Stockholm’s Gamla Stan

Stockholm's Gamla Stan

I like Stockholm, I like it a lot: Maybe it’s the fresh northern air that does it, or maybe it’s because the Stockholm Archipelago brings the great outdoors right into the city centre. I don’t know who counted them, but there are supposed to be 24,000 islands within the archipelago, 14 of which are part of the city itself.

Stockholm’s historic core is Gamla Stan (Old Town) and is centred on the island of Stadsholmen. The adjacent smaller islands of Helgeandsholmen, Riddarholmen and Stromsborg are also included, but for most people, Stadsholmen is Gamla Stan.

Today, Stockholm is home to around 1.6 million people which is roughly 22% of Sweden’s total population, but with water everywhere you look, it doesn’t feel like most other major cities.

Life out on the Archipelago

Gamla Stan has everything that you would expect from an Old Town – narrow streets, historic buildings, museums, bars, restaurants, and much more, but it only became known as the Old Town in relatively recent times, because for centuries Stadsholmen was Stockholm.

It’s been traditionally thought (but not proven) that Stockholm’s founder was Birger Jarl, a medieval duke who played a significant part in helping to create the country we now call Sweden, although not quite as we know it today. The date of the city’s foundation is a bit vague, but it would have been during the 13th century, probably sometime around 1250: There’s a tower on Riddarholmen called Birger Jarl’s Torn which was built around 1530 and is often quoted as being one of Stockholm’s oldest buildings.

Riddarholmen with the cylindrical Birger Jarl Torn on the right

There are four bridges that lead from the commercial heart of Stockholm over to Gamla Stan, and my preference is by way of the Riksbron (National Bridge), which takes you across to the Swedish Parliament on Helgeandsholmen, and then over the Stallbron to Stadsholmen.

The Riksbron leading over to the Swedish Parliament on Helgeandsholmen
The Riksbron and the Arch that leads to the Parliament Buildings

In my opinion, the best way to get into the heart of Gamla Stan is to walk around the Royal Palace via Slottskajen and Skeppsbron until you reach Slottsbacken. You’ll know when you’ve got there because you can’t miss the large statue of King Gustav III looking up the street away from the water towards the Royal Palace.

Statue of King Gustav III

Slottsbacken in English means Castle Slope which is a perfect description of this road that leads up past the Royal Palace to the centre of the Old Town.

Slottsbacken as seen from Blaisieholmen
A Group of Students traipsing up Slottsbacken past the Royal Palace

The palace is the dominant feature in Slottsbacken, and although the present king, Carl XVI Gustaf, doesn’t actually live here, it’s where he works and entertains foreign heads of state. The palace entrance is at the top of the hill, and although I’ve been to Stockholm twice, I’ve still yet to go inside. On my first visit, there were other things I wanted to see and do more, and on the second, there was a Royal Christening and they forgot to put my name on the guest list.

Entrance to the Royal Palace

Also at the top of the hill, and practically next to the Royal Palace, is Stockholm’s Cathedral, known as the Storkyrkan (Great Church). This Lutheran brick-built structure replaced the original church that was built here during the 13th century, probably by Birger Jarl. The oldest parts of the present church can be traced back to the beginning of the 14th century, but the exterior was re-built between 1736 and 1742 in an Italian Baroque style that complemented the palace.

The Storkyrkan

The interior of the church reached its present size in the 1480s and has remained largely unaltered ever since, but many of the additional features, such as the Royal Pews were introduced towards the end of the 17th century.

The Nave
The Organ
The Pulpit
One of the Royal Pews

The highlight of the church is undoubtedly the sculpture of St George and the Dragon and is an absolute gem.

It was commissioned by Sten Sture the Elder who fought off the Danes in 1471, and who was no doubt comparing himself with St. George’s heroics at Silene. For those who aren’t familiar with the story of St George and the Dragon, it’s basically a tale about how St. George rescued the King of Silene’s daughter from a dragon that lived in a nearby lake. Not only did he save the King’s daughter, he offered to kill the dragon if the town’s inhabitants converted to Christianity, which they did – including the King. The moral of the story of course is that good will always triumph over evil.

The sculpture, which was unveiled in 1489 as an altar monument, is well preserved and attributed to Berndt Notke of Lubeck. It’s not possible to get right up close to this remarkable oak carving, but close enough to admire its superb craftsmanship.

St George and the Dragon

There’s one more thing you should see before leaving the cathedral, and that’s the Parhelion Painting.

