Lars arrived wearing camel-coloured trousers, a collared shirt with a sweater oh-so-casually knotted around his neck and carrying a leather satchel. He introduced himself with a smile and apologised for his imperfect English in perfect English.
I couldn’t have conjured up a more Swedish guide if I’d tried! Except maybe if it as Alexander Skarsgard himself (who incidentally, I had been in the same room with the night before and not noticed #facepalm).
Welcome to Sweden.
It was a cool and cloudy day at the height of summer in Stockholm, in contrast to the sunny warm days I would experience later. Summer might be high season for tourists, but for Stockholmers, it’s a chance to get out of the city.
It was only a few weeks after the Midsummer, which is bigger in Sweden than Christmas, so many people were probably still away. It’s a time of year when the Swedes abandon their city homes for islands and the countryside to eat herring with boiled potatoes and newly picked strawberries. And drink schnapps. Don’t forget the schnapps. Honestly, it sounds cliche, but I’m assured it’s the truth!
I had been to Stockholm once before but I too took advantage of the good weather to venture out into the archipelago, leaving the city unexplored behind me. As a consequence, I didn’t really know much about Stockholm and Sweden, but that was about to change with our “Introduction to Stockholm” tour. Turns out you can learn a lot in a few hours, and now this guide to Stockholm should help you pick out some things to add to your Stockholm itinerary, especially if you’re a first-time visitor!
Stockholm City: The Facts
Let’s start with the facts so that when you’re making your itinerary for Stockholm you understand a bit more about the layout of the city and the history of it.
Stockholm is built on 14 different islands, between the river and the sea. In total there are actually around 30,000 islands. Stockholm is often referred to as the Venice of the north, with an especially crucial difference; the land around Stockholm is still rising, even higher than the rate of global warming. Sweden used to be covered in ice and the land is still bouncing back from the weight of the glaciers receding. If you’re looking to buy coastal land then Sweden could be the place, because your land might actually increase!
Since Stockholm is surrounded by so much water, you’ll find people fishing off different bridges in the middle of the city. The government even restocks the water with more fish every year to help keep the population up. In general, Stockholm feels like a city with the benefits of the great outdoors, especially at the height of summer. There are so many parks that you don’t feel a lack of green space, and people seem to play petanque on any surface they can.
Stockholmers care about their environment too. Back in 2008, Stockholm was the first green capital of Europe, with two cities now named every year.
Below I’ve listed all the best things to do in Stockholm that you could easily fit into a Stockholm 2 day itinerary at a push, or 3 if you want to spend more time in some places.
Gamla Stan: Stockholm’s old town
The old town of Stockholm is called Gamla Stan, and it began as the gateway to Sweden. The Baltic Sea flows on one side and a lake on the other, at different water levels. Stockholm began when a fortress was built on the island to charge taxes to merchants and protect Sweden and was later replaced with the Royal Palace. Stockholm has officially been a city since 1252, because of a dated letter sent from the fortress.
Today the old town of Gamla Stan is a tourist hub. The instagram-worthy architecture consists of colourful building facades and pretty cobbled lanes. You can find an abundance of souvenir and ice cream shops, plus plenty of good places to eat are continually popping up as people cry out for more authentic food on their travels.
The buildings around the train station to the north of Gamla Stan, on the mainland, used to be similar, but after WWII they decided to tear them down and rebuild with the rest of Europe even though Sweden wasn’t part of the war. That one had me a little puzzled, the old town is so much prettier!
The Royal Palace
In Gamla Stan you can find the Royal Palace. The original palace was called the three crowns, which is the symbol of Sweden. Renovations had been started on the old Palace when it was mysteriously burnt down, some say by the architect of the new Palace whose plans were ready just a little too quickly and conveniently. The current Royal Palace was under construction from 1697 in the baroque style, although by the time it was finished this was no longer fashionable. Oops.
The Palace has 608 rooms, boasting one more than Buckingham Palace, although you could count over 1000 if you included the small rooms for workers.
