Saturday morning, after a good breakfast, I go to the historic center of Stockholm, Gamla Stan (“Old Town”).
It lies on the islands of Stadsholmen, Riddarholmen Helgeandsholmen and Strömsborg. It dates from the 13th century, but most of the current buildings are from the 18th and 19th centuries. This is a superb set of cobbled, medieval-style streets, surrounded by colorful buildings, which lead to squares whose architecture is reminiscent of northern Germany. The colors of some houses are beautiful with the rising sun.
Stortorget is the picturesque square in the center of Gamla stan. There you find many shops, as well as the old building of the Stockholm Stock Exchange (Borshuset), seat of the Swedish Academy. This place was the scene of a bloodshed in 1520, when members of the Swedish nobility were executed by order of the Danish King Christian II. The revolt that followed has put an end to the Kalmar Union and the beginning of the Vasa dynasty. Currently, 3’000 people live in the old town. This area is a happy mix of cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops, workshops, galleries and museums. It is hard to believe that the old city was once considered the slums of Stockholm (mid-19th to the 20th century). The guard change takes place in front of the Royal Palace and in summer you can also see military bands and horses.
I walk in the old town and am suprised to see that there is almost nobody in the streets. Okay, it’s 9am on a Saturday morning, but still! A little further is Riddarholmen church.
It is a former abbey located on the island of Riddarholmen, in the heart of the old town (Gamla stan). It is the burial place of Swedish kings – actually most kings, queens, princes and princesses of Sweden from the 17th to the 20th century are buried here. Since 1922, the royal Swedish family chose another place of burial: the royal cemetery of Haga.
The first stone of this great abbey church was laid in 1270, under the reign of King Magnus Ladulas (which is buried in the church). Fifteen years were needed to complete the abbey complex which then extends over most of the island of Gramunkeholmen (the former name of the island of Riddarholmen). The abbey remains prosperous until ideas of the Reformation reach the country: in 1527, the monks were forced to leave their monastery. Shortly after the building was converted into a Protestant church. An arrow drawn by the Flemish sculptor and architect Guillaume Boyen is put on the top of the building in the 16th century. Struck by lightning in July 28, 1835, it was replaced by the current one made of concrete and iron. If the church retains much of its original layout (nave made of brick in a typical medieval Scandinavian architecture), chapels were added later. The most recent was built in 1858 for the rulers of the Bernadotte dynasty. It is home to the porphyry sarcophagus of the founder of the dynasty, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte who became king under the name of Charles XIV, which had to be delivered to sled from the workshop where it was made, not far from the city of Älvdalen, north of the country. Inside the church, the walls also retain the arms of many Knights of the Order of the Seraphim (Kungliga Serafimerorden), an institution created by King Frederick I in 1748. Among the most famous are Charles de Gaulle, Haile Selassie, Farouk of Egypt and Julius Nyerere.
It was closed when I arrived, probably because it was still early in the morning. Too bad, because I wondered what view I could have seen from the bell tower, assuming of course that it can be visited. Following my way through the streets, I pass next to Riddarhuset.
Riddarhuset (“noble house”) is the assembly of the Swedish nobility. Between the 17th and 19th century, it was part of the General States of the Kingdom (the Ståndsriksdagen), equivalent to the British House of Lords. After the replacement in 1866 of Ståndsriksdagen by the Riksdag, the home of the nobility became an unofficial representative of the Swedish nobility, controlled by the government. Since 2003, it is a private institution that promotes the interests of the nobility.
A little further on, I just arrive next to the Royal Palace of Stockholm. I look at the schedules on a wall and see that the palace opens in a few minutes. Perfect! In the meantime, I wander around the place and stop in front Storkyrkan cathedral, on the right on the picture below.
