The rain wasn’t deterring the intrepid visitors standing in a long line outside the ABBA museum. Didn’t bother me much either as I was snugly dry inside Stockholm’s hop on hop off bus as it passed them by. Whilst I’m sure the lure of ABBA memorabilia is a magnet for many, I passed on that particular opportunity as I was on my way to something a lot more extraordinary. The Vasa Museum. And the hop on hop off bus was a perfect way to get me there.
In most cities around the world, the big red buses are the ideal introduction for visitors who want to orient themselves to a city easily. But in Stockholm, where water plays such a big part in the landscape, the hop-on/off water taxi, which is included in the price, offers a really convenient way to get around. Another useful card is the Stockholm Pass which can be valid from 24 up to 120 hours and includes unlimited transport on the hop-on/off buses and boats and most of the main attractions in the city including several cruises and excursions.
Stockholm is a city that straddles 14 islands which are connected to each other by 57 bridges. Of course, those 14 islands are a teasing taster to the rest of the archipelago where over 20,000 lie in wait. So, instead of ploughing your way across the road system, cutting across the water can be a fun way to island-hop.
The medieval old town of Gamla Stan lies on the centre island; it’s where Stockholm first found its beating heart and it literally oozes character from every ancient brick. The 18th century Royal Palace with its bewildering collection of 600 rooms is well worth a visit. This is a traffic-free zone so you can wander the narrow cobbled streets and alleys to your heart’s content. A baroque palace here, a steepled church there or perhaps instead, a charming hidden square for a coffee and a people watch. Gamla Stan has countless bars, restaurants and coffee shops and after dark, live music competes for your attention from ancient cellars where music clubs offer jazz, blues and rock till the early hours. Stampen, with its 16th-century cellar, is the oldest and most famous jazz bar in town.
Stroll over a bridge and you’re on Sodermalm one of my favourite islands. This is the hip part of the city as well as the highest. Trendy cafes are everywhere as are boutiques and art galleries. Get up the old brewery area and look for signs for Monteliusvägen, it’s a 500-metre cliff path with some fabulous views across Lake Mälaren and the city. Back down alongside the water, you’ll find Fotografiska within one of the waterside warehouses. it’s a museum of contemporary photography with some outstanding exhibitions.
Handily, the water taxi dock is right here, so grab it and go across to Djurgarden where the Vasa Museum awaits; for me one of Stockholm’s finest attractions. The Vasa was an extraordinary 17th-century warship commissioned by the king in 1626 to emphasise Sweden’s power in the region. She had 64 bronze cannon and was richly decorated with hundreds of carvings. It was the biggest and heaviest ship of its time but sank in the harbour after just 20 minutes into its maiden voyage in 1628. It was salvaged in 1961 and incredibly, after 33 years, was still 98% intact.
The whole museum is built on 5 viewing levels around the gigantic ship suspended proudly in its dry dock. Watch the short film first to understand the story of the ship and the salvage and then stare in wonder at all the historical items this extraordinary salvage managed to uncover. It was the reconstructions of the 16 crew members from their intact skeletons that fascinated me the most. It was hard to believe they weren’t real. For those of you interested in ABBA history, the museum is on this island and close to here. I would recommend booking it in advance to avoid the queues.
From here you can walk across the bridge to Östermalm, the main island, and stroll along Strandvägen, one of the most prestigious streets in the city. It’s hard to believe that during the early 1800s this waterfront boulevard was a filthy slum but with the forthcoming Arts and Craft Exhibition of 1897, the king decreed it rebuilt as a fancy boulevard to rival Paris. Today the street is lined with high-end cafes and restaurants and impressive 19th-century architecture that some of Stockholm’s wealthiest citizens call home.
It’s along this waterfront you’ll find the dock for the daily cruises around Stockholm’s magnificent archipelago (included with the city pass). It’s a lovely cruise around the city’s outer islands, although you’re only scratching the surface. There’s a good restaurant on board too if you fancy a romantic lunch or dinner.
No visit to Stockholm would be complete without experiencing the longest art gallery in the world. The city’s subway system has 100 stations and over 90 of them have been given a makeover by 150 artists with sculptures, mosaics, paintings, installations, engravings, and reliefs. My favourite has to be Stadion; vivid rainbows painted on the bedrock walls of the station. Travel the network and choose yours.
Where to eat
Stockholm is a foodie city, of that there is no doubt. Swedish cuisine is excellent, but there’s plenty of other options if you are more particular. Stockholm Fisk is an excellent fish restaurant located inside the Radisson Blu Royal Viking Hotel next door Central Station. It’s recently had a huge renovation and the results are very impressive. it is currently one of Stockholm’s hottest eateries.
Nomad is at the opposite end of the scale; adjoining the Backpackers Hostel in Upplandsgatan, it is a small but wonderfully bohemian place with an excellent Swedish menu. Incredibly good value. You can also just hang out there with drinks in the outside terrace. Pelikan in trendy Sodermalm is one of Stockholm’s oldest traditional restaurants with high ceilings and arched windows and waiters with starched aprons. Outstanding food and terrific service.
Where to stay
Radisson Blu Royal Viking Hotel is excellently situated close to the Central Station and Stockholm’s main shopping streets. It is just a 15-minute walk from Gamla Stan too.
Over by the waterfront, Radisson Collection Strand is another perfectly positioned luxury hotel. A meatball’s throw from the Strandvägen and just around the corner to Stockholm’s elegant cultural centre. A hotel since 1912, it was a regular haunt of Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergmann.
Tell me more about Stockholm
Stockholm Pass 1 day passes are Adults SEK 719 (around £60) Children aged 6-15 SEK 359 (around £30) 2 day passes are Adults SEK 1010 (around £86) Children aged 6-15 SEK 500 (around £42) 3 day passes are Adults SEK 1250 (around £106) Children aged 6-15 SEK 625 (around £53) There are opportunities for discounts during sales on selected times of the year.
Getting to Stockholm
Norwegian flies daily to Stockholm from London Gatwick.
Gatwick Express has a high-frequency, non-stop shuttle service to London Victoria in the heart of London. There’s a new Gatwick Express Lounge and the introduction of Oyster and Contactless payments on the route. Book online at Gatwick Express for a 10% discount.
The airport Arlanda Express is the fastest way into the city in just 18 minutes. It costs SEK 295 (around £25 one way) for a single or you can buy two tickets for SEK 350 (around £30). There is also a much cheaper bus service, Flybussarna that leaves every ten minutes and takes around an hour into Central Station for an online price of just SEK 99 (£8) one way. The official airport taxis have a set price of SEK 500 (around £42).
Hop on Hop off bus and boat pass 1 day €45 (bus only €32)
Nomad Restaurant Upplandsgaten 2a Stockholm T: +46(0) 8202042
Stockholm Fisk Vasagatan 1 111 20 Stockholm T: +46 (0) 850654110