Stockholm’s relationship with water is like few other places on earth. Go anywhere in the historic centre, and you soon find yourself at the water’s edge or crossing a bridge from one island to the next. Stockholm’s global reputation as a city of culture, design, art and fine cuisine has grown hugely in the decade since I was last here; yet for all the excitement of the newest restaurant or stylish modern architecture, Stockholm is, at heart, the same city that has been defined by its watery geography for over 800 years. Exploring the unique layout of this small, cosmopolitan place is part of its attraction.
The patchwork of islands, all fourteen of them, that make up the city all have their own atmosphere, and all are fascinating to explore. It’s pretty easy to walk most of the central part of Stockholm, trams and boats offer trips further afield. How many islands you visit depends on how long you have in the city, and with only a fews days to spare I had to make some hard choices. It may be touristy, but it’s impossible not to visit the medieval streets and alleys of Gamla Stan, or to wander through the vibrant and artsy Södermalm to the south.
A trip to the nearby Djurgården gives you access to nature and an insight into Swedes at leisure only minutes from the city. Djurgården was once the preserve of the royal family, today you’ll find a fine collection of museums and plenty of walking trails, all open to the public. I was desperate to go to the Abba Museum, but after a long walk around the island, I only had enough time to visit the Vasamuseet. I’d been before, ten years ago, but the sight of a perfectly preserved 17th century warship never grows old.
On my only other visit I was shocked by the prohibitively expensive cost of shopping, eating out, and alcohol. A leaflet I picked up from the Stockholm tourism office tried to play down the cost of the city, but in the end gave the game away by saying that if we tourists thought Sweden was expensive, we should go to Norway. Either the rest of the world has caught up, or my expectations of costs have changed, because things didn’t seem so bad this time. Although €12 for less than a pint of beer almost knocked me off my bar stool.
I was staying in the city centre’s Norrmalm. A busy commercial district, it encompasses residential areas with plenty of good restaurants and bars, as well as some truly grand architecture. The Battle of Brunkeberg between Sweden and Denmark was fought in this area in 1471. It ended in a Swedish victory, and is seen as a step towards Swedish independence. It was also the battle that gave Stockholm its most enduring emblem, St. George slaying the dragon.
The Swedish leader, Sten Sture, is said to have prayed to St. George on the eve of battle and commissioned a wooden sculpture to commemorate victory. The sculpture is the main attraction in the Storkyrkan, Stockholm’s lovely cathedral and the oldest church in Gamla Stan. In 1471, Gamla Stan was Stockholm. The imagery is not subtle, Sten Sture is the triumphant St. George, the dragon the defeated Danish King, Christian I. There’s a glorious bronze replica of the statue in Gamla Stan which, as the sun sets, becomes a dramatic silhouette.
Stockholm today is a world class city, blending a wealth of history with cutting-edge trends in fashion, art, architecture, design, technology and food that defines the contemporary zeitgeist of its friendly inhabitants. It’s a truly modern metropolis that rewards slow exploration. It may have taken me ten years to return, but this trip has whetted my appetite for more.