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Stockholm, Sweden: One big photo op (and maybe a cardamom bun and some meatballs)

Our next stop during our November travels in Scandinavia, after Helsinki, Finland, was Stockholm, Sweden. If Helsinki was my smart, cool, and good-looking date, Stockholm was my model for one big photo op. Just when you think you’ve seen some of the most beautiful places in the world, you arrive in Stockholm.

Stockholm is on the south eastern edge of Sweden and is comprised of 14 islands at the entrance to the Baltic Sea. The islands are connected by over 50 bridges, public ferries, trains, metro, busses, and trams. Due to all the connecting waterways, Stockholm is sometimes known as the Venice of the North. The population is just under a million people with about 2.1 million in the urban area.

Coming from Helsinki, we recognized immediately that Stockholm has a more cosmopolitan vibe. The central area is certainly upscale with top-end fashion and restaurants. It is considered a global city, the most populated area in the Nordic countries, and the centre for large corporations and banks. It is also one of the fastest growing metro areas in Europe. Some of its universities are ranked as some of the best in Europe.

We arrived at the Stockholm Arlanda airport and hopped on the quickest transportation to the city centre, the Arlanda Express train, for about $27 each. We stayed in a smaller family hotel just north of the central station, in the Norrmalm area, perfect walking distance to the main areas of interest, grocery stores, and the metro and tram systems.

Stockholm might be cosmopolitan, but it has charm and is stunning to look at with all those connecting bridges and with the waterways in the central area lined with historic palaces and cathedrals (the city of Stockholm does date to 1252).

But let’s talk, first, about Stockholm in November. The sun sets early. And by ‘sun‘, I mean somewhat grey light. By about 3:00 pm, you notice it getting a little darker and, by 4:30 pm, it’s pitch black. We fell into a routine of leaving our hotel at about 9:00 am and seeing what we wanted to see before returning to the hotel about 3:30 pm. Now, you could plan to visit museums or go shopping or join the rest of Stockholm in the coffee shops (because it seems that’s what they do when it gets dark) but, maybe due to our age, we liked to just relax at the hotel for the evening. But I do think we missed some pretty fantastic photos by not visiting the waterways in the evenings. And do bring a good umbrella. Those grey skies rained on us three out of four days.

I’ll share how we spent our four days:

Day 1: We spent our first day strolling the medieval streets of Old Town or Gamla Stan. On the way, we stopped at the Church of Saint Clara and were impressed that a few people were napping on the pews, warming up from the cold rain. The sign said that people were free to nap but not during gatherings. I loved the idea that a church was opening it’s doors for shelter.

Old Town is, yes, across a bridge from the city centre. I understand that it actually sits on four of the islands. It is where the city was founded and is one of the largest and best preserved Old Towns in Europe. You’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time on the narrow cobble-stone streets. There are many tourist-related businesses but also independent hotels and boutique shops. You can do an easy walking loop where you can see the Riddarholmen area and the House of Nobility, shop, have coffee, or window shop on narrow little streets, sit in the colourful (and oldest square in Stockholm) Stortorget Square, get smart at the Nobel Prize museum, find the skinny Alley of Martin Trotzig, see the changing of the guards at the Royal Palace, or visit three notable churches (Tyska, the German church; Storkyrkan, the ‘Great Church’, and the Riddarholmen Church - all, unfortunately, closed when we visited). Also, be sure to take a selfie with St. George and the Dragon.

The Swedish House of Nobility was built in the mid 1600’s for parliament records and administration. The Swedish nobility apparently still gather here every few years.

The narrow cobble-stone streets of Old Town. There’s no bad pictures.

St. George and The Dragon replica in Old Town. Many a selfie has been taken here.

Stortorget Square with the Nobel Prize Museum. This is the oldest square in Stockholm. It has quite a history, including the Bloodbath in 1520 when 90 people were beheaded and hanged.

The Storkyrkan, or St. Nicholas, church is the oldest in Stockholm, dating to 1300.

Tyska, or The German Church as it is known, sits in the neighbourhood once inhabited by Germans.

Changing of the guard at Stockholm Palace.

The Riddarholmen area on the eastern edge has the magnificent Riddarholmen Church, old parliament buildings, old private palaces, and an old printing building. The Supreme Administrative Court is now set here. The western edge of the island has stunning views. Apparently, TV journalists often do their news from there as the Stockholm City Hall is silhouetted in the background.

The Riddarholm Church (former Greyfriars Monastery), Wrangel Palace, and Stenbockska Palace

Views from the west side of Riddarholmen. You can see City Hall in the background.

I imagine the Old Town becomes quite congested in the summer months, but November was a perfect time to visit, especially with the incessant rain that day which made the streets empty and some of the photos even more breathtaking. We happened upon the changing of the guards at the palace and were able to stand right in front due to the lack of tourists and the drizzle.

On our way back to our hotel, we passed the stately Parliament House, the Opera House, and the Kungstradgarten which was originally the kitchen garden for the Royal Palace. The Kundstradgarten is a long, beautiful park lined with trees, cafes and restaurants; and an ice surface for skating was being prepared.

Parliament House of Sweden (Riksdagshuset) with the ‘Come as you are!’ statue portraying the first five women in parliament, held up by two modern women, showing the need to continue striving for democracy and equality.

