircase to the 17th century cellar vault lit by flickering candles. These surroundings paired with a bowl of steaming white chocolate or coffee with free refills can hardly fail to conjure up an atmosphere which embodies the very essence of cozy.
The Royal Palace (Kungliga Slottet)
Once you have learned first hand what it is to ‘fika’ you won’t have far to go to arrive at your next destination –the Royal Palace. Sitting on the fringes of the Old Town at the water’s edge, this 18th century official royal residency is made up of more than 600 rooms and a collection of museums which could keep any visitor busy for several days. Baroque in style and both enormous and impressive from the outside, the Royal Palace has a long list of major highlights to be explored inside. Don’t miss the Silver Throne of Queen Christina dating from 1650 or the luxurious banquet hall while wandering the stunningly decorated Royal Apartments. Get a glimpse of the crown jewels in the underground vaults of the Treasury or visit one of the museums. One of these – the Royal Armory-is not simply a display of historic armor but a collection of regal costumes through the ages. Included here are magnificent coaches and carriages used in coronations, weddings and state funerals. Other museums in the palace’s collection include the Tre Kronor or Three Crowns Museum and the Antique Museum of Gustav III which is one of Europe’s oldest –dating from 1794 – and full of this king’s personal collection of sculptures, art and antiquities.
A popular highlight of any palace visit is the Changing of the Guard at noon. Truly impressive, this ceremonial spectacle lasts for 40 minutes and begins with a troupe of guards accompanied by military musicians parading between the barracks and the palace. The finale takes place in front of the palace itself and is where the majority of onlookers gather to watch this traditional display which has changed little since the 16th century.
Interestingly, although the Kungliga Slottet is the official royal palace it is not the actual residence of the current monarchy. This is Drottningholm which is the official Queen’s residence. Located about 45 minutes by ferry from the centre of Stockholm and one of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, beautiful Drottningholm is also open to the public and includes an historical theatre and a lovely park.
Before breaking for lunch be sure to take a look at the Riddarholm Church located on the island of Riddarholmen and within close proximity to the palace. Dating from the 1200s, this church represents the only surviving example of Stockholm’s medieval monasteries and has been the burial site of all but one of the Swedish monarchs since the 1600s. Guided tours are possible here during the summer months.
Lunch in Stockholm
Whether it is morning coffee and pastry, light lunch, sundowner cocktails or serious evening feasting Stockholmers love to do things alfresco when the weather allows. As a result there are some incredibly lovely and seemingly endless choices of open-air lunch venues ranging from barge decks to tucked away secret gardens.
One such delight which requires nothing more than an easy stroll from the Gamla Stan after rounding off your morning activities is Loopen Marin. Serving both light lunches and full meals to satisfy appetites big and small – with fish and shellfish featuring prominently – this boat club has managed to bring a touch of the Caribbean to Scandinavia. The overhead bridge provides welcome shade on sunny days – as do the artificial coconut palms – while from the wooden decking you can watch watercraft coming and going and swans swimming by.
For something a little more refined but also conveniently situated within quick walking distance head to the Grand Hotel. This highly-regarded dining location has either a beautiful outside terrace or elegant verandah, both with views of the castle and the water. Although this is a Michelin-starred dining choice lunch times are not bookable which means its range of Mediterranean-influenced dishes or classic smorgasbords accompanied by the Grand Hotel-produced snaps can be enjoyed by casual day visitors too.
For those to whom variety of choice and extremely high-class cuisine are rather more important than exclusive surroundings Ringen provides something special and worthy of consideration. The whole offers a unique dining concept known as ‘teatern‘. Located in a Södermalm mall, the Ringen is in essence a food-court but one like no other and it isn’t simply its amphitheater-like design which makes it different. Sitting at the centre of the amphitheater are a cluster of nine restaurant kiosks run by top Swedish chefs and food designers. Each has been recognized by the Michelin star system and each has been specifically invited here to play their part in an exciting food experience. Choices include Latin flavors, seafood, Korean fare and even gourmet hot-dogs.
An Afternoon in Stockholm
Once refueled from lunch your afternoon Stockholm explorations can start with a boat journey. Hop on the ferry from the terminal at Slussen on the southern edge of the Gamla Stan for a short 12 minute ride to the beautiful island of Djurgården. Home to moose, fox, deer and rare bird-life, this 27 square kilometer lush green space is such an oasis of tranquility and natural splendor it is hard to remember you are actually in the heart of the city. Made up of three separate royal parks beloved by both locals and tourists, Djurgården’s loveliness is more than enough to keep the nature passionate happy simply exploring its wilderness trails, lakes, forests and streams. For those looking to burn off a little more energy you can hire a canoe, rent a bike or take a dip at one of the calm beaches.
