Fresh air and fine design are the hallmarks of modern Sweden, but antiquarians will also find plenty of interest in its watery capital. Felicity Cousins reports.
1. NK department store and Kungstradgarden
The birthplace of Ikea, Sweden is well known for its interior design, and Stockholm has plenty of shops offering all sorts of ingenious contraptions. For a complete shopping experience, head to the Nordiska Kompaniet (NK) department store on Hamngatan. Known as the “Great Department Store”, it was founded in 1902 and is said to be where the royal family shops (go to nk.se).
The six-storey building is topped with a slowly turning NK sign, which can be seen from various streets as you stroll through the city. Inside, there is everything from designer clothes to Swedish crystal. Head for the lower-ground floor for the interior design section and an array of kitchen gadgets. Across the road from NK, inside the Gallerian shopping centre and down the escalators, is Design Torget. Here you will find vases made from plastic bags, perfect egg boilers, and other funky household gizmos.
Around the corner and just off Hamngatan is the Kungstradgarden or “King’s Garden”. This 900-acre oasis was once the kitchen garden for the royal palace. In summer, apple blossom clings to trees around a pretty fountain surrounded by benches. There are also hot-dog stands and ice-cream vendors, making it a popular place for workers on their lunch breaks, as well as artists, musicians and actors who perform on temporary stages here, while in the winter an ice rink steals the show.
2. Gamla Stan
From Kungstradgarden, head towards the waterfront and walk across one of the bridges to Gamla Stan – the Old Town – noting the City Hall on the right. This small island is home to the royal family and the palace is hard to miss, taking up a good chunk of the island. The king and queen are popular in Stockholm, and are often out and about in their horse-drawn carriage, with blue-clad guards riding alongside on smart chestnut-coloured horses.
There are several museums within the palace, but if you want to get a feel for the Old Town, wander through the narrow cobbled streets and duck down small alleyways which weave past cosy sunken restaurants, bars, craft and antique shops allowing you to peek inside. The 300-year-old houses huddle together as if overwhelmed by the modern world rattling around them. The main square is a good place to stop for a coffee, while the Nobel Museum is also located here and has tours in English (Tues-Sun at 11.15am and 3pm). Visit nobelprize.org for more details.
From the south of Gamla Stan you can catch a ferry from Slussen for the ten-minute ride over to Djurgarden. This island holds one of Sweden’s oldest treasures – King Gustav Adolf’s great warship, the Vasa, which sank on her maiden voyage in Stockholm harbour in 1628. The Vasa was raised over 300 years later and is now the only preserved 17th-century ship in the world. Walkways take you close to different parts of the ship, showing off her hull decorated with over 700 carvings. Also on display are artefacts such as clothes and tools from the wreck, and a section devoted to how the warship was discovered and raised in the 1970s – the old gear makes you wonder if early divers were insane or just hoping to end their lives at the bottom of the sea. Open 10am-5pm Sept-June (10am-8pm Wed), June-Aug 8.30am-6pm. Entry is SEK95 (£8).
4. Skansen and a Waterfront walk
From the Vasamuseet, venture inland to Skansen, the world’s oldest open-air museum and the most popular tourist attraction in Sweden. The site was founded in 1891 and offers visitors an interactive experience of the history of Sweden. There are over 150 life-size buildings, from peasant huts to elegant manor houses, throughout the expansive grounds and traditional gardens. You’ll also come across people demonstrating old trades such as ironmongering, glassmaking and potting. In addition, a zoological park provides the chance to spot Scandinavian animals such as bears, wolves and lynxes. Open daily but times vary with the seasons; go to skansen.se.
Djurgarden is home to rose gardens and parkland, and although it is a large island, I found a good walk which takes you back to the mainland. Follow the path behind Skansen along the northern edge close to the water until you reach a small bridge. It’s common to see Swedish walkers with ski poles marching together, as well as the odd family messing about in boats. Cross the bridge and turn left, past a boathouse serving drinks and snacks, and head back into the city centre along another pretty walkway, which will take you past some of the most exclusive houses in Stockholm. Eventually, you will reach the Strand, which is lined with buildings painted different colours, some in traditional Swedish Falu red.
5. Grand Hotel Stockholm
From the Strand, follow the harbour all the way around until you see a bridge on your left, which connects the mainland to another island, Skeppsholmen. There you will find the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Architecture, both of which are well worth a look if you have time. However, if you are ready to relax then turn right at the bridge, past the National Museum, until you reach the most renowned hotel in Scandinavia.
The Grand Hotel, founded in 1874 by Régis Cadier, is in a prime position overlooking the Royal Palace on Gamla Stan and Stockholm’s harbour, and has accommodated Nobel Laureates since the prize was first awarded in 1901. Afternoon tea is served in the famous Cadier Bar 2pm-5pm from SEK325 (£27) or with champagne from SEK395 (£33). Alternatively, dress smartly and stay for an early evening cocktail and some live piano music, or dinner in Mathias Dahlgren. Tel +46 8679 3585, grandhotel.se.
The Stockholm Card gives free access to many museums and sights, use of public transport and special offers on boat trips. SEK330 (£27.50) for 24 hours. Visit stockholmtown.com.