Summers in Northern Europe are short but oh so sweet. Endless daylight hours and cool breezes create an ideal climate for sightseeing, while the tourist crowds tend to be fewer than in the sunny South. One of the loveliest Nordic destinations is Stockholm, whose many attractions are spread across 14 different islands in the Baltic Sea. The best way to explore them all is, of course, by boat. Let’s sail away to some of Stockholm’s top sights!
To get the lay of the land – er, sea – I started with an “Under the Bridges of Stockholm” boat tour. We cruised under 15 of Stockholm’s 57 bridges and through one of the locks that regulates the surrounding water level. The two hour-and-15-minute journey was accompanied with highly informative factoids delivered via personal headsets, and I thought it was €25 well spent. Sit on the right side of the boat for the best view, and be sure to bundle up as the air blowing through the windows can be quite chilly – even in July!
For an even longer ride past some of the city’s more idyllic islands, hop aboard the ferry to Drottningholm Palace, a UNESCO-listed residence of the Swedish royal family. Although built in the 1660s, the palace’s most notable feature is the stunning 18th century French-inspired interior. I spent half a day wandering through the ornately furnished rooms and marveling at the fine details! Drottningholm is located on Lovon island and the journey takes one hour each way. I recommend purchasing a combination ticket that includes the boat ride and entrance to the palace.
The Drottningholm Palace ferry departs from the pier next to Stockholm City Hall, which is worth visiting in its own right. The red brick building went up in 1923 and has hosted the Nobel Prize Banquet since 1930. After dining in the Blue Hall, guests ascend the stairs to dance the night away in the showstopping Golden Hall. Our tour guide demonstrated how the staircase was especially designed to accommodate women’s ball gowns and high heels. Talk about a grand entrance!
Stockholm’s most famous island is home to the picturesque Gamla Stan, or Old Town. The colorful buildings have been wonderfully preserved, with many dating to the 13th century. The cobbled lanes, some so narrow that you can touch the houses on either side, are a photographer’s dream! Souvenir shops and restaurants line the main streets and squares, though quiet nooks can be found at every turn. You’ll definitely want to linger here!
The Royal Palace of Stockholm is the official residence of the King of Sweden and a sumptuous setting for state functions. It is also a major tourist attraction, drawing in hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Tickets include entrance to the Royal Apartments and the Treasury, where the crown jewels are on (well-guarded) display. I watched the Changing of the Guards ceremony before heading inside the palace; to be honest, it was a little anticlimactic. I wish I’d spent those precious extra minutes in the gorgeously appointed rooms!
Skansen, a vast open-air ethnographic museum and zoo, is my favorite Stockholm attraction. Founded in 1891, Skansen uses actual historical buildings and costumed performers to recreate centuries of rural Swedish life. I love these types of museums because they give you a real taste of a place’s culture and its development over time. Plus, this one has animals! The Skansen zoo showcases Scandinavian species such as moose, elk, bears, and wolverines, alongside more exotic breeds. Fun fact: the European bison was brought back from near-extinction thanks in part to a herd living in Skansen!
Swedes today may be known for their prowess on the water, but this wasn’t always the case. In 1625, the Swedish king and a Dutch master shipbuilder set out to forge Vasa, the most powerful warship in the Baltic. Three years later, and a mere 1,300 meters from shore, Vasa toppled over and sank to the bottom of the sea. There it remained until the 1950s when the colossal wreck was discovered and eventually raised. 98% of the original vessel, including masts and sails, remains frozen in time. Sweden’s greatest boondoggle has given the world its only preserved 17th century ship. It is on display at the Vasa Museum along with the the bones and personal effects of some of the men and women who perished in the disaster. The whole thing is tragically fascinating.
The Vasa Museum and Skansen are both located on Djurgarden island. I rode the “Hop On Hop Off” boat over from the ferry terminal near the entrance to the Gamla Stan, but had to take the tram back as the boats stop running at 4:30pm. Tickets are valid for 24 hours, so I could have used mine to explore even more of Stockholm’s islands – if only I’d had the time!
Tell me: What do YOU think are the TOP things to do in Stockholm?
For my Stockholm restaurant recommendations, please click here.