Stockholm Sights

I began my sightseeing in Stockholm with a walking tour in the Gamla Stan or Old Town. The tour guide started with a succinct history of Sweden which went something like this: After the Iron Age came the Vikings. They disappeared during the Dark Ages. For 500 years, there were petty kings and lots of battles with Denmark. In 1523, a noble named Gustav consolidated power, made himself king and Sweden as we know it today was born. Gustav’s progeny ruled for a few hundred years, with their most notable legacy being making the Lutheran Church the national religion. This was more a land grab from the existing Catholic Church than a theological metamorphosis, but it stuck. In the early 19th century, the last of the Gustav line died without heir so the Swedes asked Napoleon what to do. Why Napoleon was never explained, but he proposed a wealthy Frenchman who had no royal blood and didn’t speak Swedish. The Swedes accepted and, to this day, his heirs are the Swedish royal family. They have since learned Swedish but their taste in marriage partners still runs toward the common- an American businessman and a reality TV star.

The tour walked us through some of the significant buildings where these events occurred – the Church where the Gustavs are buried, the Royal Palace, the main square which was the sight of a bloodbath of Swedish nobles by the Danes and the narrowest alleyway imaginable, constructed only 35 inches wide to discourage people from using it as a toilet. The streets were all cobblestone,  everything was pretty and the entire tour with the historical commentary took a grand total of an hour and a half.

I cycled to the Vasa Museum, a wonderful monument to total stupidity. There is even a syndrome called the Vasa Syndrome, which refers to a pigheaded ruler who doesn’t listen to anyone and fails to see disaster looming. The Vasa was a ship built quickly under orders from one of the King Gustavs to battle the Poles who were at war with Sweden at the time. King Gustav wanted to impress the Poles, so he ordered that there be two gun or cannon decks, rather than the usual one, but failed to make allowances for the extra weight the second gun deck added. Not surprisingly, on the day of its launch in August, 1628, it gloriously sailed 1300 meters (1400 yards) and sank.

The Vasa was raised in 1961 and carefully reconstructed (98% is original). It is now housed in a purpose built museum with ramps allowing visitors to view it from different levels, along with exhibits showing aspects of life in the city based on artifacts found on the ship. Raising and restoring the Vasa was a mammoth undertaking and it is a fabulous relic, but even I, with a limited knowledge of seaworthiness principles, could tell it was top heavy.

So I turned to a more seaworthy topic- the Vikings – at Vikingaliv, a museum devoted to  Vikings. There I learned that the Viking image as fierce sailors and warriors was not accurate; the museum portrayed them as simple farmers forced into occasional forays of plunder and murder along the coasts of England and Ireland. There were models of Viking ships and references to their extensive trading as far as Constantinople and China, but the focus was on their farm houses, their family life and their burial rites, with special attention paid to a 10th century Arab traveler who wrote of the Vikings practice of weekly baths and daily hair combing. Very enlightening.

Desirous to learn a little more about Swedish history, I went to the aptly named Swedish Museum of History. It told the same story as the tour guide and the Viking museum, with more artifacts but no more detail. I was beginning to understand why all my European history courses had failed to mention Sweden- after the Vikings it was not involved in much except local wars with the Danes, Russians and Poles.

Sweden did produce one noteworthy individual – Alfred Nobel, of the Nobel prize fame and the subject of the Nobel Museum. Occupying a prominent place in the Main Square of the Old City, the Nobel Museum traces the life of Mr. Nobel – born in Sweden, invented dynamite and became stinking rich, lived in various places throughout Europe, died without heirs so bequeathed his entire fortune to the founding and funding of the 5 prizes (chemistry, physics, medicine, peace and literature) with the 6th prize in economics added in 1969. Each is awarded annually with great fanfare in Stockholm.


However wonderful the concept of the Nobel prize or the achievements of its recipients, it does not make for a particularly fascinating museum. A tribute to the Literature Prize winners showcased each person’s name, country, famous works and the reason why he or she was chosen: “So and so was born in …..and raised ….He/she was greatly influenced by ……..The Academy chose so and so because……” Other than giving me ideas of some books to read, the whole thing was boring.

Seeking something more engaging, it was off to the Nobel theatre, which ran short films of 24 Nobel recipients, letting them speak of matters dear to their hearts. The Dahai Lama contributed a film as did Barbara McClintock for her work on corn genetics. Each short film provided appropriate tributes to the awardee, but the entertainment value of the films was fairly limited.

Hoping to see something more interesting, I turned to the artifacts exhibits, but seeing letters written by Einstein or a model of DNA did not excite me. I left shortly afterwards to visit the museum devoted to Sweden’s most famous citizens: ABBA.

ABBA was the iconic music group of the 1970’s. The two ladies (Agnetha and Anni-Frid) and two gents (Bjorn and Benny) were well known singers and song writers in Sweden in their own right, but shot to international stardom after winning the 1974 Eurovision song competition with Waterloo. Hit followed hit followed by movies, a Broadway show (Chess), marriages to each other ,then divorces and the gradual break up of the group.


All is lovingly retold in the ABBA museum, complete with videos, an infectious soundtrack that follows you around, a frightening number of shiny bell bottom pants and the most interactive exhibits one could want. While I limited myself to having my picture taken in the cutouts, other tourists partook in photo sessions, karaoke and the ultimate dance- on stage with holograph ABBA singing and performing the moves to one’s choice of Dancing Queen or Mama Mia. I didn’t have enough hutzpah to get on stage and try, but others did.


It was a fitting end to my time in Stockholm- a pleasant but not too serious museum. The price, as usual in Sweden, was outrageous to my Canadian sense of cost, but I left with positive vibes of Sweden and humming Supertrouper as a left.





