The original capital of Sweden was located at Sigtuna northwest of present-day Stockholm. A massive fire destroyed Sigtuna in 1187, and the decision was taken to rebuild at a different location. As the story goes, the city leaders put all their funds into a hollow log and set it adrift, vowing to begin again where ever the log was washed ashore. By 1250 a trade treaty was signed with the Hanseatic port of Lübeck and the city flourished at its new location. The grand Tre Kronor (three crowns) castle was constructed at the highest point of an island near the harbour.
The Kungliga Slottet (new palace) was constructed on the ruins of the Tre Kronor after it burnt to the ground in the 17th century. Today, the Royal Palace is considered to be the largest in the world, a palace still being used for its original purpose. The palace stands at the northern end of the island often referred to as ‘Gamla Stan’, the Old Town.
Sweden’s famed neutrality during both the First and the Second World Wars meant that Stockholm came through this period relatively intact. Visitors are quick to agree that the oldest part of Stockholm is indeed its most beautiful. This is not always the case in other parts of Europe. The labyrinthine streets remain, as narrow and as colourful as they ever were, and here and there old-world cafés welcome the weary and the people-watchers on atmospheric squares.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
Our long walk into Stockholm from our friend’s apartment didn’t allow us time to explore the oldest part of the city. We had admired the beauty of the architecture in the diplomatic quarter, the leafy green beauty of Bumblebee Park and the sights and smells of Östermalms Saluhall, Stockholm’s historic gourmet food market. Donghee took us through the modern streets just east of the train station, and I have to say I was a little dismayed at its appearance at dusk on a cloudy day.
For that reason, I wasn’t expecting to find Stockholm too interesting when we headed into the city to explore with my sister Donna. We decided to take the metro to the Södermalm, the island directly south of Gamla Stan. The land rises sharply there and the streets along the escarpment provide great views over the waterways below and the old town beyond.
I maintain a habit of not looking, in advance, at photos of places I plan to visit. I want to be surprised by what I see, as if I’m discovering a well-kept secret. Street maps help me navigate, and the Lonely Planet guidebooks have few photos on their pages. For that reason, I was unprepared for the striking beauty of the old town stretched out before us. It was nothing like I expected to see, and I could hardly wait to finish walking through the cobbled streets of Södermalm, so that I could cross the bridge and enter the exceedingly narrow streets of Gamla Stan.
There is surprisingly much to see and do in this tiny portion of Stockholm, and again and again I was thankful that we had chosen late September for our visit. The shops along the winding main pedestrian thoroughfare were still open, filled to bursting with tourist souvenirs, but the streets were relatively empty and it was easy to move around and take photographs of the tall narrow buildings.
Over the course of our remaining days, we returned again and again to this part of the city. We even managed to squeeze in an evening walking tour to get some more details on Gamla Stan’s history and folklore. I suppose it’s better to leave a city feeling that you haven’t quite seen it all, much better than finding there isn’t enough to fill the days allotted, however, I came away already wondering how we could squeeze in another trip to Stockholm in our travel plans. As I mentioned before, it would be wonderful to return, not only to see more of the city and the surrounding countryside, but to see it in the springtime when the city is just waking up from a long northern winter.