Image: Stockholm
Cameron Hewitt
Located on the Baltic Sea, Stockholm is one-third water, one-third parks, one-third city.
By
Tribune Media Services
updated 7/22/2009 9:20:11 AM ET 2009-07-22T13:20:11

With its steel-and-glass Modernist buildings and dedication to green living, Stockholm has the feel of a gleaming metropolis, but it offers a satisfying mix of old and new, from a well-preserved 17th-century warship to its glittering 20th-century City Hall.

Before you visit, study up at stockholmtown.com and when you arrive, buy a Stockholm Card, covering nearly every sight and all public transit. (Only a Swedish meatball would drive his car in Stockholm; park it and use the excellent public transportation system instead.)

Stockholm, with 1.8 million people, is built on an archipelago of 14 islands woven together by 50 bridges. Gamla Stan, the city's historic island core, is an Old Town of winding, lantern-lit streets, antiques shops, and classy cafes clustered around the Royal Palace. The palace hosts a fun, spirited Changing of the Guard ceremony, and contains the Royal Armory, with Europe's most spectacular collection of medieval royal armor.

Famous Swedes include Astrid Lindgren, author of Pippi Longstocking (found in bookstores all over town), and Sweden's most famous sculptor, Carl Milles, whose statues are strikingly displayed in Stockholm's dramatic cliffside Millesgarden. But let's face it. Most people know Sweden as the home of ABBA, the '70s pop band whose bouncy songs are the driving force behind the hit play and movie "Mamma Mia!" Plans for an ABBA Museum in Stockholm were recently scrapped because of a dispute over costs, and the museum will instead become a traveling exhibition. Dancing queens — and kings — will have to wait to pay homage.

Even without ABBA, Stockholm has plenty of sights to keep tourists busy. For a trip back in time, Skansen is Europe's original and best open-air folk museum. It's a huge park with more than 150 historic homes, shops, churches, and schoolhouses transplanted from all corners of Sweden. The old interiors are wonderfully furnished, complete with guides dressed in traditional outfits. There's folk dancing nearly every evening. Think of it as Swedish-culture-on-a-lazy-Susan, where visitors can sweep through the countryside and centuries of lifestyles without leaving the capital.

Budget Europe Near Skansen, the mighty warship Vasa is chemically petrified and housed in a state-of-the-art museum. Heralded as the ultimate warship of her day, the Vasa sank just minutes into her maiden voyage, with 450 crewmembers on board. The year was 1628. The ship was top-heavy, with an extra row of cannons tacked on above and a lack of ballast below. A breeze caught the sails and blew it over. The ship spent more than 300 years at the bottom of Stockholm's harbor. In 1961, with the help of steel cables and huge inflatable pontoons, the Vasa rose again from the deep. And the city managed to turn this titanic flop into a brilliant museum and one of Scandinavia's great sightseeing attractions.

While churches dominate cities in southern Europe, in the Scandinavian capitals, city halls take the lead. It's clear that Stockholm's City Hall rules the city. Constructed in 1923, it's an amazing mix of eight million bricks and 19 million chips of gilt mosaic. To see the interior, take the entertaining tour. And for the best city view, climb the 348-foot-tall tower (an elevator takes you halfway).

Stockholm's dazzling Nobel banquet commences every December in City Hall, where the Nobel committee awards its prestigious prizes for chemistry, medicine, physics, economics, and literature.

At the Nobel Museum, opened in 2001 for the 100-year anniversary of the Nobel Prize, portraits of all 700-plus winners hang from the ceiling, shuffling around the room like shirts at the dry cleaner's (miss your favorite, and he or she will come around again in three hours). The museum's Viennese-style cafe is the place to get creative with your coffee ... and sample the famous Nobel ice cream. All Nobel laureates who visit the museum are asked to sign the bottom of a chair in the cafe. Turn over your chair and see who warmed the one you're on.

Nobel winners stay at Stockholm's Grand Hotel. Even if you're not an honoree, it's still worth a visit for the best smorgasbord in town. Here are some of the traditional dishes you'll find: herring, boiled potatoes, knackebrod (Swedish crisp bread), gravlax (salt-cured salmon flavored with dill and served with a sweet mustard sauce), and meatballs with gravy and lingonberry sauce.

If you just want to put on a heavy coat and drink a fancy vodka in a modern-day igloo, consider the fun, if touristy, Absolut Icebar. The room, windows, bar, and even the glasses are literally made out of ice.

