Stockholm old town (Gamla Stan) cityscape from City Hall top, Sweden. Photo: Adobe Stock
Stockholm old town (Gamla Stan) cityscape from City Hall top, Sweden. Photo: Adobe Stock

Golden Stockholm

The Swedish capital combines architectural pomp with effortless cool on the edge of the Baltic Sea.

The details regarding how Stockholm got its name are a little fuzzy. Does the moniker translate simply as “island cleared of trees” (the island in question being Gamla Stan, the city’s heart)? Or does it relate to how the medieval Swedes used logs to block shipping lanes in the archipelago, either as a shrewd defensive or financial gambit? 

Or perhaps it’s more literal, with the Old Swedish for Stockholm translating directly as “log island.” This could connect the name with the city’s legendary origin story, that medieval Swedes hollowed out a log, stuffed it with gold, and then floated and tracked this precious divining device until it washed up on what would become Stockholm.

One thing’s true: while the history may be obfuscated, the physical experience of this waterside capital is anything but. It is spread across 14 islands, some small enough to hold only a single building. Water fragments the urban area, creating an enviable sense of space in one of Europe’s fastest-growing capitals by population.

Stockholm is now the world’s third-largest tech hub. It is also home to the Nobel Prize banquet held each December in the City Hall’s Blue Room, which is actually red. 

With 30,000 islands, skerries, and islets comprising the archipelago, there’s certainly land available. (Nobody, however, is relocating the cormorants drying their wings on the rocks in front of the prime minister’s office.) And while you can check out the headline sights in three or four days, on longer stays there is always more to see.  

Birger Jarl Tomb at Stadshuset, Stockholm. Photo: Adobe Stock
Birger Jarl Tomb at Stadshuset, Stockholm. Photo: Adobe Stock

Beside the silver-grey waters of Lake Malar (mingling with the salty sea beside the Parliament building), the gold-plated sarcophagus of Birger Jarl, the ruler who founded Stockholm in 1250, glints even on overcast days. In summer, sailboats head out for weekend odysseys among the uninhabited islands, and groups of yellow kayaks nose into leafy coastlines. As the days shorten, fewer sailboats are out, although an array of robust, high-hulled boats at anchor ornament the waterside.

You can get up close to them with a kayak tour even as late as the end of October. You’ll slip between the main islands as, beside you, dry-suited Joakim Malm of Stockholm Adventures works his paddle like a clockwork toy. Swans and coots glide past like eavesdropping tourists as he relates the stories of a complex and intriguing city, an almost accidental capital, its importance built upon its success as a trading post. Joakim’s stories conjure up Sweden’s great ghosts, figures like Ingmar Bergman and Alfred Nobel. You’ll pass the philanthropist’s childhood home on a side canal before navigating near to Langholmen prison island which, with the Swedes ready to recycle anything, has been transformed into a day-care center.

Getting Around Is Easy

Back on land, your choices of transport around the city are broader than in most metropolises. Tap in and out of its timely tram, bus, ferry, and metro services. (The cavernous stations of the latter also serve as art galleries.) Or experience Stockholm’s extensive system of bike lanes, overlaid like a shadow road network with its own dedicated traffic lights. 

Mingling with the bikes and e-bikes in these lanes are electric scooters. They’re available for easy pickup throughout the city. A leading brand is Stockholm-headquartered Voi, whose terracotta-hued two-wheeled speeders are recognizable from Zurich to Madrid.

If you’re from somewhere like Nashville, where e-scooters have been as much of a scourge as a boon in recent years, you might want to head for Gamla Stan and its scooter-nullifying 800-year-old cobblestones. This is the island where the gold-filled log made land all those centuries ago, and it remains the city’s heart. Despite being only about half a mile across, Gamla Stan manages to contain the immense baroque slab of the Royal Palace, as well as the circular Parliament building. 

Enter Gamla Stan’s hilly interior and you’ll quickly encounter souvenir shops on its narrow streets. Happily, this area is far from Disneyfied. A slum back in the 1960s, it now feels peaceful and clean—an old center that lives and breathes, at ease with its touristic appeal. Come at Christmas and you’ll find fairy-light-adorned market stalls as well as a peppermint shop (Polkagriskokeri, at 44 Stora Nygatan) that’s well-stocked with candy canes. 

Uncover the secrets of Gamla Stan’s history on Ourways’ Stockholm Syndrome tour. Beginning outside the bank where the incident that gave rise to the Stockholm Syndrome occurred, the tour winds into Gamla Stan and beyond. Your guide will show you a Viking tombstone embedded on the walls of the old town, describe the Stockholm Bloodbath of 1520 when noble blood flowed between the merchant houses of Stortoget Square, and point out the area’s oldest address (8 Staffan Sasses Gränd), where it’s believed Erik IV’s commoner mistress and future queen used to reside.

Before you leave Gamla Stan, consider stopping at Pastis (12 Baggensgatan), a slightly kitschy Francophile bistro/bar where seared meat smells leak from the kitchen. Also worth considering is an unprepossessing shack parked in the Kornhamnstorg square. As the lemon-yellow metal fish on the roof signals, Nystekt Stromming is your stop for fried herring in a variety of tasty guises. Enjoy a dish at a table nearby (although the pigeons will peck your toecaps) or take a stroll with your wrap along the waterfront. 

Stockholm Sweden - July 1 2021: Colourful historic buildings and houses in Gamla Stan, Main S. Romantic medieval city centre alleys. Photo: Adobe Stock
Stockholm Sweden - July 1 2021: Colourful historic buildings and houses in Gamla Stan, Main S. Romantic medieval city centre alleys. Photo:Adobe Stock

The City’s Trendiest Pockets

Once you’ve eaten, find and follow Götgatan, one of the city’s longest and oldest streets, which will lead you into Södermalm (Southern Isle). This formerly working-class area is now home to some of the city’s trendiest pockets, with SoFo (south of Folkungagatan) as its epicenter. On the weekend, Stockholmers wander its broad streets, delve into design boutiques and record stores, and linger over a cherished fika break (typically dark roast coffee with a cinnamon bun) at one of the city’s outstanding coffee shops, such as the eclectic Lykke (38 Nytorgsgatan).

Wander just north of SoFo and you’ll arrive at Katarina Kyrkogard. This leafy park and cemetery is the burial site of many famous Swedes, and you might spot the modest memorial to assassinated foreign minister Anna Lindh. It’s an oasis of serenity, even on a sunny Saturday, with pathways leading to cobblestoned backstreets that spill open to sweeping cityscapes. 

Sunk beneath the slate-grey domes and verdigris-paneled rooftops of the city center is its shopping artery, the pedestrianized Drottninggatan (Queen’s Street). One road over, you’ll come to High Market square where year-round traders sell paper bags of lingonberries while, in front of the columned auspices of the dusky blue concert hall, free classical concerts take place in the summer. Also here is the entrance to one of the city’s best food halls, Hötorgshallen, a subterranean trove with marble tables just large enough for a plate of fresh crab prepared and bought on the spot. 

Northeast of Södermalm is the bucolic island of Djurgården. Only a short bridge away from the wealthy quarter of Östermalm, this former royal hunting ground remains wonderfully undeveloped. Most of it is walkable wooded parkland, although on its fringes you’ll find the historic Tivoli amusement park as well as a cluster of the city’s best museums. 

Vasa - old Swedish warship in Stockholm. Photo: Adobe Stock
Vasa - old Swedish warship in Stockholm. Photo: Adobe Stock

A must is the Vasa Museum, which houses the entirety of the 17th-century Vasa warship. Though it languished in the harbor mud for over 500 years, the brackish water helped preserve the timbers before the ship’s extraordinary re-emergence in 1961. The Vasa is a striking symbol of the country’s medieval-era ambitions; meanwhile, five minutes’ walk away, the ABBA Museum enshrines Sweden’s worldwide pop phenomenon through engaging, up-to-date exhibits (dancing with holograms, anyone?).

But not all the museums are on Djurgården. The coolest is reserved for Södermalm: Fotografiska (22 Stadsgårdshamnen). Housed in a century-old brick customs house, this contemporary photography showcase is deftly lit and boldly colored. Across several floors, it features exhibitions from artists as diverse as Hans Gedda and Omar Victor Diop. 

Once you’ve taken in the art, head upstairs. On its top floor, you’ll find the museum’s highly rated Restaurangen restaurant. Take a counter table whose panoramic windows offer views of Gamla Stan, the city center, and Djurgården, with the soaring Tivoli rollercoasters gleaming gold in the midday sun. As you take it in, you may conclude that the story about the log filled with gold might be medieval nonsense. Who needs driftwood to identify such obvious beauty?  

Traveler Fast Facts 


Stockholm—Sweden’s capital and largest city—fills 14 islands about midway up the country’s long western coastline where the freshwater Lake Malar meets the Baltic Sea. Its metro area is home to 2.4 million people—nearly a quarter of Sweden’s population.


With the Gulf Stream helping to maintain the country’s temperate climate, Stockholm enjoys warm summers with the mercury regularly rising above 68°F. Thanks to the city’s high latitude, forays into the archipelago under sail are aided by elongated summer days. While the water and the sea do freeze over in the darker months, Stockholm typically sees temperatures fall to average highs of 32°F and average lows of 20°F. You can expect rain throughout the year and snow from November to March. September vies with March for the title of the driest month while still enjoying the last of the summer highs. 


Stockholm is served by four airports with Stockholm Arlanda, 25 miles north of the city, the country’s largest. It offers a private aviation center delivering superb service as well as accommodation for private aircraft passengers. While Bromma Stockholm Airport is only a few miles west of the city, its runway length and weight restrictions mean that it’s better suited for aircraft traveling from Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. Stockholm’s other two airports—Västerås and Skavsta—also both accommodate private aircraft. 


The Stockholm Pass covers admission to more than 60 museums as well as other attractions. Buy online or ask at your hotel. It’s also possible to have a travelcard for the city included in the pass which, for one day, totals around $77 (for both pass and travelcard).

Traveler Report Card


Stockholm has everything from five-star hotels to the world’s classiest youth hostel housed in a tall ship…At Six(A+), in the banking district close to the central station, is an impressively slick art hotel. It offers an award-winning cocktail bar, an exclusive-to-residents music lounge, and a great restaurant. In the summer, its huge roof terrace is one of the city’s hot spots…Radisson Collection Strand Hotel (A) is home to the atmospheric Issei restaurant, offering excellent Japanese/Peruvian cuisine. Try to book one of its suites with balconies offering views of the city’s most ostentatious stretch of waterfront—the Strandvagen...Hop on the tram to leafy Djurgården Island and its Backstage Hotel (A), owned by ABBA’s Bjorn Ulvaeus. Located in the same 19-century building as the ABBA Museum, the hotel has recently been upgraded and enlarged. 


The industrial-chic Södermalm-based Tjoget (A+) features a zinc-topped bar where the mixologist owners display superlative skills. (Be sure to try their earthy, tangy signature cocktail, Beets—which blends beetroot, coconut, ginger, and vodka.) Superb tapas-style Mediterranean cuisine is served at small adjacent tables, and with an attached wine bar, you can have the perfect wine paired with your dinner…Based in the accurately named Grand Hotel in Norrmalm, Rutabaga (A+) offers inventive, Asian-inflected vegetarian tasting menus, which include cheese made exclusively for the restaurant and an array of dishes layered with unexpected flavors and textures. Even the palate cleansers, such as a mozzarella sorbet, are remarkable…Come to the recently opened Hornsgatan Kvarterskrog (B) on Södermalm for traditional Swedish favorites as well as Italian and French dishes, all well executed in a lively atmosphere. If you feel like stepping outside of Scandinavian culinary borders, consider the first-class carpaccio with roe as well as the fries, with their sprinkling of tarragon and dill.