The Elegant City of Stockholm

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Many Baltic Sea cruises either begin or end in Stockholm. There is an elegance and gracefulness to Stockholm that is often difficult to put into words. You must be there to absorb the aura of this grand Scandinavian city.

If I were younger and planning to move to Europe, Stockholm would be my first choice of cities in which to settle. As a world traveler, I consider that quite a strong statement of support for this far northern city whose cold winter nights often negate its other qualities. Stockholm is the capital city of Sweden and the largest city in Scandinavia. But of course the people of Copenhagen dispute that statistic, claiming that they are larger.

Often called “The Venice of the North” because of its many waterways and islands, Stockholm is one of the world’s most beautiful of cities. Its level of cleanliness, its medieval charming Gamla Stan (Old Town) contrasting with its ultra modern facilities make Stockholm a city that is world class in both amenities and flavor.

Stockholm is not on the Baltic Sea. The city is located 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of the Gulf of Bothnia by way of a series of narrow channels interspersed between hundreds of islands. The passage is known as The Archipelago, and it takes several hours of sailing amid thickly forested islands to either depart the Saltslön, the main harbor area, or to arrive depending upon whether this is your port of embarkation or the end of your Baltic cruise. The many islands of the Archipelago are favored venues for vacation cottages by Stockholm residents, and you will catch glimpses of small villages while sailing through.

A view of the Ostermalm skyline in Stockholm

Sweden is a country that was heavily glaciated during the last ice age. The country is dotted with thousands of lakes, some of them being among the largest lakes in Europe. The coastline is most irregular, containing many deep-water harbors and offshore islands, but given that there are no mountains bordering these beautiful harbors and narrow bays, they are not called fjords.

All of Sweden is thickly forested, its farmland having been carved from the ancient woodlands. Green and blue are the two colors that describe the natural landscape. The forests that begin in Norway and Sweden pick up again in Finland, across the waters of the Gulf of Bothnia, and then extend clear across Russia to the Pacific Ocean, picking up again in Alaska and extending across Canada to the Atlantic Ocean once again. This vast forest of spruce, fir and larch is called the “taiga,” a Russian word for endless forest. The famous Russian author Anton Chekov wrote, “The taiga is so vast that only God and the migrating birds know where it ends.”

The Swedes are descendants of the ancient Vikings, their history rich in tales of warfare and conquest. Vikings are of Germanic origin, and many of the myths and legends that German warriors relate to are actually of Viking derivation. Early Vikings explored deep into what is now Russia. The name Russia is taken from Rurik, an early Viking explorer and colonial leader who settled the Valdai Hills around present-day Moscow. In the local dialect, he was known as Rus, and so came Russia, or in Germanic tongues it is called Rusland.

During the 11th century, two Viking kingdoms, Svealand and Gotland, united to form what is now Sweden. Between 1157 and 1293, the Swedes conquered Finland, but later between 1397 and 1434, Sweden became dominated over by Denmark, gaining its independence in 1435. Later in its history, the Danes once again occupied Sweden between 1517 and 1523. Over the next two centuries, however, Sweden grew in power, eventually occupying parts of what are now northern Germany and the present-day Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia. After being defeated in 1718 in the Nordic War, Sweden lost much of its conquered territory, and in 1809 as part of the Napoleonic Wars, Sweden lost Finland to Russia.

In 1810, the Swedish king adopted French Count Bernadotte as his son since he did not have an heir to whom he could pass on his crown. Today’s Swedish Royal House is descended from this French noble. Sweden aided in the defeat of Napoleon, and the Congress of Vienna compensated the country by allowing its crown to merge with that of Norway. Sweden continued to include Norway as part of its territory until 1905.

In 1867, Sweden became a constitutional monarchy and its government has remained so to the present day. King Carl XVI Gustav is the present head of state, but a parliamentary system of government actually rules the nation. Sweden became a member of the European Union in 1995, but the country, like the United Kingdom, refuses to use the Euro, thus the Swedish Kroner is still the national currency.

Since the defeat of Napoleon, Sweden has remained a neutral nation. It was this neutrality that was helpful during World War II. A Swedish diplomat in Budapest was instrumental in saving thousands of Hungarian Jews by issuing them Swedish passports. The Swedes also gave refuge to many Norwegian freedom fighters and British aviators during the war, thus helping to ultimately oust the Germans from Norway. Although a neutral nation, the Swedes maintain one of Europe’s best-equipped armies, a small, but well-equipped and trained navy and a formidable air force. Some say that Sweden is among the top ten nations in the world with regard to the potential fighting ability of its air force, the Flygvapnet.

