The capital of Sweden is a cosmopolitan city with a tangled old town, stylish young districts, a dynamic city centre. Spread across 14 islands on Lake Mälaren, Stockholm’s very environment encourages you to rove and see where you’ll end up. There are around 50 bridges in the centre alone, while ferries are a fun way to get about.
When it comes to fashion, design and music Stockholm is well ahead of the curve, and many of the coolest places to shop and go out are on the island of Södermalm south of the centre. The lion’s share of the museums and family days out are on Djurgården, a wooded island where the city goes for rest, culture and fun.
Let’s explore the best thing to do in Stockholm:
1. Gamla Stan
Begin by going back to Stockholm’s roots at one of Europe’s great medieval centres, spread over three islands.
You’ll be in the midst of a true Hanseatic trading city, where gabled shops and warehouses are painted various shades of gold.
These now host all manner of restaurants, many garnering international awards, as well as museums, studios, bijou boutiques, cafes and bars.
On the eastern side of the old town there’s a long sequence of parallel cobblestone lanes leading in from the water and dipping under passageways.
Come here to squeeze through Mårten Trotzigs Gränd, an alley that tapers to just 90 centimetres across.
The visionary teacher and academic Artur Hazelius founded what was the first ever open-air museum in the world on Royal Djurgården in 1891. The idea was to show future generations what life was like in Sweden before the Industrial Age, and it has been borrowed by hundreds of museums around the world.
More than a century Skansen it’s still the best museum in its class, in 30 hectares and with a large cast recreating rural scenes from all over Sweden down to the finest detail.
A Sami camp from the Arctic circle, a farm from the remote western Härjedalen province and a open-air zoo with wolves, lynxes, otters, grey seals, reindeer and moose are a few of the attractions.
3. Vasa Museum
An awesome relic from the 17th-century reign of the all-conquering King Gustavus Adolphus has been revived at this museum the west shore of Djurgården.
The Vasa was a 64-gun warship that went down on its first voyage in 1628. It remained in the deep until 1961 when it was lifted to the surface and slowly and painstakingly restored.
The vessel has almost all of its original material and is the only 17th-century ship of this scale to make it to the present day.
And with the ship came a payload of artefacts that tell us what it was like to sail on the Vasa.
These are in ten exhibition rooms, and there’s a multilingual movie about the ship and its resurrection.
4. Modern Art Museum
On the island of Skeppsholmen at the Baltic Sea entrance to the city is the pick of Stockholm’s superb institutions for modern and contemporary art.
The museum started out in the 1950s in a former military building before moving into this Rafael Moneo-designed edifice at the end of the 90s.
Some of the names that even casual dabblers will know are Picasso, Marcel Duschamp, Henri Matisse and Salvador Dalí.
People also come especially for the museum’s restaurant, which looks over to Djurgården.
There’s also a sculpture with works by Picasso, Dan Graham and Alexaner Calder.
5. The Medieval Museum
In the 1970s during the construction of an underground car park builders happened upon some of Stockholm’s medieval city walls.
This is under the Norrbro bridge and measures 55 metres, and is now one of the showpieces of the city’s medieval museum.
Here you can track the history of the city from its foundation in the 13th century to the 16th century at the end of the medieval period.
Kids can dress up in armour, while other pieces of old Stockholm that came to light in the dig are part of the fun, like a 16th-century warship and a medieval graveyard.
These mingle with recreated houses, taverns and workshops.
Based on the stories of children’s author Astrid Lindgren, Junibacken is a theme park aimed at young readers.
Lindgren’s contribution to literature is indisputable and is still one of the world’s 20 most translated writers.
Her most beloved character is Pippi Longstocking, whose house, Villa Villekulla, is the final destination of a whimsical train ride through the park.
The park is designed to kindle children’s natural curiosity and abounds with niches, tunnels and miniature houses to adventure through.
Junibacken also has the largest children’s bookshop in the country, and Storybook Square is a kind of hall of fame for Sweden’s long lineup of renowned children’s authors like Elsa Beskow and Sven Nordqvist.
7. Swedish History Museum
The Swedish History Museum is anchored in the art collection of the 16th-century King Gustav Vasa, which grew with subsequent monarchs as the Empire expanded.
Now you’ll get a full chronology of Swedish history from Prehistory to the present day, with special attention on the exploits of the Vikings.
The Gold Room is literally brilliant, with more than 3,000 objects across 3,500 years of Swedish history.
Unforgettable here are the gold collars from 300-500 made from melted down Roman gold coins.
The Viking collection is as rich as you’d hope, and has artefacts from the trading post at Birka and the Mästermyr tool chest.
8. Royal Palace
With more than 600 rooms Stockholm’s Royal Palace is up there with the largest palaces in Europe.
There are five museums in this mostly 18th-century complex, which isn’t just a historical relic: The King of Sweden still lives here, most royal events and receptions happen at the palace and all the various departments associated with the royal family operate in these plush environs.
