City break in Stockholm

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It was a grey, damp morning when Steve Warren arrived in the Swedish capital Stockholm but the weather didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for the city. 

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I had few preconceptions about Stockholm. To put it simply, I hadn’t done my homework very well.

I knew very little other than it was a city of water, islands and ludicrously priced alcohol. I knew it as home to the strange heroine of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium novels, Lisbeth Salander. And that was about it.

I never did spot Lisbeth and her journalist ‘friend’ Mikael Blomkvist but I couldn’t miss the water and took a sharp intake of breath or two in the bars on receiving the bill.

After spending a few days, though, I left rating Stockholm highly. It was a city that seemed to offer a bit of everything, not preserved in aspic, embracing the future as much as its past. It was lively enough to keep me up into the early hours, with a surprisingly good foodie scene, a safe and friendly vibe and plenty of things to see and do.

I was based in Gamla Stan on the island of Stadsholmen, the historic heart of the city, surrounded by water. But venturing out for a walk in the drizzle of a Friday morning, I was also struck by the grand, imperial buildings lining the waterways. This was a city and a people that, in the past at least, celebrated its power with buildings on a monumental scale.

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Gamla Stan (pictured) is a place of narrow medieval alleys and quiet back streets – when you manage to avoid the main tourist drag of Västerlånggatan and its key arteries. Hidden down the streets away from the worst of the crowds are delightful cafes and bakeries, stylish houses and apartments, stately churches and little boutiques for shopping enthusiasts. Unlike some other European cities, there’s little litter and graffiti.

But as well as being a quiet backwater when it wants to be, the district is also the seat of power, rich in history.

The main square in Gamla Stan, Stortorget, is dominated by delightful old merchants’ homes. Notoriously, it was the site of the Stockholm Bloodbath, an early 16th century massacre of Swedish noblemen by the Danish King Christian II. This in turn brought about a revolt and civil war.

Things are a bit more peaceful these days.

Elsewhere in Gamla Stan is the Stockholm Cathedral, the Nobel Museum and the vast and rather austere Kungliga slottet, the Royal Palace. From the size of it, and it really is massive, the building must have hundreds of rooms but around a dozen or so of the state apartments are open to the public. They’re typically grand, with some impressive chandeliers, fine art and furnishings but little different from any other royal palace.

In case you didn’t know, Sweden is one of the few European countries left that hasn’t kicked out, beheaded or exiled their royals. And the king and his family tend to spend most of their time a few miles out of town, away from the rabble in the attractive Drottningholm’s Palace, which you can reach either by taking a boat trip from the city or by a combination of train and bus.

Set in glorious grounds and right by the water, the entrance is an extravagant pile of marble and the rooms an odd mixture of the exceptionally grand and the humble.

Back to the city I went and, with blue skies, I headed out again on to the water, using the city’s excellent ferry service to get to the island of Djurgården. I was keen to explore the open-air Skansen museum and zoo in the sunshine.

No doubt with a family in tow, this oddly old-fashioned attraction would be a real winner but for an old cynic like me it was a weird place that couldn’t quite work out what it wanted to be. Zoo? Fairground? History lesson? The best bits were the historic buildings – homes, churches, windmills and the like – that have been rescued from destruction and rebuilt on the site to give an idea of what village life would’ve been like in the four corners of Sweden in centuries past.

A short distance away from Skansen, and hidden away in a monstrously unattractive building, is what I reckon to be the finest attraction in the city. The extraordinary Vasa.

This huge wooden naval ship (pictured) was launched way back in 1628 but sank soon after, disappearing into the mud until it was recovered in remarkably good condition back in the 1960s. Now preserved in this hulk of a building, nothing can prepare you for the sight as you walk into the Vasa Museum. It’s one of those occasions that the word ‘breathtaking’ was invented for.

In galleries around the ship itself, the story of its construction, ill-fated crew, the sinking and the vessel’s restoration is told in compelling style. Once you’ve toured them, take time to sit and take it all in. You won’t be disappointed.

I needed a couple of (expensive) beers and a plate of Swedish meatballs in the excellent cafe to recover my senses.

That set me up nicely for a beer and some tasty Swedish home cooking at Restaurant Pelikan, a glorious old beer hall not far from the Skanstull metro station. The pork knuckle was particularly tasty.

I spent the next day experiencing the old and the new of Stockholm. On the one hand, the City Hall – a magnificent red-brick (eight million of them in all) building in the national romantic style that hosts the annual Nobel Prize ceremonies. I took a guided tour and discovered a building of extraordinary variety, rooms that offer anything from Rennaisance touches to art deco. The Golden Hall was the highlight – a masterpiece of mosaic and gold with Gaudiesque touches.

A short hop on the metro and I found myself at the Fotografiska Museet, which opened as a centre for contemporary photography in 2010 in a stylish (and also red brick) industrial art nouveau building in 2010. The exhibitions will not appeal to all but it’s got a cafe with some impressive views of the city beyond and a well-stocked shop.

I spent my final evening in Sodermalm, a busy, lively district with some good eateries and bars (from the noisy and drunken to the cosmopolitan). I lodged myself in the Urban Deli – a cross between up-market food shop, restaurant and bar. Highly recommended and friendly. It was a highlight during my city break in Stockholm.

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But guess what. The beers still cost an arm and a leg.

Top tip: If you’re staying for a few days, get the Stockholm Card from the tourist office to cut costs.

Best time to visit: Winter is bleak and gloomy and can be very cold. Spring and summer are the best times to go, with the temperature dropping off again in autumn. We visited in April and had a mixture of everything – rain, snow and sunshine.

Written by our friends at Dailytravelideas.com