Changing of the guard at the Swedish Royal Palace in historic Gamla Stan, Stockholm

Sweden’s most noted citizen of all time, originally a munitions manufacturer, Alfred Nobel, was instrumental in developing a series of prizes to be awarded for major humanitarian and literary accomplishments. Today, both Sweden and Norway are venues for presenting the Nobel Prizes. Each year both the kings of Sweden and Norway present the various Nobel Prizes in ceremonies held in Stockholm and Oslo.

There have been many other famous Swedes, especially in the film industry, the two best known having been Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman, as well as the director Ingmar Bergman (no relation).

The government policy during the last 75 years has been one of combined capitalism and socialism. In Sweden, citizens receive cradle to the grave coverage in health care, education and other social services. The country is always among the top five nations of the world in quality of life when the United Nations publishes its annual report of the world’s best nations in which to live. In 2004, Sweden was number one on the list, while in 2005 it was Norway.

Modern Sweden is about the size of California, and it has a population of around 9 million people. The country shares a mountainous border with Norway to the west, all of its rivers draining to the Gulf of Bothnia, the northern arm of the Baltic Sea.

Southern Sweden contains rich farmland and the country is noted for its fine dairy products. Sweden is also a highly industrialized nation, specializing in high tech products. Its industrial role has diminished somewhat, especially in the manufacturing of fine quality automobiles. Saab, once an automotive producer, today is noted for its jet fighters, and the Gripen is said to be every bit as agile and deadly as the American F-16. It is sold to other nations, but Sweden’s munitions and aircraft are not sold to countries where hostile intent is evident. Sweden is also noted for its quality furniture and glassware.

Most Swedes live in modern, ultra clean cities and towns, primarily in the southern half of the country. The far north is a cold forest and tundra region, inhabited by the Sámi, people we call the Laplanders. They are primarily reindeer herders, but they are at the same time a part of the modern nation in which they live.

Stockholm has a metropolitan population of about 2.1 million people. But few high-rise buildings are seen on the skyline. Rather it is the church spires and old castles and palaces that dominate the city. The Saltslön is the main harbor around which the central city is built, part of Stockholm having been developed on outlying islands, thus giving the city is nickname as the “Venice of the North.”

Most of the central business area consists of buildings from the 17th, 18th and 19thcenturies mingled with more modern structures, but most under ten stories. There are many parks and small squares, and even the major streets are lined with trees. Stockholm is a very green city as well as being so exceptionally clean. Swedes are highly respectful of their public places and litter is something rarely seen.

There are very few residential neighborhoods consisting of single-family houses. Most Stockholm residents live in apartment blocks of various types. In the older part of the city, they crowd together and often front right on the street. In the newer suburbs, the apartment blocks are set into park or garden areas, giving their residents ample room to enjoy the out of doors. Most of the buildings in Stockholm are built either of stone or brick. Many of the older stone buildings are covered in a coating of plaster, which is painted in pastel colors. Given the long cold winters, most buildings have rather steeply pitched roofs covered in slate tiles. Thus this city of the far north, where winter nights are long, is colorful with regard to its architecture.

During the summer the parks are lush with rich green grass and the flowerbeds are bursting forth with a myriad of blooms, adding to the overall color of the city, while the winter landscape can be rather bleak to those who are not fond of snowy vistas.

There is a high degree of patriotic spirit. The Swedish flag, which consists of a royal blue background atop which there is a yellow cross, is flown everywhere. All of the Scandinavian nations are proud of their heritage and proudly show their flags. This is also a deeply religious nation, the dominant faith being that of the Swedish Lutheran Church. Many old church buildings date back centuries, their spires often being the tallest landmarks in each neighborhood. At one time in past centuries, Swedes were fined and severely ostracized if they did not attend Sunday church services. Today religion is separated from state, and such Draconian laws do not exist.

Although the Lutheran faith dominates, there are other religious minorities in the country. Stockholm has a small, but active Jewish community, and recent immigrants from the Middle East have brought Islam to Sweden. Religious minorities have always been accepted since the days of the Protestant Reformation, and persecution has never been a fact of Swedish life.

This country’s neutrality protected all of its citizens from Nazi invasion during World War II, as Hitler firstly saw no strategic reason to violate that neutrality and secondly he wanted to have one friendly power that could validate Nazi treatment of captured nations. The Swedish Red Cross was often invited into concentration camps, shown artificially created settings in which detainees were well treated, this in hopes that the Swedes would spread the word to America that Germany was not abusing Jews and other minorities. At first this ruse had some effect, but the Swedes ultimately saw through Nazi actions.

