Stockholm

Sweden's capital, confident and self-assured, glitters with souvenirs from the day when it ruled as a superpower. From pondering gilded royal staterooms to sampling gourmet reindeer and sipping vodka in an ice bar, we experience the city's cultural highlights. Then we sail the archipelago for the prettiest island-hopping in northern Europe.

Travel Details

Royal Palace
Although Sweden's royal family beds down at Drottningholm, this complex in Gamla Stan is still the official royal residence. The palace, designed in Italian Baroque style, was completed in 1754 after a fire wiped out the previous palace.  The Changing of the Guard and the awesome, can't-miss Royal Armory are the palace's highlights. The Royal Treasury is worth a look; the chapel is nice but no big deal; the Apartments of State are not much as far as palace rooms go; and you can skip Gustav III's Museum of Antiquities and the Museum of Three Crowns. The information booth in the semi­circular courtyard gives out an explanatory brochure with a map marking the different entrances (main entrance is on the west side — away from the water — but the Royal Armory has a separate entrance). In peak season, there are several different English tours a day (included in the admission) — allowing you to systematically cover nearly the entire complex. Since the palace is used for state functions, it is sometimes closed to tourists (tel. 08/402-6130, www.royalcourt.se).

Royal Armory
The oldest museum in Sweden is more than an armory and less than an armory. It displays impressive ceremonial royal armor (never used in battle), but there's a lot more to see. Everything is beautifully lit and displayed, and well-described in English and by the museum's evocative audioguide.    The first room is almost a shrine for Swedish visitors. It contains the clothes Gustavus Adolphus wore, and even the horse he was riding when he was killed in the Thirty Years' War (entrance at bottom of Slottsbacken at base of palace, tel. 08/5195-5546, www.livrustkammaren.se).

Drottningholm Palace and Theater
The queen's 17th-century summer castle and current royal residence has been called "Sweden's Versailles." Touring the palace, you'll see art that makes the point that Sweden's royalty is divine and belongs with the gods. The required tour covers two floors of lavish rooms, where you'll see how Sweden's royalty did their best to live in the style of Europe's divine monarchs (tel. 08/402-6280, www.royalcourt.se). Reach the palace via a relaxing boat ride (departs from Stadhusbron across from City Hall, tel. 08/1200-4000), or take the T-bana to Brommaplan, where you can catch a bus to Drottningholm. Consider approaching by water (as the royals traditionally did) and then returning by bus and T-bana (as a commoner).

Drottningholm Court Theater
This 18th-century theater somehow survived the ages — complete with its instruments, sound-effects machines, and stage sets. It's one of two such theaters remaining in Europe (the other is in Český Krumlov, Czech Republic). Visit it on a guided tour (no tours off-season, tel. 08/759-0406), or check their schedule for the rare opportunity to see perfectly authentic operas (www.dtm.se).

Nobel Museum
This wonderful little museum opened in 2001 for the 100-year anniversary of the Nobel Prize. Thanks to a gift from wealthy investor and Stockholm native Alfred Nobel, every year since 1901, the Nobel Prize is given to laureates  in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peacemaking. Portraits of all 700-plus prize­winners hang from the ceiling. Two video rooms run a continuous montage of quick programs — three-minute bios of various winners in one program, five-minute films celebrating various intellectual environments (on Stortorget in the center of Gamla Stan a block from the Royal Palace, tel. 08/5348-1800, www.nobelmuseum.se).

Stockholm City Hall and City Hall Tower
In Scandinavian capitals, city halls seem to be the most impressive buildings, celebrating humanism and the ideal of people working together in community. Built in 1923, this is still a functioning city hall. One of Europe's finest public buildings and site of the annual Nobel Prize banquet, City Hall is ­particularly enjoyable and worthwhile for its entertaining and required tour (300 yards behind station, tel. 08/5082-9059, www.stockholm.se/cityhall). City Hall's cafeteria, which you enter from the courtyard, serves complete lunches. The 348-foot-tall City Hall tower (an elevator takes you halfway up) rewards those who make the climb with a grand city view. As you huff your way up, you'll come upon models of busts and statues that adorn City Hall and a huge, 25-foot-tall statue of St. Erik. At the roof terrace, you'll find smaller statues of Erik, Klara, Maria Magdalena, and Nikolaus: patron saints facing their respective parishes. Finally, you'll find yourself in the company of the tower's nine bells, with Stockholm spreading out all around you. If there's a long line, I'd skip it.

