Stockholm: Cobblestones and Waterways

I’M DRENCHED FROM WALKING IN THE DRIZZLE through the cobblestone paths of Gamla Stan’s narrow alleys. My aching feet are chiding me for opting to walk around in this soggy weather for three hours instead of resting in the hostel. But I feel very much fulfilled nonetheless, seeing the city radiate such charm even in the desaturated colors of the gloomy weather.

Yanyan and I arrived in Stockholm just after sunrise after a seven-hour bus trip from Oslo, and since the hostel’s check-in isn’t until noon, we basically have the rest of the morning as our “free time.” After breakfast in a convenience store and a short nap in the hostel lobby, Yanyan stayed behind and paid for an early check-in to sleep and make up for last night’s lack of proper shuteye. I, meanwhile, went out to gain a headstart in exploring the city.

Our hostel is located a kilometer west from the City Hall, which itself is located about a kilometer from Gamla Stan, the Old Town. This is where I start, the part of Stockholm that usually serves as a first stop for tourists, with its cobbled streets and narrow alleyways providing a charmingly medieval introduction to this photogenic city.

The Sergels Torg is Stockholm’s central-most public square and serves as a venue for various activities year-round.
Lion statues guard the Kungliga Slott (Royal Palace) grounds. The palace anchors the main sights in Gamla Stan.
Decorative archways line the bridge to Helgeandsholmen, a small island that is part of Stockholm’s old town.

STOCKHOLM IS UNDOUBTEDLY ONE OF SCANDINAVIA’S MOST CHIC CITIES. But it wasn’t always this way. The city was established in 1255 in what is now Gamla Stan to secure Sigtuna from maritime attacks. In time it grew to be one of Europe’s major cities. However, in the 19th century, when much of Europe started to industrialize, Stockholm was still a mostly rural town filled with crowded slums and seedy areas.  It wasn’t until World War II when modernization made its way here.

Sweden’s decision to stay neutral during the war spared its cities, and this paved the way for various programs that encouraged people to live and work here. Stockholm has since then evolved into the elegant capital it is today, populated by residents who are as cosmopolitan and as fashionable as the city they call home.

The Gamla Stan is the city’s heart and unsurprisingly grew to be the city’s working hub.  The tangled network of streets in the main island of Staden features buildings oozing with character. Strolling along the cobbled paths and seeing the tall, leaning buildings squeezed against each other feels like a storybook setting come to life.

The most notable of these buildings is the Kungliga Slottet – the Royal Palace – which is one of the largest palaces in the world. The building has 600 rooms, many of which are reception rooms, while others are museums. The changing of the guard takes place regularly in the morning and in the afternoon.

My walk climaxes in Stortorget, a square with a macabre past as this was where the “Stockholm Bloodbath” occurred. In November 1520, Danish King Christian II killed 82 Swedish nobles who were accused of heresy. During this time, Sweden was part of the Kalmar Union that also included Norway and Denmark. The murder fueled resentment among Swedes that eventually led to the country’s secession from the union.

There’s no evidence of that violence nowadays, as the Stortorget is surrounded by colorful buildings and the Nobel Museum. The most action that occurs these days are the droves of tourists all wanting to take perfectly framed pictures of the site, and the vendors in the shops and restaurants.

The Vasamuseet houses the Vasa, a 17th century warship that sunk minutes into its maiden voyage due to engineering miscalculations.
The open-air museum of Skansen features reconstructed traditional houses from around Sweden.
The Gröna Lund theme park is the oldest (founded in 1883) in Sweden.

STOCKHOLM’S LOCATION ALSO PLAYS A PART IN ITS BEAUTY. Built on a network of more than a dozen islands, about two thirds of the area within the city limits is either water or parks and forests. This makes the city one of the most relaxed places in Europe – perhaps even the world – in which to spend time.

This is the focus of our next two days. Day two in particular is spent in Djurgården, a forested island east of Gamla Stan that contains Stockholm’s largest concentration of museums. It will take a couple of days to explore everything, so Yanyan and I focus on two sites – the Vasamuseet and Skansen.

Widely considered one of Sweden’s top museums, the Vasamuseet houses the Vasa, the 17th century warship that sunk just 20 minutes into its maiden voyage. The ill-fated ship had a hull that was too narrow and rigging that was too heavy at the top. A 25-minute documentary is shown in the museum’s theater detailing what went wrong and the painstaking project to salvage the wreck and preserve it 300 years later.

Meanwhile, the Skansen is an open-air museum dubbed as “Sweden in miniature.” The vast compound is dotted with reconstructed traditional buildings like windmills, farm houses and manors, as well as a zoo that features Nordic animals like reindeer, elk, bears, and wolves. Craftspeople engage in various activities like traditional handicrafts and glass-blowing in some of the houses, and visitors can join in any of them. It takes at least a few hours to get around the park, although a full day would perhaps be the minimum to do the place justice.

The Romanesque revival architectural style of the Stockholm City Hall and its location by the water make it one of the most distinctive structures in the city.
Exploring Stockholm by boat provides a different perspective of the city.
The wooden cottages and idyllic woodlands are iconic images of the Stockholm Archipelago.

ON OUR LAST FULL DAY IN STOCKHOLM, Yanyan and I take a break from walking and move to the water. In the morning, we join a boat tour that takes us through the city’s canals, providing a different perspective to sights like the Gamla Stan, the City Hall, and the Gröna Lund theme park.

In the afternoon, we board a ferry that plies the waters to the outer limits of the city, just before the Stockholm Archipelago. Composed of around 30,000 pretty islands of varying sizes, the archipelago is where mainland Sweden gradually dissolves into the Baltic Sea.  It’s a popular day trip for locals and tourists, both due to its accessibility and the idyllic setting of the islands.

In the evening, back in the city center, Yanyan and I find ourselves having dinner in Max, a local burger chain. We had Swedish meatballs and mashed potato the night before, and tonight we’re in the mood for something that’s more familiar to our taste buds. This is easy to find in Sweden, which while not as popular a destination, has a number of exports that has grown to become household names – Ikea, ABBA, Spotify, and Volvo, to name a few. It maybe for this reason that Stockholm is a place that’s comfortingly familiar and one that we feel hard to leave.

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