Traffic in Stockholm is not excessive and the major streets are wide even though this city predates the automobile. This is a city that entices visitors to linger because of its many historic sites and its grand architecture, showing that Stockholm has been the capital of a nation whose roots go back to days when the Swedes were a mighty power. The important sites in Stockholm worthy of note include:

  • Gamla Stan – This small island is home to the oldest buildings in Stockholm as well as Kungliga Slottet, Sweden’s Royal Palace, one of the largest in all of Europe. The king does not live in this massive building, but rather occupies a smaller palace in the suburb of Drottningholm. Kungliga Slottet is used for state occasions. Like at Buckingham Palace in London, there is a ceremonial changing of the guard every day, but the Swedish palace guards wear uniforms more tailored and 21st century looking. Pomp and ceremony is not as much a part of Royal life, as it is in Britain.
  • Stadtshuset – This is the Swedish National Parliament, located right on the water, a beautiful building of 19th century architecture. Sweden’s parliament carries on lively debates, as this nation truly understands the concept of democracy, and the Swedish people take a great deal of interest in the running of their nation.
  • Nordiska Muset – The museum devoted to Nordic culture will give visitors a quick glimpse into the life of the ancient Scandinavian people.
  • Lill-Jans Skogen – A massive garden and sports complex that includes academic, sports and recreational facilities.
  • Drottningholm – One of the city’s most beautiful islands, which also contains Drottningholm Palace, home to the Swedish Royal Family.
  • Södermalm – a hilly island that contains some of the oldest residential neighborhoods in Stockholm. It is located south of the island of Gamla Stan, connected by a major road and railway bridge.
  • Kungstradgården and Humlegården – Two of the inner city’s major garden parks.
  • Djurgården – A large wooded peninsula of land right in the heart of the city and home to many museums and recreational venues. From here one will find the best views of the downtown skyline and Gamla Stan.

The skyline of Gamla Stan – historic Old Stockholm

By in large Sweden is a very upper middle-income nation, and one will not find any neighborhoods in Stockholm that could be classed as a “slum.” Sweden and the rest of its Scandinavian neighbors provide a national safety net that is sometimes called cradle to grave coverage. There is essentially little to no poverty, but likewise only a handful are exceptionally wealthy, as the country has a graduated income tax that puts the greater burden on the very rich. For this reason, there is a far smaller range of inequality between those at the top and bottom of the social scale.

Sweden also has one of the best educational and health care systems in all of Europe. Swedes are very well educated with a high percentage being university graduates. The national health care program provides for research, and Sweden ranks among the top ten nations of the world in the field of medical breakthroughs.

Sweden is essentially an idyllic country. Its people know that their lifestyle is considered as being among the five best in the world by the United Nations. However, there is one less settling factor worthy of note. Sweden has allowed a small number of immigrants to come from less developed countries in Europe, Africa and Asia. These people unfortunately are for the most part filling more menial jobs, and their presence has been less than welcome by some segments of the population. So far there have been no open expression of discontent, but look what happened in France when Middle Eastern immigrants have rampaged through several Parisian neighborhoods protesting inequalities. That is not to say this could happen in Sweden, as conditions are far better than in France for immigrants. It is more social than economic here, as Sweden is a somewhat closed society with long standing traditions and cultural values. The only other negative factor has been a minor problem with drug use among many teens, but this seems to be a worldwide universal in the developed nations. Essentially Sweden is about as idyllic a nation as one could find, save for Norway.

Spring flowers in the King’s Gardens, a popular Stockholm venue

Traditional Swedish smörgåsbord is the buffet type lunch that is unlike what the rest of us call a buffet. There is a great variety of both hot and cold dishes, many centering on the sea, as fish of all types are popular in this part of the world. Various types of smoked fish, pickled herring and salmon will be served along with boiled potatoes as the first course. Then one chooses from a variety of meats, including reindeer and a great variety of cheeses and crisp flatbreads. As for desserts, it is hard to beat the Swedish bakers. They produce variety of elegant fruit dishes, all types of crisp and buttery cookies and delectable pastries. Restaurants abound in central Stockholm, and Swedes pack into them for both lunch and dinner since this is an affluent country and dining out is almost a national pastime.

Sweden is a country with both a wide variety of manufacturing industries and traditional crafts. IKEA is a name well known in the United States, and its flagship store is located in Stockholm. Swedish home furnishings and glassware are famous throughout the world, as this is country where impeccable taste is a part of the basic culture.

Residential Stockholm is divided into numerous districts separated from one another by waterways and parklands. Thus the city lacks the contiguous feeling of a large metropolis and gives each part of the city a feeling of being a town in its own right.

The entire city is linked by an extensive Metro system, which is clean and efficient. As noted previously, most Swedish cities are heavily dominated by apartment and condominium developments with single -family homes found in the outermost suburban areas.

The people of Sweden consider themselves fortunate to live in a country where life is essentially without want. The country’s overall standard of living places it among the ten highest in the world, and the quality of life is, along with Norway, considered to be one of the best in the world. And Stockholm truly represents all that is good about the Swedish way of life. It is a city of elegance, sophistication, and historic charm and above all it is a city of graceful living.

Submitted by, Dr. Lew Deitch