Any refreshment you might need can be found by way of the cafés and restaurants dotted about. Besides its obvious allure Djurgårdenis also home to several of the city’s most iconic museums –the Vasa Museum, the open-air Skansen and ABBA The Museum. Each of these is very different but they do have one common denominator -all consistently receive rave reviews from their visitors. You can mix and match with a quick look at each of them or thoroughly explore whichever appeals most.
While many museums have a principal draw or exhibit, nowhere is this truer than at the Vasa Museum which is home to a massive battleship from the 17th century. So impressive is this incredible ship that the Vasa is Scandinavia’s most visited museum and just one glimpse will make it instantly understandable why.
Fitted out with a huge armament of cannons and howitzers intended to make the ship a formidable floating fortress and a force to be reckoned with for colonial conquests, the flagship Vasa set out on its maiden voyage in 1628. Watched by a huge crowd from shore, the Vasa keeled to one side and quickly sank within just 60 seconds of its launch.
Over the centuries the ship’s resting location was lost to memory but rediscovered in the 1950s and the Vasa was eventually raised to the surface in 1961. What you can see today in the Vasa Museum is nothing short of a living time capsule because despite the ship lying in a watery grave for more than 300 years it was incredibly well-preserved and almost everything you see is original. Along with the salvage of the actual ship itself, the recovery operation also brought to the surface thousands of centuries-old artifacts and the remains of several of the sailors who drowned in the original disaster.
Although the mighty Vasa complete with its exquisite carvings and detailed embellishments is of course the whole centre of the museum the many exhibits also take the visitor on a fascinating journey through such things as the salvage operation and what life was like on board ship in this era.
Skansen Open-Air Museum
Dating from the late 19th century Skansen is the world’s oldest example of an open-air museum. Little imagination is required here to step back in time because spread over 75 acres are exhibits which are actually complete houses, buildings and farmsteads, each intended to show visitors what Swedish life was like before the advent of the industrial revolution. While some of the exhibits are replicas the majority are the real thing – buildings taken from around the country and reassembled here.
Part of the whole is a complete 19th century town which is further brought to life with real-life representations of tanners, silversmiths, craftsmen and many other kinds of citizens and workers a typical Swedish town might have had during this period. All are in authentic period dress to further enhance the illusion of time travel. Watch silversmiths and shoemakers at work, visit the bakery or explore the manor house and timber church.
ABBA The Museum
Without question the country’s most famous export, the four-piece group Abba achieved initial global success during the 1970s and enjoyed a further revival several decades later when both the movie and stage musical Mamma Mia were released. While this small museum is an absolute must for any Abba fan it is also a fun place to visit for a wider audience. Exhibits include many original stage costumes with interactive experiences which include recording an Abba hit or participating in an Abba video.
While the three museums described here have been included to fit easily into your day itinerary there are in reality an incredible number of alternative offerings of this kind. Stockholm is home to more than 75 museums and you may choose to slot one of these into your schedule instead. On the menu are such things as the Nobel Museum, the art photography Fotografiska, the Moderna Museet with its collection of later art with pieces by Munch, Andy Warhol, Picasso, Dali and more and the unique Millesgården. This latter showcases the work of Swedish sculptor Carl Milles whose style was celebrated for combining design elements of ancient Greece and Rome along with mythological figures. His many international commissions often featured pieces raised high in the air. The Millesgården–worked on by Milles for over 50 years of his life – is a breathtakingly lovely outdoor sculpture park made up ornate terraces and stairways with fountains and sculpture pieces. The indoor gallery here is full of further art and antiques.
Getting Afloat -An Alternative Afternoon in Stockholm
Made up of islands as it is with the sea flowing into, around and in between, Stockholm’s archipelago means getting out on the water is for many an essential inclusion. With a variety of options it couldn’t be easier for the visitor to experience this city from a boat either in the form of a quick tour taking in the most iconic highlights or to explore its wonderful watery labyrinth in depth, passing under bridges both tiny and grand as you go. Trips range from less than 1 hour to whole day excursions which head further afield and also include hop on hop off options. This latter means should you arrive somewhere you feel merits further exploration you can disembark and then simply catch another boat when you have satisfied your curiosity. Bus and boat hop on hop off combos are also possible.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner in Stockholm
As evening starts to descend on Stockholm it is time to start thinking about pre-dinner drinks and if you enjoy a view you would be hard-pressed to find a better venue than Kaknästornet. Stockholm has several roof top bars or bars with a view but this 155 meter high TV tower is the city’s highest. Better still it is just a short stroll from Djurgården so, within minutes of rounding up your afternoon’s activities, you can be sat with cocktail or a glass of rosé in hand drinking in views of both lush greenery and cityscape.
For the connoisseur cocktail fan another pre-dinner head-in-the-clouds spot is the 14th floor Tak in Brunkebergstorg just north of Gamla Stan. Regularly featuring in lists such as ‘Stockholm’s best bars’, this large roof terrace offers uninterrupted 360° views and a cocktail menu designed by world champion cocktail mixer and bartender Charlotte Halsius. Ample-sized lounge chairs with bold color soft furnishings are dotted about to inject maximum comfort into the whole experience. The rest of the surroundings are tastefully minimalistic in true Nordic style with a multitude of plants weaving their way up and around the terrace.
