Walking around Gamla Stan, the medieval heart and soul of Stockholm, feels a little like walking in a time capsule. At least it feels that way if you get here early in the morning, before the daily tourist onslaught, or wander its cobbled streets after dark, after the majority of day trippers have left. Arrive here in the middle of the day and you can expect the narrow streets to be filled with freewheeling tour groups from every corner of planet earth.
I arrived early to explore Gamla Stan’s atmospheric streets, and had a few hours of pleasant strolling before the streets began to get noticeably busier. Around midday, I abandoned the increasingly crowded lanes and alleyways, heading to the less touristed streets of Södermalm to the south, but this small island isn’t just about tourism. The beauty and history of Gamla Stan would draw me back several times as I wandered around Stockholm during my stay.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, Gamla Stan was Stockholm. Like a drop in water, it is the centre from which modern Stockholm rippled outwards. It contains many of the most historically important buildings in the city, many dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. This includes the massive Royal Palace, which dominates a square block of the island; the 13th century Church of St. Nicolas, or Storkyrkan as it’s better known; and the delightful ancient town square of Stortorget, containing some of Stockholm’s most iconic buildings.
In between these landmarks are a labyrinth of small lanes, cobbled alleyways, and steep ginnels. Even in Gamla Stan I often found myself alone in these out of the way areas, rejoining the crowds on the main streets and squares. What you see today owes much to the renaissance the medieval Gamla Stan (imagine dark, overcrowded and dirty streets) underwent in the 17th century, when Sweden was a major European power. It was then that it acquired the grandeur that draws millions of visitors every year.
Given its global renown, Gamla Stan only got its name in the 1980s, before then it was simply known as staden mellan broarna – town between the bridges. This is a pretty accurate description, but it’s not exactly the most glamorous name for such an historic beauty. As I walked over one of those bridges in the bright early morning sun, the water was reflecting the bright buildings that ring the waterside. It’s possible at times like this, with no traffic and few people, to imagine the ancient city.
The streets of Gamla Stan seem to drip history. It’s made all the more authentic by being mostly pedestrianised, a rarity in modern Europe. It makes exploring the island all the more pleasurable. It’s not all quaint history though, there are lots of good cafes, restaurants, bars and even microbreweries in which to wile away an hour or two while watching the crowds – and even the occasional stag party from Britain – go by, before hitting the cobbles for more historic exploration.