My Great Scandinavian Holiday by Saul Schwartz

Upon our arrival in Stockholm, via Wow Air and Flybus, we navigated the subway and buses without difficulty. Although signage in English is limited, English speaking transportation workers did not hesitate to direct us to the correct line when asked.  Throughout the week we found local Swedes quite willing to talk to us in English.

Prior to our trip, we purchased the 5 day Stockholm pass. This pass provides free admission to approximately 60 major attractions, museums and tour.  The pass is also available in 1, 2, or 3 day versions.  The 5 day adult pass was about $135, but the pass is periodically on sale at 10 percent off.  If you intend to see a large number of sites, the city pass provides a great value.  One particular advantage of the Stockholm pass included unlimited hopping on and off the 24 stops of the site seeing bus each day of our pass.  The pass can also be purchased in Stockholm.

Our stay at the Hilton Slussen greatly enhanced our visit. Located on the island of Sodermalm, the Hilton is situated directly across from the old town (Gamla Stan), providing dramatic day and night views of the Stockholm old town with its beautiful medieval architecture and the mighty city hall (Stadshuset) on the island of Kungsholmen.  The hotel location provided easy access to Stockholm sites by public transportation or by foot.  The large fitness center is part of a local fitness club and included, without charge, a great variety of cardio and weight equipment and fitness classes where instructors led sessions in English and Swedish.  For European standards, the rooms are decent sized.  Our hotel rate included an extensive breakfast buffet with hot and cold offerings and evening appetizers in the executive lounge, with a wide array of American and Swedish style food, as well as drinks.

We took the Lonely Planet Pocket Stockholm everywhere. The neighborhood-by-neighborhood layout provided focus on top sights and the maps were easy to follow.

Our top ten activities and favorite moments:

Changing of the guard at the Royal Palace (Kunglia Slottet): With over 600 rooms, the palace dominates the old town (Gamla Stan).  The Royal Palace is the largest royal castle still used as home to royalty and as a working government building.  Most days at the outer court yard of royal palace at 12:15 p.m. you can view the elaborate changing of the guard rituals.  This is a magnificent and dramatic ceremony, fully of pomp and circumstance.  The guards, clad in blue or black military uniforms, move with precision along with a band.  In one of our two viewings, the band marched with fanfare while sitting on top of beautiful horses and the ceremony honored one of the Swedish recipients of an Olympic silver medal from Rio.  We toured several portions of the palace open to the public, including the royal chapel and the royal apartments.

Boat tours: Stockholm is called the Venice of the north and we really enjoyed getting on the water to fully experience the area.  The city covers 14 islands, with bridges everywhere.  Lake Malaren in the west gives way to the Baltic Sea in the east.  Taking the three hour boat tour to the Archipelago provided us with a scenic ride as we wandered in and out among the thousands of rocky islands.  Most of the islands are uninhabited with forests and fields of wild flowers, but the inhabited islands are dotted with attractive holiday cottages and boats of various sizes.

We traveled one hour by boat to the summer residence Drottningholm Palace (Slott) for generations of Swedish royalty families, on the island of Lovon. Although the 17th century palace was closed for a royal function, we strolled for several hours in the vast geometrical garden parks, which are often compared to Versailles.  The pretty palace gardens contain sculptures and immaculately manicured greenery behind the striking Renaissance style palace.  We enjoyed lunch on the palace grounds at a café.

Eating lunch al fresco at the Kaffekoppen café. Set in the heart of the old town’s main and oldest square Stortorget, we twice enjoyed lunch on the outside terrace across from the Nobel Museum. The lunch portions were large, fresh, tasty and reasonably priced.  After talking extensively to the very welcoming proprietor, he served us –without charge – several yummy deserts.  The terrace is perfect for people-watching, and live street music played in the background.  The café is set in a brightly painted red historic 15th century building with 82 white stones on the exterior honoring the members of the Swedish nobility and clergy who were killed by the Danish king Christian II in a bloodbath in this square during three days in November 1520.

Biking through Djurgarden: Once a royal hunting ground, this island connects by bridge to the center city.  The setting is a park-like oasis in green, a smaller version of New York’s Central Park.  We rented three speed bikes through Stockholm City Bikes at the stand just behind the Abba Museum.  The rental lasted for three days and was inexpensive (about $17 for the 3 day card).  We wandered around quiet trails and roads, passing by herons, goats, gardens, various bodies of water and a series of museums.

