We traveled to Stockholm to attend the famous TBEX Travel Conference. That proved to be a great idea! Advertised as Scandinavia’s capital, it is arguably its nicest city (to Eitan that would be Helsinki). Indeed, Stockholm hosts several nice neighborhoods, with plenty of imposing landmarks and hidden viewpoints. The charming medieval district Gamla Stan is in the small, centrally located island. To the North, the modern city center wraps around a poorly refurbished area from the 60s. Quite different to the latter, elegant palaces line the coastal area, creating an imposing waterfront. Luckily, there is much more than that. The city itself lies on 14 of the more than 24,000 islands that make up the truly unique and splendid Stockholm archipelago.
- 1 Stockholm’s Highlights: Cool Neighborhoods
- 2 Stockholm’s Most Impressive Landmarks
- 3 The Best Stockholm Viewpoints and Lookouts
- 4 Where to Stay in Stockholm
- 5 Moving Around
Stockholm’s Highlights: Cool Neighborhoods
The old town or Gamla Stan lies in Stadsholmen, one of the smallest islands of the Stockholm archipelago. Actually, Gamla Stan, the old town in Swedish, also includes two nearby tiny islands, Riddarholmen and Helgeandsholmen. This is the oldest part of the city, dating back to the 13th century. The German influence in its architecture is pretty strong. No wonder, since its first inhabitants were Germans! Its narrow cobbled streets still bear the atmosphere of medieval times. Gamla Stan’s center point is the pretty Stortorget Square. The Swedish Royal Palace, the National Parliament, and the three main churches are also part of this lovely neighborhood.
City Center – Norrmalm, Östermalm, and Kungsholmen
Stockholm was basically the area of Gamla Stan for four centuries. The city expanded towards the north and south after the great fire of 1625. Norrmalm, the area north of the island, soon became the new city center. After World War II, the large central area was completely redeveloped. Though some architectural circles consider it a success, to us, it looked like a giant shopping mall. Stockholm’s main street, pedestrian Drottninggatan, crosses the area. East of Norrmalm, the residential Östermalm neighborhood, feels elegant. The island west of Norrmalm, Kungsholmen, is another beautiful residential neighborhood, with the city hall as its highlight.
Until its development in the early 17th century, Södermalm Island used to be a rural area with cottages and farmland. Since then, working-class neighborhoods occupy the area. At the same time, rich locals built their summer houses here. The massive gentrification of the area of recent times has made it a hip place to live. Södermalm’s central point is the large Medborgarplatsen Square. We loved strolling about the pedestrian Swedenborgsgatan near the square. Compared to its central counterpart (Drottninggatan), its architecture is much nicer, the street itself is much greener, and there are fewer flashy shops.
Museum Islands –Djurgården and Skeppsholmen
To us, Djurgården is Stockholm’s nicest island. The city’s nicest parks and museums are on this large island, east of Gamla Stan. Since the 15th Century, Swedish monarchs kept their deer, reindeer, and elk. Later on, it became a popular park, and today it’s the number one park in the city. There are several interesting historic buildings on the island. Some are world-renowned museums, such as Vasa, Nordic, ABBA, or Skansen Open Air Museum. Other museums are on the small island of Skeppsholmen, west of Djurgården, including the Modern Museum and the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design.
Stockholm’s Most Impressive Landmarks
The Royal Palace of Stockholm is the official residence of the Swedish King. With over 600 rooms, it is one of the largest palaces in the world. The palace stands on the northern tip of Stadsholmen Island, on the grounds of the medieval Tre Kronor Castle that burned down in 1697. The current building is from the 18th century and is a typical example of Italian Baroque. Its architect Carl Hårleman also designed the interiors, but in a Rococo style. The palace is open to visitors. Thus, you can visit its five museums, the Hall of State, and the Halls of the Orders of Chivalry.
Stockholm Cathedral (Storkyrkan)
The Stockholm Cathedral or Storkyrkan is the city’s oldest church and the seat of the Lutheran bishop of Stockholm. Built in 1279 in the so-called Swedish brick gothic style, it originally served as a Catholic church. In 1527 it became a Lutheran protestant church. Though its exterior is relatively sober, its interior hides some true gems, including outstanding religious sculptures. Among them, the most valuable one is the wooden statue of Saint George and the Dragon. Many important events in Swedish royal history took place in the cathedral, such as royal weddings, coronations, and funerals.
