Sweden’s 700-year old capital is one of the world’s most beautiful and lively cities. Built across fourteen islands, nearly a third of the city if parkland with plenty of gardens and parks. Stockholm has been described as “the city that floats on water” and “the Venice of the North,” the city was originally founded on a small island where the waters of Lake Malaren meet the Baltic Sea by Birger Carl, an earl of Sweden, in 1252 (according to the chronicle of Erik (Eriks Kronikan), most probably written between 1322 and 1332.
The beginnings of the city began on one of the outer islands, Helgeandsholmen, and as the city grew it expanded across various islands, abandoning them as the needs of the populace increased, finally settling into the area known as Gamla Stan. The first houses were simple constructions of wood but overcrowding led to numerous fires and soon stone materials became the preferred choice. But the city style remained unchanged and Stockholm grew up as a city of narrow streets and multi-storied buildings.
To get a sense of medieval Stockholm begin your visit in Gamla Stan, the island that represents cotemporary Stockholm’s oldest district. Stockholm’s Kungliga Slott, the Royal Palace, dominates this charming labyrinth of stone buildings and narrow streets. As Royal Palaces go this is a European youngster at only 250 years but has an amazing 600 rooms. At a tender age of twelve I watched an, even then, old movie about Napoleon’s abandoned first love, Desiree. That woman would eventually marry one of his generals, who would be adopted by the aging king of Sweden; and she would become Queen of Sweden. The story so caught my imagination that visiting this castle would be the highlight of my first trip to Stockholm. The rooms open to the public are opulent and reminiscent of the baroque style, complete with halls of mirrors and magnificent crystal chandeliers. The finest French craftsmen of the time were contracted for work and they took on local apprentices, allowing Swedish workers to learn their delicate crafts. Today the 18th century palace is used only for official functions. Drottingham Palace, the Royal Residence is north of city.
Opposite the Royal Palace, just below Norrbron, is where you will find the Museum of Medieval Stockholm, open daily from 11 am during the summer. This museum is particularly interesting to the visitor as the old town, Gamla Stan has many layers and this subterranean museum offers an interesting portal into the past with brick houses, sheds and a harbor area.
Another page from Stockholm’s past is brought to life at the Vasa Museum. In August 1628, the “unsinkable” Royal warship Vasa rolled over and sank on her maiden voyage in Stockholm harbor, more than 300 years later the ship would be found almost completely intact on the seabed. The Vasa was the most expensive and lavishly decorated naval vessel ever built by Sweden. The rescue of the Vasa and her restoration is a testament to marine archaeology. The Vasa remains a work in progress and is one of the best-preserved ships in the world from that period in history. Over the years I have returned to this museum and have been impressed by the careful progress being made on this ship and have delighted in the exhibits that now accompany the Vasa including a seven meter scale model that shows her in all her glory with sails set. Adjacent to the Vasa are the Sankt Erik, Sweden’s first icebreaker, built in 1915 and the lightship Finngrundet built in 1903.
If you are interested in traditional Swedish life and architecture, don’t miss Skansen, an open-air museum featuring a collection of 150 authentic Swedish houses and buildings. Both typical urban and country life are depicted. Artists and crafts people display their skills in appropriate settings. Completing the snapshot of life in various centuries is a small zoo with Swedish farm animals and wildlife and a terrarium. The museum is open daily until 5 pm.
Not everything in Gamla Stan is old. You will find contemporary clothing shops, coffee shops and delis and evening hot spots. Stockholm as vibrant today as in times past.