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Named in this century as both Europe's Cultural Capital and also the continent's first Green Capital, Stockholm is the largest city in Scandinavia, with about 1.8 million residents in the metropolitan area -- about one-fifth of Sweden's total population. The city, founded in 1252, comprises 14 islands, and is a popular port of call and turnaround port on Northern Europe cruises.
Stockholm's premier tourist attraction is Gamla Stan (literally, Old Town), one of the largest neighborhoods of 16th-century buildings in Europe. Block after block of these four- and five-story structures are painted in vivid colors typical of Mediterranean villages and occasionally feature wrought-iron signs symbolizing ancient craftworkers' guilds or faces of religious figures. Cobblestone streets and arms-width alleys criss-cross Gamla Stan. There, you'll also find the 18th-century Royal Palace atop the crown of the hill upon which Gamla Stan is located. (Sweden is a constitutional monarchy and has a one-house parliament).
Boulevards defining Stockholm's busy waterfront are also lined with photogenic architecture -- turrets, spires, stucco patterns -- mostly dating from before the turn of the 20th century. Elsewhere downtown, glass-and-steel retail centers and office buildings have replaced such older buildings. But the divergent styles tend to be clustered and don't compete with each other for the viewer's eye.
Offsetting the city's bustle and buildings are large swatches of green space. The Ekoparken, or eco-park, curves for six miles through a couple of the busiest islands and along one side of the downtown business district.
A word to the pennywise: Stockholm is expensive. Especially if you're spending time there pre- or post-cruise, a best-bet is the Stockholm Card, which provides automatic admission to about 80 museums and attractions, plus passage on buses, trams, subways and some ferries. Presuming you are in the city long enough to use it for some of the museums, it's easily worth the $65-$70 (about £40) charge for a one-day card. Buy it online before leaving home.
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Officially, it's Swedish, but English is a mandatory subject for several years of school, as is a choice of a third language. (French and German are the favorites). Consequently, workers in areas frequented by visitors speak more-than-adequate English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The Swedish krona is the unit of currency. For up-to-the-minute rates check www.xe.com or www.oanda.com. Denominations of paper krona are 20, 50, 100 and 500. Amounts below 20 krona are settled with coins. ATMs are abundant in the city, as are currency-exchange shops, most prominently the company named Forex. Occasionally there are ATMs immediately outside Forex offices. Banks will also exchange currency.
On the low end of the look-where-I've-been scale, go with a T-shirt that proclaims simply, “Stockholm/Since 1252.” For those visitors more fashion-conscious, the Swedes are famed for their decorative crystal and glass pieces for your desk, bookshelf or table centerpiece: Kosta Boda and Orrefors are the best-known names. More recently there has been an emphasis on clothing design; if you want to be able to tell friends, ”I picked this up in Stockholm,' head to trendy department stores Ahlens City or NK (in its second century) or the store operated by fashion maven Anna Holtblad.
Where You're Docked
Two cruise ports serve the city, though the one at Gamla Stan -- reserved for smaller ships -- is far more convenient for shore excursions. The site for larger ships, Frihamnen, is about a 15-minute cab ride (or step aboard Buses No. 1 or 76) from the heart of downtown.
If your ship docks at Frihamnen, leave ASAP. Except for the contemporary art museum Magasin 3, in a converted warehouse, this bland industrial area has no attractions for tourists. The port is used most often as a terminus for ferries crossing the Baltic Sea. While there is a souvenir shop and free Wi-Fi in the cruise ship terminal, there is no Internet cafe nor ATM; however, the ferry terminal, about a five-minute walk from the cruise terminal, does have an ATM machine. To reach a more charming part of Stockholm, grab a cab just a few yards from your ship or, slightly farther on, board buses near Magasin 3.
If your vessel docks at Gamla Stan, you will find museums, the 600-room Royal Palace, cafes, trinket shops, ATMs and banks, all just minutes' walk from the dock.
You can explore Stockholm by electric trolleys (called tram), buses, ferries, the subway and on foot. The city is very walkable, with many of the prime tourist destinations within a couple of miles of one another. Taxis do accept credit cards, which is a plus because cabs can be costly; for example, a ride from Frihamnen to the city center -- near the main train station and central subway hub -- will cost about $25.
Remember, though, that you can use your Stockholm Card on public transport. Just step aboard the bus or tram, and show it to the driver.
Another option is to buy a ticket for the daily hop-on/hop-off bus. Tickets are good for 24 hours and come with a map noting various attractions and their bus stops; you can leave the bus and pick it up again at any of its stops. City Sightseeing offers both a bus-only and bus/boat option, and passengers can board the buses at Frihamnen, among other stops.
