“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 high-tech metropolis, with futuristic skyscrapers, a bustling commercial heart and one of the world's hottest start-up scenes.
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. Close by is the tiny island of Skeppsholmen,home to the city's main modern art gallery and a quirky floating you hostel. To the north of the Old Town, the district of Norrmalm swaps tradition for a thoroughly contemporary feel: this is Stockholm's downtown area where you’ll find shopping malls, huge department stores and conspicuous, showy wealth. The Central Station and the lively park, known as 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. To the south of the Old Town, the island ofSödermalm was traditionally the working-class area of Stockholm, but is now a haven for hipsters. Its 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 fourteenth 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.
To the west of the city centre, Kungsholmen has a very different feel, with wider, residential streets, larger parks, select shops and Stockholm’s Stadshuset (City Hall). Whereas Norrmalm is easy to get to on foot, Kungsholmen is best reached by T-bana (either Rådhuset or Fridhemsplan T-bana stations). Venture further into Kungsholmen and you’ll discover a rash of great bars and restaurants, and an excellent beach – Smedsuddsbadet – at Smedsudden, where you can swim in Lake Mälaren and enjoy fantastic views of the Stadhuset and the Old Town; to get to it, head through the popular park, Rålambshovsparken, or take bus #4 to Västerbroplan, from where it’s a five-minute walk.
Northeast of the city centre, Lidingö is a well-to-do commuter island, close to the ferry terminal at Värtahamnen serving Finland, Estonia and Latvia. The island’s main attraction is the startling Millesgården, the outdoor sculpture collection of Carl Milles (1875–1955), one of Sweden’s greatest sculptors and art collectors.
Phalanxes of gods, angels and beasts sit on terraces carved into the island’s steep cliffs, many of the animated, classical figures also perching precariously on soaring pillars, which overlook the distant harbour. A huge Poseidon rears over the army of sculptures, the most remarkable of which, God’s Hand, has a small boy delicately balancing on the outstretched finger of a monumental hand. Those who’ve been elsewhere in Sweden may find much of the collection familiar, as it includes copies and casts of originals adorning countless provincial towns.
If this collection inspires, it’s worth tracking down three other pieces by Milles in the capital– his statue of Gustav Vasa in the Nordiska Muséet on Djurgården; the Orpheus Fountain in Norrmalm’s Hötorget; and, out at Nacka Strand (Waxholm boat from Strömkajen), the magnificent Gud på Himmelsbågen, a claw-shaped vertical piece of steel topped with the figure of a boy, forming a stunning entrance marker to Stockholm harbour.
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.
East of Birger Jarlsgatan – the main thoroughfare that divides Norrmalm from Östermalm – the streets become noticeably broader and grander, forming a uniform grid as far as the circular Karlaplan, a handy T-bana and bus interchange full of media types coming off shift from the Swedish Radio and Television buildings at the eastern end of Kalavägen. Östermalm was one of the last areas of central Stockholm to be developed; the impressive residences here are as likely to be consulates and embassies as fashionable homes.
Off Gamla Stan’s eastern reaches lies the island of Skeppsholmen, home to two of Stockholm’s best youth hostels. However, it’s the eclectic clutch of museums and galleries, including the excellentModerna Museet, that draw most people here.
Whatever you do in Stockholm, don’t miss the delights of the city’s southern island, Södermalm, whose craggy cliffs, turrets and towers rise high above the clogged traffic interchange at Slussen. The perched buildings are vaguely forbidding, but venture beyond the main roads skirting the island and a lively and surprisingly green area unfolds, one that has, historically speaking, been working class at heart. After dark, you’ll probably end up in one of Söder’s bars or restaurants in the hip area known as So-Fo; this is the handful of streets lined with cafés and restaurants which lie “south of Folkungagatan” (hence the name), predominantly Åsögatan, Bondegatan and Skånegatan.
A mere five minutes’ walk from Slussen along Stadsgårdsleden towards the Viking Line ferry terminal, Stockholm’s latest attraction, the Fotografiska Muséet, is housed inside one of the city’s former red-brick customs warehouses. Spread across three floors of airy exhibition space, the museum showcases the work of world-renowned photographers both in print and on film. Exhibitions change frequently though there’s every chance that one of the big names will be on display when you visit: recent displays have included Robert Mapplethorpe, France’s Sarah Moon and Scottish photographer Albert Watson, whose work featured on over two hundred magazine covers, including Vogue. For unsurpassed views of the Stockholm waterfront, head up to the museum’s top-floor café where the vistas are as breathtaking as the photographic work downstairs.
True to its name ("long island"), Långholmen is a skinny sliver of land that lies off the northwestern tip of Södermalm, crossed by the mighty Västerbron bridge linking Södermalm with Kungsholmen. There are a couple of popularbeacheshere. Leafy and peaceful, Långholmen is a delightful place to take a walk; on the way you’ll also get some stunning views of the city towards Stadhuset and Gamla Stan.
The water in Stockholm is clean and perfect for swimming during the long days of summer. The best beaches are all west of the city centre: on Långholmens there's Långholmens strandbad to the west of Västerbron bridge, and rocky Klippbadet to the east of the bridge; and across on Kungsholmen, Smedsuddsbadet has a large grassy area for sunbathing.
Alternatively, Södermalm is the place to go for swimming pools; there are three in fairly close proximity: Forsgrénskabadet in Medborgarplatsen (t 08 508 403 20; Medborgarplatsen T-bana); Erikdalsbadet, Hammarby Slussväg 20, (t 08 508 402 58; Skanstull T-bana), which has an open-air pool; and the wonderful little Liljeholmsbadet, Bergsundsgatan 2, (t 08 508 411 77; Hornstull T-bana), a pool in a boat-like pontoon contraption that floats in Lake Mälaren. The last of these is closed from mid-June to mid-August, and has nude swimming for women on Mondays, and men on Fridays; the water here is always 30°C. For unofficial nude bathing, head out to one of the islands in the archipelago and find your own private spot.
Top image: Things not to Miss: Rocky skerry in the outer archipelago of Stockholm, Sweden © Mikael Broms/Shutterstock