Sites to see in Stockholm (via Iceland)

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Saul Schwartz

In Stockholm’s bustling square (Stortorget), the city’s oldest, the popular Kaffekoppen café sits across from the Nobel Museum. Eating outside at cafés like this offers an opportunity for people-watching and listening to live street music.
Photo by CDRIM | shutterstock.com

Last fall, Iceland-based Wow Airlines initiated its new route from BWI to Stockholm, Sweden, through Reykjavik, Iceland.

With fares beginning at just over $200 each way, I declared to my wife, “Wow! How can we pass this up?” At such low fares, we did have to pay extra for all drinks, food and entertainment in flight. While fares are somewhat higher now, the Wow stopover option allows for a stay of several days in Iceland before continuing on to Stockholm without an additional fee.

It wasn’t our first time flying Wow. When they offered flights from BWI to Iceland in fall 2015, we jumped on promotional airfares at the time of $99 each way.

We quickly became fans of the quirky budget carrier with its new fleet of purple, medium-sized aircraft, staffed by friendly and perky purple-clad crew. The aircraft and its comfortable seats are marked by silly sayings like “cool kids sit in the back.”

Here are our impressions of Stockholm, and suggestions for making your trip a success.

Planning your trip

Prior to our trip, we purchased the five-day Stockholm Pass, a sightseeing package that provides free admission to approximately 60 major attractions, museums and tours. The pass is also available for shorter visits, with one, two, and three-day versions. The five-day adult pass cost us about $135 each, but it periodically goes on sale at 10 percent off.

If you intend to see a large number of sites, the city pass is a great value. We enjoyed the pass’s inclusion of unlimited hopping on and off the 24 stops of the sightseeing bus each day. The pass can also be purchased in-person in Stockholm. For more information, visit www.stockholmpass.com.

Our hotel was also a major highlight on the trip. The Hilton Slussen really enhanced our visit. Located on the island of Sodermalm, the Hilton is situated directly across from Old Town (Gamla Stan) — providing dramatic day and night views of the city’s beautiful medieval architecture and the mighty city hall (the Stadshuset) on the island of Kungsholmen.

While we’re on the subject, touring Stadshuset was also a treat. This striking brick building with its massive tower and internal courtyards is a landmark that contributes to Stockholm’s impressive skyline. 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, a 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.

We were lucky that the Hilton Slussen’s location provided such easy access to this and many other memorable sites by public transportation and by foot.

By European standards, the hotel’s rooms are very decently sized. Our daily rate included an extensive breakfast buffet with hot and cold offerings, as well as evening appetizers in the executive lounge. For more information on our hotel, visit www.hilton.com/stockholm.

If you’re looking for a good guidebook to help your plan out your days, I recommend the Lonely Planet Pocket Stockholm. We took it everywhere. The neighborhood-by-neighborhood layout focused on top sights, and the maps were easy to follow.

Sites not to miss

Changing of the guard at the Royal Palace (Kunglia Slottet). With over 600 rooms, the Royal Palace dominates Old Town. It is the world’s largest royal castle still used as a home to royalty and as a working government building.

Most days, if you’re at the outer courtyard at 12:15 p.m., you can view the elaborate changing of the guard ritual. This is a magnificent and dramatic ceremony, full of pomp and circumstance.

We also toured several portions of the palace open to the public, including the royal chapel and the royal apartments.

Boat tours. Stockholm covers 14 islands, with bridges everywhere. Lake Malaren in the West gives way to the Baltic Sea in the East. For this reason, Stockholm is often called “the Venice of the north.” We really enjoyed getting on the water to fully experience the area.

Taking the three-hour boat tour to the Archipelago provided us with a scenic ride as we wandered among 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.

 


Stockholm’s Drottningholm Palace, summer home for royalty, is often compared to France’s Versailles.
Photo by ESTCA | shutterstock.com

Drottningholm Palace (Slott).We traveled one hour by boat to the island of Lovon, where the summer residence for generations of Swedish royalty families sits. 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 those at Versailles.

 

The gardens, located behind the striking Renaissance-style palace, contain sculptures and immaculately manicured greenery. We also enjoyed lunch on the palace grounds at a café.

Eating lunch al fresco at Kaffekoppen. Speaking of lunch, set in the heart of the old town’s main and oldest square (Stortorget), we twice enjoyed lunch at Kaffekoppen, a café on the outside terrace across from the Nobel Museum.

The lunch portions were large, fresh, tasty and reasonably priced. As an added bonus, the terrace is perfect for people-watching, and live street music played in the background.

The café is set in a 15th century building painted a bright red. The building’s exterior walls feature 82 white stones honoring the members of the Swedish nobility and clergy who were killed by the Danish King Christian II in the square in November 1520. For more information on the café, visit www.cafekoppen.se.