The changing of the guard takes place outside the Royal Palace at 12.15pm every day except Sundays when it’s at 1.15pm, and the weekend ceremonies are grander than during the week.
Current Royal Family
The Swedish Royal Family are rather popular, mostly thanks to the younger generation being pretty cool. The current King and Queen have 3 children who have all married commoners, just like their father did. They are actually descended from the field master of Napoleon, who changed his name when he was adopted to become the next King. It’s pretty hard to keep track of the Swedish Kings since they’re all called Karl or Gustav! Although only men were allowed to become the ruler, in 1981 it was changed to include women.
Djurgården: The Royal Hunting Ground
The Royal Hunting Ground, or in Swedish Djurgården is the most visited island in Stockholm. It’s named so because once upon a time the royal family and their friends actually hunted wild animals they had put there. You can still see the remnants on the blue gates that were part of a whole fence around the island just over the bridge to the right.
Now Djurgården is an eco-park, containing every tree species that grow in Sweden, except for one from the far north that refuses to grow in Stockholm’s climate. The people of the city come here to run and relax, and the park’s upkeep is down to taxes paid to the King and Queen by the Swedish people, that then pay for these kind of spaces and the 11 royal palaces, so they might as well use it!
The other thing about this island is that it contains many of the museums and attractions you’ll want to see in Stockholm, including a new Viking Museum!
Nordic Museum and Skansen: The Open Air Museum
Artur Hazels decided that not enough had been down to preserve Scandinavian culture, and so began to collect things from all of the Scandinavian countries which are the basis of the collection in the Nordic Museum. He was also responsible for first open-air museum, Skansen, which is located nearby and has log houses and teepees brought down from the north of Sweden.
If you’re in Stockholm in the summer and fancy a really Swedish experience then at Skansen every Tuesday there is a singalong that packs out. Older people, in particular, come early in the day to wait in line and make a party of it and their families join them later, but young people go too. It’s even broadcast on national TV with the lyrics on the screen so you can singalong from home!
The Vasa Museum is one of the most visited in the world with 14 million visitors per year, and once you’ve been it’s not hard to see why. I skipped over it on my last trip, thinking I’d seen Viking ships in Norway and what’s so cool about some ship they brought out of the ocean. I was SO wrong.
The Vasa ship is not a Viking ship, but a 17th-century warship, the only kind like it in existence today that is so intact. The Vasa ship is 98% original and was the largest and most expensive ship built in its time. Sweden was a huge power during that time, ruling over most of the Baltic states including Finland and Norway and they were fighting against the Catholics on the continent, which is why it was built in the first place. It only took 2.5 years, at a time when there was no such thing as plans and blueprints.
On the 10th August 1628, the Vasa set out on its maiden voyage. It made it one mile across the harbour before it sank…
So what went wrong?
The ship was built to be grand, but heavy. It had so many statues and was painted red with real gold gilding. Instead of the usual one row of canon holes, there were two with 64 canons. Two months before the fateful maiden voyage the admiral came to check the ship and was worried it was top heavy. He even had the men running back and forth across the deck but told them to stop as the ship listed from side to side. Nothing was changed.
The ship sailed on a Sunday, which meant everyone was sober having been to church that morning and to begin with it only had sailors and their families onboard, as the military were to embark at the first stop on another island. This meant there were lower numbers of people onboard than there could have been. It sailed with all the portholes open, despite the risk, and 30 people died when the breeze caused the ship to tilt and water poured into the opened portholes.
For 333 years the Vasa was 32 metres below the water level until it was raised in a monumental effort in 1961, to then be sprayed with water 24 hours a day for 17 years to stop the wood drying out and cracking. The Vasa Museum was actually built around where the ship was dry docked, not far from where it had sunk.