Absolut Icebar Stockholm
Everything in the Absolut Icebar is made of ice — shipped down from Sweden's far north. The bar, the glasses, even the tip jar are made of ice. Admission includes your choice of vodka drinks and 45 minutes to enjoy the scene (reservations smart during busy times, in the Nordic Sea Hotel adjacent the main train station at Vasaplan 4, tel. 08/5056-3124, www.icebar.se). People are let in all at once every 45 minutes. That means there's a long line for drinks, and the place goes from being very crowded to almost empty as people gradually melt away. At first everyone's just snapping photos. While there are ice bars all over Europe now, this is the second one (after the Ice Hotel in Lapland). And it really is pretty cool...a steady 23°F.

Vaxholm Fortress
In 1548, King Gustav Vasa ordered the construction of a fortress here and literally filled in other waterways, effectively making this the only way into or out of Stockholm...which it remained for 450 years. The current, "new" fortress dates from the mid-19th century, when an older castle was torn down and replaced with this imposing granite behemoth. During the 30 years it took to complete the fortress, the tools of warfare changed. Both defensively and offensively, the new fortress was obsolete before it was even completed. Today, the fortress welcomes visitors to wander its tough little island and visit its museum. A ferry shuttles visitors back and forth from Vaxholm (catch the boat just around the corner and toward the fortress from where the big ferries put in). Once there, hike into the castle's inner courtyard and find the good Vaxholm Fortress Museum (Vaxholms Fästnings Museum). Presented chronologically on two floors, the modern exhibit traces the military history of this fortress and of Sweden generally. It uses lots of models and mannequins, along with actual weaponry and artifacts (tel. 08/5417-1890, www.vaxholmsfastning.se).

Hembygdsgården ("Homestead Garden") Café
This is Vaxholm's most tempting eatery, serving "summer lunches" (salads and sandwiches) and homemade sweets, with delightful outdoor seating around the Homestead Museum in Vaxholm's characteristic fishermen's quarter. Anette's lingonberry muffins are a treat (tel. 08/5413-1980).

Stockholm's Vasa Museum
The warship Vasa sank in 1628 in Stockholm's harbor on her maiden voyage, was rediscovered in 1956, and raised in 1961. She's been housed since 1990 in a brilliant museum. Painstakingly restored, 95 percent of the wood is original (modern bits are the brighter and smoother planks). Displays are well-described in English. Learn about the ship's rules (bread can't be older than eight years), why it sank (heavy bread?), how it's preserved (the ship, not the bread), and so on. For a thorough visit, plan on spending an hour watching the video and taking the free tour (in either order), then explore the boat and wander through the various exhibits (Galärvarvet, Djurgården, tel. 08/5195-4800, www.vasamuseum.com).

Stockholm's Skansen
This is Europe's original open-air folk museum, founded in 1891. It's a huge park gathering more historic buildings (homes, churches, shops, and schoolhouses) transplanted from all corners of Sweden. Today, tourists still explore this Swedish-culture-on-a-lazy-Susan, seeing folk crafts in action and wonderfully furnished old interiors. In "Old Stockholm" (top of the escalator), shoemakers, potters, and glassblowers are busy doing their traditional thing in a re-created Old World Stockholm. The rest of Sweden spreads out from Old Stockholm. Northern Swedish culture and architecture is in the north (top of park map), and southern Sweden's in the south (bottom of map). Check the live crafts schedule at the information stand by the main entrance beneath the escalator to make a smart Skansen plan. Guides throughout the park are happy to answer your questions — but only if you ask them. The old houses come alive when you take the initiative to get information (tel. 08/442-8000, www.skansen.se). 

