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Mamma Mia! My 20 favorites things to do in Stockholm

I expected to like Stockholm. I just didn’t expect to love it as much as I did. This beautiful city and it’s people captivated me so much I found myself briefly searching for jobs and at brewery real estate in the city and contemplating raising our boys Swedish. Home to a beautiful and relaxed people, social welfare, and of course ABBA, Sweden is an absolute dream. Stopping off here on our way to Berlin for the marathon for three days gave us a great picture of the city and the mix of history from centuries past and far more recent.

We aren’t normally big museum people, but Stockholm’s free museums and those requiring an entrance fee were captivating enough to pull us in. We actually ended up visiting four museums throughout the city spanning the city’s medieval history up to the 80s. The entire city is like an open air museum with a beautiful and historic old town preserved on the central island where it’s easy to get lost in the meandering cobblestone streets around palaces and churches. From the city, the waterways provide a great transportation network with ferries that go as far as Finland and Russia or closer to the nearby islands. We made the most of all of these and more on our amazing stay in the city.

1. We stayed at the convenient and modern Birger Jarl hotel, a quick 15 minute walk from the old town and in the modern and lively Ostermalm neighborhood. Mostly a business hotel, it worked well for us in exploring the city. We barely needed to eat in Stockholm thanks to the massive breakfast buffet here which included a variety of cold cuts, cheese, jams, bread, and even hot items, of course including Swedish meatballs. Like everyone we met in Stockholm, we found the staff to be friendly, courteous, and professional. Though we got some credibility points for my last name, we lost them all when we explained that I was actually of Danish descent.

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2. From the hotel, we explored the city’s old town from the north, starting at the Parliament, a former royal palace. The massive complex is pretty daunting, stretching from the river to the old town. Along the river we also passed a statue of Gustav Adolphus, the ruler of Sweden during the 30 Years War when Sweden cemented it’s power through Europe. Both landmarks are reminders of the days when Sweden ruled and exerted power over the European continent.

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3. Further into the old town we found the Storkyrken church and square. The center of the medieval town, it’s colorful gabled town houses are postcard perfect and the most photographed buildings in Stockholm. Around the area are several winding cobblestone streets including one that narrows to less than a few feet, showing how claustrophobic the medieval town really was.

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4. Toward the harbor is the royal palace where the royal family does royal things that don’t really involve ruling. Maybe they run the country’s twitter account now that random citizens are no longer trusted with that power. A daily changing of the guard ceremony shows off the pageantry and pomp of Sweden’s military while the guards stand at attention in front of the palace all day.

5. Two other large church towers also dominate Stockholm’s skyline, the German Church and Stockhom’s old royal church. Located along the water on the west side of the island, the royal church still houses the graves of many of Sweden’s medieval rulers. The German Church is closer to the center of the town and the tower can be seen from much of the city due to it’s position on a hill.

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6. Leaving the old town, we made our way up the city’s viewpoints in Sodermalm, just south of the old town. This neighborhood is the trendy place to be now where hip families hit the streets for strolls and tons of modern restaurants and cafes dot the streets between vintage stores. Along the walking path just south of town is a fantastic viewpoint of the old town’s skyline and all of the sights.

7. Just a bit further up is a rocky overlook of the entire city from even higher including the water and entrance to the town’s harbor where large boats often float by. From here the town feels much smaller and it’s easy to forget how much walking it takes to really explore.

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8. In Sodermalm we found our first selection of Swedish meatballs and other traditional delicacies including reindeer at Pelikan. Formerly, and also still technically a drinking hall, the old world charm and decor adds to the experience and begs visitors to try one of the local brews on tap. Some of the beer even comes from just down the street at a local brewery. While we enjoyed the meatballs in a delicious gravy and berry sauce, the boiled pork knuckle, a more adventurous dish was also exquisite and delectable. We definitely earned respect from the staff for giving it a go while nearly every other table – mostly Stockholm natives introducing tourists and business acquaintances to Swedish cuisine – opted for the meatballs and reindeer.

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9. For more great meatballs, we had our following dinner in true Swedish style with a smorgasbord at Verandan at the Grand Hotel. Served in the grand veranda of the classic hotel, the buffet was a true endless array of smoked fish in every size, shape, and flavor. I didn’t know herring could be prepared in so many different ways. From a savory and spicy mustard sauce to a sweet and tart berry glaze, the herring was phenomenal. The boiled potatoes, cured salmon, and wide range of smoked and cured meats were also amazing and a tie to the traditional culinary style of Sweden. Of course there were meatballs in a gravy and berry jam too. It was even washed down with the traditional Swedish aquavit, a strong liquor with tastes of caraway and other spice.

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10. For some after dinner treats, we visited Stockholm’s branch of Mikkeller brewery. The Danish brewer finally set up shop in Scandinavia in a relatively small cellar brewpub with a huge range of unique and interesting brews, many using traditional Swedish ingredients. I just had to try the lingonberry sour gose and the pepper and aquavit infused pilsner.