On the 20th April 1535 a strange phenomenon occurred above the Stockholm sky. Six rings of light with sun dogs (phantom suns) were observed, and as was often the case in these situations, it was interpreted as an omen of impending doom.

This phenomenon, sometimes known as a Parhelion, is not such an unusual occurrence as you might think. Apparently, the halos and sun dogs are formed by refraction of sunlight through ice crystals in the atmosphere.

To record the event for posterity (providing the world survived of course), the artist Urban Malare was commissioned to create a permanent record of it. The painting was produced just after the event, and for years it was thought that what was hanging on the wall here was the original painting, but when it came to be restored in 1998 it was found to be a copy from 1636 by Jacob Heinrich Elbfas.

As disappointing as this may have been at the time, the painting is regarded as a faithful copy of the original and still highly revered. Not only was it an interesting subject in its own right, it also became an emblem of Swedish history due to the fact that the country was going through a period of massive change when it was commissioned – and if that’s not enough, it’s also the oldest known portrayal of Stockholm as well.

The Parhelion Painting

Around the corner from the cathedral is Stortorget, and if Gamla Stan is the medieval heart of Stockholm, then Stortorget (Grand Square) is the heart of Gamla Stan. From early medieval times, this square has been the focal point of Stockholm. It’s been a marketplace, home of the Town Hall, and even the location of the notorious ‘Stockholm Bloodbath’ when more than 80 noblemen and citizens were executed. Those that lost their heads were anti-unionists, akin to Brexiteers and Scottish Nationalists, I suppose.

It’s a lot more peaceful in the square these days, even though there’s always plenty of people milling around. The imposing building overlooking proceedings is the former Stock Exchange which started doing business here in 1778 but ceased trading in the 1990s when electronic dealing took over.

Since 1914 it’s also been home to the Swedish Academy who use the building to hold meetings, which include choosing the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm and is also buried here, and it therefore seems appropriate that the ground floor has been converted to the Nobel Prize Museum. As you might expect, there’s a constant stream of visitors who come to see exhibits and information about the Nobel Prize, the prizewinners – and of course the great man himself.

The Nobel Prize Museum

Along the west side of the square are some handsome 17th century buildings that have inevitably become cafes and restaurants. Places like this are always a magnet for tourists, no matter what they charge.

Stortorget, being the epicentre of historical Stockholm can get busy at times, so it’s worth bearing that in mind when you come here, but come here you must.

17th Century Buildings in Stortorget

Much of the enjoyment of visiting historical old towns and cities comes from wandering through the streets and ‘getting lost’ – and Gamla Stan is no exception, and for this reason I’m not going to provide an itinerary for exploring these old streets. That said, not far from Stortorget is Prastgatan, a street well worth wandering down, and at the junction with Kakbrinken is an unmistakable Runestone, or at least part of one.

Runestones are mainly found in Scandinavia, and those that aren’t, usually have a Viking connection. They tend to be upright stones with a Runic inscription that very often act as memorials to the dead, mainly men. Most of them were erected in the late Viking Age from around 950 to 1100 AD.

Sweden has the largest concentration of these stones by far with up to 2,500 of them scattered around the country. Uppland, just north of Stockholm, has something like half of them, and, according to experts, the Runestone in Prastgatan more than likely originated from this area.

The official name for this bit of Swedish history is Uppland Runic Inscription 53 and is unremarkable where Runestones are concerned, except for perhaps its location. This richly decorated piece of stone still bears the inscription “Torsten and Frogunn had the stone erected after their son”. Not being fluent in Swedish, let alone the Runic language, it could just as easily have said ‘Kilroy was here’ for all I know. This intricate style of art has always captured my imagination whether I understand it or not, and if you think that somebody has vandalised it by painting the detail in red, then you’ll be pleased to know that this is how it would have originally looked.

Mind you, how much of the stone has been tampered with over the years I wouldn’t like to say as it seems to have been used in the foundations of the building, which must have been here for a very long time. According to the Swedish National Heritage Board, the cannon that’s protecting the corner was placed here in the 17th century to protect the corner from coaches.

Whether this piece of Viking history has been tampered with or not, this is one bit of Stockholm history that will cost you nothing to look at – and Prastgatan is a wonderful alley to walk through anyway.

Runestone on the corner of Prastgatan and Kakbrinken

In this post I’ve covered some of the more obvious places to see in Gamla Stan, but exploring the back streets will also throw up some unexpected gems, and you could do worse than ending up at Under Kastanjen, a delightful café tucked away in the middle of a wonderful little square called Branda Tomten.

