My wife Anya recently decided to take our daughter to visit family in Belarus. She was understandably reluctant to take a 9 month old baby on a Transatlantic flight without any help, so I decided to tag along. Airfare to Europe has categorically been very expensive this summer, but with some hassle we were able to scrounge up acceptable tickets to Stockholm, Sweden – and off we went. The baby handled the 9+ hour flight from Seattle to Europe like a champ, probably because we had a row of 4 seats to ourselves. Plenty of space to crawl & play.
A day later, my girls hopped on a short flight to Belarus while I stayed behind in Stockholm. Americans can’t just waltz into Belarus without a pre-arranged visa, and getting one is a bit of a hassle. And besides, I was eager for the opportunity to go solo for a bit knowing Anya & the baby would be safe (and busy) with Grandpa & Grandma. So, after seeing them off, I hopped on the train from the airport to Stockholm’s city center with 4 agenda-free days ahead of me.
The first area I explored was Gamla Stan (literally “old town”), which is a centrally located island which, for hundreds of years, housed the entirety of the city. It’s a beautiful, pedestrian-only medieval city… the kind of thing that just doesn’t exist in the Americas. Attach some green shutters to the windows and it could easily pass for Italy, which made it even more endearing for me. It’s nearly impossible for me to resist aimlessly wandering around places like this, so I spent hours doing just that.
Gamla Sta makes up just a tiny part of today’s Stockholm; the rest of the city is spread across 13 other islands plus a chunk of mainland. It runs the whole gamut of cityscapes: upscale 18th- and 19th century neighborhoods that could stand in for any city in Northern Europe; working-class neighborhoods from the same era recently gentrified into hipster havens; new districts built to help relieve an ongoing housing shortage; and even a few decaying 1960’s modernist eyesores.
One of the striking things is the sheer number of museums Stockholm has, especially when you consider that it’s a city of only about 2 million people. Here I’ll mention two of the more unique ones: Skansen, and the Vasamuseet.
In the late 1880’s, a Swedish guy named Artur Hazelius saw how industrialization was rapidly changing Swedes’ way of life. He wanted to preserve a piece of Sweden from a simpler time, so he bought up more than 150 authentic old buildings and had them moved to an open air museum named Skansen. It’s a kind of homage to all things “old Sweden.” You can walk through all the buildings and learn about how people used to live. There’s a variety of craftspeople demonstrating old techniques at doing things: baking, jewelry-making, glassblowing, farming, etc., all of it watched over by a beautifully preserved old manor house. It’s a hard place to describe; it’s like a cross between a history museum, a zoo, and a Renaissance Festival, except humble and stripped of all kitsch and commercialization.
The Vasamuseet (Vasa Musuem) is also something of a one-off. In 1626, the King Gustav II Adolf (aka Gustavus Adolphus for you Minnesotans) commissioned a large and powerful warship to help him gain control of the entire Baltic Sea. In 1628, the ship, named Vasa, set off on her maiden voyage from Stockholm to much fanfare. About 20 minutes later, the Vasa sank. It traveled less than a mile from port. The cause was a fatal design flaw: the ship’s center of gravity was too high, and there wasn’t enough ballast. As soon as Vasa encountered a breeze, it rolled over like a barrel. Oops.
Vasa was rediscovered and salvaged in the 1960’s and underwent decades of preservation efforts. In 1990 they opened a special museum to house the ship and tell it’s story. I think the whole thing is fascinating, and it’s hard to describe just how amazing a huge, 400 year-old wooden ship is.
As I’m sure you can tell, I liked Stockholm a lot. It’s safe, has an excellent (and interesting) transport system, and there are tons of things to do. It’s easy to find great food, and the locals are polite and friendly. It’s a comfortable, easy city to spend time in. I can see myself living there.
I admit, though, that my perspective is skewed by having visited at the height of summer, with temps in the 80’s F and sunrise at 3:30am. I’m not so sure about the cold, dark winters which, if you listen to the locals, last 11 months out of the year. I’m skeptical it could be all that bad. I suspect Stockholmares, like Seattleites, play up the “bad weather” stereotype in order to keep housing prices from rising even higher than they already are.