Touring city hall (Stadshuset): Stockholm’s impressive skyline includes this striking brick landmark building with its massive tower and internal courtyards.  English language tours were frequent and very detailed.  The tour included the golden hall with its beautiful gold and marble mosaics, the Italian style blue hall – site of annual Nobel prize banquets and festivities, the dramatic fresco painting of the lake view (The City on the Water) which faces windows opening to the actual lake view and the council meeting chamber.

Exploring museums: Like Washington D.C., Stockholm is a city of museums, mainly situated at the entrance of Djurgarden.  Daily English language tours were informative and enlightening.  Our favorites was the Vasa Museum (Vasamuseet) which is literally built around a massive salvaged ship which sunk in Stockholm harbor within minutes of setting sail on its maiden voyage in the 17th century.  The tour was a Titantic experience!  Abba The Museum is simply a fun and entertaining tribute to the best known Swedish rock group, with costume displays and videos.  The Nordic Museum (Nordiska Museet) was mostly enjoyable for the building itself with its massive indoor space and its design as an enormous Nordic castle, and to understand how the cultural collection of all things Swedish was initiated as the passion of one man, Artur Hazelius.  The photography museum (Fotografiska) in Sodermalm housed in a converted customs hall showcased four different exhibits, including one of celebrities shot by singer Bryan Adams.  This museum is open late into the evening with its top level containing a lively bar and café where locals were partying the night away.  The Nobel Museum, temporarily housed in the old town (Nobelmuseet), focuses on the history of the recipients and their discoveries, as well on Alfred Nobel who became very wealthy based on his discovery of dynamite.  The café includes chairs signed by Nobel awardees, including Presidents Clinton and Obama.

Admiring cathedrals: In the old town, right next to the Royal Palace, the gothic cathedral Strorkyrkan – built in the 13th century – contains dramatic sculptures, medieval paintings, high ceilings with bells and royal pews which have been used for royal weddings and coronations.  We were particularly impressed with the life size wood St. George and the Dragon sculpture, created to honor victory over the Danes in the late 1400s.  Lutheran services are open to the public on Sundays.  On the nearby island of Riddarholmen, the interior of the 13th century Riddarholmen Church is more in the nature of a cemetery for royal families.  The church contains the vaults of kings, queens and their families.  Sweden’s monarchs are buried under the floors and within majestic crypts.

The Ice Bar: Just like you have to go to the Blue Lagoon while in Reykjavick, Iceland, one trip to the Ice Bar in Stockholm is a must.  The Ice Bar is located within the Nordic C Hotel in city center.  Created by the Ice Hotel in northern Sweden, the Ice Bar is totally a creation of ice, containing ice etchings and sculptures of Nordic creatures, just perfect for photo ops.  Patrons borrow  parkas with hoods and thick gloves to keep warm.  Admission includes one drink in a shot glass made of ice!  The 45 minute experience was a little tacky but very cool.

Walking tour of the old town (Gama Stan): Starting from the tourist center, the daily English language tour guided us along the charming cobble streets.  The narrow streets still wind along their 14th century lines and included one lane less than one meter wide (Marten Trotzigs Grand).  For the history buff, the guide told stories of Stockholm’s beginnings.  She showed us Viking ruins from an early settlement that are part of a building foundation, as well as sites from Danish and Germanic influences.

What we missed: Several buildings were not open to touring during our stay.  We visited the grounds of the Great Synagogue on a small street near city center, an impressive building which contained a large menorah, a holocaust memorial plaque and a dramatic sculpture of the lifting of the torah.  Since the synagogue is only open to the public for Shabbat services on Friday evening and Saturday morning, we were not able to go inside.  Stockholm has the largest Jewish population in Sweden, but there are only about 20,000 Jews in Sweden.  Not far from the old town, we repeatedly passed by the large Swedish Parliament Buildings (Riksdagshuset), but were not able to tour because the buildings were only open on one weekend day for a limited time period.

Final thoughts for a perfect trip: The fall weather is surprising pleasant in Stockholm.  The currency is easy to convert, with ten krona being worth approximately one U.S. dollar.  Although roads seemed well maintained and driving is on the right side of the road, we saw no need for a car rental since we did not venture outside of greater Stockholm.  The city is one of Europe’s most beautiful!  We had a tremendous adventure.  In one week, we covered all of the major sites.