Script

Hi. I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're in the birthplace of social security and dynamite. It's Sweden's capital city — Stockholm. Thanks for joining us.

Here in the north of Europe, of the Scandinavian countries, Sweden is the biggest and most populous. And Stockholm is by far Sweden's dominant city. Locals here are considered particularly confident and self-assured. And exploring this city, the character of its people unfolds to its many attractions.

We'll explore the old town, be dazzled in its city hall, enjoy a slice of reindeer in style, cruise to the palace, chill out in a convivial ice bar, imagine Sweden's once-upon-a-time mighty navy, marvel at the work of a local sculptor, tap our toes to a Swedish beat, and sail the Archipelago for the ultimate in Scandinavian summer beauty.

Today, with nearly two million people in Stockholm's greater metropolitan area, one in five Swedes calls this city home. Once a respected military power, now famously neutral, this stately capital respects its rich heritage while embracing modern innovation.

Stockholm is defined as much by water as it is by land. Part of an archipelago it’s surrounded by both the sea and a large lake. The city is nearly as full of parks and trees as it is wood buildings and it’s traversed by numerous bridges. Wander through the city and you're struck by its elegant architecture, proud monuments, and inviting promenades. Stockholm's appealing waterfront is both a working harbor and a welcoming people zone.

Overlooking it all in the heart of the old town is the Royal Palace. In summer, with great fanfare, military bands herald the Changing of the Guard.

The ceremony in the courtyard of the palace recalls the days when Sweden was a militaristic power – a kingdom to be reckoned with. While this spectacle does look formidable, it's more a celebration of Swedish heritage in a country that today is famously pacifist. 

Strong and expansionist kings — like Gustavus Adolphus, who ruled in the early 1600s and was a brilliant general — made Stockholm this country's permanent capital and established the Swedish Empire.

Gustavus Adolphus was nicknamed the Lion of the North. He made Sweden one of Europe’s top  powers and was instrumental in helping the Protestants turn the tide against the Catholics in the Thirty Years War. Because of his innovative tactics on the battlefield, he's considered by many the Father of Modern Warfare.

For a glimpse at the splendor of Sweden's former power, step into the Royal Armory. While fearsome on the battlefield, armor had a ceremonial value as well. These pieces must have dazzled viewers back in the 1600s — that was the point. The fine workmanship elevates tools of war to an art form. The same lavish attention to both protection and style was also given to horses.

The Swedish royal family kept up with their counterparts elsewhere in Europe. Four centuries of coronation and royal wedding wear take you from the time of Gustavus Adolphus — this is his fine suit — through the ages. This 1766 wedding dress of Queen Sofia was designed to cleverly show off her fabulous wealth. And the dress — with its extravagant material — seems even wider when compared to her 20-inch corseted waist.

The Royal Palace which contains this museum and several others is one of Europe’s biggest. While it’s technically the royal family’s official residence, they actually live outside of town at Drottningholm Palace. The most scenic way to get there is the way the royals once did — by boat. We're cruising up Lake Maleren. This relaxing voyage is a delight, revealing more dimensions of this city of lakes, parks, and islands.

Drottningholm Palace has been called "Sweden's Versailles." The public is welcome to enjoy the garden and tour the palace.

The grand entry leads into a world where 18th century style prevails. Back then, Europe's monarchs, who were considered divinely ordained to rule, were tightly networked by marriage. In fact the Swedish royal family had blue-blooded cousins ranging from Catherine the Great in Russia to Louis 16th in France.

The décor pushed the notion of a divine monarch. But the king was long challenged by a strong parliament and, today, Sweden's royalty is a modern constitutional monarchy.

The ball room hosted formal occasions. The bed room was a kind of theater where the monarch would be ceremonially dressed as nobles would help him slip into his leotards. The lavish library illustrated the royal commitment to education in the 18th century. The palace's baroque theater takes you back 200 years. And as in palaces throughout Europe, Roman busts implied at least symbolic connections with the Roman Empire in order to substantiate and legitimize royal power.

