I started my trip to Stockholm with some trepidation! Firstly, I had to drive from work to Gatwick for my 5pm plane (about a 2 hour journey) and recent road trips had taught me that drive times could change in front of your eyes if there is an accident. A 2-hour journey became a 4 hour journey only weeks before!
Not a problem if you are on your way home or going to meet someone, but planes won’t wait! Thankfully there was no need to worry, the trip took exactly the estimated time and I had ample time to enjoy something to eat and a drink before boarding.
Second concern was they this was not to be a solo trip! I am sure that sounds odd to most people, but I have been loving the freedom to decide where I want to go and when, without having to coordinate plans and wants with other people.
Not only was I meeting a friend from home in Stockholm , but she was also meeting other people before, and after I got there and she was having massive issues getting details from them as to where she would be and when! So off I headed with only the Friday night’s accommodation booked and a loose plan to meet her at an apartment in the suburbs on Saturday morning.
Now I am not sure if the gentleman doing the flight announcements at the airport was some kind of comedian or having a bad day 🤔. First he called the flight as going to Copenhagen (rather than Stockholm) and then he asked us all to make sure we knew the ‘boarding group’ we were seated in as they would be boarding that way … next announcement, all groups can board now 😂😂. Some days just the smallest things amuse me!
As we came into land, there was a beautiful view of the archipelago that Stockholm is part of – forested islands and water ways. I also noticed 3 large cruise ships just off the coast and had a slight feeling of concern over the number of tourists that would be in the city!
Arriving in Stockholm was a surreal experience to say the least. I had been sitting in the first row of the plane, so I was the first to get off and for a long time, there was only me and the guy sitting next to me … add to that the long empty corridor (of Scandinavian white pine flooring straight out of an Ikea catalogue), only one immigration guy, then we walked through a silent baggage claim hall. No people, no carousels running – finally we turned a corner and there were people! Now I know it is a public holiday here (for mid-summer Solstice) but seriously, it was like we had landed in another dimension!
When I got to the Arlanda Express train platform, I felt like I had gone back to that other dimension as the platform was empty!! As it happened, I had clearly just missed a train and had to wait 20 minutes for the next one! That wasn’t really a problem as the train took only 18 minutes to get to the centre of the city, and my hotel for night was right by the station.
The train even had a nursery area! Oh, and it goes 180km – not sure if that is fast for a train but it seemed fast to me 😂👍🏻
In hindsight I should have booked a cheap hostel but when I booked it, I had no idea what I was going to be doing. That said this is Scandinavia, so not even a cheap hostel was that cheap!
My not so cheap hotel room was somewhat cell like will two very small single beds and no windows (probably not a bad thing when it doesn’t really ever get dark) but thankfully it was just for one night and I tried my best to get my money’s worth out of the free breakfast which of course included meatballs – of how Swedish!
After a full breakfast and I mean full breakfast, I headed out to walk the 7km to meet my friend. Of course, there were other transport options, including (according to google maps) taking a lime scooter 😂 but I fancied the walk which would take me through the less touristy parts of the city.
Stockholm is an archipelago and I crossed over a number of islands on my walk, some separated by large waterways, others by narrow canals …all seamlessly joined together by bridges. Until you look at a map, it’s easy to you forget that it’s all separate islands.
Having met up with my friend, we jumped on the train back into the city centre – as in Austria, the train network was cheap and efficient! We stopped for lunch before taking a quick boat trip around the harbour as part of the hop on hop off tour. Thankfully the boat was easier to catch than the bus, which we had a couple of attempts of chasing after it at bus stops before we finally got on board! We didn’t even get off but just enjoy the sights around the city and the commentary as we went along.
We did however spot a number of beautiful waterfront bars, some floating on pontons, others that people could just drive right up to in their boats … and we quickly found our way back to one of them after getting of the bus. It was loving enjoying a few drinks in such a beautiful location catching up on news from home.
After what probably turned out to be one too many drinks (lol), we then headed back to the suburbs where we caught up with some friends for dinner at a place that specialised in Danish smørrebrød (open sandwiches) and Czech beer – a great combination and a great way to end the day. I didn’t get to bed until 11pm and it is still light! Wish I had bought my eye mask as I was sleeping in the living room – on a very comfortable sofa but with thin curtains!