Storkyrkan (which literally means “big church”), or Church of St. Nicolas (Sankt Nikolai kyrka) is the second oldest church and also the Cathedral of Stockholm. It is located in the old city, close to the royal palace. Officially, there is no cathedral in Stockholm, the nearest one being in Uppsala (80 km north of Stockholm) and is the seat of the Archbishop of Sweden. However, people used to call the church “Storkyrka” and this is where the name Cathedral comes from. It is a Protestant Lutheran church since 1527 and the seat of the diocese of Stockholm. The Swedish kings were crowned there until 1907. It is made of brick covered with plaster painted in yellow and white. It was made from a Gothic inspiration in the 13th century, but has been greatly altered in 1740 by architect Johan Eberhard Carlberg to take a baroque style. It features among other works a wooden sculpture of Saint George slaying the dragon, believed to have been carried out in 1489 by Bernt Notke as well as the oldest painting of Stockholm, which dates from 1520. It was also closed, so I haven’t visited it.
Let’s go to have a look at the Royal Palace, which just opened its doors. No photos inside, as is the case everywhere in this kind of building.
The Royal Palace (Stockholms slott) is located on the Norrström in the northern part of the old town. It is the official residence of the monarchs of Sweden. Fortifications are present on the site since the Middle Ages. The present castle was built after the fire of the Tre Kronor castle on May 7, 1697. Construction began under the direction of Nicodemus Tessin the Younger, but the Great Northern War (1700-1721) forced the country to stop its construction. It was resumed in 1727, but Nicodemus died the following year, and therefore the construction continued under the direction of Carl Hårleman, who especially designed the inside. In 1754, King Adolf Frederick of Sweden and Queen Louise Ulrica of Prussia settled in the castle, but the work still continued until the 1770s. No major renovations have taken place since, apart from some adjustments and modernization of the interiors. Nowadays, the castle has about 1430 rooms, 660 of which have windows.
In addition to the royal apartments, the palace has several rooms for events of all kinds. The castle also houses a church, Gustav III Museum, the treasure room with in particular the wonderful crown jewels and the Museum of the Three Crowns with some of the ruins of the old Tre Kronor castle. Until 1878, the place also housed the Royal Library in the north-east wing, where now stands the Bernadotte Library. In the wing of the Chancery are the royal archives. The Royal Court is of course present in the castle, with about 200 full-time employees. The Royal Guard monitors and protects the area and the royal family since 1523. The castle is owned by the Swedish state through Statens fastighetsverk which is responsible for the management and maintenance of the building.
The visit was very informative and the interiors are very stylish, I really liked it. A must-do when visiting Stockholm, especially that there was hardly anyone! I head to the harbor in front of the palace.
After two hours of walking during which I wander on an island and admired a small castle, I head to the Vasa museum, as I wanted to visit it. I stop just before a small “stall” and order me a burger at an affordable price. Well, it is not Copenhagen, but it is still expensive, so I haven’t eaten in a restaurant other than the one of my hotel. Prices there were no so high as in downtown. Right after that, I head to the museum. Miraculously, there is again no one waiting, so no queue for me!
The Vasa Museum (Vasamuseet) is a maritime museum. Located on the island of Djurgården, the museum displays the only almost fully intact 17th century ship never recovered: the warship Vasa (64 guns), which sank on its maiden voyage in 1628. The Vasa Museum opened in 1990, and according to the official website, is the most visited museum in Scandinavia. The museum is owned, among other museums such as the Maritime Museum of Stockholm, by the National Swedish Maritime Museums. From late 1961 to 1988, Vasa was housed in a temporary structure called Wasavarvet (“The Vasa Shipyard”) where it was treated with polyethylene glycol. In 1981, the Swedish government decided that a permanent Vasa museum had to be built and a call for tenders was launched to choose the architectural design of the futur building. A total of 384 architects have proposed their plans to house the Vasa and the winners were Marianne Dahlbäck and Göran Månsson with their project “Ask”. Construction of the new building began on and around the dry dock of the old maritime court with an opening ceremony hosted by Prince Bertil of Sweden on November 2, 1987. Vasa was towed into the new building in December 1988 and during the summer of 1989, when visitors were allowed on the construction site, 228’000 people visited the half-finished museum. It was officially inaugurated on June 15, 1990. Since its opening, it is not less than 25 million people who have visited the museum.