Originally the entire city was contained on this island. Today, Stockholm's old town — or Gamla Stan — is popular with locals and visitors alike. The town square, called Stortorget, was once an important commercial center. Now, it's simply a favored place to relax and enjoy the Swedish good life.

Gamla Stan's main drag is a hit with shoppers and busy with tourists. But, venturing just a block or two from the commotion, the atmosphere changes. Tranquil lanes feel much as they did back in the 17th century.

Medieval Stockholm was a trading center, busy with merchants from foreign lands. The German Church, rocketing heavenward, reminded all of the power of Germans in this part of Europe.

With the Reformation in 1527, the king made Sweden a Protestant state. Suddenly church services could be held in the people's language rather than Latin. And that meant every nationality needed its own church. The Germans worshipped over there. The Finns had their church. And the Swedes got the cathedral.

The cathedral, while grand, is wedged into the tight quarters of Gamla Stan. The interior is cobbled with centuries-old tombstones. When royal families worshipped here, they sat in their own private pews. These date from about 1700. While originally Catholic, this church has been Lutheran for five centuries.

With the Reformation's passion for sermons and Bible readings, the pulpit was a focal point. You can feel the feistiness of the Swedish Lutherans in this 500 year old statue of Saint George and the Dragon.

 It's carved of oak and elk horn. To some, this symbolizes the Swedes' overcoming their arch-rivals — the Danes. In a broader sense, it's an inspiration to take up the struggle against even non-Danish evil.

When choosing a place for dinner, I try to leave the high rent spots to the tourists and find small restaurants with low rent catering to a loyal hometown customers. And, of course, locals know the best places. My friend, Hakan and his wife Ylva, are taking me to one of their favorites for a lesson in good eating, Swedish style. 

And that’s changed a lot since Hakan and Ylva were children including New World wines and lots of spices brought by recent immigrants to enliven the traditional meat, fish and potato staples.

Rick:  And what is this, Sami?

Sami: This is the reindeer roast beef.

Rick: Reindeer roast beef you say, okay. So, Hakan, the potato really has roots in your history and your culture.

Hakan: Extremely much so. Sweden’s population start to grow in the 1800s and there was someone who said the reason was peace, vaccination and potatoes.

Rick: This reindeer is really tasty.

Hakan: Oh yes, reindeer I would say is beef of the north, that’s the beef of the Laplanders and it’s spread all over Sweden.

Local food and local knowledge, it’s always a winning combination.

Stockholm's Nobel Prize Museum tells the story of the world's most prestigious award. Stockholm-born Alfred Nobel was a prolific inventor with over 300 patents. His most famous invention — dynamite.

Living in the late 1800s, Nobel was a man of his age. It was a time of great optimism, wild ideas, and grand projects. His dynamite enabled entire nations to blast their way into the modern age with canals, railroads, and tunnels. It made warfare much more destructive. And it also made Alfred Noble a very wealthy man.

Wanting to leave a legacy that celebrated and supported people with great ideas, he left his fortune to fund the Nobel Prize. Each year laureates are honored in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and perhaps most famously in peacemaking. Portraits of all the prize winners since the first annual ceremony was held in 1901 hang from the ceiling — shuffling around the room like shirts at the dry cleaner's. And video clips let you ponder the contributions of so many great minds.

The annual Nobel Prize banquet is held just a short walk away, in Stockholm's City Hall. It's a stately mix of eight million red bricks and lots of Stockholm pride. While churches dominate cities in southern Europe, up here, in the Scandinavian capitals, city halls seem to be the most impressive buildings. They celebrate humanism...people working together for the good of their community. Built in 1923, Stockholm's City Hall is particularly enjoyable and well worth its entertaining hour long tour.

