The Motoroamers’ City Tour series
Sweden’s Stockholm is reputed to be one of Europe’s best, so a visit is a must! Although as introverts, the pair of us are not great city-break lovers. We have though, come to appreciate that travel has many personalities and to avoid the city hubs altogether means we miss out on part of a country’s fabric. So we tend to do a 24 hour bounce in, to capture a little of the city vibe and retreat back to the country to recharge. Just enough time to discover its character without too much exposure to the sounds, the sights and the overwhelming crowds.
The consequences of this approach means that we have a small window of opportunity where time is of the essence. This requires us to be smart! Smart in the research we do, in the places we choose and in the culture we uncover. So armed with our own guide to Stockholm’s best, undiscovered treasures, we set out to explore the alternative side to this city. With grateful thanks for the inspiration from our friends over at Atlas Obscura.
Before we launch into our uniquely created Stockholm tour, let’s start with a little taster.
Founded as a city in 1252, Stockholm has plenty of history for us. Starting off with the Vikings’ influence in the building of the original Old Town. With its archipelago position, trade routes soon put Stockholm on the map and by 17th century it was a European powerhouse. Despite this Stockholm reeled from two disasters; the plague of 1710 that killed 36% of its population and a fire that destroyed the Tre Kronor Castle together with many historical documents. So the city had to seriously rebuild, as is so often the case with cities around the world.
With its 14 major islands to explore, the inner-city waterways, parks, Old Town, 53 museums and the Baltic Coast, this city is a pretty unique landscape. It was obvious that our 24hrs would never cover it all. And in fact, it may sound contradictory, although on reflection I think Stockholm needs a good 3 day visit to really experience the best of it. Check out what we found in the time that we had…
Our 15 Alternative Stockholm Sights
I can honestly say that we probably experienced a deeper perspective of Stockholm than the average tourist, despite our brief visit. Here’s what we discovered in 24hrs.
1. Watch the sunset with the locals at Örnsbergs Klippbad
Three miles outside of the city hub, it’s lovely to rub shoulders with the locals and, for a moment, not be a tourist. Like nocturnal owls, as twilight comes, the locals emerge with their picnics and blankets. With its youthful vibe, harbour, outdoor swimming pool and the rocks, Örnsbergs is the place to come. Here families and romantic couples gather to take in the setting sun and watch the brave kids conjure up the courage to dive into the icy cold water.
Check out our gallery below.
2. Alfred Nobel’s dynamite bunkers
We all know that Alfred Nobel is synonymous with the Nobel Peace Prize. Although did you know that way before this, he was infamous for inventing dynamite? No, nor did we.
Dr Alfred Nobel found a way of turning the volatile element nitroglycerin into a commercially usable explosive. And despite factory explosions, one of which killed his brother, he continued to explore how to stabilise it until, in 1867 he invented dynamite. Such was his explosive success, that by his death in 1896 he owned 90 armament factories. However, mortified by a French Newspaper’s publishing of an early obituary entitled ‘The Merchant of Death is dead’, Nobel decided he wanted to leave a more positive legacy. And so written into his Will, the Nobel Peace Prize was created and he bequeathed most of his wealth to a Trust that would fund the Prize.
If you walk just around the corner from Örnsbergs, you will find tunnels that are part of Nobel’s testing bunkers for his explosives. What an interesting insight to a man who wanted to be remembered for something more purposeful than death.
3. Stockholm’s cityscape vantage point
Heading 1 mile east from Nobel’s bunkers towards the city, there is a lofty spot from which you can gaze at the cityscape, uninterrupted. You will only find the locals here in the small suburb of Södermalm as they calmly walk the Monteliusvägen path. With views across to Stockholm, revel in the tranquility of this aerial position without all the pushing and shoving.
4. The Cuckold of Skeppsbron – A carving with a sad tale
As you cross the bridge towards the Gamla Stan, take a turn right towards the waterfront. How often do we see a carving on a building and never think to ask what the story might be behind it?
In-between Skeppsbar and Zum Franziskaner if you look up you see the carving of a man’s tortured face. Just below his chin there is an additional feature – the carving of a vagina! Legend has it that the owner of the building, Carl Smitt found out that his wife loved another man. In a pique of anger and anguish he had a carving made of his face, below which is her vagina immortalised for all to see. A visual reminder of his wife’s betrayal and a warning to others. Now I bet you weren’t expecting that?
