Scandinavia is often described as “land of the midnight sun.” Images may to come to mind of Vikings, long cold winters, and challenging words abounding with strange vowel combinations. Fact or fiction? Let’s tour one Scandinavian city—Stockholm. Visiting Stockholm, an extraordinary destination, builds on both facts……and a bit of fiction.
My Stockholm Backstory
When people know you’re “well traveled” they make assumptions. Rather than ask you, “Have you been to a particular destination” they’ll ask, “How did you like a place?” Lately, that’s been happening with visiting Sweden. People assume I’ve been there, and I have. It’s a destination I never tire of visiting. Stockholm offers much of what I enjoy doing when on holiday!
Re-visiting Stockholm was in the planning stages when the pandemic began. Obviously, I put the visit on hold. However, my trip planning was done and my interest in history, culture, and food, never stops!
As I learn, I share, so thought it would be fun to write about some of the fascinating things I learned about Sweden and lead you on this armchair tour of this extraordinary destination. You might just want to add visiting Stockholm to your post-pandemic bucket list of places to visit.
Welcome to Sweden
Sweden takes up much of the Scandinavian Peninsula (shared with Norway). The country was named by the Suiones people, early inhabitants to the region dating back to 100 CE.
Typical of Scandinavian countries, Sweden experiences long winters and short summers. Around 15 percent of Sweden is part of the Arctic Circle. Even so, the chilly climate is cooled by low-pressure winds through the North Atlantic Current.
When visiting Stockholm, the time of year makes a difference. On Stockholm’s shortest day the capital sees a mere six hours of sunlight, while on the longest day it stays light for nearly 21 hours.
For much of its history, Swedish culture was religiously homogeneous. Very early religion was based on Norse mythology (the important gods included Odin, Thor, Freyr, and Freyja). Roman Catholicism came to Sweden in the 11th century, and the Protestant Reformation and Lutherism spread to Sweden by the mid-1500s. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Sweden was the dominant religion through the 20th century, but today more religions co-exist.
Ethnically, over the centuries Swedish culture has also been homogeneous. Swedish is the central language (though many people speak English). There are two minority groups in Sweden: the native Finnish-speaking people (along the border to Finland), and Sami or Lapp people who live in the northern area.
Sweden’s Viking Legacy
Archeologists found evidence of human life on the Scandinavian Peninsula dating back to 100 CE. With its harsh climate, the northern lands made it hard to survive.
Starting in the 9th century, many Scandinavians left their homelands in search of greater fortune and adventure. We know them as the notorious Vikings. Fantastic stories describe the Vikings (that’s where the fiction comes in). For the next three centuries they left their mark as pirates, traders, and settlers throughout Europe. They also traveled north (they’re also called ‘Norsemen’ which translates to ‘Northmen’) to Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland, and Russia.
The Vikings weren’t one race of people. They came from different countries including Sweden, but also Norway, Denmark, and Finland. They were different from their European cousins because they were not “civilized”—they came from foreign lands and were not Christian.
Scandinavians, through their contact with European traders, applied “modern” sailing technology as they constructed their ships. They also learned about how wealthy European countries were growing, and they learned about conflicts between many countries. These conditions attracted the Vikings, who recognized how they could take what they wanted from unprotected countries in conflict.
The first official Viking raid (most likely by Norwegians) was an attack on an English monastery in 793 A.D. The Vikings chose other vulnerable, unguarded targets along the coasts of Europe before they traveled greater inland distances to do their looting. The internal conflicts of European communities gave the Vikings an advantage. In fact, some rulers paid the Vikings to protect them.
By the 1850s Ireland, Scotland, and England were major Viking targets. They gained control of Scotland, and they founded trading towns in Ireland including Dublin, Waterford, and Limerick. They used these towns as a base from which to launch broader attacks within Ireland and England.
The Vikings also crossed over to attack French and Spanish communities. No place was safe. In France the Vikings ventured inland to raid cities including Paris, Orleans, and Nimes. They challenged Arab control to plunder the southern Spanish cities like Seville, and they also found their way to the northwestern Galicia region of the Iberian Peninsula.
By the late 10th century the Vikings followed Scandinavian settlers who colonized North Atlantic land including Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland. One theory suggests that Leif Eriksson, Viking settler in Greenland, might have been an early European who discovered North America.
A second Viking Age was noted in the mid 10th century as Denmark unified and became Christian. Royal leaders ordered Viking raids throughout Europe and England. But the Scandinavian empire (Denmark, Norway, and England) was wracked with conflict. The last of the Viking kings fell to the army of William, Duke of Normandy.
The Viking Age ended by 1066. Scandinavian kingdoms were Christian by then, and Viking culture was incorporated into broader Europe.
We can trace symbols and artifacts of the Viking legacy to specific Scandinavian words. Perhaps Iceland retains the greatest Viking legacy, as many Icelandic folk stories and history incorporate the adventures of the Viking past.
