Easter isn’t the best time to visit Stockholm. The trees are bare and the weather can be drab and chilly, but we loved every minute of our stay in the capital of Sweden.
I actually had very few preconceptions about Stockholm.
I knew it as a city of water, islands and ludicrously priced alcohol. I knew it as home to the strange heroine of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium novels, Lisbeth Salander and, of course, Abba. But that was about it.
During our long weekend we never did find Lisbeth or her journalist friend Mikael Blomkvist, let alone anyone resembling Abba’s hit-makers, but we did find a glorious city built on water and scary bar bills.
After spending a few days we left rating Stockholm highly. It offered us a bit of everything, embraced the future as much as its past and was lively enough to keep us busy into the early hours, with a surprisingly good foodie scene and a safe and friendly vibe.
We based ourselves in Gamla Stan on the island of Stadsholmen, the historic heart of the city. It was a district of alleyways and ancient buildings as well as tourist-tastic streets and buzzing shops. Venturing out for a walk in the drizzle of a Good Friday morning, we were struck by the grand, imperial buildings lining the waterways beyond. This was a city and a people that, in the past at least, celebrated its power with buildings on a monumental scale.
Gamla Stan is definitely the most popular district with tourists but we quickly learned to avoid the main drag of Västerlånggatan and its key arteries. Hidden down the streets away from the worst of the crowds were delightful cafes and bakeries, stylish houses and apartments, stately churches and little boutiques for shopping enthusiasts. Unlike some other European cities, there was little litter and graffiti.
The district remains the seat of power, rich in history.
We found the main square in Gamla Stan, Stortorget, which is dominated by delightful old merchants’ homes. Notoriously, it was the site of the Stockholm Bloodbath, an early 16th century massacre of Swedish noblemen by the Danish King Christian II. This in turn brought about a revolt and civil war, followed by the rise of Swedish power.
Things were a bit more peaceful during our stay.
Elsewhere in Gamla Stan we discovered the vast and rather austere Kungliga slottet, the Royal Palace. From the size of it, and it really is massive, the building must have hundreds of rooms but around a dozen or so of the state apartments were open to the public on our visit. They were typically grand, with some impressive chandeliers, fine art and furnishings but little different from any other royal palace in Europe.
Sweden is one of the few European countries that hasn’t abolished, beheaded or exiled their royals. However, the king and his family tend to spend most of their time a few miles out of town, away from the rabble in the attractive Drottningholm’s Palace, which we reached using a train and bus. We didn’t realise until later that we could’ve caught a ferry from the city.
The entrance to the palace proved to be an extravagant pile of marble, and the rooms an odd mixture of the exceptionally grand and the humble. The grounds were lost in a wintry mist.
Back to the city we went and, with blue skies, took to the water using the city’s excellent ferry service to get to the island of Djurgården and the open-air Skansen museum.
No doubt with a family in tow, this oddly old-fashioned attraction would be a real winner but for an old cynic like me it was a weird place that couldn’t quite work out what it wanted to be. Zoo? Fairground? History lesson? The best bits were the historic buildings – homes, churches, windmills and the like – that had been rescued from destruction and rebuilt on the site to give an idea of what village life would’ve been like in the four corners of Sweden in centuries past. Perhaps it would’ve looked better in the full bloom of summer and without the light dusting of snow on the ground…
A short distance away from Skansen, and hidden away in a monstrously unattractive building, is what I reckon to be the finest attraction in the city: The extraordinary Vasa – which I’ve written about elsewhere.
We had a couple of (expensive) beers and a plate of Swedish meatballs in the excellent cafe in the ship’s museum after our tour.
That set us up nicely for a beer and some tasty Swedish home cooking at Restaurant Pelikan that evening. It’s a glorious old beer hall not far from the Skanstull metro station, and we tucked into a delicious pork knuckle.
We spent the next day experiencing the old and the new of Stockholm. On the one hand, the City Hall – a magnificent red-brick (eight million of them in all) building in the national romantic style that hosts the annual Nobel Prize ceremonies. We took a guided tour and discovered a building of extraordinary variety, rooms that offered anything from Renaissance touches to art deco. The Golden Hall was the highlight – a masterpiece of mosaic and gold with Gaudiesque touches.
A short hop on the metro and we found ourselves at the Fotografiska Museet, which opened as a centre for contemporary photography in 2010 in a stylish (and also red brick) industrial art nouveau building. It’s got a cafe with great views and a well-stocked shop.
We spent our final evening in Sodermalm, a busy and lively district with some good eateries and bars (from the noisy and drunken to the cosmopolitan). We lodged ourselves in the friendly and funky Urban Deli – a cross between an up-market food shop, restaurant and bar.
But funky or not, the beers still cost an arm and a leg.
And would we go back? You bet. But we’ll do it in summer next time.