5. Järntorget Statue
In the Old Town, Gamla Stan, the second oldest square is home to a bronze statue of Evert Taube, a popular Swedish artist, composer and musician. Why not grab a Fika (coffee and something to eat) and enjoy this quieter, less touristy space on the outer edges of the historic quarter of Stockholm?
6. Mårten Trotzigs Gränd – Narrowest street in Stockholm
The streets of the Old Town were never designed for vehicles and many of them are narrow and curvaceous. None more so than Märten Trotzigs Gränd. This street is both steep and narrow and it is hard to get two people side by side. There are 36 steps and at its narrowest point there is only 90 cm separating the two walls. It’s true that this is a bit on the touristy side, although non-the-less interesting to see. The street is named after a rich iron and copper merchant from Germany, who came to live in Stockholm in 16th century. This is a big Instagram draw and probably the biggest tourist attraction we visited.
7. Storkykobadet – hidden, underground swimming baths
I love finding places that even the locals, born and bred don’t know about. And this underground swimming baths is one of those. Sadly we couldn’t get in the day we visited, although we got to the basement door if nothing else and could hear the delighted squeals of those who were allowed in.
The story to the secret baths originate from an ancient Dominican Convent built in 17th century where the space was used as a cellar. Then it was turned into a school in the late 19th century where it became baths for the pupils. The baths are in danger of being shut down, although there is a group campaigning to keep it open and raise funds for its upkeep. What a little haven that you wouldn’t even known was there.
8. Stortorget – House of Ribbing or Kaffekoppen
As you head through the cobbled streets, you hear the reverberation of throngs of people. This can only mean one thing! You have reached the city’s oldest square – Stortorget. It is here that you can learn more about our dynamite loving inventor, Albert Nobel at the museum named in his honour, housed at the old Stock Exchange.
As you look around the square, you’ll notice people, for sure; eating, drinking and resting. Although look beyond the crowds. Look up at the buildings and the architecture. What a magnificent roof-life. So many of us never look towards the sky and so miss some of a city’s real landscape in its roofs. These buildings have so many stories they could tell us, etched into their brick work.
The red building – House of RIbbing, is hard to miss because it looks so different to all the others. Although originally built in 15th century, this house became a monument to those Swedish nobility murdered by Christian the Tyrant in what was known as the Stockholm Bloodbath.
In 16th century, Denmark conquered Sweden and in an attempt to assert his role as king, Christian II of Denmark, lured leaders to a private conference. During 7-9 November 1520 each nobleman was publicly executed. After an uprising 2 years later, Sweden was liberated and subsequently, June 6th is marked as Swedish Independence day. It is said that each of the 82 white stones, built into the facade of House of Ribbing represent a member of nobility murdered during that bloodbath.
9. Ancient Rune stone
Walking down the alley beside the House of Ribbing, you need to keep a sharp eye open for Stockholm’s most subtle ancient monument. See everyone walk past this 1000 year old heritage and then marvel at your discovery. Hidden in the mortar of a building on the corner of a crossroad of alleyways, you will find a Rune Stone. An ancient Iron Age practice that, as you run your fingers over the inscription, immediately transports you to another space and time. This is a unique and special moment that 99% of visitors are blind to.
10. Changing of the Guard – Royal Palace of Stockholm
We were actually quite lucky to see this unique event. Not so much unique as in it is rare; unique because the timing is all important. Each week day the Swedish Army do a parade into the Palace courtyard to symbolise the Changing of the Guard. And I must say I have never seen such a proud and meaningful display.
With a parade and a Military Marching Band, this country seriously knows how to honour its Royal heritage. It’s magnificent to watch. Ideally you need to position yourself on the inside of the courtyard for a full-frontal experience and aim to get there before 11.30 and 12.30 respectively. It’s a 40 minute parade so make sure you build this into your visiting schedule. It’s a tiny window, so make sure you don’t miss it.
11. Inside the Palace
We normally associate Royal Palaces with extortionate entrance fees and stuffy tours around the stately quarters! Although bearing in mind that the Palace is still a working office, getting access may not always be possible.
