Stockholm and Helsinki
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, delighted to be your travel partner as we explore more of my favorite European destinations. If I had to call one European city home, this would be it — Stockholm. Surrounded by water and woods, rustling with energy and history, Sweden's stunning capital is green, clean, and underrated.
In time we'll start in Swedens capital of Stockholm. We'll see its impressive town hall and an Opera in its' royal palace, then crawl through Europe's best-preserved old warship, browse through its old town, and sample traditional Swedish life at Europe's first and best open-air folk museum. Then we'll hop a luxurious cruise ship for the scenic overnight ride to Finland and explore its capital Helsinki including the stunning Church in the Rock.
In Scandinavia, Sweden and Finland are separated by the Baltic Sea. From Stockholm, we'll take a ferry across the Baltic to Helsinki
...But first it's Stockholm
Ah, a good parade. It turns even the most dignified tourist into a scampering kid.
While progressive and sleek, Stockholm respects its heritage. Each noontime, throughout the summer, marching bands parade through town announcing the changing of the guard at the royal palace. The military beat seems counter to Sweden's work for peace during the 20th century.
This ceremony in the royal courtyard recalls, instead, the 17th & 18th centuries when Sweden was the marshal power to be reckoned with up here in the north.
Although the Swedish royal family calls this place their downtown address, they actually live outside of town at Drottningholm. The seventeenth-century castle has been called Sweden's Versailles. This royal remnant of power now is home to a modern constitutional monarch whose duties are mainly ceremonial.
Tourists wander through the gardens and can tour the palace, but the real highlight is its adjacent baroque theater. Elegant reception rooms call to mind glittering royal parties 200 years ago. But it's the stage itself that's the big draw.
The theatre's heyday began in 1777, when King Gustaf III took over the palace. He liked to party and kept the theatre alive with ballets and operas. But all that came to an abrupt end when the King was assassinated at a masked ball in 1792. The theater fell into disuse and, over the centuries, was forgotten.
In the 1920's, The Queen's Theater was discovered incredibly intact. And today performances are given in the original style — the instruments, costumes even the wind-making machines.
Everything is historically authentic. Tonight the opera is Jacopo Peri's Euridice.
Euridice was first performed in Florence in the year 1600. Many consider this the year opera was born. To a modern audience, this first musical drama, plain and unadorned, seems pretty archaic — but it's a wonderful peak into the fantasies of 17th century dreamers.
Old time operas and palaces are only the beginning of this city's treats. To get organized here, I head to Stockholm's tourist information center. It offers the same travel help as tourist centers in other cities, but it's also a great place to do a little more serious research. Its library features leaflets — in English — on any aspect of Swedish culture.
OK. I've got health care system, the flag and coat of arms, with the national anthem, care for the elderly in Sweden, and Swedish inventions.
For instance did you know that a Swede invented the crescent wrench — 1892.
At the tourist information desk you can pick up a Stockholm Card. As sightseeing admissions get more and more expensive, this is an ever better deal. So what do we get this year?
For the price of about three museum admissions, I've got 24-hours free entry to virtually every sight — that's 71 places, plus free run of all the public subways and buses, a fine map, and this handy sightseeing booklet.
For the independent traveler, Europe's better organized than ever. If you enjoy the challenge of figuring things out, the information is all there...in English. Now, some people aren't inclined to do this work for themselves. They get two weeks off...and for their vacation, they want someone else to do the research and make arrangements for them.
If that's you...fine. Take a tour...or a spouse. The point is, as long as you, or your travel partner, is willing to play tour guide, you can travel on your own. If you simply equip yourself with good information and expect yourself to travel smart, you can.
According to my Stockholm Card booklet, there's an English-language guided tour of the city hall at the top of the hour.
The Stadshuset or city hall is an impressive mix of eight million bricks and lots of Stockholm pride. It's the site of the Nobel Prize banquet and one of Europe's most impressive early 20th century buildings.
Guide:...the most famous event, that's the Nobel Prize Banquet which is held in here the 10th of December each year. On that date this huge hall, built in the 1920s as a romantic tip of the hat to Sweden's past, is filled with 1300 guests.
Guide: And all the guests enter through the door where you came in except the guests of honor, which come down this staircase behind me at exactly 7:00 o'clock. While churches dominate cities in southern Europe, in the Scandinavian capitals, city halls seem to be the impressive buildings.
Guide: This is the City Council, and here the 101 members of the city council meet every second Monday.
The chamber is supposed to remind delegates here of their Viking past. Its ceiling is designed to look like an overturned Viking long boat, with its beautifully painted wooden ribs exposed.
Guide: The Vikings held meetings under their boats, deciding about what they were going to do the next summer — what church they were going to raid and so forth.
So today's representatives meet, as did their ancestors, under an overturned boat. And finally the tour leads to the magnificent golden room — the scene of the grand ball which follows the Nobel Prize Banquet. Here's where honorees twirl away the night surrounded by 19 million glittering chips of mosaic.