Guide:  This here where we are standing is the Blue Hall. It’s the biggest reception hall of the City Hall and this is where the Nobel banquet takes place the 10th of December every year, hosting 1,300 guests. This here is the Council’s chamber since the City Hall really is a functioning City Hall. In here the Municipal Council of Stockholm hold their meetings. What I would like to show you in here is our magnificent ceiling. It’s done to look like an old Viking house. The construction of the old Viking houses were long and narrow exactly like the ceiling right here. This here is the Golden Hall, artwork finished in 1922. We have about 90,000,000 pieces of mosaic in here and it is real gold in each and every one of them. The centerpiece of this room you can see behind me here, this is the Queen of the Lake, a symbol of Stockholm. he Queen of the Lake here, she’s situated in the center of the world. On the left side there’s the western world — the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty. On her right side the Orient — an Indian elephant, a Turkish flag. And not only the world because around her sides there are also the different zodiac signs symbolizing the universe. She’s the Queen of the Lake — Stockholm — center of the world — center of the universe.

The City Hall comes with a bold tower. It offers a commanding view of Stockholm's 14 islands which are woven together by about fifty bridges. Sweden’s stunning capital is green, clean, and people-friendly.

Strolling the shoreline promenades, you join the parade of locals. Well-worn old working ships seem content... retired in the shadow of elegant facades. Rather than cars and buses, it's the domain of joggers, baby strollers, and visitors marveling at the joys of this city on the Baltic.

Stockholm exists because of its location — where Lake Malaren meets the Baltic Sea. Traders would paddle their goods from far inland to this point from where sea-going merchants would ship it south to Europe.

In the 13th century, the new kingdom of Sweden needed revenue so they established customs laws and levied duties on all the copper, iron, and furs that passed through here. Today, the lake, which is about 2 feet above sea level, is connected to the Baltic Sea by locks.

For the thoughtful observer, history is everywhere. For example, centuries ago, this Kungsgarten or "King's Garden Square" was the private garden of the king. Today, this is clearly the people's domain. It's considered Stockholm's living room.

Swedes are leaders among Europeans with their social legislation. They pay high taxes and have high expectations. Swedes enjoy a minimum of five weeks paid vacation from the day they're hired. In the interest of family values, new moms and dads split 16 months of paid parental leave anyway they like. And Swedes believe that every citizen, regardless of their family's economic status, gets quality health care and education. Alcohol is highly taxed and tourists contribute to Sweden's costly entitlements every time they buy a drink.

A fun if touristy way to do that is to put on a heavy coat and enjoy a fancy vodka on ice... literally. The Absolut Icebar is actually made out of ice. For your cover charge you'll get 45 chilly minutes to sip your choice of vodka drinks in an ice glass, at an ice bar or lounging on a nice ice sofa. In a scene like this, there's no shortage of conversation.

Sergles Torg was built in the 1960s to balance the political and royal city with a bustling commercial district. This modern center of Stockholm is dedicated to shopping. Festooned with sales banners blowing in the Nordic wind, thriving pedestrian boulevards are lined with temptations on sale.

Hötorget — literally "Hay Market" — now feeds people rather than horses. This vibrant outdoor produce market changes colors with the seasons. Today, in August, it's berries of the forest and golden chanterelles.

Overlooking the market is a striking statue by Carl Milles. For more of his work, you'll find a veritable forest of statues by Sweden's greatest sculptor on a bluff at the edge of town. Carl Milles spent much of his career here at his villa, where he lived and worked for 20 years. He lovingly designed this delightful sculpture garden.

Milles wanted his art displayed on pedestals...to be seen as if silhouettes against the sky. His subjects — often Greek myths such as Pegasus or Poseidon — stand out as if using the sky as a blank paper. Yet, unlike silhouettes, images in the sky can be enjoyed from many angles. Milles injected life into his work with water, splashing playfully.

Perhaps his most famous work, "Hand of God," gives an insight into Milles' belief that when the artist created he was, in a way, divinely-inspired.

The city's harbor is busy with ferries. And many take people into its vast archipelago — an amazing playground of literally thousands of islands stretching 80 miles from the city.

There are plenty of ways to see the archipelago. Those taking the huge cruise ships that ferry travelers to Helsinki enjoy three hours of island scenery before they finally reach the open Baltic Sea. You can take a quick boat tour... or, what we're doing, catch a ferry with the locals.