The stunning Swedish Opera House.

The Kundstradgarten.

Day 2: On our second day, we angled through the centre of the city and came upon the National Library which sits on one of the nicest parks, the Kungliga Humelgarden, which was like a painting in the fall colours. From there, we headed southeast, across another bridge, of course, to the Vasa Museum, Stockholm’s most well-attended museum.

The National Library and beautiful Kungliga Humelgarden Park.

In the early 1600’s, the Vasa warship was quickly built (in only two years), and was known as the largest, the highest tech, and the most spectacular at the time, highly ornate and colourful. However, it set sail in 1628 and sunk on its maiden voyage less than a kilometre from shore, in full view of the public as they had gathered to honour it’s maiden voyage. The Vasa stayed underwater for about 330 years until it was carefully raised to the surface and, over almost 30 years, was restored to over 90% of its original state. It is the largest warship of its time to be raised and restored. In hindsight, it was determined that maybe too much emphasis was put on looks and glory than on stability? The museum was awe-inspiring - the story, the size of the ship, and the amount of knowledge and skill and time and patience that has gone into its restoration. This museum is well worth the visit.

The Vasa Museum and what the ship looked like when built.

The restored model. It’s worth reading about.

The Vasa Museum sits on Djurgarden Island, along with several other of Stockholm’s over 100 museums, such as the Abba Museum, the Skansen open air museum (very popular with families), and the National History Museum. Stockholm really gives you your choice of museums.

We meandered back to our hotel, stopping at a food hall where we hoped to grab a cup of coffee along the way. We were surprised at the elegance (and prices, by our standards) of the Ostermalm Saluhall. We later read that it is billed as one of the world’s most foremost food and dining places (ranked as #7 by one report). Every one of the 17 vendors had their own ornate sign, and there were many restaurants and wine bars. We felt underdressed in our jeans. There are several such food halls in Stockholm. We went next door for our coffee.

Which brings me to Swedish cardamom buns, “kardemummabullar”. I had first tasted cardamom buns in Tallin, Estonia several years ago and fell in love. All the cafes and bakeries in Stockholm have them. If you don’t know, the cardamom spice has peppery, piney, eucalyptus, and menthol notes - all of my favourite aromas translated into one spice. So good.

We ended the day with a visit to the Culture House or Kulturhuset, which contains the City Art Centre and City Theatre and no less than six libraries (including a comic library), several theatres, meeting areas, and cafes. The building is all glass.

On our way back to our hotel, we stopped in at the Adolf Fredrik Church from the 1700’s. Several famous people are buried in the cemetery there, including two former prime ministers.

Day 3: Our third day saw us head west of our hotel to Stockholm’s City Hall, pure magnificence. It was built of some eight million bricks (who counted?). The tower is 106 metres high and is topped with three golden crowns. It is dominant on the Stockholm skyline. The Nobel Prize banquet and dance is held here.

We then walked across another bridge, through the Old Town, and across yet another bridge (as I said, there are over 50 bridges in this city) to the island of Sodermalm. Long ago, Sodermalm was farmland before becoming a working class neighbourhood, some areas poor, rundown, and unhealthy. But since the 1990’s, it has reinvented itself and is now known as a ‘hipster’ place to be, full of cafes, bars, parks, independent shops, thrift stores, art, museums, stately homes, classic churches - and magnificent views of the city from high up on the cliff. It also contains some preserved worker’s houses that are hundreds of years old. You could spend days in Sodermalm. In 2014, Vogue named it one of the World’s Coolest Neighbourhoods. This is real life in Stockholm.

The Katerina Church in Sodermalm was my favourite church in Stockholm, maybe anywhere. The original church was built in the 1600’s but was rebuilt twice after being destroyed by fires.

The Sofia Church in Sodermalm is from the late 1800’s. Interestingly, it is surrounded by the traditional, preserved little old houses of the working class from centuries past. They are in sharp contrast to the huge church and the surrounding elaborate apartments. More of the little houses are located on Master Mikaels Gata (he was the town executioner).

After checking out Sodermalm, we began our tour of metro stations, to be continued on Day 4, and explained in just a bit.

But first, are you one of those people who go to IKEA purely for the Swedish meatballs? We laughed as we passed an IKEA outlet and, yes, here in the home of IKEA, we could see people eating meatballs! But that did give us a craving so, although we bought most of our food at the local supermarket, we found a pub with smoked herrings and real Swedish meatballs. So good.

Day 4: On our final day in Stockholm, we engaged in our metro station art tour in earnest. (If you know me, you know that metro station art is one of my favourite things in the world, literally. We first learned this trick in Lisbon, Portugal, where they purposefully brightened their metro stations with amazing art. You simply ride the metro lines - Stockholm has three lines and is incredibly easy to navigate - stopping wherever the art looks good, hop out, snap some pictures, get on the next train, and proceed to the next station.) Stockholm calls it‘s metro lines the longest art exhibit in the world, 110 kms long. We had purchased our 24 hour transportation card the afternoon before so hopped on and off trains for a couple of hours. This is a great activity for a rainy day or anytime, just out of interest.

Enjoy this collage of Stockholm metro station art: