Stockholm, Sweden 72-Hour Vacation
Medieval to Modern
by Jen Karetnick and Alain Gayot
When Stockholm launched a PR campaign in 2005 branding itself the "Capital of Scandinavia," it lead to a shouting match with Copenhagen, the Danish capital. Whichever your ultimate preference, there is much to be said for Stockholm's claim—its Viking heritage, the region's largest stock market, a 24,000-island archipelago and some of the most gorgeous city-dwellers on the planet. Maybe that last observation has to do with the fact that only 14 percent of the population smokes, which is the lowest figure in the European Union.
The city sits on the strategic bottleneck between freshwater Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea on Sweden's eastern coast. It is arguably northern Europe's most notably intact medieval metropolis and boasts architecture dating from the 13th century. But its Viking Age legacy has led to the perpetuation of certain stereotypes—the image of helmeted warriors swilling spirits from their enemies' skulls with their platinum-blond mates, for one.
this thriving Nordic city is the capital of a country
whose images were carefully marketed to position
it as a historical destination, urban Stockholm—broadly
defined—is more about today than yesterday.
Its 795,000 residents have certainly modernized
the warrior-prince mold. They're just as likely
to be found in candle-lit coffeehouses sipping hot
chocolate as they are to hang out in nightclubs
a visit to Skansen, an open-air
museum that replicates traditional village life,
you'll discover that the first Swedes were
a modest people of domestic interests and tame temperaments—not
the pillagers portrayed in American history books,
but fishermen and farmers. At recovered archaeological
sites such as Sigtuna, the country's
first town (established in 980 A.D.) and an easy
day trip from Stockholm, the academics on hand will
tell you that the Vikings didn't even wear
horns on their helmets.
Stockholmers are a hospitable bunch, as comfortable
with visitors as they are with traveling themselves.
Because Swedes learn English in school at an early
and subtitle American sitcoms rather than dub them,
they share a universal language. This keen
awareness of the world at large invests its people
with a liberal ease with just about anyone who crosses
might find this fourteen-island, causeway-connected
city difficult to classify. Its diversity is reflected
in its nicknames: "the Gateway to the Baltic,"
"the Venice of Scandinavia," "the
Queen of Sweden" and "the City for All
Senses," not to mention the battle with Copenhagen over the title "Capital of Scandinavia." There's a fascinating juxtaposition
at work here, present in
Viking long ships with
a dragon-headed prow anchored beside contemporary
cruise liners in the terminals lining
Stadsgårdskajen and Skeppsbron. Stockholm's
charm lies in that the Middle Ages and the post-modern,
the familiar and the foreign, exist as one.
Hotel Stockholm from
across the harbor
of the city's hotels and accommodations reflect
a similar bridging of old and new worlds. In quaint Gamla Stan, or Old Town, you can
stay in five-star charmers such as the First
Hotel Reisen, replete with antique furniture,
17th-century brick walls and
access. In the
larger, flawlessly elegant Grand Hotel Stockholm,
opened in 1874, you can book a signature set of
individually decorated rooms such as the Nobel Suite.
Both properties are ideal for travelers who want
to be centrally located in terms of tourist attractions
and shopping areas.
the other hand, the Nordic Light Hotel and the Nordic Sea Hotel are prime examples of forward-thinking
Swedish styling. The first of these "design
hotels" uses ever-changing lighting patterns
throughout common areas and private rooms to mimic
the aurora borealis, while the latter reflects the
maritime influence that surrounds the city. The Nordic Sea Hotel also boasts the Absolut Icebar Stockholm, a permanent attraction
where everything from the bar to chairs to glasses
are hewn from solid ice.
easy reach of major sites, the hotels are also particularly
suitable for the business traveler, as they have
direct access to public transportation: the Arlanda
Express (which also takes you to and from the airport),
the Central Station and the City Terminal. For the
international crowd, however, we recommend Hotel
Diplomat, a cosmopolitan downtowner whose T/BAR is an excellent restaurant serving up contemporary
Swedish fare and a jet-set vibe.
Last but not least, the talk of the town at the moment is the massive Clarion Hotel Sign, also as central as can be and with 558 rooms, making it Stockholm's largest hotel. Locals also come for New York celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson's Aquavit restaurant—his first in his native Sweden.
First things first: Buy a 24-, 48- or 72-hour Stockholmskortet, a.k.a. The Stockholm Card, at any of the official, inter-connected Tourist Offices (Hotellcentralen, Stockholm Visitors Board, Stockholm Tourist Centre and Sverigeshopen/Sweden Shop). You can also order online at www.stockholmtown.com. The card allows you entrée to more than 75 museums and attractions. It also provides complimentary boat sightseeing and travel on both the subway and the above-ground public transportation system, making it easy to hop around the city and accomplish many different tourism goals in a short time. Also remember that even though Sweden has been a member of the European Union since 1995, it still uses its kronor as currency.
of the best places to acquire an understanding of Stockholm's
past is in Gamla Stan, or Old Town.
Gamla Stan's building foundations—look for
runes carved on cornerstones—and street designs
reflect its medieval roots. Two main pathways, Österlånggatan
and Västerlånggatan, are crisscrossed by
alleyways that run perpendicular from the water to the Stortorget (Big Square). The alleys
themselves range from a width of only three feet to
an expanse large enough to accommodate an entire regiment
of soldiers. Consequently, driving here can be tricky—most
vehicles you'll see are taxis, discharging tourists.