One of the joys of an archipelago trip is to grab a perch on the breezy sundeck with the Swedes as they enjoy their island wonderland. Ferries serve over a hundred islands. They stop at others... on request... or to plop down the days' mail. Every cabin seems to have a couple of lounge chairs strategically placed to soak up the relaxing view. Your archipelago options are endless and you don't need to own a cabin to enjoy this idyllic island escape.

Our first stop is the popular destination of Vaxholm. About an hour from downtown, it has a well preserved fortress just off its busy harborfront, as well as a quiet and charming old town mixing shops and restaurants.

Today it's hard to imagine that, back when Sweden was a military power, this fort was built to secure the city from attack by sea. The ramparts remain... but they are manned not by soldiers but by sun worshippers enjoying Sweden's long summer days.

My favorite lookout post: Anette's Homestead Café. For Swedes, their coffee and pastry break is a ritual – embraced with all the vigor of a constitutional right. And here, savoring life to its fullest just seems to come naturally.

For an even more peaceful and remote destination, ride a couple hours past Vaxholm, and hop off in Svartso. The little grocery provides this island community with whatever it needs. Residents stock their cabins using the island's answer to a moving van. And visitors can hop a rental bike.

In moments you're out in the countryside immersed in pastoral farm land and pristine nature. Your bike ride is memorably capped with a stop at the island eatery. We requested the house specialty and were overwhelmed with the bounty of the Baltic.

Even if you don't leave Stockholm, you'll still likely be on the water. Scenic harbor tours are popular and shuttle boats zip between the many islands. From downtown, it's just a quick hop to Djurgarden — the Garden Island.

Four hundred years ago, Djurgården was the king's hunting ground. Now this entire lush island is Stockholm's fun center, protected as a national park. You can rent a canoe, enjoy a bike ride, munch a picnic, or just take in the harbor scene along with a good cold beer. And this island has several of the city's top museums. 

The Vasa Museum is my favorite maritime museum anywhere. It took several centuries, but Stockholm turned a titanic flop into one of Europe'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. The king, eager to expand the reach of his domain, launched his formidable new war ship. Laden with an extra row of cannon, she was top-heavy. A couple hundred yards from the dock, a breeze caught the sails and blew it over. The Vasa sank to the bottom of Stockholm's harbor where it sat for over 300 years. 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.

The Vasa is decorated with hundreds of statues — all designed to show the power of the king known as "the Lion of the North," Gustavus Adolphus. Detailed models like these show life on board and evoke the instant when the hopes and aspirations of this mighty ship and her crew were dashed.

Artifacts on display humanize naval live in the 17th century. This awe-inspiring ship is a time capsule from an era when Sweden was a European power and was gearing up to expand its empire.

Another great sight here on the Garden Island is the Skansen open air folk museum. This was the first in what became a Europe-wide movement to preserve traditional architecture. Founded in 1891, Skansen is a sprawling collection of 150 historic buildings that take you back in time. These homes, churches, schoolhouses and so on were transplanted from all corners of Sweden. Today, tourists take a virtual trip all over the country without leaving the capital, seeing wonderfully furnished old interiors and folk crafts in action.

Artisans demonstrate their crafts. The potter works his magic — enthralling visitors old and young. And glass — traditionally a big industry here in Sweden — is blown. Observing peasants fiddling out on the porch takes you back to a time when people provided their own entertainment.

And in a park dedicated to keeping folk traditions alive, a day at Skansen is memorably capped at a bandstand with some Swedish folk dancing.

            [Folk dancing.]

I hope you’ve enjoyed our visit to this quiet, content and often overlooked corner of Europe. Traveling here you meet a people who struck that illusive balance between the productive life and the good life. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.

Credits:

Rick: Backstage it’s more, see I’m having a problem [laugh]. It’s actually deeper than it looks.

Guide: Yes it is.

Rick: No it’s not as deep as it looks.

Gide: It’s deeper.

Rick: It looks deeper than it is!

Canals, railroads and tunnels. It made the mmmmilitary much more destructive.

Stockholm, it’s cold, it’s cold!

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