“Don’t miss Stockholm – it’s Europe’s most beautiful city,” a group of Dutch tourists gushed when we were travelling around Scandinavia on a recent tour.
Although we were six hours drive away, we decided to blast it up north in the camper van. How could we miss a city that came with such a recommendation?
Stockholm is indeed a leading contender for the title of Europe’s loveliest city with its beautiful islands, harbour front and historic medieval town.
The city is stylish and sophisticated with attractive buildings, charming historic alleyways and relaxing green spaces.
It boasts a rich history with palaces, museums and galleries aplenty; culture vultures will love its rich palette of arts and entertainment venues.
Thankfully, Stockholm doesn’t suffer from the traffic congestion and overcrowding that plagues London, Rome and Paris – water transport and bikes are king in this city.
Water is the stunning backdrop to Stockholm’s multitude of islands, leading many to dub the city “the Venice of the north”.
There’s only one nagging problem – there’s a price to be paid for Stockholm’s high quality of living.
Stockholm is a wonderful place but it’s also one of Europe’s most expensive cities – then again, if you feel like splashing out, why not go with the flow and ignore the expense!
So what makes Stockholm special and why does it top so many league tables of ‘best capital cities’?
I was struck by its well-laid out city centre, splendid waterways and well-preserved historic streets which haven’t been ruined by high rise offices and unsympathetic modern developments.
In common with many Scandinavian cities, I found it tidy, uncluttered and relaxing – there’s very little graffiti, vandalism or grime that you get in cities like Berlin and London.
It’s also remarkably civilised and polite with friendly Swedes happy to help you make the most of your stay.
The Gamla Stan historic quarter is the jewel in the crown of the city centre with its maze of alleyways and old buildings.
It’s one of Europe’s best preserved medieval quarters where Stockholm was founded in 1252.
We spent a couple of hours exploring the streets which reminded me a little of a Scandinavian Prague.
When you get away from the tatty tourist trinket shops, there are numerous charming cafes, boutiques and artists’ studios to explore.
You can lose yourself in the winding alleys of the Old Town for several hours – and the lack of roaring traffic is a real bonus.
Eventually, all routes seem to lead to the Royal Palace (Kungliga Slottet) which dominates Stortorget square, one of the few big spaces in the Gamla Stan.
The castle is impressive in scale but for me the exterior was slightly underwhelming although there is restoration work going on at the moment.
Once inside there’s the Royal Apartments, Hall of State and Royal Treasury with endless displays of royal memorabilia including thrones, weaponry and coronation robes, if you like that sort of thing.
When you’re standing in the peaceful main square outside, it’s worth reflecting that the plaza was the site of one of Sweden’s bloodiest massacres.
The wonderfully named Stockholm Blood Bath of 1520 was so-called because King Charles II of Denmark beheaded 80 Swedish noblemen and created a display of their heads in a pyramid shape.
Thankfully, the square is now home to more peaceful pursuits including the changing of the guard although the presence of several monuments reminds us of its darker history.
If you wander over the bridge onto Norrmalm, you’ll find yourself in the charming Gustav Adolfs Torg (square), but here there lies yet another grim story.
Gustav Adolf was a patron of the arts who was assassinated here during a masked ball in 1792.
Walk further up the street and there’s the site of another assassination, that of former Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme, who was gunned down in 1986.
This was a violent contrast to the Nobel Peace Prize Museum where we’d stopped earlier in the day.
I was beginning to understand why the Scandinavians produce so many TV and film noir murder stories.
Behind the cool exterior, there is definitely a darker side to Sweden that I’ve never appreciated fully before.
But there’s also a wealth of history and characters to be discovered in Stockholm beyond the grisly stories.
A large statue of Queen Christina in the palace courtyard brought back memories of studying European history for A level.
It also reminded me of the classic Hollywood film about the monarch starring the incomparable Swedish screen goddess, Greta Garbo.
History tells us that Queen Christina wanted Stockholm to become “the Athens of the North”, a city of learning, the arts and culture.
It’s clear that her legacy and cultural vision live on today in the many magnificent buildings, squares and churches across the city.
From Riddarsholmskyrkan, with its trio of royal chapels, to the 13th Century Storkyrkan, there’s an incredible wealth of beautiful buildings and churches to explore.
Even modern buildings have that certain Scandinavian style and designer look, notably Stockholm’s City Hall with its red brick exterior and tower.
Once inside you can climb to the top of the tower to marvel at the panoramic views over Stockholm’s archipelago.
Don’t miss the Golden Hall with its sparkling 19 million gilded mosaics.
Sadly time was short and we saw only the outside of this fine civic building but I’m told that its splendid interior is worth a detour (book one of the daily tours).
Strangely, it reminded me of the Civic Centre in Newcastle upon Tyne in my home city – although ours doesn’t have the splendid harbour views.
Another of Stockholm’s great delights are its islands – it’s easy to cruise around the city and even head out further afield on the 1,000 Islands Tour.
The city is built on 14 islands linked by 57 bridges, so there’s great views of its waterways wherever you go.
There’s a glut of trips to choose from or simply take a short ride around the main islands in the city centre for an instant snapshot of Stockholm.
We bought a ‘Hop On, Hop Off’ ticket which stops at around a dozen points around the main city where you can embark and disembark over 24 hours.
If you’re staying for longer than a weekend, take a trip to Stockholm’s wonderful archipelago of 30,000 islands, islet rocks and skerries.
If boats aren’t your thing, why not try a harbour walk or bike ride?
Stockholm is a pedestrian and bike friendly city so it’s a thrill to be able to wander around its waterways and historic streets, stopping off for the occasional break at a charming cafe.
There are several bike hire operators in the city centre and it’s comforting to know that there’s an extensive network of cycle lanes where the bike rider is king.
One of my favourite islands is Djurgarden which has a great selection of attractions ranging from the Skansen Open Air Museum to the Royal Warship Vasa and even a fun fair.
For those mad on museums there are two real oddities on the island – the Nordic Museum (with old tools, textiles and dollshouses) and Prins Eugen’s Studio (complete with a classy art collection).
But the star attraction is the Vasa (Vasamuseet), Sweden’s most popular museum, which houses the remains of an enormous 17th Century warship.
It’s also top of the tour itinerary for every large tourist coach party – we had to return twice before we managed to get to the ticket office – you have been warned!
Once inside, if you can dodge the crowds, this is a spectacular experience. The Vasa is magnificent – it’s the world’s oldest complete and identified ship which gives it a certain wow factor.
The Vasa sank on its launch due to a technical cock-up, which resulted in the tragic loss of the vessel and its crew. The story has echoes of the ill-fated maiden voyage of the Titanic from Southampton several centuries later.
After its rediscovery and restoration a couple of decades ago, the ship sits proudly in its impressive home surrounded by historical displays and fascinating exhibits found on the boat.
It’s one of the best curated exhibitions I’ve seen in a long while and it’s easy to see why it’s so popular with tourist groups.
Not far away is another brilliant attraction, Skansen, one of the first open air museums in the world when it opened in the 1890s.
Skansen is often referred to as “Sweden in a Nutshell” – and it contains everything from windmills and farmsteads to manor houses and peasant huts.
It started as a collection of old buildings assembled from around Sweden but today it has grown to house around 150 structures scattered over 30 hectares of parkland.
As well as the reconstructed old buildings, there’s a natural history ‘zoo’, outdoor activities and concert stages plus cafes and bars.
You can literally lose yourself in Skansen for several hours and we did exactly that despite my partner Tony’s initial reservations and huffiness about going inside!
For families it’s a treasure house because there’s a multitude of really well-organised activities and hands-on pursuits.
The kiddie activities are largely kept out of sight of the cynical, old adults like us who prefer wandering around looking at historic stuff.
Rather like the Danes, the Swedes love nothing better than dressing up in ye olde frocks and breaches with funny hats and head scarves.
Expect to find costumed folk dressed in period attire wandering around the site, giving demonstrations of everything from blacksmithery to glass-blowing and barrel making.
It wasn’t long before Tony was having in-depth conversations with the milling women about seasonal crop rotation and threshing.
Tony even got a personalised demo in threshing although I feared at one point that the costumed Swede had promised him a good “thrashing”.
Later I found him enthusing about a man painting barrels with tar and then exchanging excited banter with a furniture maker on the finer points of wood joints!
Top marks to the Skansen Museum for making everything fun, educational and entertaining in equal measure.
The Scandinavian animals section is also a winner with an opportunity to see indigeneous beasts at close quarters in large, well-presented enclosures.
Watch out for excellent displays of wolves, brown bears, lynx, moose and mountain goats including new cubs and youngsters in the summer season.
Sadly there were no wolves to be spotted on our visit but the brown bears with cubs were pretty sensational as were the lynx family who also had offspring.
For those who fancy fun rather than folklore, there’s the new Abba Museum a few hundred metres away down the road.
Sadly I wasn’t allowed inside this monument to glam pop because a weary Tony was tired and also claimed to suffer from a condition called ‘lycraphobia’.
Back on the other side of the harbour there’s several treats for art addicts on the island of Skeppsholmen.
The Museum of Modern Art is rather good with an impressive, if not huge, permanent collection as well as a changing programme of visiting exhibitions.
There’s a sparkling collection of Cubists including Picasso, Braque and Leger plus some interesting works by Matisse and Dali.
During our visit there was an excellent Pop Art show with iconic exhibits from Warhol, Lichtenstein and even British pop painters.
The Architecture Museum next door is a little dry and specialist but has some good changing exhibitions.
