I love Stockholm. There, I’ve said it. Now that I’ve shamelessly professed my unabashed fondness for this ancient city of 14 islands, 57 bridges and almost 1,000,000 people (2.2 million in the Metro area), I can get on with the rest of it. But really, what’s not to like? There are boats everywhere and even the garages are beautiful.
Close your eyes and imagine a city where traffic jams and interstate highways are a relic of the past. Instead, all around you are people walking, riding bicycles, emerging in throngs from underground train stations, and taking ferries to get from place to place. The overall effect is a quieter, calmer city where the streets are alive with movement and the air is filled with less pollution and honking.
Now open your eyes. You’re in Stockholm.
Not surprisingly, there are many ways to reach this city that fancies itself the Capital of Scandinavia. If you arrive by air (as we did) into Arlanda Airport, you will have an opportunity to take the nicest airport-city train I’ve ever had the pleasure to ride, the Arlanda Express. If you are traveling Thurs-Sun, you can buy tickets for multiple travelers at deep discounts, like 2 tickets for 300 Krona ($36). The trip only takes 20 minutes from the airport to the central train station, much quicker than if you go by bus or taxi. Plus, there’s free wi-fi and the clean and modern train is powered by 100% renewable energy. Welcome to Sweden.
Once you’ve arrived in the city, you can buy transit tickets on your smart phone or at a kiosk. The SL system sells multiple day cards for visitors that includes unlimited access buses, Metro trains, and local ferries. A 24 hour pass costs 115 Krona ($13.75 USD) and a 72 hour pass is 230 Krona ($27.50). We opted for the 7 day pass for 300 Krona ($36 USD), but the 7 day pass requires you to purchase an SL card for 20 Krona (about $2.40 USD). The savings for a week of unrestricted transportation were well worth it.
Stockholm’s Metro system, Tunnelbana (T-bana for short), is impressively expansive for a city of its size. First opened in 1950, T-bana includes 47 underground and 53 above ground stations. The system has 3 colored main lines that include 7 different offshoots with the T-Centralen (or Central Station) at the hub.
As we discovered one Saturday morning at about 7:30 a.m., there are often more people traveling below ground than above it (which is a more plausible explanation for the lack of sentient beings than the zombie apocalypse we thought we’d encountered.) Ridership on the T-bana warrants the system’s size and maintenance. In 2013, the average daily rides on the Metro were 890,000 – not bad for a city of under 1 million people.
During our week in Stockholm, our apartment was a 2-minute walk from the Mariatorget station (on the popular island neighborhood of Sodermalm) on the red line. We never left the redline, venturing only as far as Ostermalmstord, finding everything else we needed either on foot or by boat.
Walking was our favorite way to get around and the very best way to see the city. Here’s a link to a map that gives you a sense of the layout of the islands, neighborhoods and the Metro system.
Once you have your transit pass, taking a ferry is a must, particularly since Stockholm is a city of islands at which lake Malaren meets the Baltic Sea.
While it’s not an intuitive system for tourists (though most ferry terminals have a place to scan your pass before boarding), there are worse places in the world to experience trial and error. The ferry from Slussen to Djurgarden is a popular route, only taking about 10 minutes. There are also routes from Nybroplan and other ferries that cross over from Sodermalm to City Hall. Check out this page for more info on the ferry system and enjoy the ride.
Gamla Stan, meaning “Old Town”, is Stockholm’s oldest neighborhood. First occupied in 1,000 A.D. by Vikings, Gamla Stan was more formally established in the mid-13th century. The first mention of Stockholm (literally translated as “log islet”) dates back to 1252 and even at that time was known as an important port, particularly for the iron trade.
In 1600, the population of Stockholm was about 10,000 and the city began it’s rapid ascent as a European power. By 1680, the population grew to be closer to 60,000. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
An extraordinary thing happened in 1628 during the city’s maritime-driven period of growth. The King of Sweden, Gustav II Adolf referred to as “The Lion of the North”, was known for building a great military and extending Sweden’s power and influence throughout Europe. In 1625, Gustav II hired the Dutch master shipwright Henrik Hybertsson and his partner Arendt De Groote to build the greatest warship of all time, the Vasa. While Hybertsson did not live to see the ship’s completion, the most powerful and well equipped warship in the Baltic Sea exquisitely decorated with hand-carved statutes, sporting 10 sails and 64 cannons, set sail on a fateful day, August 10, 1628.
