Stockholm, the capital of Scandinavia, is made up of many islands which span into a breathtaking archipelago. I was amazed how quickly I fell for this gorgeous city, considering the only reputation that forebodes it is its expense. But maybe that was due to my energetic tour guide Aus, who teased out the cities secrets. (And yes, we used most of the public toilets…)
I landed late into the light skied evening and made my way to its western suburbs to meet Ausrine, one of my best friends from Milford Sound, who called this city home. Showing off your own town is a challenge, but also an amazing opportunity to appreciate it through fresh eyes.
My first introduction the next morning was to Swedish foods. Kallescavier is the main thing Aus claimed to miss while living abroad, crushed fish eggs and sugar in a pinkish paste. Served on rye bread with egg or cheese, this seemed a pretty stark introduction to Scandinavian diet. Under instruction I tried it, and it was surprisingly tasty.
With an ambitious itinerary, we made for the city centre and already the train crossed bridges and bodies of water. The main station square is Platten, a tiled square which seems to have a reputation with Stockholmers of drug taking, protests and the recent terror attacks. Close by however it leads to Drottingstratten, queens street, where high end shopping is taken seriously. Reaching our first body of water, grand parliamentary buildings came into sight and the modern city met its elder counterpart Gamma Stan.
We were lucky with the weather and the blue skies accentuated the yellows and terracottas of the old pedestrianised streets. Swedish traditional designs and Viking memorabilia dominated the quaint fronted stores. Included in the menagerie of buildings were two grand churches and the Royal palace. In the outer courtyard the drum beat marked the mornings ceremonial changing of the guard. The navy clad guards performed their march with precision to he gathering crowd. Old town felt alive.
In the square, recognisable town houses of different colours stood proud over the cobbled courtyard. Aus had even built in cultural coffee breaks and we had a stop at Cafe Stan Sture, a prison vault below the city where a notorious military officer was in prisoner in 1792.
We left Gamma Stan by ferry to the next island, Kingsholmen, and as we zoomed out on the city, the parade of beautifully fronted buildings making up the skyline cemented my love for Stockholm. The two church spires stood proud and the twinkling gold tip of the city hall protruded in the distance.
Kingsholmen and Skeppsholmen are two conjoined islands, although most of the islands are joined by bridges. As we landed to explore the rain closed in on us. Heavy pellets pounded us, but with the vast skyline surrounding us you could see windows of blue sky, as well as fast moving dark clouds. Kingsholmen is a quaint fortress mount with castle and canons, where’s Skeppsholmen is a cultural centre housing many museums including the art museum where Aus works. With boats moored up all around and much vegetation, you don’t often feel like you’re in dense cityscapes.
We crossed the bridge back to Kings parade and went for a traditional Swedish version of McDonald’s. We sat facing out people watching people speed up and down the wide avenues streets.
Taking a hard right, we followed the water out of the built up part of the city. Boats of all sized manoeuvred the waterways, and grand architecture dotted along the waters edge, the grand Vasamuseet and Nordic Museum, as well as town houses with grand frontages.
We retraced our steps by tram, then ferry over to Mousebakke for a different vantage of the city. From the start of south Stockholm we took a lift, which elevated us enough to join up the cities various islands with a birds eye view. A perfect place for a Swedish beer.
Silencing any protests from tired feet, we then crossed to the city hall to walk back through the parks, play in the playground and slowly head home. The water in the city is where lake meets ocean, so the water changes in colour and nature as you walk around.
Second day was a chance to explore the Swedish Archipelago and we were at the waters edge early to board our boat out through the islands. The rocky outcrops varied in size, many inhabited by a few small houses, a jetty, or a few boats harboured up.
My inability to speak Swedish was our ploy to get away with acting like tourists and Aus sent me to ask if we could go into the wheelhouse and speak to the skipper. After initial confusion, they waved us up to go and explain our interest in boats. The skipper however seemed unimpressed and we soon gave up our questioning.
At Sandhamn the bow of the boat came up and we were able to disembark. Sandhamn was a customs outpost and has been inhabited since 1600. Now its 200 inhabitants continue to live in quaint, traditional housing, the brightly coloured Nordic style. As we snapped away the coastal fronted houses and imagined life on the edge of this little island, we moved further towards the tip of the island where habitation blended into dense forest. At the end of the wooded path, two girls stood waiting for our approach, like little shy muggers, with a tray of goodies infront of them. Much to our amusement they were selling slices of sponge cake and stone creatures they had created with glitter, glue and pom poms. They rejoiced our 50 kroners and waited patiently for their next customers, as we left chuffed with our unique souvenirs.
From one side of the island, we crossed to the other where several beaches looked out on the vast body of sea separating Sweden from Finland. The water was uninviting, immediately freezing our toes, in contrast to the warmth of the afternoon. We settled in for a picnic on the beach, Swedish style, yes- more eggs, cheese and fish paste.
On a pedestrian island we took up hitchhiking, unintentionally flagging down a small Flakmoppe, or tractor with trailer. We sat tightly in the back clocking up speeds which barely exceeded the walking pace, but collecting a menagerie of dogs and confused passers by behind us.
The boat weaved back through the islands and we slowly made our way back to the west side of the city, but our days itinerary was far from over. Our evenings sightseeing was still to include a trip to Drottingholm. The queens palace was on the waterfront, a royal residence away from the central city. In the evenings quiet we could imagine we had the Royal gardens to ourselves, save the navy clad guards patrolling in formation.
After some traditional Swedish tacos, we went out for a traditional Swedish beer, before falling into bed, unperturbed by the light sky cracking into red.
Having scored highly in city and nature, today was Swedish playtime. We headed for Skansen, a step into rural Sweden of the 1900’s. Old streets of rescued buildings showed the life of the woodworker, the glassblower and the post office. The smell of cinnamon buns wafted from the bakery, a tradition they haven’t allow to slip into the past. From allotments to market streets we were transported to a time far past, still in view of the modern city. Wolves and bears, moose and reindeer were there too. The lives of the Sami people of the far north of Sweden were explored through wooden huts and hyde rugs. We learned of the honour of owning a reindeer in these hardy tribes.
The afternoon was playtime. We headed to Stockholm’s Tivoli, or theme park, Grona Lund. Teacups, dodgems, stomach renching roller coasters and free fall towers overlooked the city, giving something to distract you as you contemplated leaving your summer at the top of a 90metre tower. We dangled from swings that soared at 90metres and twisted in the wind, gorged on candy floss, and enjoyed the last few hours that long distance best friends get together.
High on sugar and adrenaline we skipped dinner and headed straight to meet Aus’s friend Carlos for a quick succession of beers. Giggling and giddy definitely made the train ride home interesting, as Aus stood in the corner loudly demonstrating how Swedes should ride without making eye contact. With that, I was in bed before the sun, not looking forward to the early morning wake up to continue on to Greenland.
When to visit: In the summer months, May til August, Sweden gets very light nights. Midsummer is celebrated on 21st June and the sun doesn’t set in the north. Winter has other draws including the northern lights and snowy season.
Visas: Sweden has a relationship with Europe which allows for passport free travel. If you need a tourist visa for Europe is would include Sweden.
Currency: Swedish crowns at of almost 10 to the pound making for a simple conversion. Cards are widely accepted.
Highly recommended: in this water city, make sure to take a boat to get a different perspective.
Language: The Swedes are amazing at English, but ‘takk takk’ is appreciated.