The City Hall tower offers a commanding view of Stockholm. Greater Stockholm's nearly two million residents live on 14 islands, which are woven together by fifty bridges. Gamla Stan is Stockholm's now-gentrified old island core.
Gamla Stan is the oldest part of Stockholm. Its cobbled back lanes and proud church spires tell stories of medieval Stockholm. This church was the church of the Germans...back when lots of German merchants lived and traded right here. Today, the period in history these visitors to Gamla Stan are focusing on is right now.
For a trip back in time, Skansen is Europe's original and best open-air folk museum. It's a huge park with over 150 historic homes, shops, churches, and schoolhouses transplanted from all corners of Sweden.
There's folk dancing nearly every evening.
Inside each farm or house there's a person dressed in a traditional outfit, who assumes the role of a historical character, describing daily life from a particular period.
The docents take seriously their job of bringing to life the carefully researched details of the past. Here's where speedy tourists can sweep through the countryside and centuries of lifestyles without even leaving the capital.
Near Skansen, the mighty warship Vasa is moored in concrete. Stockholm turned a titanic flop into one of Scandinavia's great sightseeing attractions. The Vasa — while heralded as the ultimate warship of her day — sank, just minutes into her maiden voyage.
It was 1628. She was top-heavy with a tacked-on extra row of cannon. A breeze caught the sails and blew it over. The Vasa spent over 300 years at the bottom of Stockholm's harbor. In 1961, with the help of steel cables and huge inflatable pontoons, the Vasa rose again from the deep.
Today the Vasa, the best-preserved ship of its kind, is chemically petrified and housed in a state-of-the-art museum.
Vasa Guide: As you can see the Vasa has a lot of sculptures and ornaments. In fact you find over 700 sculptures on this ship. And it was supposed to show the power of the king himself, Gustafus Adolfus. Gustafus Adolfus was fighting for the Protestants in Europe. And the lion in those days was a symbol to help the Protestants.
Next to the ship are models and exhibits which bring to life the 17th-century disaster.
Guide: Four-hundred-and-fifty men were supposed to live on the Vasa — on these two gun decks. And the problem with this ship is the lack of ballast. Here in the bottom you have 120 tons of ballast, which is big rocks that they used, and they would have needed a lot more to keep the stability of the ship. Each man was given one set of clothes on board of the Vasa for one year. They got one shirt, one jacket, and one pair of pants. We also found a jacket that is completely intact. And we also found shoes and other leather things on board on the ship that belonged to the crew members. The Vasa had been an experiment — more massive, with more heavy guns than previous ships of the period. It's 17th century builders had just gone too far, and only found their limits through tragic trial and error.
A more seaworthy Swedish ship is the Af Chapman. Europe's most famous hostel, the Af Chapman, is a hundred-year-old schooner permanently moored just over a bridge from downtown. This floating hostel sleeps 140 — two to eight beds per stateroom. These days youth hostels are called simply hostels.
Travelers of any age are welcome. As with hostels anywhere, bring your own sheets or you'll have to rent them there. In Sweden you can rent cloth sheets or buy sheets made of paper — good for about three nights. The Af Chapman's shipshape cafe welcomes the public...and serves light meals and coffee with a view.
But hostellers are more likely to be found picking up their food with the locals at the Hötorget market. The indoor hall features ethnic food for an exotic picnic. But your Swedish crowns stretch further at the outdoor market — especially as closing time nears and many merchants put their unsold produce on the push list.
Overlooking the market is a Carl Milles sculpture. And if you like this, you'll love The Carl Milles Garden. On an island near Stockholm is the former villa and garden of Sweden's greatest sculptor. His best work — like the "Hand of God" — is dramatically displayed on a cliff overlooking Stockholm.
Milles' entertaining, unique, and provocative art was influenced by the French impressionist sculptor, Rodin. Milles wanted his work to be seen on pedestals, silhouettes in the sky.
See that ship? It's going to Finland. And so are we. While the Swedish countryside has its charms, my favorite side trip from Stockholm is an entertaining boat trip...to Helsinki. After all, one of the great things about Helsinki is getting there.
Cruise ships connect the capitals of Sweden and Finland both daily and nightly. Two companies, Viking and Silja, compete for your business. We're riding the Silja line's flagship, the Silja Serenade — longer than two football fields, it's sailed full tonight with 2800 passengers.
The 14-hour cruise spends the first three hours passing through the countless islands that buffer Stockholm from the open sea.
Gone are the days when vagabonds would sack out on chairs and sofas. Now each ticket is sold with a bed in a comfortable stateroom. While four-berth cabins are least expensive, even the less crowded twin cabins are reasonable.
You could call this ship the cheapest luxury hotel in Scandinavia. Fares are low, designed to attract locals who sail mainly for duty-free shopping and drinking. In the most highly taxed corner of Europe, the opportunity to shop tax-free is a powerful incentive.
