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Stockholm, Sweden 72-Hour Vacation

Scintillating Stockholm
From Medieval to Modern
by Jen Karetnick and Alain Gayot


Stockholm Harbor
Majestic Stockholm Harbor

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.

While 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 downing schnapps.

Map of Stockholm, Sweden and Scandinavia

With 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.

Today's Stockholmers are a hospitable bunch, as comfortable with visitors as they are with traveling themselves. Because Swedes learn English in school at an early age, 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 their path.

Tourists 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 tourist-geared 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.

Grand Hotel Stockholm from across the harbor
Grand Hotel Stockholm from
across the harbor

Many 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 WIFI 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.

On 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.

The Absolut Icebar Stockholm at Nordic Sea Hotel, where everything is made out of ice.
Absolut Icebar Stockholm

Within 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.

DAY 1

The quirky, colorful buildings of Stortorget or Big Square in Gamla Stan
Stortorget

One 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.

If 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 of the Stockholm 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.

Changing of the Royal Guard at Kungliga Slottet
Changing of the Royal Guard

Time 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.

Drottningholm Palace, home of the Swedish royal family
Drottningholm Palace

Drottningholm 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.

Skargard or Stockholm Archipelago includes more than 30,000 islands
Skärgård or Stockholm Archipelago

Enjoy 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.)

If 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 Ladulås restaurant, 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 Lisa Larson 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.

Dinner 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 in the Jackpot 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.

Continue to Day 2

MORE STOCKHOLM INFORMATION

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* 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 Christer Lundin.
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