Begin your day as you did yesterday, but on this gorgeous, sunny Stockholm day, you’ll exit the Radisson SAS Strand’s front door and head to your right instead of to your left.
Follow the water and the walkway that curves around the harbor. Take a moment to breathe in the view when you reach Skeppholmsbron (“bron” means “bridge”). Looking across Norrstrom harbor, you’re admiring the Royal Palace (you’re in a kingdom, remember, with a king, queen and princesses). You’re also looking at your next destination, Gamla Stan.
Stroll along the waterway, passing the Grand Hotel. You’ll want to peek inside to admire the Grand’s regal public spaces. Make note of the Cadierbaren, which offers a high-tea service that you’re not likely to forget. You may want to return to the Grand for lunch at the casual Food Bar, reasonably priced and a palate-pleaser. You eat on a tray, but the setting is elegant. (Note that the Food Bar will not be open for lunch in July and August 2009).
Continuing along Stromkajen, cross the street and Strombron (remember “bron” is “bridge”) to Gamla Stan, the “city between the bridges.” Walk up Palace Hill, nod to the guard at the top, then head down to begin exploring Stockholm’s birthplace.
The House of Parliament is on your right, and it’s not unusual to see fisherman in waders hauling in trout from the lake waters than run beneath the Parliament. The locks at Gamla Stan separate Lake Malaren (60 miles long) from the Baltic Sea.
The medieval old town, with its charming cobblestone streets, museums, shops and restaurants, straddles three of 14 islands that make up Stockholm. The well-preserved Old Town features the original network of streets, and some of its buildings date from the Middle Ages.
You’ll need to know a little about the history, so here goes: Stockholm was first mentioned as a town in 1252 and was largely built by the Swedish ruler Birger Jarl. It grew rapidly as a result of a trade agreement made with the German city of Lübeck.
The agreement ensured Lübeck merchants freedom from customs charges for their trade in Sweden, as well as the right to settle there. Stockholm came to be officially regarded as the Swedish capital in 1436. After conflicts between the Danes and Swedes for many years, Stockholm was liberated from Danish rule by Gustav I Vasa in 1523.
Gamla Stan is relatively small, so it’s okay, even preferable, to lose yourself here. After you’ve walked past the Royal Palace, you’ll come to Gamla Stan’s main pedestrian street, Vasterlangatan (“the long western street”).
You can cross all of Gamla Stan on Vasterlangatan. If you were do so without stopping and with no crowds, you could make it from one end to the other in 10 to 15 minutes. But Vasterlangatan can be crowded from mid-morning to mid-afternoon when the weather is nice, so unless you enjoy walking shoulder-to-shoulder, belly-to-back and toe-to-heel with thousands of others, you’ll need to permit yourself to be detoured. I’m going to tell you now, but first it’s time for a hot dog.
What is it about the Scandinavians and hot dogs? I’ve never seen so many hot dog stands as in Scandinavia. Denmark, the nation to the south, is one of the world’s top (per capita) producers of pork. Hot dogs stands are to Scandinavia what Starbucks is to Seattle.
You’ll encounter your first hot dog stand at the beginning of Vasterlangatan. The owner of the small kiosk is from the Middle East and holds a higher degree in something like engineering. One thing that he has surely engineered is a good hot dog. Swedish hot dogs aren’t like American hot dogs in that they’re actually good — and okay for you. You’ll have many varieties to choose from and some unusual toppings, including dried onions and pickles as well as Senap (a mustard that is richer than its American cousin), ketchup and mayonnaise. Yes, you read correctly, mayonnaise.
As you are snacking your way through Stockholm, it’s good to remind yourself that you’re also walking enough to burn off those extra calories.
From the hot dog stand, make your way along Vasterlangatan for only a block before turning left up Storkyrkobrinken, which leads to your first stop, the 15th-century Gothic Storkyrkan (“Stor” means “large;” “kyrkan” means “church”), also, thankfully for the English tongue, called the Stockholm Cathedral, or Church of St. Nicolas. No matter what you call it, the church features Scandinavia’s largest medieval monument, a wooden sculpture made of elk antlers and oak carved in 1489 representing St. George battling a fierce Dragon. Make a mental note of the sculpture. You’ll see another version of it, outside, today.
Check your watch, or look up at the clock tower adorning the cathedral. Don’t look at the clock on the building across the street, however. It’s been stuck at 1:50 for as long as I’ve been coming to Stockholm. If your watch tells you it’s noon, make your way to the 18th-century Royal Palace inner courtyard for the changing of the guard at 12:15 each day except Sundays. During the tourist season, you need to be either tall or early to see the show.
If it’s well before noon, turn left exiting the church to visit Gamla Stan’s largest square, Stortorget (“Stor,” means “large;” and “torget” means “square”), once the venue for public hangings and site of the “Bloodbath of 1520,” the mass execution of Swedish nobles by a Danish king that led to revolt and Sweden’s becoming a sovereign state.
Stortorget today is stunningly beautiful and bordered by tall, narrow, colorful Amsterdam-like buildings, the Nobel Museum and one of my favorite Fika shops, the uber-charming and aforementioned Chokladkoppen. Take a seat inside or out for a hot chocolate or coffee and kanelbolle. Time for another fika.