As with the rest of the islets, however, Gamla Stan
is walkable, if at times steep.
your hotel hasn't served up a hearty breakfast,
stop at Café Skeppet on Österlånggatan
for traditional pancakes. Or continue to the Stortorget
and, if the weather is compliant, sit outside at Kaffekoppen
or Chokladkoppen for delicious cinnamon buns and stone
bowls filled to the brim with coffee or hot chocolate.
These coffeehouses, situated in renovated 400-year-old
buildings next door to each other, each possess an entirely
different and unique character, as is true of the hundreds
of coffeehouses you'll find all over the city.
The red-painted Kaffekoppen, which
draws an international crowd, is rumored to be haunted
by ghosts that vary from a murdered child to victims
Bloodbath. The cheerful, gay-friendly Chokladkoppen caters more to locals.
Should you be visiting in winter, you can count on both
places being cozy, warm and candlelit.
of the Royal Guard
to let your explorations begin! Start by heading northeast
from Stortorget to the Kungliga Slottet,
or the Stockholm Royal Palace. Though
the royal family doesn't live here, this is the
monarchy's official residence. Inside the 600-room
palace, which dates back to the 13th century, you can
walk through Gustav III's Museum of Antiquities,
the Royal Armoury, the Royal Chapel and the Treasury,
where the crowns, swords and scepters of kings and queens
are on display. The 45-minute guided tours include a
visit to the lavishly decorated Royal Apartments. You
might want to time your visit to the Changing
of the Royal Guard, which has been posted at
the Palace since 1523. Today, units from all over Sweden
take turns doing the honors. During the summer months,
a parade accompanied by a military band is incorporated
into the ceremony (view the schedule online). And unlike
the stoic, statue-like guards in Britain, the Swedish
soldiers will actually talk to you.
Palace, the royal family's private residence,
is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that contains the famed
18th century Chinese Pavilion and Court Theater. But
be warned that at this point your day could be completed.
While the website for the royal sites claims you could
"take a day-trip through Swedish history and visit
ten royal palaces…spanning four centuries,"
we don't recommend doing them all at once. When
a single palace alone contains more than five separate
museums, we think such outings are like multi-vitamins—one
a day is sufficient.
Hop on a boat from Strömma Kanalbolaget, a turn-of-the-last-century ferry that cruises the Stockholm Skärgård, or archipelago, via the nearby waterfront.
Alternatively, you can simply take a relaxing cruise
of the archipelago itself, which is stunningly beautiful.
Comprising approximately 24,000-32,000 islands of all
shapes and sizes, the archipelago's land masses
and skurusunds (sounds) were formed roughly 200 million
years ago. Each group of islets is basically named according
to its purpose—the Feather Islands are bird sanctuaries,
the Brick Islands are dubbed for their buildings, and
the Friday or Saturday Islands are commuters'
Edens. In fact, the Skärgård is where most
Stockholmers keep their summer homes or, at the very
least, pitch a tent for a camping vacation under the
eighteen-hour sun—thanks to the government's
"right of common access" laws, public land
belongs to the people 24/7.
or Stockholm Archipelago
lunch or dinner right on the boats with meals that range
from delicious homemade bay shrimp salad and Swedish
meatball sandwiches to bistro-worthy dishes such as
chicken breast roasted with Provençal herbs,
tomato coulis and pommes chateaux. If a quick meal is
more your style, board the Östanå; for finer
repasts check out the Cinderella, which is more of a
luxury liner than a teak ferry charmer. (Lunch and dinner
cruises run two to three hours in length.)
you'd rather stay on land in the afternoon, wander
back to Gamla Stan for a traditional Swedish luncheon
of elk stew with lingonberries in the Magnus
located in a former 18th-century stable. It's easy to
wile away the afternoon, and burn some calories, with
shopping in this hilly district. Antique shops filled
with Dala horses are crammed in among boutiques such
as Knits, selling frothy woolens from the Netherlands'
hottest up-and-coming designers. In between, you can
buy gorgeous Orrefors, Kosta Boda and
art glass at Nordiska Kristall, and
hand-wrought crafts from aspiring artists at Handkraft
Swea. You'll find innovative jewelry at Castor
Konsthantverk, a trés cool co-op representing
the Swedish Handicrafts Guild. Coinciding with a huge
baby boom, which these days has more strollers than cars
on the streets, is an abundance of upscale children's
clothing and toy shops. And don't forget to pop
into the Sweden Bookshop, where many
native authors and subjects are available in translation—in
fact, you'll find more than 3,000 titles in 47
languages on the shelves.
is also easily accomplished in Old Town, unless you
have problems making up your mind. For both traditional
and contemporary gastronomy, descend to the cellars
of Den Gyldene Freden. At this classic
venue and artists' hangout, which has been a tavern,
hotel and restaurant since the 18th century, try the
loin of reindeer with parsnip purée. For modern
Scandinavian fare, dine at Pontus by the Sea
or at Mårten Trotzig's celebrated establishment.
For a complete change of pace, arrange to have drinks
Bar and dinner in Restaurant
Twentyone at Casino Cosmopol.
Though you can get away in Old Town with funky attire,
be aware that at the finer spots "business casual"
is a term that's taken seriously.
to Day 2
* Harbor, Grand Hotel, Absolut Ice Bar, Drottningholm
Palace and Stortorget photos by AlphaMedia.
Scandinavia map by James Riswick.
Other photos courtesy of Stockholm
Visitor's Board. Changing of the Guard
photo by Alexander Dokukin and Bottom Frozen Harbor
photos by Richard Ryan, Skärgård photo by