Cruising to Stockholm? Make the most of your short time in one of Europe’s great cities. And bring your sweet tooth.
It’s madness, of course, to visit one of the world’s most beautiful cities in a single day. It’s pure cruelty, in fact, to drop anchor at the doorstep of one of the world’s most civilized cultures only to call “all-aboard” a few short hours later. But such is the lot of those who choose to cruise, and eight hours in Stockholm, I’m here to tell you, are better then ten days in a heck of a lot of places. So take a good deep breath of that pure, brisk Nordic air and walk down the gangway. You’ve got some touring to do.
The good news, for starters, is that the journey is almost as much fun as the arrival. We travellers are always saying that, of course, but here you’ve got a real bonus: the Stockholm Archipelago. Before docking, your ship will spend several hours traveling through an exquisite and seemingly endless chain of islands—Stockholm itself is spread across several of them—and you’ll want to get up early and head to the open-air decks to take in the views. The outer islands are quite wild, and the shimmering silver birches and Scotch pines give you an idea of what northern Europe must have looked like to the Vikings. As you get closer to the big city, you’ll see beautiful homes and cottages on each island; some of these are quite old and beautifully maintained. Swedish law protects the rights of citizens to walk here, even on private land, as long as they do so respectfully.
Arriving, you should know that Stockholm has two cruise terminals, some distance apart, on either the north or south side of the old part of town. I have visited several times, and nobody ever seemed to know beforehand at which port we were docking. However, the larger the ship, the more likely you are to dock at the northern (and more remote) one. Both have excellent transportation to the most-visited districts, though, and you should have no trouble getting around.
Where to go first? Well, if it’s your first time in town, you must see Gamla stan (Old Town), on Stockholm’s central island, Stadsholmen. Try to get there early if you can, and take some time to just stroll around and get your bearings. I was surprised, on my first visit, at how warmly and brightly coloured the buildings of Stockholm are. I guess I was picturing some bleak black-and-white Nordic austerity, and I wasn’t expecting the city’s traditional colours to be rich corals and brick reds and pinks. And if you have a keen eye you might spot some Viking runes carved into some of the very old cornerstones of the buildings.
The changing of the palace guard is a spectacle well worth waiting for, but keep in mind that this central quarter will soon be full, and I mean mad full, of tourists. Smart visitors will take their leave and head to a less-busy spot. Consider, for starters, the National Museum. If your time is limited, head straight to the design galleries and start in the late 19th century. If you have any interest at all in Scandinavian modernism, this small but rich collection will take you back to its origins and lead you forward through some of the most toothsome examples of Nordic industrial design you’ll ever see. I really love it when museums provide hand-held guides; here these are in the form of simple plastic cards that you pick up and drop off as you move through the rooms.
If you’re looking for something a little off the beaten path, consider making your way south to the Södermalm district. While this neighbourhood is home to virtually no tourist attractions, it’s really worth a visit; this is the real Stockholm. Södermalm is home to young professionals, hipsters of all kinds, and Sweden’s famous stroller-dads (the nation has very generous paternal leave provisions.) The Södermalm was also, incidentally, home to Lisbeth Salander, the fictional protagonist of the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series, and it’s fun to wander here and see it all through the character’s eyes.
Wander deeper into the narrow residential streets of Södermalm and take in an odd and very old neighbourhood of tiny wooden homes and beautiful gardens, crammed cheek-by-jowl onto a rampart overlooking the rest of town. These odd buildings fail to meet many of the city’s own codes, but have been grandfathered into Stockholm’s infrastructure due to their remarkable heritage values.
Are you hungry yet? Because all of the above was simply a way of working up an appetite for Stockholm’s principal attraction: kardemummabullar and coffee. Oh, sweet Odin, they are fantastic. Sweden, you may not have realized, is the ancestral home of the cinnamon roll. (Who knew?) You can find them in most coffee shops, but I suggest you eschew these for a moment and choose their exotic cousin, the kardemummabullar or cardamom bun. Cardamom is one of the world’s under-appreciated spices, in my opinion, and the Swedes pay it the respect it deserves. Combined with sugar, bread dough and butter, it makes for an unforgettable and uniquely Swedish experience. Get them in the morning while they’re fresh, and combine them with the strong coffee that the Swedes can’t seem to drink enough of. (The Valhallabageriet, a tiny hole-in-the-wall bake shop, makes a cardamom bun that will elevate you to another plane of existence. You think I’m exaggerating.)
Re-energized and suitably re-caffeinated? There’s another attraction I can’t recommend enough: the Vasamuseet. It doesn’t sound like much on paper—an entire museum devoted to one ship? But trust me, it’s amazing. The Vasa was a giant, beautiful, state-of-the-art galleon that sunk unceremoniously on its maiden voyage not a stone’s throw out of port (likely not the shipbuilder’s finest hour.) Preserved in the Baltic’s brackish waters, it was resurrected and restored and now resides inside a giant, cavernous centre built around it to showcase it perfectly. It really is fascinating to see the everyday items that could be found on a ship at the time, and to piece together the reasons for its sinking. Vasamuseet itself is in the Djurgården, a district beloved by the locals for its open spaces and recreational attractions. Plan to spend a little time wandering around. The Scandinavians cherish their long summer days, knowing of course that the long, long winter nights are not far around the corner.
Eight hours in a great town go by so quickly, and part of the secret to cruising is simply accepting that you can’t see it all. Take mental note of all the great spots you’re not going to explore: the city hall, the shopping street Drottninggatan, the library… Bid them a fond farewell, make your way back to the ship, and promise yourself you’ll catch them next time. The kardemummabullar will be waiting for you.