First stop the next day was the Central station to drop off my bag in the storage lockers, get a coffee and some cash so we could tip for the walking tour. Ironically, the one time we wanted to use cash; we were surround by places that only took cards! We later learnt that Sweden is not a ‘country of cash’. Apparently, shops have to pay higher taxes if they accept cash which explained why lots of the kiosks at the train station only accepted cards! The country’s goal is to be cash free by 2030!!! Oddly, we were learning all this from our Free Tour guide, who recommended not taking cash out – we only took out cash to pay her a tip 😂😂😂
Our walking guide was a nice young Swedish girl who was full of Danish jokes – only after she had checked there were no Danish people in the group 😂, and as always, the tour was incredibly interesting … here comes the history lesson 😂
The rivalry with Denmark goes back centuries. Denmark ‘took’ the southern part of Sweden and they have had 11 wars over 300 years over the piece of land! They even have a statute of St George and the Dragon (apparently Swedes claim this story as their own). Apparently, the horse and rider represents Sweden and their army, the princess is the beautiful Swedish people and the Dragon is Denmark! The statue is to remind to people that Sweden is better than Denmark!!
They have also been at war with Norway over the centuries, but they ‘let’ Norway win to avoid having conflicts in the north and south. They say that Sweden and Denmark are liked the divorced parents of Norway, who everyone prefers lol.
Next the name, Stockholm – Stock = pole, Holm = islands. They used to put poles sticking out of the islands in the water, so ships could not just sail in and if they did, they would ram the poles and sink! What a warm welcome to Sweden!
We started the walking tour at the ‘Island of Knights’ where told you see a lovely Church and some very nice houses. It is the oldest settlement in the city and of course where knights used to live (the name is a bit of a giveaway). The first tower was built on the island in 1252 and the church soon followed in 1270 – sadly the church is the only building that survived from that time.
No other buildings from that area remain today as there was a rule that all buildings had to be of wood. Of course, this is not very logical in a country like Sweden where it is very cold in the winter and they were lighting fires inside. So, in 1625 they started building in stone.
Now, Sweden has a slightly different and somewhat quirky political history – in 1632, a 6-year-old girl called Christina, became King. Yes, that’s right, she became King! According to the laws of the time, a King had to rule the country and so she declared herself King! From then on, she was raised and lived as a boy. (Apparently someone reopened her coffin in the 60s to check if she was a boy or girl!). She ruled Sweden for 25 years until she abdicated in 1654 to move to Rome, allegedly to live with her girlfriend. Prior to this she has also secretly converted to Roman Catholicism, which in Lutheran Sweden was banned. She lived in Rome until her death but she certainly added some colour to the Royal family!
We wandered through some of the narrow streets of the city. Thankfully it was still fairly early on the Sunday morning so they were not too busy. We started in Hell Alley, named as such due to the prostitutes and criminals who lived in the street. It was also home to the Executioner. Interesting the job was given almost as a punishment. If you were caught committing a crime three times (ranging from stealing, murder or rape), you could be given the choice to kill people as the executioner or be killed. Of course, if you choose to kill, your first job was to kill the existing executioner. If successful at the ‘job interview’ your ears were cut off so you could not hear the people scream!
On the upside, you got free housing (on Hell Alley) and free food – people who he got close to would throw things at him to go away, including food. Having a job also made him popular at local pubs as he had money and paid for rounds! Legend has it, the longest anyone held the position was 4 years, the shortest was 2 hours!
The next street was Priest Street – clearly a step up from Hell Alley, but still pretty grim. Each apartment had a garbage shot that sent waste of all kinds (including human) into the street! You can just imagine the smell! So, after many complaints, the council went around and blocked up all the holes – simple enough solution you would think, but they did it in the middle of the night and did not tell anyone so the rubbish just build up in the pipes. They then resorted to just throwing the waste out of the windows in to the street below!
The next solution was to block the street for one hour per day when people could throw out rubbish. A ‘shit carrying lady’ (literal translation of her job title) then came through to collect it all and threw in in the sea – this lasted for 300 years so you can just imagine the state of the sea surrounding the city at that time!
The city finally got a sewage system in 1910, and in the 1970’s private flush toilets were installed – up until that time, apartments in the old town shared an outhouse with whole apartment block! Enough with the toilet talk I hear you cry! lol
Interestingly, Germany has been key in Swedish advancement over the centuries, dating back to the Hanseatic League Which was a confederation of merchant guilds and market towns which dominated Baltic maritime trade between the 1400s and the 1700s. In fact, in the early 1500s, more than half population of Stockholm were German, mostly from Hamburg. They started trading iron and copper and set up the German area of the old city complete with German architecture, particularly in German Priest Street.
We walked into a small square near the sea where it was quite clear that the buildings were sinking … flash back to 300 years of dumping trash into the sea. So much trash was dumped it began to build up so they built a street on top of it! Unfortunately, it was not very stable (as you can imagine) and so in some places the floor or a building can vary 1m in height!
One of the buildings most affected is the oldest bank in the world (apparently) (yellow building on left of photo with sea in the middle). Our guide also pointed out a lot of fake window (in the photo to the left)… to avoid a window tax!
