Stockholm’s Gamla Stan – Back Into History
Many guidebooks will recommend you to start your Stockholm explorations in the heart of the city, in the Old Town: ‘Gamla Stan’. Given that it was here that the history of the current Swedish capital started, it’s a very logical recommendation. The only problem with this advice is that every single other visitor to the capital read or heard the same thing, hence during the summer high season Gamla Stan will likely be crowded. But don’t be deterred even if you visit in the mid of summer, there’s space for everybody and the charm of the place will compensate for the disadvantages.
The History of Gamla Stan
Everything that is old today had a stage when it was novel and new. No exception with Stockholm’s Old Town. In fact, until the 19th century the island was simply put called The Town (‘Staden‘ in Swedish). Until the middle ages everything that fit on the island was the de facto Stockholm, while the surrounding islands were referred to as the ridges (malm/malmarna, a name that you’ll surely recognise in the names of the other districts).
Until 1980 the name ‘Gamla Stan‘ was not even the official name of the area; instead it was called the Town between the Bridges – ‘Staden mellan broarna‘. Today Gamla Stan is a well-established name and you can be assured that no misunderstandings will happen when referring to it.
For many centuries this little island was the effectively speaking Stockholm. First established in the 13th century by Birger Jarl – earl Birger, the statesman that many claim had the most pivotal role in the consolidation of Sweden – for some centuries the role of the settlement was less prominent. When the old capital of Sweden, Sigtuna, was seriously weakened by armed gangs, the decision was forced upon the Swedish leaders to find a new spot for their capital.
Life over the centuries was hard, the cosiness you find along the cobblestone streets today represented an altogether different reality back then: dirt, darkness, diseases was the norm during the medieval times. Already in the 14th century the town started to be overcrowded. Today, the medieval thoroughfares are said to be found in average some three meters below the present streets, a good indication of the advancement the city experienced over the centuries.
Gamla Stan’s Importance for Sweden
Just as Stockholm had an upswing after the dark medieval years, Gamla Stan too flourished. From the early 17th century onwards the town experienced a renaissance and slowly-slowly all the important buildings you can admire today got built: the Royal Palace (‘Kungliga Slottet’ in Swedish) is the main one, but you will find many churches, palaces and the all regular buildings.
The area of Gamla Stan besides the main island also includes two smaller ones: Riddarholmen and Helgeandsholmen. While the main island is predominantly influenced by the royal atmosphere, these two others are almost exclusively dominated by the Swedish political life. Helgeandsholmen houses the Swedish Parliament in a very impressive setting, just around the rapid water of the Strömmen, housed in a semi-circular grand building from the early 20th century.
Riddarholmen on the other hand is the area for the visitor to check out a number of the private palaces dating from the 17th century. The main site to look for is at any rate the Riddarholmskyrkan, the royal burial church since the 16th century, where a good number of the Swedish monarchs are ruling into the eternity, and beyond.
Gamla Stan for Tourists (and almost exclusively)
The island isn’t just the favourite hangout of the royals and the politicians, tourists flock here as well in their thousands. In high season it might be a daunting task elbowing yourself through the masses. The rest of the year is a pure pleasure walking through the narrow streets among the massive walls, or just strolling around the waterfront. There are no cars allowed on the major part of the island, therefore your stroll on the cobblestone streets will be fairly undisturbed.
There are only some 3,000 people living in Gamla Stan, thus don’t expect a residential feel to the area, you’ll more likely get the impression of walking around in a museum. But not only, there are plenty of tourist shops and tourist restaurants, and unfortunately, we have to say that you should stay away from most of them. This is where the Stockholm tourist traps have conglomerated, and really, you shouldn’t expect many bargains to find. However, if you avoid the main drag of Västerlånggatan you can actually come across more classy shops with interesting merchandise.
Major Sites In Gamla Stan
This is Stockholm history, therefore, as an art weekender your focus will be on the classical architecture with the Royal Palace taking the centrepiece of your attention. If you’d like to expand your horizons behind the arts, a visit to the Nobel Museum is highly recommended.
The Royal Palace
The Kungliga Slottet, at times referred to by Swedes at the ‘Royal Castle’ was built between 1697 and 1754, dominating the north-eastern part of the Old Town. The Royal Palace is the official residence of the king of Sweden, however, don’t expect to bump into them, the royal family lives at Drottningholm in Ekerö, using the palace only for official ceremonies.
The Royal Palace is open to the public unless it’s being used for a state ceremony. There’s a combination ticket that gives you access to the palace, including The Royal Apartments, the Tre Kronor Museum, the Treasury, and Gustav III’s Museum of Antiquities, where the extravagant Apartments will make you feel that the 100 SEK you spent was worth the money. Access to the Treasury will set you back another 40 SEK, if you decide to add to your entrance fee.
Right outside the palace, in the semi-circled plaza you’ll find one of the main attraction spots of Gamla Stan: the guard change. Don’t expect a highly perfect spectacle, the Swedish Army is not what it once was (hm), but it’s still a major attraction point every day at noon. The rest of the day you can still study the guards standing firmly outside their booths and you can try to catch if their stone faces ever give in.
The Stockholm Cathedral, ‘Storkyrkan’ is the oldest church in Gamla Stan. Originating as a 13th century Gothic structure, the exterior was remodelled in Baroque style around 1740. The church is the seat of the Church of Sweden and the bishop of Stockholm. It contains two pieces of famous artwork, both worth taking a closer look at: the 15th century wooden statue of Saint George and a copy of the oldest known image of Stockholm, Vädersolstavlan (“The Sun Dog Painting”). The latter is a 1636 copy of a lost original from 1535, but it can be considered old enough, we think.
Riddarholmen Church is one of Stockholm’s most beautiful churches, if not the most beautiful one, and the only remaining medieval abbey in town. The structure dates back to the late 14th century. If churches are your thing, you can visit inside for some 40 SEK and among other things you will be able to see where many Swedish regents are buried, including Gustavus Adolphus (Gustav II Adolf) and Charles XII (Karl XII).
The Nobel Museum
The Nobel Museum (‘Nobelmuseet’) is located in the old Stock Exchange house in the middle of Gamla Stan, this museum has lots of material on the Nobel Prize, including videotaped speeches by laureates. Admission is 60 SEK, and while from an art point of view there’s not much to see it has interesting objects on display, giving the viewer a quit interesting retrospective of a century’s worth of world history. Quite a lot happened with our world since the first Nobel Prize was awarded to Wilhelm Röntgen and company back in 1901.
‘Riksdagen’, the Swedish Parliament House was constructed between 1897 and 1905 and it consists of two buildings. One of the buildings of the complex was originally constructed to house the Swedish Parliament, while the ‘Sveriges Riksbank’ (Swedish National Bank) was housed in the second, semi-circular shaped one. In 1971 when the bi-chamber assembly was replaced by a unicameral assembly and the bank relocated, the building housing the bank was rebuilt to house the new Assembly Hall. Today this is where the very civilised Swedish political debates take place and you are welcome to visit with free-entrance guided tours in Swedish and English every weekday at 12 noon 1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.