Only got a couple of days to get to know a new city? Our Big Five City Guides can help. We break each destination down into culture, history, dining, shopping and relaxation must-sees and dos. Ruby Boukabou checks in from Stockholm in Sweden...
Spread across 14 islands on the edge of the Baltic Sea, Stockholm is often referred to as the ‘Venice of the North’.
Like Venice, the capital of Sweden is a watery wonderland that’s perfect for exploring on foot. Linked by 57 bridges, the city features a pedestrianised and impeccably preserved old town, more than 50 museums and galleries, stunning parks and gardens, and hundreds of great boutiques, cafés and restaurants. The trick is deciding what to see and what to miss!
Your experience will differ depending on the season. Be prepared for extremely cold winter weather with only a few hours of sunlight each day (the plus side is the city is beautifully lit for longer), or a festive summer with hundreds of outdoor cafes and bars and places to swim and fish. Whatever the temperature, Stockholm is easy to fall for, thanks to its natural beauty and friendly locals (most of whom are highly accomplished English speakers).
Enjoy this Stockholm travel guide.
Stockholm for history lovers
Stockholm’s history is a multi-layered one.
Once home to the Vikings and then populated by German traders, Stockholm as we recognise it was founded by 13th century statesman Birger Jarl (you’ll see his name engraved on plaques all over the city).
The best way to get your head around the region’s different historical chapters is to visit some of the amazing museums in Stockholm. There’s The Swedish History Museum for archaeology and artefacts from the Mesolithic period, The Viking Museum for an in-depth examination of the day to day lives of these infamous warriors, the Nordic Museum for cultural history and ethnography, as well as the Swedish Museum of Natural History, which has a kicking collection of fossils and skeletons. Also drop by the seriously popular Vasa Museum. It displays a warship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628 and was recovered 333 year later. It’s a must-see.
History comes alive on the island of Gamla stan — Stockholm’s captivating old town — with its cobblestone streets, quaint markets, and 14th century cathedral (known as Storkyrkan), which is used for royal ceremonies. Spend some time inside admiring the artworks, including a 15th century wooden statue of Saint George and the Dragon.
Gamla stan is home to the epic 600-room Royal Palace. The Royal Family no longer lives here, but there’s still a changing of the guard ceremony daily at midday. The palace museums display period art, furniture and costumes.
The Swedish capital is a thriving hub for cultural pursuits of every description.
Do some research beforehand and be ready to roll on arrival to get the most from your time in the city. Here are just a few of the highlights.
Stockholm Concert Hall
The stunning neoclassical Stockholm Concert Hall was built to house the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and also hosts the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony. If you’re not seeing a concert, a venue tour is well worth doing.
This fantastic centre for contemporary photography is housed in an Art Nouveau-style former customs house. Opened in 2010, the gallery stages dynamic temporary exhibitions by top local and international photographers (works by Paris-based Australian photographer Vee Speers have previously been featured).
Wetterling Gallery is one of Scandinavia’s most prestigious contemporary art facilities and has several exciting exhibitions annually (usually paintings, photography and sculpture).
You don’t even have to go to a gallery or museum to get a dose of art in Stockholm — just jump on the subway. One hundred and fifty artists have collaborated with the city over the decades to bring its subway stations to life through sculpture, mosaics, paintings, installations, engravings and reliefs. The results are truly stunning.
ABBA The Museum
ABBA The Museum’s motto is ‘Walk In. Dance Out.’, and fans of Sweden’s world-famous glam supergroup (which is just about everyone!) will love this interactive experience. You can sing along with your fav hits, do a virtual dress-up in ABBA’s costumes, mix original music, and even become the fifth member of the group in a virtual on-stage performance with Björn, Benny, Frida and Agnetha. It’s a hoot!
The Lindy Hop dance scene is alive and swinging in Stockholm! There are various Facebook groups where you can find out about events during your visit. If you happen to be in town across the Easter period, check out the Stockholm Tap Festival’s programme. Tap dancers from all over the world come together for classes, jams, and ‘battles’ with other urban dance forms.
Great places to eat in Stockholm
Yes, you’ll get to try traditional dishes like meatballs and fried herring during your stay in Stockholm, but there are plenty of contemporary culinary fusions on offer — alongside an array of international cuisines.
Enjoy exceptionally well presented Swedish classics while sipping cocktails and appreciating the spectacular city skyline at Eriks Gondolen. There’s a cool bar area and a more formal restaurant, as well as outdoor seating during summer. The menu pièce de résistance has to be the shellfish platter.
Wood panelled Prinsen offers an elegant ambience at a reasonable price. Here you can sample contemporary Swedish cuisine (although they are very famous for their meatballs!).
For a special occasion, try Restaurant Frantzén. This 3 Michelin-starred eatery is situated in the old town and does an innovative Swedish/Japanese fusion menu. Many of the ingredients come from the restaurant’s own garden.
Hipster hangout Nook is another fabulous example of fusion cuisine. Korean born chef Claes Grännsjö melds Swedish and Korean influences and the result is seriously yummy. Choose from one of two set menus.
For plant-based fare, head to Hermans. Even meat-eaters will love this place. Enjoy panoramic views over the city, and in summer you can digest your meal in a hammock in the garden.
Pizzas and craft beer were born for each other and laidback Omnipollos hatt hits the spot for both. It’s located in Södermalm.
Where to shop in Stockholm
Shopping in Stockholm is not just about the shopping; as a capital of design, the city’s retail spaces themselves are generally stunning!
IKEA and H&M are both globally recognised Swedish brands, but there are plenty of others to seek out. Call in and see Grandpa — a very cool concept store that offers funky homewares and fashion. It also has its own café. For ultra-trendy fashion, try Acne Studios or the super chic Whyred.
Stylish department store NK (Nordiska Kompaniet) will come to the rescue if you arrive in town in the middle of winter and need to buy a decent coat!
As you explore the old town, you’ll find lots of traditional arts and crafts stores. Then cross the bridge to Södermalm, which has more than its fair share of funky boutiques and cool cafés.
Ways to relax in Stockholm
Just being in Stockholm and surrounded by water instils a sense of calm in most visitors.
A sightseeing cruise will have you gliding under the bridges that connect the central islands. Cruise past leafy Djurgården (home to the Vasa Museum), get a different perspective of the Gamla stan’s colourful merchant buildings, and navigate the locks that connect the city’s waterways with Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea.
Shake things up at the waterfront fairground Gronalund, which boasts plenty of thrilling rides and hosts dozens of concerts over the summer months.
If you want to explore further afield, take a day trip to Birka on the island of Björkö in Lake Mälaren. Established in the 8th century, this UNESCO World Heritage-listed site is one of Sweden’s oldest settlements. During summer, the boat trip across to Björkö is a delight (it departs from City Hall dock).
Take some time out back in town at the Chaikana teahouse. They serve the most sublime teas (watch the flowers open in your cup) and sweet treats. Depending on the season, a glögg (mulled wine) by a fireplace may be in order. It’s served in many places, including in the 17th century cellar at Café Kaffekoppen in the old town. Cheers — or as they say in Swedish — skål!
Do you have any tips to add to our Stockholm travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Ruby Boukabou is a travel, culture and lifestyle reporter. She has written for dozens of publications, including Qantas in-flight magazine, The Age, The Australian, The Diplomat, Paris Voice, Get Lost and France Magazine. She has produced and presented culture and travel stories for the ABC, SBS and Screen Australia. Ruby is author of The Art Lover’s Guide to Paris and Sense in the City, Paris. When she’s not exploring, you’ll probably find her tap dancing.