Stockholm has a rich history and is full of stories. The Swedes have been a seafaring nation and the greatest naval power in the world. Since the most ancient times to the age of the Vikings, the capital inherited numerous stunning Nordic architecture and heritage sites, the palaces and the cathedrals are stunning to look at. In modern times, Stockholm is also an art and cultural hub in Scandanavia. Not only do contemporary art museums and galleries fill the streets, but also the Stockholm subway is one of the most beautiful in the world. I have already shown you how to design a perfect Stockholm subway tour on your own. More, the city has a vibrant coffee culture, and I had the tastiest hand drip coffee I have had my entire life in a local cafe.
Now you see, Stockholm has a lot to offer. If you ask me: you only have a short time to stay in Stockholm, what are the most important must-sees and highlights in Stockholm? I have the answers right here. It’s funny that I read (or heard) about this somewhere and I can’t remember, there are three things on the top of the list – hence, I am making these three places in Stockholm that “you must see before you leave”.
Stockholm Cruises & Boat Tours
Let’s talk a little bit about the geography of Stockholm. Stockholm is the most populated city in the country, it is situated on 14 islands and on the banks of the archipelago where Lake Mälaren meets the Baltic Sea, opposite the Gulf of Finland. To put it in perspective, the city is comprised of many islets (including the mainland of Uppland and Södermanland) and they are scattered on the water with waterways and rivers passing through. Norrmalm is a district in the city center and it’s very close to Gamla stan, the old town of Stockholm, and they are connected by bridges. With the separation of water and beautiful architecture, it is always regarded as one of the most beautiful capital cities in the world. It’s not hard to understand that a wonderful way to appreciate the cityscape is from the water.
There are many sightseeing cruise tours in the city, but note that many of them only operate in the summer. Tours include Royal Canal Boat Tour, Historical Boat Tour, Stockholm Winter Tour, Hop-on-hop-off Boat Sightseeing, Stockholm Under the Bridges… to go further, go on a boat tour to Drottningholm Palace, Rosersberg Palace, or Skokloster Castle.
Royal Canal Boat Tour
It is one of the most beloved tours amongst tourists as the 50-minute trip takes them on a journey around the island of Djurgården. Museums, Palace, and the houses by the water are all in sight. The best part of the tour is seeing the Gamla Stan from the water, which should be quite different from what you do up close on the streets.
Historial Boat Tour
The tour is an excursion that goes a different direction and it covers the island of Kungsholmen in the west of the city. Here, you will get to see the famous Stockholm City Hall and the islands of Långholmen, and Reimersholme.
Stockholm Under The Bridges
This is a special themed boat tour that you don’t want to miss. The tour takes about 2 hours and 15 minutes, and it offers a complete overview of what Stockholm is actually about. The boat passes through seventeen of the fifty-seven bridges that join the city islets, including one of the dams used to balance the water level at Lake Mälaren and the Baltic sea. It is truly an “immersive” experience of the city’s water system.
Boat Tour to Drottningholm Palace
Drottningholm Palace is the most popular historical site in Stockholm and while you can reach there either by boat or bus, the boat tour is the most sought after in summer. Why? While the Palace (including the garden) is a must-see, tourists get to enjoy the breathtaking view on their way to the palace. The boat tour lasts about 5 hours, with the option to stay longer in the palace and return to the city by bus and subway. My suggestion, make a 1-day city excursion as there are more to see and do.
As I mentioned, many boat tours operate only from April to mid-December. The Winter Tour is the few that is available during winter. The boat sails through Stockholm’s channels and surrounding the Fjäderholmarna islands. You may either stay warm in the cabin with a warm drink or mulled wine, enjoy the view through the windows; or walk up to the deck and breath in the chilly view of Stockholm.
As I sat on the deck it was cold when the boat reached the end of its route; it was not as bad in the canals until it started to snow. Grab a blanket to stay warm as you don’t want to miss the panoramic view.
The Vasa Museum is a maritime museum located on the island of Djurgården. The site is dedicated to a 17-century warship, that was almost fully intact after salvaging from the sea after sinking on her maiden voyage in 1628. Today, the entire ship was put on display.
You may wonder why Vasa Museum is so special out of the many museums in the city? First, Vasa is the world’s best-preserved 17th-century ship. The thought-to-be invincible warship capsized and sank in Stockholm on its maiden sail in 1628, and then it remained on the sea bed for three hundred and thirty-three years until it was salvaged. Because it capsized and sank, the entire vessel was rather complete and the whole ship was here without much decay in the shallow sea (except the paint was worn). Therefore, it is the kind of museum that is unique to the world, and it is the most visited museum in Scandinavia.