Although without any entrance fees, it is possible to enter the Treasury and the Royal Chapel. Here you can marvel at this 18th century building that replaced the medieval Tre Kronor Castle, destroyed by fire in 1697. You can glide up and down the sweeping staircase like a scene from Gone with the Wind.
12. The longest Art Gallery in the world
This is a mighty fine claim to make, although not quite as you may imagine. Take a journey beneath the surface of the earth and be bewildered by the magnificence of Stockholm’s artistry – in the subway. Yes you heard right – the subway. In 1941 Stockholm’s underground network was created and 9 years later opened to the public. The artists started their creations in 1957, bringing a sense of colour, story and texture to the walls of the otherwise bland landscape. An artistic revolution that defied conventionality and allowed expression to be imprinted in the most unusual way.
For the price of a metro ticket, you can ride through 99 stations and experience murals, statues, mosaics and be wowed at the uniqueness of this Stockholm adventure. If like us your visit doesn’t include travelling on the underground, ask the Station Master if you can pop down to any one of the stations for free. This way you can still experience first hand what the artists’ imagination were trying to convey.
Check out our gallery below.
13. Birthplace of the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’
Today the Nobis Hotel may look like any other grand, high class city hotel, although within its walls is a tale of crime, compassion and psychology. If you have ever heard of the Stockholm Syndrome, then you will enjoy checking out this off-the-tourist trail location, north of Gamla Stan. In the swanky part of Stockholm the hotel, a former bank, fell victim to a robbery in 1973. In the robbery’s failure, Jan-Erik Olsson, a convict on parole from prison and his friend Clark Olofsson took 4 bank employees hostage locking themselves in the vault for 6 days.
At the end of the heist the hostages refused to testify against their captors showing a bizarre compassion towards the men. In the aftermath, a psychologist soon determined that this was a condition adopted in hostage situations. They concluded that the victim subconsciously establishes a bonding relationship with their captor as part of a survival strategy. And this psychological condition was formulated as a direct result of the Stockholm bank robbery.
14. Cycle around museum island – Djurgården
No city visit is complete without at least one visit to a museum. Although how do you choose from 53 options in such a small space of time? Plus we are not great lovers of museums generally speaking. So our best option was to take a tour around the island that seems to be home to a large majority of these magnificent institutions. Djurgården.
Whether it is Abba, Vaga or the Nordic museum, there are some incredible options especially if you have kids, or perhaps are a big kid yourself. Although what better way to get a flavour, from the outside at least, of the ‘Big Three’? No ferries, no entrance fees, just an admiration of the building’s architecture and symbolism.
15. See Stockholm from the water
Stockholm’s archipelago is a unique capital experience. Although Italy’s Venice is also an island network with an intrinsic partnership with the water, even that Mecca is not on the same scale as Stockholm.
So taking one of the ferry options to a nearby island or cruising around the city’s inland canals is a must to get a full Stockholm perspective.
We took a slightly decadent option, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, although it worked for us. I wanted to find a boat-charter that would give us a unique view of Stockholm’s waterways and see part of the archipelago that is least frequented by tourists. So with a bit of Googling I found Jesper at Alleman who had an aluminium boat that we could charter for a couple of hours. It wasn’t cheap, although driven my a desire to, I admit it, avoid the crowds, this seemed like a great option.
We got to see the Prince’s Palace up close and personal, enter through waterways that the commercial boats can’t reach, see the magnificent Ulriksdal Castle and we found a moose! It was a super couple of hours exploring intimate corners of Stockholm’s watery realm and highly recommended seeing something of the city by boat.
Check out our gallery by clicking on the image below
There we have it; 15 Alternative Stockholm highlights that most tourists don’t get to experience. And what of our tour? How did we rate the city? To be honest we found it initially a bit grim and claustrophobic, although after an hour or so, the city began to open up. Perhaps we just started to see things in a more open way. Without doubt there was a lot we missed and I would definitely have enjoyed visiting some more of the 14 islands. Although another time.
Getting around the city is easy. Cycling is made safe by dedicated cycling lanes everywhere. Trams, underground and Hop on Hop off Buses allow offer you the chance to see as much of Stockholm as you can, in the time you have available.
With hotels, AirBnB and camping places all giving you a place to rest your tired feet, Stockholm is one for the list. And despite everything I feel about cities – you know what? I would go back and see some more. It wasn’t an instant love affair although it was nice enough to go back for seconds.
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