East of Gamla Stan and south of Östermalm, occupying a forested island in Stockholm harbour, Djurgården (pronounced “Yoor-gorden”) is Stockholm’s most enjoyable city park. This finger-shaped island, which served as a royal hunting ground throughout the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, stretches over 3km in length from Djurgårdsbron bridge in the west (linking it to Strandvägen in Östermalm) to Blockhusudden point in the east. Djurgården is a perfect place to escape the bustle of the capital amongst the groves of pines and spruce, and is also home to some of Stockholm’s finest museums. You'll need a full day or two to see everything.
The sinking of the Estonia ferry in September 1994 was Sweden’s worst ever maritime disaster; 852 people lost their lives when the vessel went down in the Baltic Sea en route to Stockholm.
Following the disaster, an official three-nation investigation involving Sweden, Finland and Estonia concluded, to great derision from the relatives of those who died on the ferry, that poor design by the original German shipbuilders of the huge hinges which held the bow door in place was to blame for the accident. The shipyard immediately refuted the claim and said that fault lay squarely with the ferry operator, Estline, for shoddy maintenance of the vessel. Following the publication of the official accident report, a number of conspiracy theories have surfaced, most alarmingly suggesting that the Russian mafia had weapons on board, exploding a bomb on the car deck once it became clear that Swedish customs had been tipped off about their illicit cargo and imminent arrival in Stockholm. The wreck of the Estonia now lies on the sea bed southwest of the Finnish Åland islands, covered in a protective layer of concrete to prevent plundering. There’s a memorial to those who died in the disaster near the Vasamuséet in Djurgården.
It’s Skansen, a ten-minute walk south along Djurgårdsvägen from the Nordiska Muséet, that most people come to Djurgården for: a vast open-air museum with 150 reconstructed buildings, from a whole town square to windmills, farms and manor houses, laid out on a region-by-region basis. Each section boasts its own daily activities – including traditional handicrafts, games and displays – that anyone can join in. Best of the buildings are the warm and functional Sámi dwellings, and the craftsmen’s workshops in the old-town quarter. You can also potter around a zoo (containing Nordic animals such as brown bears, elk and reindeer, as well as non-native species like monkeys), and an aquarium with poisonous snakes and turtles. Partly because of the attention paid to accuracy, and partly due to the admirable lack of commercialization, Skansen manages to avoid the tackiness associated with similar ventures in other countries. Even the snack bars dole out traditional foods and in winter serve up great bowls of warming soup.
Housed in an oddly shaped building close to Nordiska Muséet, Vasamuséet is without question head and shoulders above Stockholm’s other museums. It contains the perfectly preserved seventeenth-century warship, the Vasa, which was built on the orders of King Gustav II Adolf, but sank in Stockholm harbour on her maiden voyage in 1628. A victim of engineering miscalculation, the Vasa’s hull was too narrow to withstand even the slightest swell which, when coupled with top-heavy rigging, made her a maritime disaster waiting to happen. On August 10 she went down with all hands barely a few hundred metres from her moorings. Preserved in mud for over three hundred years, the ship was raised along with twelve thousand objects in 1961, and now forms the centrepiece of the museum.
Adjacent to the Vasamuséet, three 2.5m-high granite walls now stand in the form of a triangle as a memorial to those who died in the Estonia ferry distaster in 1994; the inscription reads simply “their names and their fate, we shall never forget”.
The museum itself is built over part of the old naval dockyard. Impressive though the building is, nothing prepares you for the sheer size of the ship: 62m long, the main mast originally 50m above the keel, it sits virtually complete in a cradle of supporting mechanical tackle. Surrounding walkways bring you nose-to-nose with cannon hatches and restored decorative relief, the gilded wooden sculptures on the soaring prow designed to intimidate the enemy and proclaim Swedish might. Carved into the ship’s stern, the resplendent figures of two naked cherubs complete with podgy stomachs and rosy cheeks, proudly bearing the Swedish crown between them, are truly remarkable for their fine detail and garish colours. Adjacent exhibition halls and presentations on several levels take care of all the retrieved items, which give an invaluable insight into life on board – everything from combs to wooden barrels for preserving food supplies. There are reconstructions of life on board, detailed models of the Vasa, displays relating to contemporary social and political life, and a fascinating film of the rescue operation; between June and August there are also hourly English-language guided tours, which run less frequently at other times of the year.