Sweden’s capital has one of the oldest histories of the continent, boasting a succession of dynastic family sagas, wars, invasions, executions, rebellions and political coups.
We arrived in Stockholm’s outer harbour at dawn on a warm and bright August morning having enjoyed a mesmerising arrival through the archipelago.
A misty haze of more than 24,000 forested islands and inlets assemble to form the land mass of the beautiful waterside city. High up on the twelfth deck of the magnificent Viking Grace cruise ship (our ferry from Finland) we had elevated views of the city’s elegant shoreline.
The ancient settlement of Stockholm, Gamla Stan (Old Town) is still at its heart atop the island of Staden, where it was established in 1255.
A warren of narrow and twisting mediaeval streets – now busy with souvenir shops, cellar restaurants, amber jewellery and designer clothing boutiques – it was created by kings, nobles, merchants, burghers and churchmen. Its doorways and portals still bear a myriad of their heraldic symbols and coats of arms.
The Royal Palace, Parliament and Cathedral stand in grand, airy squares but for the most part the Old Town is an atmospheric maze of tottering buildings, squeezed in upon each other, and painted in warm colours of ochre, terracotta and reds.
We scuttled about the narrowest lanes, ducking under archways and into tiny courtyards enjoying the early morning calm at the picture perfect Stortorget before the day’s business of money-making began. Times may change but trade continues to be the life blood of Gamla Stan.
Staden is linked by bridges to the grand baroque architecture on the islands of Riddarholmen and Helgeandsholmen, which form an elegant and curving waterfront belt of civic buildings, museums, theatres and galleries around the medieval centre.
At the Royal Palace the guard was changing, and we strained for a glimpse of the pageantry on display.
Stern women army officers shooed back the encroaching crowds and even sterner women police officers on horseback formed a protective cordon at the palace gates. A young woman guard refused to smile for photographs, soberly staring past the eager photographers. Where were the men we wondered? It soon became clear.
The outgoing guard was parping on wind instruments in full regalia astride bustling ponies. The quirky procession made its noisy way out of the palace and trotted at full pelt amid the waterfront traffic and trams, back to the stables. It was a touching sight and rather comical to see.
The Royal Family and Sweden’s political leaders live openly in the city and in the case of two recent politicians this has meant their untimely deaths at the hands of others.
Swedes cling to their proud notion of ‘consensus’ and whilst various political alliances have sorely tested this aspiration, and the rise of right wing groups is threatening to disquiet the country, the overriding concerns remain open democracy and a strong economy.
Bridges in sight of the impressive parliament building, the Riksdag, were hosting posters of various candidates in Sweden’s upcoming General Election. Some unfortunates had already found their way into the waters swirling below.
With our budget in mind we found affordable camping south of the city centre for a couple of days along the shores of the picturesque Lake Malaren.
The Malarhojden neighbourhood of families and young professionals live in pretty properties in garden plots, along the steep hills of the lake’s shoreline.
Many of the gardens had fruiting apple and pear trees and boxes of windfalls were freely offered. Endearing blonde tiny tots walked hand-in-hand back to their first day of school now the long summer holidays were over.
Winter is coming, it seems. The last week of August signals the end of Summer in Sweden and the start of new seasonal opening hours and transport timetables. It also means an earlier dusk as the sun sets at 8.30pm and Stockholm’s copper street lights and harbour lights came on at 7.30pm.
We joined smartly suited commuters dashing past the busy construction site of the metro’s T-Centralen Square and onto their clean, efficient metro network for the journey home. We particularly enjoyed the vintage chrome and cream enamel of its escalators and station platforms.
Buying a 24 hour travel pass gave us access to all of the city’s public transport systems including its waterways. Seeing Stockholm in liquid light bouncing between the blue skies and the water was a special experience.
Our public water taxis bowled gently across the harbour (the Strom) between the island shorelines and past former royal palaces, grand mansions and swanky new developments set in the former waterside warehouse districts.
A striking sculpture of a man covered in stars towers at the entrance to the Nacka harbour of high end apartments and restaurants.
Designed by local sculptor Carl Milles it is ‘God our Father on the Rainbow’ and was intended for New York’s UN building in 1946. America’s loss was Stockholm’s gain and the sculpture is now part of the Strom’s skyline.
