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In what the Stockholmers call “the dark months,” folks tend to scurry to the next warm spot—although the Swedes pride themselves on getting out of the house for the grand tumble of things they have to do outdoors, not least of which, well north of town in Swedish Lapland, is the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights. Swedes bivouac for that.
Similarly, since the northern Nordic peninsula is a place of extremes, they also camp out to get the brunt of the Midnight Sun as it circumnavigates the horizon. Down in the old royal and business precincts of the Stockholm, things proceed with a bit more normalcy.
There are, however, some very Swedish things to do in Stockholm.
The Nobel Museum, very much a part of the Alfred Nobel Foundation’s record-keeping of the history of the prize, makes for a delightful afternoon sojourn with the worl’s greatest thinkers and doers. Also an innovative performance space, and with its own restaurant, the Nobel Museum should be a must, if only to track what has happened to the members of this Earth’s most prestigious intellectual club, in every category, since the first prizes were given in 1901. The lovely Scandic Gamla Stan hotel is just steps away from the museum.
Anybody that thinks the politically broad-minded Swedes don’t take their monarchy seriously will be well advised to visit the complex of museums, ceremonial spaces and parade grounds that are the Royal Palace. In short, it’s impressive. It’s possible in summer to see the changing of the guard daily, shortly before noon (but check the schedules). There are summer concerts and a cafe in the Royal Stables, where the horses, their carriages and tack are kept. The treasury, containing the crown jewels, is stunning. From May to September, Gustav III’s museum of antiquities, including some 200 sculptures, is open. The Palace and the Stables are on the Gamla Stan, the heart of the old city. A good place to stay in Norrmalm, just across the water from the palace, is The Strand.
The Vasa Museum, built around the world’s best-preserved 17th-century ship, is far and away the most popular museum in Stockholm, and in Sweden. The Vasa capsized in 1628, spending some 300-plus years on the bed of Stockholm harbor, which preserved it, before being raised and restored. The Swedes are tracking everything, from the architecture of the ship to what the immersion over centuries wrought on the wood. The 64-gun battleship is quite the impressive warhorse in dry-dock—its massive masts and ratlines have been lovingly reconstructed. The Vasa is on Djurgården, or Animal Garden island, which remains a possession of the crown just east of Skeppsholmen and the Gamla Stan, or Old Town. A great place to stay in Norrmalm, however, is the Grand Hôtel.
Just east of Södermalm is the district of Nacka, which has, slightly south of Stockholm proper, a fantastic sauna at Hellasgården, on Lake Källtorp. The theory is, your hotel will probably have one, too, but why not do what the Swedes do and get out into nature, strip down and sweat it all out? They didn’t invent the sauna for nothing. Summer or winter, they’re running. And a visit is especially good in winter, because you get to dip into the icy lake between sweat sessions. Yes, the men’s and women’s sections are separate, but the rule is, getting naked is not optional. A welcoming hotel on Södermalm is the Rival hotel.
Presiding over Norrmalm’s lower Blaisieholmen peninsula, the Swedish National Museum’s building rivals its collections for place of pride—together, they provide an excellent portrait of Sweden’s deep care for art and how it’s presented. (A great hotel in Norrmalm is the Haymarket.) Conceived in the mid-19th century by the Riksdag—Sweden’s version of Parliament—the neoclassical building was finished by the German architect Friedrich August Stüler, who built much of Berlin, in the late 1860s, after some 20 years of work. The collections are many, but at the museum’s core is the Count Carl Gustaf Tessin collection, Tessin being an 18th-century ambassador to France, who put together a major collection of French and German masters, including Boucher, Chardin and Dürer.
See Stockholm’s gleaming archipelago the way real Stockholmers do—namely, by water. In addition to commuting to your appointments via the normal ferries, which are fantastic, use your Stockholm Pass—which you should definitely get—to book a place on the Stromma Hop-On-Hop-Off boat. You’ll be snaking through Stockholm on a vintage glass-roofed craft. It’s like having your own captain ferrying you from cafe to bar to dinner, each on a different island. Just mind the boats’ schedule, so that you can get to your next drink on time.
The Fotografiska, Stockholm’s Museum of Photography, is huge and grandly seated in a former Art Nouveau customs building on the northeastern Södermalm waterfront. (A homey place to stay on Södermalm is the NOFO hotel.) It has 45,000 square feet of exhibition space, a restaurant, multiple shows running simultaneously, as well as an ongoing educational program, and is open until 11 p.m., if you’d like a very civilized supper-and-a-show. The shows are blockbusters, plain and simple. To step into the immediacy of the image for an afternoon, you couldn’t make a better choice in Stockholm.