The Islands of Stockholm

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Posted by Dan Webster on June 3, 2018, noon

For me, the magic of Stockholm peaked at six in the evening.

But … we’ll get to that in a minute. First, I want to mention the one problem I have with cruise-ship travel. Which is this: You typically don’t get enough of a chance to fully explore the cities you visit.

That certainly was the case with our summer visit to Stockholm, a city I long had dreamed of seeing. We’d arrived in the Swedish capital early in the morning and were set to sail that evening, which meant that we had maybe 12 hours to experience what turned out to be my favorite stop of our Baltic cruise.

Our stay didn’t last that long actually, given the time it took to debark and then re-board in time to for departure. Still, it’s good to know that a half-day can give you at least a feel for a city, especially if you make good decisions.

And my wife is very good at making travel decisions.

It turns out that arriving in Stockholm before full light worked out well because – combined with our reluctance to rise in time for the docking maneuver – it merely delayed what to me would be the day’s biggest thrill. Again, though, more on that later.

Stockholm, in and of itself, offers any number of tourist charms.

Once we left the ship, we jumped on a Hop-On Hop-Off boat tour, which perfectly suits this city of islands. We’ve taken advantage of Hop-On Hop-Off bus tours in cities as diverse as Auckland and Rome, Barcelona and Mexico City, and we’ve enjoyed varying levels of success. Stockholm, though, was our first such excursion by water.

Gröna Lund Amusement Park
Gröna Lund Amusement Park
Mary Pat Treuthart photo

Convenience was the key. We picked up our boat just a few steps away from our cruise ship’s dock, enduring barely any semblance of a wait since tours depart every 20 minutes. The boat tour also offered utility, giving us ready access to such must-see sights as Stockholm’s Old Town (or Gamla stan), the Royal Palace, the Vasa Museum and the downtown shopping area.

Even though we could have transferred to buses, we chose to walk as much as we wanted between stops. With a limited time frame, we had to nix anything outside the city center. But that worked out, too. Stockholm has a population of nearly 1 million (in country of just over 9 million), but its center is fairly easy to traverse by foot, and photo ops crop up on virtually every corner.

Consult any travel guide you can find, and you’ll discover what most experts consider to be Stockholm’s most coveted tourist sites. Most of those we saw were congregated in an area I’ve already mentioned: the city’s Old Town. Dating back to the 1200s, the Old Town gives visitors a taste of what the city might have been like eight or more centuries ago. One example is the Stockholm Cathedral, which was built in 1279 and, since 1527, has been a Lutheran church.

Another Old Town attraction is the Royal Palace, an immense, square building that sits on the water’s edge, dates from the 18th century and boasts 600 rooms. If you don’t have a full day or more to spend exploring the palace’s vastness, you can at least watch the 40-minute-long daily changing of the guard ceremony (12:15 p.m. on weekdays, 1:15 p.m. on Sundays).

One highlight for us, though, was the Vasa Museum, which is located due east of Old Town, on the island of Djurgården. This historic museum is a vast warehouse that houses the remains of a giant wooden warship, the Vasa, which sank in 1628 in the middle of Stockholm harbor minutes into its inaugural voyage. Rediscovered in 1956, the wreck became the focus of a massive restoration project – the results of which sit in the museum.

From the Vasa, we walked through the Royal City National Park, past ABBA The Museum (which we avoided because we didn’t want to be humming “Mamma Mia” for the rest of the day), the open-air Skansen museum and Gröna Lund amusement park.

All that walking, of course, left us parched. But, then, what would a travel story be without some mention of food and drink? Since we visited in summer, and because Stockholm is such a popular tourist destination, we had to deal with the obligatory crowds. That made it hard to book a table at any of the city’s more exclusive restaurants, even for a mid-day meal.

Saltsjökvarn District
Saltsjökvarn District
Mary Pat Treuthart photo

But we got lucky. We managed to find seats at a highly rated burger place – aptly called Barrels Burgers & Beer – where I enjoyed the second-best hamburger of my life (the best was at Molokai Burger, a fast-food eatery on the Hawaiian island of Molokai). The deliciousness mollified me somewhat, considering I ended up paying about $15 for it.

Fries were included, but the beer was extra. Nothing, we discovered, comes cheap in Stockholm.

Except, ultimately, for the magic we experienced as our cruise ship weighed anchor late that afternoon and navigated its way back through the vast Stockholm archipelago. Covering much of Sweden’s southeast coast, the archipelago comprises some 24,000 islands, through which shipping lanes afford passage for deep-draught vessels between Stockholm and the Baltic Sea.

As we sailed along, hour after hour, we saw just how scenic this part of the world is. All that water cradled a collection of seemingly countless tree-lined islands, many peppered with various-sized settlements. Former residences of farmers and fishers, these communities now are home mostly to vacation-cottage owners and the occasional boutique hotel.

And as I witnessed all this standing along the top rail of our 16-deck cruise ship, as the sun slowly set and the lights of Stockholm gradually faded from view, I had only one thought.

This place is calling me back. And next time, I’m definitely going to stay longer.