The Vasa Ship managed to stay so well preserved because the water in Stockholm is cold and a mixture of fresh and saltwater it lacks the presence of a wood eating worm which would normally destroy the remains of such a ship. The preservation might also have been helped along by the habit of the times in emptying sewage into the nearest waterway. Ew. So well preserved was the Vasa that blocks of butter and material including clothing were all found with it. They have models of what they would have looked like in the lowest level of the Vasa Museum.
ABBA: The Museum
When I think of Sweden I think two things, IKEA and ABBA. I didn’t make the pilgrimage to IKEA in Sweden, but I did go to the ABBA Museum! It’s a really fun interactive museum, although more fun for those who like ABBA, but still interesting if you don’t. ABBA: The Museum isn’t just about the group, but also showcases exhibits about Eurovision and other things Swedish music related, which if you didn’t know, is a lot!
Gröna Lund Amusement Park
Just to make the island of Djurgården even more random, there’s an amusement park too! Its construction began in the 1880s and it hasn’t expanded much since it’s on such a small island.
One thing Lars did tell us about that I really wish I’d had the chance to check out was that there is a Greek tavern restaurant within the park that is modelled to be like the Mama Mia movie, where the waiters and waitresses sing the songs and you get to have lots of fun being stupid. Sounds like me!
Just near Djurgården you can find the “diplomatic city” with grand brick buildings from the 1910s and 20s that now house a host of embassies. There’s even a church from England there, moved to the site brick by brick in 1913.
Stockholm is surrounded by water, and I’d highly recommend getting out on it while you’re there. The first time I went to Stockholm I really only visited the archipelago! This time I went on a boat tour around the whole archipelago, and basically spent the whole time being jealous of the people living in their little summer houses.
This street along the waterfront was once a dirt road where the fishermen lived, before it was turned into the beautiful (and very prestigious) boulevard it is today in time for Stockholm’s World Fair in 1897. People had to travel down here to visit Djurgården for the exhibition and it couldn’t be dirty!
The street is home to the Grand Hotel, which has two Michelin star restaurants and a champagne bar (yes please!). This is where the Nobel Laureates are put up while they’re in town and I wish I could afford to stay.
Near here you can find the Royal Dramatic Theatre where Ingrid Bergman directed shows and the attached theatre school that Greta Garbo attended. Outside on the left-hand side is the statue of a woman whose belly had turned gold from all the people who place their hands on it to warm them. Hot water is run through the statue, so if it’s a chilly day you have somewhere to warm your hands!
If you’re looking for somewhere cool to shop and eat then Södermalm is it. Södermalm is the largest island in Stockholm and the most populated. It used to be the worker’s island but now it’s like the Brooklyn of Stockholm, where it’s thriving art and entrepreneurial scene means it’s becoming more and more expensive to live. In March 2016 it was even named one of the coolest neighbourhoods in the world!
Södermalm is divided by a road in the middle, and the separate sides are called Sofo and Nofo. Head to Sofo for the coolest shops and quirkiest places to eat.
In Nofo you should take a walk up the stairs near Slussen metro station, to Katarinahissen. It’s the perfect place to watch the sunset, and you can actually just walk straight through the bar and restaurant to the viewing point, although if you can spare the cash for a drink it’s a lovely spot!
Food in Stockholm
Speaking of food, the first time I was in Stockholm I could really only afford to survive on hotdogs from street stands and kanelbulle (cinnamon rolls) from the bakeries. Both of which are delicious and budget-friendly! But this time I decided to branch out a little and actually eat in some restaurants…
One of the best things about Stockholm and Sweden, in general, is the abundance of seafood. Salmon features on many menus as well as herring. I had some delicious fish that is similar to cod in a meal of the day at Urban Deli, located in Södermalm. The price was really great for Stockholm standards and it was so good!
There are a couple of food halls as well. The most well-known is Östermalms Saluhall, but unfortunately, this was under renovation while I was there so I couldn’t check it out. In Medborgarplatsen in Södermalm there is another food hall which has quite cheap eating options. It just depends on where you’re staying if you want to venture there!
