By Robert N. Jenkins
The answer to the Stockholm riddle: The light is just one a facet of all of the above plus the feel-good nature of Stockholm.
Named Europe’s Cultural Capital and the continent’s first Green Capital—honors coming within a 12-year span—Stockholm embraces past, present and future:
Its waterfront streets are lined with photogenic architecture. Its retail boulevards have all the upscale brands—and electric trolleys reminiscent of days gone by. All departments of its city administration are working on a plan titled Stockholm 2030.
Culture? Among its dozens of major museums are showcases ranging from the Nobel Prizes to the original-art campaign for Absolut vodka, from two spectacular royal palaces (Sweden is a monarchy) to modern photography, from the history of money forms (bones, stones, metal and paper) to an outdoor collection of 150 buildings from all over the Sweden, portraying the nation around the turn of the 20th century.
Set to open in 2013: a museum of Swedish music beginning with the 1920s and including a quartet that hasn’t performed together for 30 years, ABBA.
All things green? Ekoparken (literally, eco park) is 10 square miles – about eight times as large as New York’s Central Park. Ekoparken sprawls across land and water within the main city and two suburbs. It includes part of the popular tourist island that houses a roller-coaster-centric amusement park, and the wildly popular museum housing the raised and re-assembled Vasa, a huge warship that sank in the harbor in 1628.
To cut the emissions from cars, a public-private organization provides about 1,000 bikes to rent from more than 80 sites – pick one up here, drop it there.
But there’s barely room to navigate even a bike in Gamla Stan, the Old Town. Occupying an island just a five-minute walk from the bustling downtown commercial district, Gamla Stan is one of Europe’s best-preserved, and largest, neighborhood of medieval structures, dating to the 1300s.
Painted in brilliant shades as well as pastels, these four- and five-story buildings close in on alleyways barely an armspan wide. The occasional plaster face of a saint or ancient Swedish hero adorns some corners above the first-story level. Here and there, the wrought-iron finery (some reproductions of ancient guild-members’ signs) project over the heads of pedestrians.
And passersby there are, as Gamla Stan seems in danger of becoming a victim of its popularity.
About 2,000 by 2,300 feet at its widest boundaries, the island is in every guide’s must-see list of Stockholm attractions. Not hesitant to make a kroner, euro or dollar off the tourists, merchants have converted most doorways on the main streets, Stora Nygatan and Vasterlanggatan (all cq), into shops: T-shirt stores, tiny cafes and pastry shops, and boutiques offering a relentless parade of moose – the popular national animal – on shirts, sweaters, wood carvings, metallic doo-dads, stuffed, etc.
Consequently, the streets are thronged on warm summer days, the residents of Gamla Stan steadfastly negotiating the crowds as they push their bicycles to their butcher or green grocer, located around the corner from those main drags.
That’s a good method for you to best enjoy the island: Simply turn on to one of two dozen or so streets and alleys that ultimately reach the crest of Gamla Stan’s hill, site of the 600-room Royal Palace.
You might even find that you have these tiny byways to yourself. That is, unless residents are headed to the eye doctor, architect, the rare maps and books shop, or an old, old restaurant with its metal guild sign over the front door: a giant pretzel.
This particular out-of-the-way place -- I stumbled on it at the intersection of Kindstugatan and Sjalagardsgat (both cq) – is about four blocks from the Palace and the adjacent Storkrykan, the cathedral dating to 1279.
Both are also tourist magnets.
The Palace, built in the 18th century in the Italian Baroque style, contains several museums. But you don’t need to go inside to enjoy the big draw: the daily changing of the guard at the king’s official residence.
For the best views, line up at least 15 minutes early on Slottsbacken, the street along one side of the Palace, or stand against the two semi-circular openings at the end of the courtyard. The guards present an interesting image in their 1890s-style uniforms and helmets, their automatic rifles an anachronistic touch.
Close to the Palace is the cathedral, site of the marriage in 2010 of the crown prince and his bride. It holds two artworks particularly revered. One is an elaborate statue of St. George slaying the dragon (created three years before Columbus reached the New World), and the main altar, with its silver inlays on a large ebony wood structure.
To put the crowds behind you, step aboard one of traditional tour boats for a relaxing ride out into the archipelago of 30,000 islands. The boats are designed to offer maximum viewing of the glorious scenery as you motor past undeveloped islets, lightly populated islands, sailboats gliding and power boats occasionally pulling a water skier.
These mini-cruises are a Stockholm tradition, with roundtrips lasting from two to more than eight hours. You can book a meal onboard, bring your own picnic or grab a meal in one of the island villages that cater to handfuls of residents as well as daytrippers.
