There’s something very familiar, yet undeniably distant about Sweden. Whether it’s via the country’s ferociously prolific music industry, or a tasteful assortment of affordable, home assembled furniture, Scandinavia’s largest country has probably found its way into your home, one way or another. Yet when it comes to planning a Europe trip, Stockholm can seem like a bit of a detour.
All the better for those who make the trip.
After three days exploring Stockholm, I couldn’t help but think, “this ought to be one of the most popular cities in Europe.” If it weren’t for its relative remoteness (and to some extent, price tag), Stockholm would surely rival Amsterdam as one of the continent’s “must do” stops. The city offers its visitors a treasure trove of Swedish history, an easy to navigate transit system, great shopping, dining, and nightlife, and perhaps most of all, an archipelago setting that’s as spectacular outside the city as it is within.
There are endless ways to spend three days in the Swedish capital, but here’s a rough reproduction of my itinerary, on this part of my Europe trip, taking in the best of Stockholm without rushing things.
You’ve seen them in pictures. Narrow, autumn-hued buildings looming over the town square where tourists snap photos and stop for a much needed fika break (more on that later) at one of the surrounding cafes. These much-photographed buildings overlook Stortorget, Stockholm’s oldest town square. This roughly marks the middle of Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town, where you’ll also find the Royal Palace. In fact, all roads in Gamla Stan seem to lead to the palace, so it’s difficult to get too lost, even in the cozy medieval streets here. Yes, it’s kind of touristy, but the crowds are nothing on par with many other European capitals. You’re still likely to find more locals than visitors in any given restaurant, and beloved local bars and stores prevent the souvenir shops from completely taking over. So spend a couple of hours exploring Stockholm at your leisure.
The Royal Palace is one of Stockholm’s must-sees, packed with displays of Sweden’s royal history, along with famously eccentric Gustav III’s collection of ancient Roman art, the Antikmuseum. If you’re pushed for time, head straight for the Royal Armoury, where you’ll not only receive a crash course in Swedish history, but enjoy the opportunity to gawk at armour, weapons, costumes (including, perhaps ghoulishly, the clothes several Swedish monarchs died in, including Gustav III), and a stunning collection of royal coaches in the Armoury’s lower level. This is a good option for visitors on a budget too, since unlike the rest of the palace, a visit to the Armoury is free.
Across the bridge lies Norrmalm, the business hub of modern Stockholm. There are a number of intriguing museums to explore here, or you can just stroll the Kurgstradgarden or Humlegarden if you need a breath a fresh air while deciding how to spend the afternoon. Our pick was the fascinating (and free) Moderna Museet, a modern art museum boasting a mix of 20th Century and contemporary art, plus visiting exhibits. The views of the palace and Gamla Stan seal the deal, since the museum is located just a short, picturesque walk away on the island of Skeppsholmen.
Stockholm’s islands define its geography, and in many ways, its urban identity. They also create one of the most beautiful urban settings on a Europe trip. While Amsterdam and Venice enchant millions of tourists with their canals, Stockholm came by its impressive waterways naturally, and you’re cheating yourself if you don’t get out and explore them, at least a little.
Stockholm’s transit system is fast, efficient, and covers most of the city with buses, trains, and the Stockholm Metro, several stations of which are famous for their art installations and individual themes. By far the most enjoyable way to see Stockholm though is by boat. Two popular ferry trips take visitors to the city’s further flung highlights. To the west, Drottningholm Palace is the opulent current residence of the Swedish Royal Family, complete with its own opera house and gardens.
The other popular trip is to Vaxholm, an island at the eastern edge of Stockholm commonly considered the “gateway” to the more leisurely side of the Stockholm Archipelago. But it’s not just the boat trip to Vaxholm that’s got me excited. Friends have asked me to tag along for a day out on the archipelago itself, and that’s an invitation I can’t resist. We set out across the cool waters, through the seemingly endless islands and islets that lead to the Baltic Sea. Don’t bother counting. Just trust me when I say there are around 24,000 of them! The many coves, passages, and densely forested islands create a natural landscape that seems almost surreal. But this is also cottage country, Stockholm style, with locals claiming their slice of this paradise with everything from tiny, secluded shacks to palatial homes.
An archipelago cruise (either with friends, or commercially) isn’t the only reason to visit Vaxholm. History buffs wanting the lowdown on the archipelago’s past can explore the Vaxholm Fortress Museum, a short ferry ride from Vaxholm’s docks. The town itself is a great place to simply wander for an hour or two before catching the ferry back to Stockholm (or take the bus back if you linger too long). When it’s time to recharge, choose your indulgence from the tasty cake buffet at Hembygdsgards Café. The café is only open during the summer, and you’ll want to avoid peak morning and afternoon tea times to skip a queue that stretches well beyond the front door.
At first glance, Djurgarden looks like the tourist epicentre of Stockholm. Honestly, it is, but you’ll probably be having too much fun to care. Catching the ferry from Gamla Stan (I’m in one of the most beautiful waterside cities in the world and I intend to travel by boat as much as possible), choices are endless, as we step onto the dock with Grona Lund amusement park on one side, and Pop House on the other. Our destination on this Europe trip, however, is Sweden’s most visited museum, and with good reason.
What does it say that Sweden has turned its greatest naval embarrassment into one of its most popular attractions? True, they’ve had almost 400 years to get over it, and the retrieval and conservation of the warship Vasa, showcased at the carefully temperature controlled Vasa Museum, is an undeniable achievement… even if the ship itself proved woefully unprepared for seafaring, much less, warfare. Salvaged from the floor of Stockholm Harbour in 1961, the 226-foot ship is the most intact wreck of its era, well-preserved by the chilly waters of the Baltic. The museum tells the story of its construction, ill-fated maiden voyage, and its fascinating resurrection with displays, informative films, guided tours, and of course the awe-inspiring hull of the Vasa itself.
If the Vasa Museum tells the story of an infamous failure, just a couple of doors up, you’ll find Sweden’s greatest pop success story. ABBA the Museum is the interactive centrepiece of Pop House, a showcase of Sweden’s many contributions to the world of pop and rock. As an unabashed ABBA and Europop geek, and I couldn’t not stop by! Besides which, Australians are famous for their love of ABBA. In fact, more than a few locals have already asked me if the group is my main attraction to Sweden. So, here we go…
Appropriately, the museum opens with an exhibit devoted to the event that first put ABBA and Swedish pop music on the map – the Eurovision Song Contest. You’ll find costumes worn by former winners, including Celine Dion, who won the competition for Switzerland in 1988. We then dive into the story of ABBA, in all its sequin-studded, platform-shoed glory! I recommend picking up the audio guide (narrated by ABBA themselves) to give the exhibits that extra shot of personality. Besides the narration and detailed recreations of the group’s original studio, backstage area, and more, you can try your hand at mixing a few ABBA classics, or even lay down a few vocals to see how your voice blends with Benny and Bjorn (Don’t worry. Nobody’s judging!). If you really want to show off, take the stage with a holographic recreation of the group. The museum’s last few galleries are a treasure trove for fans, holding most of the band’s most famous costumes from their various tours and videos.
If you have kids in tow – or just *gasp* aren’t an ABBA fan, I’d recommend heading to Skansen instead. Starting the open air museum trend. This vast park is designed to preserve traditional Sweden in miniature, including demonstrations of traditional arts and crafts, historic architecture, and a zoo with native Swedish animals. If you’re not planning on venturing beyond Stockholm, on your Europe trip, visiting here is a great way to bring the country – both past and present – to you.
Other Stockholm Highlights
For a relatively small city off the main “Europe vacation” route, Stockholm is packed with things to see and do. While the Archipelago is undoubtedly a summer attraction, many of the city’s offerings can be enjoyed year round. Here are a few you might want to add to your visit, or swap in for the attractions in the itinerary above.
A private museum in Sodermalm, Fotografiska is devoted to photographic art in all its forms, attracting world class exhibitions, and offering a café/bar with great views over the harbour.
This spectacular building overlooks the Vasa Museum, and pulls back the curtain on Nordic fashion, décor, and traditions.
Museum of Medieval Stockholm
Explore the streets of the Old Town as it once was, in this multimedia museum on Helgandsholmen, between the Royal Palace and Norrmalm.
Located right on Stortorget in Gamla Stan, the Nobel Museum tells the story of the Nobel’s winners, with exhibits inspired by their contributions.
This 13th Century church is the final resting place of many Swedish monarchs, and retains its ceremonial functions today.
Stockholm City Hall
Stockholm City Hall is an imposing Romance-era building overlooking Stockholm Harbour, with impressive views from its tower.
Swedish History Museum
If you’re looking to dive into the Viking era or Middle Ages, the Swedish History Museum is for you.
Local Tips and Traditions
English speakers will find Stockholm one of the easiest cities in the world to explore, but there are some key differences to be aware of (and enjoy).
- Swedish people are often seen as being quite reserved with strangers, and this stereotype is only part exaggeration. Swedes value personal space, politeness, and privacy, and will rarely initiate social contact before it’s invited. Don’t mistake this for hostility. Once the barrier is broken, they’re some of the nicest, most helpful people you’ll meet. Asking for directions here will result in detailed instructions in perfect English, and those working in customer service can be surprisingly chatty, particularly with foreigners.
- One Swedish tradition you might want to bring home is the fika. While nowhere near as fancy as the English high tea, Swedes like to break up the work day with coffee and a pastry by mid-afternoon, an institution known as fika. Doing the same with your sightseeing is a great way to recharge in the most Swedish way possible.
- Yes, most all Swedes (at least under a certain age) speak English. But even your worst attempt at Swedish (mine was awful) will endear you to them. The two languages have more in common than you’d think. Still, with one of the world’s highest standards of living, Stockholm has attracted diaspora from all over Europe, so English becomes the lingua franca a lot of the time.
- For budget travellers on a trip to Europe, food, drink, and transport can be shockingly expensive in Stockholm, with few workarounds. Consider picking up a 3-day transit pass that gives you access to the metro, trains, buses, and ferries (excluding the ferry to Vaxholm). When it comes to food, lunch specials and smorgasbords are your best bets for keeping your budget under control without resorting to fast food (which isn’t a bargain in Stockholm anyway). Alcohol is strictly regulated and while cheaper than in Iceland or Norway, a few rounds at a bar in Stockholm will add up quickly.