Stockholm City Guide: 15 Must-See Sites in the Heart of Scandinavia
This year’s World Happiness Report just came out and, once again, all the Nordic countries are at the top of the list. The one I haven’t been to yet is Sweden, so I called up Eric Wall, an American artist living in Stockholm, to get his advice on the best things to see and do in Sweden’s capital city.
Subscribe to the Postcard Academy podcast to hear my whole conversation with Eric, including the Swedish baked goods you must try, and other ideas to make your trip to Stockholm a great one.
What is Scandinavia and why is Stockholm the capital?
Stockholm is the capital of both Sweden and Scandinavia — but what is this? Similar to the confusion around what countries are part of Great Britain, people often think Nordic countries like Finland and Iceland are included in Scandinavia, which is actually made up of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.
“Culturally they have a lot of similarities,” Eric says. “They’re bound by a longer history and almost a shared language group.” Then, of course, there’s the Scandi aesthetic, known for being clean and minimalistic. This summer, the Financial Times ran an article: Have We Hit Peak Scandi?
Stockholm is the largest city in the region, has a thriving business and cultural scene, and also launched a kick-ass marketing campaign declaring itself the capital of Scandinavia.
What to see in Stockholm
The old town. Stockholm is actually made up of 14 islands. Its old town, Gamla Stan, dates back to 1252 and is one of Europe’s best preserved medieval historic centers. It was pretty much a slum until the 1900s but today this gorgeous neighborhood is a popular tourist destination. “You can get lost on these old cobblestone streets,” Eric says. “I would highly recommend doing the ghost tour there. It’s a great way to learn the history of Sweden and Denmark and Norway, the way the countries have battled and the borders have shifted over the years.”
Vasa Museum. History lovers will love this museum, built around a ship that sunk in the 1600s and was recovered centuries later, mostly intact. “It was a warship because there's a whole bunch of cannons on it, but it was poorly designed and made it about two kilometers or so from port and it sunk. It’s a little bizarre to think that a whole museum is built around one object, but you get to walk onto the ship, you get to see and touch the old wood they salvaged.”
Skansen Open-Air Museum. Located next to the Vasa Museum, this open-air museum “sits on top of a big hill, so you get great views of the city. But then they've also transported all these buildings from Scandinavia to Skansen to recreate” what life was like before the industrial revolution. “There’s a great bakery in one of them where they bake lot of Swedish baked goods the same way that they would have been baked at that time period.”
Abba The Museum. An interactive shrine dedicated to Sweden’s most famous band. This is one of Stockholm’s most popular museums.
Royal Dramatic Theatre. You can tour this gorgeous national theater, which dates back to 1788. “If you’re coming from like the city center, you can actually go by this theater and then continue along this road called Strandvägen, which runs parallel to the really wealthy neighborhood, which has beautiful architecture and overlooks the Gamla Stan, the old town. Walk for about a kilometer and a half, and that's then where you can come to the island where there’s the Vasa Museum, Skansen, and the Abba Museum.”
Royal Palace. Gamla Stan is home to the Royal Palace — yes, Sweden has a royal family and you can visit the palace, one of the biggest in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Drottningholm Palace. While the Royal Palace offers the changing of the guards and all of that pomp and circumstance, Eric recommends Drottningholm as the more beautiful palace to visit and compared its lawns to Versailles.
Moderna Museet. “The focus of the collection is on modern and contemporary art, with artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Marcel Duchamp. Andy Warhol actually had his first European exhibition at that museum.”
Museum of Photography. “It's absolutely beautiful to see a great exhibition, but they actually have a great restaurant/cafeteria and events in the evening.”
Subway art. Stockholm’s subway system is said to be the longest art gallery in the world. You’ll find painted ceilings, quirky sculptures, and historical artifacts. The subway stop Kungsträdgården, which is also the name of a park in the city center used to have a palace above it, “and they have the old doors from the palace inside the train station. If you want to see public art, go through the train lines.”
Nobel Museum. Fun fact: According to Eric, the Nobel Prize is named after Alfred Nobel, the guy who invented dynamite to help Stockholm build on top of all its rock. “So when you are in a majority of the train stations, you get the exposed rock everywhere because it was blasted out. And so a lot of these subway paintings are on these undulating and non-even ceilings and walls, so it's kind of like walking through caves.”
Royal Ballet. You can watch them dance most of the year, but catch a special show in summer when they perform in one of Stockholm’s outdoor theaters. Eric says this open-air entertainment is a great way to take in Stockholm’s best cultural offerings for free.
Parks. Swedes value their green space, and each park has its own personality, according to Eric. In Humlegården, you’ll find an old library and beautiful trees that kids love to run around. In Hagaparken, you’ll find “expansive lawns, where you can really get out into nature without actually going out into nature. It butts up to the water, so you get nice views over the lakes, and then they also have a couple of palaces because the royal family has homes in that park, as well.”
Monteliusvägen. Island hopping is a great way to spend the day in Stockholm. For the best view, there is an area called Mariahissen on the island of Södermalm. “That's where the hipster trendy area is,” Eric says, but if you follow the Monteliusvägen footpath, which is often not on maps, “you’ll never see tourists there. It's a little dirt path that overlooks the whole city next to a church. So you're sitting at, like, the rooftop of a church overlooking the city and a cliff down into the water.”
How does tipping work in Stockholm?
The tax and tip is already included in the price of everything, which should make you feel a little better about spending 9 euro on a beer.
What currency do they use in Stockholm?
While part of the E.U., Swedes rejected the euro and kept the Swedish krona. Sweden is largely a cashless society, so be prepared to pay for everything by card (don’t forget to inform your bank/credit card company you’ll be traveling here). Make sure you keep some cash on hand to pay for bathrooms — even if you’re a paying customer in a place.
Famous Swedish brands
Spotify, H&M, IKEA, Ericsson, Volvo
Why are the Swedes so happy?
Quality of life. Swedish people get out into nature, take proper lunch breaks, and are encouraged to take parental leave to care for and bond with their children. In HSBC’s annual Expat Explorer survey, Sweden is ranked 8th-best place to live for expats.
Best time of year to visit Stockholm?
Summer. You’ll enjoy longer days, nice weather, and plenty of festivals. “It's very very colorful,” Eric says, “One thing that I’ve never experienced is the amount of wildflowers everywhere, and that that includes in the center of the city.”
If you found this article useful, please share it, and subscribe to the Postcard Academy podcast. Each week, expats and adventurers share their insider travel tips on the best food, nightlife, and cultural experiences in the most interesting places around the globe. I’m your host, Sarah Mikutel, an American who's spent the last 8 years living in, and traveling around, Europe.