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11. Not satisfied with the dozen miles we had walked, we also decided to explore Skeppsholmen island by foot. Home to the modern museum of art which has a nice selection of outdoor exhibits for the public, the island is a nice place to take a stroll and take in the city from another vantage point from the water.

12. The island is also a good place to grab the ferry over to Djurnholm island. Formerly the royal hunting grounds, it now houses some of Stockholm’s best museums. The Nordic museum is styled like a massive traditional wooden stave church. The prime attraction though has to be the ABBA museum. Technically the Swedish music hall of fame, the largest exhibit is an entire floor of ABBA history and memorabilia. I figured we would just explore it for the cheesiness, but ended up finding it incredibly interesting and a very interactive museum. We loved singing along to some of the hits, practicing our dance moves, and learning more about the impactful band’s relatively short career and the outsized effect they had on the music industry. It ended up being a highlight of the trip.

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13. Also on the island is the Vassa museum, a museum built solely to house the preserved and recovered 1600s massive wooden war ship built for the Swedish navy during the height of Swedish power in Europe. The ship shank just moments after setting sail in Stockholm harbor and thanks to a moderate level of salt in the harbor’s waters, was preserved quite well for over 300 years. Recovered in the 60s, it’s now reconstructed fully and on display to the public. Thile the information about it’s construction and recovery was fascinating, I really enjoyed learning about the preservation techniques pioneered on the ship and how the team continues to maintain it.

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14. Exploring even more of this town’s great museums, we stumbled upon the medieval museum just underneath the bridge that connects the old town to the north in the middle of a brief but bucketing rain storm. Figuring we’d duck in for a few minutes, we discovered the free museum was quite extensive and showed off a large section of the medieval wall that was uncovered during construction, part of a viking age ship, and displays that traced the city’s history from founding up to the renaissance.

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15. Another free museum we stumbled upon was the Royal Carriage museum. Underneath the royal palace, this small display featured some of the most intricate and well preserved royal carriages in the world. Through the carriages we learned about the relationship between Stockholm’s royal Axel and Marie Antionette, cut short – pun intended – by the French Revolution. For a free display it was quite interesting and really showed off how customized and important carriages were before automobiles came along.

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16. While on Djurnholm island, we decided to partake in the Swedish tradition of fika, or a relaxed coffee and pastry at Skrotan Cafe. Right on the southern end of the island near the marina, there’s an awesome outside patio with nautical themed decor where wen enjoyed some delicious espresso and homemade almond tarts while watching ships sail by. We found it odd that for a Nordic country, the locals seemed to find 65 degrees cold, even on a sunny day, and were all huddled up inside rather than joining us out in the fresh air.

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17. Warming up a bit on the ever so slightly chilly fall day, we also explored Stockholm’s shopping areas on foot. We stopped in the Adidas store hoping to find some Stockholm themed running gear. I had seen the local running club stopping here the night before, but was saddened to find almost no running gear at all let alone anything Stockholm themed.

18. Nearby was the Stockholm flagship store of a brand I discovered in Norway, Norrona. Geared toward outdoor adventuring, particular cold weather activities, most of the apparel is heavy gear. I found an awesome shirt in Norway though with the Viking logo of the brand and was hoping to find something similar here. Instead, I only found a fitting room which included an arctic fan where customers could try on the various jackets and gear in true cold weather conditions. The Swedes take their outdoor activities quite seriously as every other store on the main street contained coats, knapsacks, hiking shoes, or other gear aimed at nordic adventuring.

19. On our way back to town from the museums on the island, we took the ferry to the old town. This ferry is a quick way to get around town, especially from east to west since the islands don’t really provide a route that way. In just a few moments it’s possible to quickly leave the town and get out to the outskirts while enjoying beautiful views of the town.

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20. Heading out even further, we took a ferry to Fjaderholm island, the closest island in the chain that comprise Stockholm’s archipelago as the locals call it. These islands are the traditional escape and summer homes for Stockholm’s natives. Even the members of ABBA had a house out on the archipelago where they composed many of their hits. Leaving behind the tourists, we arrived on this small island after only a 20 minute ride on the ferry across the harbor. On the island we could still make out the town, but felt much more in nature. A small cafe perched on the tranquil waters was a great place to enjoy a coffee, local beer, and watch the day drift slowly by, just like the boats slowly cruising toward Stockholm.

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Stockholm is a gorgeous city with a wonderful way of life. It’s inhabitants know how to relax and enjoy the best parts of life, whether that’s a coffee and pastry during the day, or leaving work at 4:00 for post-work drinks at an outside bar or cafe like we saw everywhere. Working parents were also out side getting quality time and fresh air with their children, pushing strollers down the streets and even running with them along the waterfront. When even the fast pace of the city is too much, they leave the hustle and head out to the archipelago to unwind. Spending time in Stockolm, learning about the history and culture, and enjoying the best the city has to offer reminded us to slow down a bit in our lives and pause to enjoy the good things in life.