The marvels of Stockholm

There’s no better way to learn about a city than to get yourself lost in it. And that’s exactly what happened to me on a recent visit to the Swedish capital of Stockholm when, carried away by the marvels of the city, I inadvertently became separated from my tour group.

Lacking both a map and a good sense of direction, I wandered the bewildering maze of winding streets in Stockholm’s medieval city looking for my group. The fact that a bitter late November wind was blowing, the sun was setting (around 4 p.m.) and I was beginning to lose feeling in my extremities didn’t dampen my spirits. On the contrary, I was having a great time discovering what makes Stockholm such an engaging city.

Stockholm enjoys a stunning location, where the Baltic Sea meets Lake Malren. Sometimes called the Venice of the North, the city was originally built on one island but expanded to include 14 surrounding islands. These islands, each with its own charms and character, are linked by 300 impressively engineered bridges and tunnels. With its unadorned yet pleasing architecture, wide-open boulevards and countless restaurants and cafés (more per capita than Paris), Stockholm certainly holds its o against the great European capitals.

Even for the tourist, it’s easy to recognize the three very different eras that marked Stockholm’s development – the old medieval city, the 17th-century city and the modern bustling metropolis. Though distinct, all three have a few features in common – interesting architecture, a proximity to water and an abundance of parkland. The city has an almost bucolic feel, with 30 per cent of the city made up of green space and another 30 per cent given over to waterways – a striking change from the urban centres we’re used to in North America.

The heart of the city is the Gamla Stan, or old city. The royal palace (Sweden is still headed by monarchy but it is without legislative power) and 15th-century Gothic cathedral, Storkyrkan, are the landmarks of this medieval city with its narrow, cobblestone lanes lined with restaurants, bars and flourishing shops. Thanks to Sweden’s neutrality during Second World War, the historical old town escaped bombardment.

As you’re meandering through the old town, watching the changing of the Palace guards or quietly imbuing the history of the place, you’ll suddenly arrive at Västerlänggatan, a main road just outside the old city, which pulsates with tourists and locals shopping or enjoying a day out in the city. The 7-Eleven store located in a centuries-old shop may seem incongruous at first, but it does speak to the way Stockholm has managed to merge the new urban realities without completely spoiling or abandoning the old city feel.

Due to the omnipresence of water and no doubt partly influenced by their Viking heritage, one-sixth of Stockholm’s residents are boat owners. In the summer, the waterways are an excellent way to see the city. Visitors can jump aboard a tourist boat and get an excellent tour of the city in two hours.

No surprise that Stockholm’s most popular attraction, the Vasa Museum, is nautically themed. The museum is dedicated to the Vasa, a ship built in the early 1600s by King Gustavus Adlolphus, who dreamed it would become the pride of the Swedish navy and the envy of the world. Unfortunately, the ship was not seaworthy. After sailing only 1,000 metres in its maiden voyage, it sank to the harbour floor, much to the King’s embarrassment and disappointment.

In the early 1970s, salvagers rediscovered the Vasa and were pleasantly surprised that, except for minor damage, the ship was almost completely intact. The ship was raised to the surface, and now this marvelous 400-year-old timepiece is on display for all to see.

Sweden has more than 150 other museums and galleries to help the cultural tourist pass the day. Island of Djurgarden, which used to be the King’s hunting ground, is, as its name would suggest, filled with parks, walking trails and Europe’s first outdoor museum.

When you’ve spent the day visiting museums or walking through Stockholm, you can dine in great seafood restaurants located on the water and then sit down in a park or head to a chic café and watch the amazingly attractive Swedes go about their daily business.

Or follow my lead and throw away the map. Get lost and discover the merits of this superb city on your own. But one piece of advice: do it in the summer.