I love travel by train, and spent the five hour trip between Copenhagen and Stockholm alternating between working on pictures and napping. The trick is to get reserved seats; it might be a little more expensive, but it’s clear what train is yours…and you’re guaranteed a seat.
When we arrived in Stockholm in the late afternoon, we were immediately struck by the difference in size. It’s so much bigger and busier than Copenhagen! Everyone around you is headed somewhere, and you get the feeling that you’re just in the way. It’s the most populous city in the Nordic region, and the contrast makes Copenhagen look sleepy and quaint.
Despite the difference in tenor of the city, the Swedes’ unfailing politeness was almost immediately evident. Walking to our hotel, looking absolutely like the tourists that we were, a random passerby asked if he could help us find our way. He knew exactly where our hotel, the Mälardrottningen was, and strolled the four or five more blocks with us, sharing restaurant recommendations along the way.
We didn’t take him up on the recommendations, but in the spirit of passing it along, here’s where the 15-year veteran of Stockholm recommended we visit:
The Mälardrottningen Hotel
The Mälardrottningen Hotel (Yelp) is a hotel set into a yacht…which could also be described as a yacht with a hotel levered into it. The first cabin we first checked into was quite small, but a quick request at the desk netted us the “owner’s suite with sea view” for just a few more kroner a night. It was well worth the upgrade–if you happen to find yourself reserving at the Mälardrottningen, make sure you pay attention to the type (and size) of cabin you’re getting.
Red Sightseeing Canal Tour
Stockholm, like Copenhagen, has grown up alongside the water. Perhaps, more accurately, in the water–the city is spread over 14 different islands of the thousands that make up the Stockholm archipelago, and 30% of the city area is water. As a strategic defensive point and an important trading destination, Stockholm has always had a forward presence and leading role in the politics of Europe.
Like Copenhagen, the best way to get one’s bearings in Stockholm is to do a canal tour. The Red Sightseeing Bridges and Canals Tour is a 1.5-2 hour affair that touches on the waterways and several different corners of the city. The covered boat is likely a great advantage in bad weather, but felt oppressive on the sunny day we toured, and though the recorded audio accompaniment provided a wealth of information on the city and country, it was a bit stale and monotone.
Nonetheless, especially for an afternoon activity after travelling much of the day, a tour of the city from the water is probably one of the best ways to acclimate and relax in a new environment.
The “traditional Scandinavian” restaurant is set into a corner of a tiny street in Gamla Stan, firmly hidden away from the tourist street traffic just a couple streets over. There is a limited set of outdoor seating and an interior that reminds you of long, comfortable dinners on snowy nights.
I mention that we were lucky enough to choose it on our first night, mainly because we returned for a second dinner on our last evening in the city. Between the two meals, we sampled the reindeer (yes, the reindeer), perch and shrimp. Simple, straightforward and extremely well done, all of it ranked among the best food we had on the entire trip. Sitting at the outside tables both times, the service was consistently outstanding.
With just three days to explore a city the size of Stockholm, it’s a rare thing to visit the same place twice. Krup In didn’t disappoint either time.
The Vasa Museum houses the only largely-intact 17th century warship in the world, and it is one of the most incredible sights I’ve ever laid eyes on.
My expectations were set by the vaguely cheesy description of the museum on the Stockholm tourism website, a mistake, I suspect, largely of translation rather than intent. The description did little to communicate the impact of viewing this colossal endeavor and its preservation.
So, to be clear: in the Vasa Museum, you will find an almost totally intact 17th-century warship, and it will take your breath away.
It’s not just the scale, which the museum’s designers impress upon you immediately upon entering. The details of the ship are amazing. Almost of every corner of it contains individual carvings. You can almost get close enough to touch them; not quite, but certainly close enough to marvel at the many hundreds of man-hours that went into their production.
It’s so imposing that it’s easy to forget that the thing was completed in 1628, is made of wood and, by today’s standards, has no fighting capability. Instead, you understand what it might have been like to encounter the ship on open water in combat–incredibly intimidating.
The museum that surrounds the Vasa leads visitors up six levels, each of them packed with information on how the ship was built, ship life, culture and how the ship survived in the water and surfaced in the 1960’s. The levels open out onto the Vasa, so as you climb to new floors, you’re constantly greeted with a new view of the ship.
The Archipelago Tour
As I’ve mentioned, the water is of profound importance to the people of Stockholm, and has probably been the most defining characteristic in the history of the city. While the city has always held strategic importance to the military, the vast network of islands and proximity to the Baltic Sea has made Stockholm primarily a fishing town. This was still the case as late as World War II, with that generation’s archipelago inhabitants the first to move en masse to the city. Today, Stockholm’s leaders are actively working to make the archipelago an attractive place to live and work.
There are a number of archipelago tours available, ranging from a quick trip around a couple of the islands to all-day, multi-meal cruises. Between some questionable weather and last-minute planning, we decided on a late-afternoon, 3-hour Vaxholm cruise, which took us out to the “capital of the archipelago.”
Vaxholm was one of the first islands officially settled by Sweden, and sports a fortress turned bed-and-breakfast beside some of the most picturesque seaside villages you’ll see in Europe. If you take an earlier cruise out the island, you can stay through lunch and pick up one of the return cruises in the afternoon.
The cruise itself took us past tiny neighborhoods, summer homes and Stockholmers enjoying summer out on the water. The onboard guide was excellent and full of information, but in particular, I appreciated the commentary on how the archipelago fits into the day-to-day lives of Stockholm residents. The water takes such a leading role in the culture of the city; with everyone else on the water, the archipelago cruise felt like the least touristy activity on our itinerary.
It’s a cross-cultural commonality that a long afternoon on a boat should be followed with beer, particularly the microbrewed kind. As such, we found ourselves at Akurrat (Yelp), a tavern just a short but beautiful walk from the M.
Akurrat has a slightly too-cool-for-its-own-good vibe, with no signs instructing patrons to simply grab a spot anywhere (which you should do) or clarifying where you get table service and then were you don’t (I’m still not clear on that). It’s a popular spot, and the hive of activity and multiple languages adds to the initial confusion of finding your way around.
But once we’d found a spot at the bar, the joviality of the place was infectious and the wide selection of beers distracting. The bartenders knew what they were serving, and were happy to share stories about where it came from. Other patrons were generally as friendly as we’d come to expect in Sweden. The beer was easily the highest quality we’d found in the region.
Gamla Stan, The Old Town, is one of those places that makes all the stories you’ve read of the middle ages come alive. The tiny streets and ancient architecture are dotted with apartments and shaded cafes, giving the area its own unique and vibrant street life.
The area used to be Stockholm itself, and so holds many attractions, including the City Hall, Royal Palace and Nobel Museum. But rather than using it as a way to get from one place to another, leave yourself time to stroll about and enjoy the cafes, incredible views and friendly people.
Stockholm City Hall
Stockholm’s City Hall, perhaps more than any other building in the city, embodies the spirit of Stockholm. Ancient in architecture, rising up out of the water and wrapped in layers of history, it seems that every corner tells a story. It is an impression that is cultivated and encouraged by the city, and highlighted by the tour.
The Golden Hall is one of the most visually stunning spaces you’ll ever find. With 18 million golden and reflective tiles, murals depict a variety of scenes from Sweden’s history. The Blue Hall, where the tour begins, is where the Nobel Awards Banquet is held each year. Tourists also get a view of the chambers of the Stockholm City Council with it surprisingly impressive ceiling murals.
Wrapping up Our Visit to Stockholm
As I alluded to in my previous post on Copenhagen, I didn’t know quite what to expect when planning this trip. Stockholm can seem such a distant place, known more for its grim descriptions in contemporary literature than for any great depth of culture or history. This is why my preconceived notions of the city were so upended during my visit.
Instead of Swedish serial killers and surly suspects, we found warm receptions almost everywhere we went, beautiful vistas at every waterside resting spot and history that, quite literally in the case of the Vasa, was breathtaking.
The food wasn’t too bad, either.