With over 300 passengers and crew and a full load of munitions and cargo, the ship sailed out of port on a clear day. After sailing a mere 1,300 meters (1,400 yards), the ship dramatically listed and quickly sank in Stockholm harbor, claiming the lives of 30 people on board. An inquest was held shortly after the ship’s sinking, but no one was ever held accountable for the ship’s rapid demise.
The ship remained at the bottom of the Stockholm harbor for over 300 years, preserved (ironically) by the pollution that kept the wood from oxidizing under water. There was so much raw sewage in the water that even the bacteria couldn’t survive, which meant much of the 333 -year-old ship and her contents were intact. A major salvage effort began in the 1950’s after an amateur Swedish marine archeologist, Anders Franzen, rediscovered the wreck. More than 1,300 dives later, the Vasa reemerged at the surface in 1961, with barges on either side of her while the world watched.
After an extraordinary restoration effort, the Vasa lives on in her own museum in Djurdarden. The Vasa Museum is now the #1 attraction in Stockholm for good reason. While perhaps not seaworthy, she is worthy of the admiration bestowed upon her. Had she sailed successfully out of port that first day, 21st century visitors to Stockholm would never have laid eyes upon her. For an admission price of 130 Krona ($15.50 USD), you too can witness her well-preserved grandeur. Talk about #ThrowbackThursday.
Another piece of Stockholm’s old history that warrants mention is the Nobel Museum, centrally located in a square in Gamla Stan.
Electronic and traditional case exhibits highlight awardees in the categories of physics, chemistry, literature, medicine and peace. The only award not presented annually at a ceremony in Stockholm is the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in Oslo.
Stockholm City Hall
Before reading about this beautiful architectural attraction and political center of Stockholm, you need to be aware that the Swedes and the Danes have some issues, including the need to out-do each other whenever possible. It helps to explain their bloody wars over a 350 year period and also the designs of their respective city halls.
Construction of Stockholm City Hall (what the locals refer to as “Stadshuset”) was started in 1911 and completed in 1923. Eight million red bricks (“munktegel” or monks bricks) later, architect Ragnar Osterberg had added every element and every flourish one could imagine to the political center of the city. A gold room, a blue room (not actually blue), a moat, a courtyard, a clock tower, a museum and an upscale basement restaurant all comprise the masterfully-presented public service building in Stockholm. Not only does the grandeur of City Hall attract hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, it also hosts the annual dinner of Nobel Prize winners. Take that, Copenhagen.
A perk of traveling is that you get to visit some of the wonderful people you’ve met on your journeys studying best practices of places all over the world. Matilda Malquist Glas, an aide to the current Mayor of Stockholm Karin Wanngard, welcomed us on our wonderful visit to City Hall.
Portland has much to learn from cities like Stockholm, including their commitment to family-friendly policies (like the most liberal paid family leave policies in the world-about 18 months) and their efforts around climate change. As a result of Stockholm’s commitment to women and families, I’ve never seen so many men pushing strollers in my life! Also, as a result of local and national policies, it’s common that workers earn at least $15/hour, even in restaurants.
Still, Stockholm City Hall evokes a grandeur fit for an evolved political system where women make up almost exactly 50% of the 101 members of the City Council representing nine political parties. (Women recently held 51 of 101 seats of the Council until one representative went on parental leave and was replaced by a man).
If you have the energy to walk up the 365 steps to the top of the tower at 106 meters (exactly 1 meter higher than the top of Copenhagen’s tower), you will enjoy 360 degree views of the city below.
All I know is that it wasn’t just me having fun touring City Hall….
It’s another “bucket list” item for your visit to Stockholm.