City Hall (Stadshuset)
Our favorite building in all of Stockholm is the impressive City Hall. Dating back to the beginning of the 20th century, it is one of the best examples of Swedish national romanticism. A 106-meter tall spire bearing three crowns, the Swedish national symbol, distinguishes the large red brick building. The building’s most famous room, the blue hall, hosts the Noble Prize banquet dinner. Scandinavia’s largest organ is here. After dinner, guests move to the marvelously decorated Golden Hall to dance. It owes its name to the more than 18 million golden ceramic tiles that decorate it. There is also a large green courtyard, Borgargården.
The Vasa Museum on Djurgården Island isn’t famous for its exterior, but rather for its interior. It houses the only preserved 17th-century ship in the world. Unfortunately, in 1628 the warship Vasa sunk on its first voyage. In 1961, after taking the ship out of the sea, a slow and meticulous restoration process began. Since opening in 1990, the Vasa Museum has become Sweden’s most visited museum. It includes ten different exhibitions about life on the ship. An absolute must for any visitor to Stockholm.
Another very old building is the impressive Riddarholmen Church, on tiny Riddarholmen Island. Though its construction date isn’t clear, it is Stockholm’s oldest abbey. A large spire built after the protestant revolution in the 16th century burnt down in 1835. The current one, made in cast iron, replaced it. It used to be a parish church until 1807 when the congregation dissolved. Since then, only burials and commemorations take place. It is the resting place of all Swedish monarchs that died between 1632 and 1950, except Queen Christina. During summer, the church opens as a museum.
Royal Dramatic Theater
Another Stockholm landmark you should visit is the lovely Royal Dramatic Theater. King Gustav III founded the theater in 1788 and separated it from the National Opera. Originally, it shared the same space with opera. Later on, it moved to the Arsenalen Palace, which burned down in 1825. It was only in 1908 that the theater moved to its current location. Architect Fredrik Lilljekvist designed an art nouveau palace inspired by Viennese Secession. Its numerous decorative elements like façade reliefs, sculptures, lamps, and the furniture make it one of Sweden’s most lavishly decorated buildings.
The Best Stockholm Viewpoints and Lookouts
Though Stockholm boasts several tall towers and spires, you can’t climb most of them. Actually, you can’t access any church tower. Fortunately, two nice buildings do offer access to their towers and are worth checking out. The first one is the above mentioned Stockholm City Hall. Located at the tip of Kungsholmen Island, it’s a great place to admire Gamla Stan and Södermalm Island from above. On the other hand, the Kaknäs TV Tower is located in the periphery east of the city center and north of Djurgården Island. Nevertheless, the views from its 155-meter tall tower are pretty impressive.
Due to its location and topographical characteristics, Södermalm Island offers some of the best views of the city. Large cliffs hosting some of Stockholm’s nicest neighborhoods and viewpoints surround its entire northern coast. Our favorite is Monteliusvägen Street, close to Slussen. Apart from its charming architecture, there is a nice park, Ivar Los, where young locals picnic. You can enjoy killer sunsets from here, above the City Hall and Gamla Stan. On the other side of Slussen, Fjällgatan Street offers direct views of Gamla Stan and Djurgården. While you are here, you might want to visit the nearby Photography Museum.
Another popular place from where you can enjoy Stockholm from above is the famous Ericsson Globe. The Globe is the world’s largest spherical building, and its moving viewing platform called SkyView offers 360 degrees views. Nevertheless, we were a bit disappointed. You can barely see any of Stockholm’s historical sites, the sea, or the islands. Since its location is remote, you only see the surrounding area, which we didn’t find appealing. That is if we exclude nearby Skogskyrkogården, which is definitely worth a visit. The UNESCO listed World Heritage Site, is the resting place of several important Swedes.
Where to Stay in Stockholm
Since Stockholm is a popular tourist destination, there are plenty of hotels in different categories. That said, lower category hotels cost almost as much as 4-star hotels. Thus, these are poor value for money. We stayed at the wonderful Scandic Norra Bantorget in downtown Stockholm, on a lovely square just off Drottninggatan Street. Our modern room was spacious, comfy, and offered great views of the surrounding area. If you rather stay in a historic palace in front of the sea, we recommend the elegant Hotel Esplanade. This Art Nouveau palace from 1910 offers first-class accommodation and fantastic views.
Stockholm has a developed network of public transportation that includes metro, suburban trains, buses, trams, boats, and a bike-sharing system. We highly suggest taking the Stockholm Metro, one of the nicest metro systems in the world. Its stations are works of art, some painted in live colors, some with sculptures, and others resembling giant caves. The most impressive ones are Centralen, Stadion, and Kungsträdgården. Other than the metro, the best way to enjoy Stockholm’s highlights is to tour the city on a boat. You can either take a hop-on hop-off boat or a ferry. We took one to the gorgeous Island of Vaxholm, and can’t recommend it enough.