Stockholm, Sweden, is a city of contrasts. Unspoiled architecture dating back centuries is complemented by the best in modern Scandinavian design. Stockholm's appreciation of its culture and heritage shows in its theaters, concert halls and galleries, which showcase a rich variety of artistic innovations.
The seasons provide a sharp distinction, too. Stockholm in summer is green and blue, with its attention on the water. In winter, Stockholm is white and frozen, with a sense of stillness and calm, the afternoon darkness punctuated by candlelit cafes and bars.
The waterways surrounding Stockholm's islands clearly define the city's various quarters. From the bohemian cliff-top cafes of Sodermalm and the 17th-century cobbled streets of Gamla Stan to the luxury boutiques of Ostermalm and the parkland calm of Djurgarden, you're never more than a bridge away from a completely different city experience. Flecked with sailboats and ferries in summer, Stockholm's great tree-fringed waterways are often iced over, snow-covered and misty in winter, creating the illusion of a city in the clouds—the perfect setting for the Nobel Prize ceremonies that take place in Stockholm every year.
The Stockholm area lies between the Baltic Sea and Lake Malaren. Made up of 14 islands and part of the mainland, it has more than 50 bridges connecting all of its different parts. One of the largest archipelagos in the world lies east of Stockholm—some of the 25,000 islands are easily accessible from the city center.
The heart of Stockholm is Gamla Stan (Old Town), which has narrow, cobblestoned streets and tourist-friendly shops in buildings dating from the 15th century. It's situated on three islands: Stadsholmen (the largest and the one usually indicated as Gamla Stan on maps); Helgeandsholmen (where the parliament building is located); and Riddarholmen.
The main business and shopping district lies north of Gamla Stan. Officially it's called Norrmalm, but ever since the central train station was built, locals just refer to it as "city center." Norrmalm is roughly bordered by the fruit vendors at Hotorget (Hay Square) to the north, Ostermalm to the east, Kungsholmen to the west and, across the water, Gamla Stan to the south.
Ostermalm resembles parts of Paris, with large tree-lined boulevards and avenues. Strandvagen, Karlavagen, Valhallavagen and Narvavagen are the major thoroughfares there. Ostermalm has developed into one of Stockholm's most affluent residential districts, partly because it's near Djurgarden—an open space that was once a royal park.
To the south of Gamla Stan is the mainland area of Sodermalm. Filled with trendy restaurants, shops and popular discos, this busy neighborhood (often called "Soder") is worth a visit for its progressive ambience.
Regent Birger Jarl founded Stockholm in 1252, when he built the Tre Kronor (Three Crowns) castle and the city walls. The city originally occupied the area known today as Gamla Stan (Old Town), but expansion began as early as the 1300s. During that century and the next, the areas of Norrmalm and Sodermalm became part of Stockholm.
Throughout the 1400s, the close union between Sweden and its neighbors Norway and Denmark evolved into a power struggle, and by the beginning of the 16th century, Denmark was attempting to assert military control over Sweden. Matters came to a head in 1520, when nobleman Gustav Vasa finally rallied enough troops to eject the Danish king from Sweden.
The resulting monarchy, first headed by Gustav Vasa, used Stockholm as its base of power, but the city didn't officially become the capital of Sweden until 1634. All the while, Stockholm maintained its status as an important trade center, controlling access to Lake Malaren from the Baltic Sea.
The arrival of steamships and trains in the 1800s increased the city's international trade and, as a result, its prosperity. During this period, new construction engulfed Stockholm, and much of the city was rebuilt. Residents began moving out into the suburbs, and the city we see today began to take shape.
Sweden remained neutral during World War I and World War II, which helped Stockholm preserve its historical center from the destruction that forced other European cities to rebuild throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Today, Stockholm is a cosmopolitan city that remains one of the business centers of northern Europe.
Stockholm is great for walking: It's dotted with relaxing parks to break up your sightseeing. Start your tour in Gamla Stan (Old Town), the historical heart of Stockholm. It has narrow streets, quaint shops and cobblestoned squares. From Stortorget, the scenic square in the center of Gamla Stan, you can visit the majestic Stockholm Cathedral, the Royal Palace, the Nobel Museum and Riddarholmskyrkan (a baroque church that houses the tombs of Swedish royalty).
Other sites are clustered on the island of Djurgarden, once the hunting reserve of Swedish kings. Skansen, an open-air museum there, has 150 traditional buildings, some of which date from the 18th century. Vasa Museet houses the Vasa, a massive 17th-century warship that was recovered from the harbor and restored. Other interesting museums in close proximity include the Moderna Museet, the Museum of Medieval History and the Nordiska Museet.
Much more seaworthy than the Vasa are the boats providing tours around the harbor and freshwater Malaren Lake. You can also visit the palace in Drottningholm, the current residence of the Swedish royal family. The palace's theater still uses its original sets and mechanisms built in the 18th century.
Stockholm has a variety of nightspots, including crowded nightclubs, trendy bars, casinos and cafes. Many of the city's busiest clubs are near Stureplan in Ostermalm, but the best bars are spread across the city.
Different crowds tend to flock to different areas. The central area around Stureplan is known for its flashy revelers, celebrities and wannabes, as well as students with their pockets stuffed with their parents' cash. Sodermalm tends to be more relaxed and bohemian, and Gamla Stan is best known for jazz. The choicest establishments are in the city center, Ostermalm and on the fringes of Kungstradgarden. Note that many clubs have a minimum age requirement of 23 or even 25 years to enter.
From fast food to haute cuisine, Stockholm offers all the dining options that a visitor would expect from a modern European capital city. In recent years, ambitious young chefs have returned to the country's culinary roots with creative renderings of classic Swedish dishes. Such a resurgence of traditional fare means that visitors looking to sample authentic Swedish cuisine have more choices than ever.
If you're looking for traditional Swedish fare, then fresh, locally caught fish is often the anchor of the menu, along with potatoes seasoned with dill. But keep an eye out for elk and reindeer, too—commonly served with lingonberry or cloudberry jelly. The smorgasbord is a treat not to be missed, particularly at holiday times such as Christmas or midsummer. The contents of the Swedish smorgasbord vary according to family traditions but often include pickled and fried herring, roast ham, Jansson's temptation (potatoes, onions and anchovies roasted in cream), beetroot salad, meatballs, sausages and marinated salmon.
Of course, you'll want to have a glass of aquavit in hand for regular toasts (it comes in dozens of subtle and not-so-subtle flavors).
Stureplan, Slussen, Kungstradgarden and Ostermalm have the highest concentrations of restaurants and are within walking distance of the city center. You can also stroll along the medieval streets of Gamla Stan and discover hidden specialty restaurants.
Breakfast is included at most hotels but otherwise is difficult to find. Lunch is typically served 11 am-1 pm, where the daily specials (dagens ratt) usually provide the best value. Dinner is usually held 5-8 pm, with most people preferring to eat between 7 and 8 pm.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one, not including drinks or tip: $ = less than 300 SEK; $$ = 300 SEK-500 SEK; $$$ = 501 SEK-800 SEK; $$$$ = more than 800 SEK.
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