Stockholm’s Gamla Stan is like nothing you’ve explored before: a living, breathing medieval Sweden greets you as soon as you step onto the island, and there’s no question why this is one of the top spots on both our custom and escorted tours.
Until 1980, Gamla Stan was known as Staden Mellan Broarna, the ‘Town between the Bridges’, which refers to its location as an island. There’s a curious legend linked to this section of Stockholm—the originating section of the city—which many attribute to the breakdown of its name, ‘stock’ (meaning ‘log’) and ‘holm’ (‘island’).
According to several sources, the original capital of Sweden was Sigtuna (the oldest town in Sweden, about an hour away by car today). It was gang-ridden, and the residents decided they wanted a more secure home. They hollowed out a log, stuffed it full of gold, and let it float on the water until it landed in present-day Stockholm’s Gamla Stan. The landing site became the location of the new capital city. The more likely story is that a large number of Sigtuna citizens simply decided to move to a new location—clearing a large section of its trees to make way for the human population—but it’s fun to imagine that somewhere there’s a floating log with lost treasure in it, right?
Whatever the truth of the mystery is, Gamla Stan is the original town center of Stockholm, and it contains a colorful mixture of archaic Brick Gothic architecture, cobblestone streets, awnings over antique shops, and friendly natives. It’s well worth the visit for the landmarks listed below alone!
You can’t get much closer to some of the city’s main historical attractions on a tour of Stockholm than Stortorget Square. Located within the heart of Gamla Stan, it’s the oldest square in Stockholm and the most iconic for its medieval history.
Buildings here are famous not only for their unusual color palette, but for their shops. Some of the area’s most famous include the oldest tavern in Stockholm (frequented by the likes of King John III in his heyday—the 16th century!) and a 300-year-old pharmacy. The square is also home to various festivals or markets (like at Christmas) on a regular basis.
Within Stortorget Square lies the Stock Exchange Building, home to the official museum of the prestigious Nobel Prize Ceremony – the first of which was held in 1901. The atmosphere surrounding the Exchange’s entrance alone is like stepping back in time. Traditional cobblestone meets the Exchange’s short flight of stone steps; you enter the site of commemoration for each year’s Nobel Prize ceremony with an enormous ancient well and a checkerboard of tinged buildings (and a plethora of multicolored awnings) at your back.
Stockholm’s old Stock Exchange Building contains a good number of interesting exhibits, including the museum for the history of the Nobel Prize and the Nobel Library—a fascinating combination of recent literature and out-of-country literary journals open to the public.
Less than 3 minutes’ walk away from Stortorget Square, the Royal Palace of Stockholm is a veritable city on a hill that can easily be seen by boat from the harbor below. Best known as the official royal residence, the Palace actually contains the offices of the royal subjects and Royal Court of Sweden. The Royal Guard has been in place, defending both the Royal Palace and Drottningholm—the actual royal residence—since 1523.
With over 5 separate museums inside that exhibit everything from small reception rooms to a silver throne, the Royal Palace of Stockholm is well worth the visit.
A stunning 13th-century medieval cathedral right in between the Exchange Building and the Royal Palace, the Stockholm Cathedral is unique in that it is the oldest building in Stockholm still in use (1279 A.D., consecrated 1306 A.D.). The current King and Queen were married here, as well as their daughter Crown Princess Victoria.
A short walk from Stortorget Square, the Cathedral holds a fantastic 15th-century sculpture known as Saint George and the Dragon, Gothic brick columns, ornate candelabras, and incredibly intricate ceilings as well as a working pipe organ. It’s also the site on which a special memorial celebration for St. Lucia Day commences each year (shown above).
If you take your tour of Stockholm a little outside the Gamla Stan area, you’ll find another intriguing local wonder: Vasa Museum is the home of the 17th-century warship Vasa, recovered nearly 50 years ago and restored to its original battle-ready condition. For nearly 350 years, Vasa lay at the bottom of Stockholm harbor, having sank on its maiden voyage. The process of preserving the ship after its raising took roughly 17 years, and the new Vasa Museum opened in 1990.
At over 225 feet with 64 cannons and capable of holding up to 300 men, Vasa was a true war machine, and this museum pays homage to its power and historical importance. You can even have a romantic candlelight dinner in sight of the ship!
There's so much more to explore in Gamla Stan and Stockholm's nearby cityscape. Let us arrange a private tour of Scandinavia's capitals and food culture for you today!