No one knows exactly when people first settled the place now known as Stockholm, but the city was first mentioned in writing in 1252 in documents signed by the regent Birger Jarl and his son, King Valdemar. Walking through Gamla Stan is like walking through Swedish history. The main tourist street, Västerlånggatan, is packed with souvenir shops and cafés. It’s worth a walk-through, but many visitors never get any further. That’s a pity, since it’s away from Västerlånggatan that you’ll find the real Gamla Stan. Stroll the residential streets, where you’ll often find unexpected beauty and tranquility far from the tourist hordes. Head for Österlånggatan or Stora Nygatan for a less touristy shopping experience, stop into some of the museums and churches for a look at Stockholm history, or enjoy lunch in an underground medieval vault.
This tour begins with visits to museums highlighting Stockholm’s medieval and royal history and continues through the streets of Gamla Stan, ending on the island of Riddarholmen. It is broken into sections for those who have limited time or simply want to sample different locations along the route. You can easily take a full day if you visit all the sights included. To save the museums for another time, start with the section on Storkyrkan.
Medieval Museums and the Royal Palace
Begin on the small island of Helgeandsholmen, easily reached from downtown by crossing over the bridge from the square known as Gustav Adolfs torg. With the Swedish Parliament (Riksdagen) to your right, look for the staircase on the left leading down to the waterfront terrace, where you’ll find the entrance to Medeltidsmuseet, the Museum of Medieval Stockholm. This free museum is built around a medieval burial ground and city walls from the 1500s, uncovered during the archaeological excavations that preceded the renovation of the adjacent Parliament buildings in the late 1970s. It explores Stockholm’s founding and early history, its relationship with the Hanseatic League, medieval religious life, and the city’s development under King Gustav Vasa, the founder of unified Sweden.
Emerging from the museum, head back up the stairs to Norrbro and cross over to the main island of Gamla Stan. Above you looms the Royal Palace, but before you explore the modern palace, take some time to learn about its predecessor: Stockholm’s original royal castle, Tre Kronor, which was destroyed by fire in 1697. The entrance to Museum Tre Kronor is directly ahead of you as you cross over from Helgeandsholmen. It’s located in the best-preserved part of the original castle (now incorporated into the newer palace), with walls dating back to the 1200s, and the exhibits include both artifacts that survived the fire and models of the palace at various stages of its history.
Exit by way of the staircase at the end of the exhibits and you’ll emerge at the entrance to the present-day Royal Palace (Kungliga Slottet), a massive structure completed – after many stops and starts – in the 1770s. Designed by Nicodemus Tessin the Younger, one of the most famous of Swedish Renaissance architects, the palace is the official residence of the King of Sweden. It has more than 600 rooms on seven floors, and most official royal receptions take place here. Representationsvåningarna (the Royal Apartments), which are open to the public, include several floors of state rooms. Highlights include a silver throne presented to Queen Kristina for her coronation in 1650, Gustav III’s bedchamber, several portrait galleries, and Karl XI’s gallery, where most reception dinners are held today.
If you happen to be at the Royal Palace at the right time (usually 12:15 Monday through Saturday and 1:15 on Sundays and holidays), you can see the Changing of the Guard before exiting the outer courtyard onto Slottsbacken, the hill along the south side of the palace. From here you can proceed to visit other royal museums or continue the walking tour. Just down the hill are Skattkammaren (the Royal Treasury), a series of vaults housing the Crown Jewels and other royal treasures. Next door is Livrustkammaren (the Royal Armoury), Sweden’s oldest museum, which includes more than 400 years’ worth of clothing and other objects belonging to members of the royal court. The museum’s exhibits testify to some of the most dramatic events in Swedish history. On display are the horse Streiff (now stuffed) ridden by Gustav II Adolf at the Battle of Lützen in 1632, the uniform that Karl XII was wearing when he was killed in battle in 1718, and Gustav III’s bloody clothes from the masquerade ball where he was fatally shot in 1792.
Admission to the Tre Kronor Museum, the Royal Apartments, and the Royal Treasury is by combination ticket (SEK 150 for adults as of 2015), valid for seven days; it also provides a 50-percent discount on admission to the Royal Armoury. From mid-May to mid-September, the ticket also includes admission to Gustav III’s Museum of Antiquities, a gallery of ancient Roman sculptures collected by King Gustav III during the late 18th century.
Storkyrkan (Stockholm Cathedral)
At the top of Slottsbacken is Storkyrkan, which is dedicated to St. Nicholas and dates from as early as 1270. To visit, head around to the west side of the building, entering from Trångsund. Through successive expansions the church has acquired a late Gothic character, with a primarily Baroque interior. To the left of the main altar is the cathedral’s most magnificent work of art, a gilded carved-oak sculpture of St. George and the Dragon by Bernt Notke. Unveiled in 1489, it was commissioned to mark the Swedish victory over the Danes at the Battle of Brunkeberg in 1471.