These boats, some more than 70 years old, also head to Drottningholm (cq) Palace, about an hour – and 350 years – from Stockholm. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Palace was built in the mid-1600s and is sometimes referred to as the Versailles of the North, although their construction was about the same time.
The Palace, also an official residence, is resplendent inside and boasts acclaimed gardens and a Chinese Pavilion whose original structure was given as a birthday gift by the king to his queen in 1753.
The cruise back into Stockholm’s downtown harbor provides a reality check following the natural panorama of the archipelago. You are motoring into the heart of the largest city in Scandinavia, bustling with traffic on land and water.
From your boat, the cityscape is defined by church spires, a hilltop palace, even an amusement park. It’s all illuminated just right.
If you go
Getting there: Nonstop flights are available from Chicago and Newark; one-stop flights from Orlando, Miami, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. You can catch an airport bus or express train from the airport right downtown.
Staying there: For location, you can’t do better than the Sheraton Stockholm. It’s two blocks from City Hall, from a bus stop serving popular routes, and from the central train station. The hotel is about eight blocks to the main retail street and modern shopping centers, and about that far to Gamla Stan.
Getting around: You can move through Stockholm, a city of about 860,000, on foot, tram, bus, ferry boat or a “hop on/hop off’’ boat popular with tourists. There are also guided Segway and bike tours.
Popular, too, are guided tours themed to ABBA’s haunts and to the trilogy of books known as the Millenium series, which started with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Author Steig Larsson (cq) lived in the city and placed his characters in many actual places.
Getting started: Without a doubt, your best buy is the Stockholm Card, which can be purchased online or at the visitors bureaus (www.visitstockholm.com). It provides free admission to 80 museums and attractions, free rides on public transport and free or discounted sightseeing tours.
The price for adults is 450 Swedish krona for one day, up to 950 for five days. Current exchange rates of about 15 cents to one krona mean these cards are about $67 and $142.
The visitors bureau has an array of maps, brochures and advisors to help, and it also maintains about 300 “boards’’ set up in major tourist areas that let you connect with a live advisor. Go to the web site visitstockholm.com as a starting point.
Another free site for timely information is the Stockholm is the Stockholm Cruise Blog (www.avidcruiser.com/stockholm). Created by American Ralph Grizzle, who spends part of each year in Sweden, part in North Carolina, and the rest aboard cruise ships, this blog offers residents’ lists of must-sees and must-eats.
To see: A few companies offer boat tours of Stockholm itself and the archipelago. I booked with Stromma (www.stromma.se/en) for a three-hour roundtrip to the island of Vaxholm; the dinner was delicious, the narration in English, the views the kind that have you considering, “What if ...?’’
Prime tips from guide Gabriela Cerchiari (cq) begin with getting away from Gamla Stan and the commercial downtown area of Noormalm:
So, take the Nos. 2, 3 or 76 bus to the island of Sodermalm. Once the bus is on Sodermalm, get off after it turns on to Renstiermas Gata (cq), at about the location of the Norska Kyrkan (a church), on your right.
Continue briefly on that street and look left for a broad footpath uphill; cross the street and this path will take you past several small cottages, painted maroon. These formerly were the homes of shipyard workers, refurbished and converted into low-cost housing.
Continue on this footpath until you reach a T intersection. Turn to your left and within a few yards you’ll reach the terrace on Fjalgatan. Your elevated view is wonderful, looking across one of the main bodies of water and down toward several of the islands.
Below to your right is Djurgarden, the island containing the museums for the warship Vasa, the Absolut art collection, a more-traditional art museum, an aquarium, the amusement park and Skansen, the outdoor collection of 150 authentic structures. There are also gardens and paths to cycle or stroll.
To your left is Gamla Stan, beyond it is Noormalam and slightly farther left, the 350-foot-high tower of City Hall. You’ll want to join one of the English-language tours of City Hall, to view its magnificent “piazzas’’: one hosts about 1,300 for the Nobel Prize Winners’ dinner, while the other is notable for the millions of gold-colored mosaic stones creating huge images of religious and mythical figures.
In addition to the sites mentioned here, I enjoyed the museums for the Vasa, the Nobel awards (have the guide turn upside down one of the chairs in the small café – they have been signed by recent laureates), the Mint Museum (its name translates as Coin Cabinet), even the Stortorget, the plaza and fountain directly in front of the Nobel museum).
I had a pricey meal at one of the venerable restaurants in Prinsen. I might have enjoyed it more if I had not been surrounded by American tourists conversing between the tables but not about the city in which they were dining.
Before going, I had figured I needed three days to “see’’ Stockholm; I was off by half.
Robert N. Jenkins is former travel editor of the St. Petersburg Times.
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