Afterward, the Nobel Museum is worth a gander. If you can’t do the full tour, step inside the cafe and look under the chairs. It’s okay. They’re light enough to lift, but do so carefully. Nearly all are signed by Nobel Laureates who once sat in the chairs. The ice cream sundae here is delicious, by the way, down to the gold-wrapped chocolate Nobel coin.
For a Nobel-like dinner, you may want to make reservations at Gamla Stan’s Golden Fleece, Stockholm’s oldest restaurant, more than 300 years in operation. The Nobel Laureates do lunch here during the ceremonies week.
For now, however, it’s time to see the changing of the guard. Exit the Nobel Museum, turn left and left again along the small street Kallargrand to get back to the inner courtyard at the Royal Palace. Don’t miss the green pissoir on your left. Snapshots of it have landed in many a photo album.
After the changing of the guard, return to Stortorget, and find your way to Svartmangatan, walk about a block to Kindstugatan, with its shops, then turn right on Sjalagardsgatan. Before doing so, however, walk up to admire the other version of the monument to St. George and Dragon (remember I told you to make a mental note of the one in the church?)
Return to Sjalagardsgatan, making your way back to Svartmangatan. Your only quest on these small streets is to admire, and oh, by the way, you are looking so local.
Turn on Tyska Stallplan, a short alley that leads to Prastgatan, where you’ll look for a very narrow alley to Marten Trotzigs, the restaurant so named for a German copper dealer who lived here in the 16th century. Half of Stockholm’s Middle-Age population was German. At Marten Trotzigs’, you’re back on Vasterlangatan, but at the opposite end, having avoided the bustle and crowds.
The entire walk has taken a leisurely two hours, with visits to cathedral, the changing of the guard, and shopping. For lunch, you have quite a few choices. You’re probably fika’d out by now, but if not Stockholm’s oldest fika cafe is near the square. Or you can stop for lunch al fresco at Martin Trotzig at Vasterlanggatan 79.
My recommendation, if you still have some gas in the legs, is to walk down to the water, across the bridge and take the Katarinahissen lift, built in 1883, up to the best-value and best-view lunch in town at Gondolen.
After lunch, make your way to back to Gamla Stan for more exploration, or head to City Hall to admire the Blue Hall, where the Nobel Prize banquet is held annually, and the Golden Hall, with its more than 18 million glass and gold mosaic pieces. Nobel prizes are awarded each December, except for the Peace prize, which is awarded in Oslo.
Climb City Hall Tower for a bird’s-eye view of Stockholm. The tower, by the way, is 106 meters tall, a mere meter higher than Copenhagen’s. Think the two cities aren’t competitive? Think again.
Not long ago, Copenhagen was thought of as being the more Continental of the two cities. No longer, Stockholm has proclaimed itself to be the Capital of Scandinavia. While still distinctly Swedish, Stockholm now boasts an international flair. But I am digressing. Back to our quest.
It’s a good thing that Stockholm enjoys 20 hours of sunlight during summers, because now you’re going on a boat tour.
At Stadshusbron by the City Hall, board the steam-powered SS Drottningholm, built in 1909, for a voyage through Lake Malaren to Drottningholm Palace, an hour’s chug away.
A brilliant example of a northern European 18th-century royal residence, Drottningholm has been home to the Swedish Royal Family since 1981. Building began here in 1662. Join a guided tour, and be sure to visit the court theater, built in 1766. Don’t miss the wonderful Chinese Pavilion.
You can spend most of the afternoon on the excursion to Drottningholm. When you return, make your way to the world’s first permanent “Ice Bar,” situated in the Nordic Sea Hotel, near Central Station.
The price of admission, SEK 180 if you book in advance (recommended), includes use of capes, mitts, and slippers to keep you warm inside the below-freezing bar and an Absolut cocktail (or lingonberry juice) served in glasses made from 100% pure, clear ice from the Torne River in Swedish Lapland. In fact, the whole interior of the bar is built from the ice. Hold on to your glass, by the way, as refills are only SEK 95.
Toasting, by the way, is a ritual in Sweden. Bring your ice glass so that it’s level with your sternum. Look your companion in the eyes, nod, say “skål!” and drink. Then lower the glass and look your companion in the eye again. You are so local.
Your tour — or time in the bar — lasts 40 minutes. You can always leave early if you’re too cold. Want a souvenir? Purchase ice glasses, packed in a special box to keep them from melting — guaranteed for 24 hours.
After your cocktail, find a special place for dinner before returning to your hotel. The favorite of Evert Taube, the famous author, artist, composer and singer who lived from 1890 – 1976, was Den Gyldene Freden (the aforementioned Golden Fleece), which has been a restaurant in Gamla Stan since 1722. Taube’s bronze statute stands nearby.
Although the sky isn’t completely dark when you exit the restaurant at midnight, your day is coming to an end, and with it, your two perfect days in Stockholm.
In two full turns of the clock, a mere 48 hours, Stockholm has revealed something of its soul to you, but trust me, there’s much, much more. We’ll save that for another day, another time, another visit.
One More Day: Out Into The Archipelago
If you are in Stockholm for a few days, you surely will want to venture out to the archipelago on ships that depart from the city center. It’s about a two-hour journey to Sandhamn, a small village where you can take lunch at Sandhamns Vardshus before setting out on kayaks for smaller, uninhabited islands just a few miles away. Return to relax in the sauna before boarding the ship back to Stockholm. The experience is quintessentially Swedish and one that should not be missed.