The Vasa, as mentioned, was remarkably well preserved because it sank in a sheltered harbor of Stockholm, and the salinity of the water in the Baltic sea. It is worthy to note that the Vasa is not a Viking ship. The age of the Vikings ended in the 11th century. The first thing that I was incredibly impressed with was the enormous size of the ship (which I had no idea) – it has a length of 61 meters, a width of 11.7 meters, and a stern castle 19.3 meters high. The ship had a displacement of 1210 tons.
The ship was built on the orders of the King of Sweden Gustavus Adolphus. It was aimed to serve as a warship in his military expansion during a war with Poland-Lithuania. The Vasa cost more than 2000,000 Rex Dollars to build, hitting at 5% of Sweden’s GNP at that time. It was literally the most expensive project undertaken by Sweden at that time and it was a total loss. Ironically, the 64-gun warship only made it 1,300 meters on its sail. A light gust of wind toppled the ship and it capsized in the harbor; water flooded through the gun portals of the ship and then sank in the shallow water of only 32 meters deep. While engineering and mechanical design played an important role, it was a lesson to know that a vanity project may end badly if the practical details were ignored.
Get up close and appreciate the intricate and rich details of the Vasa. The sculpture and motifs on the Vasa were re-painted to show an idea of what it looked like when it was fully furnished.
All in all, many of the crew members (including the then-captain Hans Jonsson) were dead trapped in the ship, with 30 of them surviving as it sank.
The ship was forgotten then for over three centuries, and it was found by Anders Franzen in 1954, using low-tech but systematic search of Stockholm harbor with boats loaned by the navy. How? He dragged a grapnel with his boat and lowered a tool when he caught on something. When one of the Vasa’s cannons was discovered, the entire ship was surfaced on September 5, 1958. It was constantly featured on news, shows, and radio in Stockholm, and hence a museum was established in 1990 to not only showcase the massive relic, but also the art, culture, maritime history, and development of the region.
The museum also showcased the maritime history of Sweden, the life of crew members on the vessel, the city’s development, and so much more.
Stockholm City Hall
Stockholm City Hall is an eye-catching red brick building located on the eastern tip of Kungsholmen island, next to Riddarfjärden’s northern shore and facing the islands of Riddarholmen and Södermalm. It was built in 1923, with a hundred years of history and it served as the city’s office with conference rooms and 250 government offices. The architecture is a fine example of National Romantic Style architecture.
The City Hall was designed by architect Ragnar Östberg with over 8 million pieces of bricks. From the outside, the 106-meter tall monumental tower is topped with three crowns, which is the Swedish national symbol. Walking around the inner courtyard as you will see several sculptures before heading to the lakeside with a view of the city. The sculptures include works from artists August Strindberg, Gustaf Fröding, and Ernst Josephson, as well as Eldh’s bronze sculptures “Sången” and “Dansen” (“The Song” and “The Dance”).
While the city hall serves the people like many other municipal buildings all over the world. The Stockholm City Hall hosts an important event – the Nobel Prize banquet on December 10 annually (except the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony that takes place in Oslo City Hall). The hall will be transformed into a dining hall among the clean straight walls, and it is also where the guided tour began when the ceremony is not in place. To visit the city hall, tourists will have to sign up for a guided tour. The cost is included in the Stockholm pass, yet it’s totally worth the visit if you don’t have the pass. The guided tour takes about 45 minutes and there are six English tours and two Swedish tours a day during the wintertime. The tower is closed in winter yet it still covers the hall with a lively commentary from the experienced guide. A short translation version is also available in 36 different languages.
The Nobel Prize banquet takes place in the Blue Hall, and this is where the guided tour begins. The hall is called Blue yet it has not much blue anywhere. It was named this way because the architect originally would want to cover the walls in blue tiles. However, he changed his mind after seeing the hall already has beautiful red bricks. The hall features a 10,000-pipe organ, and it is considered the largest musical instrument in Scandinavia. The banquet is followed by a dance, which takes place in the Golden Hall, the hall is adorned with gold mosaic.
The Council Chamber is also a special room in the City Hall as it is designed to resemble the open roof of a Viking longhouse, look up as you will see delicate woodwork, and the interior is furnished with red and wood fixtures designed by Carl Malmsten.
Passing through the opulent Oval Room, the Price’s Gallery is a beautiful space with the walls all painted by Prince Eugen. The frescoes highlight views of Stockholm’s islands. The windows have a breathtaking view of Lake Mälaren and Södermalm.