Rightly, Stockholm bills itself as “the Capital of Scandinavia”. It is the largest city in the largest country in Scandinavia and the Nordic lands and certainly deserves note as one of the most sophisticated and beautiful mid-sized capital cities in Europe.
In recent times Stockholm has become well known to the world as the setting for much of the action in the late Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millennium Trilogy’ of crime-and-conspiracy novels, which made Lisbeth Salander the early 21st century’s most memorable new literary character. Larsson’s books have done more than any other author’s novels – including Henning Mankel’s well-known Wallander series, set in the southern Swedish seaside town of Ystad – to place Scandinavian crime fiction front-and-center on the world stage as an internationally important and rapidly growing literary genre.
All three ‘Millennium Trilogy’ books have become world best-sellers and all have been made into excellent, very gritty Swedish-language films which faithfully reproduce Larsson’s dark novels. Fortunately, English-sub-titled versions of the three films are widely available. A new Hollywood production of the runaway best-seller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first book in Larsson’s trilogy, is quite faithful to the original but isn’t quite as gritty as its earlier Swedish counterpart, which pulls no punches in reproducing some of the more disturbing scenes in Larsson’s novel.
But there is much, much more to Stockholm and its environs than merely visiting the scenes where Stieg Larsson set the action in his books, fun though that may be to do – particularly if you’re a Lisbeth Salander fan.
Stockholm has a 750-year history and so it might not surprise you to hear that the city has a wealth of palaces, castles and museums, as well as an ancient center, whose name Gamla Stan literally means ‘Old Town’ in Swedish. Stockholm is a treasure trove of architectural history, which ranges from buildings in Gamla Stan that are nearly 400 years old (as well as the ancient Riddarholmskyrkan church close by, parts of which are even older) to the ultra-modern Ericsson Globe, the world’s largest spherical building at 427 feet (130 meters) in Johanneshov, a district towards the south of the city.
From the United States, the best way to get to Stockholm is by experiencing the courteous and friendly service offered by Scandinavian Airlines on its daily Airbus A330-300 non-stop flights to the Swedish capital from Newark Liberty International and Chicago O’Hare International airports.
Scandinavian Airlines flies to Stockholm-Arlanda, the city’s largest airport, which is 30 miles or more north of Stockholm. That’s a long way, but there are two quick and convenient ways to travel between Stockholm-Arlanda and the center of the city.
One is the Arlanda Express train, which takes only 20 minutes in each direction between Arlanda and Stockholm Central Station but a ticket for which is quite expensive at around $40 for a one-way trip. Just as convenient is the airport express bus service, which takes 40 minutes between Stockholm-Arlanda and the city’s main bus terminal, right across the road from the Central Station. The bus represents very good value at only around $19 for a one-way trip. Tickets for both services can be purchased at the airport or at the respective city-center terminals. Entrance to Stockholm’s subway system (or ‘Tunnelbana’, whose station entrances are denoted by a ‘T’ sign) is easy from both the Central Station and the bus station.
There are too many noteworthy buildings in Stockholm to mention even a small fraction of them here, but the central focus of the city is the Royal Palace (or ‘Kungliga Slottet’ in Swedish) at the northeast edge of Gamla Stan. No longer the home of Sweden’s royal family, this is a large – though externally unremarkable – building, with 608 rooms, whose real fascination lies in its sumptuous interior decoration. Particularly notable is Karl XI’s Gallery, which is modeled on the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles (a contemporary of Stockholm’s Royal Palace) and is regarded as the finest example of late-Baroque decoration in Sweden.
Not far from Stockholm, the royal country palace at Drottningsholm (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), which is located on an island in Lake Mälaren, dates back to 1600. Parts of the palace – which has been the main residence of Sweden’s royal family since 1982 – are open for sightseeing. Gripsholm Castle at Mariefred about an hour’s drive south of Stockholm is even older, taking its present form in the 1530s on a site of an earlier, 14th-century, fortress. Both places make for a worthwhile, interesting day out from Stockholm.
So too does the city of Uppsala, a 40-minute train ride to the north of Stockholm. Trains for Uppsala leave Stockholm’s Central Station at least once an hour. Charming Uppsala is the home both of one of the world’s oldest universities (whose most famous son was the 18th-century botanist Carl von Linné, who created the biological classification system we use today) and of Scandinavia’s largest cathedral. The cathedral – which is known as the Domkyrkan and parts of which are relatively young, dating to the mid-19th century – has an absolutely magnificent interior which belies the huge building’s rather plain, red-brick exterior. The huge mass of the cathedral dominates Uppsala’s skyline, particularly from a distance.
An easy six-mile bus ride north from Uppsala’s central rail-and-bus-station is Gamla Uppsala (Old Uppsala), the home of sixth-century Swedish royalty. Here, three huge mounds in a field mark the burial sites of ancient Swedish kings and queens who pre-dated the Vikings. Yards away from the mounds, a beautiful old church contains relics from the medieval cathedral which previously stood on the site. Nearby, the new Gamla Uppsala Historical Center interprets the area’s pre-Viking history through a wealth of artifacts which are more than 1,400 years old. Not far away is Disagården, an open-air museum of 19th-century farm life.
These side-trips are well worth making, but Stockholm itself is right up there with the most beautiful cities in Europe and deserves thorough exploration. Not only is the city rich in beautiful and imposing architecture, but its geographical setting, while nowhere near as dramatic as those of Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town and Hong Kong, is also memorable. Stockholm is built on 14 islands on sea inlets and lakes and the various parts of the city are connected by 57 bridges. Stockholm’s many waterways immediately lend it a nautical flavor – which isn’t surprising, considering that the city has been a port since time immemorial.
Even more remarkably, Stockholm lies on the inner edge of a vast archipelago of some 30,000 islands, islets and skerries, only around 1,000 of which are inhabited for all or part of the year. (One small island, Viggsö, has become famous as the place where the pop band Abba composed several of their best-known songs.) The Stockholm Archipelago is unique in terms of its size and it extends all the way up to the inner approaches to Stockholm’s main port areas.