Destinations Europe

A History Buff’s Guide to Stockholm

Back in medieval Stockholm, if you were sentenced to death for a crime, you could prolong your life by becoming the town executioner–a job they had trouble filling (go figure). One, or should we say, another downside is that you had to have your ears cut off and would be executed by the next guy who decided he’d take the job. Yearning for more quirky Swedish history? Or just want to add a couple intriguing sights to your long weekend in Stockholm? We’ve got you covered–from the Stone Age to the present.

Vasa Museum (Vasamuseet)

Underwater for 333 years, you’d think this wooden marvel would be an unrecognizable pile of mulch by now, but the 17th-century warship at the Vasa Museum is nothing short of remarkable. You’ll gape at its mast in awe, feeling both ridiculously tiny and absolutely enthralled by this treasure plucked from the sea. We won’t spoil the whole story for you as the museum has a multitude of engaging exhibits, but the gist is this: King Gustav demanded a massive warship be built–massively unstable–and it sank on its maiden voyage after sailing mere minutes in Stockholm’s harbor.

Fun Fact: This is no lackluster, run-of-the-mill warship: It features approximately 700 sculptures and decorations, with symbols from mythology, the Roman Empire, the Bible, and Swedish history and lore.

Tip: Start your visit off by entering the theater room where you can watch a short film that illuminates the history of Vasa and its recovery. You can choose a guided tour which is included in the price of admission or download the official audio guide to your phone. Also, dress in layers–perhaps due to artifact preservation, it can start to feel like you’re sinking into a cold sea yourself.

Swedish History Museum (Historiska)

If you’re a history buff, this one’s a no-brainer. Even if you’re not crazy about the old ages, this is a place where you can go dive into Viking traditions and leave after an hour without feeling guilty about the ticket price: Admission is 100 percent free. This is also one of Sweden’s more kid-friendly museums and features interactive exhibits and occasional workshops for families. The exhibitions cover more than 10,000 years of history, from the Stone Age to medieval art to modern politics.

Fun Fact: Modern culture typically categorizes the Vikings as heartless barbarians, but this museum presents an alternative look at this infamous community.

Tip: It’s one of the biggest museums in Sweden, so if you’re staying for a few days, it might be convenient to pop in for an exhibit or two, go grab some meatballs, and then return the next day to finish up your exploration.

Nordic Museum (Nordiska Museet)

Although “Nordic” is part of its name, this museum focuses almost exclusively on Swedish history, so if you didn’t find what you were looking for at the Swedish History Museum, you’ll want to pop over to the Nordiska. The Nordic Museum focuses more on cultural history such as lifestyle and traditions, ranging from 1523 until today. Wander through Swedish kitchens, gaze at intricate folk art, compare antique chairs to your IKEA seats, gape at exquisite jewelry, and discover the origins of charming Swedish rituals.

Fun Fact: The Sami, an indigenous people and a national minority of Sweden, speak nine dialects–all of which are on the UN list of endangered languages. Learn more in the Sápmi exhibit.

Tip: If you don’t have time to wander inside, the exterior of this Renaissance-style building is worth a look itself; plus, Nordiska is on the beautiful Djurgården, an island of Stockholm that features idyllic green areas and walking paths plus additional museums and an amusement park.

Drottningholm Palace (Drottningholms Slott)

They call Drottningholm Palace the Versailles of the North, and while it might not quite live up to the nickname, Drottningholm Palace is worth a trip. Hop on a bus (faster) or take a ferry (more scenic) from Stockholm to arrive at this UNESCO World Heritage site from the 1600s. Drottningholm is the permanent residence of the King and Queen of Sweden, so part of this architectural gem is off-limits, but there’s a sizable interior portion to explore plus idyllic grounds that transport you right back to 1710. Grab some sandwiches and have a picnic in between the historic hedges.

Fun Fact: In 1980, the Swedish monarchy became the first country to introduce absolute primogeniture, meaning the monarch’s eldest child, regardless of gender, is next in line to the throne.

Tip: Download the official “Swedish Royal Palaces” app for a free self-guided tour of this and other historical Swedish sites.

Stockholm City Hall

Your town hall might be a nondescript building next to a McDonald’s, but the Stockholm City Hall stands mighty along Lake Mälaren. Its boastful tower embellishing the vista of Stockholm’s famous sunsets. It’s both the host for the annual Nobel Prize banquet plus home to ceremonial halls and precious works of art. The incredibly intricate mosaics of the Golden Hall make the whole visit worth it. Guided tours are required and available in several languages. For an additional fee, you can also climb the tower for an impressive view of the city.

Fun Fact: A popular place to get married, Swedes often have to wait six months to say “I do” here, and there’s reportedly an option to pick from a short (two-minute) or long (four-minute) ceremony.

Tip: City Hall is busiest in the morning, so if you can push your visit to the afternoon, you’ll have an easier time of hearing the guide in the bellowing halls.

Hallwyl Museum (Hallwylska Museet)

If you’re in Stockholm in August and want to avoid rivers of tourists but still need your fix of history, consider a stop at the Hallwyl Museum. You might walk right past this 1898 gem in the heart of the city, the former home of Count and Countess Walther and Wilhelmina von Hallwyl. Wilhelmina was an avid collector and patron of the arts, and her home (which she always planned to turn into a museum) reflects her eclectic tastes and passions. Rare for a woman of her time to devote herself to such pursuits, Wilhelmina’s story shines as much as her possessions.

Fun Fact: The very first object in Wilhemina’s collection was a seashell–a childhood gift from her father which is now on display in the museum.

Tip: Admission is free, and you can purchase an audio guide if desired, although the written descriptions in each room (in English and Swedish) cover much of the same content.

All of these sights pair extremely well with a kanelbulle (cinnamon bun)– which is your chance to be part of history yourself by participating in an authentic Swedish fika. Although fika translates to “coffee break,” you’ll learn it’s more about having an intentional, social pause in your day. So, where are you heading first?

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