While modern and progressive, Stockholm reveres its traditions. Whether you're celebrating ingenuity at the Nobel sights, strolling through the cobbled Old Town, or crawling through Europe's best-preserved warship, you'll be amazed by Stockholm's stunning past and present.

Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.

© 2009 Rick Steves ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Photos: A European tour

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  1. Venice, Italy

    Gondolas line the bank near Venice's grand canal with the San Giorgio Maggiore church in the background. (Peter Deilmann Cruises via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rome, Italy

    The Colosseum is one of the best-known attractions in all of Italy, and is the largest elliptical amphitheater built in the Roman empire. (Tiziana Fabi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. London, England

    The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben clock tower, located along the River Thames, are seen at dusk from Westminster Bridge. (George Rose / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Berlin, Germany

    Tourists take pictures of themselves at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. The memorial, designed by U.S. architect Peter Eisenman and inaugurated in May 2005, is made up of more than 2,700 concrete steles that form a curved landscape in the heart of Germany's capital. (Barbara Sax / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Granada, Spain

    The Alhambra palace in Granada, although one of 21 finalists, missed out on being named one of the new seven wonders of the world. (Jose Luis Roca / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Paris, France

    This bird's-eye view of Paris at dusk, with the Eiffel Tower and L'Hotel des Invalides prominent, show why the capital's nickname is the "City of Light." (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Lindos, Greece

    The ancient town of Lindos is famous for its Acropolis, which stands on a 380-foot-high hill overlooking Lindos and the Aegean Sea and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Eyeswideopen / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Dublin, Ireland

    People walk past The Temple Bar, which should not be confused with its neighborhood, also called Temple Bar, in central Dublin. Ireland's capital has been voted one of the top 25 cities of the world to live in. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Lisbon, Portugal

    Belém Tower was built in the early 16th century as a ceremonial gateway to the city, and to serve as a defense at the mouth of the Tagus River. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Sebastiano Scattolin / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Barcelona, Spain

    Columns and arches of the Sagrada Familia rise high in this Roman Catholic church, which has been under construction since 1882 and remains incomplete. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Florence, Italy

    A woman looks over Florence from the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. Construction on the city's cathedral church began in 1296 and finished in 1462. (Guido Cozzi / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. County Mayo, Ireland

    Ashford Castle, which dates back to the 13th century and sits on 350 acres of manicured gardens and land, now ranks among the finest hotels in Ireland. About a two-hour drive from Dublin, the castle has played host to myriad high-profile events, including actor Pierce Brosnan's wedding. (Tourism Ireland via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kaag, Netherlands

    A cyclist pedals along rows of tulips near the village of Kaag, outside of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The Dutch often use cycling to get around, and Amsterdam is considered one of the most bike-friendly large cities in the world. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Amsterdam, Netherlands

    A tourist smokes at a coffeeshop "de Dampkring," or "Atmosphere," where a part of the "Ocean's Twelve" movie was filmed, in the center of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The city is famous for its nightlife, cultural activities and red-light district. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Stockholm, Sweden

    Boats line up on the shoreline in Stockholm, the capital and largest city in Sweden. The city is built on 14 islands connected by 57 bridges. (Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Krakow, Poland

    The Church of St. Mary of the Assumption in Krakow, Poland, is one of the most well-known tourist spots in the city and noted for its gothic, medieval architecture. However, most people come to Krakow because of its proximity to Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi's concentration camps, which is now a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. (Jon Hicks / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Nice, France

    Hundreds of people enjoy sunbathing on the beach in Nice on the French Riviera. (Valery Hache / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Brussels, Belgium

    The Grand Place in the heart of Old Town in Brussels, Belguim, is marked by many 17th-century buildings and flower markets. (Jean-Pierre Lescourret / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Greek islands

    Oia, on the island of Santorini, Greece, is on a clifftop village filled with white structures and gorgeous sunsets. Santorini offers seaside tavernas, cliffside paths, black volcanic rocks and of course, sunshine and the Aegean Sea. (Saundra Virtanen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pamplona, Spain

    Revelers hold up their red scarves during the start of the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, Spain. The annual festival is best known for its daily running of the bulls. (Susana Vera / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Prague, Czech Republic

    The buildings in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, are constructed in many architectural styles from Romanesque to gothic to art nouveau and modern. (Michal Cizek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Reykjavik, Iceland

    Tourists stand in the Blue Lagoon outside Reykjavik, Iceland. The Blue Lagoon's waters come from natural hot water springs flowing through rocks of lava. Many also believe the mineral-rich waters may have health benefits. (Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. St. Petersburg, Russia

    The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul is seen on the bank of the Neva River in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Dmitry Lovetsky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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