But high on my list is the opportunity for a first class smörgåsbord. In Scandinavia you'll find both breakfast and dinner smörgåsbords. Both are all-you-can-eat affairs. Every tourist should spring for the fancy dinner smörgåsbord at least once.
And if the meal doesn't do you in, there's enough entertainment to finish you off. While the cruise can be a hedonistic escape for two, there's also plenty of family fun.
And after enjoying the long sunset and a good night's sleep, it's "Hello Helsinki." Helsinki feels closer to Russia than to Sweden. It's no wonder Hollywood chose to film parts of Dr. Zhivago, Reds, and Gorky Park right here.
The Uspensky Cathedral stands tall above the city. The cathedral dates from the 1800s when there were many Russian officials in Helsinki. The ornate interior gives worship an eastern feel — reminding visitors of over 100 years of Russian rule in Finland. And though the Czars allowed the Finns considerable autonomy, they did leave cultural imprints. Uspensky Cathedral is a real and living reminder of that past.
Also dating from the Russian period is Café Kappeli, my favorite cafe in northern Europe. It's a turn-of-the-century oasis of coffee, pastry, and relaxation. It was a popular hangout for local intellectuals and artists as well as Russian big shots.
But to go back a bit, Sweden had conquered Finland in the 13th century, and controlled the country for close to six-hundred years.
When Finland was part of Sweden, its capital was Turku, a Sweden-facing town on the west coast. In 1812, after Russia beat Sweden in a war, and took Finland, they moved the capital east — closer to Russia, here to Helsinki.
When I asked a waitress here if this grand cafe was made for Russian officers, she answered, "All of nineteenth-century Helsinki was made for Russian officers."
Finland gained its independence from Russia in 1917. Since then, its bold, trend-setting design and architecture have blossomed. Buildings such as the Finlandia Hall, designed by Alvar Aalto and finished in the 1970s, made Finland a leader in modern architecture.
After World War II, Finland nursed a fragile freedom. In the 50s, relations with the Soviet Union were very touchy. While that threat is thankfully gone, the most noticeable immediate effect of the collapse of the USSR on Finland was a loss of about 20% of its foreign trade.
But trade is always brisk at Helsinki's bustling outdoor market. While it's on the waterfront, right downtown, it has a small town feel and it's a treat to explore.
The Finnish language blew in from somewhere between here and Siberia. Related in Europe only to Hungarian and Estonian, it sounds very strange to most visitors.
Finland is officially bilingual — Finnish & Swedish.
You should have no trouble communicating in this country of linguists. If you don't know Finnish (cherry seller greets Rick: "Can I help you?" in Finnish) or Swedish (same seller in Swedish: "Can I help you?"), try English (same seller in English: "Good morning. Can I help you?"). Yeh, I'd like a half a liter of cherries, please.
The only essential word for a quick visit is "Kiitos" that's "Thank you," and locals love to hear it. One block from the market is the neo-Classical Senate Square and the Cathedral. This impressive remnant of the Russian period was designed by Carl Engel, the same man who created many of St. Petersburg's public buildings.
Since Helsinki had burned about the time Russia annexed Finland, the Russians had an opportunity to rebuild, and in the 1800's they were fascinated with the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, so that's what they ordered.
In the center of Europe's finest neo-Classical square, a statue honors the Russian Czar Alexander II, whose policies were kind to Finland.
With its prominent green dome overlooking the city and harbor, Helsinki's Lutheran cathedral, finished in 1852, is a neo-classical masterpiece.
To me, this pure and clean interior is what neo-Classicism is all about.
Helsinki has many architectural treats. Here's one like nothing you'll find anywhere in Europe.
Tourists call this church the "church in the rock." Locals have no trouble with its real name, the Temppeliaukio Church. In the late 1960s it was blasted out of solid rock and capped with a sky lit copper dome. It's normally filled with music and awestruck visitors.
Like the Lutheran Cathedral...the architecture is simple...and effective. Grab a pew. Contemplate the meaning of the 14-mile-long coil of copper ribbon. Forget your camera, be thankful for peace. Under your feet is a moth-balled air raid shelter that can accommodate 6,000 people.
Helsinki's half million residents still refer to it as "a big village." They enjoy one of the world's highest standards of living. So, in spite of a kind of crazy history as a prize to be fought over by Sweden and Russia, Finland today is happily independent and prosperous.
Scandinavia has everything I love about Europe from vibrant urban culture to spectacular natural beauty. And its people have retained traditions that are unique to these far northern countries. We're finishing in classic Scandinavian style, sweltering in a hot sauna, where its traditional to invigorate the skin with a birch branch.
Thanks for traveling with us. Join us next time as we continue our tour of Europe's greatest sights. I'm Rick Steves wishing you happy travels.
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.