Regal, radiant, unrivaled Stockholm

Stockholm offers an unparalleled example of the old and the new.

Welcome to one of the world’s most creative and exciting urban scenes. You are within walking distance to eight centuries of unique cultural experience and you are surrounded by 24,000 islands and islets. Where in the world are you? You’re in Stockholm, Sweden, of course, a most popular tourist destination. 

The Northern European kingdom of Sweden is on the Scandinavian Peninsula between Finland and Norway, while the Oresund Fixed Links connect Sweden with Denmark. My recent visit to Stockholm, Sweden’s capital, built on 14 islands, treated me to a unique blend of old world charm, modernity, creativity and vitality. From Gamla Stan — Old Town, Northern Europe’s largest and best-preserved medieval city, dating from the 13th century — to its throbbing modern metropolis with famed design centers, vibrant shopping districts and modern architecture, Stockholm offers the visitor the best of both worlds.

Old Town has held onto its medieval-city character with narrow lanes, cobbled streets and piquant market squares. I sat in a quaint café and was captivated by its evocative charm. Deciding it would be fun to start my Swedish visit in a most regal fashion, I made my way to the Royal Palace. With 608 rooms, this is one of Europe’s largest palaces and is used today as offices for King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia.

Walking through the Royal Palace’s majestic halls, I had a sensation both grand and solemn that was amplified by a room that contained the horse (stuffed, of course) that Gustav II Adolf (1594-1632) road into the Battle of Lützen and the costume that Gustav III Adolf wore to the fatal masked ball at the Royal Opera House, where he was shot on March 16, 1792 in an assassination plot. (He would die of a resulting infection 13 days later.)

Leaving this rather melancholy room, I entered the Treasury, which displayed some of the past monarchy’s most important symbols still worn at royal weddings, baptisms and funerals. I was told that the changing of the guard was an event not to be missed. This ceremony takes place every day at noon and is replete with pomp and circumstance, color and grandeur. I was lucky to find a guide who escorted me through the Hovstallet (royal stable), not far from the palace, where I got an up close and personal look at the king’s horses, magnificent coaches and handsome uniforms. 

To carry a royal visit to its logical conclusion, be aware that a number of palaces near Stockholm offer overnight accommodations. You can spend a night at both Södertuna Slott and Sundbyholms Slott, each beautifully situated near the water. Södertuna Slott was constructed in the 18th century and is located 43 miles south of Stockholm, while Sundbyholms Slott is west of Stockholm and can be reached by car in about an hour and a half. Both palaces retain much of their former glory but have been brought into the 21st century with the addition of modern conveniences.

I visited City Hall, widely considered to be one of the most beautiful city halls in the world. Here I found a living symbol of this city, a building buzzing with activities. The famous Blue Hall, where the Nobel Banquet is held each December, was a highlight of my tour. Knowing that I’d never experience this banquet firsthand, I went for the next best thing — dinner at Stadshuskällaren, a restaurant in the basement of City Hall, where I had the chance to sample food enjoyed by Nobel Prize winners. The chefs here are the very ones who prepare the banquet and I couldn’t resist asking for “whatever the prize winners have.” Out came a mountain grouse breast baked in black trumpet mushrooms with caramelized apples served with Calvados sauce and potato cake and, for dessert, a fig and cherry compote. 

While wandering around the alleys of Old Town, I stumbled upon Stockholm Cathedral. My lucky day: A classical music concert was just beginning. Dusk filtered in through leaded glass windows and shimmered off the golden angels on the high brick ceiling.

Before returning to my hotel, I was attracted to a patio bar, Babylon, where I was surrounded by chattering clusters of fashion plates and artist types. Wrapping myself in one of the restaurant’s green fleece blankets to ward off the evening’s chill, I enjoyed a late bite of potatoes and roding, a local fish. From my barstool, I watched skateboarders dip and sail around in an adjacent park, and I reveled in a priceless travel high — the giddy feeling of having discovered the coolest place in town.

It was also incredibly cool to be surrounded — everywhere — by contemporary, innovative Swedish design featuring beautiful everyday things that are at once environmentally friendly and embody a broad range of sustainable materials, conceptual ideas and functionality. Think IKEA and even H&M, both of which we would be loathe to do without, not to mention my favorite, the languorous Pernilla chair designed by Bruno Mathsson. Both The Ruohsska Museum in Gothenburg and the IKEA Museum in Ämhult tell the Swedish history of functional design and are well worth a visit.

One day I visited Royal Djurgården, known as Animal Island because it was once the royal hunting ground. On this island is Skansen Open-Air Museum and one of the most-visited places in the city, containing more than 150 historic buildings that have been dismantled and reassembled here. The area houses more than 70 varieties of animals, and I enjoyed watching three bear cubs, a Scandinavian moose and some frisky reindeer.

Nearby is the Vasa Museum, featuring the warship Vasa, which sank in Stockholm 15 minutes after it was launched on its maiden voyage in 1628. It was raised in 1961 and meticulously reconstructed for display.

While Stockholm is a thoroughly walkable city, its many islands invite you to explore it by boat. There’s an “Under the Bridges of Stockholm” tour, a “Royal Canal” tour, a “Historical Canal” tour and many many more. I took the Royal Canal tour and, as I gently glided through the water, I felt somewhat royal myself. It’s a classic — and classy — way to see Stockholm, whose islands, bridges, squares and buildings have no rival.

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