One of our favorite countries to travel to has to be Sweden. We love it year-round and have even spent Christmas there with family. Though we typically stay in the countryside, no trip to Sweden is complete without visiting Stockholm. It’s the capital and largest city in Sweden. It’s also one of the geographically largest cities in Europe stretching over 14 islands and over 24,000 islets. Stockholm is also old. Stone Age old with people living in the area since the 6th millennium B.C.E. Once the ice age ended inhabitants moved south and thousands of years later in 1000 C.E, Vikings established the city in what is now the Old Town area around the Gamla Stan neighborhood. The city grew as a result of the iron and wood timber trade when by the 17th century it was a major European power.
By the 20th century, the city took on an effort of modernization and tore down a lot of its old medieval-era landmarks and structures, although a few historic parts of the city still remain in use. It’s a mix of modern and old with a captivating old town, rich cultural history, and plenty of interesting things to see and do. Stockholm is spread out so don’t be afraid to explore its outer regions and check out some of these interesting things to do in the Swedish capital.
Get Acquainted with Gamla Stan
Known as the “town between the bridged”, Gamla Stan is the heart of Stockholm. The neighborhood is located in the central part of the city with Norrmalm bordering it. The area is the historic roots of not only the city but for much of Sweden as a whole so it should come as no surprise that many important buildings and heritage sites are located here. Like many old European neighborhoods, Gamla Stan is largely pedestrian-only so be prepared to do some walking.
The Swedish Royal Palace is here and is the official residence of the King (although the rest of the family lives at another residence as well). Built in 1697, the palace is mostly used for ceremonial purposes and the space is open to the public if you’d like to book a tour. Stockholm’s oldest church is also in the area, the Stockholm Cathedral was built in the 13th century as a Gothic structure before being remodeled in a Baroque style in 1740. What makes the Stockholm Cathedral interesting is that it hosts a variety of artwork including a 15th-century wooden statue of Saint George as well as the oldest known image of Stockholm dating from 1535.
If you find yourself in the area between November and Christmas, the iconic Christmas Fair is one of the most festive aspects of the city for many with tons of displays, shows, shops, and artwork available to buy or see. During any other time of the year, Gamla Stan is a place where you can simply just walk the old streets, explore little boutiques and grab a cup of coffee and watch the world go by on the cobblestone streets.
Check out the Mighty Vasa Ship
The Vasa Museum is one of the most interesting in Sweden. Housing the remains of a 17th-century ship that suffered a Titanic-like demise. In the 17th century, Sweden was a European superpower and you don’t become a powerful state without a little target on your back. The Swedish Royal Navy commissioned a ship called the Vasa to be the backbone of the Navy. It was a giant floating fortress with 48 cannons and 6 large howitzers along with other small arms and ammo crammed between the upper and lower decks. It weighed several tons and concerns about capsizing became apparent even before its construction was complete.
In August of 1628, the Vasa launched onto its maiden voyage and managed to get to one nautical mile before it started to sink because of the open gun ports on the lower deck. In a matter of minutes, the ship sank in front of crowds that included Navy officers, foreign dignitaries, and members of the Royal family.
The location of the ship was eventually lost to history although many explorers and would-be scavengers have attempted to find it. Finally, it was in the 1950s that the Vasa was found again and attempts to lift it to the surface were made after being sunk for over 300 years. Once the ship was brought to the surface and excavated, it was restored and placed in the Vasa museum where it enjoys a second life as a tourist attraction.
Sail Through the Archipelago
For a while, the Stockholm Archipelago was nothing more than mostly empty islands that were used as either tiny fishing villages or during the Cold War, a defensive military perimeter in the event of Soviet invasion. Most of these islands outside the city are still sparsely populated and while the military fortifications have been torn down, what took their place are now summer homes and resorts. The thousands of little islands are home to chic boutique hotels, summertime beach spots, and quaint little villages.
If you’re looking to cruise through this beautiful and natural part of Sweden, several ferry and sailing tours operate to take people around the islands to check out the views of shimmering waters, dense green forests, and incredible views of the Baltic in the distance. If you’re looking to stay somewhere outside the city for a day or two and really immerse yourself in nature, that’s also an option with cabin rentals and small hotels available to rent.
Indulge In a Scandinavian Tradition
In the cold of winter, there are a few bonding rituals but the one that stands out the most as a Scandinavian tradition is the ubiquitous sauna. In the long, dark winters, spending some time in the sauna is a popular pastime for all genders so why not embrace the Nordic ritual and sweat it out in a sauna.