Djurgarden. Once a royal hunting ground, this island connects to the center city by bridge. The setting is a green park-like oasis — like a smaller version of New York’s Central Park.

To get around more easily, we rented three-speed bikes through Stockholm City Bikes at a stand located just behind the ABBA Museum (yes, a museum dedicated to the singing group). The rental was inexpensive; about $17 for a three-day card. We wandered around quiet trails and roads, passing by herons, goats, gardens, various bodies of water and a variety of museums.

Like Washington D.C., Stockholm is a city of museums, mainly situated at the entrance of Djurgarden. Daily English-language tours are informative and enlightening.

Our favorites were the Vasa Museum (Vasamuseet), which was literally built around a massive salvaged ship. The ship (basically Sweden’s Titanic) had sunk in Stockholm harbor within minutes of setting sail on its maiden voyage in the 17th century.

Visiting the ABBA Museum was simply pure fun. It was an entertaining tribute to the best known Swedish rock group, complete with costume displays and videos.

The Nordic Museum (Nordiska Museet) was mostly enjoyable for the building itself, design as an enormous Nordic castle with a massive indoor space. We also learned how the cultural phenomenon that has come to be known as  “all things Swedish” was initiated as the passion of one man, founder of the Nordic Museum Artur Hazelius.

The photography museum (Fotografiska) in Sodermalm is housed in a converted customs hall. It showcases four different exhibits, including one of celebrities shot by Canadian singer Bryan Adams. The museum is open late into the evening, as its top level holds a lively bar and café where locals like to party the night away.

The Nobel Museum was also worth visiting. It focuses on the history of past Nobel Prize recipients and their discoveries, as well as on Alfred Nobel, whose wealth came from his discovery of dynamite. The café there includes chairs signed by Nobel awardees, including Presidents Clinton and Obama.

Cathedrals. In the old town, right next to the Royal Palace, stands the 13th century gothic cathedral Strorkyrkan. It contains dramatic sculptures, medieval paintings, high ceilings with bells, and the pews that have long been used for royal weddings and coronations.

We were particularly impressed with the life-size wood sculpture of St. George and the Dragon, 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 royals. The church contains the majestic underground crypts of Sweden’s kings, queens and their families.

The Ice Bar. Just as you have to visit the Blue Lagoon while in Reykjavik, Iceland, a trip to the Ice Bar in Stockholm is a must. The Ice Bar is located within the Nordic C Hotel, in the city center.

Created by the Ice Hotel in northern Sweden, the Ice Bar is a creation made entirely from ice, containing ice etchings and sculptures of Nordic creatures. It’s perfect for photo ops.

Visitors can borrow parkas with hoods and thick gloves to keep warm while inside the bar. Admission includes one drink in a shot glass made of ice! The 45-minute experience was a little tacky, but also quite cool.

Walking tour of the old town. Starting from the tourist center, the daily English-language tour of Old Town guided us along its charming cobblestone streets. The narrow streets wind along their 14th century lines. One lane (Marten Trotzigs Grand) is less than a meter wide!

For the history buff, the guide told us 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. 

Things we missed

Unfortunately, as with any trip, you can’t see everything in one visit. 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. It’s an impressive building, whose exterior features a large menorah, a holocaust memorial plaque, and a dramatic sculpture of the lifting of the Torah.

The synagogue is only open to the public for Shabbat services on Friday evening and Saturday morning. While Stockholm has the largest Jewish population in Sweden, there are only about 20,000 Jews in the whole country. The synagogue is worth a visit.

Not far from the old town, we also repeatedly passed by the large Swedish Parliament Buildings (Riksdagshuset), but were not able to tour because the buildings were only open for a short period on one weekend day that we were there. Another missed opportunity for us.

Overall, Stockholm is a wonderful destination. The fall weather was surprisingly pleasant during our trip. Stockholm is one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals. We had a tremendous adventure. In one week, we covered almost all of the major sites — and we hope to be back for more.

Facts to know

The currency is easy to convert, with ten Swedish krona being worth approximately one U.S. dollar.

Though 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. We were too busy inside the city limits.

The central train and bus station, aptly-named Centralstationen, is indeed in the city center, and connections are easy to a vast public transportation system, including trams, buses and the metro system — called Tunnelbana.

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. In fact, throughout the week we found local Swedes quite willing to talk to us in English.

Current rates on Wow Airlines are still low during the summer and early fall. Flights departing from BWI begin at $219.99 one way July through October, though they do bump up later in the season, with higher rates of $449.99 beginning in November. For more information about the airline, visit www.wowair.com.

By comparison, Iceland Air has flights from Reagan National Airport in Washington that start at $468 each way in early August.