You could also consider taking a Stockholm food tour to learn a lot more and discover great places to go back to.
Fika: Swedish morning and afternoon tea
As mutual lovers of coffee and cake, me and Sweden are like *this*. The Swedes even invented a word to describe the act of stopping for coffee and cake, Fika. The standard time is at 11 am then 3 pm, and is traditionally with 7 small different cookies. Now you can be a bit more flexible with your Fika and stop when you can, and it can really be any kind of sweet treat and coffee.
For somewhere with a point of difference, Grillska Huset in the main square of Gamla Stan is run by the city mission and all proceeds go to the homeless.
City Hall Stockholm
This is where the Nobel Banquet is held, with a golden hall for the dancing. Made of actual gold. It was built in 1923 but it looks older, and going up the tower gives a panoramic view of Stockholm.
In the new part of town, you can find the Royal Dramatic Theatre where Ingrid Bergman directed shows and the attached theatre school that Greta Garbo attended. Outside on the left-hand side is the statue of a woman whose belly had turned gold from all the people who place their hands on it to warm them. Hot water is run through the statue, so if it’s a chilly day you have somewhere to warm your hands!
Nightlife in Stockholm
There’s no shortage of places in Stockholm to go for a night out. Since drinks can be expensive if you want a bigger one do as the Swedes do and have some at home first. Otherwise be prepared to take a hit to your wallet!
The first time I went to Stockholm I discovered Trädgården. Sadly I didn’t make it back, but it’s meant to be as good as ever! Located under an overbridge with Mario Kart screened onto it, and built out of empty containers with outdoor areas for table tennis and pétanque, Trädgården is definitely one of the coolest bars I’ve ever been to.
You can also check out the Keyflow App to get on lists for clubs around the city. We went to Soap Bar which was pretty cool, and it lists places to give you an idea of where to go too.
Where to stay in Stockholm
I stayed in the Old Town because it meant when I got up early I could have the streets a little to myself before the crowds came later in the day! It was also fairly central for me to travel to the TBEX conference I was attending, plus all the events around the city. We booked Castle House Inn which is kind of like a budget hotel. The rooms and shared bathrooms and really clean and nice and it made for a good stay. I also spent a night at the Generator Hostel and got a good rate through Booking.com (it always pays to check multiple places!). It’s brand new and hopefully will build a little more atmosphere as time goes on.
How to get around Stockholm
I did a lot of walking! But then I always do and long distances don’t put me off. If they do for you then check out the metro or bicycle rental.
The Metro is really easy to use, and you can get a map to help you out. The best thing to do is buy the unlimited 24 or 72-hour cards from the kiosks in the stations or from some corner shops as well.
You can rent bicycles around the city that even commuters use. It’s easy to log them in and out at different destinations.
If you plan on going to a lot of attractions then it might be worth looking at the Stockholm Pass. It gives you entry to over 60 attractions, including all the main museums mentioned above, plus bus and boat tours. You can decide how much time you need, from 24-120 hours, and have it sent out before you even get to Stockholm so you can hit the ground ready to go.
Other Stockholm tours
There’s a ton of tour options in Stockholm. Visit Sweden run a Millenium Tour related to the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books and a Stockholm Metro Art Tour to take you through the artwork displayed freely in the metro stations, although you could check this out at your own pace too. There’s also a Rooftop Tour where you walk along old chimney sweeper tracks 43 metres above the old town that sounds awesome.
I could have written FAR more in this already super long itinerary for Stockholm, but I hope it helps with a bit of history and things to do in Stockholm! You can check out this awesome shortcut travel guide of Stockholm and save it for easy access info on the go.
Have you been to Stockholm? What was your favourite thing?
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Disclaimer: I took the Introduction to Stockholm Tour as part of a pre-TBEX event provided by Visit Sweden. This post also contains affiliate links that help me out at no cost to you. As always, all opinions are my own!