Finally, environmentally friendly Stockholm has a municipal bike-rental program that's convenient. Buy a three-day card online, at your hotel or at the main tourist office at Vasagatan 14. Find one of several dozen automated bike racks, which operate from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., and scan your card, which will delete credits and unlock a bike for you. Ride it where you want, for up to three hours, then return it to any of the bike racks.
North American and European flights use Stockholm's sleek Arlanda Airport. It can be reached by the Arlanda Express train in just 20 minutes (some days the train offers two-for-one fares), by the direct bus known as Flygbussarna and by cab. The train and bus arrive at the Central Train Station. Rental cars are available at the airport.
Watch Out For
Visiting Gamla Stan means you'll be treading on cobblestones. Leave the high heels and the flimsy sandals back on the ship. To save a few kronor, avoid meals in the most-touristed areas, where price inflation is common: for instance, $27 for a small plate of Swedish meatballs. On the plus side, pickpockets and petty crime are not common in Stockholm.
Stockholm's top tourist spot is the island of Gamla Stan, the city's Old Town that's a fascinating step back in time. However, the area can be a victim of its own success. Summer visitors often clog the main streets, Stora Nygatan and Vasterlanggatan, and an overabundance of tourist shops selling moose-themed t-shirts and other knickknacks detract from Gamla Stan's charm. To escape the crowds, simply turn into one of the many alleyways and lesser streets between the apartment buildings. These less-busy paths mostly lead uphill to the 600-room Royal Palace. On these narrow streets, you'll find rare book dealers, small cafes that serve the residents, and small parks where locals and visitors go to relax.
Gamla Stan is also the site of the Nobel Museum, located in a 13th-century plaza. In conventional display cases, but also in movies and via a slow parade of overhead posters, this museum tells the stories of Alfred Nobel, who made his fortune by stabilizing nitroglycerin into what we call dynamite. It also addresses those who have been honored with his namesake prize in the categories of the sciences, the arts and peace. (All except the peace prize are handed out in Stockholm.) After learning about the laureates, have a staffer in the museum's small bistro show its new, but hidden, prizes: Laureates have begun signing the bottoms of the chairs when they visit the museum. Hanging above all is the chair signed by the Dalai Lama. (Open May through September, Wednesday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; October through April, Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Borshuset Stortorget, in Gamla Stan).
Less than two blocks from the Nobel Museum is the huge Royal Palace, the in-city residence of Sweden's monarchs. Tourists can stroll through the grand reception rooms, as well as museums displaying the crown jewels, armor and art. Take a spot in front of the Palace's curved, open courtyard at 11:45 a.m. each day to witness the changing of the guard at noon; the troops are preceded by a band, and sometimes the soldiers are on horseback. (Open January 2 through May 14, Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.; May 15 through September 16, daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; September 17 through December 30, Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. Kungliga Husgeradskammaren).
If you want to get an elevated view of Stockholm, you have several options. You can head to the residential island of Sodermalm via a cab or the 2 or 3 buses. Walk over to Fjallgatan Street and its terrass (terrace), which offers an elevated panorama of Stockholm's sights and waterways. Or, you can buy a ticket to Skyview, two 16-passenger, glass-walled gondolas that travel up the side of the world's largest spherical building, the Ericsson Globe arena. The ride lasts about 10 minutes in each direction. (Open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Globentorget 2).
The most-challenging option is to take the Historic Rooftop Tour, where you'll walk about 130 feet above the city, atop the former Parliament building. Up to 10 participants at a time don helmets and safety harnesses attached to a steel cable. The cable follows a 980-foot-long metal catwalk -- about a foot wide, lacks handrails and includes some stairs -- around the top of the building. For the next hour or so, the guide explains the view below and adds dollops of local history. The tour is offered several times a day, most of the year, including at twilight and during snow or rain; however, it does sell out quickly, so reserve your spot early whether you're booking independently through Upplev Mer or through a ship tour. (Birger Jarls Torg, Riddarholmen).
Do as the locals do, and step aboard sightseeing boats for a cruise through the archipelago, comprising an estimated 30,000 islands. Depending on the time of day, passengers can book a casual sit-down meal in the ship's dining room. Narration of the passing scene is in English. The cruises last from two to eight hours; if you have enough time, step off the outbound boat to stroll the hamlets on various islands, have a meal and a drink, then catch a later boat returning to Stockholm. Some cruises operate several times a day, year-round; some cease in late November and return in February. Boats leave from the downtown harbor, along Strandvagen street, berth No. 16.
