Immediately to the north of Gamla Stan is the commercial heart of modern Stockholm, Norrmalm, a compact area full of shops and offices, restaurants, bars and cinemas, always bustling with people and street life. Unfortunately, it also has a high count of ugly modern buildings.
Adolf Fredriks kyrka is of immense significance to modern Swedes, as it is the final resting place of Olof Palme; a simple headstone and flowers mark his grave. The then prime minister of Sweden was gunned down in front of his wife on February 28 1986, while they were on the way home from the Riviera cinema on Sveavägen. As with most Nordic leaders, Palme’s fame was his security, and he had no bodyguards with him when he died. A simple plaque on the pavement, often respectfully bedecked with flowers, now marks the spot, near the junction with Olof Palmes Gatan, where the prime minister was shot; the assassin escaped up a nearby flight of steps.
Sweden’s biggest-ever murder enquiry was launched, and as the years went by, so the allegations of police cover-ups and bungling grew. When Christer Pettersson, a smalltime criminal, was convicted for the murder in July 1989, most Swedes thought that was the end of the story, but his release just five months later for lack of evidence only served to reopen the bitter debate, with consequent recriminations and resignations within a much-derided police force.
Palme’s death sent shockwaves through a society unused to political extremism of any kind, and has sadly led to a radical rethink of the open-government policy Sweden had pursued for decades. Although government ministers now rarely go unescorted, Sweden was rocked by the news in September 2003 that a second leading politician had been murdered on home soil; Foreign Minister Anna Lindh was fatally stabbed in a Stockholm department store by a man with mental illness who was later arrested and imprisoned.
Greta Garbo (1905–90) began her working life in Hötorget in Stockholm. She toiled as a sales assistant in the hat section of the PUB department store on the square before hitting the big time, acting in no fewer than 27 films. She spent most of her life in the United States, dying in New York in 1990, and it wasn’t until 1999 that her ashes were returned to Stockholm after a long legal battle. Garbo is buried in the Skogskyrkogården cemetery in Enskede in the south of Stockholm (take the T-bana green line to the station called Skogskyrkogården to visit).
Down on the waterfront, beside Norrbron, is Gustav Adolfs torg, more a traffic island than a square these days. A statue of King Gustav II Adolf marks the centre of the square, between the opera house and the Foreign Ministry opposite. Look out, too, for fishermen pulling salmon out of Strömmen, the fast-flowing stretch of water that winds its way through the centre of the city. Since the seventeenth century, Stockholmers have had the right to fish this outlet from Lake Mälaren to the Baltic; landing a catch here isn’t as difficult as it looks, and there’s usually a group of hopefuls on one of the bridges beside the square.
One block east of St Jakobs kyrka and the opera House, Norrmalm’s eastern boundary is marked by Kungsträdgården, the most fashionable and central of the city’s numerous parks, reaching northwards from the water as far as Hamngatan. The mouthful of a name literally means “the king’s gardens”, though if you’re expecting perfectly designed flowerbeds and rose gardens you’ll be disappointed – it’s a pedestrianized paved square, albeit in the form of an elongated rectangle, with a couple of lines of elm and cherry trees, and its days as a royal kitchen garden are long gone. Today the area is Stockholm’s main meeting place, especially in summer, when there’s almost always something going on – free music, live theatre and other performances take place on the central open-air stage. There are also several popular cafés: the outdoors one off Strömgatan at Kungsträdgården’s southern edge is popular in spring as a place for winter-weary Stockholmers to lap up the sunshine. In winter, the park is as busy as in summer: the Isbanan, an open-air ice rink at the Hamngatan end of the park, rents out skates.