Just a brief run-down of the must-sees includes the reception rooms, the royal apartments, the Rikssalen (Hall of State) and the Ordenssalarna (Halls of the Orders of Chivalry). Of the five museums, the Treasury is predictably lavish and Gustav III’s Museum of Antiquities has ancient Greek and Roman sculptures bought by the king during his trip to Italy in 1783-84.
By the water on Södermalm is one of the world’s top photography galleries.
The location is the old wharf at Stadsgården, and the attraction is in a repurposed customs building.
There are four high-profile exhibitions staged at Fotografiska per year, along with 20 smaller shows, so no two visits will ever be the same.
Just by way of intro, some of the photographers featured here recently are greats like Robert Mapplethorpe, Guy Bourdin, Irving Penn, and Akseli Vamunen (Young Nordic Photographer of the Year in 2016). The gallery’s restaurant is highly regarded and has started picking up awards, while you can contemplate Djurgården from a table at the top floor cafe.
10. The City Hall
One of the buildings that makes Stockholm, well, Stockholm is the City Hall, unmistakeable for its 106-metre tower and spire.
Composed of eight million bricks it’s the perfect expression of the Nordic National Romantic style and was inaugurated in June 1923 400 years to the day after Gustav Vasa’s arrival in the city.
The dimensions of the spaces inside are spellbinding, most of all the Blue Hall where the Nobel Banquet is held every December.
After dinner, there’s a dance in the Golden Hall, which is adorned with 18 million gold mosaic tiles.
An integral part of any visit is scaling the tower and gazing over Stockholm.
Beside the water on Östermalm is one of the most exclusive addresses in the city: A boulevard and esplanade with views to Gamla Stan and Skeppsholmen, and tying Djurgården to the centre of the city.
Strandvägen was plotted in the late 19th century and completed in 1897 for the Stockholm World’s Fair.
The long row of palatial apartment buildings is in the Revivalist style, epitomised by Isak Gustaf Clason’s Bünsow Building, which looks like a Loire Valley chateau.
Stockholm’s tour boats and water taxis converge on Strandvägen, and the esplanade has scores of cafes and bars for a quick refreshment before carrying on your way.
12. Prins Eugen Waldemarsudde
There’s a snapshot of turn-of-the-century royal life at Prince Eugen’s estate on Djurgården.
Eugen was a man of leisure who threw himself into the art world.
He was a prominent collector and patron, and in his youth studied fine art in Paris.
Eugen’s collection, as well as his own landscape paintings, decorate his Art Nouveau house on an estate with buildings going back to the 18th century.
This is all on a small peninsula enveloped in mature oak woodland, facing the canal that links Stockholm to the Baltic and with the city’s skyline in the background.
The estate’s flower garden is a joy in early summer, and there’s also a sculpture garden with works by the likes of Auguste Rodin.
13. ABBA: The Museum
Whatever your opinion of Sweden’s biggest pop act there’s no getting away from their cultural impact.
More than three decades after they split up their music still pops up in movies, TV shows and of course their record-breaking musical Mamma Mia.
The museum brims with ABBA memorabilia and clever touches that fans will be wild for.
One is Benny Andersson’s piano, which is connected remotely to the piano in his house and plays whatever he’s playing at home.
There’s also a phone, Ring Ring, that only the four ABBA members know the number to.
At the immersive “Waterloo” exhibit you can step back to 1974 and relive the Eurovision Song Contest that ABBA won with “Waterloo”, to kick-start their career.
Tickets available online: ABBA The Museum – Walk In, Dance Out
14. Gröna Lund
Djurgården is also the scene for Sweden’s oldest amusement park, and although Gröna Lund first opened in 1883 it is very much up to date.
New roller coasters are unveiled every few years, like the state-of-art “Insane” on which you’ll spend half the ride upside down.
Another, “Eclipse” is a swing ride more than 120 metres in height.
Away from the white-knuckle rides the littler visitors will have the time of their lives on tea cups, carousels, bumper cars and romping through fun houses.
There are concerts in the park all summer, and Paul McCartney, Bob Marley and ABBA are a few of the big names to have played here.
Before or after a trip to Fotografista, mosey across to the wood and cobblestone path above the north coast of Södermalm.
In a city that has a replete with scenic views, this may be the finest of them all: You’ll get your best shots of the City Hall and Gamla Stan from this 500-metre trail, and the light at sunrise and sunset is dreamy.
Over Lake Mälaren you’ll watch the big ships hoving into view and the smaller launches darting back and forth.
There’s also an old-time feel about this residential neighbourhood, and lots of places close by to grab a cold drink in summer or warm up with “fika” in winter.
16. Nordic Museum
Artur Hazelius, founder of the Skansen Museum, also conceived this ethnographical attraction a few moments away on Djurgården.
The Nordic Museum spells out the cultural history of Sweden from about the 16th century onwards, showcasing its traditional costume and textiles, ceramics, jewellery, furniture and folk art.
You can also get a handle on the Sami, Sweden’s only indigenous culture, and dip into their history, beliefs and way of life.
Isak Gustaf Clason was hired to design the building and came up with an extraordinary Neo-Renaissance palace that was finished in 1907 after a 19-year construction and would be worth the visit alone.
A mandatory stop in Gamla Stan is the oldest square in the city at the highest point of the island.