The name means ‘Under the Chestnut Tree’, which refers to the large chestnut tree in the middle of the square: It has its own bakery and is the perfect spot to sit outside with a coffee and cake – unless it’s conker season of course.

The Cafe Under Kastanjen

In my next Stockholm post I’ll show you more of what this city of water and islands has to offer. I hope Gamla Stan has encouraged you to join me.



20 thoughts on “Stockholm’s Gamla Stan

  1. Nemorino

    I didn’t see half of this when I was in Stockholm many years ago. I hope to return, as soon as this Covid thing has run its course.

  2. luisa zambrotta

    Such a beautiful post! I found it very rich and interesting. I visited Stockholm many years ago and did not remember many of the aspects you illustrated so well
    Thus I can say it was a rediscovery for me

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thank you Luisa. I’m always so grateful for your support, and of course, your friendship. I do hope that it brings back some memories – even if you can’t remember them all 🙂

  3. Alli Templeton

    Another place you’ve introduced me to, Malc, and one that looks to hold much interest for the unseasoned northern-European traveller like me. The Storkyrkan looks the kind of place I could happily wander around for hours on end, with it’s imposing interior, the royal pews and that stunning sculpture of St George and the Dragon. And another particular point of interest for me would be the Parhelion painting, which reminds me of the same phenomenon, seemingly also referred to as a ‘perihelion’, which appeared at dawn on the morning of the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross in 1461 during the Wars of the Roses. This is only the second time I’ve seen such a reference to these amazing celestial displays, and it’s no wonder people thought it was a divine omen or portent. And what a lovely way to round off a tour of the city to sit with a coffee and slice of cake under the chestnut tree. I doubt even the conkers would put me off that!

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Even your comments to my posts are a good read Alli, let alone your own offerings 😊 Celestial phenomena like the Parhelion (Perihelion) will always capture people’s imagination because it reminds us that we Earthlings aren’t in control of everything doesn’t it?

      We all love chestnut trees, don’t we? Mind you, I’ve always been wary of them ever since I was waiting for a bus in Italy a few years ago. Conkers started raining down on me like arrows from a castle keep. By the time the bus came I had grown another head 😊

      1. Alli Templeton

        Sorry for the delay in replying to this Malc, having major push towards finishing the inside of the house just now. The end is in sight though – at last!

        That’s a lovely thing to say – that even my comments are good to read. Thank you. You’re right of course, heavenly visions like the perihelion are great for putting things in perspective, and it’s easy to see why they were seen as signs and portents in times long past.

        Conker rain sounds a scary experience, I must say. Perhaps we should all choose our times to sit under them according to the seasons! 😉

  4. equipsblog

    Fantastic job, Malc. I noticed that all of your pictures are in the spring/summer. Do you plan a winter visit to Stockholm? LOL. Glad to see that Francisco is still around. I do envy you Europeans;you can visit countries like we visit states (and probably travel the same distance…)

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks Pat. Glad you enjoyed it. All these photos were taken in September 2016.My previous trip was in April 2003.but I haven’t used any of those pics as it means scanning them. On that trip I went out to the Archipelago on a boat and it was bitterly cold. Sleet, snow and freezing rain along with a strong wind made it absolutely freezing. On the return journey the boat had to dock in a totally different place from where we set out from and I was completely disorientated. I’ve done winter trips to quite a few Northern European cities which can be fun and misery in equal measures 🙂

  5. valenciartist

    Well, this is a most interesting and very well written post Malc. Wonderful photographs as usual, you are a very good photographer for sure. Stockholm seems to be a wonderful city, I had no idea it was laid out on that many islands. Reference the sun dogs, I prefer the more mystical mysterious interpretation. It seems like we always have a “rational” or “scientific” explanation for everything and if science says it is this, then it has to be. Not for me…But a great article and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed it. All the best to you mate, and you might not see me around for a few days as I’ve family in town to which I must dedicate my time, but I will look in by the by…

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks Francesc. I’m pleased to see that we’re able to see each other’s posts again and I can understand why you think that science shouldn’t try to explain everything. Mystery is magic isn’t it?

      1. valenciartist

        Mystery is magic Malc, absolutely! Yes, and I am certainly glad we can see each other’s posts again! And this one was a good one. Take good care and enjoy the Middle of the Week!


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