During WWII, Sweden was technical neutral. However, when Hitler came knocking, they made a deal to exclusively trade iron with Germany rather than be occupied. This deal made Sweden super rich and they used the money to create the welfare state we see today – including invests in education, welfare and infrastructure. In the last year of the war, when Sweden realised Germany would lose, they quickly started discussions with the allies to provide support to them – and that is what they remember and have in history books!!
Sweden today is definitely a happier place than at some points in its history and it has no real poverty issues. ‘Social law’ says you should never think you are better than others and that you should treat people with respect. That said, they don’t call people by last names, not doctors, teachers, friend’s parents … all are called by their first names, which to the English is a sign of respect!. School, including University (unless you go to a private one) is free and students even get a ‘salary’ of 100 euros per month from grade 1-12. It is also completely normal; in fact, it is encouraged for young people to take a gap year or 2 before starting university!
A few fun facts about the city (well I find them fun anyway lol):
- It is illegal to open fermented herring in area where people are/live as it stinks! Of cours, if I were in charge, it would be illegal to ferment herrings full stop!
- Abba are considered by some to be the true Swedish royal family 😂😂 and we passed by one of their old apartments on our tour (with a lovey flowered balcony). Although I know their music well, I was not aware that they have sold more records than the Beatles!
- The flag on the Royal Palace used to indicate if the Royal family home but for security reasons, it now just shows if they are in Sweden. (Does the Queen of England still do that?)
Swedes don’t like the Royal Palace much because they think it looks like a shoe box! Apparently, it is much more spectacular on the inside than the outside. Not surprisingly, it is not the original palace, in fact it is the 4th, after the first three burnt down.
Charles (or Carl) XII became King at the age of 15 and was King between 1697 and 1718. During one of palace fires, he took the throne, a portrait of himself and the corpse of his father! They then started throwing anything else they could out the windows!
These days, the Royal family live out of the city, but the Palace is still used for official state visitors to stay. They are very popular amongst the people, and these days they are all married to commoners. The next in line for the throne, will be first official queen unlike Christina back in the 17th century.
One of the most savage parts of Swedish history took place in the ‘lovely’ square we had had lunch and it was this event that cemented the distrust between Sweden and Denmark. In 1520, newly crowned (as Swedish King) Christian II invited many of the city’s Nobleman to a party which ended in him executing all noble men with sword and then on the next day, executed 5 members of each Noble house in the square. The rain washed all blood to sea and seas around the city were red for 3 weeks. It became known as the Stockholm bloodbath – Christian went on to be known as Christian the Tyrant in Sweden and Christian the Good in Denmark!
The Swedish War of Liberation swiftly followed, lead by Gustave Vasa who was the son of one of the noble man killed during the massacre. It became the catalyst that permanently separated Sweden from Denmark and Gustave became the next King of Sweden.
One of the wooden houses in the square was painted red with blood to remind people of the day. The original one burnt down, and a new one built to represent the massacre – the stones on the house represents the heads of noble men killed that day (91 in total).
Unfortunately, Gustave was not a good king and after centuries of poor leadership, at one point the Swedes, asked Napoleon to be king of Sweden but he said no (I think they dodged a bullet there), so they then asked French man Jean Baptiste Bernadotte – a man they believed to be his best friend. He accepted but when on to fight against Napoleon and in fact defeat him in the battle of Leipzig in 1813!
He did a good job and even changed his name to a Carl Johan (or Charles John in English) to become more Swedish. He also made the country one of free religion and ensured that everyone had one day off in the week. Legend has it, he had a big tattoo on his leg saying “death to all kings” as he was a true revolutionary at heart. It was not discovered until after this death to the shock of some.
After the tour we headed back to the palace to try and see the changing of the guard, but there were just too many people … but we could watch it live through other people’s phone screens 😂🤔. The Army band accompanying the guards played some jolly tunes played by whilst the guards performed their change over duties. We then walked through palace courtyard and found a little place to spy through the windows to see the parade 👍🏻 (just) 😂
I made it to the train station and retrieved my bag I had stored in a very efficient locker storage facility and luckily, as always, I had plenty of time as there were issues with trains so the 20 minute train was delayed but no stress – I could relax and read (though I could also have still been in a bar with my friend enjoying a last holiday drink 🤔)
Unfortunately, then the plane was delayed – firstly 1.5 hours in the small holding area past passport control and then another hour on the plane where we left the gate and then returned as the pilot had been told he could not take off for 1 hour! So, the 2.5 hour flight was delayed by more than 2.5 hours, meaning my 8pm-10pm drive has become 11.00-1am drive – Definitely not my finest hours!
I also had not eaten as I thought I would grab something for the road when I landed, now I was torn between trying to sleep and eating on the plane!
Driving home so late, I was treading the fine line between having enough energy drink to kept alert driving and not too much so I could sleep when I get home. I thankfully got the balance right and reached home safely!