It had been a long time since we were last in Stockholm Sweden—35 years if you want to know. What changed and what didn’t change in that amount of time? It was time to find out by touring Stockholm. The 2016 Asia-Pacific TBEX (Travel Blogger’s Exchange) Conference provided the perfect opportunity as it was located there. So we decided to attend the conference and re-acquaint ourselves with the city.
Stockholm, whose metropolitan area contains about 2 million people, is its own archipelago which consists of more than 22,000 island, ranging from virtual pinpricks, to suburban islands and one particularly large island (Bjorko) that was home to multiple towns and 40,000 residents as far back as the 9th century. While the city consists of 14 islands, people live on more than 200 of the almost 24,000 islands in the area. Most of the heavily populated islands are connected by more than 50 bridges and these, and most of the other islands on which people live, are also served by regular subway and ferry service.
Whether its architecture, interior design, furniture, textiles, cuisine or technology, the city seems to be on the cutting edge. It is, therefore, ironic that the city’s cultural and intellectual heart lies in a section that was designed in, and still consists primarily of buildings constructed in the Middle Ages.
Gamla Stran: Old Town Stockholm
Gamla Stran is primarily on the Stadsholmen Island and has been populated since before the 13th century. It was laid out and primarily built in medieval times around narrow, cobbled, curved roads that began as horse paths. Sororget is the original and current center of the city. A plaza that was a center of Hanseatic League trading, the site of the 1520 “Stockholm Bloodbath” (orchestrated by the then Danish King of Scandinavia) and, in 1523, emerged as the capital of a newly independent Sweden.
Most of the fairytale-like, Gothic island is something of an historical textbook—since converted into a commercial and tourist mecca.
Gamla Stan Streets and Sights
Vasterlanggatan, the longest and most commercial of the island’s streets, used to be located just outside the medieval city wall. It is now the city’s busiest street and by far, the most touristy (which we mean in the least flattering of ways), crammed with typically cheap-appearing (if not pricey) souvenirs. It is by far more crowded and filled with more junk than when we were last here. What happened to interesting little shops?
Prastgatan (Priest Street), which used to be home to priests, nobles and wealthy merchants and craftsmen, is more atmospheric and still retains some of the small details that marked the old city, These include:
- Distinctly shaped metal markers along upper floors that serve not only to secure floor joists, but also by their shapes, also provide indications of when the buildings was built;
- Symbols above some doors that indicated that the buildings was covered by fire insurance and to which fire departments would give priority in extinguishing blazes; and less charmingly,
- Round holes at the base of the foundations from which sewage used to flow into the gutters that line the streets (no, they are no longer used and many are covered up).
One of its buildings contains the “Viking Stone”, a piece of granite (protected from carriage of olden times by a cannon embedded in the street next to it), that was determined to have been placed in the 11th century, 200 years before the city was officially founded.
Then there’s the ironically named Trotzigs Grand, which at 0.9 meters in width, is the narrowest street (actually most of it is a stairway) in the city.
This said, a few structures retain particular architectural and historical significance. Among the most important of these are:
Royal Palace, a huge, 600+-room Renaissance-era structure that replaced and expanded upon a medieval fortress and palace that burned in the 17th century. The palace, which is now a museum, offers tours of both the Guest Apartments and the State Apartments. Our guide traced the evolution of the palace, from the 900s (when it was a wooden castle), through the 1300s (as a stone fortress and castle with towers and turrets), to the 17th century when the medieval fortress began to disappear (in stages, as funds became available) and it began to take on the appearance of modern European—and especially Italian—castles. Along with this, came an overview of changes in Sweden’s role in Europe, from the leading power of Scandinavia and the Baltic Coast, through 1809 when Sweden lost much of its kingdom to Russia, and again in 1815, when Sweden, in an alliance with Russia, regained control of Norway, but effectively ceded its right to Finland to its new “partner”, and then again in 1905, when the “union” between the two countries was dissolved.
The tour began in the Hall of State, the formal reception area in which sits the magnificent 1650 Silver Throne, which as a gift from Austria. We then moved upstairs to the Guest Apartments, a beautifully decorated suite of rooms in which heads of state and other royal guests stay. This was the biggest king-size bed we had ever seen!