Visiting Stockholm: Past and Present
You can see how this elaborate (and notorious) Viking history might add a bit of fiction to the facts of Sweden’s past. In any case, today Sweden is known for developing an advanced welfare state, healthy economy, and one of the highest life expectancy rates of any country in the world (82.3 years). One of many interesting facts about Sweden is its stance against military aggression. The country has been at peace since 1814, which makes it an expert in avoiding war. Alfred Nobel’s legacy has contributed to Sweden’s peace-making role around the world. Interesting…. after the (often) violent legacy of the Vikings!
And the capital and largest city in the country is our destination: Stockholm.
Stockholm: What’s in a name?
“Stock” is Swedish for “log” and “holm” translates to “island.” Hence Stockholm means “log island.” Because of its position on the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Finland, Stockholm was a lucrative trade hub from early on. Historians record its first mention around 1252. It became the official capital in 1436.
Stockholm has a population of about 2 million. It’s nestled between Lake Mälar and Salt Bay, and the city is opposite the Gulf of Finland. Stockholm is considered one of the most picturesque capital cities on the globe. The city is the second largest port in Sweden.
Stockholm sits on 14 islands that are connected by 57 bridges. The water is allegedly so clean that you can drink it.
Over the past several centuries, Stockholm experienced several periods of growth. In the 16th century the city expanded as Sweden grew in presence and power.
Swedish government offices were built in Stockholm. The old city walls were replaced with more modern districts. When fires destroyed parts of Stockholm in the 18th century, the Swedes replaced wooden construction with stone buildings. Reflecting the Age of Enlightenment, Swedish scholars of the time established scientific academies and literary societies.
During the Industrial Age of the 19th century, Stockholm experienced another growth spurt. Redevelopment of the medieval city led to devising an efficient sanitation system and modern buildings. Organized urban planning resulted in well-designed avenues, parks, libraries, and schools.
Beyond the Bridges of Stockholm
Stockholm city center is called “city between the bridges.” Swedish Old Town is called Gamla Stan and it includes three islands (Stads Island, Helgeands Island, and Riddar Island). This area has been well preserved, and when visiting you will appreciate buildings originally constructed in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The famous sites on Stads Island include the Royal Palace, the Storkyrkan Cathedral, German Church, House of Lords, and the Stock Exchange. The main feature on Riddar Island is the Riddarholm Church, and on Helgeands Island you’ll find the National Bank and the House of Parliament.
Major industries in Stockholm include metal and machine manufacturing, chemicals, foodstuffs, and paper and printing. The city is a major employer of government workers as well as teachers and professors. It’s home to Stockholm University, which was founded in 1877, the Royal Institute of Technology (from 1827), and the Caroline Medical Institute.
Old bridges and modern overpasses connect these three islands. Modern Stockholm has a vibrant shopping district, financial center, cultural centers, and museums—including the Vasa Museum, which contains a restored Swedish warship from 1628. In fact, Stockholm is the country’s cultural hub, featuring the Royal Dramatic Theater, Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, and national opera company.
There are close to 100 museums in Stockholm—which makes it the city with more museums per capita than just about any city in the world. There are more than 50,000 paintings in the National Museum. Many museums are free!
Fun Facts About Visiting Stockholm
Here are a few more fun facts about Stockholm:
- The city was the site for the award of the first Nobel Prizes in 1901. The Nobel Foundation is headquartered in Stockholm. Visiting the Nobel museum was one of the highlights of my previous trips to Stockholm. Fascinating to explore and so much to learn!
- The term “Stockholm Syndrome” originated from one of Sweden’s most famous crimes. During this six-day bank siege at Norrmalmstorg in 1973, hostages began to identify with their captors. The enormous charm of career criminal Clark Olofsson is considered a key reason for this happening.
- Stockholm is home to three UNESCO World Heritage sites: the Royal Palace at Drottningholm, Skogskyrkogården, (The Woodland Cemetery) and the Birka archaeological site.
- More than 70 thousand Stockholmers take to their bikes each day. Dedicated bike lanes throughout the city keep riders safe (and there are more than 500 miles of bike paths).
- The city’s subway is also known as the world’s longest art gallery, with the majority of its stations being adorned with paintings, sculptures and mosaics.
Final Thoughts on Visiting Stockholm
Understanding Stockholm’s past and present gives us a rich portrait of this Nordic city. It is not just a city that values education and art, but it has also evolved from a place of homogeneous ethnicity and religion to a place of growing diversity.
For example, today Sweden accepts asylum seekers from African and Asian countries. Like many countries, Sweden experiences a strain as immigrants continue to knock on its doors. More than 160,000 immigrants entered Sweden in 2015. Sweden welcomed more than 70,000 Syrians.
It’s estimated that about 16% of Stockholm’s population are immigrants.
Stockholm appears to be a city that lives its values of peace, social welfare for its people, and preservation of the past. Add it to your travel list (but you might want to wait until the season of the midnight sun)!
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