In pursuit of maximizing our travel time we sometimes make poor decisions. Taking an early morning flight from Amsterdam so we’d arrive early in Stockholm for a long Pentecost weekend trip (in the Netherlands the Monday after Pentecost is a public holiday), was one such bad decision.
Our KLM flight would leave at 6.50 AM, which meant we had to leave home at around 2.30 AM. Starting the weekend with way too little sleep after a hard week’s work – and me suffering from headaches that had become some kind of a chronic condition in the past half year – greatly determined how we experienced and rated Stockholm at the time.
Lack of sleep
Affected by the cobwebs in our heads from lack of sleep (aggravated in my case by my headaches) we were not directly blown away by the city. Somehow the fatigue stayed with us the entire weekend, which influenced our judgement as well. Where many people think Stockholm is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, we thought it was just ok, but not great.
In itself this doesn’t have to be a problem. Sometimes places you visit just don’t live up to your own expectations, sometimes they surprise you. But in retrospect (and with our heads much clearer) we’ve come to the conclusion that Stockholm was a better place to be than we thought at the time.
This experience had us make an important travel decision: No more early morning flights for weekend getaways from now on. It’s not worth it.
But what did we like about Stockholm? Actually, quite a lot.
Watching the changing of the guard in front of the Royal Palace
We gave our Stockholm weekend a jumpstart by witnessing the changing of the guard which takes place in the Royal Palace outer courtyard. In most cities such ceremonies near royal palaces or national monuments just take a few minutes. In Stockholm, however, it turned into a 45 minute spectacle accompanied by a military band of the Swedish Armed Forces. So bring along lunch as the ceremony takes place around lunchtime.
As a rule, the ceremony is held daily from 23 April to 31 August at 12.15 (13.15 on Sundays). The rest of the year the ceremony is only held on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Make sure you get there a little bit earlier (preferably 15-30 minutes) to claim a good spot (but even then there will some pushing and shoving involved with latecomers…).
After the changing of the guard and a quick bite to eat we visited the museums of the eighteenth century Royal Palace, one of the largest palaces in Europe. We took in the grand staterooms (very nice), the small and very crowded treasury (only recommended if you like some old-school bling) and the armory (not really our cup of tea).
Walking the cobblestoned streets of Gamla Stan
After that we walked into compact Gamla Stan (Old City), the historic center of Stockholm located on a small – largely car free – island. The colorful cobblestoned alleyways – shades of yellow, orange and red being the most dominant – are a boutique shoppers paradise and you’ll find many cafes and restaurants as well as some of Stockholm’s most important historical landmarks here.
Among them are the Great Market (Stortorget), where you can take a rest on one of the public benches, Stockholm Cathedral with its Gothic brick interior (we visited mostly because it was included in our Stockholm Card), the German church (Tyska kyrkan, which regretfully was closed) and the aforementioned Royal Palace (Kungliga Slottet).
(Not) following Lisbeth Salander’s footsteps
We ended the day with a walk around Södermalm – a neighborhood rich with galleries on the south side of the city center good for a stroll with a nice city panorama of Gamla Stan from Montaliusvägen hill or the Katharinahissen elevator (which wasn’t operating during our visit, but you can walk there as well). If you are a fan of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy: this is the place where you can follow Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander’s footsteps on a guided tour.
Visiting Stockholm’s City Hall
We kicked of day 2 with a visit to the City Hall (Radshuset). Although it’s one of the best known landmarks of Stockholm, the Nobel Prize banquet is held here every year, the brick exterior didn’t impress us much. The real treasure, however, is inside. The Gyllene Salen (Golden Room) is one of the most amazing rooms we’ve ever seen. The decorative mosaics on the walls are made with 18 million tiles – guess what the dominant color is?
Regretfully visits are only possible on a guided tour which are held on set times in English as well. On busy days it’s wise to be there on time and get your tickets beforehand. Just showing up at the time the tour starts will have you waiting for a later tour for sure.
For sweeping views of Stockholm it is also possible to climb the 106 meter high City Hall tower. This also can only be done at set times and availability of tickets is limited, so plan accordingly. There’s a small museum in the middle of the tower which we thought was not very interesting.
Learning about history in Skansen
We are suckers for open air museums so a visit to Skansen was a must for us. Founded in 1891 it is the oldest open air museum in the world. Farms, houses, churches and (work)shops from all around Sweden a brought together here, spanning an time period of five centuries.
We loved it, but unfortunately we picked the wrong time to visit. As the day was still cool and grey as we left the City Hall we originally intended to go to the Vasa Museum, but seeing the long waiting line at the entrance we changed our stride and went to nearby Skansen.
Unknown to us Skansen that very exact day celebrated the 70th anniversary of one of Sweden’s most beloved characters from Astrid Lindgren’s children’s books: Pippi Longstocking. As a result Skansen was swarming with parents pushing kids in strollers and kids were running around everywhere, which for a consciously childless couple like us was a bit overwhelming.