Welcome to Europe: Stockholm

After spending a week in Toronto, I flew to Germany en route to Sweden. I arrived at the immigration booth and had the following conversation with the customs officer:

“Where are you going?”


How long?” he inquired.

“Not sure.” I said.

“Welcome to Europe,” he replied, handing me back my passport and waving me through.

And that was that. Just a perfunctory question or two in Germany and I was in Europe for an indeterminate time with no probing whatsoever into my intentions, finances, or hotels. Nothing. I’m guessing that the profile of a middle-aged Caucasian woman speaking English with a Canadian passport doesn’t raise any red flags, but it does make me feel slightly privileged compared to the welcome I suspect awaited the thousands of recent would be refugees.

But on to Sweden. I don’t know if it was the contrast to 10 weeks of driving around the USA or memories of unfortunate first encounters with airport taxi drivers or the clean streets in Stockholm, but I am loving this country. The 5 minute late departure of the flight from Frankfurt was the subject of no less than 3 apologies from the pilot, no immigration awaited me  in Stockholm and the signs for the express train to downtown were in English and easy to follow. My credit card worked in the ticket machine, my seat mate on the train spoke perfect English and the directions to the hotel (go out of the station, turn left and walk for 250 meters) were accurate. Less than an hour after landing, I was happily ensconced in my downtown hotel.

Better yet, there was a bike share rack across the street. I hadn’t been on a bike most of the summer and was anxious to try Stockholm’s much vaunted cycling system.  I bought a bike card (conveniently on sale at my hotel), went to the bike rack and got a bike. It was that simple. No idiotic written cycling test (as in Mexico City) or wait for a code/fob/secret password (like Toronto). Just buy the card, get the bike and go. Which I did – there were bike paths all over the place – in pale red on the road, on sidewalks with different stones or asphalt to keep us apart from pedestrians, some paths raised off the street, other times with guardrails to separate cyclists from the buses. We had our own traffic lights,  crossings, passages under the bridges, even our own lane on roundabouts. Best of all, everyone – cars, pedestrian, other cyclists, even cab drivers – were kind and tolerant. No cars tried to kill me by turning right in front of me, pedestrians mostly respected the lines between bike paths and sidewalks and no crazy cyclists tried to recreate the Tour de France. Everyone was so relaxed, so non-aggressive, so kind. It becomes infectious. I started going around the idiot tourists who stood in the bike paths to get that great picture with an understanding smile. Cars stopped and gestured for me to cross the road even though there was no light or zebra stripes. I moved over for faster cyclists and waited for bike lights to turn green. Unlike Toronto, cycling here does not feel like a death defying act but an enjoyable experience.

Of course, I got lost. A lot. Stockholm is built on a series of islands, some of which are connected by ferries, other by bridges and most with unpronounceable names that were hard to decipher as I cycled over one bridge and onto another island. Google Maps was less than useful. Google Maps would tell me it was 12 minutes by bike away….just turn here, continue on ….street, then go left….etc., but the voice could not be heard on a bike and no cyclists had headphones on (or, for that matter, very few helmets) and once I spent more than an hour with no destination in sight, I turned to more traditional methods of finding my way. I asked people. Most of my conversations started with a polite:

“Hello, do you speak English?”

“Of course” would be the somewhat indignant retort.

After a few “of course” answers I changed tactics slightly. Instead of asking “do you speak English?” I switched to “Hi, can you help me in English?” which was met variously with “certainly”, “absolutely” and “for sure” but not once with “I don’t speak English.” As I said, everything was pretty easy here.

Even the statues are happy

Food was the next order of business. Normally, liquor would also be high on the list, but my pre-trip readings had all warned of the extremely high price of wine. However, as a foreigner, I was entitled to bring in up to 4 liters of wine. Breaking my “no checked baggage” rule, I put a few bottles of Pellar Estates Pinot Grigio in my suitcase. Call me cheap, but the few times I ordered a single glass of mediocre wine in Stockholm, the cost was always over $20.

My principle foray into Scandinavian cuisine was a healthy indulgence at the hotel’s daily breakfast smorgasbord, including all I could eat smoked salmon, cured salmon, cooked salmon, pickled herring, liver pates and a variety of novel (to me) cheeses along with made more traditional omelets, bacon and breads. Good thing I like salmon.

My hotel’s flagship restaurant was Kitchen & Table, a concept by the Ethiopian born, Swedish raised and current Food Network expert chef, Marcus Samuelson, where local sourced vegetables are the stars and proteins ordered as sides. I treated myself to a Jerusalem artichoke served in a parsnip puree and caramelized onions, with braised lamb on the side. Delicious.

Within a few blocks of the hotel were numerous Indian, Italian and sushi restaurants, but nothing that served Swedish meatballs or reindeer. For those, I went to Ostermalm’s Market Hall, the main food hall. Both were available, but neither looked particularly appetizing. A food truck festival was happening nearby, so falafels won out.

Saturday afternoon in downtown Stockholm

Greetings in Sweden took me a bit of getting used to. Everyone uniformly says “heh.” Not, “heh heh” or the current millennial’s favourite “hey” but a guttural, throat clearing “heh.” The first few times it was barked in my direction, it startled me, like someone had caught me doing something I shouldn’t, but after I looked up the English translation (hello) and proper spelling (hej), I warmed up to it. I could not bring myself to use it, preferring “hi” to announce my need for English. Everyone seemed okay with that, because the Swedes I met were generally okay with everything.

So, having mastered the local transportation, food, wine, greetings and my lack of Swedish, I felt ready to tackle the sights. Next up, some museums.