Another highlight is Vädersolstavlan – the “Sun Dog Painting” – a 1636 copy of a 16th-century original depicting a parhelic phenomenon observed over Stockholm in 1535. It hangs near the entrance on the south side of the church. Exit through this door and turn left to return to Slottsbacken and begin the walking tour.
As of 2015, admission to Storkyrkan costs SEK 40.
The Streets of Gamla Stan: From Storkyrkan to Järntorget
There’s nothing like wandering the narrow streets and alleys to really get a feel for the medieval character of Gamla Stan. From Slottsbacken, just slightly downhill from the obelisk, take the alley directly to the right of Finska kyrkan (the Finnish Church), opposite the Royal Palace. Behind the church is a courtyard, Bollhustäppan, where you’ll find Sweden’s smallest statue under the tree at the far end. Known as Järnpojken (the Iron Boy), it portrays a boy looking at the moon and is just 15 centimeters (5.9 inches) high. Created by Swedish artist Liss Eriksson, the statue was installed in 1967 and is often given money, cookies, and even a hat and scarf in cold weather.
Exit the courtyard through the iron gates onto Trädgårdsgatan and turn left, following the narrow street as it turns a corner and emerges onto Köpmangatan; then turn left again. If interested, detour a few steps along Själagårdsgatan (to the right off Köpmangatan) to the tiny square called Brända tomten; there are no actual attractions here, but it’s a lovely example of one of Gamla Stan’s quiet residential spaces. Afterward, return to Köpmangatan and proceed to the small plaza called Köpmantorget, dominated by a bronze copy of the 15th-century St. George and the Dragon sculpture in Storkyrkan. The copy was installed here in 1912, on the 441st anniversary of the Battle of Brunkeberg.
From here you can turn either right or left to head down the short slope to Österlånggatan, one of the main streets of Gamla Stan. If you take the left-hand route, you’ll emerge opposite the classic restaurant Fem Små Hus (Nygränd 10), which features a series of dining rooms in nine different cellar vaults in what used to be five separate houses, the earliest of which dates back to the middle of the 17th century. Dining here isn’t cheap, but the cuisine and atmosphere have earned a reputation as among Stockholm’s best. Menu items feature fresh ingredients and classic Swedish fare such as marinated elk, reindeer fillets, and assorted seafood dishes.
Whichever direction you take down to Österlånggatan, follow the street to the right, passing a variety of shops and cafés until you reach Den Gyldene Freden, Stockholm’s oldest tavern, which has been around for nearly three centuries and has long been a gathering place for the city’s leading literary and artistic lights. It’s located at Österlånggatan 51 and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest restaurant in the world still in its original setting. If interested, head up the sloping street opposite the restaurant, Södra Benickebrinken, to visit the popular shop Tomtar & Troll (at number 4), which sells handmade figures from Swedish folk tales and legends.
Otherwise, follow Österlånggatan just a few more steps to its southern end, where you’ll find the square known as Järntorget. The second-oldest square in Stockholm, it was once the city’s trading center. During the Middle Ages Stockholm’s official scale was located here, and iron was brought to this spot to be weighed and stored, giving Järntorget its name, which means “Iron Square.”
The Bank of Sweden, the oldest national bank in the world, had its headquarters here for more than 200 years. By the wall of the old bank building stands a statue of Evert Taube, one of Sweden’s most beloved troubadours through the ages, famous for his songs of life at sea and at home.
At Järntorget 83 you’ll find Stockholm’s oldest patisserie, Sundbergs Konditori, founded in 1785.
The Streets of Gamla Stan: From Järntorget to Riddarhuset
Just around the corner from Järntorget, at the southern end of Västerlånggatan, take a peek to your right into tiny Mårten Trotzigs gränd, the narrowest street in Gamla Stan, just 90 centimeters (a little over 35 inches) wide in some places. Proceed up Västerlånggatan, the main shopping street of Gamla Stan, filled with souvenir shops and usually crowded with tourists from all over the world. At Tyska Brinken, make a right and head up to Tyska kyrkan, the German Church of St. Gertrude. A reminder of Stockholm’s strong ties to Germany during the days of the Hanseatic League, the core of the building dates from the late 1500s, with additions completed in the following century. The current copper-roofed spire, Stockhholm’s second-highest church tower at 96 meters (315 feet) was erected after a fire destroyed the original tower in 1878. The beautiful interior was renovated during the 17th century. Don’t miss the church’s pride and joy, the 350-year-old pulpit with carved alabaster figures of the apostles. Another treasure is the elaborately ornamented royal gallery.
From Tyska kyrkan, turn left onto Svartmangatan and proceed one block to the heart of Gamla Stan: Stortorget (the Great Square). This square was the site of one of the most infamous events in the city’s history, the Stockholm Bloodbath, when King Kristian II of Denmark, who ruled Sweden at the time, had almost 90 political and religious opponents beheaded here in 1520. Among them was city councilor Erik Johansson Vasa, the father of the future king Gustav Vasa.