Established as a trading and warring base, the role of battleships has importance in Stockholm’s history and none is so evocative as the mighty Vasa. Built on the orders of King Gustav II Adolf, the enormous wooden warship sank in the Strom on her maiden voyage in 1628.
Preserved in the Baltic’s brackish waters for 333 years she was raised in 1961, in all her ferocious and wooden-sculpted glory. To wander alongside Vasa and to gaze up at her soaring prow is to feel humbled, and not a little afraid. The irony of the tale is that it was Vasa’s impressive height and narrowness that caused her to topple and sink.
She was simply not able to float.
City Hall is a local government officer’s dream. It is the municipal council’s headquarters, a cradle of history and is celebrated every year as the venue of the Nobel Prize Banquet.
Weddings and grand ceremonies are held in its historic and plush halls, and people queue for hours to climb its tower. Opened in 1923 its architecture is art nouveau with a nod to the powerhouse days of Venice. It is built in red ‘monks bricks’ used traditionally for the construction of churches and monasteries.
Stadshuset seems older than its time and its austere beauty is impressive both at day and night time.
Djurgarden is a unique parkland reached across the water from the Old Town, on its own island and created by royalty as a place of leisure and entertainment.
Its traditional Tivoli, or fairground, still hosts thrill seekers’ rides that zip out over the water. I caught Simon chuckling as we passed the baby blue rollercoaster. It was the scene for an interview he recorded with Sweden’s most famous pop star of the time, back in 1995. He admitted that it wasn’t a great listen, as she simply screamed the whole way through.
However, quieter pursuits are enjoyed at the large open-air museum of traditional Swedish houses called Skansen.
The parklands fields and forests are also home to elk, fallow deer, hares, birds of prey, small furry animals and song birds. We scooted around it on a vintage tram admiring the sheer scale of the place just a short distance from the bustling centre and kept free from housing development.
Further afield we explored the bohemian district of Sodermalm, which 20 years ago was an undesirable and dangerous area to live in, and now boasts independent shops, unique crafts workshops, bars and eateries and characterful apartments in vintage city complexes.
Gotgaten (God’s Gate) is a long boulevard of music shops, cafes, vintage clothes stores, curios stalls, designer homeware, tattooists, night clubs and pubs leading to the crossroads of the former sluices at Slussen.
Massive engineering works are underway to shore up the city from the ongoing erosion of the former earthworks and to prevent a potential plunging into the sea. Construction was also underway in Sergels Torg, the ugly heart of the new city.
Simon made the personal pilgrimage to the unassuming suburb of Skarmarbrink.
The bland frontage of number 33 Palandergatan betrayed the busy interior of the former EMI Sweden recording studios where artists from Abba to One Direction have recorded albums.
The building was originally conceived as a cinema in the 1950s before EMI bought the cavernous place in 1962 and transformed it into a state of the art music studio, where hit records were produced for more than 50 years.
You have to wonder how A-list popstars feel when arriving to record in ‘Stockholm’ but in reality visiting an unremarkable suburban street.
As a regular through its doors in the 1990s Simon was pleased to hear of its continuing success as a private studio, although raised an amused eyebrow on hearing that Lady Gaga was recording there just the week before.
For a quiet moment we headed to the tree lined square and large central pool of Kungstradgarden, which offered a welcome respite for weary legs and feet after our explorations of Sodermalm.
The area may once have been a royal kitchen garden, but the great expanse of concrete with a couple of lines of trees would disappoint anyone thinking of neatly trimmed flower beds and rose gardens.
Shaded benches were filling up with lunching office workers, and stalls of second hand clothing were being set up for an impromptu afternoon’s market. We had a browse but the offering was mainly USA brands and not for us!
Nearby, St Jacob’s Church beckoned. Austere and red-bricked on the outside, it calm, columned interior is elegantly decorated in chandeliers and intricately worked and golden wall candle holders that reflect shimmering light across the rows of wooden boxed pews and massive golden pulpit.
It had taken us 21 years to return to Stockholm, having last visited on what turned out to be the infamous date of Princess Diana’s death in Paris. At our hotel that night shocked staff had pressed a meal upon us for no charge, expressing care and concern for two young and bewildered guests.
Stockholm holds a place in both our hearts and it was a delight to see it shining even more beautifully than we both remembered.