By David Hochman
The greatest ship never to sail out of Stockholm left its anchoring place near the old royal palace on Aug. 10, 1628. Hundreds crowded the banks under calm skies to watch King Gustav II Adolf’s warship, adorned with more than 700 sculptures, take to the seas. Less than a quarter mile out, the mighty Vasa listed and sank. Raised from the depths three centuries later, and now permanently moored in its own museum, this iconic emblem of Stockholm’s harbor is one of Scandinavia’s top visitor attractions.
“It was an epic failure, but the most beautiful failure to happen to Stockholm,” says my museum guide. “And of course it took place on the water. Everything in Stockholm comes back to the water.”
Officially, Stockholm is a city on 14 islands, but an actual tally of all the outlying islets, outcroppings, and skerries–just glance at a map of the jigsawed archipelago–pushes the number to more than 25,000.
So while many cities are best explored by, say, subway or taxi, when in Stockholm, float. Private Zodiacs, public ferries, kayaks, vintage steamships, wooden rowboats, canals, pedestrian bridges–these are the ways Stockholmers get around. Set between sparkly Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea, the city is 30 percent water and another 30 percent green space. Compared to other cities, venturing out by car isn’t really a thought.
“When we’re not on the water, we want to be,” our guide tells us on a rocky cliff in Södermalm, the stylish island of bridges and locks where Greta Garbo grew up. “We jog along the water, have our fika”–the essential afternoon coffee break–“sitting alongside it, stare at it from our windows. We dream about it. Water feeds the spirit in Stockholm.”
The city’s heart spreads out through a meticulous metropolitan hub to primeval forests on fairy-tale islands. It’s distinctly Scandinavian–an urban smorgasbord that somehow balances the medieval and the modern, conservative grandeur and free-spirited fun, herring connoisseurs and Abba fans.
The Grand Hôtel
is the quintessential place to take it all in. The 1874 landmark opposite the Royal Palace has a Michelin-rated restaurant, a sleek Nordic spa, and a ballroom that’s an exact replica of Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors. Across the street, boats depart for every manner of excursion–“Good Morning Stockholm,” “Under the Bridges,” “The Royal Canal”–all year long.
In nearby Gamla Stan (Old Town), my wife, son, and I explore Stockholm’s birthplace–a labyrinthine kingdom of stone alleyways established in 1252 and as charming to behold as its origin story. At Mårten Trotzigs Gränd, the narrowest street in the city at less than a yard wide, we learn the legend of Stockholm’s founding near where it happened: To find a safe haven from pillagers, settlers filled a hollowed-out log with gold and let it drift along the water. They dubbed the spot where the log came to rest “stock holm,” or log islet.
If Gamla Stan is Stockholm’s cradle, Djurgården, across the bay, is its playground. Many of the preserved wooden buildings, as well as the sculptured bridge to the mainland, date back to Stockholm’s 1897 World’s Fair. Junibacken is a postage-stamp-size museum devoted to the work of such Swedish children’s book authors as Astrid Lindgren. Old-timey amusement park Tivoli Gröna Lund, opened in 1883, features a carousel and fun house. Skansen has the world’s oldest open-air museum, bustling with tanners, glassblowers, and silversmiths in a replica nineteenth-century Swedish village.
Glimpsing Stockholm’s future actually starts with boarding a 1912 wooden steamer to explore the Skärgården, as locals call their archipelago. Leaving from the shore behind the Grand Hôtel, the Gustafsberg VII glides past Östermalm’s luxury apartments, past the big cruise liners, and out of Stockholm proper into the rocky channels that comprise the city’s island suburbs. Here, the passage narrows into a bottleneck as we enter the Baggenstäket Strait–so impossibly tight it feels like you could jump off the boat and end up in someone’s garden.
Fortunately, Artipelag, the first stop, is the perfect place to catch your breath. Founded by Björn Jakobson, creator of Babybjörn, Artipelag is a monumental art space, dining spot, and respite midway through the island chain. With rooftop moss gardens, the latest in technology, and clean blond-wood design, it feels like an artist’s conception of Scandinavia circa 2025, albeit with traditional menu items like the beef-and-gravy dish skomakarlåda (literally “shoemaker’s box”).
Push on farther and the wider sea beckons. The Swedes are famously reserved, but they don’t shy away from serious adventure, as evidenced by the number of high-speed inflatable RIB speedboats, zooming through the archipelago. Giving over to a RIB excursion means donning a colorful waterproof jumpsuit and life jacket and holding on for dear life.
Located at the farthest part of the outer archipelago, Sandhamn has been a destination for urban sailors since 1897. It might best be described as shanty chic, with views of sand and nature to entrance the restless imagination. Spend a few hours watching the fascinating characters on Trouville Beach, near the cafés and ice cream shops, and you’ll understand why Stieg Larsson set parts of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” here.
Depart Sandhamn midmorning and by 12:45 you’re back at the Grand, enjoying all those water views from the hotel veranda. That’s how things work in Stockholm – going all the way back to the Vasa, really. Just when you think you’re sailing out of town, something tips the balance and you can’t quite pull yourself away.
Originally appeared in Virtuoso Life magazine, July 2013.
More Articles Like This: