Our two-hour KLM flight from Amsterdam descended over the Baltic Sea, then farmland, forests and lakes to Arlanda Airport in Stockholm at around 11 p.m., shortly after dark. night. The terminal was quiet as we wandered around with our rolling hand luggage – no stops for checked bags, passport control or customs – and we just walked through the front door to clear skies, stars sparkles and a cool, soft air. Several taxis, including the waving driver, were parked a few steps away.
The driver’s invitation worked and we were whisked silently by his electric taxi along the nearly empty E4 highway to our Scandic Gamla Stan hotel. The building dates from the 17th century, with high ceilings, papered rooms, older artwork, and no air conditioning, just fans. We had requested a quiet room, and it was, facing an inner courtyard and the neighboring building, which sported a brass plaque identifying it as the Indian Embassy.
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“Gamla Stan” translates to “old town”. Really old, in this case, as this island neighborhood is the site of the original 13th-century Stockholm. Adding to its history and appeal, it has its own metro station and is walkable to nearby areas of Stockholm, connected to tour boats, central station, museums and shopping.
A fine, fresh hotel breakfast reintroduced us to delicious Swedish pancakes, lightly topped with elderberry jam and whipped cream. Well fortified, we go out to orient ourselves – in light rain – which happens quite often. Rain gear and umbrella protected, we began the first of many traverses from our island base, passing the Grand Royal Palace and then crossing one of Stockholm’s 57 bridges, this one at the confluence of Lake Malaren and the Baltic, then to the Swedish History Museum. .
Built in 1943, the museum educated us on the medieval to modern centuries, with bilingual exhibits throughout. We already had an idea of Viking explorations, especially in North America, but we learned new knowledge about travel, especially in Africa and the Middle East. We also learned that Sweden was a Northern European power from the 1500s to the 1700s, with control at various times over what is now Norway, Denmark, Finland, Poland, the Baltics and parts of Russia – with occasional wars in various directions. Sweden’s star died out in the 19th century, its empire shrank and its agrarian economy weakened. In the second half of this century, many people who could emigrate to Canada and the United States; and Chicago eventually received more Swedes than any city other than Stockholm. The Industrial Age began a turnaround, with Sweden becoming progressively more prosperous from the turn of the 20th century and continuing to the present day. The museum also kept us dry for a few hours, and their cafe served a good lunch.
The rain cleared up in the late afternoon as we crossed another bridge and through the Parliament complex back to ‘our’ island to relax and eventually find a nice dinner around the corner from the hotel.
The city, with its population of nearly one million, and surrounded by the metropolitan area with a total population of nearly two and a half million, is built on fourteen islands, hence the many bridges.
Outside the city is the Stockholm archipelago, made up of thousands of islands, many of which are inhabited. Some are accessible by bus from the city, and many others are accessible by boat. We enjoyed the next sunny day on a Stromma Thousand Islands cruise on a classic archipelago ship, the steamer Waxholm III, built in 1903. An easy walk from our hotel led to the dock and departure at 9 o’clock. We left the central harbor at a majestic pace, passing giant docked ferries that criss-cross the sea to Finland and the Baltics, as well as cruise ships from all over the world. The landscape became increasingly green towards the sea between islands often close enough to exchange greetings with those ashore. The islands have been populated for centuries, with full-time and vacation residences ranging from tiny primitive cabins to glamorous elaborate estates with their own docks. The long day included stops at three pretty islands, for a convenient convenience store, short guided hikes, and cinnamon rolls to augment the gourmet portions of lunch and dinner on board. The trip ended with a return to dock at 8:30 am.
Many cities offer “Hop On – Hop Off” bus services to help travelers easily maneuver between points of interest. Stockholm is taking the service further by adding boats, so visitors can also explore the city’s islands and waterways. We started by bus and, after crossing several neighborhoods, we dismounted to visit the famous historical park and open-air museum of Skansen.
The park is upstream from the waterfront and accessible by an escalator and a lift. Several “town quarters” depict typical 19th-century Swedish life, with older buildings reclaimed for residences, farms, and various businesses. Rides, entertainment and food are also in abundance.
Opposite Skansen is the large amusement park Grona Lund, from where you could hear the delighted cries of people on several thrilling rides.
We skipped the thrill rides and instead visited another nearby attraction, the Abba Museum – who could resist some light entertainment capturing the background and especially the music of the famous 70s band? The museum backs onto the waterfront and after our visit, we didn’t have to wait long for our Hop On – Hop Off boat to explore more Stockholm, eventually taking us back to Gamla Stan for an easy walk back to the hotel, and later at the nearby Flying Elk restaurant for dinner.
The enormous Royal Palace dominates one side of Gamla Stan and is just a few minutes from our hotel. We visited it on a beautiful, sunny Sunday morning, absorbing the elaborate beauty of just a few of its 600 rooms. A small basement is all that remains of the original palace, which was consumed by a huge fire in 1697. Rebuilding began soon after, and the royal family was finally able to step back in 1754. The additions and improvements continued, and it is now one of the largest palaces in the world still used as a working building for the monarchy. The timing of our visit was fortunate, as we, along with several hundred other visitors, enjoyed the daily Changing of the Guard ceremony, accompanied by lively music by a military band.
Although the monarchy still uses part of this palace for work and ceremonies, the royal family has lived since 1981 in the suburban palace of Drottningholm, originally built at the end of the 16th century and used for most of the 18th century as a royal summer residence. We took a short trip the next day over Lake Malaren to visit this charming, expansive palace and its lush gardens, with pools, fountains and a Chinese pavilion built in the 1760s.
Our trip back to town gave plenty of time to visit the famous City Hall, completed in 1923, and not far from the tour boat dock. It was late enough in the warm afternoon that the interior of the building was unavailable, so we were unable to visit its Blue Room, where the Nobel Banquet is held each December, the day after the Nobel Prizes are awarded. However, the building’s 348-foot-tall tower on the waterfront was still open. We walked its lift halfway and finished the ascent through a narrow catwalk and stairs. At the top, the open-air observation deck offered splendid views of the city, and an usher graciously took our picture.
Vacation travel isn’t quite complete without gifts for family and friends. In this case, Jean bought some Fjallraven backpacks (the name translates to “arctic fox”) from the Swedish company’s flagship store in downtown Stockholm for the grandkids in time for their return to school. school.
Dinner at another excellent restaurant around the corner from the hotel – Le Moritz – was in its lovely dining room in the basement. Bolognese pasta for Jean and scampi pasta with cream sauce for Gérald. Our server was a Swedish Navy veteran who had served on submarines and remembered how small they looked when a US Navy sub docked next to them during a visit few years ago.
And then it was time to leave. On our last morning, we rolled our bags about 15 minutes to Central Station to board a fast train to Copenhagen. We passed through verdant farmland, tunnels, huge forest stands and numerous lakes and streams, with stops in nine towns and villages, gliding silently and thinking about learning how to make those great pancakes.
Stockholm offers what a great city should be: safety, cleanliness, history, beauty and charm. Highly recommended!