It might be small, but Stockholm’s medieval centre is a place that rewards repeat visits and slow exploration. The streets of Gamla Stan may be packed with tourists but they are equally packed with history and lined with extraordinarily beautiful buildings, it’s remarkable that it has survived to the modern day in such a well preserved condition. I spent a lazy morning wandering its cobbled streets, but passing through Gamla Stan on my way to and from Södermalm to the south allowed me to uncover more of this spectacular little place.
The last time I was in Stockholm was over a frozen March weekend ten years ago. I still remember the biting cold as we walked through the city and took a boat trip around the waterways and islands. The light fades fast in March, and with it the temperature falls even further. It was a weekend that incentivised indoor activities. This visit was very different, hot and sunny late summer weather made spending the day outdoors a real pleasure, and Stockholm is a fantastic city to explore on foot.
The warm weather had brought Stockholmers into the streets and filled the outdoor tables of cafes and restaurants. As I passed through the magnificent Stortorget square a semi-naked painted woman performed in front of a large crowd in the shadow of the Nobel Prize museum. In the surrounding cafes people sat sipping chilled wine in late afternoon sun as a stag party, wearing only yellow IKEA t-shirts and blue IKEA bags as trousers, crowded into a bar. Surreal though it might have been, it was a scene that was perfectly at ease with the medieval surroundings.
The scene in Stortorget nearly five hundred years earlier was very different. In 1520, it was here that the Stockholm Bloodbath took place, when the Danish King, Christian II, massacred over a hundred opponents amongst Sweden’s nobility. In the 16th century Sweden was effectively ruled by Denmark, and the massacre was intended to put an end to a Swedish pro-independence movement. It was just one of numerous incidents that punctuated several centuries of conflict between the two nations.
Around the corner from the Stortorget is the Storkyrkan, Stockholm’s cathedral. The ochre exterior glowed in the sun as I popped in to see the glorious wooden carving of St. George and the Dragon. Commissioned to commemorate a 15th century victory over the Danish at the Battle of Brunkeberg, St. George defeating the dragon has been adopted as the symbol of Stockholm and can be spotted all over the city. As I strolled after leaving the cathedral I came across an exact bronze replica silhouette against an 18th century building.
As the late afternoon turned to early evening, a peacefulness descended on the streets of Gamla Stan and it started to empty of tourists and day trippers. At dusk the alleys and lanes are an intensely atmospheric place to wander. After a long day of strolling, I stopped to have some food in a small traditional restaurant. Swedish food may be going through something of a renaissance, but it would be fair to say that it is pretty stodgy and/or fishy.
I ordered a classic dish of Swedish meatballs accompanied by tangy lingonberry jam. While I waited for my food to arrive I pondered a question that had been troubling me all day: why, when in Sweden, are meatballs still called Swedish meatballs? Should they not just be called meatballs? Are tourists so easily confused? Or perhaps unaware of which country they are visiting? I then realised that the same applies to the Full English Breakfast. In England it should be known as a Full Breakfast. This, though, is the way madness lies, so I stopped thinking and tucked into my delicious Swedish meatballs.
The sun was setting and the light fading as I crossed the Riksbron bridge in front of the Swedish parliament, and made my way along the waterfront to the iconic redbrick city hall. The lights of Stockholm were gloriously reflected in the surrounding waters, and the views back towards Gamla Stan and the cliffs of Södermalm were simply stunning. I sat for a while in the warm night air admiring one the finest views that any European city has to offer, and made plans for the following day.