Flanked by colorful narrow buildings, Stortorget is dominated by Börshuset, the old Stock Exchange Building from the late 1700s. It’s now home to the Nobel Museum, a small but well-presented museum that tells the story of Stockholm native Alfred Nobel’s life and legacy, including a history of the prizes he founded. Exhibits also explore the work of Nobel laureates from the first winners in 1901 to the present. Börshuset is also home to the Nobel Library and the Swedish Academy, which announces the Nobel Prize winners from this location each fall.
There are many outdoor cafés on and around Stortorget where you can grab a seat and soak in the atmosphere of Stockholm’s medieval heart. During the month before Christmas, the square fills with a popular holiday market, with stalls selling crafts and seasonal foods such as brända mandlar (roasted almonds) and glögg (mulled wine).
Leave the square by its southwest corner, next to the Kaffekoppen café. Head downhill on Kåkbrinken one block to Prästgatan, and then turn around. Near the base of the building on the corner to the right, you’ll see a runestone in the wall. It dates from around 1000 AD and, although parts of the text are missing, what remains states that the stone was originally raised by a couple named Torsten and Frögunn in honor of their son. It is unclear when it was appropriated as building material, but it has been mentioned in this location since as early as the 17th century.
Continue down Kåkbrinken to Stora Nygatan and turn right. Follow this street past shops and restaurants until you emerge at Riddarhustorget, near Myntgatan. Look around the corner to your right for a good view of Storkyrkan at the top of Storkyrkobrinken. Afterward, cross Riddarhustorget for a look at two 17th-century palaces. Ahead of you on the right is Bondeska Palatset, begun in 1662 for the nobelman and Lord High Treasurer Gustaf Bonde, and now home to Sweden’s Supreme Court. Next door, ahead to the left, is Riddarhuset, the House of Nobility, built in the mid-1600s to provide a meeting place for the kingdom’s nobles. The statue in front portrays Gustav Vasa, the nobleman who became King of Sweden in 1523. His dynasty ruled Sweden until 1654 and also became Kings of Poland and Grand Dukes of Lithuania.
It’s worth the short detour to see the waterfront side of Riddarhuset. (To skip this, turn left and cross the bridge to Riddarholmen; see below.) From Riddarhustorget take Riddarhusgränd along the right-hand side of Riddarhuset. As you turn left along the waterfront, you’ll have a view of the imposing Baroque façade of the palace, with a landscaped quadrangle and two freestanding wings erected in 1870 based on 17th-century designs. The statue on this side portrays Axel Oxelstierna, Chancellor of the Realm and the driving force behind the construction of the building. For anyone wishing to see the inside, Riddarhuset is open to the public for just an hour, 11 a.m. to 12 p.m., on weekdays, except holidays; admission costs SEK 60 for adults (as of 2015).
Continue the circle around Riddarhuset, returning to Riddarhustorget by way of the pedestrian and bicycle route along the Riddarholmen Canal and the staircase back up to the main street level. Turn right and cross the bridge to the small island of Riddarholmen for one last foray into Swedish history.
In the late 13th century there was a Franciscan monastery on Riddarholmen, which gave it the name Gråmunkeholmen, or Greyfriars Island. The current name (which means “the Knights’ Island”) and most of the buildings date from Sweden’s Age of Great Power in the 17th century, when prominent noblemen built stately mansions here. Three of these are currently occupied by Svea Hovrätt, one of Sweden’s six courts of appeal. The statue in the main square is of Birger Jarl, traditionally considered the founder of Stockholm and the de facto ruler of Sweden during the mid-13th century.
Dominating the island is Riddarholmskyrkan (the Riddarholmen Church), begun in the 13th century as the Greyfriars church. Its cast-iron tower was erected after the original spire was destroyed by fire in 1835. The church is the burial place of more than 300 years of Swedish royalty, from Gustav II Adolf, the hero of the Thirty Year’s War, who died in 1632, to Gustaf V, the great-grandfather of the present king, who died in 1950. The only Swedish ruler from 1632 to 1950 not interred in Riddarholmskyrkan is Queen Kristina, who abdicated the throne after converting to Catholicism and is buried in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Also buried in Riddarholmskyrkan were the medieval kings Magnus Ladulås, the monastery’s original patron, who died in 1290, and Karl Knutsson Bonde, who died in 1470; their tombs rest by the high altar, although the exact location of their remains is uncertain.
The walls of Riddarholmskyrkan are decorated with the painted coats of arms of deceased members of the Order of Seraphim. The order dates back to the middle of the 18th century. These days it is only awarded to members of the royal family or foreign heads of state.
Admission to Riddarholmskyrkan costs SEK 50 (as of 2015).
After all that walking, you could probably use a break. A good place to rest is Evert Taubes terrass along the west side of Riddarholmen. Here you can dip your feet in the clean waters of Lake Mälaren or just enjoy the views of the water, the heights of Södermalm, and the distinctive three-crowned spire of Stockholm City Hall. On the terrace, a sculpture of Taube strumming his lute pays tribute to the troubadour.
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