Then came the main attraction, the State Apartments, where the King and Queen used to reside before moving to their current home at Drottningholms Slott. It is still used for many official functions such as receptions and state dinners. The magnificent Council Chamber, in which the King had regular meetings with the ruling council, provides a suitably awe-inspiring entry into this section of the castle. This is followed by the Gustav III State Bedroom in which, in the style of Versailles, select guests used to be invited to enjoy the privilege of watching the King being dressed in the morning and, if they were lucky enough to be chosen, even get to stand for hours on end to watch the king eat his way through a 15-course meal (“guests” were not allowed to partake in the meal, only to watch). Then there is the Queen’s Apartment (although she actually slept in a smaller bedroom behind the official bedchamber), the Gallery (loosely modeled on Versailles’s Hall of Mirrors) where official receptions and dinner parties (such as the second night dinner for newly-named Nobel Laureates) are held, the Quixote Room (in which the tale is illustrated in tapestries that surround the room), and on to the Ballroom (also known as the “White Sea Room” for reasons that have been lost to history) where the King and Queen now receive official visitors.
Then, downstairs to the “low-rent district” occupied by the Bernadotte Apartments, the decidedly less grand section of the Palace in less formal banquets and ceremonies are held. The visit inside the Palace ends with a walk through a room filled with magnificent clocks that were generally given as state gifts.
The show continues in the colonnaded plaza on the western side of the palace with the daily Changing of the Guard ceremony. This roughly 45-minute process ostensibly begins at noon with 12 cannon shots. It then, however, proceeds through a roughly ten-minute, bi-lingual commercial for Palace tours and museums that is delivered to a captive audience (who can barely understand the words due to the plaza’s poor acoustics). The procession into the plaza begins about 12:15, followed by a series of band performances and the actual changing of the guard. By the time you add at least another 15 minutes required to get a decent viewing spot, it turns into a very long hour.
Although the Palace tour is indeed worthwhile (even after Versailles), the Changing of the Guard ceremony, at least for us, became pretty tedious. Our preference would be for a greatly edited, time-lapse replay on YouTube, or perhaps a trip to Buckingham Palace.
House of Nobility was built in 1640, served as Sweden’s equivalent of the British House of Lords from the 17th through 19th centuries. After ascending the monumental staircase, you arrive at in the Blue Room which contains a large collection of rings and stamps that noblemen members had made with their coats of arms, as well as some from members who earned particular honors, such as membership in Order of the Seraphim or Order of the Sword. Also are collections of Chinese porcelains (which were popular in the late 1800s) that they had made with their coats of arms.
The Great room served as the meeting room for the Parliament on which the nobility served. The walls are covered by copper plates with the coat of arms for each represented family, all arranged by rank and the number of years in which one was a member. While the ceiling is graced by a huge painting, the room’s real treasure is ivory and ebony Lord Marshall’s Chair, with inscribed scenes from the Old Testament.
The first floor contains smaller, primarily Baroque-style rooms that were used for private meetings whose walls are lined with portraits of the Lord Marshalls who have served, in succession from 1627 to 1866.
Divided into two large, ornate pavilions, its Session Hall is decorated with the 2,326 coats of arms of the Swedish aristocracy. The real highlight, however, is the elaborate Main Chamber, which served as a governing and something of a social chamber for the city’s nobles.
Cathedral or Storkyrkan which means Great Church. This 12th-century Gothic structure is the oldest building in the city and is where all royal coronations and wedding are held. While its classical design makes it an architectural showplace, it is also home to Saint George and the Dragon, one of the most famous medieval wooden sculptures in Europe (which is intended to symbolize Sweden’s defeat of Denmark in 1523, in which Gustav Vasa led a successful rebellion against the Danish monarch) and a 16th century painting that shows the city and its harbor, against an otherworldly-looking sky, as it was supposed to have looked one morning.
St. Gertruds, a 17th-century structure that was the first German church built outside of Germany, which has a marvelously tall, slender and ornate steeple (the tallest structure in Old Town), complete with gargoyles, spikes and green copper roof.
Gamla Stan Ramblings
The real fun of the island, however, is in wandering the curved, cobbled streets (ideally with a knowledgeable guide (we took a tour with Free Walking Tours) who can point out unique sights and explain their historic or cultural significance. There is, for example:
- Iron Square, where iron (which used to be Sweden’s most important export) used to be warehoused and exported;
- A fun, bronze sculpture of a beloved mid-20th century troubadour that used to roam the city singing songs of his own composition;
- The tiny, beloved, 4-inch tall Iron Boy Statue, whose head people rub for good luck and is routinely graced with coins (for the church), or attired in seasonal garb, such as a tiny scarf in the winter or sunglasses in the summer;
- Don Gyldrne Frooden, which, dating from 1720, is the oldest continually operating restaurant in the country.
- The building at Boggensgatan, 23, which used to be the largest brothel in the city.
- The Merchant Square sculpture of St. George and the Dragon (a copy of the original of which is in the Cathedral).
Our next blog covers other areas of Stockholm.