If you would prefer to swap a dry-land high-rise view for a drink afloat head across the bridge from Djurgårdento arrive on Strandvägen. With a reputation as the city’s most glamorous street, this waterside stretch features several floating bars with sea views,one of which is Ångbåtsbryggan. On a sunny evening the outdoor seating here is the ideal place to be to watch the sun go down.
To make life easy you can just continue with dinner in any of the venues above as all have restaurants with good reputations. Otherwise you have a vast variety of quality venue possibilities including a helping of Michelin-starred choices. In more recent times Stockholm has established itself as a dining destination for both the discerning gourmet and all who simply enjoy innovative creations. Chic restaurants are not hard to find and between them offer just about everything possible. Included are flavors and menu choices Nordic – both classic and modern –French, Asian, Italian and Japanese with some surprisingly successful and adventurous fusions.
If you retrace your steps from earlier by return ferry from Djurgården to Slussen you will have arrived in the area of Stockholm with the greatest density of restaurants. Located waterside, Sodermalm’s dining venues are typically picturesque and if you want to sample some traditional Swedish fare including the classic dish of meatballs it won’t be difficult here.
One of this district’s most consistently raved about restaurants is Fotografiska on Stadsgardshamnen. Fotografiska is a well-respected art photography museum but its top-floor award-winning restaurant is every bit as much of a magnet for locals and tourists. Its location coupled with its enormous floor-to-ceiling windows ensure any craving for spectacular views are satisfied while its menu choices and culinary creations tend to work plenty of magic too. The unpretentious interior of exposed wood floor and tables give an overall air of rustic but the whole has been well-thought out and the result is both elegant and welcoming. The food-focus here is organic, locally-sourced and vegetable-based but with plenty of choice for non-vegetarians too.
At the opposite end of the atmospheric scale to Swedish minimalism there is Le Rouge in Gamla Stan. While the excellent food here is a Swedish-French fusion the opulent décor of this cellar restaurant is 100% Parisian, inspired by the decadence of the Moulin Rouge. Plush velvets, rich reds and golds, draped fabrics and intimate lighting make this a dining venue instantly infused with romance. While the beauty of its interior maybe sufficient reason to visit alone Le Rouge also gets full marks for international-standard cuisine and an extensive wine cellar while also having a solid reputation for its impeccable service.
An Evening in Stockholm
For the vast majority of Stockholm locals, an evening’s entertainment consists of nothing more than finding some waterside cafe or bar and passing a few hours watching the world go by with a favored drink in hand. However, if after your day of taking in the sights and dining at one of the capitals’ excellent restaurant choices you feel you have some energy to spare, there are options here too.
Ghost Walks and Historical Tours
Like most cities with a history spanning centuries, Stockholm’s story includes a multitude of dark legends, sinister tales and mysterious happenings. As a result there are several companies offering ghost tours with the shadowed alleyways, atmospheric cobbled streets and hidden corners of the historic Gamla Stan understandably featuring as a popular point of focus. Join up with an after-dark lantern-light tour for 1 to 2 hours of visiting the locations of medieval murders or exploring places where stories of ghosts, vampires and unsolved mysteries are all part of local folklore and legend.
While choices are plentiful there are some which consistently elicit rave reviews such as the Original Stockholm Ghost Walk and Historical Tour.
City Lights by Night
If you have followed some of the itinerary or dining venue choices listed here your day may have already gifted you some incredible high-rise views of Stockholm’s islands and waterways. However, after-dark city-scapes filled with spreading panoramas of sparkling lights offer something undeniably extra with regards to magical views. An incredibly popular vantage point with Stockholmers who want to show their visitors this spectacular sight is the observation deck of Katarinahissen which is a short walk from both of the restaurants suggested for evening dining. While the elevator here has been out of service for sometime the viewing platform is still accessible for anyone not averse to making the ascent by stairs.
A Historical Venue for Music Lovers
If you are a music fan head over to the entertainment complex of Berns which has been a consistent and popular feature of Stockholm’s after-dark scene for more than 150 years. Serving as concert hall, dance venue and hotel with a multitude of bars and restaurants – including those of the rooftop terrace kind – this music Mecca offers an incredibly diverse offering of genres. These range from classical to rave and include performances both intimate and grand-scale. If your tastes don’t run to all-encompassing it pays to pick your night wisely.
At Berns’ heart is its impressive grand hall-Stora Salongen – with a definite emphasis on the ‘grand’. Surrounded by extravagant balconies and with massive chandeliers descending from ornate high ceilings, little is required by way of imagination on entering this warm-hued and well-preserved chamber to feel you have stepped straight back in time to the 1860s.