Weekend guide to Stockholm: Sweden's charming, historic, regal capital on the Baltic Sea

Situated on Sweden's east coast, Stockholm is a city of islands perforated and interconnected by canals that ultimately flow to the Baltic Sea. Its maritime informs its aesthetic, a city whose urban geography reflects its national flag: brightly colored buildings atop a sea of beautiful blue. It's a gem of a European capital, ever as charming, historic, and regal as those to the south; cool in May, and connected to the sea as few others are. This is our weekend guide.

Moving About

Center your bearings in Gamla Stan, the city's old town, situated at the approximate center of the city. Much of what you'll care to visit is nearby.  Catch the train at Stockholm's Central Station in the Norrmalm neighborhood just north of Gamla Stan, where you'll find a downtown feel featuring great walking and shopping. Catch any of the Stockholm Metro's green, blue, or red subway lines from here, as well as the SJ inter-city train service to destinations elsewhere in Sweden, and the Arlanda Express train with direct twenty-minute service to Stocholm-Arlanda Airport (ARN). Uber is also quite a viable option, at least as of May 2017.

ARN features four terminals numbered two through five, and serves as a hub for Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) and Norwegian Air Shuttle. The growing presence of low-cost long haul carrier Norwegian is opening up new connections to the United States, with direct service now from Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, New York - JFK, Oakland, and Las Vegas. You'll otherwise find direct service aboard SAS -- a Star Alliance member partnered with the likes of United Airlines and Germany's Lufthansa -- to Chicago, Los Angeles, Newark, and Miami. The airport is well connected throughout Europe and around the Northern Hemisphere, though its northerly latitude makes it a more involved chain of connections for visitors from the Southern Hemisphere.

Keeping Occupied

Stockholm deserves a place atop the bucket list of all the world's museum lovers. I don't happen to be such a lover, but I've great admiration for the excellent presentation of history you'll find in notables such as the Vasamuseet and Nordiska Museet.

  • Wear out your shoes meandering through the narrow stone streets, small shops, and restaurants of Gamla Stan. This part of town shares its lineage with other old towns throughout Europe, and is recognizable for its colored buildings and close proximity to worthy sites such as the Storkyrkan Cathedral, Palace, and Riksdag (Parliament House).
  • Visit a brick gothic cathedral, Storkyrkan, the likes of which those more familiar with the cathedral's of southern Europe have never seen. Modern Sweden is known for its population's regularly low participation in organized religion, but this monument to the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden features architecturally exquisite brick work that is not be missed.
  • Self-guide your way through a tour of Kungliga Slottet, the Royal Palace. While its designation as the official residence of the King of Sweden is misleading (he and Queen Silvia actually reside outside of town at Drottningholm Palace), the palace located in Gamla Stan is an architecturally extraordinary that shares clear design lineage with other current and former European royal residences such as Buckingham Palace, Palacio Real, and Versailles (all the cool kings were building them).
  • Join a guided tour of the Riksdag, Sweden's parliament house. I always try to visit the physical seat of government in any capital I visit, because I think one can learn so much about a society's self-conception from the way they fashion their halls of power. This tour lasts about an hour, and is not to be missed. Just be sure to plan in advance your attendance at either a Swedish or English language tour, and arrive early! These folks are irrepressibly prompt, and sticklers for the rules (you don't get to go on the Swedish language tour if you don't speak Swedish). More here.
  • Spend ample time exploring the Nordiska Museet (and the Vasamuseet next door). Nordiska is a true masterpiece of a historic museum, making Sweden's historic and cultural legacy so accessible through a series of thoughtful exhibits and centuries of artifacts. The Vasa Museum next door features the extremely well preserved 15th-century warship Vasa, a topic that Swedes approach with a degree of self-defacing humor given that this prized (and, for the time, immensely powerful) vessel of King Gustavus Adolphus managed to find itself on the bottom of Stockholm's harbor just minutes after its maiden voyage began.
  • Board a boat for a canal tour for a view of the city as it seems meant to be seen: from the waterfront. Your voyage begins at the dock near the Grand Hotel, and can continue anywhere from 50 minutes to several hours. We found ourselves perfectly well satisfied after the 50-minute Historical Canal Tour, though. More here.

Dining Well

Start with a drink at the Stockholm Grand Hotel. You could also decide to stay here, but the nightly room expense might frighten you away as it did us. The place is quite a landmark, though, so take it in with a drink (or a meal) at one of its many restaurants. Explore a bit first before you commit to just one.

You'll pay yourself such a disservice if you don't make a reservation and spend a full evening at 19 Glas, a wine bar in the heart of Gamla Stan. I've accounted an entire multi-course wine pairing dinner there in a previous post. Don't miss this.

The buildings are each their own hue of yellow, orange, or red as we walk up the narrow stone streets into Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town on a small island in the heart of the Swedish capital. It is eight o’clock in the evening, but the rooftops throw shadows upon the ground from the nearly-midnight sun overhead in late May as we turn the corner down from the cathedral and step through the door at Stora Nygatan 19, the aptly named — and quite delicious — 19 Glas restaurant and wine bar.
— My previous account of 19 Glas

Further reading: Stockholm's 19 Glas wine bar fuses brilliant dishes with inspired wine pairings in Sweden's capital

We're avid fans of dining at places found while you walk, and were thrilled with our dinner at Gamla Stan's Magnus Ladulås, found on such a walk one evening. The restaurant offers a rustic feel, and served our obligatory helping of Swedish meatballs (they were better than the ones I make at home, but not by much).

Hitting the Pillow

The Grand Hotel being too rich for our blood, we found on a great Airbnb on Kungstensgatan in the aforementioned Norrmalm neighborhood. We were able to walk to everything from there (including the train station for our ultimate comings and goings). Seek the same.

Further reading: I've never used Airbnb. Should I? How does it work? How do I find one that's best for me?

Final Thoughts