Stockholm’s expansion in the High Middle Ages began at this very point, and you can be sure that Stortorget has seen some drama in its time.
One was the Stockholm Bloodbath of 1520 when up to 90 people were executed in the square by Danish forces.
The cannonball in the wall at the corner where Skomakargatan joins the square is said to go back to this time.
Stortorget’s beauty is in its gabled houses from the 1600s and 1700s, and the Christmas market in December when treats like ginger snaps (pepparkakor) and mulled wine (glögg) bring plenty of cheer.
18. Drottningholm Palace
One of Sweden’s three World Heritage Sites is on the western outskirts of Stockholm.
Drottningholm is in the French style and was conceived in 17th century.
Refinements were made over the next few hundred years when each successive monarch left his or her own mark on the palace.
There are opulent salons from the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s, but one of the remarkable details is the Palace Theatre, which dates to the 1700s and continues to stage performances to this day, unchanged.
The Chinese Pavilion, finished in 1769, is another marvel in an oriental-infused Rococo style and with interiors enriched with decorative works like porcelain and lacquered furniture gathered by the Swedish East India Company in the 18th century.
We’ve already taken in the scenery and visited Fotografiska, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg on this island south of the centre.
Södermalm, where Greta Garbo grew up, has a few ultra-cool neighbourhoods with quirky shops and interesting places to go out.
Try SoFo (South of Folkungagatan) for one-of-a-kind designer boutiques, vintage shops and hip restaurants and cafes.
Nytorget Square here is a fun night out in summer.
The same goes for Mosebacke, which had a bohemian reputation for as long as anyone can remember, and is just the place to go for designer shopping, live music and a craft beer or coffee.
The sight of Stockholm from the terrace of the Södra Teatern is not to be missed.
20. Canal Trip
So much of Stockholm’s charm lies in its waterways that you’d be remiss not to see the city from the water.
You could even say it’s the first thing to do in the city, as you’ll get your bearings and see the parts you’d like to explore deeper later on.
A favourite trip is to head east on the Djurgårdsbrunnskanalen, a canal on the side of Djurgården.
This was dug during the reign of Charles XIV in 1825. On the way out there are lush views of palaces and gardens, and as you loop back you’ll see the city in all its majesty.
You could also take a bridges, which takes around two hours if you want to dig a bit deeper.
21. Hallwyl Museum
In the 1890s the aristocratic couple Walther von Hallwyl and his wife Wilhelmina ordered this mansion in the centre of Stockholm facing Berzelii Park.
The architect was Isak Gustaf Clason, responsible for many regal properties around the city like the Nordic Museum.
Hallywyl House is in a faithful Italian Renaissance style and while it might seem historic, the palace was advanced for its day and had phones, plumbing, central heating and electricity.
The countess in particular was a prodigious art collector, and even ten years before she passed away the palace had been donated to the state because of its profusion of fine art, furniture, silver, tableware and expertly crafted fittings.
The drawing room, dining room and billiard room are all very swish, while the courtyard puts on concerts in summer.
22. Stockholm Public Library
A bibliophile’s idea of heaven, the central building for the Stockholm Public Library is one of the world’s most beautiful libraries, and changed the city’s relationship with books when it opened in 1928. That’s down to the monumental rotunda at the top of the building.
This is a gigantic hall encircled with bookshelves, and for the first time readers could seek out the book they needed by themselves without having to consult the librarians.
Gunnar Asplund designed the library, and it’s held as a shining example of the Swedish Classicist movement.
There’s no fee to enter, and many of the titles are in English if you’re in need of a quiet, rainy day activity.
If you’re young and fashion-conscious Stockholm’s revitalised city centre has all the chain stores, malls and old-school department stores to stay on point.
This area of Stockholm, also known simply as “City”, had an iffy reputation up to the 90s when it was brightened up and made pedestrian-friendly.
Now it’s a shopper’s paradise where there are flagships stores for international brands all along Drottninggatan, which is heaving on weekends.
Meanwhile Åhléns and the upmarket Nordiska Kompaniet (NK) are thriving Swedish institutions that have been here for more than a century.
Behind the Royal Palace is a park that has something happening in all seasons.
But Kungsträdgården is never more beautiful than in April when its twin avenues of cherry trees are in bloom.
Thousands of people show up for Körsbärsblommans Dag (Cherry Blossom Day) in this month for a walk under those pink canopies.
In winter there’s a skating rink in the part of the park known as the oktogonen (octagon), while if you pass by in summer you’re sure to catch some temporary installation or festival.
And if you just have time to kill you could catch a game of street chess.
25. Go for Fika
If you’re new to the country then Fika is the easiest part of Swedish culture to pick up.
It’s essentially a coffee break, with no set time but is always a social occasion.
People at work “fika” (it’s a verb as well as a noun) to chat for a few minutes over coffee and a snack.
The partner for your cup of coffee can be anything from cookies to an open sandwich (smörgås). But the tried and trusted option is probably cinnamon buns (kanelbullar) or if you want to be a bit more indulgent, a slice of apple cake (äppelkaka).