There are not many cities in the world that just ooze convenience. Everything is right where it needs to be, processes work perfectly and all the infrastructure is world class…in some ways Japan without the crowds. The first example of this is actually about getting from the airport to the city. You take an elevator one floor down from the baggage claim, it opens onto the train platform and then in 20 minute the train drops you to a platform that just opens into a sidewalk right downtown. With some planning and a little luck, my hotel was 200 meters from there. The famous downtown icebar was very near and so was a stop for the hop on hop off.
A small sign outside the hotel read – no cash accepted. It then took me a while to realize that all the cash I boldly withdrew from an ATM at the airport will actually be hard to spend. The hotdog vendor on the street happily took my Amex but would frown at cash.
The first place I look forward to in any European city is the old town, with the usual colorful buildings, cobbled streets, small souvenir shops, delightful cafes and street artists – what more does one need in life? Maybe a little wine – that too was available. The Gamla Stan or the old town was a 20 minute walk from the hotel across from the royal palace. There is a lot of history associated with the city and its old town. It is an 800 year old city, established to protect the country from naval invasions and acts like a cork on the bottle shaped inlet into its fresh water lakes. The city has evolved a lot in recent times, including the controversial modernization of its city centre where over 700 historic structures were torn down to build a state of the art downtown, with a world class transportation system built in. The old town and some of the other districts were spared but upgrades are now in progress to keep the city at the top level of infrastructure it has boasted off.
After a quick orientation round of the city in a Hop-on Hop-off bus, the first stop was of course the Gamla Stan. The roads are narrow and the houses are a little tilted, but to make up for its small size, it is right on the water, giving for beautiful views and stunning photo opportunities. The souvenirs are quite expensive, but pretty looking and the food is quite good, though mostly Italian. Other than the legendary Swedish meatballs, the country has pretty much adapted pizza and pasta to be their national dishes. Spanish Tapas were the other commonly found cuisine and was usually quite good. We managed a quick boat trip around the Gamla Stan and then spent a lot of time walking around. A typical feature of the old town square – the church was not as grand as you will find in some of the other cities like Prague but it still had quite impressive interiors.
The one legendary place close by was the Grand Hotel, the original home of the Nobel Prize ceremony. While the ceremony has moved to a larger theatre, the winners still stay here before the event and there are still traditions and legends associated with it. It is surrounded by a number of other impressive buildings that make for a nice walk around are by the water.
One of the most impressive thing about the city were its museums – they were far more interactive and accessible than most we have seen before. Usually I would pick one or two that displayed the most impressive art, but this time we chose three that were the most unique in their presentation. The Vasa Museum showcasing a sunk ship recovered from the ocean floor was the first. Right next to it was a very interesting museum of spirits and finally the Skansen, which was more an experience than a museum. The Nordic Museum and the ABBA museum are both in the vicinity too, but we ran out of time. There is also an amusement park in the area with some scary looking rides that were visible from far away.
The Skansen was the most amazing of them all – it was a view into Swedish life a hundred years ago. There were huts, small barns and an open zoo with domestic animals just walking around you. There were also some reindeer, but they were separated from the visitors by a fence. The area was actually massive, so big that there are a couple of trains inside to help you move from one part to other. The first of them you see right at one of the entrance to take you up the small hill on with most of the museum is located. We also saw a small group play some local music to a small but dancing crowd. There was a walrus feeding show which was quite fun to watch. The local food in its cafes was delicious and included burgers, pancakes and pasta. In about half a day that we spent there, we probably saw less than half of the total area – we missed an aquarium, several animal enclosures and many other attractions but still came away super happy and satisfied.
The museum of spirit was a very creative way to showcase such a fun topic. It showed the evolution of booze in the country with examples, stories, experiences and quizzes. One of the most amazing this was that they had most of the alcohol they were talking off available to smell, so there was some degree of association. Tasting would have been nicer, though that might not be practical with rare vintages from decades ago. There was a room where the experience of a hangover a simulated and various bar replicas with quizzes and poems about drinking. Right at the exit was some cider tasting with local producers putting up stalls. It was a little on the pricey side, but quite and experience.
The Vasa museum was closer to a traditional museum but with an interesting exhibit. It’s a mid sized ship that sank in 1628 and was meticulously recovered and partially restored some 333 years later. It is not seaworthy anymore but its wood works and structure has been well restored. The videos and demonstrations about how the ship was brought up are also quite interesting. It is a little surprising that this is the most visited museum in the scandinavian countries, but then, marketing is everything.
A short Uber ride away from the main city is the Drottningholm Palace, the official residence of the Royal Family. The elegant palace is open to public and hosts some amazing art and boasts of massive well manicured gardens. The interiors are quite splendid but not really very unique when compared to other European palaces and castles you will opulent drawing rooms, large paintings (usually portraits) and very formal libraries and grand staircases with gargoyles and sculptures all around. The walk in the gardens is quite an experience as they are massive and even have a small labyrinth along with many fountains.
The rest of the time was spent just walking around the city – it is a very walkable one. The city hall is one remarkable building to just stroll around. Made of red brick, the structure stands out at the waterfront and offers some amazing views of the water and Gamla Stan. We saw a stunning sunset here, with the trees and the water offering a beautiful backdrop. There are many other structures on the streets or just impressive buildings to make a full day stroll easily worth it.