Three islands – Riddarholmen, Staden and Helgeandsholmen – make up the oldest part of Stockholm, a cluster of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century buildings backed by hairline medieval alleys. It was on these three adjoining polyps of land that Birger Jarl erected the town’s first fortifications. Rumours abound as to the derivation of the name “Stockholm”, though it’s now widely believed to mean “island cleared of trees”, since the trees on the island that is now home to Gamla Stan were probably felled to make way for the settlement. Incidentally, the words holm (island) and stock (log) are still in common use today. You can experience a taste of Stockholm’s medieval past at the excellent Medeltidsmuseet, at the northern end of the two bridges – Norrbron and Riksbron – which lead across to Gamla Stan.
Although strictly speaking only the largest island, Staden, contains Gamla Stan, this name is usually attached to the buildings and streets of all three islands.
Once Stockholm’s working centre, nowadays Gamla Stan is primarily a tourist hub with many an eminently strollable area, in particular around the Kungliga Slottet (royal palace), Riksdagshuset (parliament building) and Storkyrkan (cathedral). The central spider’s web of streets – best approached over the bridges of Norrbron or Riksbron – is a sprawl of monumental buildings and high airy churches which form a protective girdle around the narrow lanes. Some of the impossibly slender alleys lead to steep steps ascending between battered walls, others are covered passageways linking leaning buildings. The tall, dark houses in the centre were mostly owned by wealthy merchants, and are still distinguished by their intricate doorways and portals bearing coats of arms.
The main square of the Old Town is Stortorget, an impressive collection of tall pastel-coloured stone buildings with curling gables which saw one of the medieval city’s most ferocious battles, the “Stockholm Bloodbath”. Now, as then, the streets Västerlånggatan, Österlånggatan, Stora Nygatan and Lilla Nygatan run the length of the Old Town, although today their time-worn buildings harbour a succession of souvenir shops and restaurants. Happily, the consumerism here isn’t too obtrusive, and in summer buskers and evening strollers clog the narrow alleyways, making it an entertaining place to wander or to stop for a bite to eat. There are few real targets, but take every opportunity to wander up side streets, where you’ll find fading coats of arms, covered alleys and worn cobbles at every turn.
Off the western shore of Gamla Stan, the tiny islet of Riddarholmen houses not only one of Stockholm’s most beautiful churches, Riddarholmskyrkan, the burial place for countless Swedish kings and queens over the centuries, but also the Baroque Riddarhuset (House of the Nobility), a reminder of the glory days of the Swedish aristocracy.