City Hall (the Stadshuset) is one of Stockholm's top tourist attractions, with tours given in English and Swedish every day. Visitors come not to observe the 101-seat City Council in action but, rather, to admire the architecture and decor of the building, built in 1923 and designed as a romantic interpretation of an Italian villa. The big draws are the Blue and Golden Halls. The Blue Hall was designed to resemble the piazza of a villa; there is even a false balcony projecting from one wall and beneath it, a fountain. Every December, this vast room becomes the banquet hall for 1,300 guests celebrating the Nobel Prize honorees. (The awards are presented about a mile away.) After the banquet, dancing takes place in the spectacular Golden Hall -- its walls covered by 18-million tiny tiles of gold leaf pressed between sheets of clear glass. The walls are further decorated with heroic-size images of figures from actual history, mythology and religion.
A separate ticket is necessary if you want the view from City Hall's 322-foot-tall tower. An elevator takes you only part way up, however, and there are no viewing windows at that level. (Guided tours: June through August, daily, every 30 minutes from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; January through May and September through December, daily at 10 and 11 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. Hantverkargatan 1).
Been There, Done That
One of Stockholm's 14 islands, Djurgarden, is both a huge park (part of the Ekoparken that stretches more than six miles) and site of some of the city's most popular attractions. The Vasa Museum is there, as well as the eclectic Spiritmuseum & Absolut Art Collection (daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.), with its dozens of works commissioned for the state-owned vodka company's ads. Also on Djurgarden is a small zoo of Nordic animals, formal gardens, walking/biking paths, a former royal palace, a kids' park devoted to creations by the author of Pippi Longstocking, and a coaster-crazy amusement park.
Taking up the largest space on Djurgarden is Skansen (Djurgardsslatten 49), a collection of more than 150 authentic 19th- and early-20th-century structures gathered from around Sweden. They were taken there by a man who did not want to see progress obliterate remnants of the olden days. To do justice to Skansen and the other Djurgarden attractions, give the island a full day. You can take a ferry to Djurgarden from Gamla Stan, or hop on the No. 44 bus or No. 7 tram.
If you're looking for a different take on the city tour, Stockholm has several unique and themed tours to show you the city in a new way. The Stockholm City Museum offers two-hour, English language tours that trace the haunts of the music group ABBA or Stieg Larsson's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" series. You can also pick up a map with the route to tour on your own. Alternately, try a 1.5- to 2.5-hour Segway tour, offered by both Uppner Upplevelser and Daytrip Stockholm.
If you're interested in old coins, you'll find the three-story Royal Coin Cabinet, or Mint Museum, just across the street from the Royal Palace. Humans have used everything from bones to stones, metal and paper as currency, and you can see collections of coins and other items here. (Open daily 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Slottsbacken 6).
There probably are three constants in Swedish meals -- lingonberries, open-faced sandwiches and pickled herring. Expect to find the tart berries, or sauce made from them, next to or on top of numerous entrees and desserts. Herring is served marinated in onions, garlic, dill and mustard, and is typically accompanied by boiled potatoes and bread. As for the sandwiches on one thick slice of bread, expect the toppings to range from herring to shrimp -- a favorite -- to game like reindeer and boar.
Swedes love baked goods, especially during their coffee breaks. A colorful favorite is the princess cake: layers of sponge cake separated by jam, custard and whipped cream, topped with icing in brilliant colors.
For more than 30 years, the Vete Katten (literally, wheat cat) has drawn Stockholmers for their daily fike -- a ritualized coffee break. Vete Katten in central Stockholm is a bakery and cafe, offering multilayer, multiflavor cakes, sweet rolls (cinnamon, vanilla, almond, fruit, etc.), small sandwiches and salads. (Kungsgatan 55. Open Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.).
At the Ostermalmshallen (Food Hall) downtown, set in a vast but handsome building that opened in 1888, vendors still offer the freshest seafood, meat (including reindeer and moose), produce, cheese and chocolate. Locals also head there for its 10 restaurants and delis. (Open Monday through Thursday from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Try a museum cafe when you want a bite to eat in the middle of your sightseeing. A perfect spot to relax after visiting the Vasa Museum and its multiple floors of exhibits and viewpoints is its fairly large dining room. Freshly made sandwiches, salads, yogurt, a few hot entrees and desserts are served buffet-style; you can even get beer or wine. The fare is simple, but the waterfront view, indoors and out, makes it seem special.