Stockholm on Foot
Before turning to recent history, I highly recommend doing a free walking tour of Stockholm. Without it, I would not have learned that the first city employees of Stockholm were given free housing and worked tax free. I also didn’t know that 90% of the country are not particularly religious, thanks to King Gustavo back in 1520. As a result, the biggest holiday next to Christmas is Midsummer, which looks a lot like a pagan ritual with people with crowns of flowers dancing around a Maypole. It’s understandable that people in Stockholm worship the sun since in summer, it’s light from about 3:45 a.m. to 9:45 p.m., and in at the peak of winter, the sun rises at about 8:30 a.m. and sets about 2:45 p.m. It’s even more severe in the far North, where they quite literally have “White Nights.” Remember, tour guides work off tips, so do right by them.
We learned also of the Swedish Royal Family, who while holding a prestigious ceremonial position in Sweden, have little influence over day-to-day political affairs. Rather than being tied to British-like tradition, Swede Royals can marry for love, rather than position. As a result, in 2010, Crown Princess Victoria married her personal trainer, Daniel Westling, and they lived happily ever after….
Lastly, we learned about a local hero by the name of Raoul Wallenberg. Mr. Wallenberg was a Swedish architect who in WWII was assigned to serve as a diplomat in Budapest. Wallenberg Square, near famous Nybroplan, commemorates his actions that saved at least 10,000 Hungarian Jews from concentration camps.
Resourceful Mr. Wallenberg produced Swedish passports for the Jewish captives and ultimately secured their release. At the end of the war, he was mysteriously taken, questioned and reportedly killed by the KGB in Moscow. The actual circumstances of his capture and death remain uncertain.
You also never know when a celebration may break out on the streets like Stockholm. Like Fika, it can happen at any time.
Modernity meets Tranquility
A more recent description of today’s Stockholm is “Modernity Meets Tranquility,” something we certainly found to be true during our visit.
One of our (mainly Alisa’s) favorite Swedish traditions still honored today is “going for a Fika,” meaning going for coffee that’s typically accompanied by a sweet treat.
There are different ways to Fika, and in some of the rural parts of the country, Fika can happen several times a day, apparently at any time. For most working people, one fika in the morning and another in the afternoon is normal. Fika requires conversation and enjoyment of the coffee, people and treats. It’s not the same as slamming an espresso at a counter and moving on.
Let’s just say, we found occasion to Fika more than once in Stockholm.
With all of the Fika, one really must exercise, so Stockholm offers more tranquil parks all over this wonderful city than you can possibly enjoy.
As mentioned before, biking is an easy option for exercise or transportation. Dedicated lanes protect you from pedestrians and vice versa.
On the Western side of Sodermalm is a park adjoining a river with old-school workout equipment, like squat machines and bench presses, all made out of heavy wood beams.
Tango utegym is a Viking’s dream, and it’s free to the public. Free public health…what a concept.
Nearby, if you’d prefer to swim rather than squat, there’s that option as well. It’s a bit chilly in the channel, but may be worth it if you can find a sauna.
Or you can just stroll freely through the parks and see what wonderful places you discover.
Perhaps not exactly “modern,” but if you were a child of the ’70s or ’80s, you might have an occasion to swing by the Abba Museum (conveniently a 5 minute walk from the Vasa Museum).
While perhaps not one of the greatest bands of their era, they certainly were one of the most memorable. I think my first exposure to the song “Dancing Queen” was via an album called “Disco Duck” when I was about four old. Some things just stay with you. It makes sense now learning that one of the original members was a classically trained pianist. It’s the melody and the piano of Abba songs that I most remember.
So, with that, put on your dancing shoes, squeeze into your white bell bottoms and light up your disco ball:
And because they just weren’t that into it for the Dancing Queen video, here’s one more to top it off, made popular again by Meryl Streep’s entertaining film and the musical:
Thank you Agnetha, Benny, Bjorn and Anni-Frid. The entire world took a chance on you and just can’t seem to forget you, or your awesome outfits.
There is not much more to say about Stockholm other than someone please give me a reason to come back. This city is truly…