Still it was great to roam around – the sun had broken out as soon as we entered Skansen –,have a look in many of the 150 historical structures and see people in period costumes at work at local crafts. A zoo is also part of Skansen, mainly with Scandinavian wildlife, like brown bears, wolves, seals, lynx, wolverines and elks. Probably because of all the screaming children most animals kept their distance though.
At the end of the day we hopped over to the Photography Museum (Fotografiska Museet). The exhibition was small and a little disappointing.
Getting out to Drottningholm palace
For us the Unesco World Heritage site of Drottningholm palace was the highlight of our visit to Stockholm and made for a great morning trip on day 3. It’s located on the outskirts of the city but easily reached by a combination of metro and bus. You can also get there by boat, but this is more expensive and gives you less flexibility.
We got there a little bit too early before the doors opened, giving us some time to admire the 16th century palace basking in the morning sunlight. Being there early also meant we had the opulent baroque rooms mostly to ourselves as we walked around the palace, which was great. By the way, you can only visit a part of the palace as the royal family still lives here. How cool is that.
After about 1,5 hours in the palace we wandered the royal gardens (which are free) and walked to the Chinese Pavilion at the back of the gardens. We didn’t think the pavilion was worth the extra cost nor the walk there (about 15-20 minutes). Drottningholms Theater is supposed to be nice, but we just missed the English tour and didn’t want to wait another hour for the next tour, so we skipped it.
Making a day trip to Vaxholm
Because the weather was beautiful we had set our minds on something else: To get a taste of Sweden outside Stockholm. Because of the city’s location on and near the water we opted to take the ferry (some of which are steamships) to the island of Vaxholm in the afternoon. The ferry ride was like a kind of mini-cruise through Stockholm’s archipelago.
The touristy town of Vaxholm is everything you’d expect of a small Swedish town, with yellow, white, red and blue wooden houses. We hiked along the coast for a little while for some nice views over the water and other islands, strolled through the picturesque old part of town and ate pizza in the late afternoon sun on the terrace of an Italian restaurant before taking one of the last boats back to Stockholm. A great day out.
Making it into the Vasa Museum
That we’d left the queue at the Vasa Museum two days earlier didn’t help us much getting quicker into the most popular museum of Sweden on our last day in Stockholm. When we arrived again on Monday morning we had to wait in a long line at the Vase Museum again. Ugh. But eventually we got in to have a look at the Swedish warship that sank within minutes after it set sail for the first time (it was built by fellow Dutch, we’re ashamed to say).
That was in 1628. About 340 years later the ship was salvaged and meticulously put together again using as much of the original material as possible. A three stories high museum was built around the ship giving the opportunity to inspect it from different angles. Several exhibitions explain how the ship was built and how life on board was at the time. An interesting but very busy museum with many (too many) tour groups.
Taking a boat tour
After strolling back from the Vasa Museum along stately Strandvägen, we had one more thing to do before getting to the airport for our flight back home. As Stockholm’s inner city is spread out over 14 islands, taking a boat tour is a logical thing to do if you want to get to know the city a little better. We took the 50 minute Royal Canal Tour through the Djurgården canal which was included in our Stockholm Card. It gave us a little time to relax, doubled as lunchtime as well. The scenery was nice, but we think that other boat tours are better (but we were too cheap for that….).
We visited Stockholm in May 2015
Travel tips Stockholm
Sleep – Hotel rooms in Stockholm don’t come cheap, especially near the city center. Hotel Tegnerlunden was one of the cheapest places we could find with ensuite bathrooms and in walking distance of Gamla Stan and the train station. It’s about a 15-20 minute walk through the main shopping street to get to the center, but there’s also a metro station close by (Radmansgatan).
We stayed 3 nights. Rooms were recently renovated and very quiet, bathroom was big enough. Breakfast was very good with a lot of choice. Breakfast was served on the top floor with view of the surrounding neighborhood. There were lots of affordable restaurants nearby for dinner as well. Wifi was a bit slow.
Transport – We flew in and out through Arlanda International Airport, which is about 40 kilometers north of Stockholm. There are three ways to get to city center: Arlanda Express train (quickest and most expensive), airport- and shuttlebus and commuter train (cheapest and included in our Stockholm Card, so this was our choice).
For getting around the metro served it’s purpose. To Vaxholm we took a Waxholmsbolaget ferry both ways. Going to Vaxholm was a direct tourist service which took about 1 hour, on the return trip several stops were made along the way adding about 15-20 minutes. Vaxholm can also be reached by bus and is included in transportcards, the ferry is not.
Tour – We’re not big fans of tourist cards – they tend to be bad value for money most of the time – but the Stockholm Card proved to be useful for us, although the savings were slim. Many of the more popular sights in Stockholm, some tours and much of the public transport in the city were included in the card. However, the Stockholm Card has been discontinued at the end of 2015 and has been replaced by the Stockholm Pass.