Speaking of dining room panoramas, you can't do better than the Operakallaren, the restaurant in the grandiose Royal Swedish Opera House. The menu is haute cuisine: foie gras, fried quail, saddle of venison. It all comes with a view of the busy harbor. (Open Tuesday through Saturday, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Royal Opera House, Jacobs Square 2).
Prinsen lacks such views; now in its second century, the restaurant is on a side street off a commercial boulevard. But contemporary prints, rich wood furnishings and leather chairs lend a clubby air, and its menu offers traditional Swedish fare, such as bigg rydberg (cubes of filet, onions and potatoes) or five kinds of herring, served with potatoes and cheese. (Open Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Master Samuelsgatan 4).
The island of Sodermalm was once a working-class residential area, and a few remnants of those times still remain. Among them is Pelikan, an understated restaurant that specializes in old-time Swedish cuisine and a variety of beers. This is a prime spot to taste meatballs in cream sauce (a Swedish tradition), fried herring, and potato dumplings stuffed with wild mushrooms and served with -- what else? -- lingonberries. (Open Monday through Thursday from 4 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m., and Sunday from 1 p.m. to midnight. Blekingegatan 40).
Shopping in Gamla Stan is fabulous. The main commercial street is Vasterlanggatan, where you'll find a lot of tourist fare and funky boutiques. But the most interesting shops -- for travelers looking for beautifully made, original crafts ranging from clothing to ceramics -- tend to be located along Osterlanggatan. Downtown, the shopping scene is primarily along Drottninggatan, which is pedestrian-only in many places. Highlights: If you're looking for Swedish-designed products, check out Svenskt Hantverk (Kungsgatan 55) and the department store NK (Hamngatan 18 - 20); both have fabulous selections of exquisite handicrafts and crystal.
Staying in Touch
Many T-bana (shorthand for the subway) stations include Internet cafes, as do the Arlanda Airport and numerous 7-Eleven stores. An international Internet cafe company widely present in Stockholm is Sidewalk Express. You can find Internet cafes at the Stockholm Visitors Board (Vasagatan 14), the Pressbyran Radhuset (Court House) T-bana station and Cafe Intenet Access, in the basement of Kulturhuset (a community cultural center at Sergels Torg).
The Splurge: For nearly 140 years, the Grand Hotel Stockholm has been home to visiting royalty -- real kings and queens, as well as pop culture stars and Nobel Prize winners.
Middle of the Road: The eco-conscious Scandic Norra Bantorget offers special rates for rooms for teens accompanying their parents, has free Wi-Fi and lends walking poles and bikes to its guests. It's especially close to shopping and the Central train station and bus depot.
On a Shoestring: Formerly an apartment building, the Hotel Gustav Vasa now offers 47 rooms with lots of natural light, wood floors and Wi-Fi. Some rooms have fireplaces. It's located near the central business district, but some rooms view the classic Gustav Wasa Church across the street.
Flock Together: Some cruise lines place their passengers who are arriving early or staying over in Stockholm in the wonderfully situated Sheraton Stockholm. It's two blocks from City Hall and the Central train and bus stations, one block from a bus stop for popular routes and a 10-minute stroll from Gamla Stan.
Best For First-Timers: Usually paired with one or two other sites, most every cruise line offers a tour of the City Hall, Gamla Stan and either the Royal Palace or the Nobel Museum. If you also book a canal or archipelago boat tour, you will have seen all the city highlights.
Best for Burning Some Energy: A 6.5-mile, 3-hour cycling tour in Djurgarden lets you get some fresh air while learning about this beautiful recreation area, once the private hunting grounds of the royal family. If biking isn't your thing, look for walking or kayaking tours in Haga Park or golf outings instead.
Best for Chilling Out: The three-hour "Ice Bar and Old Town" tour pairs a one-drink stop at the unusual Ice Bar -- temperature is kept at 23 degrees -- with a walking tour through Gamla Stan, where you can break away for a cafe meal. At the bar, you'll receive a warm coat and mittens to borrow to keep you toasty while you drink from a glass made of ice.
Best for a Unique View: For something completely different, book a three-hour roof tour. You'll put on safety harnesses and walk along the rooftops of Riddarholmen. The tour continues on terra firma with a tour of Gamla Stan and the Royal Palace.
For More Information
On the Web: Stockholm Visitors Board or VisitSweden
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Northern Europe & Baltics
The Independent Traveler: Scandinavia
--by Robert N. Jenkins, Cruise Critic contributor