While no doubt that finding a sauna in the city is a doable endeavor, check out the area around Hellasgården for a more “earthy” experience. Hellasgården is about a 15-minute drive away from the city in the Nacka nature reserve. Take a trek around the area for a short hike, followed by a dip in the freezing waters of Lake Källtorp, after which you’ll head into the sauna to make yourself nice and toasty. At about 65SEK (8USD) it’s a cheap day out and towels and padlocks for lockers are also available for cheap. The sauna is gender-segregated and expect to experience the whole circuit in the nude.
Party in an Open-Air Club
Some might describe Trädgården as a playground for adults. While Sweden and Stockholm have a decent amount of clubs and party spaces, few are as unique as Trädgården are. If you are visiting between May and September a night out at Trädgården is practically a must. Located in the Sodermalm area, Trädgården is a sprawling nightclub property that extends under a bridge and is the hottest spot in Stockholm’s summer nightlife.
The massive space is more than just your run-of-the-mill club, however. Tennis courts, jungle gyms, giant block puzzles, and burger shacks adorned with fairy lights give the whole space a very warm and fun vibe no matter what type of night out you have planned. Dance the night away on the dancefloor or cozy up in a romantic corner under the twinkling lights. Several dance floors cater to a different audience like the “Under Bron” which hosts EDM and techno, while other spaces host local DJs and garage.
Entry before 8 is usually free and the atmosphere at Trädgården is pretty casual so there’s no need to dress up much. Though do be aware that the space is open-air to dress and plan accordingly to the weather.
Enjoy local beers at Nya Carnegiebryggeriet
The former industrial area of Stockholm, now turned into an eco neighborhood is home to some cool spots like artist spaces, workshops, and now a brewery. While the area is typically not one where tourists are likely to go due to its industrial surroundings, you’d be amiss if you didn’t check it out. The area is typically only known by locals and that’s just a little something that adds to the space’s charm. Walk along the waterfront or bike through the neighborhood and get some views before coming upon the large Nya Carnegiebryggeriet building.
The team behind the Stockholm craft brewery trained in New York at the iconic Brooklyn Brewery. What’s on tap changes with the seasons so there’s always something new to try and in the summer months the outside patio space is the perfect spot for enjoying the warm summer evening air with good friends and good drinks.
Cool off at Långholmsbadet
Summers in Sweden can be short and sweet. For most people, images of Sweden rarely involve sandy beaches and sun tanning but just because of the country’s northern climate, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a day at the beach. Långholmen island is located right in the heart of the city on one of its many islands. The island itself used to house a prison but is now home to a burgeoning little hotspot filled with quaint cafés, little bars, and even a hotel or two. But what makes Långholmsen so popular with the locals of Stockholm is that it is one of the best swimming spots in the city.
Surrounded by hidden coastal paths and greenery, Långholmsbadet is the favorite little summer after escape for many. Pack a picnic and chill out on the grassy hills or hide under trees if you’re looking to escape the sun for a moment. There are even a few decent-quality outdoor showers if you need to emergency freshen up before heading back into the city.
Enjoy the Sweden Tradition of a Fika
While some places have afternoon siestas, Sweden has the fika. Originating in the 19th century, the term is supposedly borrowed from the Swedish word for “coffee”. But the fika is much more than just grabbing an afternoon coffee. It’s a state of mind, a state of socialization, and an essential part of Swedish culture. Typically having a fika involves drinking coffee or tea and enjoying a snack, typically something sweet like a small cake or pastry. But it’s much more than just doing it solo. Typically if you’re alone it is not considered a fika. What you’re eating or drinking is less important than the aspect of slowing down, taking a break, and socializing in the moment that makes a fika an “authentic fika”.
Swedish institutions from Volvo to IKEA have fika breaks and typically they happen around the late afternoon usually around 3 pm. Pop into a local café or bakery and take part in this tradition. Since these types of places will usually fill up around 3, as a tourist, you might have some more disposable time on hand to get there early.
Our Final Word
Our advice is to plan a trip to Sweden and spend a few days in Stockholm. You will fall in love with the history and culture and for sure you have to take a sauna. We loved the lifestyle so much, we have built a sauna at home and enjoy it a couple of times per week. Stockholm is a world-class city, but not so big that you cannot navigate around it. Enjoy yourself and explore this incredible place.