When we visited, a Jean-Paul Gaultier show on couture was on display with an impressive presentaion of fabulous ball gowns, sailor suits and pop princess costumes.
In particular, I had my eye on this glorious creation (see below) but, as Tony pointed out, where would I wear this frock back home in North East England on a chilly November day?
A short walk over the bridge from Skeppsholmen lies the National Museum (Nationalmuseum) which apparently houses an excellent collection of art works from old masters to modern iconoclasts.
It’s currently closed for restoration work, a bit of a disappointment, but part of the main collection is on show at the Royal Swedish Academy over the other side of town.
Live like a king
Stockholm is an easy place to get around so if you want to delve deeper into its environs, why not take a trip out to the edge of the city?
Another highlight is the royal palace of Drottningholm, a striking riverfront affair with magnificent fountains and park land.
If you want to make a grand entrance, it’s also accessible by steamboat from the main Stockholm harbour, a thrilling excursion if you have a spare day in your schedule.
But there is one downside to Drottningholm in the high season – the palace is rammed with huge tourist groups who clog up every room and make it impossible to enjoy the palace interior.
When we could stand no more, we headed outdoors to its glorious river front and strolled around the attractive grounds to find a quiet spot in the sunshine.
Despite its magnificence, another word of warning about ths palace – every element of the trip is charged separately, from the main royal apartments to the theatre and the Chinese pavilion.
In my book this is a bit of a rip-off because Stockholm isn’t cheap at the best of times – and I didn’t think the interpretation (or lack of it) justified such high prices.
If you want to see the palace from the outside you can, however, wander around the grounds for free.
Close to the main buildings there’s a grassy area and lake which is a top spot for watching Barnacle Geese.
Normally we travel miles to watch these wild birds in winter so what these geese from the Arctic were doing at Drottningholm Palace for the summer was a bit of a mystery.
Stockholm .v. the rest of Europe
Stockholm is a cool, vibrant and sophisticated city, but is it the best capital in Europe?
Other nominees on my list would have to be Paris, Rome, Luxembourg and Helsinki, all of which have stylish and cultural centres brimming with life.
Fellow travellers also recommend Tallinn, Vienna and Budapest whilst Reykjavík must be in there with a shout for its northern coolness and distinctive Icelandic style and hot springs.
Paris and Rome come close but both suffer from heavy traffic and hordes of tourists as do London and Madrid. Prague may be pretty but its stag-party culture and tourist traps are a big turn-off.
Stockholm may have a few ‘tourist hell hotspots’ but it’s easy to get away from it all in a few seconds – plus visitors can always take to the water for an escape into solitude.
Copenhagen is also a close contender with its excellent museums and beautiful streets but doesn’t quite have the appeal of Stockholm’s multitude of islands and its iconic Baltic waterfront.
In my book Stockholm wins by a nose although there still remains one problem – the high cost of everything!
But that aside, Stockholm is a really beautiful city which may just tempt you for a short or longer holiday break.
‘Venice of the North? Stockholm really does live up to that prestigious title.
Tammy’s top travel tips – Stockholm on a budget
Here’s my guide to staying in Stockholm on a budget and making the most of this beautiful city without breaking the bank.
Staying in hotels in Sweden is expensive so why not look for end of season deals and special offers.
Another cheaper option is renting an apartment or self-catering property if you can find availability. Alternatively, camping in the summer months might be a good plan, if you don’t mind roughing it.
Taking a camper van is perhaps the best value of all, although it does require a lot of driving to reach Stockholm. It necessitates travelling by boat to another Scandinavian port (Copenhagen, Malmo or Helsingborg) followed by a five hour drive north.
Alternatively you could try boat hopping between several operators but you’ll need plenty of time to undertake this journey to arrive directly into Stockholm.
We hopped into Sweden via the new bridge from Denmark to Malmo (£40 one way) and then broke our journey to Stockholm into three driveable chunks, stopping off at pretty Lake Vattern en route.
On the way back we drove back to Helsingborg and caught the boat (£25 on way) to Helsingor in Denmark, stopping in central Sweden to break up the long drive.
Camper vans sites are easy to find in Sweden but it’s worth picking up a location directory from a tourist information centre. Many marinas have small, affordable parking areas for overnight camper vans too.
In Stockholm there’s only one main site at City Camping park at Langholmens, close to the city centre. We cycled into the city centre daily, a 10 minute bike ride but public transport is also available.
The site is better laid-out than most city camping sites but it’s still really just a place to park up and then go sightseeing.
To its credit, this site has attractive walks along the canal and river network plus a park nearby.
Save money by self-catering, where possible, because Swedish restaurants and bars are eye-wateringly expensive.
Don’t forget to visit the official Visit Stockholm website for top travel tips and tourist information. It also has information about the Stockholm Card which provides reduced admission prices to 80 attractions and museums in the city.