“It is not a city at all. It is ridiculous to think of itself as a city. It is simply a rather large village, set in the middle of some forest and some lakes. You wonder what it thinks it is doing there, looking so important.”
Without a shadow of a doubt, Stockholm is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Built on no fewer than fourteen islands, where the fresh water of Lake Mälaren meets the brackish Baltic Sea, clean air and open space are in plentiful supply here. One-third of the area within the city limits is made up of water, while another third comprises parks and woodlands. As a result, the capital is one of Europe’s saner cities and a delightful place in which to spend time.
Broad boulevards lined with elegant buildings are reflected in the deep blue water, and rows of painted wooden houseboats bob gently alongside the cobbled waterfront. Yet Stockholm is also a hi-tech metropolis, with futuristic skyscrapers and a bustling commercial heart.
For most visitors, the first stop is the Old Town, Gamla Stan, a medieval jumble of cobbled streets and narrow alleyways huddled together on a triangular-shaped island. Today the area is an atmospheric mixture of buildings surrounded on all sides by a latticework of medieval lanes and alleyways. Close by is the tiny island of Skeppsholmen; conveniently, the island is also the site of the two most central youth hostels. To the north of the Old Town, the district of Norrmalm swaps tradition for a thoroughly contemporary feel: this is downtown Stockholm where you’ll find shopping malls, huge department stores and conspicuous, showy wealth. Central Station and the lively central park, Kungsträdgården, are located here too. Most of Stockholm’s museums and galleries are spread across this area and two others: to the east, the more residential Östermalm, with its mix of grand avenues and smart houses; and to the southeast, the green park island of Djurgården. Here the extraordinary seventeenth-century warship, Vasa, rescued and preserved after sinking in Stockholm harbour, and Skansen, the oldest and best of Europe’s open-air museums, both receive loud and deserved acclaim. The island of Södermalm was traditionally the working-class area of Stockholm, whose grids of streets lined with lofty stone buildings create an altogether more homely ambience than the grand and formal buildings of the city centre. It’s here, in a fashionable area known as SoFo (south of Folkungagatan) that you’ll find some of the city’s most enjoyable bars and restaurants. Crossing the narrow neighbouring island of Långholmen, known for its popular beaches, you’ll reach Kungsholmen, an island that’s fast becoming a rival to its southern neighbour for trendy restaurants and drinking establishments.
Swedish stateman Birger Jarl founded Stockholm in 1255 in an attempt to secure the burgeoning city of Sigtuna from maritime attack. However, it was vibrant trade with other towns of the Hanseatic League, such as Hamburg, that helped give Stockholm, rather than Sigtuna, its prominent position within the Swedish realm during the fourteen and fifteenth centuries. Following the breakup of the Kalmar Union with Denmark, Swedish king Gustav Vasa established royal power in Stockholm, enabling the city to grow into the capital of one of Europe’s major powers by the seventeenth century. Military defeat by Russia in the Great Northern War (1700–21) put paid to Swedish territorial expansion in northern and eastern Europe, and, instead, Stockholm developed politically and culturally at the centre of a smaller Swedish state.
By the nineteenth century, Stockholm was still essentially rural with country lanes, great orchards, grazing cows and even windmills in the centre of the city; the downside was the lack of pavements (until the 1840s) or piped water supply (until 1858), and the presence of open sewers, squalid streets and crowded slums. Having escaped bomb damage during World War II thanks to Swedish neutrality, the mid-twentieth century ushered in a huge modernization programme as part of the Social Democratic out-with-the-old-and-in-with-the-new policy: Sweden, and particularly the capital, Stockholm, was to become a place fit for working people to live. Old areas were torn down as “a thousand homes for a thousand Swedes” – as the project had it – were constructed. Today, Stockholm is a bright and elegant place, and with its great expanses of open water right in the centre, it offers a spectacular city panorama unparalleled anywhere in Europe.